CHEW IN ITS FORTIES
Some series quietly go about their way. They don't make big headlines by rebooting with new #1 issues featuring superfluous adjectives in their titles. They don't change creative teams to re-generate interest.
They're evergreens. They have a certain lifespan, they have the very model of comics consistency, and we all take them for granted until their end when we celebrate the lives they led that we mostly ignored until it was completed and became a part of industry legend.
It's a big part of the reason I made a concerted effort a couple months ago to start catching up on my comics reading. That started with "Chew," which this week releases its 45th issue. It's a terrible issue to start reading the comic with, but the overall series is golden. Go back to the first trade paperback and start your catch-up. It's worth the time. No other comic has made me laugh as much in the same time span.
There is no other book on the market today like "Chew." Nobody save John Layman and Rob Guillory can mix pathos, high drama, and ridiculous comedic fun this seamlessly. Nobody else does a book where silly sight gags mix with villainous puns, bloody violence mixes with daffy dream sequences, and exciting action pairs up with dramatic confrontations worthy of your Oscar consideration.
The more I try to analyze "Chew," the more it amazes me that this book sells at all in the comics market. It's too silly for the Direct Market. It's too funny. It's too science fiction. It's not superhero enough. It's not photorealistic. It doesn't have a movie tie-in. It's the same creative team for 45 issues. There's only one #1 issue.
"Chew," the little strange book with a bizarre high concept ("He's a detective who gets clues by biting people!"), is all-too-quietly becoming a library of books that deserves to be placed in the modern comics Hall of Fame pantheon. It's gone on for so long now that it has a large cast that is well established and plausibly intertwined. "Plausible" for the Chew Universe, at least. Some of those marriages and relationships would be outright cringe worthy on another title. Applebee's life partner makes sense in the world of "Chew."
You know these characters now as soon as they walk onto the panel. Investing the time to read the first 44 issues is well rewarded with the 45th.
I can't talk much about the 45th issue. We don't even think about doing spoilers around here until after a book is released. But if you saw #44 and thought Layman and Guillory had emptied their tank of gasp-out-loud surprises, you'd be wrong. For many, this issue will hurt even more. At first. I'm not entirely certain that this issue's final page isn't easily explained and reversed by one page in issue #44, though. On the other hand, "Chew" isn't a typical superhero universe undermining the very notion of death by cheating it every quarter for a short-term sales boost. Maybe I need to accept this issue and move on. We'll see...
And then there's page 12. I laughed out loud at that page. Twice. I still laugh when I look back at the page. It's not even for a double-page Poyo spread, as recent issues have all had. This month's Poyo spread is the cover, where all the characters Poyo fought in recent issues show up in one gatefold, wrap-around cover that's re-produced without the cover dress on the reverse side.
But the half page at the top of page 12, which is a simple flashback to a case earlier in Tony Chu's career? Keep an eye out for it. I won't tell you the joke here.
After these recent three issues, "Chew" has returned to the top of my reading stack as the one book I need to find a quiet place to sit down and read for ten minutes without interruption the day I have it. The anticipation is high, and the pay-off is astounding. Most of all, the investment of my time over the years of reading this series feels like it's paying off. This isn't a book meandering aimlessly or losing its steam. "Chew" is even more vital than it was in its first storyline. I hope people are realizing that.
Failing all else, I hope the collection of trade paperbacks and hardcovers sell far into the future and provide a healthy long tail for its creators.
Sorry I can't get more specific than that. The recent issues of "Chew" are such that discussing the biggest moments from them would be far too spoilery for the series as a whole.
I just want to mark this moment and put in a recommendation to give "Chew" a shot if you've never read it before, or pick it back up again if it fell off your radar. It's still as great as you might remember it.
Also: NASA rules.
CATCHING UP WITH S.H.I.E.L.D.
Netflix added the first season of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." to its service on November 20th. By November 30th, I had finished watching the last ten episodes of the series that I had missed when they aired originally. I couldn't pull myself away. Every night I looked forward to watching another episode, up until the last two that I watched back to back because the thought of waiting another 24 hours for the finale was too much.
Everyone who complained about the slow start to the series hopefully stuck around for the second half, where everything paid off in spades. Particularly notable is the last stretch of episodes, "The Beginning of the End" to "The End of the Beginning" which functioned like one very long and tense episode. That's where the events of the "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" movie kicked in and S.H.I.E.L.D. dissolved.
From a structural point of view, the series is fascinating. When "Captain America" destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D., it could end the movie with very little consequence. When the sequel comes out or even the next "Avengers" movie, the results of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s dissolution will be felt and dealt with through only a very small viewport. The concept of S.H.I.E.L.D. being shamed and shut down is a ridiculously large story that couldn't be told in less than two hours.
Thankfully, this TV series can handle a large chunk of that. By the end of the season, Agent Coulson is at the center of that effort, which naturally will need to be secretive and most likely slow-moving. It's exciting that the second season of the series is primed to continue the character-based drama of the first season, but with a whole new narrative arc to uncover. With the next "Avengers" movie coming up in the spring, it's not inconceivable that things could drastically change on this show again before long. That's exciting.
The show is all about change. The writer's room on the show did a great job in turning everything over in the course of the season in a believable way. Everything from the secrets behind Coulson's return from the grave to the reasons and way the team was formed in the first place turned out to be more than what they initially seemed. The ultimate betrayal -- hint: "Hail, Hydra!" -- was given personality with a flip on the team, itself. It was shocking, and it was cool, and it played out beautifully. Surprisingly, there's even a little reason to believe that that betrayal might be reversible to some small extent in the coming season.
Everyone who's up to date on season two is laughing at me right now, I know, but I haven't seen so much as a plot synopsis of a single episode from the second season yet. If I'm wildly off the mark, I'll catch up to it eventually and you can laugh at me in the meantime.
Long story short, if you gave up on the series early on, cut it some slack and go back. It's worth it. Everything comes back around and pays off nicely by the end. I liked the show before I watched the back half of the first season, but now I love it.
Three unrelated things to close this out:
- One truism of the series: Anytime Lola takes to the skies, the special effects come straight out of "I Dream of Jeanie." I understand that television series have smaller budgets than movies, but those scenes are always embarrassing, like watching a 5-year-old draw a page of a comic book in the middle of a Joe Kubert story.
- You want diversity in your superhero entertainment? Don't want to wait years for the "Wonder Woman," "Captain Marvel" or "Black Panther" movies? Check out the final hero shot of the main cast of characters at the end of the season, on the loading dock to their "bus." It's one white guy, one black guy, and three woman (one Asian). It doesn't feel forced at all. I like that cast, and hope they're the core of the second season.
- That's where I run into trouble, though. Eight episodes of the second season have now aired. I DVRed the last one. Hulu Plus only carries the most recent four. iTunes has all of them, but they'll run $3 a pop. That isn't much when you just want to see the one episode that fell through the cracks, but for eight episodes is a bit annoying. Amazon has the episodes for $1.99, but you have to suffer through standard definition video. They do have the HD versions for $2.99, but that's no advantage against Apple.
Do I wait for this season to be over and get a boxed set at the end? I don't want to drop $21 on the first seven episodes today -- or even $12 for the first four not on Hulu -- if I plan to buy the boxed set in the summer. Do I wait a year and assume Netflix carries the second season then?
So many options, but none of them are great.
Finally, it's nice to see this page in the credits at the end:
THE EPIC "ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN" RE-READ, Episode Five
Batman inspires Gotham's citizens to action; The Justice League lines up against Batman. Robin discovers weapons. And shirtless Alfred hits the punching bag, which we'll just skip over for now. . .
Justice League v. The Batman: Frank Miller's Wonder Woman is all attitude. Jim Lee's drawings give her a proper Amazonian look -- tall and muscular, stern and combative. But Miller drives that home with relentless narration and dialogue. She's like the stereotypical man-hating feminist on steroids. Miller's script is cartoonishly over-the-top straight from the first page, as Wonder Woman walks through the city streets:
"The city of dreams."
OK, that's a nice description of a technologically-advanced city protected by the most powerful man on earth.
Uh oh. This could go in strange places...
"It stinks of men. Of doorways and abandoned, obsolete phone booths used as urinals."
Ewww... This book came out in 2007. Five years later, those booths would be re-purposed again as wi-fi hot spots.
"Of alcohol-soaked morning sweat and stale cigarette smoke and inky diesel fumes and sickening-sweet aftershave."
I wonder what perfume Wonder Woman uses? It must make her very confident.
"The wind off the water does little too scatter the stink."
"It leaves a bad taste, this world of men."
Got it. Men are stinky-poo.
Hammer it home, Brother Miller!
"They can't do anything right."
Oh, and did I mention that in this splash page she's dismissing a random guy on the street with a friendly, "out of my way, sperm bank"? Miller likes the sadomasochistic tendencies of Wonder Woman, obviously, because the guy's response is a very submissive, "Yes ma'am. Whatever you say, ma'am."
Wonder Woman, in one page, is already defined as a man-hating dominant lover of fitted leather jackets. She's above it all. She sees herself as being better than man, and deserving of their utmost respect and obedience. She's obstinate and stubborn and to hell with all of those who stand in her way. She'll just roll them over.
Across the next two pages, Wonder Woman finds the secret meeting place she was looking for and lets herself in. Along the way, she complains about how men always make a mess, how men are spineless worms, how men always lie, and how they don't have the guts to do what needs to be done. She is, if nothing else, focused on something.
This is all leading to a meeting between Superman, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, and Green Lantern -- the future Justice League. They're discussing the Batman problem which, to their point of view, is that he's undermining the credibility of superheroes by being a kidnaper and a loose canon. They want to rein him in.
Well, Superman and Green Lantern want to talk with him. Wonder Woman wants to slice off his head and be done with him. He's a man, anyway. He stinks too much to live. (For the record, Plastic Man wants Batman to join their group so that they look edgier.)
Superman and Wonder Woman get into a heated argument that ends as it only could: With a peck on the cheek. No, wait, more like this:
The strongest man and the strongest woman on Earth are in a relationship of some sorts? Just to hammer it home, Miller frames it with these captions:
"Then Zeus stabs the world of man with the thunderbolts and somewhere Poseidon roars with laughter.
"The Thunderbolts. They stab them both.
"The world only seems to quake."
Batman's Laugh: From there, we get to see Batman at work. That includes a double-page splash with a beautiful Gotham City skyline shot and a random Batman leaping in mid-air while being backlit by a full moon kind of thing. This is a standard night on the town for the Dark Knight. He's enjoying his job, running around Gotham and stopping small crimes. It's so his thing that it's given him the giggles.
Batman has two laughs. The first is accompanied by the smile as he's enjoying the job. When he's running over rooftops looking for crime or being chased by the Gotham P.D. while driving a themed car that can convert to a plane or submarine, he's laughing with joy. It feels slightly maniacal, in that what he's doing is still crazy and dangerous, but the laughter is completely an outward manifestation of his inner joy. He loves his job.
The other laugh is the carefully staged and purposeful one.
Think about Batman's image for a moment. He's a man of the shadows, blending into the darkness. His costume is meant to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Its dark color and angular shape backs that up.
Miller goes one step further, though. His Batman laughs maniacally as a calculated moved to scare the thugs. I's not because he's enjoying himself at that point and having the time of his life, though he kind of is. Batman is using the laugh to unnerve the bad guys he's about to beat up. It works, obviously. I mean, who would you be more scared of? The Batman hiding in the dark who might jump out at you at any moment? Or The Joker, laughing like a sociopath without any rhyme or reason beyond something just entertaining him. I'd argue that the dissonant laugh is scarier.
Batman uses that laugh in this issue to break up a mugging/rape in a random back alley. The scene reminds me of the bit in the first issue of "Spawn," but that's likely because it's such an easy short-hand for the kind of street-level crimes this style of hero fights. We've seen this scene play out a million times.
This one is different from your typical Batman comic in that Batman is cruel in it. He explains it to one of the thugs whose arm he's just broken:
"It's called a compound fracture, rapist. It will never heal. Not right it won't. Not nearly right. You'll remember me every time the air goes wet and cold. Arthritis, punk. It'll hurt like hell."
That's second-level thinking right there.
On the next page, another punk says, "What?" Batman beats the crap out of him for that transgression.
As he's doing all this, though, the near-victim starts to clap and smile. She's emboldened by the Batman's actions. She walks up to the debilitated transgressor and kicks him right in the -- well, you know. She's suddenly powerful. As Batman flies back up into the night, she proclaims her love for him.
"Nobody loves anybody, my darling. We just survive," he thinks. He's very poetic when he wants to be.
It's a parallel to the Black Canary sequence from a couple of issues ago. Canary felt inspired and empowered to take out the bar of loathsome people and then steal one of their bikes because she loves the Batman so much. In a city such as Gotham, where the police are completely corrupt and crime is so rampant, Batman turns out to be (ironically) the one shining beacon of light that people want to get behind. So desperate were they for the Batman that they start becoming more active.
Robin's Cameo: Dick Grayson discovers the Batcave's armory and picks out a choice axe that's as big as him. He reminds me a little of Damian Wayne on that last page visually, who first appeared around the same time this issue came out. They both have smart mouths on them, if nothing else.
Next issue: The Black Canary returns! Batgirl debuts! And Jimmy Olsen's hormones get all twisted up in a plot line that won't be remembered past the issue!
Next week in Pipeline: I promised an analysis of that failed "Global Frequency" issue last week. It's coming next week after I finish some research on it.