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Not Quite The State Of My Pull List, Issue 0.1

In November, things looked grim for comics and me; I was unemployed, and making weekly visits to the comic book store had become an irresponsible expenditure. So I bid comics farewell, promised I’d be back when I’d found work and gotten back on my feet, and walked away.

Now it’s February, two months later, and I…am still unemployed. Well, underemployed. And definitely not making enough to subsidize my monthly reading. But while I may not have a steady job, I do have incredible friends and family. My Christmas and birthday were fraught with gift certificates to Crescent City Comics and invitations to share Comixology accounts, gifts from loved ones who thought a little more Batman in my life might be just the thing I needed. They were, of course, 100% correct because more Batman makes everything better.

And if I’m reading comics, then naturally I also want to write about them. This won’t be a standard Pull List column because I’m not quite there yet. Instead, I want to run through the comics I’ve kept up with, highlight the good, and brush aside the bad (of which there is little – budgeting makes me a savvy reader.)

Hawkeye #6

Hawkeye

My favorite comic of last year, Hawkeye, is already shaping up to be my favorite comic of this year, too. Javier Pulido filled in for regular artist David Aja for issues four and five, and the slight change in tone helped highlight exactly what makes this book so special. Pulido’s art is flatter, yet more expressive, than Aja’s, and reading his issues I was reminded of watching Ralph Bakshi’s Spider-Man cartoon from the late 60s. That looseness accentuated the humor beats of the story, while still allowing for exciting action sequences. Pulido, who doesn’t employ Aja’s bravura layouts, still connects us to the heart of the story, Clint and Kate’s relationship and the risks one is willing to take for the other.

Aja returned for issue six, which has Clint attempting to juggle his personal life, his responsibilities as a landlord, and his duties as an Avenger. This is easily writer Matt Fraction’s best issue so far – he fractures the narrative, juxtaposes absurdity with a serious threat, and ends the issue with a panel that’s almost a mission statement for the entire series.

In issue seven Fraction tells two stories, one each for Clint and Kate, about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He and editor Stephen Wacker assembled the story shortly after the storm hit, and tapped two fill-in artists – Steve Lieber and newcomer Jesse Hamm – to complete the issue. It’s sincere and heartfelt, in a way that almost no other mainstream comics even strive for. But this is Hawkeye, which hasn’t been like other mainstream comics since its first issue.
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The State of My Pull List, Issue 21: October 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]

As I mentioned last month, a recent cross-country move and accompanying unemployment have put me in a precarious financial situation. I’ve had to tighten the belt, and the most obvious way for me to save some money each month is to cut back on comics.

Since I started this column my list grew to about 30 titles, sometimes more but rarely less. Writing about comics encouraged me to try new books, and more than a handful of those became must-reads. And at $3 or $4 an issue, the tab starts to add up. I continued my regular reading through September, rationalizing that continuing with something I enjoyed would help me cope with a difficult move. But by October, and with no job in sight, that rationalization no longer held up.

I couldn’t bring myself to give up comics entirely, though. So I put myself on a diet of two books per week, which would come down to ten titles for the month. Looking at previous columns, I found it would be pretty easy to pick ten titles that I enjoy, and are of a consistently high quality. And if I was particularly ruthless, then picking ten books could even give me room to try a few new things.

To make it more of a challenge, though, I decided not to allow any “roll-over” comics – that is, I couldn’t refrain from buying my two titles one week in order to get four the following week. In doing so I privileged the weekly ritual of heading to the shop (the well-stocked, friendly Crescent City Comics in New Orleans – the best possible replacement for my favorite store, Boston’s Comicopia) over the comics themselves. Obviously the books themselves are crucial to the equation, and I’m not at the point of going to hang out in the shop when I’m not buying something (though I would do exactly that at Comicopia.) But if I only wanted to read, I would convert to digital or buy cheap trades through one of several online services that cater to fans who don’t have a local shop. I love the whole culture of comics, from reading the books, reading reviews, following writers and artists on Twitter, and talking to the clerks at my store. And even in hard times, I’ll hold onto as much of that as I can.

So I’m going to do something different with this month’s column. Rather than pick a Spotlight book and write One-Shots and all that, I’m going to look at each week’s picks to not only review them, but also explore why I ended up pulling them.
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The State of My Pull List, Issue 20: September 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]

Spotlight

When I wrote about the first issue of Mind MGMT back in June I focused almost entirely on the form of the comic, suggesting that “[cartoonist Matt] Kindt is clearly playing a formal game with his readers, asking us to digest the entire text, including the conventions we’re accustomed to ignoring.” By this month’s issue five, however, those gestures towards form have become fully integrated into the reading experience. The black and white strips on the inside covers, the “instructions” written in blue text along the left gutter that are increasingly intruded upon by another voice pleading for help; they’ve all lost the novelty factor, and have become simply another storytelling tactic.

Which raises an interesting question: are those tactics necessary to tell the story, or is the gradually unraveling plot strong enough on its own? Do we need to read those cryptic instructions and wait until October’s issue six to decipher the code inserted in the back cover advertisements in order to appreciate what’s going on?

Earlier in the run I might’ve thought differently, but with issue five my answer is a firm no. In fact, it’s the other way around: as the world of Mind MGMT grows more complex and involving the formal inventiveness becomes more resonant. Issue five makes that relationship more apparent, as the second chapter of Henry Lyme’s backstory brings the horror of Mind Management’s psychic espionage back to the foreground and reveals how fragile the status quo can be. Reading the unidentified voice’s pleas for help embedded in the comic alongside the brutality that surrounds Lyme’s meltdown, it’s suddenly much easier to understand why someone trapped in that world would seek any outlet, even violating the expectations of the medium, through which to read out.
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The State of My Pull List, Issue 19: August 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]

 

Spotlight

Hawkeye #1

Anyone who isn’t a habitual reader of superhero comics was most likely first exposed to Hawkeye courtesy of this summer’s Avengers movie. And at the risk of further assumption, it probably wasn’t the best impression. Though ably played by Jeremy Renner, Hawkeye was hardly ever referred to by his codename and spent two thirds of the film as a nearly mute villain. Yes, he eventually gets a few cool moments in the climactic battle (including the awesome “hitting target while looking at something else” beat that demonstrates his preternatural marksmanship), but he’s probably the least memorable character. I don’t recall anyone citing Hawkeye as a favorite part of the movie. In fact, Chamber Four’s own Nico Vreeland is skeptical that a non-powered archer belongs on a team with gods, rampaging monsters, and power-suit clad billionaires (he said the same about Captain America, but I attribute that to regrettable temporary psychosis.)

Writer Matt Fraction makes the same point – or at least a variant of it – in Hawkeye #1. The title page (which, brilliantly, follows an opening splash page of Hawkeye falling backwards out a window, firing a grappling hook arrow) states: “Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, became the greatest sharp-shooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.” By situating the book as Hawkeye’s adventures when he isn’t surrounded by superpowered beings, Fraction argues that the character makes the most sense at the street-level, where facility with a bow and arrow might be more of an asset.

And as it turns out, the bow and arrow aren’t even necessary. They only appear in that opening splash page, and the first five panels of page three, in which Hawkeye swings on the line attached to his grappling hook, slams into the side of a building, and falls onto the hood of a car. Those are also the only panels where he appears in costume; for the rest of the issue he’s Clint Barton, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, or in a slightly shabby suit. In case the title page wasn’t enough, that sequence underlines the argument: superheroing leads to pain, this is about something else.

That something else turns out to be rent gouging, and the decency of a man who stands up for his neighbors against Russian mobsters and tries to save a dog’s life. Upon release from the hospital, Hawkeye discovers his landlord, Ivan, evicting one of his neighbors after she couldn’t afford the 300% increase in rent. Since no laws have been broken (a part of the script that gave me pause, but maybe I don’t know as much about renters’ rights as I think I do), Hawkeye tries to reason with Ivan, and eventually concocts a scheme intended to resolve the problem without violence. Naturally it doesn’t turn out that way, and Clint is thrown through yet another window.

Plot-wise, it’s a small comic – there’s no elaborate heist or world-conquering histrionics – but Fraction is more concerned with the emotional beats of the story. Clint’s actions are plainly heroic, but this isn’t a “hero” comic. He’s brittle and sarcastic, and his plan has whiffs of self-aggrandizement. But the voice is seductive, and Fraction is particularly adept at making unlikable characters accessible. And in the end it’s clear that Clint wants to do the right thing, and just has his own way of going about it. We’re drawn to the character because we want to see him succeed despite himself.
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The State of “The State Of My Pull List,” Issue 19: Special July Catch-Up Edition

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]

Remember July? I do. It was hot, and I spent a lot of the time reading comics; that’s pretty much what I want out of July. And in a typical August I would’ve written about those comics in my regular State of My Pull List column. But this past August was far from typical. A cross-country move followed by a hurricane put the Pull List on the backburner, and before I knew it we were well into September. The August issue of the Pull List will be out later this week, but in the spirit of Unofficial Comics Week on Chamber Four, I thought I would look back at July and touch on some of the highlights, weird spots, frustrations, etc., in a somewhat different form. No Spotlight pick, no One-Shots; rather, a narrative of the month that was.

 

Batman #11

Batman #11 brought Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” story to a close, and thus was the issue I was most excited to read. While I’ve enjoyed much of “Court of Owls,” I think it’s been less successful overall than “The Black Mirror,” Snyder’s 2010-2011 Detective Comics arc. The mystery at the heart of that story seemed more personal to the characters, and so the gradual development and final reveal generated real suspense. By contrast, Batman’s war with the Court of Owls has been more about dynamic action sequences (all beautifully illustrated by Greg Capullo) and it’s fitting that the final issue is one big fight scene between Batman and (HERE COMES A SPOILER – THOUGH IT’S TWO MONTHS LATER AND YOU REALLY SHOULD’VE CAUGHT UP BY NOW) Lincoln March, a.k.a Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s abandoned brother. Thomas spends the entire fight explaining to Bruce the exact nature of the plot against him, in such detail that it begins to feel like Thomas is instead speaking to the reader, making sure we didn’t miss anything. Snyder leaves Thomas’s identity in question – probably the only way a contemporary writer could get away with such a severe retcon of Bat-history – and Bruce moves on, but it somehow doesn’t feel consequential. By the end of “The Black Mirror” it was clear Dick Grayson had been changed by his confrontation with the past. I’m not as convinced that the Court will have a lasting effect on future Batman stories.

Rounding up the remaining Bat-books: Batman and Robin #11 featured Damian’s fight with former Robin Jason Todd, plus some grisly action courtesy of artist Patrick Gleason. By Catwoman #11, the current storyline has become a bit tedious, and fill-in art by Adriana Melo doesn’t make it any more compelling. And Batman Incorporated #3 was a pleasant surprise, as it was meant to be delayed a month in light of the Colorado shooting, but it found its way into my stack on its normal schedule. I can understand why DC wanted to delay it, but the panels in question are pretty tame compared to 90% of what’s published by DC and every other publisher on a monthly basis.
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The State of My Pull List, Issue 18: June 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]

 

Spotlight

The Manhattan Projects #4

Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s The Manhattan Projects is two different comics fused together. One is a broad, Looney Tunes-style comedy about wacky scientists, all versions of historical figures like Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, and Albert Einstein, and their equally wacky adventures developing sci-fi weapons for the US government; the other is a grim meditation on the potential of our worst selves, and the relationship of the past to the present. Both would be worthwhile on their own, but by bouncing between forms from issue to issue (and sometimes within a single issue) Hickman heightens the best of each story – the capers are all the crazier because of how dangerous each character could be, and the drama is more tense because we’ve seen just how unpredictable and unstable the situation is.

Issue four is one of the darker issues, taking a character I’d pegged as one of the good guys and revealing he’s anything but. Hickman spends most of these pages developing Einstein’s character, who up to this point he’s been primarily window dressing, seen sitting in his lab staring at a tall slab of rock etched with a cruciform design. The “roll call” page that ends each issue implies that he’s an alcoholic, which only heightened the character’s potential. Of all the other “real” characters – Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Harry Daghlian, et al. – Einstein is easily the best known and most celebrated, and therefore the most accessible for most readers. We expect him to be brilliant, to be funny and affable, and to save the day if for no other reason than because he’s on posters and in cartoons, and we like him.  As it turns out, the rock is a portal to infinite alternate realities, and sometime in the past “our” Einstein opened it and met his evil doppelganger, who promptly bashed him over the head with a cobra-shaped scepter and took the good Einstein’s place in our reality. Hickman capitalizes on his audience’s general knowledge of the character by inverting him, erasing the gentle, peaceful Einstein of popular memory and replacing him with a super-genius villain, a Lex Luthor for our world.

That inversion is key to what Hickman seems to be concerned with in The Manhattan Projects. All of the danger so far comes from within, from the unstable Joseph Oppenheimer (a schizophrenic cannibal who killed and ate his twin brother Robert, then assumed his identity), to a rogue general bombing Hiroshima against Truman’s orders, to an evil Einstein treating the multiverse as a laboratory. The distance between good and evil, if those terms are even appropriate, is collapsed. This is not Superman fighting Brainiac or Lex Luthor, not even Batman fighting the Joker – the “heroes” are just as likely to be the ones who destroy the world as any villain, and they’re doing so with the complicity of the government.

But what keeps this from being just another “the government is dangerous!” story is the reality of the Manhattan Project, and its awful consequences. The work of the Los Alamos scientists led to the development of a weapon that killed 200,000 people. No matter your opinion on the use of nuclear weapons or the end of World War II, if you follow that chain of events backwards from that destruction you will always find a group of military officials and scientists working together. Strip away all of the fantastical elements from The Manhattan Projects, like robot arms and irradiated skeletons living in containment suits, and you’ll find the same thing. It’s not speculative history, not a “what if” story – it’s a “what was,” a dark chapter of history filtered through Jack Kirby.

Given that, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a cynical comic. It’s not, but neither is it particularly optimistic or compassionate or anything like that. The only “message” seems to be “with great power comes the freedom to disregard great responsibility and do whatever you want,” but even that isn’t as interesting as the book’s giddy tone, the imbalance of heavy and light that makes the reading experience so enjoyable. Hickman wants you to contemplate horror, but without the safety and distance of academics. You have to gaze into the computer monitor where FDR’s consciousness is trapped and realize it’s a rare and particularly potent nightmare that can you make you laugh this much.

Artist Nick Pitarra deserves equal credit for the success of that approach. His character designs are just slightly exaggerated so that we recognize the historical figures but are also attuned to their new, comic book-y characteristics. Joseph Oppenheimer is wiry and still, his focus complemented by the manic, everpresent figures that represent his psychosis. General Groves – the one who bombs Hiroshima – is no-necked, massive and unyielding, like a Hulk villain dropped into a laboratory. And the background is filled with little visual gags and details that contribute to a more complete sense of the world this story exists in. And special praise goes to colorist Jordie Bellaire, who makes the most of the red/blue coding in each issue to designate the two realities, not to mention the past from the present, good from evil, and the other binaries that spring up in the text.

Issue four also introduces the first suggestion of a larger arc or ongoing story, in the guise of an extraterrestrial encounter and a devil’s bargain. I’m sure that will be interesting, but I wouldn’t mind if The Manhattan Projects continued in this vein for the rest of its run, telling peculiar stories that explore the characters and events of the projects, collage-like, without an overall plot. Some narrative experimentation seems appropriate, given the subject matter.
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The State of My Pull List, Issue 17: May 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]


Spotlight

Batman Incorporated #1

Leading up to the publication of last month’s Batman Incorporated #1, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Chris Burnham, I read a lot of speculation about how accessible the title would be to new readers. Morrison has been writing his Batman story for six years, and this is the first issue (though not exactly, it’s just the beginning of the latest story arc, and DC opted to renumber the title to avoid confusion with the rest of the relaunched New 52 titles. Interested readers can browse the State of My Pull List archives for my write-up of the first Batman Incorporated #1, from less than two years ago) so I understand the hesitation from uninitiated readers not eager to spend $3 on something they wouldn’t understand to begin with.

And while I appreciate accessibility, in the current reading climate it’s come to stand for purity and honesty, the golden mean for a good comic. Anything that could possibly stand in the way of a new (read: young) reader picking it up and becoming a fan is destructive to the medium, an example of an industry that caters to a dwindling base of aging fans and ignores everyone else. In one breath, these voices demand complex, “literary” storytelling and deride the simplicity of the meet-and-fight model.

There’s room for both, obviously, but not always all at once. To those readers concerned that the reputed difficulty of Grant Morrison’s scripts would prevent them from jumping on at this late stage, I can only recommend that they go back to the beginning and catch up via the various trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and digital collections of the run. DC does new readers a disservice by putting a #1 on the cover of this issue – not because it’s hostile to new readers (it isn’t – the writing is lucid and the plot straightforward) but because it suggests that the third act is a starting point. Serialized storytelling in any medium is vulnerable to latecomer confusion, but AMC is decent enough not to rename Man Men after each season to lure in a wave of new viewers who are going to be confounded when they discover several plot lines already in play. Complex stories deserve to be read in whole, and there are few superhero stories more involving and recursive than Morrison’s Bat epic.

The issue itself begins with a provocation – Bruce Wayne, standing at his parents’ gravesite telling Alfred that “it’s over. Batman. All of it. This madness is over” before surrendering to Commissioner Gordon and a small army of police. A page turn later and we’ve moved back to a month before, with business as usual – Batman and Robin in pursuit of a masked criminal. The juxtaposition of the reliable superhero chase scene and the Gothic drama of the opening scene lends the rest of the comic an edge of instability. Morrison is essentially telling the reader that the incident is less important than how the incident fits into the story he’s been developing all along. That the first scene is an inverted call back to the opening panel of the “Batman R.I.P.” arc (shadow-encased Batman and Robin figures shouting “Batman and Robin will never die!”) confirms how much each new plot point relies on everything that’s come before.


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The State of My Pull List, Issue 16: April 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]


Spotlight

Saga #2

Had last month’s column not been waylaid by end of semester chaos and other roadblocks to productivity it would’ve featured Saga #1, from Image Comics, as my Spotlight read. That I’ve selected Saga #2 as my Spotlight book for April shouldn’t be read as a consolation prize, or a way to make up for last month; I would’ve happily celebrated the first ever back-to-back Spotlight pick for the Pull List, had last month gone according to plan. It’s a brilliant title, unlike anything else on the shelves and well worth discussing at length. And if it’s brilliant again next month and I have to rename this column “Saga and Some Other Comics” then so be it.

What Saga does best is open up the science fiction adventure story, filling it with ideas and trusting to reader to follow along. Whereas a lot of sci-fi comics follow the Blade Runner model, where the entire fictional world seems to grow out of a single design choice, Saga feels more like Star Wars, filled with weird creatures and technologies that don’t necessarily make sense together but we accept them as a whole because the story never stops to let us figure out how the giant gangster slug fits with the admiral who looks like a prawn. The characters in Saga (and Star Wars and Blade Runner, for that matter) are rich and complex enough that I don’t really care about the how – I only want to know what they’ll do next, and what the consequences of their actions will be.

Saga’s main story concerns Marko and Alana, alien soldiers from opposite sides of a war who have fallen in love and deserted. Saga #1 opens with Alana giving birth in hiding, just before the pair are tracked down by Alana’s former confederates. They escape, and begin searching for something called the Rocketship Forest that they hope will take them far away from the war where they can raise their daughter in peace. Along the way we meet Coalition officers with humanoid bodies and televisions for heads, giant turtles with laser eyes, and bounty hunters with names like The Will and The Stalk, the latter of which is the principle threat in issue two. Alana and Marko are also humanoid, but are distinguished by a pair of wings and a set of ram’s horns, respectively, which are the unique characteristics of their particular races. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples understand that a well-constructed story will sweep that quantity of detail along and use it to set-up even more sophisticated plot points, and that readers are more likely to appreciate the richness of everything than to complain that everything and everyone looks too weird.

All of that oddity would mean nothing if the characters weren’t relatable and interesting, though. Marko is an awkward new parent, nervously optimistic about their chances of escaping the war but also slightly a bit of a bumbler, while Alana is more collected and pessimistic. When The Stalk (a bounty hunter with a forked, weaponized tongue) stabs Marko and tells Fiona to hand over the child, Alana points a stun gun not at the monster, but at her own daughter, deadpanning that she’ll do anything to keep her away from the powers that are hunting her family. Even The Stalk is shocked, and as a reader I found myself in the strange situation of relating to the ruthless professional killer. So far, Saga is made up almost entirely of quiet character moments like that, with a smattering of action sequences mixed in. When the action does inevitably pick up, the stakes will be even greater because we’ve come to care about Marko, Alana, and even baby Hazel, who narrates the story from some point in the future.

Outside of the clever plotting and rich character work, Saga is notable in that it represents Vaughan’s return to comics. A critical darling of the 2000s, who built a loyal fan following around titles like Y: the Last Man, Runaways, and Ex Machina, Vaughan was celebrated for his deep plotting and dynamic characters, which made him a natural to make the transition to screenwriting, most notably three seasons writing for Lost. It’s too early to speculate about how that time away might’ve changed his writing, but nevertheless it’s good to have a gifted writer, especially one capable of drawing a non-traditional comics audience, working in the medium.

That said, the star of this series is clearly Staples. She broke through with Mystery Society (written by Steve Niles) in 2010, but Saga is the first in hopefully a string of high-profile gigs for the artist. Her linework is a bit sketchy but still clear, and suited to rendering all of the detail necessary for the kind of world-building she and Vaughan are up to. Staples particularly excels in acting – her characters are expressive, not only in their faces but in postures and gestures. When Prince Robot IV enters in issue two he is upright, striding as his position would dictate, but as soon as he learns something new about Alana his confidence is shaken and he takes this stance, somewhere between petulant defiance and a slouch, that tells us everything about Prince Robot in a single panel.

Staples’s backgrounds don’t quite grab me, though. They’re rendered digitally, and appear hazy and soft, whereas the foreground figures (also, I suspect, rendered digitally) are clear and defined, outlined in black lines. The result is a cel-animation feel, which is interesting in some ways but seems to rob the story of some of its depth and richness.

I never would’ve suspected this would happen, but Image Comics has been slowly taking over my pull list in the past few months. I’m reading more Image titles than ever, and gradually dropping Marvel and DC books. I still enjoy superhero titles, but I’m finding that books like Saga are making me all the more excited to visit my local store (Boston’s Comicopia) every Wednesday.
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The State of My Pull List, Issue 15: February 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]


Spotlight

Mondo #1

There is a class divide in the comics community, and there has been for decades. But it’s not between haves and have nots, or red states and blue states; rather, it’s all about “mainstream” versus “ art” comics. Mainstream generally refers to superhero/adventure/fantasy comics published monthly in the 22-page format by one of the major companies (DC and Marvel, obviously, but also Image, Dynamite, Boom!, etc.), while art comics are graphic novels or otherwise whole collections published by Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, or serialized in journals like Mome, Taddle Creek, and McSweeney’s. Art comics are discussed and reviewed on The Comics Journal, mainstream comics are discussed and reviewed on Newsarama. Mainstream comics are produced by a group of writers and artists and are therefore sloppy, while art comics tend to be product of a single creator’s careful attention and concern for the story and art.

Those distinctions are tenuous and permeable – there are comics produced by Marvel and DC that are every bit as exquisitely rendered as something published by Drawn and Quarterly, and there are independent, creator-driven art comics that tell tedious stories with uninspired art. Talking this way doesn’t do much good for anyone who wishes to take comics seriously (another class distinction!). But that doesn’t stop fans, critics, and even industry professionals from ensconcing themselves in one camp or the other. I’m certainly not immune – I strive to be honest with my reading habits and taste in this column, and even a casual browse through each entry reveals that I read a lot of superhero comics every month. I’m not at all embarrassed or ashamed to enjoy superhero comics, but I acknowledge that my choice in reading (and, more importantly, buying) habits says something about what I value.

This division is a self-inflicted wound, and I didn’t think there was much to be done about it until I read Ted McKeever’s Mondo #1. The first of a three-part mini-series published by Image Comics, Mondo #1 is an oversized issue both in page count (40 versus the typical 20) and size (the pages are an inch wider than the standard format), and features a cardstock cover. In presentation it more closely resembles the heft and substance of the European album format, but priced and distributed like a typical issue of a monthly book (in fact, $5 for 40 pages is a better deal than the usual $3 or $4 for 20 pages.) I knew nothing about Mondo before I saw it on the shelf, and picked it up solely because of it stood out on the shelf, but didn’t seem out of place among other titles.

The story and art between the covers lives up to the promise of the format – Mondo was easily the best-looking book I read in February, if not the year so far (and probably 2011 as well). McKeever draws with an intense flexibility – it moves from scratchy and sketchy to intensely specific and detailed, sometimes in the same panel. “Cartoony” is an apt description of his art, but his line isn’t clean and elegant like Darwyn Cooke’s, or Cliff Chiang’s, or other artists who get categorized in the same way. One point of comparison would be Kevin Eastman and the early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, which had the same darkness and rich detail; another is “Liquid Television”, MTV’s animation anthology from the 90s that featured similarly intense, bizarre worlds and loose caricatures (and it’s worth pointing out that several “Liquid Television” segments were derived from the indie comics scene).

And like those “Liquid Television” shorts, Mondo is aggressively bleak, and a bit juvenile. The story follows Catfish Mandu, a meek, harried employee of a nightmarish chicken processing facility, who only communicates through chicken-like clucking. He’s haunted by visions of a demonic chicken, and when one of those visions leads to an accident at the plant he is transformed into a muscled, violent monstrosity, venting his rage at his tormentors by mutilating them. There’s also a subplot about developments on Venice Beach, and one featuring a psychotic young woman named Kitten Kaboodle, but they’re still just surrealistic tangents at this point.

Juvenile doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though, particularly when it’s executed this well. Take the introduction of Kitten Kaboodle – when harassed by a lecherous gas station attendant, she flips and rips his arm off at the elbow. It’s a grotesque moment of ultraviolence, but the gore is expressive, and is reflected in the lettering of the attendant’s scream. And the action is made more effective by the transition from the previous panel, a staggeringly detailed close-up of Kitten’s face, with pursed lips, jagged bangs, and giant, terrifying owl eyes prefiguring the violence of the next page.

I’m not naïve enough to think that Mondo is the model for the future of the medium – not every mainstream superhero comic will look this good, and I don’t expect Chris Ware to begin publishing monthly issues anytime soon. And I don’t know how other readers reacted to it – be they dedicated genre fans, “literary” readers, or those who seek out and enjoy comics of all stripes. But Mondo #1 has the potential to change a reader’s mind, no matter how it’s set, and encourage experimentation in taste. And if risk and experimentation become the norm, for readers and creators alike, then the comics community will be a lot healthier in the years to come.
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The State of My Pull List, Issue 14: January 2012

[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan. Follow “The State of My Pull List” here.]


Spotlight

The Shade #4

Very few comic book writers have fallen as far out of critical and popular esteem as James Robinson; certainly no others who have experienced a similar fall are still producing major work. The closest is probably Jeph Loeb, but even his biggest critical hits were nothing compared to Robinson’s run in the mid to late 90s. The Golden Age, Leave It to Chance, Starman, the Legends of the Dark Knight story “Blades” – each of these featured rich, complex stories that made Robinson a critical darling. With his exceptional character sense and predilection for the under-appreciated corners of comic book history, Robinson’s place in history was already secure when he left comics for Hollywood in the early 2000s.

Then he wrote the screenplay for the awful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, wrote and directed the forgettable Comic Book Villains, and stayed away from comics until 2006, when he returned to DC to write an 8-part story crossover story in Batman and Detective Comics. The Robinson of old was largely missing in that story, and seemed to have disappeared entirely by 2009’s Justice League: Cry for Justice mini-series. Critics and fans alike assailed the title, and it seemed that his celebrated earlier work would from now on be slightly tainted, a little asterisk next to each title to signify that the writer had gone to pot shortly afterward.

That said, The Shade #4 is a good indication that Robinson is becoming comfortable with his voice again, and is still capable of telling a nuanced story with recognizable, distinct character work. Reuniting the writer with arguably the most popular character to emerge from his Starman series, The Shade is a 12-issue maxiseries that follows the reformed villain/not-quite hero as he investigates an attempt on his life. That story is told in three-issue arcs, broken up by single-issue “Times Past” stories, which tell tales of the Shade’s adventures in different eras, with guest artists on hand to better evoke the “out of time” feel of the narrative. The first of these, issue four, features pencils by Darwyn Cooke and inks by his regular collaborator J. Bone, an art team ideally suited for a story set during World War II.

Issue 4 begins with the Shade at his desk, quill in hand, writing his memoirs, and through the narration we flash back to 1944, and the story of the character’s first heroic act. While planning a diamond heist, he learns about a Nazi plot to assassinate an American industrialist, Darnell Caldecott, and decides to provide his own variety of protection. Enlisting the aid of two Golden Age heroes, the motorcycle-riding cowboy Vigilante and the mysterious Madame Fatale, whose secret is revealed in the third act. It’s a fairly straightforward, tightly constructed story, but it reads more like a broad serial adventure, due largely to Cooke and Bone’s art.

Darwyn Cooke’s art is so closely associated with the post-World War II era of America – thanks to indelible work like The New Frontier and his adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels – that it’d be tempting to say he was typecast if he wasn’t so clearly content to recreate (or reinterpret, depending on your perspective) that world. His clean, bold line and minimalist design work lends itself to the hard angles of art deco settings and lantern-jawed heroes. And though none of the characters in The Shade #4 fit that hard-boiled Cooke archetype, he conveys the title character’s unsettling urbanity, and Madame Fatale’s restraint, suggesting the character’s secret pages before it even plays into the story. J. Bone’s inks keep Cooke’s pencils a bit more elastic, which suits the fantastic element of the Shade’s shadow powers, particularly in a scene when he confronts the saboteur. And with all of that energetic storytelling fit into the rigid wide-panel grid Cooke is so fond of, the book feels big and busy; it’s cinematic, but the cinema of a bygone era.

Robinson’s best work captures that same feeling of dislocation. He thrives writing misfit characters that populate odd corners of the shared universe – at a very basic level Starman is about the rehabilitation of lost, unloved characters flung across DC’s publishing history. And though he tried to populate books like Superman and Justice League of America with similarly underused characters, it didn’t quite work because those are spotlight titles. Set apart from well-known characters and big storylines, in his own fictive space, Robinson is capable of great depth and clarity. The Shade seems to be providing him that space for now; whether he stays there (or DC lets him) will likely determine the tenor of the writer’s second act.
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