Dr. Flem's Laboratory

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Been a While, eh?

Yeah, so I kind of disappeared for a while.

No, I still haven't finished Cerebus.

Yes, it kind of sapped my energy for getting excited about comics as a medium.

Yes, I needed some really enjoyable superhero-themed comics to get my energy up.

So, I read all of the Gail Simone run on Birds of Prey, which was pretty much just what the doctor ordered. I actually kind of like Black Canary, which is a pretty significant change from the vast apathy I've felt since childhood. Huntress actually seems like a real person instead of a borderline-offensive stereotype. Very nice stuff.

That said, while the character work in the series is fantastic, the whole run feels a little thin on ideas. I mean, it's nearly 4 years of comics and introduces, what, five new characters that seem reusable? I clearly like Savant a lot less than Simone does (based on this) - he and Creote both feel like refugees from 90's comics I've only skimmed. Really, the only new addition I like is Josh, who is perhaps somewhat limited, but useful in the kind of action-comedy scenes Simone seems to like.

I'm probably coming across as more negative than I intend. Like I say, I enjoy the series, and I think it's going to be a decent enough home for Kate Spencer (though I'll feel better if her supporting cast shows up sooner rather than later). I just feel like some of the less tangible concepts aren't handled as well as they could be. The Brainiac virus storyline, for instance, would have just been awesome in the hands of someone like, say, Warren Ellis, but ended up just feeling kind of muddled here. Still, lots of well-written characters, so I can't complain.

Speaking of Ellis, am I the only person reading New Universal? More importantly, am I the only person who really loves New Universal? I'm sure there's probably a lot of scorn towards the New Universe titles, and rightly so (as anyone who read Kickers, Inc. - or, really, any of the New Universe titles other than DP7 - would probably agree), but Ellis is doing a really nice job with the "superhero-y tropes invade real world" concept. This last issue had two totally great conceptual moments that really got me (the discussion of the past appearances of superhumans and the depiction of the shining ancient city) and it's certainly my favorite series in which absolutely nothing is happening.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Some Final Thoughts on Church and State

I want to get back to the regularly scheduled superhero-themed posting (since the whole point of this blog is to be able to openly talk about comics I can't talk about to those who I'm trying to convince of the value of the medium), but I've got a couple more things to say about Cerebus. I'm just starting Mothers & Daughters now (issue 150 or so), but the ending of Church & State really impressed me.

This post is going to be chock-full of spoilers, so those who are concerned about such things may want to stop reading now.

Earlier, I was a little confused by the narrative decision to make Cerebus a rapist. As mentioned, it certainly allowed Sim to deal with some religious issues, and ended up revealing more about the character of Cerebus than one might expect, but it seemed like a pretty drastic step in turning your readership against your protagonist.

All of that became much more clear in the end of Church & State. Cerebus, having walked out of Astoria's trial to climb a giant tower to meet God, ends up on the moon talking with the Judge from Jules Feiffer's Little Murders. After the judge reveals that the world will end in 6000 years (which puts the events of Cerebus right about at the start date of the planet acc'd to the fundamentalists), Cerebus asks about his own destiny.

These three pages are some of the best I've read in a long while. Cerebus is told flatly, that all the intrigue, aspirations, scheming of the past 100 or so issues is completely moot. He failed at everything, and wasn't even there to see it happen or do anything about it. He is told, with finality, that his life will amount to nothing, and he will soon die - alone, unmourned, unloved. All of which would be bad enough, but the crushing reminder that he has no moral authority left to argue against this outcome after his rape of Astoria. The page and a half of the judge walking away into the bleak landscape of the moon is wonderful. Cerebus is alone with his guilt and self-loathing.

It's a rare emotion - one that doesn't get conveyed in any medium that often - the hidden shame, the fear of being judged (worse, the fear of being judged rightly), feelings of abject unworthiness. I can only think of a couple other examples that even come close (Joel's memory of killing a helpless animal in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Leland's guilt at the first time he let BOB inside of him in Twin Peaks), but neither comes close to this. This is, effectively, the fear of being condemned to Hell for something you know you did and you knew was wrong.

I can certainly see why the Wachowski Bros. tried to rip off this scene.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More Thoguhts on Cerebus

Immediately after my last post, I hit the first of what I assume will be many scenes that are a little hard to swallow in Cerebus. I was well aware going in of Sim's somewhat controversial views on feminism, but, to date, the book had actually been pretty interesting as far as its thoughts on theology and politcs and such, but this sequence was certainly a little off-putting.

(There are going to be some significant spoilers ahead, if A) anyone is reading this and B) cares)

So, the sequence in question involves Cerebus, in his capacity as Pope, interrogating his former advisor Astoria (who has just killed the other Pope). She has a long history of manipulating Cerebus in a variety of ways, but usually in a non-sexual fashion. This time, she offers to have sex with Cerebus. He hesitates, and she takes the opportunity to gloat that he can't as he's married and, despite his overall amoral pursuit of money and power, he is still an orthodox Tarimite and cannot have sex outside of marriage. This sets Cerebus off and, as an infallible Pope, annuls his previous marriage and marries Astoria, then proceeds to gag and rape her.

It's a rough scene to read. Part of it is, of course, that I tend to identify with Cerebus and his overall sense of misanthropy, and I'm damn sure there is no amount of gloating that could get me to rape anyone. I certainly get Sim's explanation (at least the one he's giving now) about the idea behind the scene. If infallibility is granted upon you, there's not really anything to keep you from doing anything you want. Cerebus is effectively immune from all judgement - either on a temporal legal level or in a larger spiritual sense. It's even more all-encompassing a free pass than the "if the President does it, it must be legal" line of thinking.

Still, it's an odd narrative choice to make your protagonist a rapist. (It's worth pointing out here that Sim, to his credit, definitively refers to this as rape and expressed dismay that the bulk of his letters were of the "she was asking for it" variety) I know Cerebus isn't supposed to be a role model, but there are those of us for whom rape is a much less forgiveable offense than baby killing (which is always good for a laugh).

Regardless, it does provide for some interesting characterization. Astoria's taunting (which certainly seems to have been accurate) does highlight Cerebus' inability to move beyond the fairly simple logic of Orthodox Tarimism (which is to say "Roman Catholicism"). Despite all his professed desire for gold, power, and revenge, he's still bound by an arbitrary set of rules that really no longer applies to him. Even after the rape, he certainly seems to feel uncomfortable about his actions. Neither character discusses what happened afterwards, though I expect it to become a significant issue down the road.

So, rough to read, but an interesting choice.

Some Thoughts on Assorted Indie Titles

Lately, I've been having trouble summoning up much enthusiasm for mainstream superhero comics. I'm not sure if it's fatigue induced by the extended crossoverness with no particular payoff of Infinite Crisis or the increasing dullness going on in 52 (which I'm still reading every week, if only to keep up with Mr. Wolk's excellent blog), but I'm not really enjoying much of what I'm reading. The new Flash title's been horrible. I kind of gave up Teen Titans for those Liefeld-drawn issues. Birds of Prey's been decent, but not particularly exciting. Robinson's Batman story was all right, but not remotely near the bar he's set for himself. I'm hoping the upcoming Morrison run on Detective will help out a bit, but, until then, I've been catching up on all the indie stuff I haven't read.

As I've mentioned before, I stopped reading comics for pretty much all of the 90's (from the time I was 15 until I was 25). While this certainly saved me from some good things (like just about everything Marvel published during this period), it also meant I had a lot of catching up to do. I'm just about caught up on the DC side. I read most of the big event storylines from the time (or at least skimmed them), as well as most of the recommended titles. So, now I just needed to catch up on the indie titles that either started in the 90's or were a little too adult-oriented for me to have read as a kid.

Started with 100 Bullets, which I discussed below, and have since moved on to David Lapham's Stray Bullets. I assume this title, and the fairly dramatic jumps in tone, location, and character must have been a little jarring in serialized form, but they work very nicely when each grouping is collected in the (lovely) hardcover collections. The first volume ("The Innocence of Nihilism") is, as the title states, fairly aggressively nihilistic, bordering on depressing. Once we move forward, and see some of the surviving characters making their way out west, it gets a little less brutal. Now, I'm not against brutality, per se, but it's hard to make much of an emotional attachment to characters that are likely to be dead by the issue's end. Of course, by the third volume, we're largely switched to another set of characters, but even they start to seep into each other's stories. Really, I think I'm mostly just impressed by the very neat way he takes small, compact stories and weaves them into a much larger constuction.

Also reading Cerebus, which was, when I started going to comic shops, THE title everyone (or at least the creepy older guys who hung out at the comic shop) was into. I never really gave it a shot as a kid, but tried getting into it a few years ago (inspired by the hooplah of the series' conclusion). It's not an easy one to get into. The first few issues are very very heavy with parody - mostly of Conan - which didn't really do much for me. Of course, I'm sort of whishing I'd paid better attention to the first few issues, as they were apparently the only introduction to the various countries and peoples of Cerebus' homeland you get during the series. Once I got to the "High Society" storyline, I realized I was getting fairly well sucked in to the elaborately complex religious-political machinations that make up the series (at least in the first third). I'm currently in the middle of "Church and State II" and am just starting to feel like I have a handle on what is going on.

There's still a lot that's off-putting about the title. Sim's insistence on parody is jarring - I really don't understand the purpose of having an Elric parody who talks like Foghorn Leghorn or of making a very important, central character look and act like Groucho Marx. I suppose it's not any more absurd than having an aardvark as your central character, but it's enough to pull the reader out of the story. The worst offense is the "timely" parodies of superheroes. I'm currently having to deal with the Roach (the ongoing superhero parody of, in order, Batman, Captain American, Moon Knight, Wolverine, and Spiderman) engaging in the "Secret Sacred Wars." It's so unfunny I'm not sure it counts as parody.

On the other hand, Cerebus is perhaps one of the more relatable comic characters I've encountered. Shortly before writing this, I came across this:

It's like they made a comic about me.

Also started reading Love and Rockets. I started with the first volume, which may have been a bad idea (based on what I've read about the series). Jaime's early stories all seem to be Archie comics set in a Dadaist sci-fi story. Which, normally, would be right up my alley, but they are so full of gibberish, it's almost impossible to read. Gilbert's stories are possibly worse (at least Bem was), with the exception of the last story in the collection, which is apparently the first of the Palomar stories. I kind of liked that one. Are there any Love and Rockets fans out there who can offer encouragement here? Should I keep reading, or is the first collection a fair representation of the series?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Infinity Inc. #1-16

As I mentioned a while back, I decided I should probably take a pass at re-reading Infinity Inc since many of the characters are getting worked back into continuity. As a kid, I was always very curious about the series, but could never afford it. If I recall correctly, it was the first of DC's titles to be published in the premium format (or at least the first one that wasn't doing the year-delayed reprints that Legion and Teen Titans did), so given the choice between buying three regular comics or one issue of Infinity Inc, quantity always won out. Towards the end of one summer, however, I found a comic shop that was dumping its back issues for bargain prices, so picked up what was just about a complete run on the title.

I was certainly a sucker for anything Earth-Two as a kid. Some of my earliest superhero comic memories are of the "Countdown to Crisis" JLA/JSA crossover, and I started reading All Star Squadron as soon as it was available. So, you can imagine my excitement when I got my hands on the run of Infinity Inc.

However, I remember the acquisition much better than I remember actually reading the comics. Which, rereading them as an adult, makes perfect sense. The issues themselves are eminently forgettable. Particularly brutal is the initial 10 part story arc that kicks off the series. And it's a stupid story arc. The JSA members drink from the waters of the Stream of Ruthlessness and turn evil. There's some really pointless time travelling thrown in there as well, but, really, it's an unbelievably pointless story arc. I supposes it introduces the characters, but most of the characterization is pretty flat - Todd's got a chip on his shoulder, Hector is a preppy asshole, Jenny likes to talk to herself in thought bubbles at great length. It's rough going. Last time I tried reading it, it was enough to get me to stop reading comics for a week. Fortunately, once the brutal opening arc gets out of the way, things start to pick up. Surprisingly, what really gives the series a kick is Todd McFarlane.

Now, don't get me wrong. I hate Todd McFarlane. I hate his art. I hate his litigiousness. I hate his overwhelming ego. But, his art here? It's not bad. There's certainly some Chaykin/American Flagg influence, but also a pretty odd idea of how to construct panels. Part of this may be due to some very sparse scripting, but it's kind of interesting. Especially for 1985.

I'm not saying it's groundbreaking, but it certainly gives the series more energy than it had before. Which is probably good, given the general turgidness of the plots and characters. Of course, no amount of interesting panel layout is going to compensate for the McFarlane costume design (Chroma, Mr. Bones, pretty much everyone in Helix).

Really, the stumbling block on the series is Thomas' writing. I'm really torn on the guy. He certainly gets a whole lot of points in my book for keeping up interest in the Golden Age roster throughout the 80's. Without him, I'm not sure we'd have the interest in the characters to support the current JSA series. Or at least not the editorial willingness to publish it. On the other hand, his writing is unforgivably dated. Really, none of the characters feel remotely real, except for Nuklon (though, I'm not sure why Thomas wanted to cast Al in the role of fish out of water - wouldn't the guy from the hidden island of birdmen be a better candidate for that than the nice Jewish boy from Florida?). The characters spend an inordinate amount of time arguing, which tends to slow what little plot there is to a crawl. I may continue for a few more issues, just to see where it goes (It ran for over 50 issues? Really?), but I've got better things to read.

ETA: OK, so a few issues after the bit I included above, McFarlane apparently decided to start doing Miller. Or maybe Giffen doing Miller. Honestly, I think I prefer his attempts to be someone else than his "personal" style.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

100 Bullets #1-67

The stack of new comics continues to overwhelm me, so I turned my attention in the last week to the 9 volumes of 100 Bullets the Multnomah County library provided me with. I had tried reading the series a year ago, but only made it a couple story arcs in before I got bored with the seemingly unrelated structure of the stories.

This time, though, I pushed on enough to realize that this story - which seems, on first reading, like an anthology series based around a common narrative element - turns out to be more complex than it seems by several orders of magnitude. Characters that appear as background figures in one story show up years later as central characters in another. And stories that feel like they should be throwaway stories end up being critical to the overarching plot - a plot which didn't really show up at all for the first 9 issues. From a narrative structure standpoint, this is possibly the most impressive comic I've read.

Often, when shooting for a fixed run, writers seem to run a little dry (see my complaints about Ex Machina below - or, for a more dramatic example, reflect on the endless cycle of "Jesse leaves Tulip behind, Tulip gets angry, Herr Starr gets anally raped" that dragged Preacher out well beyond its natural story cycle). So far, Azzarello's 2/3rds of the way done, and nearly nothing in here seems to be wasted. Sure, there are one-off stories that (so far, at least) are just that, but they're still good. And, really, sometimes we need a little break from a main story as headache-inducing as the one he's telling.

All said, it's not quite perfect. Risso's art works well most of the time - the jagged minimalism is a great pairing when Azarello really cuts loose with noir-inflected narratives - but often it can be a little hard to distinguish between hulking, black-suited men. This may be deliberate (and is certainly exacerbated by Azarello's tendency to refer to characters by nicknames with no easy relation to the characters to which we've been introduced), but, given the complexity, seems a little cruel.

But, really, I'll forgive almost any series that gives me an awesome faux-Steranko cover like this:

Original Art

In general, I try to stay away from the original comic art market. It's way too expensive, and, knowing my somewhat poor money management skills and borderline-obsessive tendencies, I can see myself spending way too much on such things.

That said, when a friend told me a page from Doom Patrol #63 was up on eBay, it was hard to resist. So, roughly $100 later, I am now the proud owner of the art (inked and lettered and signed by Case) for this page from what may well be my favorite single issue of a comic:

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Comic-Related Movies

Most comics bloggers seem to have posted some summary of their thoughts on the big comic movies of the summer, but I have yet to see X3 or Superman Returns. The former mostly on an extremely negative recommendation from a friend whose taste in movies I tend to trust; the latter due to a strong dislike of seeing movies while children are in the theater. Fortunately, there are plenty of 21+ theaters in Portland, so I'll see it as soon as it makes its way down there.

Still, just because I haven't seen those, doesn't mean I can't write about comic movies here. Last weekend, I went to see Art School Confidential, based loosely on the comic by Daniel Clowes. I tend to like Clowes' work, even if I haven't quite read all of it and find much of it fairly depressing (though, as far as depressing comics go, Chris Ware has set the bar so high it makes it hard to say that anyone else even counts). The movie was pretty awful. I've liked all the previous Zwigoff films to date,but this one was just awful and feels like something a first-year college student might have come up with. I mean, I'm pretty bitter about my college experience, but I've moved on. It's sort of sad Clowes hasn't been able to do that quite yet.

After that, watched A History of Violence, which was similarly disappointing. I read the graphic novel a few months back and, upon getting to the end, could finally see why Cronenberg might think this would be exactly the right sort of project for him. Except the film didn't contain the rather grisly elements that meshed so well with Cronenberg's long-running interest in the human body as a source of terror. I'm trying really hard here not to spoil things for people who haven't either read the graphic novel or seen the movie, but I never thought I'd see the day that the Cronenberg adaptation of a work is significantly less troubling and disturbing than the source material.

Last Saturday, went out to Beaverton to see Krrish. Pretty darn enjoyable, if maybe a little overlong. By far, the highlight of the film was the incredible dance number at a circus (right before the hero first dons his mask and adopts the Krrish identity). I learned, after seeing it, that it was a sequel to a wildly popular E.T. knockoff. Without that knowledge, the off-handed explanation of how our hero got his special abilities (i.e., his brain-damaged father befriended an abandoned alien who made him unnaturally smart) was pretty wonderfully strange. Overall, I enjoyed that quite a bit and would certainly recommend it if you get the opportunity (and are predisposed to want to see a Bollywood superhero movie).

Monday, July 10, 2006

Ex Machina #11-21

All right. I'm back from vacation and have a truly daunting stack of comics to read. Perhaps most daunting was the stack of Ex Machina's, for which I sort of lost enthusiasm about a year ago (right at the end of the "Tag" storyline). Don't get me wrong, I was enjoying the series quite a bit - I just couldn't really get into it on a monthly basis. So, I let it build up for a while, and, after a while, the size of the built-up stack got overwhelming and I continued to ignore it, leaving me with no other option but to read a year's worth at one shot.

It's certainly a more enjoyable series to read this way. The double plotlines that each arc contains (generally a political storyline and a superhero-y storyline) are easier to follow in immediate succession. Vaughan seems willing to make some big jumps in narrative (i.e., the off-issue funeral of Journal and introduction of her sister) which, when reading serially, make the reader (or at least a simple-minded reader like me) pause and try to remember if he missed an issue.

Like I said, I'm enjoying the series, but there's something not quite there. It's the same sensation I've been getting from Y the Last Man, namely that Vaughan has an idea of how the series is going to begin and end, but is a little fuzzy about the middle. Both series focus around one key set of mysteries ("What killed all the men?" and "What is this thing that fused with Mitchell?"), and I'm not sure Vaughan knows how to dole out the answers in little bits. Instead of the normal mystery progression of "clue one leads to clue two leads to clue three leads to solution," he tends to just have his characters wander around for a while until, presumably, the mystery will be revealed at the end.

During the first couple arcs, it looked like we were going to get some faster explanation. Mitchell's explanation of what exactly the project he and Georges were working on consisted of in the middle of "Tag" boded well, but then we've sort of dropped that altogether (except for a brief allusion during a dream sequence).

Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm certainly OK with series taking breaks to build character, explore random stories that occur to the writer, etc. Milligan's Shade really only got going once he gave up on a central storyline and mostly just had the characters hanging out. But, if your entire series is built around a central mystery, completely ignoring that for a year at a time is going to leave some very frustrated readers. Maybe this new treachery/mole angle they've got going is going to lead somewhere, but my faith is a little shaken.