On Comics Custodianism and the Illusion of Change

avengers-nowThe comic book news cycle has been ablaze over the past few days with news of some big changes coming to Marvel comics in the months ahead.  As part of what the publisher is calling their “Avengers NOW!” initiative, some of their flagship characters are having their titles relaunched with new issue #1 and jarring new status quos.  The biggest of these changes have merited announcements on mainstream media outlets.  The View revealed that Thor will now be a woman.  Then The Colbert Report revealed that the new Captain America will be black.

As one with any familiarity with the internet may have anticipated, this has already been met with much howling and gnashing of teeth from large segments of the comic fan community.  And of course, we all breathlessly anticipate the ultra-Conservative tin-foil hat brigade wading in to declare that this is some politically correct conspiracy by The Liberals to destroy comics and, by extension, America… somehow.  Plenty of people have already astutely pointed out that people seemed to have little problem with Thor being replaced by a frog, or a horse-faced alien, or another white dude in the wake of the recent Fear Itself event, but a woman taking the mantle is seemingly a bridge too far!  I’ve seen people spitting out with venom the idea that this is all a cynical ploy to pander to black people and women.  First, it seems there’s a certain breed of white straight male reader who defines “pandering” as anything that doesn’t pander directly and exclusively to them.  Second, I think such a status quo shift is going to appeal to more than just female and black readers, respectively, for reasons I’ll go into later.  And third, if this does pique the interest of women or black people who previously didn’t feel engaged by Marvel’s output, how is that a bad thing?

However, I don’t think that anyone who hates these relaunches is inherently racist or sexist.  Though some of them certainly are, it would be unfair to paint all with the same brush.  The comic fans I want to focus on more in this particular bit of commentary are the advocates of comics custodianism.  Allow me to clarify.  There’s a bit of a problem with a large chunk of Marvel and DC’s fanbase, something that prevents them from ever truly being happy with the product.  They’ll complain that the comics are stale, that some life and energy and good high-stakes storytelling needs to be injected back into their favourite superheroes.  But the dilemma is that, if you get a great writer and put them on a superhero comic, the tools they’d be most inclined to employ in order to tell the best story – new threats, shocking changes to the protagonist’s life, a genuine sense of peril and uncertainty over how the hero will be able to restore status quo – stand in direct contrast to what this segment of the fanbase actually wants.  They claim they want great storytellers in their comics, but what they actually want is a custodian.  They want their favourite heroes, static and forever unchanging, wearing the old clothes they always used to wear, fighting the old villains they always used to fight, hanging around with the same supporting cast they always used to hang around with, with nothing about their comfortable status quo changing in any notable way.  These readers don’t want the best story… they want comics comfort food.

And when someone does come in and make seemingly drastic changes… they get angry.  It doesn’t need to be a matter of the hero changing race or gender, any change seems to be enough to get them up in arms.  Peter Parker remained, physically at least, the white, male Peter Parker in Superior Spider-Man, yet writer Dan Slott received so many death threats on social media over the storyline that it made national news.  But these people never seem to learn, do they?  Because anyone with an ounce of rationality was able to say, “Of course Otto Octavius isn’t going to be Spider-Man forever, of course Peter Parker is going to be Spider-Man again in time for the movie.  It’s not a permanent change, it’s a storyline.”  These people were angry because the writer has succeeded in making then genuinely stumped about how the good guy was going to possibly triumph over evil, which is what he’s supposed to do!  These people must find watching a season of 24 unbearable: do they have to skip to the last episode where Jack Bauer wins?  I don’t know how long these people have been reading comics for, but they should know by now that a dead hero doesn’t stay dead for long.  Superior Spider-Man was about taking Peter Parker out of the role of Spider-Man for a while to illustrate how integral Peter is to the Spider-Man mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Spider-Man stories in years.  Just like how “The Death of Captain America” in Captain America a few years ago, where Captain America died for a while and was replaced by Bucky Barnes (who’s white, so people didn’t seem to mind as much), it became a story used to illustrate how integral Steve Rogers is to the Captain America mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Captain America stories in years.  Or “Black Mirror” in Batman, where Dick Grayson took over as Batman in Gotham City while a recently-resurrected Bruce Wayne established a global crime-fighting franchise, where the story was used to illustrate how integral Bruce Wayne is to the Batman mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Batman stories in years.  Are we beginning to notice a trend here?

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s that Marvel are going back to the well of what has proven to be a tried-and-true formula for success too often, and risk blunting its impact.  But if you’re out there and you’re outraged because you genuinely believe that female Thor or black Captain America are a permanent or even a long-term replacement?  Sorry, I don’t know a polite way of saying that you’re a fucking idiot, so I’ll just come out and say it: you’re a fucking idiot.

Amidst all the cries of fury about black people ruining Captain America and women ruining Thor, it’s amazing how few people seem to have actually read the small print of what’s actually happening in these various comics, story-wise.  Indeed, it seems a large number of the fans outraged by this haven’t even been reading the books, and just seek comfort in traditional, unchanging versions of these heroes as an abstract concept.  This was wonderfully exemplified by one outspoken user on Twitter demanding that Jason Latour be fired for writing Thor so terribly as to make him a women… when of course it’s Jason Aaron who has been writing Thor: God of Thunder (which is brilliant, by the way) and who will be carrying on through the Thor relaunch.  But if all these people bemoaning the loss of their favourite heroes actually took the time to look into the story and the context, they’d see that they actually aren’t losing their favourite heroes at all!  The original Thor and Captain America aren’t dying, which in itself makes this status quo shift less drastic than many.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First, female Thor.  Yes, Thor is relaunching, and yes, the new God of Thunder and holder of Mjolnir is a woman.  But while the designs of the new masked female Thor have been widely distributed, this image has been shared less frequently:

thor-unworthyYep, it’s the same male Thor we all know and love.  And if you read Jason Aaron’s interview over on Comic Book Resources, he makes it abundantly clear that Thor remains a main protagonist in the series going forward.  Indeed, the central thrust of the plot is that plot machinations have caused Asgard to turn on Thor and deem him “unworthy”, stripping him of his hammer Mjolnir and removing him from their pantheon.  So now a humbled Thor must fight to regain his mantle and unlock the mystery of the mysterious woman who has replaced him.  Surely any level-headed person could read that and think, “That sounds like an interesting Thor story.”

Now let’s look at All-New Captain America.  After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a lot of people talked about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, deserving his own series.  But it seems some of them didn’t want that coming at the expense of Steve Rogers.  The story seems to go that the Super-Soldier Serum is wearing off on Steve Rogers, and he’s no longer able to continue being Captain America.  And so his close friend Sam Wilson steps into the role in his stead.  But again, let’s look at some Marvel promotional material:

Avengers-Now2Black Captain America is in there, but to the right of the shot we have an elderly blonde man.  Surely this is Steve Rogers, and that suggests that Steve Rogers will remain an active character in this All-New Captain America comic.  I would imagine that a major element of the book will be, after decades of being a man out of time, suddenly he’s placed in a position where time is catching up with him, and how does he deal with that?  Again, as a fan of Captain America, I think that’s an intriguing story to tell.

Meanwhile, Marvel have also announced Superior Iron Man, where Tony Stark moves to San Francisco and starts engaging in some morally dubious activity.  If the “Superior” tag is anything to go by, I imagine the twist in this tale will be that Tony is being controlled by a villain.  And if we’re talking movie synchronicity here, my money is on Ultron.

All this is coming together to paint a bigger picture of what “Avengers NOW!” is shaping up to be.  It’s a time leap narrative of some sort, it seems, where after a gap our main characters find themselves in drastically altered circumstances, and part of the fun is figuring out both how they got into these situations and how they’ll eventually get out of them.  And it all seems to be tying into Jonathan Hickman’s big climactic Avengers storyline “Time Runs Out”, which brings all these status quo shifts together and adds another big one.  It seems like Thanos is now the leader of The Avengers:

ThanosTimeRunsOutAnd this is where we get down to there being two different types of reader.  There are those who want comics custodianism, and they’ll be fuming at all this upheaval, all this shattering of status quo.  And then there are readers who like high stakes and surprises in their storytelling, who are viewing these as stories and are intrigued.  I know I’m interested, and that I’ll be picking all these up.  I already read Thor: God of Thunder, but after grabbing the early issues I’ve fallen behind on the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers titles.  This will make me jump back on.  And I’m not black, I’m not a woman, I’m just a fan of good stories and good characters.  When you look at these characters as being more than just their specific costumes and power sets, you should be able to recognise that these storylines are actually potentially great fodder for Thor Odinson, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as characters.  And it’s a real shame people can’t see past the “THOR IS A WOMAN!” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA IS BLACK!” buzzwords.

My Top Ten Comics of 2012

We’re back a bit earlier this year, so apologies to any groundbreaking comic that comes out of nowhere in the last two weeks of December and blows me away.  This marks the third time I’ve run this feature on my blog, which I guess makes it a tradition of sorts.  There’s been an interesting shift in the tides as far as my comic reading goes.  Last year I spoke of DC’s dominance in my reading list, but one year on and the new car smell has faded from much of DC’s New 52.  The very best of the bunch are still going strong, but my DC reading list has thinned considerably in 2012, with yet more titles still hovering on the precipice of being dropped.  Marvel, meanwhile, has enjoyed a slight resurgence, with me sampling and enjoying a few of the Marvel NOW! launches and jump-on points.  But the big story of this year for me has been Image, who have been on a real roll, launching intriguing new titles left and right throughout the year and enjoying perhaps their best year ever.  Taking everything into account, the field of contention for the year’s best comics is so strong that, as of the writing of this intro, there are several comics still in the running to claim the #10 spot.  One honourable mention that was incredibly close to inclusion on the list was Thor: God of Thunder, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic, one of the best debuts of the year.  The only thing holding it back from a top 10 inclusion was that, with only two issues released, I thought I needed to see more of the series before I could fairly judge its merits in the context of a whole year.  Maybe in the 2013 list! Will the New 52 debuts that leapt into the top 10 last year retain their placement on the list?  Will the mighty Scalped emerge as the winner for the third year in a row?  Read on and find out!

10.  FATALE

Fatale3aThe first Image comic to make the list, but not the last.  Fatale was the first in a wave of high-profile new series launches for the publisher, with the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launching a new creator-owned slice of pulpy noir to accompany an impressive portfolio that already includes Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito.  After arguably the high-point of both their careers thus far with last year’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent, I was highly eager to see what the pair had in store next.  What sets Fatale apart from its stablemates is that the noir aesthetic is filtered through the lens of the horror genre.  Drawing in equal parts from Lovecraftian pulp and Satanic horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, a good dose of Hammer Horror) the result has been a narrative that substitutes overt shocks for a gradual, creeping dread that steadily built over the course of the first arc.  The second arc, while not quite as focused, still retained some degree of this finely cultivated atmosphere.  The story revolves around Josephine, an apparently-immortal woman who is gifted/cursed with the ability to make any man fall madly in love with her if they so much as look at her.  The narrative has strands spreading along both the present and various eras of the past, becoming increasingly intricate as it goes along.  It’s a limited series, but Brubaker says it keeps on getting bigger as he realises there’s more and more story to tell.  The comics themselves are fine packages, published on nice quality paper, and complete with various fascinating essays about pulp and horror fiction by Jess Nevins.  Not as immediately gripping as some of the comics higher on the list, but a quietly commanding comic that certainly merits recognition.

9.  CHEW

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After dropping out of the list last year, Chew makes a return to the top ten.  There was never really any substantial drop in quality; this offbeat series about a near-future world populated by various strange and delightful characters with food-based powers has always remained a consistently fun read, but perhaps that made it easy to take for granted as shiny new titles vied for my attentions.  But with the excellent Special Agent Poyo one-shot spinoff and the recent “Space Cakes” story arc, Chew has really upped its game and re-established itself as one of the most inventive comics on the market.  Everybody loves Rob Guillory’s gleefully demented artwork, such an integral component of the book’s identity that the very thought of a fill-in artist is horrifying.  But perhaps not enough credit is given to the deceptively intricate writing of John Layman.  With the way each issue works so well as a standalone caper, it would be easy to assume Chew is lightweight comedic fare.  But while there’s no doubt the book is funny – I laugh out loud at least once every issue – when you actually look at the ambitious narrative that has been crafted over the course of the series, it’s a surprisingly dense mythology.  We’ve now reached the halfway point of the series, and with the heartbreaking shock of issue #30, we could be heading for a change in dynamic for the second half.  But whatever lies in store, I’m certainly onboard for the long haul.

8.  WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN

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I’ll confess, I’m shamefully late to the Wolverine and the X-Men bandwagon.  I almost picked it up at the beginning.  But that was when my interest in Marvel was at its lowest ebb, and when DC’s New 52 was making big demands on my pull list, and one of my favourite writers, Jason Aaron, was launching two new Marvel titles – Wolverine and the X-Men and The Incredible Hulk – in the same week.  I didn’t want to add more than one new Marvel comic to my monthly reading list.  So I chose The Incredible Hulk.  Now, I quite enjoyed Aaron’s run with the Green Goliath, it had some engaging ideas behind it.  But based on the tidal wave of positive feedback I’d been hearing for Wolverine and the X-Men, I began to suspect I may have made the wrong choice.  My decision to sample issue #19, billed as the Marvel NOW! “jumping-on point” for new readers, confirmed it.  Fun and accessible – two words I haven’t typically associated with X-Men comics – the strength of the issue encouraged me to pick up the previous few issues at my LCS, which included Wolverine and the X-Men #17, the Doop issue drawn by Mike Allred, perhaps one of my favourite single comics of the year.  That sealed the deal.  I went back to the start, and have been gorging myself on collected editions and back issues to get caught up.  What I love about this series is that every character earns their place.  No one is here because they were popular during Claremont’s run or whatever.  This is an ensemble piece, and every character – be they student or teacher – has something to contribute.  Which brings me to perhaps my favourite aspect of the series: the return to the school dynamic, previously crucial to the appeal of the X-Men franchise, but all too often overlooked amidst the more general superheroics.  I might have been late to the party, but better late than never!

7.  SWEET TOOTH

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Much like Chew, Sweet Tooth is a series that has been consistently great each month since its beginning, but which slipped from my top ten last year, only to return to the rankings in 2012.  In the case of Sweet Tooth, the fresh burst of momentum has come from the title’s impending conclusion.  Over the course of this year, all the plot threads have been getting drawn together and paid off, with – as of the writing of this list – only one issue remaining before the whole series is wrapped up.  Jeff Lemire has been doing very well with his work in the DCU, but this post-apocalyptic drama about a young animal/human hybrid boy, a battle-hardened old man, and their travels through a wasteland ravaged by a global pandemic – both written and drawn by the Canadian cartoonist – remains his best ongoing series.  And it’s a title that I feel has long been unfairly overlooked.  It is so well-crafted, filled with heart and characters you care about, and Lemire does some really interesting, ambitious things with his art, his layouts, and at times even the very structure of the comic itself.  I’ve talked a lot about what a void in my comics-reading life the end of Scalped will be, but I might be almost as sad to see Sweet Tooth go.  On the plus side, I’ll be first in line to check out Trillium, Jeff Lemire’s follow-up Vertigo project in 2013.

6.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

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And to think, I almost didn’t buy this comic.  I’m afraid I must confess that, before The Manhattan Projects began, I wasn’t the biggest Jonathan Hickman fan.  I’d tried a few of his Marvel titles, but they’d ultimately left me cold.  But the buzz around the first issue, along with the enticingly high-concept proposal for the series – an Expendables-like team of famed scientists from history teaming up to engage in bonkers super-science – was enough to whet my appetite and make me give it a try.  I’m glad I did.  Each issue has at least one moment where I have to stop and say to myself, “That’s utterly demented!”  And, unlike lesser comics that I feel have been cynically engineered around an “Oh shock, WHAT A TWIST!” beat as a cliffhanger each issue, The Manhattan Projects manages to introduce a genuine shock revelation with each chapter in a manner that feels organic, because it tends to come from the characters and inform their portrayal.  This series has really made me a fan of Jonathan Hickman and his approach to storytelling, and since enjoying this I’ve picked up the first couple of issues of Secret, dipped my toes into his epic Fantastic Four run, and devoured The Nightly News, a wonderful comic that’s probably my favourite thing he’s done.  I’ve also become a fan of the offbeat artistic stylings of Nick Pitarra, whose visualisation of this crazy world have very quickly become definitive.  A gem of a book, that keeps going from strength to strength and getting better with each issue.

5.  SCALPED

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What’s this!?  Scalped at last toppled from the number one spot!?  I assure you, its lower placing on the list year is down to the insane quality of the comics above it, rather than any decline in the series itself, which came to an end this year.  The year in Scalped began with the dramatic conclusion to the “Knuckle Up” story, before segueing into “Trail’s End”, the final storyline that brought the saga’s major storylines to a head while still managing to leave a few tantalising loose ends dangling at the end.  This final victory lap made for some highly rewarding reading for loyal Scalped readers, as some of the catastrophic events we’ve been waiting to inevitably happen for years finally took place.  But even as the end drew near, Scalped never felt like it had checked out early.  “Trail’s End” immediately threw us off-kilter by picking up after a leap forward in time, with the status quo of several characters suddenly shifted and us left playing catch-up.  And from there, Jason Aaron steadily turned the screw and built up a sense of dread and uncertainty where, even right up to the last issue, we weren’t sure how it was all going to end, who would live and who would die.  There ended up being quite a few surprises with the way all that worked out.  And one of the biggest joys of Scalped this year is that, if I can recall, all the issues released in 2012 were drawn by the mighty R.M. Guera, who added so much to the rough, rugged aesthetic of the book.  It will be greatly missed, and my 2013 Top Ten Comics list will feel emptier for its absence, but Scalped has, for my money at least, cemented its status as one of the greatest comic books of all time.

4.  IAIN LAURIE’S HORROR MOUNTAIN

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There is perhaps no comic I’ve enjoyed continually rereading more this year than Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain.  Given its lack of distribution it may be unlikely to appear on many other top ten comics lists this year, and that’s a great shame, as this is one of the most original, darkly inventive comics of 2012.  Horror Mountain is a standalone collection of shorts introducing various warped and depraved characters from the shadowy recesses of cartoonist Iain Laurie’s mind, with such unforgettable monstrosities as Captain Tits and Nazelbahhn.  The resulting end product plays a bit like a sketch comedy show broadcast in Hell.  By turns surreal, horrifying and strangely hilarious, Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is perhaps the purest, rawest expression of a singular creative voice in comics you’ll read all year.  Iain Laurie is one of the most exciting creators in comics right now, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of having a breakout year in 2013.  I imagine his work best presented in the oversized hardcover format of X’Ed Out and The Hive, the recent output from Charles Burns.  The only thing preventing Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain from getting higher on this list is that there isn’t more of it.  If you’re at all the kind of person who reads through these year-end “best of” lists to figure out what comics to buy next, then this should go to the top of your list.  BUY IT NOW. (Also available digitally for just $1!)

3.  BATMAN

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Last year I predicted that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s fantastic work on Batman would earn the comic a high placement on this year’s list, despite the book not placing in the 2011 top ten: I opted to go for Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics instead, since the Batman run had at that point just begun.  Sure enough, here it is.  In the intervening 12 months, Batman has emerged as unquestionably the crown jewel of the New 52, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of quality.  The Bat-titles are strong in general right now – I currently read and enjoy Batman & Robin, Detective Comics and Batman Inc – but Batman reigns supreme.  The year got off to a blistering start for the title, with Batman #5 soaring out of the gates as an early contender for the best single comic book of 2012, not to mention one of the best single issues of an ongoing Batman comic I’ve ever read.  Featuring Batman trapped in a labyrinth by the Court of Owls and gradually losing his mind, with trippy, boundary-pushing artwork by Greg Capullo, this saw Batman pushed to the brink of defeat and despair in a way that shocked many readers.  This was the high watermark for the “Court of Owls” saga, and though it might have faltered slightly in the last chapter or two, for the most part “The Court of Owls” was a textbook example of how to tell a gripping, high-stakes Batman epic.  And now it looks like the all-star creative team is set to top it with “Death of the Family”, the currently-unfolding storyline featuring the hotly-anticipated return of The Joker.  Scott Snyder has done a stellar job of injecting a sense of genuine danger and peril into the “illusion of change” world of superhero comics, crafting nightmare scenarios where even jaded comics readers are left on the edge of their seats wondering how the hell Batman can possibly prevail.  And Greg Capullo is giving us perhaps the finest work of his celebrated career.  If Batman can maintain this dizzyingly high standard, I fully expect it to rank highly on next year’s list as well.

2.  SAGA

Saga4aIt has become very fashionable for everyone to gush about how amazing Saga is, and under that sea of hyperbole it might be easy to overlook how good this series actually is.  I’ve read the first issue several times now.  I read it two times in a row on the week I first bought it, before reading any of my other comics from that week, and I remember doing this because I was more excited about rereading this mind-blowing book than reading of my other purchases, none of which could hope to live up to Saga #1.  Since then I’ve periodically returned to that first issue, and recently downloaded it free on Comixology so I can reread it even more on my iPad.  Though I should clarify that the other 6 issues to follow have been great too, establishing a unique, vibrant sci-fi/fantasy world that feels like the basis of a fresh and exciting mythology I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about in the years to come.  The best of the crop of new Image comics to launch this year, Saga marks the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics.  Given how much I adore Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, that alone was enough to guarantee my interest.  But Vaughan doesn’t rest on his laurels, and isn’t content with just coming back to do what he did before.  No, he’s pushing himself with what could be his most ambitious narrative yet, a huge, sweeping space opera that incorporates various planets, species and cultures, a tale of star-crossed lovers on the run with their baby, and a long-running intergalactic war with unsettling real-world parallels.  But at its core Saga is a book about characters, and it’s amazing how quickly readers have come to care about Marko, Alana, Izabel, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat and the rest.  And the art, oh God, how can I not mention the art!?  Fiona Staples has very quickly emerged as one of my favourite artists in comics, and of the breakout comic stars of 2012.  As artist and colorist (and occasional letterer when it comes to Hazel’s narration), Staples is crucial in giving the book its visual identity, crafting an aesthetic that often abandons hackneyed genre tropes where you’d expect to find them and instead crafts something new and often a bit crazy in its place, making Saga feel like no sci-fi or fantasy story you’ve ever encountered before, in any medium.  So integral is Fiona Staples to the book that, when the announcement came that the book was taking a hiatus of a couple of months in between arcs to let her get caught up on her art, the usual grumbling was pretty much absent, with a “Yeah, that’s fair enough, because a fill-in artist would be unthinkable” response proving to be the norm.  This is the comic I look forward to each month above all others.  When Scalped finished this year, I did not expect any comic to fill that “monthly comics crack” void.  I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  But Saga could very well be the spiritual successor to Scalped, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a comic than that.

1.  THE UNDERWATER WELDER

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After all that fawning over Saga, it might be hard to believe it only made it to #2 on my year-end list.  Believe me, pretty much right from its stellar first issue, I thought it had the “Best Comic of 2012” spot in the bag, and it would take a very special comic indeed to top it.  It’s a good thing, then, that The Underwater Welder is a very special comic indeed.  Essex County is Jeff Lemire’s masterpiece, and stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade, not to mention one of my all-time favourites.  So, as much as I’ve enjoyed Lemire’s work in the DCU, I had been eagerly anticipating The Underwater Welder – his next graphic novel for Top Shelf– since I first heard about it last year.  And while it doesn’t quite surpass the mighty Essex County, it could very well be Lemire’s most accomplished work since that breakthrough book.  It is very much a thematic cousin to Essex County, given its exploration of fathers and sons and life in a small community, but this tale – of an underwater welder still haunted by memories of a father he lost in childhood as his wife is expecting with a child of his own – takes an unexpected, Twilight Zone style twist into supernatural territory that sets it apart.  While many may know Lemire primarily as a writer, The Underwater Welder shows his outstanding ability as a cartoonist, with a nigh-unparalleled gift for wringing a surprising amount of emotional heft out of seemingly simple images.  Lemire’s artwork feels a lot more precise and polished than it did with Essex County, but still retains that rough, sketchy quality that some might find initially off-putting.  I, however, love it, with Lemire simplifying much of the extraneous detail and honing in on the emotional truth of a moment.  And it’s surprising how immersive the worlds he draws can become, as we build up an emotional investment in the characters and gain a strong sense of place from their surroundings: this book left me seriously wanting to visit Nova Scotia.  Lemire also does some impressive visual experimentation, composing some of the year’s most breathtaking page layouts for this story.  But more than anything else, what I adore about The Underwater Welder is its heart.  Lemire has a gift for telling stories that can feel nakedly emotional without ever coming across as sappy or maudlin, and he does it again with this moving, unconventionally heartwarming tale.  I wish Lemire all the best in his work on ongoing comics.  But I hope that no matter what heights his career as a mainstream comic writer takes him to, he will always find the time to come back to writing and drawing graphic novels like The Underwater Welder, because when he does projects like this, Jeff Lemire is better than just about anyone in the comics medium today.

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REVIEW: The Avengers

It’s been a long road to The Avengers.  I’m sure the comic fanboys reading this can remember like it was yesterday that initial squee of excitement upon sticking around for the post-credits scene in Iron Man, when Samuel L Jackson showed up as Nick Fury and spoke of “The Avengers Initiative”, but since then we’ve actually had 4 years of build-up leading to this film.  When it was first announced, it was a hugely ambitious project, the kind that previously seemed like it could only exist in geek dreams: establishing numerous superhero film properties, all existing in the same universe and becoming increasingly linked, building to a massive crossover film uniting all these characters in a blockbuster superhero spectacular on a scale unlike anything seen before.  It seemed like The Avengers was going to be the biggest film ever.

But in those intervening 4 years, a lot happened to deflate that initial rabid anticipation.  While Iron Man has held up to multiple repeat viewings and is still highly enjoyable, Thor and Captain America (and even The Incredible Hulk, which came out a mere few weeks after Iron Man when that Avengers buzz was still fresh) were closer to good than great.  And the disappointing Iron Man 2 was heavy on Avengers prelude, but light on making the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. seem particularly engaging.  The mystique of The Avengers had been tarnished a bit.  Behind-the-scenes drama further dampened proceedings, with Ed Norton’s departure from the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk removing arguably the second biggest name in the crossover ensemble from the table, and rumors of Marvel Studios’ dodgy dealings with talent suggesting that things weren’t too rosy in this shared universe.  More recently, on an admittedly subjective level, I’ve been left underwhelmed by the trailers for The Avengers, which made it seem like pretty generic summer action fluff.  Factor into that the looming shadow of The Dark Knight Rises, and I went into The Avengers (in 3D IMAX!) with moderate expectations.

Well, I can say those moderate expectations were blown out of the water.  The Avengers (which I’ll continue to call it, I refuse to use that lame Avengers Assemble title the movie got here in the UK) is easily the best film to come out of Marvel Studios, and while it doesn’t quite topple the reigning titan of the genre The Dark Knight, it has breezed into that upper echelon of Nolan and Burton’s Batman films, the first couple of Superman movies and X2 to be ranked as among the all-time great superhero movies.  For me, the story of Marvel Studios’ cinematic output has long been amazing potential, not quite realised.  It’s realised here.  And who do we have to thank?  Joss Whedon.

I talked a bit about the various ways Marvel decreased my excitement about The Avengers, but I should mention the one key way they increased it: the announcement that Joss Whedon would be writing and directing the film.  I’m a big Whedon fan, and I was confident that this would prove to be a canny move on Marvel’s part.  I was right.  With a proven knack for impeccable structure, deftly handling large ensembles, snappy dialogue, and the depiction of strong women, Whedon seemed like a tailor-made choice to address some of the nagging flaws often holding back Marvel’s previous films, and he more than delivers with some of his strongest work in ages.  Whedon’s touch is all over this film.  As a director, he handles himself well, with plenty of stylish flourishes and ambitious camera setups, and an increased comfort with framing action sequences that arguably leads to better fight scenes than we’ve seen in any other Marvel film thus far.  But it’s as a writer that Whedon truly shines.  The plot is steeped in reverence for what came before, and everyone’s dialogue is all utterly in-character, but it has that added Whedon sheen fans of Buffy, Firely and the like will instantly recognise.  What everyone loved about these characters in the earlier films is still there, only moreso, amplified and enhanced under Whedon’s pen.  Indeed, when I first left the screening, my initial Facebook post summing up the film was, “All the fun of the other Marvel movies, with the added benefit of a Joss Whedon script.”  And that remains the best way to describe this film’s appeal.

As much as The Avengers succeeds as a culmination of all the previous Marvel Studios films, on another level this also works as a spritual successor to Serenity and even Whedon’s acclaimed TV work.  This is a film where everyone does their job well and their is plenty of credit to go around, but I won’t hesitate in saying that, more than anyone else, it’s Joss Whedon who makes this film soar.  It’s his movie, and after Serenity so sadly and undeservedly tanked, the guaranteed success of The Avengers should hopefully give Whedon some well-overdue glory on a larger scale.

The pace of the film is absolutely relentless.  We start, and are launched into the action and drama almost immediately, with only a bare minimum of setup.  From there, could luck finding a quiet spot for a bathroom break at any point in the 2-hour-plus running time.  But despite the plot rampaging along at breakneck speed, The Avengers is simultaneously a very character-driven film.  And even with the big (some feared overcrowded) cast, every major character has an arc, and is given something substantial to do.

Of course, Robert Downey Jr continues to excel as Iron Man.  Even the flawed Iron Man 2 was kept afloat largely (and at some points solely) by the charm and engaging charisma of his Tony Stark, and remained watchable throughout thanks to his presence elevating every scene.  So imagine how great the character is in a film that matches his performance!  Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr was always going to be a match made in heaven, and indeed they fit together like hand-in-glove.  Stark gets to fire out rapid-fire zingers at all the major players – Loki gets called “Reindeer Games”, Thor “Point Break”, etc, etc – and his irreverent treatment of his all-star peers is where the film derives much of its many laughs.  Downey Jr also gets to rekindle his fantastic chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, with Pepper Potts unexpectedly showing up for a few welcome scenes.  But Tony Stark isn’t just here to serve as a joke machine.  He gets a compelling dramatic arc, based around an accusation from Captain America that he’s not a real hero, that for all his showboating and self-aggrandising, he’s the kind of person who’ll fold when it comes to making the hard, self-sacrificial choices a real hero has to make.  While admittedly, it seems like Tony Stark goes through arcs of learning to be less self-serving and a better, more mature human being almost as often as Jeff Winger on Community, here Downey Jr does a particularly good job at wrestling with his mixture of arrogance and self-doubt, and the journey comes to a satisfying, dramatic conclusion…. while still allowing for some laughs.

I remember in the early stages of the Avengers cast, there was a fear among some (me included), that it could become the Robert Downey Jr show, with him acting everybody else off-screen.  Thankfully, that is far from the case, with Downey Jr’s performance complementing rather than overshadowing his castmates with how he plays off them.  As Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, Chris Evans works well as the yin to Stark’s yang: earnest where Stark is playing things with a wry smile and a wink.  This leads to the two quite often coming to odds, and at some points nearly coming to blows, though as they find respect for one another they end up making a good team in battle.  A lot of it is left unspoken, but we get the sense that Captain America is more invested in this group than any of the other heavy-hitters, that perhaps he has more need of it.  He’s a man out of time and without a world, and so he throws himself into this new mission.  As he naturally assumes the role of strategic leader, there’s a tangible sense of Captain America finding his new place in the world.  The film does a good job in portraying how Captain America inspires people, both by having Agent Coulson (whose hero worship of Cap leads to some cute, funny moments) outright say it, and showing how people respond to him at various points in the narrative.

Thor doesn’t show up until a little later, but when he does, he makes an impact.  The presence of Loki and Dr. Selvig perhaps makes The Avengers more of a follow-on from Thor than anything else (though the film is skillfully able to feel like a follow-on from all the previous films), and perhaps this is why, more than with any character, Whedon acknowledges the journey Thor went through as a character in his solo film and continues the development from there.  Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor here as a man (or god, if you prefer) who has come from a place of pride and arrogance to increased maturity and nobility, but who at times struggles to keep that old temper and pompousity in check.  At a glance (perhaps because he doesn’t get the same “moving from the solo world of my film universe into the larger Avengers universe” setup scenes as the other major characters), it might seem like Thor has less to do than the “big two” of Captain America and Iron Man, but he actually has some pretty meaty character work, which results in some of my favourite dramatic scenes in the film.  The dynamic established is that Thor is on Earth ostensibly to capture Loki and return him to Asgard to face justice, but in fact wants to bring his brother home and attempt to rehabilitate him.  Thor still loves Loki, and while everyone else sees Loki as pure evil, Thor sees him as essentially good, but lost in a haze of madness that could yet still be temporary, and so he may not be beyond redemption.  The film cleverly teases and goes back-and-forth on whether or not Thor is correct, but we’ll talk more about that later.

It could be easy to view the trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor as the film’s major players, when previously it might have been a four-way split, had Ed Norton returned to his role as Bruce Banner.  Hulk fans be thankful, then, for Mark Ruffalo, the first actor to play both Bruce Banner and (through motion capture magic) The Hulk, who ensures that – despite the recasting – The Hulk remains an equal partner amongst his more tenured co-stars.  I’m not the biggest Hulk fan, and have said as much before.  But this film has done more than anything before to make me a fan.  The character serves as the uber-badass of the group, and is surprisingly hilarious, getting some of the film’s biggest laughs.  Watch out for the Loki VS The Hulk battle, possibly my favourite part of the whole film.  But perhaps the real revelation is Ruffalo as Banner.  Eric Bana and Ed Norton are both great actors in their own right, but as Banner, Bana felt wooden, and Norton felt cold and distant.  Neither were quite able to nail that character and make him click with audiences in a way that Robert Downey Jr did with Tony Stark.  Mark Ruffalo does.  He brings a warmth and likeability to Banner that makes you emotionally invested first in him not losing control and unleashing The Hulk (he’s been “on the wagon”, if you will, for over a year as the film begins), and later in him learning to control this burden, and make it a gift rather than a curse.  In paticular, Ruffalo plays off Downey Jr well, and more than any other two members of the cast you get the sense that Stark and Banner could be good friends.  It’s reportedly unlikely to happen, but I for one would be happy to see Ruffalo’s Hulk get his own solo movie.  Going into the film, people might have been wishing Ed Norton was playing The Hulk in The Avengers.  Going out, I suspect they’ll be left wishing Mark Ruffalo had played The Hulk in The Incredible Hulk.

Another character who fares much better in The Avengers is Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow.  Underwritten in Iron Man 2, here Whedon’s penchant for strong, nuanced female characters pays off in spades.  Not only does Natasha kick more ass in her fight scenes, but we are given glimpses of a dark past and sins she is struggling to compensate for.  Much of her role in the film is tied into her complex relationship with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye.  I can’t say much about Renner’s role in the film without veering into spoilers, but while I was worried the character could have come across as a bit of an unnecessary third wheel, he is in fact given plenty to do, and slips effortlessly into the fabric of the film.  As far as the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes, Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson continues to be the relatable face of the super-intelligence organisation and almost our access character that connects us to each of these disparate universes, while Cobie Smaulder’s Marie Hill gets a couple of cool moments despite having little to do than support Nick Fury.  Speaking of Nick Fury, Samuel L Jackson is more Samuel L Jacksony than ever, which is most certainly pleasing, and the script allows for some of that notorious Nick Fury duplicity to come into play, while still allowing Fury to reside firmly on the side of the angels.

But what of the side of the devils?  A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and thankfully The Avengers has a cracker in the form of Loki.  Probably my favourite Marvel character, I was more excited to see what Loki would be up to than any of the assembled heroes, and he did not disappointment, probably stealing the show in a film full of worthy performances.  Tom Hiddleston was already the best thing about Thor, and once again he gives us a slick, enigmatic Loki who always keeps us guessing at his true motives.  But Loki is darker now, and we get the sense he has been through the wringer since we last saw him at the end of Thor, that all the resentment and bitterness accumulated in that film has been festering and eating away at him in the intervening time inbetween.  In spite of this, Hiddleston still deftly weaves in flickers of doubt, fleeting glimpses in his eyes that suggest regret, or hesitation, even if they don’t stop him from doing whatever bad thing he’s doing.  It continues to be a mesmerising performance.  My only niggle is that the whole “Loki possessing Dr. Selvig” beat teased at the end of Thor seems to have been dropped and forgotten about, with Loki introduced back into the fold in an unrelated way.  But that’s a forgivable oversight, I’d say.

One aspect that gives Loki plenty of fresh fuel in this film is that he spends it on Earth.  While in Thor Loki was largely confined to Asgard and interacted solely with his fellow Asgardians, here Loki interacts extensively with the people of Midgard, and the result is almost like a twisted mirror image of Thor’s “fish out of water” Broxton scenes in their solo film.  Loki’s initial response is contempt, of course, but as these lowly humans continue to challenge and occasionally even best him, Loki becomes by turns confused, flustered, and ultimately bordering on throwing a childish temper tantrum.  In this respect, Loki seems to channel that classic trait shared by many of Whedon’s “Big Bads”: the increasingly harrassed, put-upon villain, who you almost sympathise with when things start to go wrong for them, because they handle it in a petty, but relatably human way.  I won’t tell you if I was pleased or disappointed, but I was watching The Avengers hoping that Loki would survive to stir up trouble in another film in the coming years.  Tom Hiddleston’s star continues to be on the rise, and he handles himself incredibly well against the star-studded team opposing him.

I’ve said this before, but I think perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned by Marvel Studios from the success of Loki as a villain here is that a performance by a good actor is always going to trump a special effect.  I think the third act problems in the likes of Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk stem partly from the fact that, while the villains are played by great actors, by the end they’ve donned CGI robotic costumes or become CGI monsters, and are uniformly less compelling in this form than they were when giving an actual performance.  Loki is an actual performance, and as such makes for a more tangible, engaging villain.  The same can’t be said for the Chitauri, a rather anonymous alien race who serve as the main threat to be overcome in the film’s climax.  And while this extended end battle is exhilerating, if there’s any criticisms to be made, it’s that the Chitauri themselves feel like a rather nebulous, indistinct threat, and a match for The Avengers only in sheer numbers rather than any real individual formidability.  Indeed, they are so disposable that at points it feels like we’re watching a video game, with our heroes as expert players effortlessly knocking off foes as they progress through a level.  Fortunately, Loki’s presence keeps us invested in the threat.

My excitement for the Marvel film universe may have diminished going into The Avengers, but now I find it expanded once more, perhaps to greater heights than ever before.  Based off this brilliant film, I’m more excited than ever for Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and after that post-credits scene (stick around for it, folks!), whatever sequel to The Avengers comes down the line.  Marvel Studios has been rejuvenated, and The Avengers have never been more awesome: I was left wishing that the comics could be as rewarding as this.  If you’ve loved Marvel’s films up until now, you’ll love this more.  If you’ve been disappointed in Marvel’s previous films, this will win you over.  The Avengers is the first in a summer of big-time superhero movies.  While I might have thought this was going to be overwhelmed by The Dark Knight Rises, after seeing The Avengers, now I think it’s Christopher Nolan who’s going to be feeling the pressure to deliver.  He’s going to have to work hard to top Joss Whedon.

REVIEW: Journey into Mystery #631

Journey into Mystery is Marvel’s best comic.  I thought that would be as good a place as any to start with this review.  At one point I was buying a pretty healthy slate of Marvel titles, but over the past year or so I found myself steadily dropping them until all that remained were Journey into Mystery and Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s PunisherMAX, and with the latter book not being canon, that makes Kieron Gillen’s Thor spin-off the only comic set within the Marvel Universe proper that I’m currently buying.  But as long as this title remains alive, hope is not lost for the House of Ideas, as while I’ve not yet got round to reviewing it, month in and month out (and recently, more than once a month) Gillen provides us with one of the most consistently entertaining comics on the shelves.

Of course, I could be a little biased in my praise, considering that Loki is my favorite Marvel character, and Journey into Mystery casts him in the leading role.  In his brief but stellar run on Thor back in 2010, Gillen showed a real knack for writing Asgard’s god of mischief, particularly in the oneshot Siege: Loki, which managed to not only serve as a satisfying Loki character study while simultaneously enrichening the main Siege narrative, but also engaged in some pre-emptive damage control by suggesting that Bendis’ deballing of the character with a rushed, undignified death at the hands of Sentry-Sue in the climax of Siege was in fact part of Loki’s elaborate master plan.  So, of course, Gillen was a natural choice to pen Journey into Mystery, a sister title to The Mighty Thor that focused on the renewed misadventures of a reincarnated Loki.  The twist is that Loki has been brought back as a child, and like the young Loki of ages past, he is still mischevous and scheming, but has not yet lost his innocence.  And so we get to see a Loki fighting against turning into the villain he is destined to grow into, even when all in Asgard hate him and believe him to be this villain already, and we see him using his tools of trickery and deceit for good rather than evil.

Since its launch, Journey into Mystery has carried the Fear Itself banner, but despite carrying that weight around its neck, the title has managed to thrive on its own merits: as someone who hasn’t been reading Fear Itself, that I felt like I was getting a full, rewarding story from this title alone, and I was being told all I needed to know about the crossover event I was missing.  Now, with #631, Journey into Mystery at last has its own cover dress and logo, and we can get a sense of how the book will move forward now that Gillen is in no way beholden to Fear Itself.  As it turns out, it’s largely more of the same, which is a good thing.

I love the presentation of this series, with its narrative captions presented in a faux-mythical style, as if we were reading legends from ancient scrolls, only to be slyly deflated by the odd witty aside.  It just makes this comic feel like no other comic I’m reading, giving it a distinct flavor.  The continuation of that makes this transition to post-event mode pretty much seamless.  We get a taste of Asgard’s new status quo, and this largely reads like an epilogue to what’s come before and a prologue for what’s to come.  But even with little plot progression, Gillen succeeds in keeping us immersed in his vision of Asgard and the surrounding mythological realms.

The big selling point of this book, and the element for which it has received deserved praise, is the characterisation of Loki.  He’s totally Loki, but he’s different too.  He’s a child.  And more than that, he’s a child who’s spent time on Earth, meaning that in this issue he can confuse his fellow Asgardians with talk of internet memes and BFFs.  He’s very much the star of the show, and surely one of the most compelling leads to be found in any comic out right now.  But this issue really hammered home (no pun intended) to me how much Journey into Mystery has always been an ensemble piece.  The Disir, Hela, Tyr, Leah, Surtur, and of course, perennial scene-stealer Mephisto all get a sequence or two to touch on their current status quo, with a suggestion that their roles in the series will progress beyond Loki’s initial interactions with them as part of his battle against the Serpent’s forces.  It would seem that Loki’s plates have kept on spinning away even though he thinks he’s done with them… and that may come back to haunt him.

If there’s any small downside with Journey into Mystery right now, it’s the art.  Doug Braithwaite was the ideal artist for the series, doing what was quite possibly career-best work and giving the title a slick, dramatic feel.  Since his departure we’ve had something of a revolving door approach to the visuals, with the most constant artist lately being Whilce Portacio, whose work I’m not the biggest fan of.  Some pages – such as Surtur’s ominous return to Muspelheim – look great, but other times the work feels too messy and scratchy for my tastes.

But while Journey into Mystery still needs to find stable footing on the art front, the writing is as consistent as ever.  Kieron Gillen has emerged as one of Marvel’s most dependable writers, and Journey into Mystery continues to be the best showcase for his immense talent.  As long as I can keep reading about what Loki’s up to, I’ll still have a Marvel comic on my pull list.