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: S.W.O.R.D. #5

SWORD #5 cover by Mike del Mundo.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

“No Time to Breathe, Part 5″

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciller: Steven Sanders
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

Alas, it’s true– S.W.O.R.D. has come to its end. Fortunately for us, it’s the end Kieron Gillen intended for this arc all along, with nothing altered from the original plot. The Drenx invasion comes to a head, the internal politics of S.W.O.R.D. boil over, and there’s muffins– which, really, is all stuff you should expect if you’ve been keeping up with the series.

It’s hard not to think of what could have been, going through the wrap-up of the individual plots in this issue. Sure, Matt Fraction’s busy bringing back Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men, but I’ll forever savor the notion that she could and would have had harsh words for UNIT’s fascist Utopianism during her reunion with Lockheed. Hepzibah is shown escaping the Peak’s brig… would that have brought Rachel Grey and the Starjammers to town for an uneasy meetup with Hank? Magneto’s recent machinations on the former Asteroid M might have returned him to near-Earth orbit, which would’ve put him in direct opposition to Agent Brand, someone every bit as obstreperous as Erik himself. The image of Brand and Magneto sitting in their respective offices, scowling at each other from antipodal Lagrange points, would’ve been worth the time it took to get there all by itself.

All of these things might have happened if the series had been given a chance to play out its overarching plot. In five issues, though, S.W.OR.D. delivers a complete and satisfying package. Not a plot point is left hanging as the remaining free members of the team set forth to stop the Drenx, contain Henry Peter Gyrich, and overturn the last vestiges of the orbital Dark Reign. Gillen knows how to deliver action at this pace, and Sanders’ artwork is easily the most assured he’s ever been on this series– check out Death’s Head on page 2, neatly framed by the geometry of the scene itself, all angular, implacable menace.

Unlike Gillen and co-conspirator Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, which wrapped up its own run last month with an issue about the universal accessibility of the series’ magical paradigm, S.W.O.R.D. ends squarely where it began, with the focus on Beast and Brand. It’s right for this book; the emphasis on an adult adventuring couple remains the series’ biggest draw. It’s a shame more wasn’t done to play up the quirky romantic charm of the series when Marvel did the marketing, as I think it would have attracted more lifelong comics fans in long-term partnerships themselves.

As it stands, though, the chronicles of the crew at the Peak are over, and if you want to get in on the action, I recommend you grab the TPB, No Time to Breathe,and check it out. If you were among the S.W.O.R.D. faithful all along, I can also recommend Gillen’s Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter,a more-cosmic Marvel story that still bears his signature dry wit and high-stakes action.

It’s a sad day for comics, though. Now all I’ve got to sustain me is the faint hope that either the undisclosed Brian Clevinger project, or the new undisclosed Brian Clevinger project hinted at a few days ago, turns out to be a Starjammers book. After all, Hepzibah is on the loose again…

Gillen confirms end of S.W.O.R.D.

The cover to S.W.O.R.D. #1, by John Cassaday and Laura Martin.

Beast and Brand bravely meet their fate.

Kieron Gillen confirmed the end of S.W.O.R.D. today in a post on his workblog. Issue #5 will conclude the series, and, in Gillen’s words, “collect into an agreeably intense little trade.”

While I love the book and am hoping for a comeback in the form of the occasional special or backup story in one of the X-books, I agree that S.W.O.R.D. faced an uphill battle in a tight market. Gillen notes that an X-book is expected to sell and sell well right out of the gate, and S.W.O.R.D.‘s sales numbers landed it firmly in the lower end of Marvel’s mid-list. Steven Sanders’ snout-endowed take on Hank McCoy provoked storms of fanboy derision from Marvel readers who weren’t willing to run with the redesign. An adventuring couple like Beast and Brand is, arguably, too much of a niche for a Big Two title (witness the repeated attempts to find a winning formula for Green Arrow and Black Canary over at DC, under Judd Winick and then Andrew Kreisberg).

Despite the bad news, Gillen encourages fans to continue to send notes of support to Marvel, on the theory that expressing your opinion of any title helps a publisher figure out what people want in the long run. S.W.O.R.D. is no longer being solicited past issue 5, so trying to preorder to boost the numbers is probably a lost cause– but it’s certainly not wasted effort to point out to Marvel that you liked a good rousing adventure romp.

I’m looking forward to more Agent Brand in Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D., but all this ruckus just reminds me that I’ve got to pick up the Captain Britain and MI-13 trades. It seems that whenever I make mine Marvel, Marvel turns around and makes mine irrelevant to their larger strategy.

Review: S.W.O.R.D. #3

“Lockheed & Load”

S.W.O.R.D. #3 cover by Cassaday and Martin.

S.W.O.R.D. #3 cover

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciler: Steven Sanders
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Matt WIlson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover by John Cassaday and Laura Martin

I admit it. I’m a big, fat, hopeless sucker for S.W.O.R.D. I’d be one even if I didn’t have regular back-and-forth with Steven Sanders on Twitter. I’d be one if I’d never met Kieron Gillen and found him to be the kind of creator who always has time to talk to a fan.

(There. Now I’ve done all my full disclosure up front.)

What’s not to like, really? It’s a Dark Reign spinoff book that largely ignores the earthbound aspects of that mega-crossover. Hank McCoy is honestly smitten with his green-haired beloved, Abigail Brand… who seems like she reciprocates the feeling, when she doesn’t have ten other action items on her agenda. Lockheed drinks, swears, roughs up Henry Peter Gyrich’s goons with great abandon, and makes dubious deals with the enigmatic UNIT, an alien artifact locked up in S.W.O.R.D.’s basement.

By the by, if you don’t like drinking, swearing dragons with personality disorders, it would be better for you if you just stopped reading now. Department H has nothing to interest you in that case.

Issue three brings us to the conclusion of Gyrich’s “Operation Grace,” an attempt to round up all of the aliens who work for S.W.O.R.D. and bring them under control. This is part of his larger agenda– the eventual deportation of all aliens on Earth– and it plays out, like most major events in the book, at lightning speed. Gillen recently described the book’s narrative style as “hyper-compression,” and it’s true. Expository dialogue is at a bare minimum, subtext is everything, and Sanders packs his scenes with painstaking technical detail (check out UNIT’s cell, complete to the wiring and life support). It’s a busy, breathless approach that still manages to remain accessible.

Speaking of UNIT, this issue begins to peel back the layers of mystery around everyone’s favorite sociopathic android super-genius– or, well, maybe it doesn’t. In three issues, Gillen’s set UNIT up as a reliably unreliable narrator; sure, he’s telling the truth as he sees it, but he’s not above omitting details, dropping broad hints, or just toying with the staff to his own ends. UNIT’s big discussion with Beast this issue begins with an origin sequence and ends in the opening moves of a chess match, which UNIT promises will end in “mate in 18.” Are we getting a hint about how many issues it will take for UNIT’s ultimate plan to unfold? I don’t know, but I’m half-tempted to keep a chessboard around for my own reference as the game progresses.

(Chad watched me play Dragon Age: Origins one night and drew comparison between UNIT and Shale, DA:O’s gleefully misanthropic golem. Kieron’s reply to a tweeted inquiry was “They’d certainly get on. They’re very personable.” Take from that what you will, comic geeks with RPG-fan leanings…)

On the Beast end of things, Sanders continues to render him in extravagantly snouty fashion, a decision that’s raised some fan hackles. I don’t share the hate; I think snouty!Beast works well for his role as S.W.O.R.D.’s resident holy fool. Hank’s renounced his ties to Scott’s X-Men and the new Utopian order and gone haring off after his girlfriend, armed with only his superior intellect and a tray of blueberry muffins. He’s comic relief and worldly wisdom in one adorable package. He’s throwing himself into Brand’s cause as much to remind her that there’s life outside of it as to support it, and I can’t argue with that depiction of their relationship. (Shit, they have a close relationship, and it shows no signs of being abruptly dissolved to suit editorial whim, which is more of a positive vibe than I get from most partnered Marvel heroes.)

One small editorial quibble, too: I know the issue title is “Lockheed & Load,” because it was on Marvel’s site when the solicitation came out… but it’s nowhere to be found in the actual issue. A bit puzzling, that.

Definitely a rollicking read, though, with Sanders’ art firming up (although Gyrich’s a little long in the face on page 3) and Gillen continuing to find high-adventuring romantic comedy in the current grim state of Marvel’s alien affairs. Plus, Lockheed spends most of the issue in full draconic John McClane mode, crawling through ductwork and creating mayhem in his wake. As I said, what’s not to like?