Fantastic Four #570

Jonathan Hickman writes the sort of stories that one might expect to be written by an extremely intelligent and inquisitive child. If that sounds like I'm knocking the guy, it isn't supposed to. Books like Pax Romana and Red Mass for Mars are full of the stuff of a smart kid's daydreams: war, mythology, conspiracies, technology, space aliens; sometimes to the point where a reader becomes so dazedly overstimulated that the question of what the book is about becomes sorta nebulous. Again, that might sound bad, but really, it isn't. Hickman seems to have accomplished something significant with the first issue of his much anticipated run on Fantastic Four in that he seems to have delivered an FF story that is true to the pedigree of this old war-horse of a comic--the superhero team battling the evildoers of the world and still making it home in time to tuck in the kiddies--without sacrificing any of the things that make him a unique storyteller.

"Solve Everything." Reed Richards's 101st idea to change the world immediately evokes the innocence of the mid-20th century, when scientists credulously claimed that the ends to such quaint ills as hunger, infectious disease and metered electricity were in sight. Fifty-odd years and countless pitiful lives and ignoble deaths have tempered humans' confidence in the technological panacea and yet the notion that scientific advancement is the best counter to the threats that we face is still very much alive. Hickman realizes that the line that separates altruism from narcissism is very fine indeed and Mr. Fantastic's quest to solve all the world's problems may have as much to do with his own boundless fascination with himself as it does with a legitimate desire to help his fellow man.

Of course Hickman makes no secret of this, but what's interesting about Reed's encounter with his alternate selves is that it is marked by the same ambiguous grandiosity as his long-running mini-series Red Mass for Mars. As the hero of our earth gawks at the room full of alternate Reeds, each in the guise of other Marvel heroes, he cannot seem to wipe that shit-eating grin off his face. It is as though he's thinking, "I don't know what the hell is going on here, but at least I can count on some intelligent conversation for once."

Any ambiguity about the wisdom of gathering a quorum of Reeds to fend off threats to any of the various permutations of earth is duly eradicated on the last page of the book. The image of three Infinity Gauntlet-wearing Reeds calling upon the Richards from our earth to join them and reach his full potential portends an epic battle with hubris of the sort that Hickman is so skilled at drawing and, one hopes, a glorious return of the epic space comic. It is also a key example of the deft balancing act performed by Dale Eaglesham's superb pencils, which pay respect to the great legacy of artists such as Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin, without being reduced to simple homage, while also creating a comic, indeed, a Fantastic Four comic that is entirely new.


Why You Should Buy King City #1

The first issue of Brandon Graham's "King City" is in comics stores today and everyone on the blog wholeheartedly recommends it. Though it's the first issue, the comic was previously collected in a trade by TOKYOPOP and so, we already know why it's great. And we want to tell you why...-b

King City's for everyone and no one, which is the weird, awesome place that pretty much all great art resides. Universal and rarefied at the same time, a kind of rorschach test for what floats your boat or something, pretty much everyone who reads King City--and they'll read it, it's strongest aspect might be just how easy is it is to read--comes out of the experience with different reasons to really, really, like it. To work all my favorites out would be quite an undertaking, but let's run through them kinda quickly...

Like I said before, it reads quick. This is much harder than one thinks, especially in a comic that's essentially moment-to-moment, with some vague rumblings of plot. More interested (as it should be) with small details, King City never feels confused or muddled. It's smart enough to know that plot is stupid. It's also chock full of real-life emotions, that just happen to be wrapped up in zombie wars and puns and sasquatch landlords. The moment where Graham elegantly flashes back to the first kiss, then the last, between main character Joe and then-girlfriend Anna, and wraps it up with her simple question, "Why didn't you try harder?" is devastating. A buncha pages later, Joe's friend Pete is sitting on a roof and its raining (like it was raining in that "Why didn't you try harder?" scene) holding a wad of "dirty money" like, what the fuck and you're also like, "What the fuck?". Damn. That's King City

Hopefully this wont be read as a negative (because I wholeheartedly mean it as a positive), but I must have read King City like three times before I actually realized it was a sci-fi comic. From the first page you're so into the world of Joe, the main character, that everything you're coming across seems as totally natural to you as it does to him. Lock-picking cat? Whatev. Sasquatch in a secret door? No biggie. It wasn't until a couple readings after I was like, oh yeah, none of that actually happens here. Bummer.

Another element that helps pull you completely into the world of King City is Brandon Graham's spot-on art. It's a perfect combination of future robot electro-shit plus the all junk you see on the street everyday and don't think twice about. The detail he puts into stuff like pipes, wires, and buildings makes you think King City must be real. And in a way, it almost is. It's clear Graham does a lot of reference work from real life to be able to add such life and detail to his environment, and for the same reason, I feel his characters are all one step away from being all of our friends, or at least some guy you kind of know. While dealing with extraordinary situations, they are all still totally real people.

Did I mention the cat?

There’s a reason it’s called King City. The location plays such an important role in the story that it's most certainly a character itself. Graham develops a city rich with details and thoughtful designs of buildings, trains, doors, keys, and even vending machines that aren’t just background but really hold inside them a life of their own. Atmosphere's important, but especially important in the rather rambling narrative of King City.

This focus on what's usually seen as extraneous detail fleshes out the vast, almost infinitely varied city, where anything could happen. The city, and its details, make the characters worries, hopes, and concerns seem like just one story of many currently going on. That's sense of something bigger is an important part of King City's tone. A constant reminder to the reader and the characters of the largeness of life.

As comics readers and science fiction fans, it’s hard to find something that’s “cool”, not all wrapped up in super nerd stuff. I don’t mean to say that sci-fi is a guilty pleasure of mine or something I’m embarrassed about, but I can’t get an “outsider” to read most of the books or comics I like because they are off-putting and weird to someone who doesn’t regularly read the genre.

King City sorta opens up those doors because Brandon Graham's comic has a deeply involved mythos, though inspired by everything from X-Men and Conan the Barbarian to Moebius and Dragon Ball, is brand new and instantly engaging too. Graham refers to wars we’ve never seen and old friends we’ve never met but already know--you don't need the explanation, you know because you're there. King City is where all of our childhood drawings of super humans and monsters go to grow up and become real people with jobs and relationships. It’s coming back to something you already know as an adult with bills and responsibility, but your imagination didn't get all fucked up.

Brandon Graham is indelibly linked to indie comics. In most cases, I'm not excited by small press/ indie stuff because I'm not partial to the art style or the content is gimmicky. However, very much so NOT the case with Graham. His art and his content come together to form his very own voice--what art is supposed to do--and I can honestly say I've never read anything that can quite contain the same space in my brain as King City. In the story, there is plenty of craziness going on: it's a sci-fi comic set in some fictional future location, there is an adorable super-cat, and funny friends. Even with all of this, somehow it's a really emotional story and just like real life, these elements of the story are just a backdrop for the secret, fucked-up longing for a certain female Joe experiences.

The seeing-and-reading nature of comics allows each part of the story to give off a certain feeling. With Joe's friends, it's just a goofy dude hang out that feels fun-- all the attitude contained in hilarious dialogue. The cat, while very useful and much like Joe's own personal Totoro, offering companionship, comfort and remedy, is a voiceless but really strong personality shown through BG's art. When ANNA (that girl) comes into the picture, it's like the realest shit ever. The longing of Joe comes to a head and bursts RIGHT BEFORE the end of the first trade, previously released by Tokyo Pop, leaving those emotionally connected to the story longing for Part 2.

King City is great in the way a lot of the best movies are great. Which isn’t to say that it’s particularly “cinematic”—Graham’s tendency to employ a fish-eye(cat's eye?) perspective to expand his cityscapes notwithstanding, King City is not a particularly cinematic comic. Rather, Graham’s opus eschews the second-rate pleasures of complicated plots in favor of a gradual layering of moment upon moment, incident upon detail-rich incident. Like films such as Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, or especially Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Graham’s narrative builds an incremental world that is personal without being exclusive and, as Brandon put it, at once universal and rarefied.

Reading King City is such an unalloyed pleasure because, for Graham, making comics is about putting together all of the things that make life beautiful into something that is meaningful and truly greater than the sum of its parts. While we recognize the allusions to European sci-fi comics, manga, street art and hip-hop, we are also keenly aware that we are dealing with something entirely new and wonderful. What else can you conclude about a comic that opens with a showdown on a moving train in which one of the combatants is felled by a powerfully flicked booger? But for all its absurdly perfect set-pieces and reflexive gags, King City still manages to say something about being young and in love and growing up and how our environment informs, or even defines a part of who we are.


Junko Mizuno's Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu Vol. 1

The truth hurts, especially when people go to extraordinary lengths to hide it. Pelu learns this lesson in the opening pages of Junko Mizuno's Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu Vol. 1 when it is revealed that the reason he is so different than everyone else on the planet Princess Kotobuki is that he is not a person at all, but rather one part of the elaborate sexual and yet somehow asexual reproductive mechanism of the Princess Kotobukians. This revelation comes as a result of the baby that falls from between the legs of his sister Palu, prompting Pelu to abandon Princess Kotobuki in favor of Earth, where he intends to find a mate and make a baby of his own before returning home.

Preciosity defiled by the filth, fluids and viscera of reality are pretty much Mizuno's stock-in-trade. But to say that her stories neatly subvert the supreme cuteness of her imagery is to see only half the picture. Pelu's quest and the respective fates of the earth women he courts are ultimately about the complex interplay of truth and the stories (or lies) we tell ourselves to hide from the truth. Sometimes it is more harmful to acknowledge the truth than it is to live under false pretenses and sometimes the opposite is true. The trick is determining which is the case in a given situation.

Some of Mizuno's characters have a better grasp on this idea than others. When Asako is offered a recording contract after her shopping center concert, she refuses because she knows it was Pelu's voice that was heard over the loudspeakers and not her own. Despite the fact that this sequence of events leads to the eventual death of the boyfriend who worked so hard for just this opportunity--and not incidentally also caused the pregnancy that resulted in Asako's choking up at the moment she needed to sing--Asako's choice to accept the truth in this situation results in her ultimate happiness. Conversely, when Michiru cravenly capitalizes on the appearance of Pelu and the Space Hippo by constructing elaborate fictions about the circumstances of their arrival, it sets in motion a sequence of events that ultimately leads to the destruction of the neighboring poodle ranch, forcing Michiru and her mother to flee in disgrace. When Pelu confronts Michiru about her failure to be forthright about his appearance, her response is pithy and to the point: "Lies are more interesting."

Pelu himself, after confronting the truth of his own nature, adopts a stance to those around him which might be characterized as "radical truth." Pelu's commitment to honesty recalls Heidegger's notion of living authentically. But as even Heidegger admitted, we could not survive if we were to be in a constant state of authenticity. The bullshit that we deal to ourselves and to others is often necessary for functioning in society. Thus, when Danko overhears Pelu's rationale for falling in love with her--"it's better to go for someone who doesn't have good looks"--she isn't prepared to face such unvarnished honesty and it ultimately destroys her, albeit in a roundabout way.

Of course, all of this has little to do with why people buy Mizuno's books. The beautiful, buxom girls--a sort of army of Power Puff Bardots--and the painfully precious puff-balls with clouds for cheekbones have everything to do with her immediate appeal. But there is so much more complexity here than a simple dichotomy of our impossible ideals and the ugliness that lies beneath them. Mizuno points out the lies that we tell ourselves, but at the same time lets us know that these aren't necessarily bad things.


District 9 Is a Fucking Chop-Shop, Go Rent The Host

So today we welcome a new contributor, Adam Katzman. Enjoy!-b.

I'll start this off by confessing I have a thing for smart dumb action movies. I.e. the ones that revel in gloriously juvenile displays of testosterone but, in abeyance of substantial thematic subtext, instead layer the movies with a wonderfully convoluted game of mouse trap.

For example, Die Hard 3 and the endless rounds of potentially fatal mindgames, or Speed, if you discount the first 30 minutes, the last 20 minutes, and all the dialogue in between. I mention this mainly, because at best, District 9 is a smart dumb action movie. Unfortunately, its "smart" has nothing to do with its story as it comes saddled with a holier-than-thou socio-political claptrap that, is in reality more problematic, and generally incoherent, than progressively enlightening.

First, it's supposed to be an allegory about South African apartheid. From the outset that is impossible because, well, it's set in actual South African apartheid. This means a few things. One, you can't have an allegory about a political situation set in the political situation it's supposed to represent--it's counterintuitive because the abstract logic of symbolism can no longer mask the story's disconnect from its supposed intent.

Now, if the movie isn't an allegory and it's just commentary on apartheid, then what it actually says about the situation is entirely insensitive to the actual victims of apartheid, that if aliens arrived, even the black South Africans would act like the white ones and therefore, humankind is naturally a Hobbesian battleground that doesn't deserve the slightest sympathy.

To an extent, that would be an interesting premise since historically humans have been prone to being inhumane to one another, to the point of calling into question the logic of labelling an act of altruism or kindness humane. But that isn't the point of the movie, if a coherent one can be gleaned, and to glean one, I have to discount everything that happens after the cannister explodes on the protagonist's face, which means everything after the first thirty minutes.

But seriously, is it really enlightened to shit on the victims of South African apartheid because hypothetically, in the event of accidental alien encroachment, they'd behave just as bad as the whites? Historically, they never even got a chance to exact revenge on their oppressors, which in Peace Studies circles begets the eventual dissolution of sympathy status because that's when they "become" their oppressors and are no longer pliable victims worthy of televangelical donation commercials.

Instead, thanks to the enormous debt accrued by their oppressors while pillaging the country interminably, the ANC was forced to abandon the Freedom Charter's list of demands that popular resistance sacrificed its welfare for: public housing, redistribution of the stolen wealth, electricity, sewage, essentially national development.

All was discarded in favor of an IMF approved structural readjustment plan that resulted in political victory for ANC (i.e. they were elected) but an actual victory for the white-run banks and multi-national investors who kept apartheid afloat in that the resulting privatization of every aspect of life in South Africa overrode any decision made on behalf of public welfare. Which is why South Africa is basically now Apartheid without "Apartheid."

The movie's agitprop is entirely ignorant of this and sits squarely within the banks of a blip in your high school history textbook on Free Mandela campus protests in the 80's. The only corporate malfeasance it engages with is standard sci-fi trope nefariousness involving genetic experimentation and arms procurement, of which any deeper meaning is obliterated when gene-spliced tentacle arms become super fucking cool after they can use alien technology to blow up half of Johannesburg. Therefore, it's not that it's bad, it's that it's being done by bad people (aka the obligatory villains), which is where the "brilliant" parallelism comes in: The Nigerians.

Whereas the MNU medical attaches and corporate clerks bestir an air of intelligently cloaked evil, the Nigerians the aliens are forced to share space with are straight out of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Basically, by redistributing the reputation of Nigerian princes, the movie depicts a settler society of tribal, primitive, monstrously vicious scam artists who run a chop shop in District 9 where they trick aliens into giving up their arms (both weapons and limbs) for catfood and then perform apparently backwards witchcraft on each other with it, while also putting up their women for inter-species prostitution.

We don't have to pull out Steven Pinker to know that humans are hardwired with the capability to be assholes, but to completely ignore the environmental degradation and political non-existence refugees are forced to squander in and how that supercedes bourgoise notions of civility by upending self-determination with squalor is unnecessarily antagonistic.

Look no further than Primo Levi's discussion of what happens to congenial interpersonal relations and honest abidance of law when people are stripped of their identity, forced into a concentration camp and brutally dehumanized into skeletal pawns with both feet in the grave. Standard notions of civility and illegality are swept aside by forced hierarchical subordination, even between victims, and the use of theft and general by any means necessary scheming just to make it to the next day.

Since the movie wants us to care about the Aliens being forced into concentration camps, as they are explicitly and wistfully referred to at some point in the film, then we have to consider what those conditions mean for everyone forced to live in them. Instead, the other refugees are mere goon stock with no purpose other than providing multiple will-they-or-won't-they escape scenarios, which is generally useless when the protagonist is such a fucking selfish twit (yes, with a name that plays on a common joke about white South Africans, which is merely clever).

And honestly, that's where the movie is actually entertaining. The suicide missions, the double crossing, the ultimate chase, the race against the clock, the explosive kill-or-be-killed shootouts. It's actually effectively rendered, especially with a budget of 30 million it blows away most 200 million dollar endeavors on the basis of action alone. But to suggest it's anything more than that is a cruel joke. At least the action here merits some plaudits, though, unlike last year's fanboy/critic crossover darling The Dark Knight which was incoherent on both thematic and visual levels.

It's unfortunate that no one mentions The Host when discussing the canonical significance of District 9. Both films were done on an unimaginably miniscule budget, and both attempted socio-political resonance within the genre trappings of science fiction.

But where District 9 eschews empathetic characterization for out and out diminution, and fumbles into amnesia its ostensible political coating, The Host serves up affectionately endearing misfits turned miscreants and a consistent engagement in the machinations their plebe status is repeatedly (and realistically) shut out of engaging with.

Korea's historical split is a P.R. debacle of disingenuously manichean proportions, a context duly and subversively deconstructed by the way the premise plays out. Jumping off from an real instance of callous U.S. military negligence, an army doctor dumps a veritable cache of toxic material into the Han river with an arrogant sense of impunity.

Forward to the present and the careless negligence has birthed a literal monster, a genetic mutation foisted on one of the river squid. The beast's arbitrary selection of victims is countered with the story's focus on the dysfunctional family of a food cart vendor (fried squid included) near the bridge the squid calls home.

The proprietor is an at-wit's-end Grandpa whose other job is a familial balancing act. One son is a somewhat dim deadbeat with a heart of gold whose private-school daughter is an at-all-costs priority. Another son is a hollowed out drone in post-grad quarter life crisis whose rebellious political youth on behalf of democracy has been sequestered into an almost nihilistic capitulation to cosmic insignificance.

The daughter is a professional archer with an inability to bend her skills to the human concept of time and its management. When the monster wreaks havoc on its habitat's surroundings, the granddaughter is swallowed into DOA obscurity and the family thrust into inexplicable governmental maneuvering.

The bystanders are rounded up into biohazardous interrogation by the fraternal collusion of the government and the medical establishment in a seemingly impromptu policy move straight out of the plague section in Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Any peripheral figures to the attack are labelled as potential carriers of a virus emitted by the monster's glandular secretions and are thus hosts whose medical importance supercedes their rights as people.

Upon a phone call possibly from inside the belly of the beast, all hell breaks loose along with the family and the previously ordinary barely-held together unit become fugitive band targeted by every establishment possible, whose plight is merely one example of the miasma faced by the general population.

The movie doesn't simply bait the imperial nature of U.S. military presence, overt invasion or not, but the post-dictatorial paranoia of a country that never got a chance to recover from its fascist disposition when it became a pawn in a territorial dick game of Cold War perpetuity, with itself.

The dampened aspirations of the respective family member's trajectories are reawaked with temporal significance by yet another manipulation of representative governance in which closed door policy making puts everyone on the chopping block, something that gains signifance as the movie progresses as opposed to completely forgotten before it even gets a third of the way through--like District 9


The Negative Zone: Hey! Heavy Metal Still Rules

There's often a tendency amongst discerning-type fans to draw these reasonable though ultimately, fairly arbitrary lines between what's "cool" and what isn't. Now, that's hardly a shocker of a statement--it's the very definition of "discerning", no?--but it's more often than not, rooted in things like image and reputation than hard, critical thinking.

That's to say, something's usually scoffed-at because it "looks" uncool or has been declared uncool rather than first-hand reading or experience. One such example, and a particularly grating one as far as I'm concerned, is the mention of present day Heavy Metal followed by "Uh, you know, the ones with like Moebius were great, not the ones with Barbarians and Julie Strain...". Moebius is cool, Vikings and boobs are not, since when? Both are cool and there's plenty of good, interesting stuff to be gained from picking-up Heavy Metal at least every once in a while.

This has been an ongoing, quiet thesis by this blog and David hinted at it when he discussed the latest piece of Jodorowsky and Manara's Borgia series. There's barely any discussion by anyone really anywhere about the latest issue of Heavy Metal and it's rarely stocked in actual comics stores, which just seems unfortunate.

Especially unfortunate this month, because there's a particularly excellent issue out and it's one that I think even the people making Julie Strain jokes can get behind. Namely, you get Part Two (of Three) of Nathan Fox and Matt Wilson's Fluorescent Black and a ten-page installment of Jim Mahfood's masterpiece Carl the Cat That Makes Peanut Butter Sandwiches.

Mahfood's work gets enough discussion that I'm surprised this hasn't been talked about more, especially because it's a particularly brilliant installment of the strip but Fox (who is currently drawing the also slept-on Dark Reign: Zodiac) is making the kind of series that'll eventually become a graphic novel in a year or two and everybody'll review all excited-like. This is just a slightly less obnoxious version of the people that hold-off on whatever series for six to nine months until the trade comes out. The rest of the issue's fleshed-out with some winners and some losers and some kinda cool and kinda stupid pin-ups and stuff--just like the old Heavy Metal mind you.

A renewed interest, or at least something resembling acceptance of Heavy Metal, would be, in a sense, the last "wall" for comics readers to breakdown between "smart" and "dumb" comics. Nearly everyone is reading superhero comics along with their Chris Ware and Tomine stuff, and there's a recent wave of writers/artists totally breaking down "indie" and "mainstream" (like Fox or Mahfood, but Ba & Moon, Brandon Graham, Vasilis Lolos, Brian Wood, and many many more) and so, the disinterest in Heavy Metal seems more due to the perpetuation that it sucks, that there's nothing worth reading inside, than actual evidence or experience.

Heavy Metal is still, essentially the weirdest and coolest--though notably less weird and cool than it once was--anthology comic going on today. Cheaper and more frequently published and more easily accessible than say, MOME or Kramer's Ergot or whatever, Heavy Metal continues to drop smart pulp every month.


Some Notes on Wednesday Comics

Maybe you noticed Jesse stopped doing his weekly Wednesday Comics write-ups. I think it's safe to say nearly everyone's interest in the series has waned and although Jesse is the only one of the crew still buying it, it's essentially found its groove as to where the not-so-good ones, you just don't read and the good ones are good enough that how the strips build upon one another week-to-week's become more interesting.

That said, the general response from most of us here has been that Wednesday Comics took a lot of missteps--and they were there from the start. To call it a failure would be harsh, the thing's still so damned cool, but there's a lot of bullshit to wade through to make it worthwhile. The price point really is pretty obnoxious because the cost to print this thing is no doubt cheaper than a sorta glossy, 32-page typical comic book and it almost feels like DC expects readers to buy it out of "support". Kinda like when you go to SPX and some dick has these stupid cartoony drawings with like a pig farting and it's $5.99 or something, only here it's not so much "support a starving artist" as it is, "support a cool, slightly weird idea"--but well, fuck that.

Sammy made an interesting point about the writer/artists chosen and it's one of the few complaints about the series that I've not read anywhere else: Why isn't it more writer/artists? Besides the fact that on, what I'll call "boutique" comics projects like this, the writer/artist almost always fairs better, the comic-strip format is almost always rooted in a single creative mind. And indeed, save for the Risso/Azzarello Batman strip, the single-creator works, namely Kyle Baker and Paul Pope are the most engaging. A few of the other strips would gain a lot from lopping off the writer and letting the artist do it all: Joe Kubert should just write Sgt. Rock, Mike Allred should write Metamorpho. You get the point. And really, this would work because there's no one reading this thing for Teen Titans or Catwoman & the Demon. So in short, you're paying too much for not enough.

That said, I'm not exactly waiting for the trade of this either because it'll still be full of too many strip-series that just don't matter. There would be no reason to do this and most comics people would percieve as it soaking them twice-over, but it would be great if there were these like, Tin-Tin-sized editions of each strip individually--16 big, awesome, glossy pages by Paul Pope or Eduardo Risso. I actually would pay way too much for that.


Peter Milligan's "The Bat and the Beast"

Peter Milligan occupies a really strange place in smart-dumb comics: Neither as out-there crazy as say, Grant Morrison or as mannered, intellectual (and boring) as Alan Moore. Milligan's strange position leads to comics that are rarely terrible and sometimes great (Submariner: The Depths being a recent example) but rarely totally work--they're always held back slightly by their over-arching conceit and formalism. Milligan's work is nearly always about something.

Not that all good comics aren't "about something", but that reading Milligan's work is more an adventure in how his plot/thesis will play-out, what scenarios and examples he'll develop to prove his point, than a kind of rolling, slowly working-itself-out, temporal sequence of events. The big, heavy ideas land with a thud by at least the end of issue one, and they get really fucking nuts and awesome, but what's being said, though leaning toward the empathetic and ambiguous, ain't all that surprising.

In Milligan's story arc, "The Bat and the Beast", currently running in Batman Confidential, the "about" is post-Cold War Russia, the ugliness and corruption that's spawned from the U.S.S.R dissolving. How this manifests itself though, is through the story of a Russian, bear-mutant--an updated, less retarded version of The KGBeast--and his connections to a Russian Mafia head who wants to hold Gotham for ransom by threatening to nuke the shit out of Batman's city. Maybe the best part of the comic so far is when Batman wonders to Gordon whether saving Gotham from an attack really matters because some other city will suffer Gotham’s near-fate. This concern sends Batman to Moscow.

The plot is Milligan in a nutshell: A quiet interaction with real history and comics history, some hint of political and social commentary, and a super-simple comic book story.

So yeah, let’s talk about the stuff floating in the background of this “Villain threatens to blow something up if he’s not paid a lot of money”. Namely, it’s but one more piece of pop-art that dares to make the point that maybe America isn’t the be-all and end-all of the world. Batman’s running around Gothan and eventually, Moscow trying to get info on “the Tsar” (the Mafia head and a simple but clever conflation of legal and illegal politricks) and quickly realizes he’s maybe out of his depth.

“Part Two” begins with Batman asking a thug about the Tsar and rather than answer, the thug puts a gun under his chin and pulls the trigger. And “Part Two” ends with a fight scene between Batman and the Bear. The most notable line of dialogue is the the Bear asking, “Why have you come here to hurt us?”—pretty much the question any and all governments, armies, and citizens asked when confronted with America’s funny form of diplomacy and prevention. Wisely though, there remains a distinction between the Bear and the heartless crime syndicate that raised him or carts him around—or something, it isn’t totally clear—and so, we’re working in a series of greys and not just…now here’s a comic deconstructing heroes and sympathizing/complicating the roles of “villains”.

This is an engaging comic and it’s smarter than most of the stuff coming out and it’s one of the few arcs in Confidential that feels on-par with the series’ obvious predecessor, Legends of the Dark Knight, particularly the slightly off-kilter art via Andy Clarke’s stringy illustrations—imagine Frank Quitely’s work, only every third page isn’t awful, but that’s all it is? You decide whether that’s “enough” or not.


Beanworld Breaks Out!

The newly released Beanworld collection, A Gift Comes! marks the coming together of all of the original Beanworld story that Marder originally wrote in the late 80s and early 90s. Before this book, most of the original Beanworld issues were collected in four trade paperbacks published by both Beanworld Press and later Eclipse Books, but several issues were left to be acquired by careful whitebox-hunting or breaking-down and finding them on Ebay or other internet retailers.

The availability to these "lost" issues means that this new collection answers many of the questions that us new-ish Beanworld readers had when we spoke with Marder last December, but in proper Beanworld fashion, has left us with a GAZILLION new ones.

The first thing newbies to the Beans tend to hear when they ask what it's all about is "It's not a product-- it's a process!" There are numerous bits of information and ideas that a reader absorbs through their own reading of Beanworld and it creates the big picture (or the Big-Big Picture, but we're getting to that...) Everyone has their own pacing and means of understanding what the Beanworld is all about.

If you haven't read the contents of this book, or aren't familiar with any pieces of the known Beanworld, this post might not make a whole lot of sense to you. But that may be the best way for some to enter the Beanworld, with too much information right from the start (Hey, it's a process!). The least I can do is entice you to start from the beginning and figure out what Beanworld is all about for youself, but I must warn, if you're a fan who hasn't finished this second release, some of what I'm going to discuss can be a pretty big spoiler if you're not ready for the Big-Big Picture.

In this new collection of old Beaworld issues, we (who had previously only read the four TPBs) are finally introduced to Heyhoka, a bean who's breakout leads us to discover some of the wonders of the world outside of Beanworld. We are also privy as readers to the inner workings of the Goofy industries (or whatever you'd called this vast organization of beings) which span WAY beyond the boundaries of the known Beanworld.

Though, as was known by some and seen by fewer, Beanworld enjoyed a couple of adventures outside of the known world and into entirely different worlds even, before more was discovered about the outer reaches of Marder's created Big-Big Picture. I'm talking about the appearance of the beans in Scout issue #17, which is not a physical appearance of the beans, but rather a vision of Mr. Spook and the Chow Sol'jers aiding Scout in the defeat of his inner demons (and yeah, that is totally as cool as it sounds) and the Total Eclipse event, which tells what happens during the time Beanish is taken away by this weird robot after seeing Dreamishness all angry and speaking gibberish during one of their midday meetings.

In this issue, Scout visits his uncle while on the lamb because he believes he's been poisoned by a "white doctor," so he uses his dead aunt's old Apache things to preform a sweat lodge ceremony. He's confronted by a beast that represents his guilt over the men he's killed, which tells him some gnarly stuff about living in a world of monsters, so Scout gives him the finger. This pisses the demon off (as you can see in the upper left corner of the two page spread) but Mr. Spook and the Sol'jers show up to give Scout some physical and mental support.

I think it's great how Mr. Spook attacks in a way consistent with his strategy for the Hoi-Polloi--using his fork to open up the weak spot (the mouth), while the Fling'n-Flank'rs move in to help get the job done. What isn't very consistent, and I found pretty odd, is the way that Mr. Spook speaks to Scout. In the Beanworld, Mr. Spook is a man of absolutes. He is the hero, he knows how to listen to Gran'Ma'Pa, and he knows the Mystery Pods are evil. He also lacks the ability to comprehend Beanish's Look-See Shows because he can't get past looking at the "pictures" as the physical shapes they're made of--the way he speaks to Scout, he is an enlightened bean.

The advice Mr. Spook gives him, speaking about the harmony of alternate worlds, and "Stop fighting yourself! Look inward-- Open your heart!" is something that Mr. Spook of Beanworld would certainly benefit from hearing. The reason this still works is that this isn't the REAL Mr. Spook. It's just a vision of a hero, who although a little confused and underdeveloped, is trustworthy and strong-- certainly the kind of dude you'd want helping you to tackle some dreamed-up, scary wolf-man.

While Mr. Spook himself is a little out of character in his vision state, the use of him in a vision is actually not. Visions play a huge part in the education of the beans, as we learn in this book, from Mr. Spook dealing with his messy past, to Proffy discovering what the four realities are all about. Dreams and visions are forces of the Big-Big-Picture presenting the beans with the information they need to grow as beans and as a society. It's only right that the Beanworld should spread some of that cosmic knowledge throughout the Eclipse comic universe. This is also in many ways a first hint at the idea that the Beanworld could exist in an area separate, but still connected to a larger, more complex world than under the loving arms of Gran'Ma'Pa.

The next example we see of beans outside their usual environment is in the Total Eclipse event, which was released two years after Scout's vision of Mr. Spook and the Sol'jers.

This is the story of what's going on that leads Beanish to be taken from the Beanworld when he finds that Dreamishness is sick and what goes on in the time that he spends away from the Beanworld. We recently found three of the books which make up this series, so I'm still not totally sure what it's all about, but the basic idea is something is upsetting the balance of the universe, and an array of characters from the worlds of Eclipse Books have to help set things straight. Some of these dudes get lost and run into Beanish freaking out about Dreamishness, and decide to invite him to come along. Wanting to do anything to help his love, Beanish accepts.

The first thing that strikes me about this scene from the Total Eclipse point of view, looking at the Beanworld perspective while being removed from it, is how primitive and essentially, stupid Beanish looks and sounds. The scene in the above panels is depicted separately in both Beanworld and in the Total Eclipse book, with some minor but pretty important differences. In Beanworld, the ship that the other characters are in is shown as this sort of goofy robot guy with Mickey Mouse-like gloved hands. It's still pretty shocking that this new character shows up, but you're able to take it in appropriate stride. In Total Eclipse, as you can see, it's clearly a space ship of some kind with people inside, leaving Beanish to look a little clunky in comparison. His nearly ever-present visible perspiration seems overdone and merely cartoonish, while in the context of the rest of Beanworld , you'd never give this symbol of anxiety a second thought. You're just too busy wishing the dude could catch a break.

Like his appearance, Beanish's speech is equally as daunting when put up against a foreign, more realistic environment than Beanworld. Beanish's speech is mostly word for word in both scenes, but while the speech of the other character stays the same in ideas, the wording is more complex in Total Eclipse, leaving Beanish's simple answers sounding pitifully naive.

In Beanworld, the ship's address to Beanish reads, "There has been a great unbalancing far, far away. It could have something to do with your friend's problem. We're gonna try to fix it. Wanna come?" In this light, Beanish's answer seems optimistic and brave, which certainly it is. But with the way it reads in Total Eclipse, especially the last part, "We're going to try and fix it, and I guess you have the right to come along if you want," I get the feeling these new guys aren't totally thrilled at the potential they see in taking this talking bean with them to save the world, and Beanish certainly seems totally unaware, committed only to restoring Dreamishness' "inner light." The awkwardness in Beanish's voice is not only brought on by strangeness in comparison to a more conventional comic dialogue, but amplied by the fact that never before have I seen a bean speak without the use of Marder's handwriting. Even in Scout, Mr. Spook is narrated by Marder's hand and of course, it works.

Beanish accepts his mission to travel outside of the Big-Big Picture because he wants to help Dreamishness become "something more," like she asked, and he figures this is the way to do it. This makes Beanish an important factor in understanding how the beans work because as he notices, the way he feels for Dreamishness (which is physically represented by a surrounding of hearts) is only found in one other place: the process of turning Sprout-Butts into chow by the Hoi-Polloi. However, in this context, the hearts are more closely related to lust, something which Beanish feels but can't quite articulate because he has no basis on which to even call his feelings for Dreamishness love. Thus, the poor guy is left to sweat it out once more.

While Mr. Spook still has a lot of learning to do, and Beanish is on to some larger ideas but continues to struggle with what it all means, they are both privy to certain elements of the Big-Big pictures, such as where baby beans come from, and certain clues as to what lies beyond the known Beanworld. Though when it comes down to it, the majority of Beanworld is pretty clueless, though you can't blame them if you know the story of their creation. And this is where things start to get tough, because we the readers (after reading the whole first run of Beanworld) now know more than the beans about their world.

How can the beans teach the Cuties everything they need to know if they don't even know the whole story? What's going to happen when the season is over? What was the Beanworld like before Mr. Spook was delivered as reproductive propellant? Was it even a Beanworld? What happened with that first Sprout-Butt? Why does Mr. Spook look like a Hoi-Polloi? All the speculating and nerd talk in the world couldn't get through all the secrets left unanswered for the new Beanworld book, but hey, that's half the fun of it.


Children of the Sea by Daisuke Igarashi

Children of the Sea is being brought to the United States in English by Viz Media. It has been nominated twice (2008, 2009) for the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize and was awarded the Japan Cartoonist Award for excellence in drawing in 2009.

Daisuke Igarashi's work here is what I like to call a "fine art Manga". I was thinking as I was reading that the art was of the intensity of GON with the flow-y, pastel feeling of a watercolor painting; it's as detailed as GON but employs some traditional manga styles too. Igarashi does a really great job of keeping you engaged with his changes in panel size and feeling of movement from page to page but he doesn't go too far like many new, bleeding-edge mangas--there's something traditionalist in here too. I think this has more two-page spreads than I've ever encountered before in a Manga, which makes sense for a more art-driven piece. The magic synergy of having the same person write and draw the comic is definitely at work here!

The majority of the book is done in black and white which is standard. I generally fist pump to color comics but some comics have stories that are so good that you don't even sense the lack of color. Manga is very good at surpassing absence of color; it's so instantaneous, it feels like an addiction, where it's the story that's pulling you along in total.

Even though this is an art-driven manga, it doesn't try to set itself apart from traditional manga which would be trying too hard. Instead, Igarashi incorporates a lot of smart ticks that make the story less immediate in the Manga way and therefore, more affecting. One of the most striking choices made is after a couple page intro and then, the title page, Igarashi included a strategically placed run of color pages. They include not only vibrant color and art but images which are very important to the following story. The color pages include the first sighting of the sea children as babies, floating in the water. It's eerie-weird as shit but also magical and wonderful, womb-like.

Like most Manga, it is, or at least begins with, the interaction of children and/or people who are alienated from normal society in some way or another (Dragonball, Naruto, FLCL). But it's the way Igarashi makes use of both Manga and a natural fine art that expertly develops the story. All of the details of the natural world, the town, the beaches, and especially, underwater, are done in detailed style while people are cleverly differentiated via different Manga styles. The Japanese people are done in the Manga style, the old weathered seamen are done in the detailed style, but the so called "children of the sea" are done in an exaggerated Shojo-Manga style. This makes sense because the fisherman are interesting, old white guys and an integral part of configuring the eerie, scary side of the ocean with their stories and different outlook on life--they're hyper-real.

Ultimately, the story in Volume One is about two boys, Umi and Sora, who grew up in the ocean, raised by "dugongs", think: manatee meets elephant seal. But the story is guided from an outsider to their world, but still another child, Ruka, who only knows of the two boys because her father works at the aquarium where they live. The three bond in an awkward way over seeing a ghost at some point at the aquarium which eventually suggests that Ruka is somehow related to the children of the sea. Explaining more would be not-so-fun and would remove the page-to-page wonder of reading Children of the Sea.

From a science standpoint, it's weird how much we do not know about the sea. Like darkness, the unconciousness of zombies, and the false humanity of vampires, it's what we don't know that makes something scary. But also, if you are sort of a systematics nerd like I am, the ocean can also be very intriguing for that same reason; it may be the last locale on Earth where the wonder of exploring is still very real. So when, Umi, Sora and Ruka are swimming with these whale sharks and other glowing fish in the ocean and Umi and Sora are ALSO glowing it's eerie but it's also really wonderful. The weird combination of wonder and fear translated by the ocean, coupled with the basis for the story being a secret among children makes the story glorious. Anyone who reads Manga knows that feeling of wonder and glory specific to the style, but Children of the Sea takes glory out of the ninja realm and takes it underwater!


The Wednesday Comics Experience Part 4

The Wednesday Comics experience is becoming exhausting. This issue marks the one month anniversary of Wednesday Comics and the one-third completion watermark. This is the first full issue where I've not been excited to pick one up next week. My general strategy/rules for the end of purchasing for an ongoing comic is two strikes in a row and I'm out.

Of course, there are other factors that go into it, but this rule is one of the main reasons I was one of the few that stuck with Final Crisis to the end. One issue would be good, then the next one would be boring. I trusted Morrison enough that he could get things back on track. As it turns out, if the series went on for one more issue I probably would have dropped it. Ultimately though, I'm glad I stuck with it because there were some really good and intense moments on the way. That's about where I'm at with Wednesday Comics right now: Not as exciting as it was, but the highs are still really high. I trust that the six or so stories that keep me buying this thing will bring it back next week, but who knows, they could end up with Darkseid killing Batman. So yeah for right now, here are some comments on the most worthwhile strips.

BATMAN by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso

Batman hurt me the most this week. This is probably the most underrated story of the bunch, and after this week it's hard to argue for it. I would argue though that the first three pages were something of a classic in the making. Each page was like a succinct poem with each one standing on its own and dealing with specific themes and building towards something bigger.

The first page showcased Batman and Commissioner Gordon, saying a lot about their relationship to one another, their feelings towards crime, and their position within the city. Page two had a lot to say about the character of Bruce Wayne, his relationship with his parents, and his romantic relationships with women. Without saying a word, page three showed a darker side of Batman, playing the voyeur and showing his anger. By having this subplot underneath the interaction of Luna and Carlton Glass adds different meanings to the story. It becomes more than just a conversation between two people stretched over a cool, well-drawn action story.

This week's page just doesn't fit with the quality or tone of the first three pages. It departs from the wordless panels and the single page storytelling to show a dinner date between Bruce Wayne and Luna Glass. There's nothing here that we didn't already know from previous pages. In this week's page, each line of dialogue is just a double entendre without much going on other than sexual tension. This could be a turn for the worse for the comic. By focusing only on a detective plot it loses all the character and tone that made the first pages great.

KAMANDI by writer Dave Gibbons and artist Ryan Sook

Definitely the best Kamandi yet. It's quick, to the point, and really intense. It plays up the prior knowledge of the story by reusing the final panel of the last page only this time with Kamandi swinging in. Even though a lot of action happens in this page, each event that isn't glossed over and has it's own weight to it. The serious tone of the narration helps a lot. It focuses on the courage of the heroes and even the fear of Kamandi and Prince Tuftan. It makes them more than just heroic characters and this highlights exactly why their heroism is impressive. Kamandi's motive is not just to save a life, like a normal heroic character, but is rooted in a curiosity to find more out about humanity.

SUPERMAN by writer John Arcudi and artist Lee Bermejo
Like Batman this episode just treads water thematically. The first page set the tone while the next two pages explored different aspects of Superman's multi-faceted personality. Unlike Batman I think that Superman has just his a slow patch and will pick back up next week with business as usual. The prospect of seeing some Kryptonian technology is a really exciting one.

Despite it's disappointing showing this week, Superman is easily one of the better stories in Wednesday Comics. Some have complained that its lack of action has made it boring . I don't get comics fans sometimes. When anyone ever talks about Superman it's about how his powers make him unbeatable and there is no suspense, but when a comic finally changes it up and focuses on his personality people complain about the lack of supervillains. The story even plays off of that perception on page one with Superman fighting some random meaningless villain. People who are hating on this one are most likely missing the point.

STRANGE ADVENTURES by writer/artist Paul Pope
Like most people predicted, Pope has the most consistent quality comic of the bunch. This week's page is a direct parallel to last week's when Adam is stuck in prison, but it's told from the guard's perspective at first instead of Alanna's, and we're just confronted with two panels of her staring straight out at us. By not giving us her perspective while imprisoned Pope actually helps the reader identify more with Adam Strange. We're not privy to her thoughts, so we're forced to ask ourselves about her personality and have an outsiders take on her the same way Strange would. Even though Pope shows her as a hardened warrior, his spotlight on her shows her being seemingly emotionally vulnerable. The greatness of Pope's story is his art and how it adds subtle aspects of personality and emotion to a generally pretty cliched storyline.

HAWKMAN by writer/artist Kyle Baker

Quickly this went from a Hawkman solo comic to Hawkman featuring the Justice League. The addition of Hawkgirl and Batman completely change aspects of Hawkman's personality. Page one of the story established him as a loner. He came off as a general of an army that would rather be feared than respected with a "My way or the highway" kind of attitude. Now, we see him orchestrating a plan, not as a general, but as a leader and peer. Baker takes advantage of the format with small panels which add an increasing comic book feel to the story and he continues to do a good job of pacing, adding in small bits of plot and character while keeping things exciting with action.