Friday, February 21, 2014

Fantastic Four: Season One

Writers: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Jonathan Hickman
Artists: David Marquez, Dale Eaglesham
Collects: Original Graphic Novel; Fantastic Four #570 (2009)
Published: Marvel, 2012; $24.99

As much as Marvel’s “Season One” graphic novel initiative may seem a shameless attempt to emulate the success of DC’s “Earth One” graphic novels, the first book in the series, Fantastic Four: Season One, also happens to be a surprisingly well put together comic. Designed with both new and older readers in mind, the book tells an updated version of the Fantastic Four’s origin story – probably the most thematically coherent one, in fact, since the Lee/Kirby original.

One of the main differences between “Earth One” and “Season One” is that the marketing for the latter has focused much more on the characters than on the creators involved. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is no stranger to Marvel’s original team of superheroes, though, having written a handful of issues of the main series and its short-lived Marvel Knights spin-off back in the mid-2000s. Here he does probably the best work he’s done with the characters since Marvel Knights’ earliest issues, wrapping some of the most established plot devices from Fantastic Four history – cosmic rays in outer space, giant monsters attacking New York City, the Thing temporarily reverting to human form (only to choose to become the Thing again, to save his teammates) – into a fairly cohesive narrative.

It helps that Aguirre-Sacasa hits just the right notes with several of the characters – the Human Torch and the Thing, in particular – to give the story a fittingly light-hearted tone. This sense is greatly enhanced by the art of David Marquez, who takes clear inspiration from the work of Kevin Maguire, especially in the realm of amusing facial expressions. The book is saturated with light blues and greens, provided by colorist Guru eFX, with most of the action taking place in broad daylight. It’s a nice diversion from the darker color palettes used in so many superhero comics these days.

But the book isn’t without problems. The reason given for the team’s doomed space flight is that Reed Richards wants to fly “the first privately-owned, privately-financed, privately-designed, privately-launched, utterly rogue rocket ship.” Although Reed insists that “proving himself” in this way is a means to an end – space tourism, he argues, will eventually subsidize the rest of his scientific work – such a hubristic display of power doesn’t really square with Aguirre-Sacasa’s otherwise unfailingly humanitarian portrayal of the character. Reed plays the role of absent-minded professor here; his ego doesn’t even approach the level at which it’s been portrayed over the last several years in other Marvel comics. Reed the businessman has been done, and done more convincingly, by Aguirre-Sacasa himself – especially at the beginning of the Marvel Knights series (in which the Fantastic Four go bankrupt).

The book shifts focus in a major way about halfway through. Having gained their powers and defeated the Mole Man in the first half, the team goes on to face Namor the Sub-Mariner in an updated version of the events of Fantastic Four #4. The book ends without completely resolving this subplot (Namor is captured and held prisoner in the team’s headquarters), leading me to wonder whether this was originally meant to be an ongoing series or miniseries, rather than a standalone graphic novel. Aguirre-Sacasa also introduces a new female character, Reed’s lab assistant Alyssa, who serves both as the manager of the team and as a secondary potential love interest for Reed. Her inclusion is to the author’s credit – his Susan Storm lacks much of a presence, and Alyssa provides a surprisingly multidimensional feminine voice. It’s a shame that her only appearance is in this book.

It’s unclear whether Fantastic Four: Season One is intended to be the characters’ “official” origin story from here on out, or if it’s just meant to be another version among the many others already out there. The fact that Marvel pads out the book’s length by reprinting the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s run on the main (i.e., canonical) Fantastic Four series makes me lean toward the former, although it doesn’t really matter either way – Season One is a book that, in spite of its flaws, works as a standalone retelling of a familiar story.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Batman: Gates of Gotham

Writers: Scott Snyder, Kyle Higgins, and Ryan Parrott
Artists: Trevor McCarthy, Graham Nolan, and Dustin Nguyen
Collects: Batman: Gates of Gotham #1-5, Detective Comics Annual #12 (2011)
Published: DC, 2012; $14.99

Batman: Gates of Gotham, originally published by DC Comics as a five-issue miniseries in 2011, may be the most flagrant attack on creator rights that I have ever seen in a mainstream superhero comic. From beginning to end, its cast of characters enacts a corporate-fantasy version of the struggles over creative ownership that have rocked the comic book industry in recent years, with creators and their supporters effectively condemned, in the end, as mentally unstable individuals whose actions are tantamount to ideological terrorism.

Gates’ story is partially told through flashbacks to the 19th century narrated via the diary of Nicholas Gate, an architect who, along with his brother Bradley, designed and built much of Gotham City. The story of the Gate brothers bears striking resemblances to the well-known partnership of comic book writer-artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who together created Captain America), as well as to that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. Not only are the Gates, like those real-life writer-artists, the impoverished sons of immigrants, but their initial place of work, with its crowded artists hunched over drawing boards, visually recalls the Eisner-Iger comic book studio in which Simon and Kirby got their start. Furthermore, just as Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster saw their creations come to life through the financial backing of Timely Comics and National Comics, respectively, so the Gates aspire to work for the individual whose wealth will facilitate the achievement of their artistic vision: “we approached Mr. Wayne with several drawings – drawings for our Gotham. Which we proposed to make his Gotham,” Nicholas says.

Also like Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster, Nicholas Gate eventually has a falling out with the men who have thus far commissioned his work. The difference is that, in Gate’s case, this falling out occurs not over an employer’s refusal to return original artwork or to give financial compensation where creative credit is due, but over the mysterious death of Bradley, which Nicholas believes to have been murder. He accuses one of his wealthy patrons, Cameron Kane, of being behind Bradley’s death, and as a result he loses the financial support of his employers. Gate’s suspicions are never confirmed and thus are cast into doubt – unlike in Kirby’s case, for example, in which the fact that Marvel would not return his artwork was openly admitted by the company.

If Nicholas Gate at first seems to represent the archetypal “wronged creator,” though, then the second half of Gates of Gotham is a character assassination of that archetype. Following his brother’s death, Gate is portrayed first as hopelessly naive when he tries to convince Alan Wayne that foul play is involved, and later as a madman when he attempts to murder Cameron Kane in revenge; he ends up killing Kane’s son Robert instead. At the end of the story it is revealed that Nicholas was subsequently locked away at Arkham Asylum – for questioning the way he is treated by his employers and expressing his anger towards them, the book declares him insane.

There is subtle significance, too, in the names of Gate’s antagonists. Although it may be tempting to write off the use of Batman “creator” Bob Kane’s name as merely an in-joke, in view of the rest of the book’s apparent attitude toward comic book creators it can hardly be overlooked. Nicholas’s murder of Gates’ Robert Kane is the act that “proves” the book’s argument: that creators who retaliate against their employers do so carelessly, vindictively, and without legitimate basis. That argument is made even more troubling by its invoking of the real-life Bob Kane – a man who continues to receive sole credit for Batman’s creation, despite the fact that the most familiar elements of the Batman mythos (apart from the name) were created by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. In Gates’ corporate-fantasy characterization of comic book creators, the murder of Robert Kane marks an “end of the innocence” not unlike that which took place after the death of the real-life Bob Kane: ever since the truth of Batman’s creative origins became common knowledge, moral and legal questions about the way comic book publishers treat their creators have become significantly more complicated. It is not hard to imagine the leadership at a company like DC yearning for simpler times, but the way that sentiment is transcoded in Gates of Gotham, intentional or not, is appalling.

The same themes pervade Gates’ present, in which a terrorist calling himself the Architect is attacking bridges and skyscrapers built by the Gate brothers and owned by the prominent families that had supported their work. The Architect wears a steampunk-influenced diving suit, which Batman discovers had been worn by the Gate brothers and their workers during the underwater construction of their largest bridges. Based on this connection, it is no great leap for the reader to understand the Architect’s actions as “revenge” for the wrongs Nicholas Gate perceives as having been done to him over a century earlier. The Architect’s rhetoric is filled with hatred for Gotham and its wealthiest citizens, who he calls “liars and thieves,” and he accuses Batman of being a “traitor” even as he tries to blow up Gotham’s bridges with Semtex. If, as I have argued, Nicholas represents the archetypal “wronged creator” reimagined as an angry lunatic, then the Architect is the struggle for creator rights reimagined as literal terrorism.

The story’s only real mysteries are who the Architect is and whether Bradley Gate was actually murdered. While the latter question is never answered, the Architect is revealed to be a character named Dillon May. May is identified at first simply as a “collector” (although what he “collects” is never explained), but in the final issue he is also exposed as a descendant of Nicholas Gate. With this move, Gates effectively conflates the two groups most prominently involved in the struggle for creator rights – longtime comic book readers (“collectors”) and the families/heirs of those creators – into an undifferentiated, self-deluded mass. The fact that Batman declares he will defeat the Architect “by proving everything he believes is a lie” underscores the book’s argument and positions its protagonist as an obvious stand-in for companies like DC and Marvel, which have made it their mission to refute even the smallest allegations of wrongdoing made by former employees and their heirs.

Gates does not stop there, but give Batman these lines at its conclusion: “There are reasons and there are excuses. If it wasn’t his family, he would have found something else to rage over.” There is merit, certainly, to the argument that the most dedicated of comic book fanboys will always be angry about something, but to equate the arbitrary whims of fanboys with the dedicated positions of those who advocate fair terms for writers and artists is insulting. If anything, supporters of creator rights are defined by qualities that directly oppose those of most fanboys: the questions they ask are not “would this or that superhero win in a fight,” but “have Marvel and DC adequately compensated their writers and artists for the fruits of their creations? If not, what is to be done about it?” Batman: Gates of Gotham is little more than an ad hominem attack on the people who would ask these questions, made with as much mean-spirited “rage” as the antagonist it so doggedly seeks to vilify.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

XIII, Vol. 1: The Day of the Black Sun

Writer: Jean Van Hamme
Artist: William Vance
Collects: XIII #1 (Dargaud, 1984)
Published: Cinebook, 2010; $11.95

A few weeks ago, I watched the first three films in the Jason Bourne series. (In the truest sense, these are the only three. The title character doesn’t actually appear in The Bourne Legacy – the fourth, most recent film.) While I first saw The Bourne Identity around the time it was released on DVD, I had avoided its sequels until now. At the time I saw it, the first film had struck me as an unintelligent, convoluted thriller with motion-sickness-inducing camerawork and a color palette apparently meant to evoke dirty snow. Having watched it again now, ten years later, I realize that my first impression may not have been completely accurate. Although I still think it’s a lackluster film, there are characters, and even a plot, if you look hard enough.

The third film (The Bourne Ultimatum), by contrast, is an impenetrable, utterly incoherent film. It has no characters, only talking chess pieces – grim and totally implacable – that screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Paul Greengrass seem to move around the proverbial board at random. In one of its most baffling moments, the final scene from the first sequel (The Bourne Supremacy) appears halfway through the film, cheapening what had previously been one of the series’ few human moments. The film is almost a pastiche of all the negative qualities I’ve spent the last decade projecting onto Identity, its final scenes perhaps the most muddled of any in the series. In other words, I had been perfectly right about Jason Bourne – I was just a few years early.

I bring up my experience of the Bourne films as context for a book I read shortly after watching them – XIII, Vol. 1: The Day of the Black Sun, the first entry in a Franco-Belgian comic book series which takes as its inspiration the Robert Ludlum novels on which the Bourne films are based. XIII, similarly, is the story of an amnesiac on a quest to piece together his own mysterious past. Both XIII and The Bourne Identity begin with their protagonists comatose and riddled with bullets, saved from watery graves by kind-hearted (and unsuspecting) people. From the start, though, XIII makes a more concerted effort to humanize its supporting cast. When tragedy befalls the people who care for Thirteen (as XIII’s protagonist comes to be called, after the Roman numeral tattooed on his shoulder), we feel actual, palpable grief.

The main appeal of the Jason Bourne films, I think, is the globe-trotting aspect (i.e., “where will Matt Damon turn up next?”). Incidentally, this is a quality the James Bond films used to hold as their claim to fame, before they became mired in what I think could aptly be termed “post-Bourne malaise.” I have the feeling XIII will eventually send its hero all around the world too, but it doesn’t get there in the first volume, much of which is spent on Thirteen being chased around New England by assassins who seem to know a lot more about his identity than he does. Although the story doesn’t exactly feel rushed, it moves at fairly breakneck speed while still providing clues about Thirteen’s past. The book is less than 50 pages long, which is almost unbelievable given how much happens.

The level of detail in XIII’s artwork is remarkable. Artist William Vance treats each page as a discrete unit (which makes sense since the series was originally serialized – in one- or two-page installments, I’m guessing), and that has its advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, there’s a formal quality to the layout and structure of each page that you simply don’t often see outside of adventure strips like Flash Gordon or Prince Valiant; on the other, though, this means conversations rarely have the space to become very detailed or go on for more than a few panels, and that continuity between pages is occasionally a little awkward.

Overall, XIII is beautiful to look at, and it makes a better case for the continued existence of narratives like those in the Bourne series than the actual films do. And, of course, Thirteen has one other pretty significant advantage over Jason Bourne: while his story may not be perfect, at least you can read it without getting motion sickness.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Batman: The Black Mirror

Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Jock, Francesco Francavilla
Collects: Detective Comics #871-881 (2011)
Published: DC, 2011; $29.99 (HC), $16.99 (TPB)

Batman: The Black Mirror collects the entirety of writer Scott Snyder’s run on Detective Comics (first published just prior to DC’s line-wide “New 52” relaunch in 2011) with artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla. As such, it is one of the longest – and, I believe, the final – creative run to feature former sidekick Dick Grayson, and not Bruce Wayne, as Batman.

The book’s main plotline has to do with James Gordon (the murderous son of Commissioner Jim Gordon), who returns to Gotham with shadowy intentions after several years’ stay in a mental institution. Despite the fact that the series these stories were published in is titled Detective Comics, there is fairly little detective-work, or even mystery, involved in exposing James’s true motives. In fact, The Black Mirror is more a horror story than anything else, and it trades on a theme that has characterized some of the best works of the horror genre since the late 1960s: the notion that today’s monsters emerge not from somewhere “out there,” but from within the apparently normal, all-American family unit. Furthermore, James conforms to this archetype by specifically targeting his own family for destruction. His father and his sister Barbara, in turn, come to view James as an irredeemable force of evil that must be stopped at all costs.

Less interesting than this plotline are the several shorter ones that precede it, which involve the daughter of the man who killed Dick Grayson’s parents and a criminal organization that auctions super-villain paraphernalia. These issues are drawn by the artist Jock, and while his linework is perfectly competent, it pales in comparison to the colorful energy of Francavilla, who illustrates most of the material featuring James Gordon. Still, there is something at least a bit refreshing about the pace of the book’s plot development, which hearkens back to an era before “writing for the trade” was as prevalent as it is today. Elements of the James Gordon story are intermittently seeded throughout the other arcs, building suspense for Snyder’s big finale.

It would be inaccurate, though, to say that all of the smaller stories come together neatly in the end. Snyder tries to have it both ways by having James reveal himself, in a long-winded final monologue, not just as the psychopath his family has suspected him of being all along, but also as the mastermind behind all the conflicts Batman has faced in the previous ten issues. The reveal falls particularly flat when Snyder attempts to position James and Dick as dramatic foils, with James having somehow known, all along, that it was Dick under Batman’s cowl. Although James has appeared in Batman comics before, Snyder essentially treats him as a new character here, leaving any history between these two that might justify James’s malice toward Dick unexplained.

The book also tries, but fails, to make the argument that Gotham is a “city of nightmares” which corrupts everything (and everyone) it touches. The trouble is not just the fact that this theme is never quite addressed head-on – there are only a few narrative captions and exchanges between Dick and Commissioner Gordon that allude to it – but that it directly clashes with the one theme the book develops most fully. For the James Gordon subplot to work (and it mostly does, up until his final monologue), James’s “evilness” must emerge from that unlikeliest of places: a loving, “normal” home. But for his evil also to be the cause, somehow, of Gotham itself (and for his ultimate plan to be the poisoning of Gotham’s infants with a drug that will supposedly make them sociopaths like him) totally confuses the book’s message. The Gotham-as-excremental-city theme is one Snyder will return to, in both Batman: Gates of Gotham and Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls, but here it remains under-developed and at odds with the rest of the book.

Dick’s starring role makes for a few narrative innovations, the major one being that Batman now works with a support team composed of Tim Drake (Red Robin) and Barbara Gordon (the former Batgirl). However, this turns out to be little more than a slight cosmetic change. Dick’s radio contact with the others always seems to drop out at the first sign of danger – making him as much a loner, when it really comes down to it, as Bruce Wayne ever was. Dick is also Bruce’s preternatural equal in matters of technology and forensics, removing much of the naiveté we might expect from a young, inexperienced Batman.

Franchises as big as this one must always revert to square one eventually – in fact, Gates of Gotham, published concurrently with The Black Mirror, ends with Bruce telling Dick that he will soon be returning to Gotham – so it’s too bad that Snyder passes up the opportunity to do something significantly different with Batman here. In the end, Dick doesn’t have any adventures that Bruce couldn’t have had, and he doesn’t go about resolving conflicts much differently either; even the conflict with his primary antagonist is weighed down by run-of-the-mill super-villainy and a genuinely incoherent combination of themes. Although the artwork, especially Francavilla’s, often seems to leap off the page, this is a story that could otherwise probably best be classified as “business as usual.”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Brent Anderson
Collects: Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
Published: Marvel, 2011; $19.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)

The collapse of America’s confidence in public institutions in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate set the stage for a corresponding shift in American genres. Within the crime genre alone, the early and mid-1970s saw the emergence of several new subgenres in film, including the “vigilante revenge” film (Billy Jack [1971], Walking Tall [1973]) and the “paranoid conspiracy” film (The Conversation [1974], All the President’s Men [1976]), as well as the transformation of more traditional subgenres, such as the film noir. In The Long Goodbye (1973), for example, the detective Philip Marlowe – a character previously portrayed by an even-headed Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) – is reimagined as a bumbling wiseass virtually incapable of putting two and two together. On the whole, genre narratives of the time displayed a largely pessimistic attitude toward state institutions, which were depicted as naive and ineffective, if not wholly corrupt.

By the late 1970s, however, the New Left’s failure to effect any real social change – as evidenced by the fizzling of the movements for black, female, homosexual, and labor rights – had resulted in a renewed public desire for strong leaders and institutions. That wish came to fruition as economic (and thus political) power shifted to the union-free South, leading ultimately to the election of a right-wing president at the decade’s turn. Among the many institutions restored to power in the era of Reagan was organized religion – which, although not state-sponsored, gained unprecedented political power in the 1980s as organizations like the Moral Majority attempted, for the first time, to legislate the moral dictates of the Christian Right beyond the borders of the Sunbelt.

As quickly as American genres had adjusted to the cultural shift of the early 1970s, so they conformed by the decade’s end to the triumph of social and political conservatism. Fantasy genres such as science fiction, in particular, lost their political edge as blockbusters like Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Superman (1978) came to define the mass entertainment landscape. What was true for the American cinema held for mainstream superhero comics as well, which by 1980 had all but abandoned the social and political undercurrents that had once defined such Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations as the X-Men.

Chris Claremont’s graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, originally published in 1982, is a superbly articulated comment on this shift in political power and ideology. It is remarkable, as well, for the fierceness with which it launches itself against the intense conservatism of its time, producing what remains an incredibly radical message for a mainstream superhero comic. The book pulls few punches in its portrayal of a hateful televangelist, William Stryker, who believes that mutants are genetic affronts to God – beings with, in his words, “no right to live.” The parallels between Stryker’s views toward mutants and those of the real-life Jerry Falwell toward homosexuals are impossible to ignore. Furthermore, Claremont’s setting of Stryker’s headquarters within the World Trade Center aligns the villain – and the evangelical right, by association – not with religious devotion or moral teaching, but with the corporate concerns of big business.

When Stryker sets his target on the X-Men, the team goes down without much of a fight. In a single stroke, Stryker’s radicalized followers kidnap Professor Xavier, Cyclops, and Storm, leaving the rest of the team to believe the three were killed in a seemingly random accident. While they eventually learn the truth, it is only when Magneto, their archenemy, arrives to help that they make any real headway. This is one of the first stories by Claremont to depict Magneto not as a megalomaniac, but as a man whose system of ideals is just as clearly thought out as Xavier’s. Originally, the character was actually meant to die in God Loves, Man Kills (the original artist, Neal Adams, even drew the story pages), but Magneto’s role was de-emphasized in the final version – a decision that works strongly in the book’s favor.

Before the story is through, two more characters – Kitty Pryde and Colossus’s sister Illyana – are captured by Stryker’s forces. The team’s relative ineptitude throughout the story (after all, have the X-Men not dealt with greater threats than a few zealots with guns before?) recalls, in many ways, that of the incompetent protagonists of 1970s genre narratives – the sort of characters Thomas Elsaesser has described as “unmotivated heroes.” With the addition of a superpower or two, it’s safe to say that the Philip Marlowe of The Long Goodbye would be right at home here.

The consistent inability of the X-Men to measure up to Stryker and his forces is underlined most obviously in the story’s conclusion, when it is not a super-powered mutant who saves the day, but a non-powered human with a gun. Although the book ends with the X-Men engaging Stryker in a televised debate about the hypocrisy of his views, their efforts fail: it is finally a nameless police officer, tired of Stryker’s rhetoric, who guns the man down in his own megachurch. The suggestion that social change can only be effected by the average American who “wakes up” and “strikes back,” so to speak, is surprisingly radical for a superhero comic, especially for one published at the height of Reaganite conservatism.

According to Claremont, God Loves, Man Kills was essentially written as a treatise on racial tolerance – there is even an early scene in which the slur “mutie” is passionately compared to the N-word – but today, as mentioned earlier, it resonates even more strongly as a comment on the continuing struggle for gay rights in America. Its ethos is all the more admirable for its adherence to that particular brand of political pessimism espoused by 1970s genre narratives, an attitude which had all but disappeared from popular entertainment by the time of the book’s publication in 1982. That it remains so relevant more than thirty years later is, on the one hand, a sad testament to the state of modern society; on the other, though, it serves as a welcome reminder that even popular forms and genres carry the potential to advocate for social justice.