Nightworld-1-page2

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?

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*Guitar sounds*

*Guitar sounds*

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.

1306_SBR_FINK_ILLO.jpg.CROP.article568-largeI 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.

We-Can-Fix-ItMore

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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.

Captain Victory 1

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.

Captain Victory 2And, 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.)

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I was kind of wondering when this might happen.

When we put together the Patreon and the plans to write weekly posts, in the back of mind, I kept wondering what would happen on the week where I just didn’t feel like I had anything to say.  I’d even started brainstorming perennials I could write ahead of time and just plunk in here when the need demanded it.  (Bob Haney’s The Brave and the Bold!  The Howard the Duck omnibus! ABC Warriors!)  As much as I’d like to be like Graeme, who has the focus to pop out 800-1200 words in a tidy stream, straighten them up, and get them out the door, it’s a messier thing for me. It’s gotten a little harder to stay focused, to make sure the words mean what I want them to, that I’m on the right track.  Youth is great for making fanatics–it can be easier to be single-minded when you’re young, or at least it was easier for me.

In fact, just seven hours ago, I was floating in a sensory deprivation tank, something I’ve done a handful of times now, and my mind just would not stay still.  Even the stuff I was being obsessive about kept getting displaced by the waterwheel of my mind.  It’s one of those times where I’m tremendously grateful for the Internet because it’s become my one-stop shop for excuses about my brain.  Can’t concentrate?  INTERNET.  Lingering on things that make me angry? INTERNET.  Sex stuff, in one second loops?  Well, that really is the Internet, thank goodness–I hope someone somewhere has put together a theory about how a .gif mimics obsessive thinking, and whether cycling through a ton of gifs might exacerbate or lessen obsessive thinking.  (For me, I think it tends to exacerbate it.)

Obsessive thinking, obsessive habits.  I’d actually thought for most of my life that I was far too lazy for either, but, um, then I realized I had twenty-seven longboxes of comics. So…

Anyway. Part of the problem with my obsessive patterns is I can go through periods of reading a shitton of comics, and then a period where I just…don’t.  I mean, there’s always going to be a thing or two, a book, a bit.  But I notice right now I’m in a pattern of seemingly constant comics accumulation, but my comic reading seems to wax and wane depending on whether it’s a podcast week or not.  And when it’s not, there are times where I just look at a big ol’ pile of comics, and even the dumb, colorful ones feel like…homework.  And yet that will not stop me from continuing to buy them.  (Man, between the Transformers and the Dynamite Humble Bundle sales, and the Batman 750, the Suicide Squad, and those forty-five cent SDCC graphic novels, it’s like I took a shotgun to my digital purchasing budget.)

All of which is to say:  here’s kind of the edges of the peanut butter jar, the stuff I’ve either managed to pick up just today or recently and wade through.  Here are the thoughts-without-thinking:

Sandman: Overture #3:  I was actually shocked when this hit the stands this week.  Like, this odd shock of “oh, that’s not over yet?”  It hasn’t been high on my list of priorities.  But this was easily my favorite issue yet, if not probably one of my favorite things from Gaiman (admittedly a pretty short list, and although I haven’t given it any thought it is probably, in rough order:  that Riddler story; the Emperor Norton issue; his deposition testimony in his case against Todd McFarlane; the nurse’s hands making the bat signal as baby Bruce Wayne shoots out of his mom’s vagina; Coraline; his description of Amanda Palmer looking perpetually surprised in the morning before she’s applied her eyebrows; and then this?)  For the first couple of pages, I thought “well, okay, a lot more nothing is going to happen but it’s the best looking nothing yet,” and then…stuff happened?  I mean, it’s Neil Gaiman so of course, by “stuff,” I mean, “a dramatic confrontation is defused in a non-violent but flashy manner, and someone tells somebody else a story,” but, I dunno, those things worked?  It probably helps that the former was made easier by a certain amount of Moffat-written Dr. Who, and the latter was told pretty economically, considering how much more blowsy other comic artists can get.  Or maybe I just really like the way J.H. Williams III draws that cat?  Anyway, yeah.  I’ll be excited in 2017 (or whenever) when the next issue comes out.

Snipe:  Picked this up when Rich said some nice stuff about it over at Bleeding Cool.  Read it twice.  Once when I picked it up, once just now.  A digital only comic (I think), another collaboration between writer Kathryn Immonen and artist Stuart Immonen, it is actually two different comics, Snipe 01 and Snipe 02: the first being a piece about a photographer in the woods where the graphic narrative is relatively straightforward (though elusive) and the narration is elliptical, almost stream-of-conscious; and the second where the narration is a relatively straightforward recounting (though, again, almost stream-of-conscious) of the career of Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper who had 505 confirmed kills during the Winter War, and the graphic narrative is a yet another running stream-of-consciousness commentary on the narration.

First impression:  Jesus Christ, the Immonens must have access to tremendously good pot.

Second impression:  Jesus Christ, the Immonens must have access to tremendously good pot, and they’re both tremendously talented.  I always appreciate the distinctiveness of Kathryn Immonen’s narrative voice, even though it’s never really Madras’d my lentils–there’s a distance to the narrative voice that never quite jibes with the whimsy–but it comes much closer to working here for me:  it’s an omniscient narration of a distant, somewhat alien  omniscience.  And Stuart Immonen’s work is just breathtaking in Snipe 02, sliding up and down one end of that pyramid Scott McCloud outlined in Understanding Comics from photorealism to iconography as the narration similarly swings from the specific-but-general (the heights of various types of men, the types of various colored deaths in history and literature) to the specific-but-vague (there are two possible dates on which Häyhä may have been shot).

I’m tempted to say Snipe 01 is about how the circularity of thought is joined to the circle of life, and Snipe 02 is about how the trajectory of….history?…is tied to the trajectory of life-toward-death?  Maybe?  Although that’s probably me just flailing about and grabbing some of the good stuff from Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion?   It’s not nearly so cut and dry, but it is tremendously compelling.  I liked it, although more than anything it made me wish I could get my hands on more Golgo 13 comics.  Because I’m pretty much a simpleton.

The Six Million Dollar Man: Season Six #1-3:  Keep thinking I got these in the Dynamite Humble Bundle but nope, they were part of a Comixology sale?  Because of my age, I’m of course halfway in the tank for this sort of thing, the Six Million Dollar Man being among the better of the bad hands us nerds were dealt back in the ’70s, TV-wise.  And I dig the idea of doing a “season six” that would bring in all the best stuff from the series and kind of pretend that this what the show might’ve turned out to be.

It’s a rigged game, of course, because back in the ’70s, Congress passed a law that dramatic TV shows could only use a single type of subplot to connect episodes, and that was the Fugitive subplot.  Because the subplot of SMDM: S6 is *not* “Steve Austin is on the run, accused of a crime he did not commit,” a more stringent nerd than I would call shenanigans.

Honestly, half the fun of these  three issues is, bless them, the script pages in the back of these “digital editions” where writer Jim Kuhoric tries to convey to his artist just how insanely different the 1970s were from now (“We see [Oscar Goldman] from behind as he sits at his large oak desk and is talking on an old-fashioned corded telephone.   There are no computers on his desk–this is before the personal computer.”) and then seeing the flubs that are made anyway.  (In issue #1, Steve talks about going with Oscar to a popular new sushi restaurant, which is theoretically possible since I guess Sushiko opened there in 1976 but even experienced world travelers like Goldman and Austin wouldn’t have talked about it as “there’s this new little sushi place in Georgetown.”) (Also, it’s impossible to properly convey how hilariously bummed I was when they have Maskatron be controlled by joystick but it’s totally not an Atari 2600 joystick but one of those later P.C. style faux-jet joystick things.  I actually laughed aloud at my own disappointment.)

Anyway, in issue #1 Steve Austin fights sharks.  In issue #2, Alex Ross draws  a cover that is totally based on a a piece of art I recognize (though I can’t find it now, damn my eyes?  I want to say it was one of the covers of the Six Million Dollar Man magazine or comic?) and Maskatron fucks shit up.  And in issue #3, Steve Austin fights a Metal Gear.  With better interior art, I probably would’ve been more into this.  Between laughing at myself, imagining the disappointment Jim Kuhoric feels when he sees how his scripted pages are ending up, and trying to imagine what someone unfamiliar with the show is going to think of the onomatopoeia for the bionic sound effects (“Bana Nana” is the one that I think would really baffle them–and, really, editors, you couldn’t come up with a standardized “bionic” font for the sound effects that might clue people in as to what’s going on?), I admit to being entertained.  God help me, I might actually buy more of these if they go up on sale for $0.99.  I don’t have faith in anyone else involved, but I think it’s a fair bet Kuhoric is going to give us Bionic Bigfoot and another variation on the Venus Probe and hopefully like the sharks he’ll throw in some other stuff that was  hitting the scene in the late ’70s  (bionic punk rockers? bionic disco dancers? bionic body snatchers?), and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Alex Ross draw, I dunno, the Six Million Dollar Man gameboard.

But can I recommend these to anyone else who is not as messed up as me?  No sir, I cannot.

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Before diving into Chris Roberson and Bilquis Evely’s Doc Savage, I’d had almost no experience with the character. I knew who he was, of course—he’s one of those characters who’s ubiquitous enough that you know that, even if you’ve never read any stories featuring the character—but beyond an issue of Marvel Team-Up from the 1970s, I’m unsure whether I’d ever actually read anything that he’d appeared in. I signed up for two reasons: Roberson’s enthusiasm about the series in interviews and a curiosity about Evely’s art, which looked both attractive and oddly off in some way I couldn’t define from the previews I’d seen.

By the end of the eight-issue series (the final issue comes out this week), I feel as if I can call myself a Savage fan—or, at least, a fan of the character as Roberson writes him. There’s a certain amount of… perhaps not revisionism, but certainly re-examination and restructuring of the character and his mythos in this eight issue series as Roberson takes the Doc that was and plays with him, bringing him through the years from his 1930s origins to the present day and using the opportunity to tell a story that’s as much about the failures of the character-as-was as the triumphs.

Doc doesn’t change, you see. He adapts, to an extent, and takes advantage of new technology (“The Bronze,” a smartphone that sets up the final two issues of the series is something that at once feels entirely in keeping with Doc’s manner of co-opting the willing in his crusade and something that could only happen now, in these post-Global Frequency times), but he stays the same man throughout the series all the way to almost the end, and it’s that final transformation—the humiliation, in a sense, when it’s very clear that his methods have been very flawed all along, no matter how well-meaning they were—that both gives the series its final (and, perhaps, necessary) kick, but also makes the conclusion as frustrating as it is.

Doc2

To be fair, what’s frustrating isn’t the story being told—a story that’s fun, quick-paced pulp that slowly builds to something with more structure without the reader necessarily realizing—but the fact that, by the time it’s done, you want to read more. The humility that’s forced onto Doc in the final act when faced with the impact of his single-mindedness is dramatically fulfilling on one level, but it left me wanting to see what happened next. Did he change, or did he go back to being the Doc everyone expects, and if so, how did his support team feel about it? Why can’t there be more issues?

Another reason to want more was to see more of Bilquis Evely’s work, which straddled the line between solidly mainstream, clean and attractive and charmingly idiosyncratic—there’s something about the way she does faces, and especially noses—throughout the entire run. You can draw lines connecting her work to other artists (A little bit of Joe Bennett here, some surprising elements of Kyle Baker there, and so on), but her work remained her own throughout the entire thing. She’s someone Vertigo should be snapping up as soon as possible and let her stretch her wings and play around with her look. She’s really good now, but you can tell there’s the potential for something really good in the near future.

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Overall, Doc Savage might be something that fits into that category: good as is, but on the cusp of being something genuinely great. It was enough to get me on board the Doc Savage train—I’ve since gone back to explore the 1970s Marvel series which featured some unsurprisingly enjoyable work from Steve Englehart and then some less fun work by Roy Thomas—but nonetheless feels like the start of something, rather than something complete in and of itself. I can but hope that a sequel gets announced sooner rather than later, and it fulfills the promises made by this first run.

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Oh, Robin.

Oh, Robin.

Man, no sooner have you survived the bombardment that was San Diego Comic Con than here comes the two hour and forty-nine minute missile that is Wait, What? Ep. 155, with Graeme and Jeff talking about San Diego Comic Con….and the Image Expo….and Marvel’s diverse attempts to diversify its diversity…and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds, and Supreme: Black Rose, and G.I. Joe Vs. Transformers #1 and, oh yes, more than an hour spent discussing Avengers #152-178 (give or take a few issues.)

Join me after the leap for the show notes, eh?

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IMG_0311Thought I’d try something a little different from the usual here’s-what-I-read-and-here’s-why-I’m-a-bad-person-for-not-liking-it capsule reviews—I’m going to just give you my take on a character. Or a concept. Something that might not be tied down to what I’m currently reading.

So: The Hulk. Here are a couple of things about The Hulk. (Spoilers: at some point, I’ll probably just call him Hulk.)

He needs his pants.

You’ve heard the jokes about the Hulk’s pants. Maybe you’ve made jokes about the Hulk’s pants. I don’t blame you, I’m sure I’ve done the same. (Though either middle age or protective hysteria is preventing me from remembering exactly when.) But what’s truly great about The Hulk’s pants is they are not part of a superhero costume, or a uniform. Hulk’s pants are regular pants torn to hell: they give him a visual identity closer to a car crash victim than to Superman. The torn pants are a visual reminder that, at his core, The Hulk is a casualty. He’s a tragedy, not a triumph.

He is more Jack Kirby’s The Hulk to me than Stan Lee’s The Hulk.

This is the first of many warning flags that mark me as the essayistic equivalent of an unreliable narrator. (I believe the technical term is “misinformed.”) Stan Lee wrote more Hulk stories than Kirby drew and The Hulk, especially, is a character of accretion: it takes a suprisingly long time before some of The Hulk’s most best known qualities—Banner turns into The Hulk when angry or stressed out; the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets; The Hulk, far at the forefront of modern celebrity, talks about himself in the third person—get attached to the character. And not only is the tone of The Hulk consistent during The Hulk’s tenure in Tales to Astonish when Lee’s writing it, the plots stay more or less of a type.

Left to his own devices, Lee is more than happy to break out a Red spy operating in secret, with a plan to discredit the hero and sabotage the otherwise unbeatable might of the U.S. military, while the female love interest tears up and wrings her hands. Reading early isues of Lee and Kirby’s Thor is intriguing because it feels like you’re watching Kirby and Lee wrestle the character out of one another’s hands: a story will start in Asgard but end up in the mountains of Red China, Jane Foster’s roommate is actually a colonizer from Rigel-3, but the focus is still on that weepy old soap opera.

That’s actually an asset, mind you. It’s part of Thor’s spectacularly loopy charm as issues stretch to the ends of the galaxy then yo-yo back to the flower shop of Granny Gardenia. But with The Hulk, no matter how breathtaking Kirby or Ditko or Buscema pace it, it’s yet another commie spy, yet another tearful scene with Betty Ross, yet another scene of Rick Jones dutifully running about waving his arms. It all works pretty well, especially in ten page chunks (and especially compared to Giant-Man, the other ten pager for part of the run in Tales To Astonish). I think it’s the strongest work you see Stan do when not fully propped up by Kirby, Ditko, or Romita.

But. The Hulk is still Jack Kirby’s The Hulk to me. It is my selfish assertion and you’ll probably never argue me out of it.

To Be All You Can Be, or Not To Be.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby both served in World War II.: Lee as a playwright, Kirby as a Combat Infantryman. Kirby earned two battle stars, fought in the battle of Bastogne, and almost got both his legs amputated. Lee wrote film strips and training manuals.

The Hulk’s origin is: Dr. (Robert) Bruce Banner saves teenager Rick Jones from Banner’s brainchild, the Gamma Bomb. In exchange for rescuing a callow teenager, Banner’s life is fucked up irreparably: a lifetime of black-outs, angry fights, stuff hidden from the people closest to him. That’s the story of a lot of guys who came back from World War II, the story of the ones who didn’t write training manuals and film strips.

IMG_0312For the majority of his time in print, The Hulk is closely tied to the military—it created him and it wants to destroy him. If peacable Banner and violent Hulk are dark twins, then the military, as personified by General “Thunderbolt” Ross, is yet another sibling or maybe a parent. Like Banner, the military wants peace; like The Hulk, it is quick to lash out. Ross, in fact, believes about Banner and Hulk what each believe about the other—he thinks The Hulk must be destroyed, and he believes Banner to be spineless and weak.

Over the years, the military has been replaced by shadowy government forces, or SHIELD (not that there’s much of a difference), or even other superheroes, and all of those choices are understandable in different ways and for different reasons. There’s a very good case to be made that once the draft ended in 1973, this strange form of resonance I’m talking about was over for the Hulk.

Now he could be just a superhero who scared the crap out of little kids (and so was strangely alluring to them). He still has a lot of resonance as simply the avatar of anger, as the guy who wins simply by willing to be angrier than anyone else. (It’s no wonder social media went through an infestation of parody Hulk accounts.) In a way, The Hulk is simply the logical, kinda hilarious extension of the hero who wins against the stronger, more resourceful villain simply because he has an unbeatable fighting spirit.

hulk_KirbyAnd there is something to be said for a rip-roaring Hulk fight, especially if you’ve got an artist who is really good at scaling things up while keeping the feeling of mass, of making sure everything doesn’t feel feather light. The Hulk’s poor posture is another thing I love about the character, not just because my own posture is especially terrible (although it is) but because he is so dense with muscle he can barely straighten up under his own weight.

But to me, the best stuff about The Hulk is Jack Kirby. Maybe not the way Kirby and The Hulk actually interacted in real life, but the way the two characters share space in my imagination.

In my imagination, Jack Kirby is a devoted family man, a kind and soft-spoken man. But in his comics, there are always new and terrifying war machines clawing up through the ground or arcing over the horizon. Men are always pointing, mouths open, captured at the second before obliteration. Dressed in rags, clothes torn, a man stumbles through the wrecked landscape, a hand to his face, unsure of what’s happened except that it could not have happened without him. This man is always hated. He is always hunted. But in order for the people he loves to be safe, he has to become a nightmare, a cauldron of violence. When it’s over, he stumbles alone into the horizon, knowing that soon it will all start again.  Again, and again, and again.

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Puffing thoughtfully on a cigar, caught halfway between the real world and his dream world, halfway between breakfast and lunch, Jack Kirby draws a page of a man hounded by the forces of war, and then moves onto the next.  Draws that one and moves on to the next. When he stops, he goes out to his wife and children, and they sit around a table together and laugh.  And then he goes back to his drawing board, ready to create again.  Again, and again, and again.

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Following on from last week’s read of the entire Fraction/Bagley/Kesel/Ienco Fantastic Four, I spent part of this week re-reading of the companion title, the Fraction/All-Allred FF. The short version? Like many people pointed out in the comments, it’s a lot, lot better.

For one thing, there’s a coherence to it that’s lacking in the main Fantastic Four series—although it occasionally approaches the haphazard and fragmented plotting of F4, there’s a character consistency and longterm arcs that redeem and, to a large extent, disguise the stuttering rhythm of storylines shuddering into and out of motion. In fact, alongside the art of Mike and Laura Allred—and I’ll get to that soon enough—it’s the character work that makes FF work so well.

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Not so much the overwrought Ant-Man arc, which seems to takes precedence over almost everything else in terms of Fraction’s interest. That makes sense: he’s essentially another of the writer’s hapless, wisecracking but essentially ineffectual loser protagonists, like Hawkeye in that title, who shambles through stories feeling pain and being misunderstood yet adored despite his lack of sensitivity to everyone else’s emotions. (It’s interesting that the Scott Lang that finishes the series, as written by Lee Allred, is far more proactive and kinder, less wrapped up in his internal angst, than what we’ve seen before; is it Allred having more interest in that kind of character, or was Fraction planning for him to come into this persona all along but had to leave the title too early to see it through?) It’s tempting to call this kind of character a Mary Sue for Fraction, if only that didn’t seem quite so unkind.

In fact, none of the core four adults of the FF title offer much in the way of interesting or worthwhile character work—She-Hulk and Medusa get reduced to cat-fighting maternal types who are robbed of much of their agency, oddly enough (Something that’s very unlike Fraction, for his sins), while Darla Deering’s evolution into a superhero feels both forced and all-too-sudden; she goes from self-pitying pop star to Miss Thing in the space of an impassioned plea and the quick revival of the artificial Thing suit. She remains an endearing character, but never one with much depth or believability.

No, it’s the kids of the title that are the most charming, and also the most off-the-wall; while the A-plots of each issue inevitably seek to show up the replacement FF as well-meaning but flawed, Fraction (and, to a lesser extent, Allred) takes the opportunity to go into less obvious, and far kinder, places with the kids and their plot lines: the amazingly touching moment where Tong realizes that she feels more comfortable as a girl (“Are you still my brothers? Are you still my family?” and you’re just shouting at the page say yes or I will be heartbroken) may be the scene most shared on Tumblr, but Adolf the Impossible Kid and Bentley both get their moments in the sun as well, and are just as winning in their own ways.

It’s these moments—when Fraction sneaks away from the superhero stuff and instead writes about messier, more honest emotions and experiences—that make FF, and also make me as a reader wish that he’d just write the book centering around the kids that it felt like he really wanted to. Imagine how good a series that would be (This skill when writing about “real stuff” is one of the reasons Sex Criminals can be so good, despite everything; the most recent issue was astounding, in part because it dropped the high concept to write about depression in a way that felt human and true).

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Fraction (and Lee Allred) are only part of the appeal of the series, though; the art—primarily by Mike and Laura Allred, although Joe Quinones offers up a couple of wonderful fill-in issues—adds to the off-kilter charm. It’s almost impossible to imagine this book in the hands of other Marvel artists, with their harsher lines and more aggressive visuals. There’s a softness (and, in many ways, a nostalgia) to Allred’s line that makes it feel more comfortable and approachable in a way that other superhero artists’ work isn’t; a sense of whimsy and lightness, too. Imagine, say, John Romita Jr. drawing the very same script and you have something that would feel more oppressive, and less inviting.

Allred’s (Allreds’?) visuals also add to the idea that this isn’t a traditional Marvel book on a subliminal level, as well, and lend something—a humanity, perhaps—to Fraction’s words even on the worst stuff in the book. As strange as it may sound, I almost wish he’d had the chance to work with Fraction on the short-lived Defenders series, as terrible as that ended up being. Perhaps his art would have been able to normalize the tone in some way that could’ve helped the book out. Great comics that we’ll never see, part seventy-two.

In many ways, FF is more of a Fantastic Four for today than Fraction’s Fantastic Four ended up being. It certainly updates the “it’s superheroes, but just like us” modus operandi in a more convincing manner, and also offers something new instead of, as Fraction’s characters have an unconvincing tendency to say, the “same-o, same-o.” If only we’d managed 32 issues of this, instead of just 16 and 16 of the “main” title.

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I’m back!  Are you back?  I was in such a hurry to get this posted Thursday night that I didn’t throw it behind the jump and….wow.  Until I get that “brevity is the soul of wit” thing down, it really is better I had some of this behind the jump, yeah?  Maybe someday I’ll be a real live boy, able to have all of my opinions out here on the front page without it seeming like the site has been hijacked by a bot that makes wikipedia entries out of random comic book reviews…

Anyway, after the jump:  Insufferable! Afterlife with Archie!  The New 52: Future’s End #0!  The grand finale of Jeff Becomes a Bot that Makes Wikipedia Entries out  of Random Comic Book Reviews!

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FANTASTIC-FOUR-4-Preview-4Because I (a) have Marvel Unlimited, (b) find myself drawn to Fantastic Four comics even when I strongly suspect that they’ll only disappoint me—I am one of the few people online who’ll admit to reading the entire DeFalco/Ryan run—and (c) there’s something about this particular run that calls to me like a siren or a car crash, I found myself reading 2013-2014’s Fantastic Four #1-16 over the weekend. It was, it turns out, not as bad as I’d anticipated, but in a way that only made things far more frustrating.

There are two fatal flaws in the run—well, three, but one of those (Mark Bagley as artist) is arguably an entirely subjective opinion depending on whether or not you dig an artist who draws every character as a gangly teenager so that you genuinely can’t tell the difference between the pre-teen Franklin Richards and early-20s (?) Johnny Storm at times. One of them was seemingly unavoidable (The replacement of Matt Fraction as writer as the series is approaching its conclusion), the other something that could have been avoided with more time and attention. To put it in layman’s terms, the story of these sixteen issues just doesn’t hold together.

You can see that it’s meant to. In one of Fraction’s latter issues, he has Reed Richards explain how the seemingly-random adventures of the run to date were actually part of a plan that he had concocted because he’s a genius who had a plan all along to solve the mystery of his powers suddenly killing him; similarly, when Karl Kesel—Fraction’s replacement, brought on to stick the landing with three issues to go—tries to explain that same mystery, there are callbacks to an earlier issue, but it all feels sketchy and unconvincing, as if it’s a first draft where the idea is there but the execution is lacking (In Kesel’s case, the problem lies in what was missing from Fraction’s earlier issue, but that could hardly be changed at that point; he should’ve either written around it or ducked the idea altogether).

Kesel’s final three issues feel particularly odd after thirteen issues of Fraction’s guidance. It’s not merely that there’s a tonal difference—Kesel’s FF feels more “like” the characters, as opposed to Fraction’s take on the team, for want of a better way to put it; it’s not that Fraction didn’t do his homework, because he clearly did, but that he nevertheless was too present in each of their voices, skewing them just slightly off, just enough for it to be noticeable—but there’s a shift in the pacing and the amount of focus in the writing, as well.

Fraction’s Fantastic Four never quite came together, despite clearly great intentions. It’s obvious from the first issue, which starts with a scene set a year in the future, that he was trying to build something that was very structured and intentional, but the actual work didn’t live up to that (Tellingly, perhaps, the moment that he flashed forward to in that first issue turned out to be nowhere near a climactic moment in the final story; a sign that Kesel’s finale was something other than what had originally been intended, perhaps). Everything felt underdeveloped, in need of a second draft or another pass. It’s not that it’s bad, because it’s not; the problem is that it’s not good, either. Instead, it feels frustratingly grounded and unfinished.

(It also feels unoriginal, which is a familiar problem with this title and still arguably the biggest one that any Fantastic Four writer has to struggle with these days. Too much of what happens in this run is a remix of what we’ve seen before, though: Historical figures aren’t who they appear to be, just like when Ben Grimm turned out to be Blackbeard in Lee and Kirby’s run—also odd is that we get that plot twice during Fraction’s thirteen issues—or the Skrulls are back trying to cause mischief and Reed turns them into cows. Perhaps these were meant as cute easter eggs, but they don’t come across that way, sadly. Even issues meant to explore the characters’ histories come across as rehashes, instead of revealing anything new about them.)

2705288-f41The biggest sin of the sixteen issues is a simple one: there is far too much that doesn’t make sense to fail to bring the reader down. Suspension of disbelief can only be sustained for too long, and the flabbiness of these issues overwhelms it far too early with no chance of recovery. This isn’t confined to Fraction; Kesel’s attempt to resolve the central mystery of the FF’s powers turning on them just simply doesn’t make sense, and especially so when the mechanics behind it are turned on their heads later in the climax. The predominant feeling of sixteen issues is one of an authorial voice saying “Don’t ask, just buy it,” but without the sense of glee and excitement that accompanied Kirby’s original boast.

That this run is so close to being “right” is almost the worst thing about it. There’s a sense throughout the entire thing of a sincere effort being put forth on behalf of everyone—even Bagley, whose work is, well, as Mark Bagley as ever—but it never quite coalescing into something that works. Perhaps the title really is one that defeats almost all that attempt to conquer it, transforming everything into another adventure by the Challengers of the Known.

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