What I bought - 27 September 2006

There were a bunch of good, solid comic books this week.  Nothing earth-shattering, but a lot of examples of what comics can do and why they do it well.  Let's see what we have!

The American Way #8 by John Ridley, Georges Jeanty, and Karl Story with Ray Snyder.  $2.99, DC/Wildstorm.



Here's an interesting phenomenon: a mini-series with the same writer and artist with lots of detailed scenes that came out like clockwork for eight months.  It makes me think DC either had most or all of it in the can before releasing it or that Ridley and Jeanty are, you know, fucking professionals.  I wonder if this tactic should be the same for all mini-series.  I don't know any actual examples off-hand, but I'm sure I could think of some.

This mini-series, it seems, has flown under the radar a bit, and that's a shame, because it has to be in the running for best mini of the year.  It comes off a bit naïve, maybe, to our cynical twenty-first-century brains, but it's a very nice example of good storytelling and nice art, mixed with political commentary that is occasionally heavy-handed but does help illuminate not only the situation in the country during the early 1960s, but also, I would argue, at the present time.  There are a few anachronisms (I very much doubt if anyone was calling it "the liberal media" back in the 1960s, but I could be wrong), but Ridley and Jeanty have given us something that, despite its superhero trappings, is a disturbing look at how the government uses propaganda to further its ends, and ignores the consequences of its actions until it's too late.  The book is primarily about race relations, because of its time period, and the character arc of Jason Fisher, the black superhero that the government recruits, is one of the main ones, but Ridley never really sells that storyline as well as some of the others.  He hits all the notes you might expect, but this book is more about Wes and how he deals with the deceit that the government, which he believes has always done the right thing, is selling to the American people.  This façade is tested when Jason's race is revealed and the southern superheroes (why no western superheroes? - Ridley is practicing the East Coast bias the southerners accuse Wes and Chet of having) show that they are racist after all (yeah, we couldn't see that coming), and the book becomes about how Wes is selling his soul for a lie, and what it actually costs him and the other superheroes.  It costs some of them their lives, and others their sanity.  This is the real heart of the book, and Ridley has done a fine job showing the price these people pay to reassure the American people that all is right in the world.  The question ultimately becomes, Can the American people handle the truth, or must we be spoonfed lies?  In that answer is Ridley's commentary on not only the way Americans saw the world in the 1960s, but how we see the world today.  Even he cannot condemn the faith we have totally, as we see with the final image of the book, in which two of the survivors walk into the sunset (I don't want to spoil the book, because it is a very good read).  This dichotomy between having faith in a system and that system being undeserving of our faith is what makes Americans somewhat schizophrenic.  It's an interesting comment on how we live and what makes us tick.

Finally, there is the subtle pornographic angle to superheroing, which isn't as pronounced as it is in, say, Watchmen, but is still present.  The linking of fetishization and superheroes is always there now that stupid Alan Moore pointed it out to us (and even prior, but moreso now), but Ridley chooses an interesting way to present it to the American public circa 1962 with Amber Waves and Muscle Shoals.  These two, one a fresh-faced Midwestern farm gal with pigtails, the other a big bohunk southern boy, could have been plucked off the set of a low-end skin flick, and the fact that they are sort of a couple in the book is interesting.  They represent America's disturbing obsession/revulsion with sex, while Freya, aggressively sexual, is naturally foreign, someone who must temper her sexual desires because America cannot handle someone as frank as she is.  And of course she's Scandinavian, which in the 1960s meant sexpots like Anita Ekberg.  Considering Freya's and Amber's fates, it's interesting to track their arcs.

This should be out in trade soon, and if you've been waiting to pick it up, you will probably be pleasantly surprised.  It has plenty of superhero action, but through it all, Ridley does a wonderful job highlighting the problems in America beyond the obvious ones, and usually doing it quite subtly.  Again, this is one of the best mini-series of the year.

Batman #657 by Grant "I'm a Better Magician Than Alan Moore!" Morrison, Andy Kubert, and Jesse Delperdang.  $2.99, DC.

As far as what we're usually getting from Crazy Man Morrison, Batman might be considered disappointing.  Morrison tends to polarize fans (I know, a shocking revelation) because he is so willing to upset the apple cart, so to speak.  Some find this exhilarating, even when it doesn't work, while others find it upsetting, even when it does.  Even his most conventional superhero work (JLA and X-Men) tends to rework the legends despite staying within a certain framework of continuity.  Many people argue that he leaves nothing in the toy box for subsequent writers to work with.  I would argue he does that only on titles where nobody cared about the characters beforehand, so why should he care?  On his two big titles, he not only left the toy box stocked, but stocked with far more things than previously, if only subsequent writers had the wit to go with them.

My vague disappointment with his first three issues of Batman stem not from the fact that the writing is poor, but that they're so conventional.  Yes, we're only three issues in, but think about the first three issues of his four key "in continuity" series: Animal Man, Doom Patrol, JLA, and X-Men.  Only on JLA was he doing things by issue #3 that could be considered "conventional," but those issues were thrilling.  In his brief tenure, Batman has seen solid storytelling, but not a sense that Morrison is going to really do much with the character.  Maybe he doesn't want to.  Maybe DC won't let him.  It's still a version of Batman that works, moreso than the Winick version.  Moreso, perhaps than a lot of the Batmans we've seen in a while, especially on the eponymous title (I still think Lapham's Batman will be a classic in years to come).  But Morrison seems to be simply writing standard superhero fare.

Which, of course, is fine.  Yes, I have just spent two paragraphs seemingly trashing Batman, but I actually enjoy it.  In the few years prior to this, the title has been hijacked by writers and artists desperate to put an epic stamp on the Big Mean Bat, and we've gotten a succession of story arcs full of sound and fury signifying very little, from "Hush" to "Naked City," (wasn't that the Azzarello/Risso run?) to Winick's run, which seemed solely concerned with bringing back Jason Todd.  It's exhausting, and leads to a series of false highs and "awesome moments" that have no foundation.  And we know how I feel about awesome moments with no foundation, don't we?  As someone pointed out (I can't remember where; it could have been on this blog in the comments, or it could have been the all-powerful Cronin, or it could have been on another blog entirely, but if you know, let me know) with regard to Harvest in Detective #823 (a villain I would be thankful to never see again, but that's beside the point), cool things in comics don't come from a writer/artist trying to come up with them, which is why the mess that is Civil War will be forgotten in a few years.  Cool things come from throwaway ideas that other writers latch onto years later and grow slowly and organically.  Morrison, like Gaiman and Moore, is very good at dropping ideas into his stories that he has no interest in exploring, leaving a fecund ground for others.  In this book so far, he's dealing with a small-scale story (yes, even though it features ninja-manbats and Batman's son) that feels different than what has come just prior because, despite the image of Tim Drake lying on the floor unconscious and bleeding and the fear of what exactly has happened to Alfred, we get the sense that this is a good old-fashioned Batman story, where our hero saves the day with little fuss.  It might turn into something more momentous, but right now it's just a normal Batman story with some fun moments - the undercover cop blundering as he tries to milk the henchman for information, the Spook himself, the various Bat-suits, Damian's resourcefulness, and Batman-as-father figure - that promises little beyond that.

And that's where greatness springs from - comics that promise little but evolve into something.  Whether Morrison does this with Batman or not is something that will be fun to discover. 

Daredevil #89 by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, and Stefano Gaudiano.  $2.99, Marvel.

It's always a good thing to get superheroes out of their element every so often, which is why X-writers always send the merry band of mutants to space occasionally, to the point where the Shi'ar empire has become part of the X-Men's element and is therefore no longer terribly interesting.  Getting a superhero "out of his comfort zone," so to speak, allows the writer to think about how characters who normally don't interact with the hero will view him, while giving the artist something else to draw beside the standard fare.  It doesn't matter how it happens, just that it happens, and luckily, Ed Brubaker seems to understand that, as he gets Matt Murdock out of the country in this latest issue of Daredevil.  He hasn't quite pulled off the reaction bit yet, as Daredevil appears late in the issue and nobody really reacts to him (with the exception of his quarry, Alton Lennox, who of course is used to superheroes, coming from New York), but the first part of the book, when Matt adopts a different identity and eases into Monte Carlo high society, is nicely done, as we can almost imagine Bruce Wayne playing cards, or even Sean Connery-as-James-Bond (even though they're not playing baccarat and therefore "Ray Mallory" doesn't get to say cool things like "I have the shoe").  This is fish-out-of-water comics done with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, and Ray Mallory pulls off the scam marvelously, even though the mob boss's daughter Lily knows he's playing a scam.  Matt has stumbled into a wedding scheme, as Alton Lennox's client, the mob boss Tybold Lucca, has arranged a marriage of his daughter to a mysterious bullfighter who dispatches two lions as entertainment for the crowd (in an obvious echo of Romans at the Colisseum), but this plan goes slightly awry when the the bullfighter kills Lucca, prompting Daredevil to make an appearance.  It's all an elaborate ruse, apparently, to draw Matt out, as we learn on the final page.

Two things make this comic noteworthy.  First, the contrast between the European decadence Matt experiences and the vices of his home town.  Brubaker doesn't state it explicitly, but he seems to imply that Matt is far more disgusted by people cheering for a bullfighter killing two lions than he is by the crime he fights on the streets of New York.  I could be reading too much into it, but it's an interesting notion, and one that brings up the whole idea of European Old-World opulence as opposed to New-World declasse.  This has been hardly ever hinted at in comics, as we very rarely see anyone but American gangsters (and "exotic" foreign bad guys like Ra's al Ghul or the Mandarin, who are ultimately caricatures), but if we have seen it anywhere, it's in Daredevil, with the Kingpin.  Tybold Lucca is no less a thug than Wilson Fisk, yet Fisk is always, it seems, trying to justify himself to others, either by buying his way into legitimate businesses or pretending he comes from loftier roots than he actually does (in the column I wrote about Chichester's run on the title, we see the agent of Hydra - a terrorist organization run by a German Junker - tells Fisk that he is only a criminal, while they are conquerors, which is simply a great line, but highlights this distinction).  Lucca, as an Old-World gangster, has no need for these pretensions - he already has the pedigree.  His roots stretch deeper and wider, and therefore, even though they are still thuggish, they have acquired the patina of respectability, and Lucca can hold private bullfights at his villa and not come off as grasping for approval from his social betters.

The second thing is Matt's fatal attraction to the wrong kind of women.  Brubaker makes this somewhat explicit in the first section, when Matt dreams that he is back in New York with Foggy and Karen Page has come back to work for him.  This is the Karen of the old days, pre-porn-and-drugs, and the fact that Matt is dreaming about her shows us, not too subtly, that he is yearning for those days pre-Frank Miller, when the term "swashbuckling" could be used to describe him.  He can never return to those days, and Brubaker, smartly, doesn't try to (although fighting a bullfighter in Monaco is not bad), but it's interesting that Matt dreams about a Karen Page who is unsullied, yet can never actually fall in love and stay in love with that kind of woman.  He is drawn to troubled women, and this becomes a theme of the book when Lily flies off with Alton Lennox in a helicopter at the end of the book and mouths "Save me."  If Matt wasn't lost before, he is when he realizes that her scent reminds him of Karen.  Oh dear.  Why doesn't Matt recognize that this is a trap?  Why doesn't he recognize that this young lady, even if she is innocent, is either using him herself or the pawn of others who want to draw him out?  Like a good repressed Catholic boy, Matt thinks with his genitals (or, you could say, like a man in general), and therefore we know he will fall.  It will be interesting to see if Brubaker does anything interesting with this, or simply follows the pattern other writers have established with regard to Matt and his phallus.  We'll see.

Jack of Fables #3 by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges, Tony Akins, and Andrew Pepoy.  $2.99, DC/Vertigo.

This book has yet to justify its existence, as it still does not seem clear, despite the lively discussion in the comments the last time this book came out during which a few people tried to explain it to me, why exactly Mr. Revise is out to destroy all Fables.  He doesn't like magic - that I get.  Beyond that, though, he's a garden-variety villain - actually, less like a villain than a bureaucrat who is drunk with power, and his brief appearance in this issue does nothing to develop him.  Comics are defined by their villains, unfortunately, and Revise is not looking like much of a keeper.  Jack, as the hero/villain of the book, is obviously the engine, because even when he's acting like the hero, he's so smarmy that we are both rooting for him to succeed and rooting for him to get his comeuppance.  This leaves little room for a true villain, and Mr. Revise has yet to shine.  Jack is a marvelous character, and so far has outshined all the others in the book, which has all the markings of being a problem.  Especially if the writers place him in situations with a lot of other characters and extend the plotlines - this appears to be coming to a head next issue, but as a four-issue arc, it doesn't have much substance.  If we are going to see long storylines in this title, we need to have better characters surrounding Jack.  In the two-issue storyline in Fables that eventually led into this title, Jack dominated, but that was fine, because it was quick.  Now, however, we have several characters who vie for time, and they are, unfortunately, generally reflecting the glory that is Jack.  When an interesting character does come along, he's a dark version of Jack, as we see on page 5.  So far this is a truly narcissistic book, and while that might work for a few issues, it will not carry the title far, unless Jack flits quickly from situation to situation.  He has stayed too long in the Village, and it's hurting the success of the book.

Next issue is the make-or-break issue, I suppose.  If all's well that ends well, the book gains a reprieve.  The promise is certainly there.  Now we need to see the execution.

She-Hulk #12 by Dan Slott, Rick Burchett, and Cliff Rathburn.  $2.99, Marvel.

The retcon in this month's She-Hulk, one which I truly hope Slott will not backpedal on, is perhaps as radical as some of the ones in comic book history that have gotten more press.  That it comes in a minor Marvel book that the company seems willing to throw under the bus so they can go promote crap is a symptom of the strange way comic book companies do business.  I'm not saying this because I like this book or because I buy it, but I cannot fathom a business plan that ignores a thoughtful, clever, occasionally funny and always interesting comic in order to hype a comic book in which Marvel icons a) don't act like heroes; and b) don't even look like the iconic figures non-comic-book readers might recognize ("Hey, where's Spider-Man in this book?"  "He's that guy with the golden arms sticking out of him."  "Really?  Oh, maybe I'll just buy something else.").  Yes, this book is steeped in Marvel history and therefore is probably not the most accessible title out there, but Slott obviously has great affection for Jen and her cast of characters, and he cares enough about them to show John Jameson's reaction to Jen whisking away to Titan to preside at the trial of Starfox, which is a natural reaction, even if he's turned into a lupine Star-God.  Slott has been toying with this She-Hulk/Jennifer dichotomy throughout the whole run, and she keeps avoiding the issue, as a real person would do.  She is unwilling to face the choice, so she keeps playing superhero, highlighting the fundamental childishness of the superhero ideal in a much more interesting and sad way than the big story of the Marvel summer, which shows what happens when the superheroes try to play as grown-ups, get petulant and start breaking their toys.  She-Hulk addresses these issues in a much more honest way, in that Jen regresses when she becomes She-Hulk, because She-Hulk can always hit something and solve her problem.  In this issue, it's Starfox, and then, when he appears, Thanos.  The problem she has with Starfox and the issues that Thanos has with everyone can easily be solved - hit it!  However, as Thanos reveals, not everything can be solved by hitting it.  Who, Slott wants to know, is the villain of this story?  It's not Thanos, but it's not Starfox either.  She-Hulk has escaped confronting her feelings on one world and with one man but has found that she can't really escape, and the confrontation must come.  What Slott has tapped into, remarkably, is the sadness of the superhero, who cannot deal with real life and must flee to a fantasy world.  Once he has managed to establish that, he can allow the real world to seep into the fantasy world, and that makes this book a very fascinating read.

Yet Marvel would rather promote the hell out of a book in which heroes are doing nasty things because they can.  There's no justice.

X-Men #191 by Mike Carey, Clay Henry, and Mark Morales.  $2.99, Marvel.

Gregg Easterbrook had a fascinating thought about the X-Men and their internal organs in this week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback.  Easterbrook's column is very long and mostly about football, but the section on mutants is neat.  It's best not to think about it too much, though.

The Secret Origin of the Children of the Vault is revealed in this issue, and while it's nothing all that special, it certainly works as a story and makes the characters somewhat sympathetic.  The problem with this, as the problem with so much of comic book stuff these days, is that it's been done before, and will probably be forgotten as quickly.  Claremont had those "post-humans" not long ago, and nobody even remembers them anymore.  How long will it take for Marvel to forget these characters?

I don't blame Carey, and I'm not even sure there's really anything to blame him for.  "Supernovas" is a perfectly fine story, and I'm enjoying it, even if I miss Bachalo's art this issue, because I can't get over Clay Henry's chins.  They're huge!  My point is, as it always is: Marvel and DC want to pretend that these characters exist in a universe where all other comic books take place, that's fine.  But don't get upset when careful readers (and I'm not even that careful a reader) point out that someone on the X-Men (wasn't Rogue on that team that Claremont put together circa 2000?) should probably mention that they've fought people like this before.  It's vexing.

Sabretooth gets the best line of the issue: "If there's a God, he looks like me."  Excellent.  Meanwhile, Carey proves that he is not immune to the stupidity of superhero speak when Wolverine calls Serafina a "frail."  Who in the hell talks like that?  Who in the hell thinks someone should talk like that?  It's just stupid.

It's part 4 of 6.  Of course it's going to be a teensy-tiny bit padded.  But Carey is striking a nice balance between exposition and action, despite the fact that after issue #193, we'll never see these characters again.  It's just bizarre.  They list an editor in comic book credits.  What do they do?


Batman and the Mad Monk #2 (of 6) by Matt Wagner.  $3.50, DC.

I know it's awesome.  You know it's awesome.  I know you know it's awesome.  You know I know it's awesome.  My mother, who doesn't know it exists because she doesn't read comic books, knows, deep down in her soul, that something awesome is out there.  So you should buy it.  It will make your life better.

Eternals #4 (of 6) by Neil Gaiman, John Romita Jr., and Danny Miki and Tom Palmer with Tim Townsend.  $3.99, Marvel.

That's not a good cover.  I'm just sayin'.

That's all for this week.  Have at it!  And by the way, it's Brigitte Bardot's seventy-second birthday.  Va-va-va-voom! 

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