Reading the third issue of Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr.’s Superman, I found myself both enjoying the issue and fascinated by the ways in which Romita’s art — with the lovely Klaus Janson inks that give it a rougher, blockier edge than other inkers, and Laura Martin’s bright colors — disguise the fact that, in many ways, “The Men of Tomorrow” is both a Greatest Hits of Recent DC Superman Stories and the chance to finally move past a lot of tropes that are beginning to feel a bit tired.
By the end of #34, the third issue in the run (out tomorrow, so I’ll avoid spoilers), we’ve finally met the villain of the piece but the overall arcs of the run remain unchanged: Superman has discovered Ulysses, who is essentially an alternate version of himself but from Earth, presenting us with two very, very familiar Superman themes at this point:
• A Superman (or, in this case, Superman analogue) who might not be trustworthy, and
• A Superman who gets to go home
The former is something that DC has become increasingly fascinated with. Both Earth-2 and Injustice feature Superman-Gone-Bad as a major plot point, after all, and in the “main” DCU, Grant Morrison’s run finished with the New 52 Superman facing off against the weird genericized Superman monster from the alternate world (All-Star Superman also featured the hilariously Scottish Kryptonian heavies).
The latter, meanwhile, may be a lesser Superman trope but one that Geoff Johns set in motion at the very end of his Action Comics run some years back, when he brought back the Kryptonians from the shrunken Kandor and set the “New Krypton” storyline in motion (A storyline that, while it does fall apart at the end, is as close to 52 as DC has managed since that series ended, I maintain).
With “The Man of Tomorrow,” Johns definitely isn’t breaking new ground in terms of plot, but there’s something to be said about the execution. By bringing in Ulysses — and also with the introduction of the villain in #34, who has a certain level of deja vu to those readers who remember Infinite Crisis’ “Sacrifice” storyline — Johns gets to have his cake and eat it too, creating a way in which to explore those themes without actually altering the classic Superman status quo in any way. In fact, as the scene in the Daily Planet in the first issue showed, he’s seeming reconstructing that status quo, which has fallen into disrepair in the New 52.
Because of this — and, in many ways, because of the way in which Superman is essentially a passive observer for much of these three issues to date — Johns’ Superman is the most Silver Age he’s written so far, and the most traditional version of the character seen since Morrison jumped ship (As I said in the podcast, the Calvin Ellis Superman in Morrison’s The Multiversity is very Silver Age, too, in many ways). He’s not the Silver Age Superman — I suspect that Johns is too enamored with the melodramatic character dynamic and angst of the 1980s to deliver the hyper-competent, paternal Superman of the ‘50s and ‘60s — but he is kinder, calmer and quieter than might have been expected from Johns’ previous outings with the character.
That kind of hero may not necessarily square with Romita Jr.’s artwork, at least in theory — Romita Jr. is an extremely dynamic, overblown artist in the best possible way; his characters overact, and feel constrained and uneasy when not in motion. And yet, there’s enough action in the stories to show off those chops (even if it’s not necessarily the action you’d expect — Superman running through a room changing his costume, say, or flashbacks to Ulysses being sent from Earth), and somehow the tension Romita brings to the quieter scenes adds something to the experience, rather than contradicting it.
That tension also, as I said above, disguises Johns’ story in some way. You expect something to happen at any moment, but the dramatic moment in the scene is Superman being told that he’s welcome in someone’s home, or something equally… small. What should feel like a disconnect in tone between the story and art instead works to the overall comic’s benefit; there’s a sense of uncertainty and surprise in what is, in many ways, an extremely conservative, traditional comic. Johns is putting the toys back where they “belong,” and yet the whole thing reads fresher and more exciting than that exercise should be to jaded eyes. I know where he’s going, ultimately, but I can’t quite tell how he’ll get there.
Whether or not this balancing act will be able to be sustained long term isn’t clear — we have no idea how long either Johns or Romita Jr. are staying on the title for, or whether the bloom will fall off their rose sooner rather than later — but for now, Superman is one of DC’s most curious books, even though it’s not necessarily doing anything new, per se. Whatever happened to the man of tomorrow, indeed.
00:00-10:01: Greetings! It’s a very subdued greeting this time around—probably because Jeff tried to outsource all of the introduction work to Graeme. It’s been a tough couple of weeks, and we find ourselves clinging to the potential optimism of current pop nerd releases. Also mentioned for its timeliness: Genius by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman, currently being released weekly from Top Cow.
Wow, he beat up both Ant-Man *and* Yellowjacket!
10:01-1:04:21: Should we talk about Avengers #175-200, first? Yes! Are they some of the dullest comic books we’ve ever read? YES. Join Graeme and Jeff as they wonder how 25 issues with art by John Byrne and George Perez, writing by Steven Grant, Mark Guenwald, Roger Stern and especially David Michelinie, the debut of Taskmaster, an “epic” restructuring of the origin of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, giant robots, and the Absorbing Man can be so distressingly dull. PLUS, the jaw-dropping Avengers #200, an issue involving time-displaced rapey incest and not just some of the worst treatment of a superhero ever. Although we start talking about it earlier, Graeme tries to recount the plot around 37:27, which is followed up with Jeff’s dramatic reading of a truly terrifying infodump. Ever-timely Jeff brings up Luke & Laura from General Hospital, and much-more-timely Graeme mentions the 17th episode of Rachel & Miles X-Plain The X-Men wherein Rachel and Miles discuss Avengers Annual #10 and how it very specifically addresses this story. (Although we didn’t re-read AA #10 for this podcast, we also discuss it but, really, who cares about us.) If you’re interested, here’s a link to the fandom article about Avengers #200 that first addressed a lot of this issue’s problems. 1:04:21-1:30:14: As for comics from this century: The Multiversity #1 by Grant Morrison, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Nei Ruffino. We are indebted to the annotations of the first issue by David Uzumeri, and a stellar post by Cheryl Lynn over at Digital Femme. But don’t worry, we also have our own thoughts about the book. (Boy, do we.) Discussed: Cartoon physics, the forces of pessimism, Bryan Hitch, All-Star Superman, JLA One Million, and the need for fluidity, possibility and the possibility of ideas. 1:30:14-1:36:23: The same week Jeff picked up The Multiversity #1, he also picked up a book from a few weeks earlier with a story that takes many of the same ideas and proceeds down a different path with them: “Grandeur and Monstrosity,” by Alan Moore and Facundo Percio (colors by Hernan Cabrera) in Avatar’s God is Dead Books of Acts Alpha. 1:36:23-1:49:01: Another interesting comparison/contrast to The Multiversity, courtesy of : The Fade-Out #1 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Is it the ultimate Brubaker/Phillips book in the same way The Multiversity feels like the ultimate Morrison book? Also mentioned: Abhay’s follow-up discussion over at the SavCrit of the conclusion of Fatale; female agency in Fatale and in Velvet; the conclusion to the first arc of Catwoman as recounted by Darwyn Cooke (and as recounted by Jeff) ; and more. 1:49:01-1:53:23:Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland #1, by Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez, with colors by Nelson Daniel. A gorgeous book, but how does it read? Is it worth the dosh? Does Nemo end up all a-tumbled out of bed with one leg higher than his head? 1:53:23-2:10:13:Infinity Man and the Forever People #3 by Dan Didio and Keith Giffen, Jim Starlin, Rob Hunter, and colors by Hi-Fi. Jeff appreciated the Starlinisms; Graeme pretty much hated the Starlinisms but what did Graeme really like? Teen Titans #2 by Will Pfeifer, Kenneth Rocafort, and Brown. Ladytron, Manchester Black, and Josiah Power?! Those are some crazy characters to be popping up in a book, dontcha think? And Jeff has some mixed feelings about Batman and Robin #34 and how it leads in to the Five Years Into The Future/Future’s End event. And because of Graeme’s review of Grayson #1 and #2, Jeff picked up those issues and really liked them. 2:10:03-end:Closing comments! Places to look for us at—did you know we’re on Stitcher now? Is that a thing you use? If so, follow and review us there! And, of course, we encourage you to check us out on Twitter (), Tumblr, and, of course, on Patreon where, as of this count, 73 patrons make this whole thing possible.
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I’m gearing up to talk to Graeme in just a few hours for Wait, What?, Ep. 157. For me, there’s a certain amount of forethought leading up to an episode–although I’m sure it doesn’t sound like it–even if that forethought doesn’t end up being much more than “hmm, what the hell do I have to say about comics this week?” On a good week, it’s really easy: there’s the first issue of Multiversity and a Little Nemo comic and a comic book creator sending dick pics around, although it helps if I feel like I have something to say that maybe hasn’t been said already (which may make talking about Multiversity kinda difficult).
On a bad week, nothing really stellar comes over the beam on Wednesday and the comics industry holds its torpid little secrets and everything that goes through my head just seems nasty and spiteful and, worse, old. I don’t know how many of you also grew up with a parent that drank too much and shared confidences better shared with non-offspring, but the only thing worse than the complaint you really shouldn’t be hearing is having to hear it for the fifth or sixth time. There are times where I worry about bitching about my dysfunctional marriage to comics because if you’re reading this, you also have a relationship with comics: maybe it’s a marriage, or it’s just a relatively new fling, or it feels like something you don’t need to put a ring on because you know you’re in it for the long haul. There are times when I curse the words in my mouth for being both bitter and stale.
Fortunately, this week I (re-)read Mighty Avengers on the Marvel Unlimited app, written by Al Ewing, and illustrated by Greg Land for the first five issues, with Valerio Schitti popping up for the sixth. Previously, thanks to the generosity of Whatnauts, I had made my way to issue #4 of Mighty Avengers and I remember thinking at the time the issues were good, not great. They somehow seemed both too big and too small, simultaneously: in particular, the first storyline, which ties into Marvel’s Infinity event, brings the team together and has them fight both Proxima Midnight and the return of Shuma-Gorath. When first reading it, the small misfires kept tripping me up: I couldn’t fully tell when Ewing was being deliberately or accidentally obfuscatory about his superheroes and their powers, and by the end the team is formed, and yet it doesn’t get much more proactive than that. As frequently happens with big event crossovers, the items on the to-do list are checked off and then put aside, since someone else is going to be picking up the next page of the story.
What was great about re-reading it this week was how little of that actually mattered–and, in fact, Ewing does indeed have Monica Rambeau say, “Once we’ve taken a moment to catch our breath, we’ll need to help with this Thanos invasion that’s–” right before Luke Cage breaks out a nice “we are all Avengers. You are Avengers” speech. And since the chances of Graeme and I talking about Multiversity #1 in the upcoming podcast is really close to 100%, it was nice to see Ewing’s speech working on the same thematic wavelength as that book’s. In addressing the reader, Cage is telling them exactly what we want to hear from big comic book companies more often: people of color, whether readers or heroes, are Avengers. There’s not even the privileged speak of allowance, it’s not a “can be Avengers” situation, it just is. After watching America act like a racist werewolf for the last week–seemingly fine by day, a police state by night–it’s a message I’m really glad is out there, even if it’s in a book that (as of issue #6) was selling half of the regular Avengers title, and (as of 7 hours ago) was still being complained about by racist knuckleheads. While I guess maybe it could be argued that Marvel could’ve done more to promote the book, but I appreciate they put Greg Land on it so that it looks like a book that matters to Marvel. Like Mike Deodato, Land’s people can seem plastic, unreal, but I feel that, like Deodato, Land is working harder at pushing for more dynamism in his page layouts. And Schitti’s work is similar but in many ways the opposite: people’s faces are more expressive and nuanced, but while the panel-to-panel flow is professional, there’s not much in the storytelling to make you sit up.
The Stuff I Love: Characterization, Life Being Lived.
I know I’m always a super-huge booster for whatever digital service I happen to be using at the time (Comixology, 2000 A.D.’s app in the iPad’s newsstand, and now Marvel Unlimited) but I do wonder if Marvel Unlimited’s all-you-can eat model helps trick me into being just a comic book reader, not a reader/guy who has to watch his budget/guy who should have a good take for a podcast or a weekly post. When the only investment is time (although let’s not get into the whole “time as the ultimate commodity” thing that more than ever is powering American late-stage capitalism), maybe my internal watchdogs relax more, and I worry less about how small issues #4 through #6 can feel. As many good jokes as there are packed into issues #4 and #5 (that riff on the Avengers film’s “We have a Hulk” speech was really god-damned clever), a struggle for who’s leading the team feels like too small, too insular a story for what is technically the book’s second story, and issue #6 is an issue super-enjoyably packed with characterization but mighty skimpy on incident. At another time, I’d be more inclined to cluck my tongue and talk about how team books now that don’t spend their first year trying to grab your attention with epic sweep are going to end up cancelled in the first year.
And maybe I’d be right to make those arguments…or maybe that’s exactly the sort of unnecessary Monday-morning quarterbacking that makes professionals tear their hair? No matter what the state of the industry’s scalp, that is what’s going on in my head, and there are times when I’m just as happy as they are when it finally shuts up. And yet, for better or worse, that’s the state of nearly all entertainment industries now: there was more drama about the projected opening of Guardian of the Galaxy than there was in the movie itself. The hustle for a consumer’s attention span is constant and exhausting but seemingly essential: there’s always a younger, more nubile art form outside the window.
But while re-reading Mighty Avengers #1-6, I did find myself wishing for more time to re-read comics, wondering if some titles didn’t grow better with a re-read, with the patience to forgive the irritating and embrace the admirable. Certainly, I found that to be the case with Mighty Avengers #1-6. I hope that even if the title can’t hold on in a vexingly tough marketplace, these issues will continue to be discovered (and re-discovered) by readers. They deserve it.
I admit, I wonder if Jaegir will be as meaningful to readers who didn’t grow up reading Rogue Trooper, either in 2000AD proper or the Quality reprints (and, if ever there was a comic book company named poorly, it was Quality). It’s not that anything in the one-shot that collects the first run of the recent 2000AD strip actually relies upon anything from that original strip in any way — on reading it in 2000AD, I somehow managed to miss that it was technically a Rogue Trooper spin-off until re-reading it a couple of episodes in — but there’s something that the extra context really brings to the strip.
Part of it is in the fact that it’s a series set “behind enemy lines” for old-school Rogue fans. Atalie Jaegir is part of the state police for Nordland, the villains of the original mythology — for all of that strip’s clear debt to the American Civil War (“Norts” and “Southers” really didn’t leave much to the imagination, let’s be honest), the Norts were always clearly based on the Nazis of old British war comics, and one of the genuine joys of Jaegir is seeing writer Gordon Rennie fill in a lot of absent mythology and history for a culture that had basically existed to declare “AIEEE! IT’S THE ROGUE G.I.! KILL HIM!!!” for decades. (That he does it while respecting the broad strokes that already were there is even better; there’s no real retconning going on here.)
And Jaegir is a series haunted by what happened in Rogue Trooper, indirectly. It’s not that any of these characters had directly fought (or even met) Rogue, but there’s a feeling of the war as depicted in that series having led to this deep sense of loss and regret that runs through this series; Jaegir is a deeply wounded character, and her work (especially in this first series) brings her directly into contact with the mistakes made as a result of the desire to win the war.
The art, here, helps a lot — Simon Coleby’s work, and Len O’Grady’s colors, are dark and muted, convincingly selling the idea of decay both moral and physical; when you see soldiers wearing the chemsuits of the original Rogue, there’s a subconscious reminder that, oh yeah, these are not good guys. Coleby’s an artist whose work feels at home both in 2000AD and also more mainstream American comics; as he gets older, it trends towards simplicity of line and complexity of construction — he favors particular “camera angles” in this collection that influence the way you read the book (You’re never on the same level as the characters, to put it simply, and more often than not, you’re looking down on them — it keeps everything at a remove), and it’s something that’s very, very subtle but completely effective.
With the history I bring to Jaegir as a Rogue Trooper fan, there’s an added complexity and, almost, complicity, in finding sympathy with and for those who had formerly been the faceless villains of the piece. I can’t divorce myself from that reading, but there’s a level of quality and coherence to Jaegir that I suspect that, even for those coming fresh to the book when it’s released next week and seeing it simply as a dystopian science fiction story, it’ll read as something special, understated, difficult in the best ways and brave, in many ways, as well.
Interestingly, the U.S.-format Jaegir one-shot is released just shortly after the fourth and final Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth collection, which features stories I’ve never read by Rennie, Coleby and other creators; reading Jaegir makes me want to get the digital edition — and see if any of this series was set up there. Who knows, maybe there’s important context that I don’t get, either.
Anyway: For people who listen to us talk about 2000AD on the podcast, but have never tried it and never been tempted to pick up a Judge Dredd comic — Jaegir is out on the 27th. You should try it, and tell me what you think.
Sometimes you just have to talk about Dr. Strange, am I right? Anyway, he’s been on my brain a lot the last couple of days for an unlikely reason and here are some of the following thoughts.
“Men call him Dr. Strange! (Because he’s a doctor and his last name is Strange.)
He’s really a Doctor, and his name is actually Strange
Dr. Occult, Dr. Fate, Dr. Spektor, Dr. Thirteen. The comic book world did not suffer from a deficit on mystical adventurers with an odd name and a doctorate. But from what I can tell, those guys are Ph.D. types. I know this is rube-like thinking on my part, but sometimes a Doctor of Medicine just seems innately cooler than a Doctor of Philosophy. Who’s going to help me figure out if this rash is rubella? Not Doctors Occult, Fate, Spektor, or Thirteen! (I don’t even think Dr. Fate has a degree, does he?)
This is probably just old guy dotage stuff, but I really appreciate that there were three appearances of Dr. Strange before we find out his origin, and his origin is…that he was a doctor and his name is Strange? It’s just hard for other superheroes at the time to equal that. “Who is this mysterious Bat Mann? Oh wait…hold on…apparently ‘Bat’ is short for Barclay? And he’s apparently a distant cousin to German novelist Thomas Mann? Fascinating.”
Anyway, speaking of origins…
He has one of the all-time great origin stories
Yeah, I’m a big fan for the Rotter Redeems Himself origin story. Spidey has some great bits (the whole “why should I bother?” moment, of course) and I’m very, very fond of Iron Man’s origin (although the “rotter” angle is mostly one of my own devising in that case, as Stan Lee/Larry Lieber/Don Heck/Artie Simek think Stark is a totally awesome dude brought low by tragic circumstance–I’m the guy who thinks the story of a weapon inventor nearly killed by an IED and whose life is saved by an Asian physicist is all about how much the American Military Industrial Complex depends on the terrific distance between the weapons it purveys and its own front door and jesus this parenthetical is long).
But Dr. Strange’s origin is the best: an arrogant surgeon who refused to help anyone unless they could afford it, he destroys his hands and his career in a car accident. Refusing to work as anyone’s assistant, Strange slips down the ladder and becomes a derelict, a drifter, and on skid row hears about the healing powers of the Ancient One.
Now, just as with Iron Man, over time, there are all kinds of weird Jeff-centric twists I’ve put on things that aren’t in fact there–for example, for a long time, I misremembered the story as Strange having killed his own family in the accident. But what got me recently when rereading this page and a half sequence is that it allows for a ton of interpretative room. Having seen two separate attempts to reboot the Strange origin–Brian Bendis’ Ultimate Dr. Strange, who is actually Dr. Strange, Jr., assuming the mantle of his disappeared father (gah) and J. Michael Straczynski’s limited series Strange, co-written by Samm Barnes, which “updated” the origin in a way that stank of adapted screenplay treatment–I find it amazing that creators didn’t just add stuff in to flesh out the sparse-but-speedy-origin from Ditko and Lee.
Instead, they went with their own takes on it, both of which did that terrible “Chosen One” thing people are always quick to jam into magic stories. “No, no,” everyone always concludes, “why make manual dexterity a prerequisite to casting spells in a series where the big action scenes center around hand gestures? Why have a surgeon whose hands aren’t trustworthy enough to work on someone’s brain be more than enough to excel at such mystic arts? Let’s just have him be the son of a great magician, struggling to accept his destiny. Is it lunch yet?”
Wino Defenders. Should be a thing.
(Also, I’d love to do a Secret Origin of the Defenders story, where Strange and Namor first met on skid row, and the real reason why these two keep answering each other’s calls for help, despite never fully liking each other, is each of them could tell the rest of the superheroes truly embarrassing stories about their days as winos, far from their current haughty station. The Wino Defenders. I submit to you this should be a thing.)
In those eight pages, Strange goes from bastard to penitent, from the guy who’s been the unknowable master of the mystic arts for the past three stories to being an all-too-human fuck-up. Of all the Marvel movies, a Dr. Strange origin story seems the most like a slam-dunk. Thrown in mystical effects and vertiginous Ditkoesque mystic landscapes on a big screen in 3-D? I don’t know how he’d fit into the current Marvel movie slate, mind you, as each piece is only there if it can help contribute to the next piece. But just on its own? As a movie? Yeah, that origin has everything. In eight pages!
He has one of the all-time great coded origin stories
Why was Stephen Strange in the car accident that ruined his hands? Why does he end up on skid row? Without a single drink in sight, Dr. Strange’s origin nevertheless seems steeped in booze to me. Long before Iron Man did the whole Demon In The Bottle storyline, here’s an origin that’s basically “arrogant prick hits bottom, then has to learn humility in rehab,” except “rehab” means “a mystical sanctuary high in the hills of Tibet.”
Like I said, my imagination retroactively added in a wife and child killed in the accident, something that really sends Strange off on a self-destructive tear down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. But they’re not in the story. Dr. Strange, like Marvel’s other famous possessor of a doctorate degree, Victor Von Doom, is apparently so devastated by the loss of his own perfection he ends up chasing mystical powers in the Far East. Unlike Doom, Strange finds redemption, and moves into Greenwich Village.
Greenwich Village is, of course, another one of those great coded bits. I’m almost certain its use is meant to tie Strange to the Beatnik movement (which is why I kinda adored Moore’s creation of Johnny Beyond, Dr. Strange’s analog, as a Beat Mystic in 1963, though Moore is probably laughing up both sleeves, since Johnny Beyond is clearly a John Constantine analog as well), but Greenwich Village was shorthand for gay, even back then (and still has the largest gay and lesbian population in all of the neighborhoods in New York).
Maybe it’s just a sign of how times have changed, but I’m far more comfortable with Dr. Strange having a live-in Asian male lover than I am with the whole manservant angle. And I think that also makes sense of the coded alcoholic narrative that’s in there, the reason why Stephen Strange is such a closed-off shit before his accident: I imagine him as being somebody who came from a very wealthy old money family, one that he’s worked very hard to please (I don’t know if we’ve ever seen Strange’s parents–if so, they are, in that way, the ultimate absent parents), and that family is is perfectly okay with him being a greedy turd, but not at all okay with any narrative other than “gets married, has kids.” Like one of those boot-black Ditko footpaths veering into oblivion, Strange went in an unexpected direction, ended up in an unexpected place.
Neilalien Has Already Thought Much More About Dr. Strange Than I Ever Will
So… I’m in love with Neilalien is what I’m saying. I love you, Neilalien.
Dr. Strange is…Kinda Dull?
Well, let’s be honest here. Dr. Strange was beloved in the ’60s and ’70s. Part of this was because he was created by Steve Ditko at arguably the height of his design powers (still never gonna top Spider-Man, but I’m not sure anyone is ever going to top Spider-Man, design-wise), and part of this is because of stupid hippies and their god-damn drugs. The predilection for mysticism bubbling in the cauldron of Beat culture boiled up–and cascaded over–an entire ecstatic generation unable to hold their smoke. I Chings were tossed! Cards were read! People asked one another their sign and they were not kidding. Shrooms were chewed and doobs were smoked and pills were popped, and crabs and the clap and genital warts were passed back and forth like so much Monopoly money. Comic books were read and taken seriously! Arguably, too seriously. (Wasn’t it a Dr. Strange comic that somebody handed Art Spiegelman as an example of comics being literature? Which made him roll his eyes so hard he saw Maus?)
What a perfect storm to lift aloft Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, Master of All Dimensions!
And yet, Doc suffers from a plethora of problems. As someone who defends our dimension, he’s more reactive than proactive. (To be fair, this is a problem with most superheroes–it’s the villains who usually drive the narrative bus–but the superheroes make up for their reactive nature with a lot more punching. A LOT more punching.) And if you don’t take the time to craft a cohesive magical system, you get a whole lot of “God From The Machine” solutions. The drama can slip.
Also, that origin I love so much? It kinda wraps everything up too neatly in a bow. Unsurprisingly for a guy who’d go on to later create heroes almost psychotically shorn of doubt, Ditko creates Dr. Strange who, by the end of his fourth story, is a man healed from all previous trauma.
Ditko, like Kirby, is able to hide this dramatic lack by continually upping the visual drama and the scale of the threats being faced. There’s a great Dr. Strange story where Baron Mordo locks Doc’s astral form out of his body, and the two proceed to chase each other across the world, their astral bodies sliding like albino eels across every continent, plunging through seemingly every wall and cornice ever built. Ditko made that chase so private and yet so all-encompassing all at once. And yet, apart from the “oh no, Doc maybe might die unless he can return to his body in the next five seconds!” hook, there’s not really especially personal at stake, is there?
To be honest, when Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko are in their prime, you don’t really need there to be much at stake personally, just like you don’t need it in Jackie Chan’s best movies. A sense of urgent delight trumps any and all matters of practical drama. And god knows, it’s not like the “will I ever be good enough for my exploding dad?” and “superheroes must punch other superheroes because this veiled allegory about check cashing businesses demands it!” and “superheroes had this one weekend in Vegas they all swore they’d never talk about but then somebody finds out” constructs aren’t getting a little long in the tooth by now.
But I don’t think Steve Ditko left Dr. Strange in a particularly awesome place, honestly. Doc’s supporting cast is basically Wong, Clea, and The Ancient One. And then The Ancient One dies, and Clea leaves. It is absolutely and entirely no surprise that Dr. Strange ended up in The Defenders: the weaker your supporting cast, the greater the chance you’re just going to end up on a super-team without a title of your own. Once the mystic obsessions of the ’70s get watered down to New Age pablum (“By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! These ‘healing crystals’ are the kidney stones of the Dread Dormammu!”) and you play connect-the-dots with every other mystical concept in the Marvel Universe (“By the kidney stones of the Dread Dormammu! The hoary hosts of Hoggoth are The Kree!”), what’s left?
Well, Neilalien would know. He’s been paying attention. But I just kinda tuned out, revisiting the Ditko stories and wondering why the hell Marvel Unlimited won’t put the Englehart/Brunner issues on there.
All of Which is to Say: Doctor Strange Makes for a Pretty Great Pinball Game
Doctor Strange has never really had a lot of merch.
So I found the prospect of a Dr. Strange pinball game, available through the Zen Pinball app on the iPad, more or less irresistible. I’m not a huge pinball fan–it’s kind of tough being a fan of doing something you are utterly horrible at–but I like the idea of pinball, and I especially like the idea of virtual pinball, where the concept of pinball could easily grow more and more abstract, physical rules but without physical constraints. However, much like superhero comics, pinball apps appear to be aimed toward and consumed by hardcore nostalgists who know what they like, and what they like are licensed products reflected in the figure festooned table and the dot matrix display minigames of the late ’80s/early ’90s. (Don’t quote me on the dates–I’m very much a pinball dilettante.)
And you know what, there are some things for which that approach works really, really well. I’m never a big fan of Zen’s voice actors (and the repetitive idle movements of the figures can get kinda annoying), but their Infinity Gauntlet board was a pretty loving tribute to the Starlin miniseries. (Warning: do not try watching either of those two links in their entirety unless you are very, very high.) Adam Warlock and Thanos talk all the time and what comes out of their mouths is straight, uncut Starlin. There are different challenges for each of the infinity gems. It’s fun.
Somewhere in there is Doc vs. Nightmare
Similarly, a crew with either tremendous affection or a deep chop for research put the Dr. Strange board together. You’ve got two challenges each from Dormammu, Nightmare, and Baron Mordo. The dot matrix display pans across comic images of Doc, and the early ones do give a little bit of that black light poster appeal. Wong and Clea cheer you on. For a terrible player like me, it’s a mean motherfucker of a board–you could probably draw a Doc Strange comic in the time it takes to get the side kickbacks activated–and yet I found myself playing a lot more of it this week than I did (ahem) reading comics. There’s stuff that’s wrong, of course–Doc’s astral form looks more like a ghost, and I’m pretty sure his voice actor thinks the man-servant is named “Juan”–but in its various ways it scratches that itch for me better than a lot of Doc’s more recent stories do.
For me at least, pinball and Dr. Strange are perfect for one another. Maybe it’s because their potential for long-term drama is roughly the same. Maybe it’s because pinball at its best commands your attention in exchange for urgent delight. Or maybe it’s because both are currently derelict ships, moored in the lowlands, far from a fickle tide that took them there. Made for each other–if not there, at the beginning, then perhaps here, near the end.
[Author's note: I ganked a lot of my images from Colin Smith's excellent Dr. Strange essay over at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. Though we share an occasional conclusion, my callow points are my own and I wholeheartedly you checking out his piece if you haven't already.]
“Mr. Minos. The Man with the Labyrinth Face. It’s so delightfully tacky. Very 60s Fleming. It’s so fun to play spy.”
Two issues in, and DC’s new Grayson series is, if anything, even more enjoyably off-kilter than it was to begin with; for a series with such an grounded concept — it’s Dick Grayson, faking his death to go under deep cover for Batman! — and, let’s be honest, a final issue of Nightwing by the same writers as this series, it wasn’t a book that promised much. And yet, with the second issue, it unfolds its freak flag just a little bit more and continues to have fun with the toys it has to play with.
Dick Grayson is, of course, a character full of potential. The first issue’s terse opening, attempting to echo the All-Star Superman launch by summarizing the different stages of Grayson’s life (“Sidekick. Sensation. The Boy Wonder. Robin.”) hints at this, but it’s what follows that properly illustrates why this series works: Grayson isn’t a spy; he’s a showman, and even though he’s very good at what he does, he’s working against type here, and that that tension — that he is more light-hearted, more “fun” than the genre traditionally allows, at least in contemporary thrillers — is what makes the book so charming to me.
Well, part of what makes it so charming. It helps considerably that Tim Seeley and Tom King, the writers of the series, seem to hew closer to Grayson that grim and gritty so far. It’s not just that Dick is having fun despite himself, the series is, too; how else to explain the appearance of dialogue like “You may have taken out my boys Choker, Puncher and Drowner. But you ain’t never gonna break the Cycles of Violence?” coming from the leader of a biker gang in the second issue, or the introduction of The Authority’s Midnighter as the antagonist of the series (A role he plays remarkably well; it’s tempting to suggest this is the best use of the character since Ellis created him).
Mikel Janin’s art is also a selling point. Long one of DC’s secret weapons via his Justice League Dark work — I maintain that the work he did with Jeff Lemire (and later, Ray Fawkes as co-writer) on that book between #7 and #21 is some of the most underrated New 52 stuff to date, again despite a relatively weak premise — this is hopefully a series that’ll see him rise to greater prominence and his clean, kinetic lifework get the attention and praise it deserves.
Grayson is the spy book that you wouldn’t expect in the current DC firmament for a lot of reasons: it’s fun, instead of grim (Not only does it tie into Grant Morrison’s Batman, Incorporated in subject matter and tone, but there are also Avengers nods — not the Marvel team, but the Steed and Mrs. Peel team), it doesn’t tie into the dominant, Jim Lee-inspired visual style, and it can — and arguably should — be read independently of the other Batman books.
While books like Batgirl and Gotham Academy appeared to herald a new DC when they were announced last month, it’s possible that Grayson might have been the stealth launch of the future of the publisher all along. Here’s hoping everything stays on target for the foreseeable future.
Hmm, yeah, there might be a slight Kirby influence here, maybe.
Hey, all! We are back with episode 156, and, uh, I just found out about Robin Williams dying like, um, five minutes ago? So… yeah. I’ve got the show notes I cooked up yesterday, but they won’t be quite as embellished as I’d like them to be since my brain is kinda shut down. My heart goes out to his family and friends and to the man himself. There’s not an official cause of death yet, but if it really was suicide that makes it seem likely that the guy was suffering in one way or another, which is just terribly, terribly sad to consider. I hope he found peace; I wish he could have found it here.
Anyway…yeah. Join me after the jump for show notes, yes?
I’m always a sucker for easy symmetry, so it’s probably just as well I didn’t run across Jess Fink’s “Time Travel Memoir,” We Can Fix It!, the same week Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley came out. After all, Seconds is an impeccably colored and formatted OGN about a woman on the crest of thirty who can’t stop trying to fix her past via a handful of time-changing mushrooms, and We Can Fix It! is an 108 page black and white OGN about the author putting on a form-fitting jumpsuit and jumping back in time so she can correct early mistakes she made as a teen while trying to get it on.
And of course, the very first time she does, she ends up having sex with herself.
Some people have dinged Seconds for Katie, O’Malley’s protagonist, having learned so little by the end of the graphic novel and also for what she’s learned being so obvious–her boss points out a poster of the Serenity Pledge hanging on the wall the whole time that could’ve have taught her the same thing–but it seems to me that one of the toughest life lessons adulthood gives you is how little platitudes actually mean until you’ve earned their meaning for yourself. A lot of art aspires to be instructive, and god knows as a culture we consume a lot of it, so we’re pretty much up to speed on the big stuff by the time we’re teens. But everyone has a blind spot–several of them, of course–and not all located in the same corner of our vision. Before we can learn to accept what we cannot change, we have to learn to identify it.
So part of what’s fun about reading We Can Fix It!, especially in the wake of reading Seconds (although Top Shelf released Fink’s book in 2013, so there’s some non-linear hijinks happening on the part of this reviewer as much as in either narrative) is how Fink and O’Malley take much of the same premise and do it differently for different reasons. Katie uses her magic re-do to change the course of her career, revive a romance that should have ended, and undo emotional pain. Jess Fink uses her time machine to teach her younger self how to give a good blow job.
Part of what’s so funny about We Can Fix It! is the book’s fearlessness about visiting the past the way so many adults do–through the lens of having a wank. By her own confession, time-traveling Jess revisits her young adulthood because she’s horny. Super-charged as they are, her initial sexual encounters have an erotic draw she’s helpless to resist. But looking at them from the distance of experience, she also can’t help but groan aloud at the awkwardness and poor decisions made.
I’m in awe of this. Fink has taken the experience of the cringe of self-regret interrupting rubbing one out to a past exploit, and used it as the basis for a time travel novel, and as such, We Can Fix It! is an enjoyably embarrassing book to read (although maybe talking about it is proving to be more embarrassing than anything else). But it’s also a surprisingly effective way to use time travel–one of my formative experiences was reading David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, where a man who inherits a time belt ultimately ends up having sex with himself, then a relationship, then meets and marries a female iteration, and ends up having a child who grows up, of course, to become himself.
Time travel stories are parables of reflection, which is why time travel stories almost always become ensnared in solipsism: by creating a story in which the protagonist’s choices override all, the story collapses into a convex mirror in which only the protagonist and the protagonist’s flaws remain. After all, they are the only place from which any surprising narrative development can truly emerge. Similarly–and I find this deeply fascinating–the *form* of a time travel story almost always collapses. The paradoxes demand so much scrutiny, they frequently pull the viewer out of full attention to the story. In other words, the failings of a time travel story’s form echo the thematic complications of the story it tells: a time travel story suffers from the meta-equivalent of solipsism. Our awareness of the conceit becomes the only thing that can be seen.
I should point out that all of the above is only the first third of the book: for the remainder, Fink’s time traveler tries to then fix *all* the problems of her past selves with the traditional mixed bag of results. After Fink gives up on trying to save herself from problems and complications, she spends time just reliving moments from her past without trying to fix them. The book’s plot is a low-key affair, scenes moving from hijnks to misfire to regret to acceptance in an enjoyably low-stakes way. The past can’t really be changed, and that is frequently the most painful lesson it teaches, but thanks to a jumpsuit and the recurring sound effect “Zippity-Zap!”, Fink also gets to take a dump on a bully’s head, revisit a tender, funny make-out session that can’t seem to end, and acknowledge the pain of an abusive father. There’s no frozen half-destroyed world to be escaped from here; the time-traveling conceit ultimately becomes a loopy take on a memoir, with Fink’s time-traveler just being a much more hands-on version of the memoirist’s narrative take. And this too seems clever and fitting to me since the memoir, like the time travel story, also frequently succumbs to solipsism and onanism.
I should also mention how much, after the deluxe production of Seconds, I enjoyed the low-fi approach of We Can Fix It! The grayscale coloring, along with the somewhat iffy DPI of the image resolution gives the impression of a book drawn in pencil, a story drawn to amuse oneself or a close friend, and this intimacy lends the right balance to Fink’s high-concept, as does her loosely drawn but well-observed cartooning: when time-traveling Jess, trying to avoid being recognized by her friends in the past, pulls the collar of her jumpsuit up over her face, Fink perfectly captures what that does to someone’s body posture, the resulting goofy creepiness. And I love how when Fink makes out with herself (or later engages in an all -Jess orgy), she portrays her passion as open-eyed, mindless, and a little afraid: she looks almost like a startled deer, struck dumb by what’s overtaken her.
So, yeah. A fun compare/contrast, sure. But also a very enjoyable little book on its own. At the very least, worth peeking around your library to see if there’s a copy you can check out.
If nothing else, you have to give Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers credit for refusing to ape the Kirby aesthetic in any way. Oh, there are moments in the first issue where Joe Casey manages moments that feel appropriately Kirby-esque (The captions that explain “War can often breed sudden tragedy—as Captain Victory pays the ultimate price! And yet—this is where it all begins!” for example, have a rhythm and emphasis that feels true, to me), but this isn’t merely a cover version or rehash of what’s come before.
The problem is, I’m not entirely sure what it is, just yet, either. The first issue feels very familiar, but I can’t quite place the source; for all the Kirby influence, I got a taste of Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple’s Omega the Unknown series from a few years back (and, from that, the echoes of Gerber/Skenes/Mooney’s original Omega, which feels like a very clear influence on one of the plot threads this issue introduces). There’s some Frank Miller in there, too, from the The Dark Knight Returns era, right at the end (or maybe it’s Alan Moore’s Halo Jones, with the unappealing slang: “Oh, biz. That bulldog riffer don’t look kosher t’me,” indeed). As obvious as it seems given the presence of Nathan Fox as primary artist, Paul Pope figures in here, somewhere, too.
If all of that sounds great, then—it is? Or almost is? The problem is, it doesn’t come together as a coherent whole just yet. I suspect that’s by design, at least partially. One of the ways in which this first issue rejects Kirby is by doing away with the concept of the issue complete and and of itself—while Kirby’s original Captain Victory was arguably his most serialized work, in many ways, this new Dynamite series is going to be even more demanding on the reader’s patience, with the first issue throwing out at least three disparate threads to follow up in future issues, with at two very much teases or previews instead of anything more substantial.
Another difference this series has from Kirby—and also the earlier Dynamite revivals of his characters, as well as the even earlier Topps revivals—is the removal of the dynamic omniscient narrator outside of the opening pages. It’s an interesting tactic that works, I think: we start with something approaching the character and set-up as we know it, and then as disaster strikes, our expectations fall away and we’re left in this new world (or, to be precise, three new worlds) without a guide. There’s a sense of… uncertainty, perhaps, and something else that seems appropriate to the story/stories being told that’s appealing.
And, of course, the book looks amazing. The jam structure works well—Fox takes on the main narrative, with Jim Rugg and Ulises Farinas illustrating very specific sequences that break from that main story, so that it doesn’t feel as fragmented as some books with multiple artists; everything feels deliberate and coherent, even if it rejects a lot of the wonderful, still-attractive-to-these-eyes Kirby aesthetic (By which I mean his storytelling as much as his character design or dynamism; Kirby was a very controlled artist in his pacing, whereas this is much more freewheeling).
Whether or not the new Captain Victory works for you isn’t as much of a Kirby thing as previous attempts at revival, but instead a test of your willingness to sign onto something that remains almost as much of a mystery in terms of its intent and direction after its first issue as it did before the series launched. Me, I know this isn’t perfect and could easily fall into prevention or, worse, incoherence all too easily, and yet, I’m on board. There’s something about not knowing that appeals, and if nothing else, it’s a beautiful book. On some level, Kirby would be proud.
(For those wondering: You’ve not missed this issue last week; it’s out this Wednesday–I got an early preview copy from Dynamite.)