Joe Rice Media Review 2/19/07

Ah, and welcome to an All-British-Writers-Take-On-Mainstream-Superhero-Story Joe Rice Media Review.  We've got a couple of Ennises, a couple of Ellises, and a Morrison.  And you can't get much more mainstream superhero than Batman.  But the questions are "Do these men still have something to say about these characters?" and "Can they still entertain with them?"  It'd be nice to get a "yes" for both, but I'll happily settle for either.

 Last week I forgot to pick up Garth Ennis' western-style Ghost Rider mini premiere.  Like many a red-blooded nerd of my age, the Ghost Rider glow-in-the-dark relaunch of the nineties was a special thing for me.  He was a badass in so many ways.  First off, he had a leather jacket, and years of watching TV and movies have taught me that is what badasses wear.  Second, he fought with a chain.  Jesus Christ!  It had spikes on it, too!  That's mean, and being mean is a badass.  Also, he wasn't fighting for justice, he was the spirit of vengeance.  That meant he was kind of a good guy, but still a badass.  And was welcomed into the arms of oh-so-many of us who wrongly thought we deserved vengeance.  Motorcycle with flaming wheels?  Um, yeah:  badass!  And his head was a FLAMING SKULL!  HOLY CRAP!  It really is a pretty enduring image.  Anyway, those books don't hold up to well but still pass as nice escapism for pre-teens.  I haven't read a Ghost Rider since that even accomplished that.  I passed on Ennis' last try after the first issue's art made my eyeballs cry tears of pain.  See, I'm not a fan of computer-generated art, usually.  And it seemed to be confirming everything I hated about that sort of art.

I take it this mini, Trail of Tears, has the same artist, Clayton Crain.  It's less offensive this time, with fewer silly photoshop effects and more attention to storytelling.  I don't like it, still.  But I can deal with it for the time being.  It's the coloring that bothers me most.  These semi-realistic computer coloring effects look very strange on cartooned figures (see Ariel Olivetti's recent work for more examples).  Anyway, Ennis understands war and western genres better than pretty much anyone in comics these days, and nails the subject matter.  He doesn't flinch from the brutality, neither does he romanticize any side.  The freeman character refuses to drop into stereotype and the mystical elements combine with the senseless gore of the war to create a spooky, haunting feel.  This was an excellent debut if you ignore the problems with the art, and well worth ignoring said problems for people that enjoy westerns or war stories.  Best of all, I feel that this will be one of the Ennis works with more to say than the surface would seem.


His The Punisher Presents:  Barracuda very well may not have anything more to say than it seems.  Sure, maybe it will (Fury surprised me in that way near the end) but it appears to be a dark comedic action romp.  I'd worry about this becoming poseur neoblaxploitation if Ennis didn't somehow make our titular character so damn charming in an off-beat way.  It's not every writer that can have his badass protagonist enjoy a transvestite's BJ on page one, engage in multiple homicides, and hang out with his racist friend and still allow us to like him, despite it all.  Goran Parlov has a beautiful cartooning style reminiscent of Jordi Bernet.  Life is represented through exaggeration and an economic line.  Violence and blank-faced innocence can more easily interact in such a style.  And it speaks to his talents that unlike artists to be discussed later, when Parlov bases a character on a real person (hello, Mr. Walken) it neither distracts nor feels stilted, as if he's not drawing from reference, he's drawing a reference.  Anyway, Barracuda is hired by an Italian mob boss to help his hemophiliac supernerd son with his first kill.  Hijinks will no doubt ensue, and if there's anything more than what the surface shows, that's simply a bonus for an enjoyable action comedy.


Since I mentioned it, I might as well move on to the recent issue of Thunderbolts.  Mike Deodato continues to throw in the celebrity cameos and it simply doesn't work.  Part of this is because his style is too odd a mix of representation and exaggeration.  Figures alternate between stiff, heavily-referenced phototakes and more blobby, loose cartoons.  It would be interesting if I thought it were purposeful.  But I'm not reading this book for the art.  I'm reading for the satire.  And satire this most certainly is, whether you read it as a smirk at current superhero comics or at global media politics, it works.  Good satire should have levels, and should be enjoyable on its own.  Like a good Paul Verhoeven movie, Thunderbolts works both as an action spectacle and as a examination and satire of what makes such a thing work.  Government makes a deal with known killers, terrorists, and Nazis in order to take down public figures they find unacceptable, stories are spun, toys are made.  Ellis isn't using his famous hate for superheroes (which, if you ever believed, you should be ashamed of yourself) here.  He takes a grade-A lame-o and gives him pathos and a good deal of kickassery before the inevitable happens, making it all the more meaningful when he does go down.  I'd say "this is good for what it is" but that sounds more dismissive than I want it to sound.  This is a good action comic on the surface, and it has a bit more going for it, as well.  Double plus good.


Warren Ellis also brings his internet-beloved nextwave:  agents of h.a.t.e. to a close this week.  I found the penultimate issue to be a one-joke book that didn't work, but until that point I'd enjoyed every page of this comic.  Thankfully, this goes along with the majority of the issues and was quite fun again, from evil baby MODAKs (he knows how to get that internet appeal!) to a villainous Devil Dinosaur and a textbook "how to deflate the last issue's cliffhanger," the book was fun, it was thrilling, and it was filled with the promise of things to come.  I've read ridiculous criticisms that this book is "anti-superhero" and cynical and dark and all that junk.  But, just like Ellis himself, this book only wants to seem cynical and dark because it's so goddam optimistic that if you looked at it without protection it would blind you.  Read that last page and tell me that isn't the sound of an idealist being let out into the world with the power to do something.  And Stuart Immonen started as a very nice superhero cartoonist and has developed into a very potent artist that WILL DO IMPORTANT THINGS, capitals needed.  I look forward to the next things either fellow will do, nextwave or not.


I was excited to all hell about Grant Morrison returning to Batman.  Sure, only half of the previous run did anything for me.  Sure, I didn't know Van Fleet, but he HAD to be better than Kubert, right?  And the textuality of it . . .it promised the formal master Grant Morrison we've seen elsewhere.  And I can't help but love me some ridiculous purple pulp prose.  So why did this fail so terribly?  Certainly, some blame falls on John Van Fleet, who defied expectations and actually made me long for Kubert's sloppiness with this stiff, inconsistent computer-generated drek.  His art was more reminiscent of "fan with poser" than "professional on book by prominent writer."  And the prose, beautifully purple, wore thin at (I'll be generous) the halfway mark.  Now, overall, I liked the idea and content of the issue.  Morrison has long proposed that the Joker's various writerly interpretations as a person without any one identity reinterpreting himself like a series of art movements.  We witness the birth of a new Joker here, a non-verbal nihilist.  He is, apparently, scarier and more dangerous than before.  It's hard to tell due to the inconsistent, static art.  I feel that this story may have worked, and this format, even, may have worked with the cooperation of a more competent artist-even Kubert.  As it is, I agree with Jog.  This didn't work, and that brings me shame like a favorite student failing a test; or, rather, a favorite teacher failing a test.  Has Morrison's association with the 52 Crew broken him?  Or is it simply a return to the DC Morrison Curse of Awful Art?  I'll give it another month before I drop this title.

Now, if you'll excuse me, the wife got me a couple of bottles of excellent bourbon (Black Maple Hill and A.H. Hirsh) and they aren't going to drink themselves.  Enjoy your Presidenty Day.  Make some decrees.  That's what I do.

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