Last week I took a stab at Western comics – this week you get comics about fashion and war. I should quit reading DC books more often – it exposes you to all manner of things.
Back when I was a dedicated follower of The Boys, I was unsurprised to find out that Garth Ennis not only hates the majority of superhero comics – hence the joy he obviously took in mangling and bludgeoning them in that series – but he instead loves war comics, and dedicates a significant amount of his considerable genius to reinvigorating that once-loved genre. His creation of Kev for The Authority, Billy Butcher’s origin story in The Boys, his series Battlefields and his preoccupation with Nick Fury and The Punisher attest to this.
So what does all this have to do with Rubicon? Well, a lot, really. It attempts to tell the story of a team of Navy SEAL operators trying to protect a village in Afghanistan almost single-handedly from the Taliban. Yes, it’s another Seven Samurai clone, but this one seems to be angling for the prestige crowd: in addition to scripter Mark Long and co-writer/ex-SEAL Dan Capel, Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie gets a story/concept credit, and the cover visibly pays homage to the Kurosawa classic’s famous image of the samurai standing in a field awaiting the coming storm.
Of course it doesn’t rip off Seven Samurai entirely – there is a prologue involving a suicide bombing at a US outpost in Afghanistan that recontextualises the SEALs’ presence in that region of Afghanistan at the time and makes their role in the Taliban’s attacks on the village a little muddy, and the motivation for them protecting the village is slightly different – instead of rice, the farmers grow opium poppies, and the SEALs rationalise that if they wait for back-up the Taliban will most likely take control of the village and the entire valley with it. And for those wondering, there are only six soldiers, not seven.
But you do indeed get your standard stock characters: the war-weary leader, the cool-as-a-cucumber sniper, the inexperienced rookie and of course the hot-headed Green Beret Bolton who has been clearly designed to resemble a fatter, whiter version Toshiro Mifune (and seems to share his character’s habit of overcompensation when it comes to weaponry).
All this is well and good but is it any good? Well, sort of. I want to like it, certainly, but there are parts that feel a little forced. The SEAL team leader, whose name I can’t recall without looking it up*, has a whole backstory involving divorce and separation from his wife and two children and commitment issues with his current (ridiculously hot) girlfriend, neither of whom seem to cut him any slack for the fact his job involves spending a lot of time on the other side of the world getting shot at. But while this is obviously meant to make “us guys” feel sympathy for him (“fight off Afghanis, get bitched at by the missus for never being around – am I right?” the book seems to smugly say with a wink and a nudge) as an alpha male underappreciated by the people he’s supposed to be protecting, and maybe started off as an interesting conversation about how many soldiers whose lives aren’t taken by the rigours of war find their relationships shattered by them by struggles with communication, empathy and acclimatising to being away from the combat zone. What it ends up being is a slightly tin-eared attempt to make the character in question a martyr to both his country and the flighty whims of the female gender (note the sarcasm) that just comes off as one-sided and condescending.
And that’s the other thing: the art by Mario Stilla is very good for the wide vistas but the second we get in close a lot of the characters start getting too blurry. This isn’t helped by the fact that, whilst most of the SEALs have been given their own distinct look, the protagonist and at least two of his buddies have massive Zach Galifianakis beards, or that the admittedly gorgeous inkwash art-style is hampered by the fact my review copy was watermarked on every single page with the company logo in such a way that it makes reading it feel like trying to stare at the dark side of Europa. It’s not as bad as some of the stuff Image has produced in the past, but it certainly strays a little further into that territory than is strictly advisable.
But, in a week when I wasn’t able to get my hands on Captain Marvel or Brain Boy, and when the alternative was either breaking the terms of my DC vow** and purchasing an overpriced Villains Month issue or review Gerard Way’s Fabulous Killjoys #1, I’ll take a free graphic novel any day.
*I suspect based on his appearance it was probably Randy McAwesomeName or Jerry McZachGalifianakisBeard.
**In the interest of full disclosure, earlier this week I was able to obtain a rare copy of Vertigo Resurrected: Shoot #1, a recent printing of the previously unpublished Hellblazer story that led to Warren Ellis’ exit from DC, a purchase made after my open letter was published but found before I made my fateful decision to boycott them, a decision I’m regretting only marginally. However, as I did not purchase it myself – my fiancé did – I have not technically forfeited the oath. That’s the good news. The bad news is, as I have no way of being sure that Dan Didio’s byline is on it without risking temptation, I now have to wait another 51 weeks before I can even look at it. Never let it be said that I do not suffer well for my art.
One must always deconstruct with care. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is often credited, along with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, as the beginning of the so-called “Grim ‘n Gritty” wave of superhero comics. With regard to Watchmen, this is true only as a matter of chronology. While it was no doubt influential in terms of the dark places that Moore was willing to take the story and its characters, there were more aspects that genre writers and artists were unwilling to learn from. What separates Alan Moore from his copycats is one simple thing: He is willing, as a writer and artist, to embrace the complexity of humanity. Moore’s authorial eye could even find a sense of humanity in The Comedian, a vile specimen if there ever was one. Genre writers love to portray moments. Moore sought (and to some degree seeks still) to use genre to portray lives. Already, and rightly, much of the era that he helped spawn is turning to dust, while his opus remains. Watchmen endures not because it deconstructed the superhero. It endures because in its pages, the superhero deconstructed us. The Dark Ages of superhero comics crept up on us because we were perhaps unwilling to recognize that.
Dark Horse has been rolling out several superhero series of late, and while they have been different I have yet to find one that has really stood out (exceptions include last week’s Brain Boy and Oeming’s twisted as hell Victories). Of course, Dark Horse has been publishing Paul Chadwick’s Concrete for years, and that is one of the few superhero comics to really learn the right lessons from Moore and Gibbons’ seminal work. Still, many of these new offering have offered fun concepts that just haven’t connected on the raw story level in the same way that the publisher’s legitimately great offering like Conan, The Massive, or Mind MGMT have. Here we have another unique concept on offer from the publisher, but does it land?
Before addressing the story, I just have to say that this is one of the best looking comic books that I’ve seen all year. Geoff Shaw’s angular, cartoony style is a marvel of detail and expression. His world is one that you feel you could walk into and dwell among the creased, lined faces of his characters. When the story’s more fantastic elements show up, they bristle with detail and care, just as believable as the mundane AA meetings and flashbacks that take up the majority of Buzzkill‘s page count. This is a story coming from a desperate, yet humane, place, and the art captures that perfectly aside from just looking downright good.
At first glance, the concept of Buzzkill seems like it yield be yet another in a long line of cheeky deconstruction attempts. The main character, here named “Ruben” (not his actual name), is essentially what you would get if you crossed Billy Batson with The Lost Weekend’s Ray Milland. The (as yet) unnamed hero gets his superpowers from drinking massive amounts, transforming from a scrawny and scruffy average joe into a long-haired beefcake Adonis who can level cities. This comes with a few problems, most notably the fact that “Ruben” seemingly has no control or memory of most of his actions when he’s in his superhero state. Instead of deconstructing superheroes as metaphors for abuse of power, the story by Donny Cates and Mark Reznicek uses the superhero to deconstruct alcoholism and American drinking culture.
Buzzkill, in the hands of a Mark Millar or Garth Ennis, would have been a crass parody featuring a violently drunk hero. Here, Cates and Reznicek get a hold of the protagonist’s humanity, and in turn end up starting off with a much more compelling dramatic question: What if he’s trying to quit? The answers to the why of that are kept vaguely under wraps as of the first issue, possibly to provide a sense of mystery to the progression of the characters. This is understandable, they want to keep people hooked, but I think that it ends up hurting the readers’ experience of the book’s metaphors. And there are some powerful and incisive metaphors to be had, but they are constricted by Buzzkill’s writers playing it a little bit too close to the vest with this first issue when there’s really no need.
Despite that hiccup, Buzzkill is a very appealing book. It’s honest and humane, and has a bit of a dark edge that never crosses over into the crass or the dour. It seeks to deconstruct external realities rather than a fictional genre, and for that it seems the creators learned the right lessons from Watchmen. For the genre, it’s not a deconstruction, but a return to first principles of the things that make the genre endure. Time will tell if Buzzkill is worthy of entry into “the canon,” but for now it’s a smart, good looking comic book that you should probably check out.
Around the time the 20th century was giving way to the 21st, Brian Bendis was writing two of the best comics being published: Alias, a hard-boiled detective series taking place on the periphery of the Marvel Universe, and Powers, a tough, quirky police procedural set in a city where mismatched partners Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim investigated crimes involving super-powered characters; heroes, villains, and otherwise. It was the perfect environment for Bendis’ deadpan rapid-fire Mamet-inspired dialogue, and his co-creator, artist Mike Oeming, brought a wildly unique visual style to the proceedings: the clean line and dynamism of a cartoonist, winked at with the bleak, dark eye of a realist. It also featured the most NSFW letter column in the history of comics.
Time went on, Alias wrapped up, Bendis was handed the keys to Avengers Mansion, and Powers began to flail; never really terrible, but considering the heights to which it had originally risen, a run of 2-3 “meh” issues in a row represented a pretty significant drop, and that happened more than once. While I don’t blame its downfall solely on one issue of monkey fucking, or the seemingly interminable delays that plagued the book (in both its original incarnation at Image, and its later transition to Icon), it began to feel as though Bendis’ busy schedule was allowing (forcing?) him and Oeming to lay out themes and ideas in less fully-fleshed form than they had been during early story arcs like “Who Killed Retro Girl’ and “Little Deaths.” They were still capable of high points—the super-Rat-Pack hijinks of “Gods,” the genuinely creepy “Z,”—but too often, storylines seemed desperately in want of a final polish, ending with, as the poet said, “a whimper, not a kick in the nuts.”
Among other things, having one of a pair of buddy-cop partners hiding a secret from the other is a workable trope; having both of them doing it—and variations of the same secret, to boot—made the Walker-Pilgrim partnership feel not so much awkward as clumsy, rather than something that had grown organically from the one we saw in the beginning. This felt particularly acute when Bendis allowed Pilgrim’s powers-drug addiction, and complicity in murder, to be brushed aside so she could join the FBI. The third volume of Powers ended on that frustrating note, to be replaced last year with Powers Bureau, with Pilgrim and Walker now operating as Federal agents—a reset that will, presumably, give the two partners something of a clean slate, while widening the book’s geographic perspective.
The first story arc, that wrapped up earlier this year, gave reason for optimism with one hand, while taking it back with the other: the outcome of Pilgrim recruiting the reluctant Walker into the FBI presented us with some of Bendis and Oeming’s more memorable villains, but too much of the story’s progress was driven by unconvincingly sloppy police work, and twists that you either saw coming a mile away, or just trailed off into nothing. Still, the book looked great, the Walker-Pilgrim banter continued strong, and it mostly shipped on time, so there was reason to think that, with the deck-clearing exercise out of the way, issue #7 would start to build on that foundation. And it sort of does… and it sort of doesn’t.
First of all, despite the initial solicitation, #7 is not the beginning of the series’ next arc, it’s a standalone story of Walker and Pilgrim investigating an ugly powers-related murder, with some piquant observations on a familiar sci-fi/superhero theme, and its questions of relative morality, a story that could easily have fit into the series’ early years. However, as well-executed as they are, the specifics of the investigation itself are pretty much beside the point: its sole purpose seems to be to set up a devastating tragedy in the last couple of pages. The fact that issue #6 ended with a clear setup for the next challenge the team will face, while the previews for issue #8 suggest an altogether different adventure about to begin, combine to make this issue feel off-key; even the letters page is utterly devoid of snark, with Bendis offering some reasoned observations on the current state of the comics industry, tips on head-shaving, and providing encouraging advice to would-be comic creators (nope, not a dick joke to be found). Oeming has less action to illustrate than in the previous story arc, but his layouts are eye-catching, his paneling inventive, and he continues to do an amazing job at guiding the reader through Bendis’ barrage of word balloons. The fact that the main story here would have fit nicely in the early years of Powers is not wholly a good thing: nearly 15 years on, readers have a right to expect the book to do more than relive past glories.
In the end, if I were considering Powers Bureau #7 solely on its own merits, I might score it a bit higher than I have; but as an indicator of whether this once-great series is moving out of its somewhat confused fog, and into something as fresh and worthwhile as its initial incarnation, I’d say the jury’s still out.
You would be forgiven for finding the central conceit of Fashion Beast a little, shall we say, unorthodox. I found myself agreeing with Alan Moore when he pointed out in this book’s foreword that he had no previous interest in the fashion world when initially being pitched the idea by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren as a potential film collaboration between the two of them. Nor indeed has he held much regard for working in the cinematic wheelhouse either, but as the late Groucho Marx would say, that’s another story and a rather unpleasant one too.
It turns out that these drawbacks didn’t dissuade him from taking an honest stab at his first screenplay, but where that project never quite got off the ground, this 10 issue limited series perfectly recaptures what could have been in a format that it was originally intended to mimic.
Doll, an androgynous coatgirl at a nightclub who dresses like Marilyn Monroe in a time when the fear of imminent nuclear war has long ago reached ten minutes past midnight, finds herself being selected at an open audition to be “mannequin”, modelling clothing for the reclusive fashion designer Celestine (inspired by Christian Dior but revealed in brief glimpses to be the spit of a younger, handsome but slightly less hairy Moore), who is the subject of rampant gossip about his possible disfigurement and whose decadent house style is both adored and despised by the public at large, his genius the result of the most tragic cruelty. While there Doll spars verbally and often physically with Jonni, a loudmouthed dresser who spends the majority of the story giving the impression of being an exceptionally bitchy tomboy girl, when in actuality he is a boy passing as a girl trying to look like a boy, Doll’s spiky mirror image.
What we get as a result is a story set in a non-specific everywhen, in a setting that melds early Bohemian Paris with a post-modernist, dystopian New York or London; it’s a fusion of the classical fairy tale, specifically Jean Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast, with the bizarro-punk aestheticism of experimental films like Liquid Sky and Jubilee, full of grotesques and ingénues and body dysmorphia and intersexual tension, a punk Grimm brother’s tale about breaking the mould of what is and isn’t beautiful.
Those familiar with Moore’s signature style will find it slips comfortably into his back catalogue. Credit for this goes to Antony Johnson for his work on the “sequential adaptation” of Moore’s script for the comic page (a role he previously fulfilled with aplomb on Moore’s Lovecraftian short-story The Courtyard), and not least Facundo Percio’s illustrations of a world simultaneously obsessed with sex and death, austerity and decadence.
I hear you saying “Adam, you Herculean wordsmith, what kind of review is that? So it’s pretty to look at – why should we read this regardless? As you say very clearly beforehand, this is a story that was never intended for comics nor was it ultimately successful at becoming a film, and therefore cannot possibly be worth bothering with after sitting untouched for the better part of thirty years.”
If I had to answer that criticism, I’d probably tell you to stop being such a twat, but if pressed further I’d say that the proof is in the pudding. I put off reading this book for nearly a month after first spotting it on the shelf. I read it from cover to cover less than two hours before I started this review. I didn’t put it down once.
This story should be on everyone’s to-read list.