Friday, February 19, 2010

Chronic Review: Joe the Barbarian # 2

Joe the Barbarian # 2
DC Comics - Vertigo

Script: Grant Morrison

Pencils: Sean Murphy

Once upon a time Sam Raimi used to direct really quirky, fantastic horror films starring the quirky, fantastic Bruce Campbell. And then Mr. Raimi got offered a dream job: Spider-Man. Big budgets, big stars, glory, fame, and all of that rot. He would have been a fool to turn that down, and of course he did not. We can debate how successful those films were artistically, (I say Spider-Man 2 is one of the best films, not just comic book films, but best films I've ever seen) but economically and professionally, Raimi undeniably found himself in a whole new stratosphere.

And somewhere beneath that glitz and interference and strife and pressure, there still yet lay the heart of a quirky horror director. And after Spider-Man 3, Raimi said "You know what? Fuck it. I'm making a movie for ME, just because I can. No mega stars, no mega budget, just me and a camera doing what I WANT for a change." And so was born the creature known as "Drag me to Hell."

Some of you are now wondering what the hell this has to do with Joe the Barbarian. Well, only everything. Grant Morrison is an artist born who has excelled at telling quirky meta-textual tales starring D-List characters. For whatever reason, Morrison has spent the past couple of years taking on some prime time territory with the Batman book, and then went blockbuster mega-event with Final Crisis.

And we can debate the artistic merits of those books, but there is no denying that Morrison was tackling the biggest properties DC had to offer, on the biggest stage they could provide. That's a lot of pressure, and there was a lot of editorial nonsense and interference to navigate there.

And I don't have any great insight into the mind of Grant Morrison. But I think it's reasonable to suggest that maybe after stretching into that stratosphere, Morrison thought to himself: "Fuck it. I'm going to write some comics for ME, just because I can."

And that's why Joe the Barbarian comes as no surprise to me. It's a quirky, world-bending, "what's reality and what's fantasy and where does one end and the other begin?" kind of tale, using unknown characters outside of regular DC continuity. I see this as a "comfort" book for Morrison, a chance to curl up with everything he loves again with no pressure to push the DC Universe forward or challenge Marvel's market dominance.

Near as I can tell, the situation is thus: Joe is a young boy with diabetes, and he's having some blood sugar problems. His symptoms are presenting unusually though; he keeps zipping in and out of a fantasy world, albeit one that incorporates pieces of the "real" world.

His ordinary mouse Jack becomes a reluctant guide and fierce warrior named Chakk in the hypo-glycemic world. Action figures on the floor become defeated warriors, defeated by some nameless threat that reminds one probably too much of the "Nothing" from Neverending Story as you read it. One of them also reminds one of King Mob, which is to say Grant Morrison. And that sounds familiar, too.

There's some frivolity and action, again all too familiar. In fact, Morrison seems to poke fun at his own use of cliche in a speech by Lord Arc:

It's as if Morrison recognizes that much of this story is simply going through some well-tread motions, and he finds it too amusing to stop himself, but would rather point the finger at himself and laugh.

There are some enjoyable moments to be had, including this bit with the gun given to Joe by the King Mob/Morrison analog:

If I'm right about the connection, this is tantamount to Morrison making fun of the tools he's given his own poor creation to work with. And that sounds like a Morrison joke to me. Kinda fun, but ultimately who is this book for- the reader or the author?

I suppose that if you've never experienced anything self-referential, never read a Morrison comic, or god forbid never watched the Neverending Story (shame on you if that's the case) this will all read as fresh and fun, albeit slightly confusing. But since I have experienced all those things, this reads as Grant Morrison's post-Crisis therapy writing, and I'm not sure I want to spend good money on that. I'll wait for the next train and see what pops out of his brain when his mental palate is clear again!

- Ryan

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chronic Review: Batman # 696

Batman # 696
DC Comics

Script: Tony Daniel

Pencils: Tony Daniel

22 pages for $ 2.99

DC Week continues with a run at the Dick Grayson version of Batman. Fans of this blog will remember that I was particularly enamored with Batman during Morrison's RIP arc. I haven't checked in on Bats since Neil Gaiman's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader", which was sort of a Bruce Wayne send-off. I was interested to see what would happen to the character with a penciller at the writing helm and a sidekick beneath the cowl. Is this amateur night in Gotham, or are these two ready for prime time?

Well.....neither Grayson nor Daniel are embarrassing themselves. Feint praise, I guess, but I'm feeling a bit lukewarm over this fifth installment of "Life After Death." Once again, I'm jumping in not even at the middle of an arc, but the end. Surely this does nothing to help my enjoyment of the story. I was able to basically keep up with the plot developments, (at least I think I was) but it took multiple readings.

Daniel's story structure was not helpful. "Mind Games" begins at the end, then jumps back nine hours and scoots forward in clumps from there. Flashbacks and chronological skips have their place, (see Christopher Nolan's "Memento" for an unorthodox time progression that helps storytelling) but I don't know what purpose it really served here. I think that young writers and pencillers-turned-writers feel a need to pop wheelies and pull rabbits out of their hats to prove something to their readers. This might be what's happening here.

The big villain for the arc is a legitimately creepy cat that goes by Black Mask, and his schtick (sorry, Miracle Keith) is mind control via gas masks. Hey, it's comic books, folks. Roll with it.

Somehow the Black Mask got one of these mind control devices on Batman, but the Mad Hatter (in conjunction with The Penguin) has usurped control of him via his ridiculous hat. It seems like Hatter's instructions then have Grayson obsessed with assassinating the Black Mask. Is there a grudge match between the Hatter and Black Mask? I don't know.

Like I said, the whole thing is very confusing what with the jumping about, and I'm coming in five bars from the end of the song trying to piece the damn thing together.

There are things to like about this issue of Batman. The opening scene has the impossibly bratty Damian Robin yell "Epic Fail!" at his mentor. And just to fully demonstrate the professionalism involved, Daniel has Damian call Batman "Grayson" in the field, which is wildly inappropriate. Meanwhile, a battered, perhaps fatally ill Dick Grayson still has the presence to refer to his partner as "Robin". It was a nice touch.

There is a character working with Catwoman named Kitrina, and she actually had some energy behind her. Daniel seems to have more fun writing and drawing these charming, goofy expressions on her facing during that bit scene than he did writing and drawing Batman. But she wasn't a large enough part of the issue to really steal the show.

Batman the detective is still very much in play here as well. Dick is able to stay ahead enough in the game to inject himself with enough antidote to Black Mask's toxins, that he's able to stay vaguely coherent and exercise a little free will instead of fully succumbing to the Mask's influence. He's able to piece together the Black Mask's identity via an Aristotle reference and investigating the bullets recovered from his chest plate as well.

And I guess that's enough to establish that Grayson is able to maintain the status quo, but it seems to me that establishing something new, unique, and more interesting would be a better goal to shoot for. I see no evidence of new, unique, or anything of particular interest here. It's not bad by any definition I know. It's clear to me that Tony Daniel is a very capable writer, this is not just a penciller pretending to the throne. But the work in this issue isn't compelling enough to make me want to continue with Batman, either.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chronic Review: Justice League of America # 42

Justice League of America # 42
DC Comics

Script: James Robinson
Pencils: Mark Bagley
30 pages for $3.99

Last week was devoted to experimenting with books that smelled faintly of excrement to see what was actually inside. I ended up choosing three Marvel books for that exercise, and in full disclosure there was nothing conscious or intentional about that.

I tend to read a good deal more Marvel than DC, although I don't consider myself a "Marvel" guy. Like many of you, I tend to follow particular writers rather than slavishly stick to a corporate brand. So this week I'll be profiling comics published by DC, because I don't really have my thumb on the DC pulse. This fact came into play quite often as I twirled through the latest adventure of "The World's Greatest Superheroes!"

To begin with, I really like James Robinson, or I guess to be more accurate, I REALLY liked his run on Starman. What he did with Starman was take everything silly, overly macho, simple, and boring about superheroes and throw them in the trash. Starman was more about Jack Knight than his alter ego, and maybe more about Opal City than just Jack. That comic was deep and poignant, and like any great story made you feel as though you were privy to the most intimate details of a living, breathing world.

So I was particularly interested in seeing how Mr. Robinson might tackle something like the Justice League, which doesn't seem like a good fit for his best attributes as I understand them. This is a tent pole action book with a catalog of over-the-top characters. Maybe that's why he took the book, as a change of pace, a place to flex his artistic muscle and maybe add a bit of his sophistication to a lowest common denominator affair. I don't really know why was offered the book or accepted it, but I was intrigued enough by the prospect to choose this as my first book for "DC week."

The story opens with the Shade (I guess he didn't leave Opal City behind after all) offering Green Arrow a trip into the same sort of "Moment of Trepidation" cave that Yoda pushed Luke into during Empire Strikes Back. Which isn't exactly a new idea, but one that can still pay off if you're clever about it. My issue was that I had no clue about how the Shade got involved at all, or what Green Arrow's motivations are for wanting to do such a thing.

To be fair, I'm jumping in smack in the middle of an arc, not at the beginning. But this is part of why we have difficulty bringing in new readers; it was difficult for me to feel invested in this decision of Ollie's to brave the "dragon" cave.

We then cut to the Justice League pounding the crap out of Atlas. And this is the sort of thing that bores me to tears, but what Robinson does to add depth is give access to the team members internal monologues as they fight. Batman is thinking about how strange it is to be giving orders to Green Lantern. Green Lantern is thinking about how strange it is to take orders from a Batman, particularly one he can sort of tolerate. Starfire is thinking about Dick. (insert joke here)

The point is that here is where the Robinson influence will show through; he just can't help but get at the core of the people he's writing about, and god bless him for that. It was an interesting flair that made a mindless battle into something that reveals character.

The question then becomes; what caused Atlas to go ape shit? The answer is connected to a strange device that can manipulate strong emotions with a simple touch. One of these devices is stored at S.T.A.R. labs, our next cut scene, where more super-powered over emotional people pound the crap out of each other. Again, I'm a bit lost here, because I don't know who these characters are, or their connection (if any) to the Justice League. I'm lost.

We then segue into the Watchtower, where The Atom declares that this device that makes people go bat-shit psycho is based on "New Genesis" technology. This obviously means something to the League...but it meant nothing to me. I was more interested in the side conversation (more Robinsonian bread and butter) between Hal Jordan and the Canary about Green Arrow. But again, the problem is that an obviously distressed Canary tells Hal about what happened with Roy and Star City.....and I don't know any of that. So it just lands flat.

Meanwhile, outside of the main meeting room we see Cyborg working on his computer while the head of Red Tornado tries to converse with him from behind. This was my favorite moment in the story, because we find out that Tornado's poor head had been sitting around fully conscious with his speech capacity turned off. So he's been sitting there absorbing everything, but everyone has been treating him like a paper weight because he couldn't talk and they weren't recognizing his sentience.

So Cyborg took the time to get him talking again, and is working on building him a new, supposedly indestructible body. And this is the humanizing stuff that Robinson does so well. Cyborg's research turns up another "crazy machine" in the Justice League archives, and alerts the team that the device was stored on Blackhawk Island.

So the next step is for the team to zip over there, where they find another group of super-powered people I don't recognize knocking the stuffing out of each other. And while that's going on at Blackhawk island, some of those big bads that were fighting at S.T.A.R. labs teleport onto the now empty Watchtower to do God knows what. Except the Watchtower isn't completely empty, because Ollie ends up stepping out of his Empire Strikes Back trepidation and directly into this new danger. Cue hijinx for next issue!

It's hard for me to grade this, because there's so much that is lost on me. I can definitely detect all the best humanizing elements of Robinson's writing in this "blockbuster" type story, and I think it works. My guess is that long time DC/Justice League readers are being polarized by this; some will embrace the Starmanization of their action book, and some will wonder who wussified it. But at least they'll understand it.

It's very possible that if I got the full ramifications of what was going on with Green Arrow, or if I could absorb the impact of what "New Genesis" tech implies, I might think this was the height of drama. But alas, I cannot.

Were I new reader, I don't think I would be intrigued enough by this to want to suffer through it further or backtrack. I think I'd find something else that I could pick up from the beginning. And I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with DC or Robinson taking the approach that they did. At this point, the hard core folks are your last vestige, and this is what I'm assuming they want. I think it's well written, but it was not written to invite me in. I'm not crying about it, I'm just sayin'.

Oh, by the way.....Mark Bagley rules. One of the best pure comic book style comic book artists that ever lived. And he does it on time, like a goddamned professional. I wish there were more Mark Bagleys in this world.

- Ryan

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Miracle Keith Gives "Absolute Justice" Both Barrels!

And now, as promised: the magic of Miracle Keith and his review of Smallville's Absolute Justice, edited only to break things up into more paragraphs:

MiracleKeith here, kids. Alright…I noticed that my last bit was farted out at the tail-end of the show…kind of like the island of misfit bits…I get it…it wasn’t really that good and I apologize.

I also caught on to Ry the Last Man’s comment about my “shtick” (and just as a side note, gentiles shouldn’t use Yiddish words in casual’s like saying “some of my best friends are kikes”…you can ask all three of the Jews in Minnesota, they’ll all give the same answer. Silly Gentiles, shticks are for yids!

OK, so since Ryan is so tired of my “shticklach”, this week I’ll change it up a bit by switching to review mode. I need to rant about this abomination called “Smallville: Absolute Justice”, which contained 1) no scenes taking place in Smallville, 2) no justice.

Before I begin in earnest, I should say that yes, it’s great that the WB network is even attempting to pull off this superhero fan’s orgy of delights; it’s been over 25 years since that horrible Justice League TV movie that I watched with a much younger person’s eye for quality, and even then I knew that I was watching a silly, cut-rate show that had no story, no plot and community theater grade acting. It’s nearly impossible to make all those goofy-ass DC Golden Age heroes look good in live action format, so all due kudos to the WB for even trying to pull it off with a relatively big budget and some serious promotion.

And yet, all this sound and fury signified NOTHING. Let’s begin with the appearance of the first hero, who needlessly scares the hell out of totally sexless, network-friendly peroxide blonde Chloe in the first segment. This guy was supposed to be the Star-Spangled Kid? First of all, the actor looked like some ex-surfer/beach bum that they pulled off of Sunset Boulevard at the last minute before filming. He had no desperation, no urgency, nothing.

Then Chloe is stuffed in a dumpster before a gigantic fight breaks out (which apparently they didn’t have the budget to show?), but if Icicle is so intent on destroying the newly-formed league of heroes, and he somehow knows that the Star-Spangled Kid is going to be exactly in that location at that time, then how does he NOT know that Chloe is sitting in the dumpster right next to where they fought?

The next segment boggles the mind, as it contains so much poorly hidden sexual innuendo that it makes the whole affair seem even cheaper and sleazier than it actually was. So, this other little peroxide blonde, whose eyes are a little bigger than her face giving her an alarming owl-like presence, shows up at the hospital crying about how her daddy is dead.

If this wasn’t Freudian enough, this little orphan girl becomes obsessed with possessing her daddy’s giant, long, stiff, gleaming rod which shoots out this white stuff from one end. She then ends up dressing in ultra short-shorts a skin-tight halter top, and a domino mask, calling herself Star-Girl. She gets caught stealing the big rod by the equally wooden, younger surfer boy from the “I Have Cheekbones Therefore I Act” school of acting, the Green Arrow.

The Green Arrow questions Star Girl’s love of the long, stiff rod, and eventually, Star-Girl, Green Arrow and Super-dud Tom Welling (who had an executive producer credit, ‘nuff said), who is dressed up like a Goth Superman from the dépêche mode school of superheroes. We also see for the first time Hawkman, who seems to be way more concerned with his rugged beard and his sneering-is-acting performance, and the man who will become Dr. Fate.

This performance is the most curious, since it seems to veer between incoherent babbling meant to be conveyed as madness, which is the WORST possible way to convey madness – hasn’t anybody watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? – and an inexplicable lucidity that takes him out of babbling mode and into a sort of solemn moping mode that totally goes against the babbling insane guy thing.

Dr. Fate’s costume looks awful in live action, and the power to see the future is not really a crime-fighting superpower, by the way. Notice that the Oracle at Delphi is only a plot device, not the protagonist!! It is eventually revealed that there was a Justice Society of America operating secretly in the ‘70s, all of whom were arrested for an unrevealed reason. My problem is this: if these are truly “super” heroes, how did they get arrested?!?!? Couldn’t Green Lantern just bend the fucking bars with some giant green plier thingys?

No matter…introductions are made, a prickly relationship forms between Green Arrow and Hawkman, which consists of witty, cerebral zingers like – Hawkman: “Nice aim” Green Arrow: “Nice headgear”..this is one of the smarter exchanges. With dialogue like this, how can we lose? Superhero movies are the best!

The next phenomenal dialogue takes place in another long, talky and unnecessary scene between Chloe and Star Girl, the Battle of the Bottle Blondes, if you will. In this scene, we learn that Star Girl rilly, rilly wants Chloe to make the JLA quarters more like the old JSA HQ…”I mean, don’t you want a place to talk, to eat dinner? Some place more like…home” Awwww, talk about female empowerment. She kicks ass and does interior decorating tips too!

The so-called “plot” thickens when we learn that Icicle is not only trying to avenge his now-paralyzed father, but he’s also trying to impress a very large, very plastic-surgeried Pam Grier. Pam Grier?!? Believe me, I’m a fan of any triple-D cup woman I see on TV (there’s not nearly enough of ‘em), but Pam Grier seemed to be either phoning it in or trying really hard to force some kind of “tough attitude” by smiling with only one half of her mouth during the entire scene.

Of course, Ms. Grier looked like DeNiro when compared to the idiot they had playing Icicle. I’m sorry, but whining, squinting and gelling your peroxided hair into a mini-mohawk do NOT equal scary nor evil. A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and this one was doomed from the moment they cast this hack. There are a lot of lame close-ups synched with “doom music”, lots of weird references to Checkmate and a hilariously bad black actor playing J’onn J’onnz, who seems like he just completed some modeling class and skipped the acting module.

The one surprising moment comes late in the game, with Dr. Fate meeting a grisly end and Icicle donning the mask of Fate. It doesn’t amount to much, as he mistakenly enters the lair of the JSA/JLA by himself (of course…why not fight a crowd of superheroes with untested HAS to work!), and is defeated when Hawkman knocks off his helmet (?). Get it? Neither do I.

Pam Grier reveals that Icicle has been working for the Suicide Squad and murders Icicle, and it ends with Green Arrow and Hawkman as friends and Martian Manhunter liking cookies. Great job, WB…you could have produced a JLA/JSA movie independent of that whole Smallville show and saved yourself a lot of bad acting, peroxide bills and embarrassment, but what the hell does a Jew from the Detroit suburbs know about anything anyways?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chronic Soapbox: A Defense of Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four # 574

If you've been listening to the show at all lately, you know how much in love I am with Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four. I am engaged to this book, the wedding hits in June. (I should really talk to the printer about those invitations, now that I think on it!)

Fantastic Four currently features a letters page, which is a rare treat on its own in 2010. Not many comics are interested in taking up any of their page count to provide a forum for fan response. My guess is that editorial shies away from this for two reasons. A) That letters page takes away space from another potential splash page. B) The internet is now considered the fan response playground of choice, and the old school letters page is now obsolete.

If that's the case, I think editorial is making a mistake on both counts. I'm more interested in what other people are thinking about the book I'm reading than I am in another splash page. And while the forum boards can be useful/entertaining, I think there's still a place in this world for an editor to carefully choose something from a fan that is cogent; that captures something important or maybe just common to multiple responses. The online boards are populated with yammerings that make one wonder why comic fans are allowed to live. An editor can trim that out and get at something relevant.

Case in point: the letters column of FF # 575 featured two letters deeply upset about the use of the word "retard" in FF # 574. That issue was a done-in-one story depicting Franklin's birthday party, and how that kind of thing works for a family of world famous Imaginauts. Here is the panel that caused the issue for these readers:

As a card carrying and practicing Vulgarian and part-time Libertarian, you can guess how I feel about the issue. I'm going to side with the freedom to talk freely about any and all subjects, even those including words that are uncomfortable.

But the issue is much deeper than my freedom to say naughty things, and it's useful to walk through these things logically rather than just shove them under the rug and pretend they don't exist. This is one of the primary reasons why I do advocate word freedom; these problems don't get fixed unless we discuss them as a culture, and the idea that we should not use certain words at all prevents us from moving forward with the concepts they represent. And how is that helpful? The point being; this is not just about poop jokes. I want to talk about this and take the "other side" seriously so that we understand the implications here, and it's not just about my need to engage in juvenile humor.

Representation Does Not Equal Endorsement

One of the big problems we have in America, is that we have far too many simpletons who object to certain things; curse words, violence, alternative sexualities, etc. There are words and concepts and body parts that make segments of the population uncomfortable, and the operating theory in this country right now is that if these things are depicted in a book, comic, or movie, that medium is endorsing those uncomfortable things.

And this is the height of ignorance. Let me give you some examples from films. Nic Cage plays an alchoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas", and Jimmy Stewart plays an alcoholic in "Harvey". But those two films have very different messages about that illness. You cannot watch "Leaving Las Vegas" and think that alchoholism is an attractive thing, it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth psychologically for days. If you watch Jimmy Stewart in "Harvey", you are left with the impression that a drinking problem is the most charming thing in the world. Both films depict alchoholism, but only one film tacitly endorses it, or makes it seem "OK".

Let's lighten things up a bit and talk about rape. If you watch "The Accused" with Jodie Foster, rape is treated realistically, brutally, and with psychological consequences that demonstrate how devastating that crime can be. If you watch "The Outlaw Josie Wales", rape is the gateway to true love. Let's be real, here. Sondra Locke's character is forcibly raped, and her response is to realize what a good solid dude that Josie Wales really is and boy I sure do like him now that he punched through my silly female frigidity.

One set of writers depicts rape in a way that demonstrates its destructive powers. The other set of writers depicts rape in a way that should place them in a special pocket of Hell when they die. But the point is - depiction does not equal endorsement, folks. It's stupid and harmful culturally to try and shut those things down and refuse to talk about them.

Matter of fact, I'm not even suggesting that "Harvey" or "Josie Wales" should be censored. In order for a society to function correctly, the solution is to know when we should be proud of our expressions, and when our expressions need to be spoken back to. Because I don't know if you've noticed this....but there are bad ideas everywhere, folks. If you don't know how to defend yourself, you are open to attack. You cannot sterilize the world of bad influences, you can only (if you're smart) learn how to talk back to them. And that means that "Harvey" and "Josie Wales" and for that matter Chronic Insomnia need to exist.

To bring it back to Fantastic Four now, though. We need to ask ourselves: does the depiction of the word "retard" endorse something harmful? The answer to that is a bit tricky.

FF # 574: Is The Word "Retard" Used Appropriately?

The element that tangles things in this case is the speaker. Because we're not talking about Doctor Doom here, using that word as an established "bad guy", using it to hurt people. Were that the case, endorsement would be off the table instantly, because Dr. Doom is not a role model for behavior, quite the opposite in fact.

But this is a protagonist, Valeria, and she's aiming the term at her brother. A couple of important (to me) things to note about the particular usage here.

1) Look at the panel and analyze the expression on Val's face. That is a playful, loving expression. Just absorb the fact that this is no more a "weapon" than if she had hit Franklin with a foam bat. It's play, not war.

2) She's using the word "retard" as a backhanded term of endearment. Now, clearly it's used in a derogatory way, so we're certainly not off the hook yet. But the point again, is that sometimes kids (hell, sometimes adults) are uncomfortable with their fuzzier feelings, and they hide that behind something more coarse, to make it palatable. She's using that word to express affection, not intolerance.

Does that negate the potential hurt a retarded person might feel upon reading such a panel? No, not necessarily. But there is a clear distinction in my mind between specifically using a derogatory term to do damage to a particular group, and a little girl expressing affection for her brother in a way that not everybody would approve of. It's just different.

So while I don't think Valeria should be proud of her use of the word "retard", I don't think it makes sense to level a charge of willful malignance toward Valeria, Hickman, or Marvel. This is how kids talk. We may not be in love with it, but in order to affect people, you have to meet them where they live, not in "fuzzy bunny fantasyland" where nobody says anything troublesome. That's just not how life works.

Even so, if this were all that was in play here, I think Hickman might be culpable for setting a bad example. Valeria is a child yes, but she's also whip smart and somebody we're supposed to look up to. And the good news is, as Hickman points out in his response to these letters, is that she does live up to those standards if you read more carefully than just skimming over the "mean" words.

Because in the course of that issue, both Valeria and Franklin show compassion for people with disabilities. They invent a device that allows Artie to communicate, because he's lost his ability to speak. And rather than exhibit intolerance, both Val and Franklin invite Artie and Leech into their family with warm and open hearts.

So. If the question is: what sort of behavior is Jonathan Hickman endorsing in Fantastic Four # 574? My answer is: naughty language combined with giving hearts and open minds. No, Valeria did not behave perfectly, but I think a reasonable person can see that the villagers can leave the flaming torches and pitchforks at home.

So is the word "retard" used appropriately? Perhaps not perfectly. But the message endorsed is perfectly healthy. In my opinion.

What Censoring The Word "Retarded" Really Accomplishes

The first thing I'd like to point out in this section is that there is nothing intrinsically hurtful about the word "retarded". It describes a condition where cognition is slower or less complex than peak human potential, and really, what's the big deal?

Assigning human value is dodgy business, and I don't have a super good way to measure that. For myself, I measure my own value by the impact I have on the people around me. When I die, I would like people to remember me and say to themselves "Life was a little better because Ryan was around." And I've made lives better (at least I'd like to think that I have) using my intellect, exposing people to ideas or thoughts that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

But I say this as a man who defines himself largely via his cognition: it aint everything. In terms of value, I think I'd be better served overall if I exercised more kindness than calculation. I don't think it's a stretch at all to think that under my definition of human value, most retarded people have more value than I. They touch a lot of lives, bring a lot of joy to a wide variety of people.

What happens when you try and take that word away, make it so powerful that the very word "retarded" is off limits, an insult that should never be uttered? That a comic book should be scolded for using it? You've told the person with that condition that their existence is so unacceptable that it shouldn't be spoken of. Now THAT is hurtful.

This well intentioned need to hide uncomfortable truths and minimize people expresses itself in the most absurd ways. Letter writer Rudy Buehler actually says in his letter to Hickman about FF # 574 that "...these people are frequently more kind, caring and intelligent than anyone else around."

Now, Buehler there was lumping a broader category of "disabled" people, and didn't specify exactly who he was talking about. But the topic at hand was Hickman's use of the term "retarded", and Buehler certainly seems to be saying that we've got it all wrong, and that retarded people are actually quite smart if we could only get our heads out of the sand.

And this is the madness that kills, because I don't know how to tell you this, but advanced intelligence kind of disqualifies you from the retarded category. It's sort of a defining characteristic, OK?

And what the Randy Buehler's of the world don't realize is that when you deny someone's reality, (retarded people are actually quite brilliant) you're telling them that their state is too unbearable to accept. Do you understand what I'm saying? It's one thing to say "You won't be joining MENSA, and that's OK." Disappointing, but ultimately validating.

To say "I won't acknowledge your retardation or allow anyone to even use that word" is to imply that their condition is so off-putting, so disgusting, that it's existence can't even be recognized. We will "fudge" your reality because the truth is too painful. I'm trying to think of something more emotionally crippling than that, and I just can't. There is nothing on this earth more cruel than that sort of kindness.

Final Thoughts

So listen. I want to be clear on something as I wrap this up. I do not condone intentionally hurting people, with words or otherwise. It's not a good policy or anything to be proud of. But that's not what happened here.

A healthy culture absolutely requires the freedom to say things that will undoubtedly be uncomfortable from time to time. This is nothing to be afraid of, folks. This is how life gets addressed and gets better. Denying reality stunts growth, sad to say.

I think Valeria Richards is an outstanding role model. Maybe she's not perfect, but she feels like real life. She speaks her heart, and her actions show warmth and caring for all people. No apologies necessary for that, Mr. Hickman! And he didn't make any apologies in his reply, which you should definitely read for yourself. And if you're not reading Fantastic Four right now, you need to get on that!


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chronic Review: Hit Monkey

Hit Monkey
Marvel Comics

Script: Daniel Way
Pencils: Dalibor Talijic
22 pages for $3.99

So, let's continue on our quest to find the most fetid, turdly books on planet earth so that we can read them, absorb them, and poop back on them in some form of poetic justice. Hit Monkey, let's do this.

OK, first of all, they have replaced the "i" in "hit" with a goddamn banana. Are you shitting me, now? This is a clear invitation to the dance, my friend. There is a monkey in a business suit who is being introduced to us as the "World's Greatest Assassin." We are also expected to pay four dollars for the pleasure. Surely this is going to suck the most sour of alligator balls and send the former Manatee into a rant that will shake the pillars of heaven and hell.

Well...I'm here to tell you...if you pick up and read the Hit Monkey one-shot, it will likely be the best comic book you read all month. No, I'm not kidding.

This is the story of how one average citizen monkey becomes a killer of killers and an avenger of the slain. It represents his origin story. Now, if the idea to create the story of how a monkey might become a killer of killers should pop into your head, or god forbid the most powerful comic book company on earth should pitch the idea that you should write such a story, the most sensible response is to say;

"No, no I don't think I'll do any such thing."

That's the best way to approach the problem. If for some reason you're just committed to writing a narrative that takes a regular simian and transforms him into a tool of righteous vengeance, than there are really only two ways to play it; one is very easy, and one nigh onto impossible.

The easy way is to recognize how stupid the idea is, roll with it, and play it for slapstick laughs. As long as you're going for broke, you make the monkey talk and say some clever things that are socially relevant and you've got yourself a funny animal book. Which is probably going to be desperately LAME, but it's doable.

The very difficult way to tackle the problem is to play it straight, somehow nod to the fact that the concept is absurd, but make it so strong thematically that it rings true in the reader's heart to the point that the nuts and bolts logic just doesn't matter. Miss your mark by a vole's whisker and you're sunk on this one, only a fool or a savant would even try it.

And Danny Way nailed it. The only "joke" you'll find in Hit Monkey is that banana on the cover. Way plays it straight the whole way, and yes, you understand as you're reading it that the story's practical logic doesn't work, but it just doesn't matter because the allegorical logic speaks plainly and with power.

I'm not fucking around; this is a well-crafted, efficient tale that never preaches but has some poignant things to say about violence and about becoming the thing you hate. I give major props to Way for having the metallic genitalia to attack this story head-on instead of making it silly. And I give an epic tip of the cap to Dalibor Talijic, who paints such expressions on these monkey's faces, that the text is almost redundant. I'm not really qualified to critique art, and even I know that Talijic really deserves some kind of award for the stories written on these character's faces:

The plot works like this: an unnamed assassin finds himself wounded and pursued by a bevy of bounty hunters after a coup he participated in goes sideways. The assassin collapses in the mountains and should by all right perish right there in the snow, but a clan of monkeys takes pity on him, brings him to a hot spring, and nurses him back to health.

One monkey in the clan objects, mistrusts the assassin, watches him at all times. Watches as the assassin trains against inanimate snowmen in secret fighting styles, so that he can be sharp when the inevitable killers finally arrive to claim his bounty. The monkey watches, and learns these secret ways:

The monkey pleads with his clan mates to cut the man loose, to let him die before trouble finds them and dooms them all. But he gets the gulag treatment when he unleashes a little monkey whoop-ass to prove his point. Cut loose from the group he loves, the monkey spies the killers coming for the unnamed assassin and rushes back broken and starving to save his clan.

But he is too late. Before the assassin his killed, he makes eye contact with our simian protagonist and declares:

And as the assassin is murdered, he passes on the rest of his skill set to what can only be described now as: Hit Monkey. His clan tries to protect the assassin, and are cut down by gunfire. Hit Monkey is unable to prevent his group's destruction...but he for damn sure can avenge it in the most absurd manner possible:

You have to read this to believe it. The story actually begs for multiple readings, which can be completed in about five minutes. It's a surprising little gem offered a truly disgusting price point. At $4 for five minutes, you should be getting a happy ending, if you know what I mean.

- Ryan

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chronic Review: Ultimate X # 1

Ultimate X # 1
Marvel Comics

Script: Jeph Loeb

Pencils: Art Adams

22 pages for $3.99

Continuing my recent trend toward picking up books that smell of rancid feces so that I can savage them from an informed position, I dove right into Ultimate X, which has all the trappings, folks.

Jeph Loeb, check. $3.99 price point, check. Moody lookin' Wolverine kid, check. Let me just lick my chops here while I get ready to give this book a good steel toe in the junk.

Except I can't, because it's actually quite good.

Here's the thing. I don't think that the Ultimate line has been handled poorly. They've done an excellent job of updating iconic Marvel concepts with fresh takes and storylines that have veered from the source in satisfying ways.

But it never made sense to me to stick with twists on old flavors, when the entire concept was tailor made for introducing new characters. You may have noticed that it's very rare to see a new concept take off. The closest I think we have to "fresh blood" in comics is Deadpool, and he's twenty years old now, folks. Seriously, who's new and popular...Pixie from the X-Men? I can't think of one concept born in the last five years that could support its own ongoing. We like the nostalgia, us comic geeks.

At any rate, my point is that here you had this "blank slate" as it were, a place where something totally untested might actually fly. I mean the whole point was that the Ultimate line was a gateway drug for new readers, right? They aren't jonesing for the return of some Silver Age has been, they just want something that pops. But what they got was old characters with a new paint job. Huh. Untapped potential, I would say.

So now that I'm fully off topic, let me bring it back and say that Ultimate X does a very smart thing by giving us young Jimmy Hudson, son of Wolverine, raised by James and Heather Hudson. He's new. He's got ties to the old, including his father's claws. But this is not "Ultimate Daken", this is a different kid who can actually ooze the adamantium onto his own bone claws:

There's a good solid energy behind this story. Mutants are just NOT popular, and Jimmy appears to be just that. He's in legitimate Anne Frank type danger, and that's compelling.

Art Adams pencils the ever loving shit out of this comic, and that's compelling. There's actually a lot to like about Ultimate X. As a matter of fact, if I knew a kid that didn't currently read comics, and I wanted to get him hooked - this is the book I'd hand him. Or her. If a person is susceptible to mainstream comic storytelling, they will be drawn to this story and want to know what happens next. It just has that "modern classic" feel to it.

And listen, here's the thing about Jeph Loeb. The problem with Jeph Loeb is not that he's a bad, writer, it's that he's a very, very good writer who thinks it's clever to always keep "aces" up his sleeves instead of putting them out on the table.

I don't hate Jeph Loeb with the passion of a thousand fiery suns because he bores me. I hate him because he continuously gets you invested with well developed promises that never materialize into a visceral payoff. (see: who the FUCK is the red Hulk after 96 issues for more details)

So I'm not surprised that Loeb here produces something that really seems like it might be special. And this does, quite frankly. But I'm more than a little worried about it actually paying off down the road.

He's already started with unanswered questions, by the way. Wolverine left a holographic message for Jimmy that Kitty Pryde delivers in this debut. Anticipating that Jimmy (and anybody reading the comic) would want to know about the identity of the mother, Wolvie quickly squashes the fun by saying "Don't bother asking about your mother. That's in the past and you need to start thinking about your future."

This is a gross cop out. It's an unsatisfying thing to say, and not a terribly realistic thing for a father to say to his son in a final message, if you want my opinion. Maybe when the truth comes out, IF it ever comes out, we'll understand why. But really, it smacks of Loeb simply not wanting to deal an ace when it could simply keep his sleeve company. It's not a natural storytelling technique, it's Loeb being Loeb.

Here's a nice little touch: messianic figures in the bible typically have to face an incredible ordeal and go into the "belly of the whale" for three days before coming out touched by God. As Jimmy's origins are becoming clear, his journey into the "jaws" of the beast are represented above him in the form of shark's teeth. Well done!

So, to recap: Ultimate X # 1 should be the greatest steaming pile of excrement ever squatted from the bowels of Quesada & Co. Instead, it represents a well crafted "modern classic" that fully expresses the potential of the Ultimate line's capabilities. Looking at Art Adams art is a special treat as well. Still unsure about payouts down the line, because Loeb is stingy that way.

And to be clear, there is nothing going on here that should cost the consumer $3.99, that's just pure price gouging, and Marvel ought to be ashamed of themselves. If they actually had a visionary at the helm instead of an accountant touched by Satan, they would sell this book for $1.99 and get it into as many new readers hands as possible, because this is the kind of material that could actually create new fans.

- Ryan

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chronic Review: Siege # 2

Siege # 2
Marvel Comics

Script: Brian Michael Bendis

Pencils: Olivier Coipel

40 pages for $3.99

OK. Not only is thing $3.99, but it's an event book, which makes it completely anathema to me. So why am I buying this piece of crap?

Well, for credibility. I love to bitch about these things, no place quite as comfy as my soapbox of toxic filth, and I feel that it's important to sometimes get dirty so that I know whereof I speak. I talk a lot of shit about event books, but I haven't really sullied my hands with a Marvel event since Civil War.

Didn't read Secret Invasion. Bumped into Dark Reign just a bit during my normal reading of Amazing Spider-Man, and I read the Punisher: List book because Timmy Callahan put me onto Rick Remender's work there and I thought I'd test drive it. And that's about it.

So now after reading the first two issues of Marvel's new "blockbuster" Siege, you'll know that I speak from experience when I tell you what a pungent slop of rubbish this story is.

Let me show you exactly why these books just don't, just CAN'T work right now. And listen, it's not all bad. I dig the respect that Ares showed toward Heimdall. I dig the text-heavy backmatter at the end that tries to sell the gravity of attempting what amounts to a coup.

And of course something potentially very strong happens in this book, and I'm about to spoil it, so buckle up. The issue's been out long enough where everybody knows the "big doing" of this issue, so I don't feel too bad.

To put it plainly, the Sentry rips Ares inside out. He does. And they show it, in the sort of detail that you would expect Jacen Burrows might even cringe at. And it affected me not one jot.

Here's the thing. There is debate about the reality of "event fatigue" and I suppose that everybody has their own threshold. Maybe somebody out there can still feel something. I can't. I don't see how anybody could at this point, because it's been done so many times in the last, oh I don't know, 3 minutes that it's all rote now.

Bob splashed the ground with Ares' guts. OK. But that's not what I register as I page through Siege. I feel like I have Rowdy Roddy Piper sunglasses on from "They Live". And instead of seeing exploding god meat, what I actually see is "Insert super impactful character death demonstrating harsh reality of conflict threat here."

Because we've seen this before, and this is where that goes in Act 2 of this little machine they like to run. This is where Bill Foster bought it in Civil War. This is where Martian Manhunter bought it in Final Crisis. Insert "impactful" character "death." Yawn. It's paint by numbers, it's coupon redemption storytelling, and it happens so often now you can't help but see the bullshit behind the curtain.

That should have been the coolest thing ever, a shocking moment and a departure into the macabre for a mainstream entity. Yawn.

See here's the thing that eastern philosophy gets that we just can't get through our thick western skulls: the yang only has power because of the yin. Your coffee cup is useful because of its empty space. Excitement only seems that way because of the quiet moments in between. Take away the quiet, and all that shouting just drowns itself out as white noise. And that's where we're at, folks.

Marvel can turn the volume all the way up to 11 and I can't hear it, because it's all we've been hearing for years now. Shocking secret. Never the same again. Change this team forever. You won't believe what happens next. Yawn.

And you can't tell me that this is inspired, that this is the story Brian Bendis has been waiting his whole life to write. He doesn't care any more than you do. Let me prove it to you with a little blurb that really full-on pissed me off:

"I'll do what I do." Are you kidding me? Does that line land for ANYBODY? Would you think that was cool if you were eleven years old, even? I certainly hope not. As though that line says anything, means anything. It's just lazy writing.

And before anybody thinks I'm going too crazy on Bendis, let me say that his work on Daredevil is some of the best superhero comics ever written, and he does know inspired storytelling, and he does know fresh dialogue. But ahhhhh....this aint it.

My Rowdy Roddy glasses see that line and it reads "Insert super cool character elevating moment here." It's all so transparent and so tiresome. He didn't want to write that line, but it was that time in the cycle, and if you don't really give a shit, dreck like that will slip out.

And by the way, everything in Siege will all be undone and ignored three months from now, when the next unbelievable-never-be-the-same-again bullshit washes over us, and we all know that now as well, as sure as the sun will rise, as sure as gravity. We've seen it too much and too recently to forget any more. Marvel, give us time to forget!

Hey. I love comics, and I'm not going anywhere. But this is not where the medium lives and breathes. This is assembly line, neutered, RUBBISH. I saw it, so now I'm sayin' it. Now go find yourself a copy of Secret Six or Fantastic Four and discover how a living comic book operates. Do it now!

- Ryan

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chronic Review: Colt Noble & The Megalords

Colt Noble & The Megalords
Image Comics

Scripts: Tim Seeley

Pencils: Mike Dimayuga

64 pages for $5.99

To cut to the quick, Colt Noble is a He-Man parody. This should come as no surprise to Hack/Slash fans, who are used to Seeley lovingly splashing that book with 80s references. Hack/Slash is also no stranger to parody.

And if you're a fan of Hack/Slash, there's no reason why you wouldn't enjoy Colt Noble. It's the same happy mix of dark humor, sex appeal, and gratuitous action. When you get done reading a Tim Seeley offering, you're guaranteed to be grinning at the end.

This is comics done fun, what Alan Moore would probably refer to as "hamburger reading." But you know what? A good hamburger is well....good.

The plot? I wouldnt' bother, but the gist of the story is that young Prince Jaysen is supposed to be learning how to be a man so he can learn how to be a king. He's more interested in getting into his personal trainer Mareea's pants. Or blouse. He'd like to get anywhere with her, but he's actually just a little dink.

The conflict? Again, not particularly important, but a young lady named Hoodoo Hex gets pushed to the brink by some religiously intolerant D-Bags at the local pub and ends up summoning Archfiend, Lord of Annihilation instead of the hot-goth boyfriend she was trying to cook up. Let the hijinkx ensue!

Prince Jaysen fumbles his way into a trap that ultimately turns him into action figure avatar Colt Noble! Young Jaysen now has the ability to turn the tide against Archfiend's attacks and maybe a shot at the lovely Mareea if his still toxically infantile mind doesn't sabotage his new beefy looks.

This comic will not change your life. But it is damn funny, particulary whenever Archfiend is on stage. Double that when he's on stage with his summoner, Hoodoo. As usual, Seeley takes shots at a wide variety of targets including many of the cliched comic tropes he's steeped the book in. If you don't have a stick in your bum, you'll laugh at this comic. It reads like a Masters of the Universe movie written by the guys who did Porky's. How can you deny that?

I say even if it wasn't good, we owe it to Hack/Slash to funnel poor Tim Seeley some money, because DDP is in some financial straits and is now paying him space? That's cute and all, but Mr. Seeley needs money. But thing of it is...Colt Noble is good. Go buy this book, laugh a little, bask in a little guilty pleasure and reward a deserving talent instead of some "must read event" book that you're not really digging, would you, please?

- Ryan