Frank Miller Week: Green Lantern-Superman: Legend of the Green Flame Cover

Everything that makes Frank Miller’s art iconic is featured on this cover: fat meaty paws in place of hands, awkward chunky anatomy and the over-use of negative space (or possibly a calculated under-use of color would be more accurate). With a style more recognizable than Jack Kirby’s, Miller knows he doesn’t need all the pieces of the puzzle to tell a story, with bare, trace facts he can build his narrative and make us believe whatever story he'd like.

Superman’s “S” logo, curl and cape are the three traits about him always used to identify the character, and that's all Miller needs--literally nothing else but a body frame is drawn. More time was spent detailing the giant bird claw that is piercing both heroes than on the heroes themselves. It’s about the curiosity of what could kill both of these men, not that they are even characters in the story. They're symbols.

As mentioned in Monique’s post, Miller draws the clawed leg coming from the left side of the image, the beast largely unseen, pulling our eyes slowly to the right. While he uses this trick again to direct us along the picture, his intentions are different, it tells a story in itself, forcing us to ask what the beast is, where it came from, and how did Superman and Green Lantern come to be in it's possession?

Less bad-ass than the majority of his work, Miller's ability to instill fear is showcased here: the horror of the blackened, presumed dead Justice Leaguers close to the center of the page, while the actual events are taking place elsewhere. The best and maybe the most affecting aspect of the image though, is Superman's cape ripped to shreds with and the Green Lantern's ring still glowing from the fight. Even in a single-image, Frank Miller can make the action intense and very real and maintain his balance of the mythic and gritty.

Frank Miller Week: Bone #38 Cover

Bone is Jeff Smith’s fantasy epic about armies and destiny, but at it’s very center is the story of Thorn and how she goes from being a girl to a woman. Issue #38 has Thorn at the crux of her transition, and Miller’s cover obviously shows her in complete woman-warrior mode.He shadows her face and makes her dark nature central to what’s going on; in the Bone universe that same darkness is there, but significantly pushed into the background. There’s also, an enhanced sexuality to Miller interpretation, in the insanely skinny waste, the prominent breasts, and huge red lips. The cover draws some strong parallels to one of the panels Brandon talked about earlier this week.

What’s especially interesting is looking at this cover in comparison to all three covers that came out for the same issue. Alex Ross draws the complete opposite version of Thorn: a little girl, in harsh lighting, cowering behind basically a stuffed animal. Smith's cover lands somewhere in the middle, showing the Bones as comic relief, but also Thorn hurtling over a branch--as both warrior and woman. Contained in the three covers is Smith’s balancing act of Bone, and it’s this combination of seriousness, comedy, and complex deeper meanings that make the series worth reading.

It’s Miller’s cover though that really stands out of the three. Next to Miller’s cover, Ross’ looks washed-out and his photo-realistic style just makes Bone look like something weird that shouldn’t exist. Like a CGI character or something. Ross’ cover is also focused on the most boring early aspect of the story: Thorn as a little girl with a crush on Bone. Miller takes the subtle themes from Smith’s story, particularly the ones that he'd find most appealing and forces them to the forefront. The absence of the titular characters is important because it gives Thorn a really powerful spotlight and cuts out the comedic relief, which is important sometimes. It shows Thorn struggling with her loss of innocence and finding her spot in the world, but at the same time, it makes her the center of attention and a powerful, Frank Miller-esque bad-ass.


Frank Miller Week: "Lance Blastoff" Panel-By-Panel

Here's the thing about Frank Miller's politics. If my rambling, non-commital piece from Monday didn't already say it without saying it, the dude's worldview is pretty nuanced and complicated. And really, the best way to parse it out is through um you know, actually reading the work. This "Lance Blastoff" story from the very strange Dark Horse-released one-shot Tales To Offend is a good place to start figuring out what the deal is with Frank Miller.

Thankfully, The 4th Letter did the scanning for me and did some of their own reading of the story already. Author of the piece, David Brothers notes that "Lance Blastoff" is "one of the relatively few times he’s done an out and out humor book," and indeed, it's basically broad satire, but it's appropriately Miller-like in that it's multi-directional in its satirical targets. It's not quite the sledgehammer-subtle parody of the American action hero that it may at first seem. I mean, it is that, but it's also an attack on P.C sensitivity and liberal hypocrisy...or something? Let's take a look at this twisty turny, brilliant, retarded comics short...

While this title-sequence-like panel is a parody of Golden-Age superhero comics, it isn't that far from Miller's usual stylistics. That's to say, this is ironic but it isn't a total corrective or anything. Miller loves this style and next to Richard Corben, I can't think of another comics artist as in love with basic, visceral comics grammar. But yes, this still introduces "Lance Blastoff" as something absurd. Even the dialogue, "Here's a beefy little yarn--with an important message for you kids!" reads a bit like yeah, a parody of old comics, but a parody of Miller's stunted, noir-tinged writing style too.

So this panel is just beautiful. What's with Miller and dinosaurs? He has some weird ability to draw them as kinda awe-inspiring but also massive and horrifying. And that's the tension going through this panel and the source of its satire. We have the female character talking about the dinosaurs from an "enlightened" environmentalist perspective: "My friends witness nature in perfect balance." The joke of the panel is they're neither scary as expected (yet) or all that elegant. They're more like overgrown cows or something, just munching on grass. Already here though, Miller's satire is shifting its focus or at the least, kinda corralling in an opposite point of view to also take a big shit on. This female character is an idiot too.

Here, we're closer to revealing that this character is indeed, a woman. And you know, she's in good company in terms of strong, wise female characters in Miller's work: Elektra, Martha Washington, many of the females in Sin City. Really though, the main point here is the ratcheting-up of the female character's rhetoric. Her all-too-common liberal condescension: "Unsullied by fast-food restaurants spewing forth burnt animal flesh to fill the bloated bellies of sweaty, obese people." Sounds like a lot of people I know after they read Fast-Food Nation.

The female character's revealed. Giving a weird, didactic tour to a bunch of like Cro-Magnon alien freaks or something. Now, Miller's really got her going though. Lots of "nature's perfect and peaceful", dime-store Rousseau going on here. This kind of idealized, loving sense of the world isn't just a point of contention with pseudo-tough guys like Miller though, it's precisely the kind of self-important, self-deluded, vanity that all your classic satire's based upon. Just this silly, satisfied sense that the world would or could be a better place if not for us awful humans and our damned civilization.

Lolz! What the comic's so clearly setting-up: The ideal, gentle, untainted dinosaur goes for the humans. This is the punchline panel. Since it's pretty obvious, let's focus on Miller's world-building here. So, we've got a future where we can visit the dinosaurs somehow, and spaceships look like bad-ass fifties cars. Going along with what I said about the first panel of this story, this is Miller mocking the signs and signifiers of old-timey comics and being totally in-love with him. The strange combination here (dinosaurs, nice cars, post-feminist space tour-guide) is exactly the kind of weirdness you'd see in some cheapo 1950's space pirate tale.

The unfortunate realism after the punchline. Bodies are flailing, limbs are floating through the air. That "CHOMP" will be important later.

Miller gives you a close-up of the horror. The female character is kinda making eye-contact with the reader here, like she's realized how goofy and just plain wrong her idealized view of the dinosaurs is and she's reaching out to someone, anyone, to give her some comfort in what'll obviously be here final moments of life. More "CHOMP"s.

Some artful, McCloud Understanding Comics type time-between-the-panels shit. Now, the female character has landed on the ground, having escaped the T-rex's "CHOMP"s. She's also totally shifted her view on the creature at a very convenient time. Faced with death, she respects and is seemingly taken by the raw brute desires of the dinosaur. It's a comment on the shifting values of the liberal idealist.

Notice Miller's visual economy here. Lance Blastoff shows up, but because everything in this story's cut to the bare essentials, he doesn't get a build-up or an extended introduction or anything, he's just there all of a sudden. The byproduct of this is perhaps something a bit mock-heroic or anti-climactic about his arrival. He's also delivering a kind of mealy-mouthed action hero "one-liner" that's stretched into two panels because it's so complex and rambling, which is pretty funny.

The satire shifts here to Lance. The female character is speaking reason or perhaps I should say, "reason". She's basically pointing out that a basic trope of comics heroes is pretty silly: That it isn't enough to simply save the person, the villain or aggressor must be decimated. Miller mocks Lance Blastoff's excess.

Lance is just an unaware, macho douche here. His reasons for killing the T-rex are to eat it apparently. Perhaps something of a joke on the justification many hunters make for killing animals ("I'm going to eat it"), which is respectable but also pretty dopey because like dude, it isn't the caveman days, you're just feeding your ego playing hunter/gatherer. The really funny stuff in this panel though is the bizarro sound effect ("Spam"?!) and the fact that Lance is like, shooting a mini-WMD into the dinosaur's mouth. The female character's attitude is once again shifting to hystericism: "You fiend! You monster! Stop!"

The T-rex exploding in a very awesome comic book way. But again, there's a sense of reality to it, as the T-rex is contorting in pain. Miller's playing the classic comics grammar game but he's twisting it subtly, hedging the ra-ra blow-em-up stuff a bit.

Miller as Douglas Sirk here. Look at those expressionistic colors and crazy shadows as she cries into her arm. Then, there's Lance, off of the page, unfazed by the woman's emotional outburst or really anything, telling her once she tastes dinosaur meat, she'll change her mood. Lance is the obnoxious dad at the 4th of July BBQ mocking his newly-vegetarian goth girl daughter.

Notice that Miller's economy stops when it comes to more sensory type stuff. The dinosaur biting the car, the dinosaur blowing up, and now, the woman smelling the cooking dinosaur meat takes up multiple panels.

More Sirk. She perks up, her tears and worry and supposed values are slowly floating away and the smell of fresh meat takes over.

The red and black color scheme, the attention to her breasts, her hands near her crotch, it seems like Miller's adding some like, weirdo sexual attraction to this bizarre turn of events. This is basically confirmed in the story's climax, with groan-inducing references to "real meat."

With that "CHOMP" a parallel's drawn between the dinosaur's base desires and the female character's here. This is the conceit of the comic really, that the female character's denying the universe's immutable thirst for violence and will-to-power.

More "CHOMP"s. Lance standing proudly as the female character's is head inside of the T-rex's leg (which is like a chicken leg) and she lets out some orgasmic moans of "yes...Yes!" Despite Miller creating a fairly complex or atypical female character here, he's shifting into pretty basic, painfully obvious parodies of feminism and feminists: That they deny their desires, that they've asexualized themselves, that they just need a good man to change them. Miller's aware he's doing this and parodying that attitude, but he's not exactly deconstructing it. I think Miller knows why that's problematic, but think it's true or closer to true than the wimpy counter perspective.

Look at how Miller changes her whole look in this panel. She's kinda stoned-looking and evil. She's turned into a femme-fatale (Miller's favorite image of a woman it seems) and she's rejecting all the ideals she spouted in the previous panels. It's at this point that Miller's satire sorta goes off-the-rails or rather, it enters pure Frank Miller territory where it stops making sense or loses all of its nuance and is just sorta malicious and dumb. The strength I think of the story is the satire of the female character's blindness towards reality (seeing the dinosaurs and nature as pure and untainted, even when it attacks her), but Miller turns it into like, worldview-confirming, dream-fulfilling weirdness by having the female character not only be dead wrong about how the world works, but ultimately, on the same page as Lance. She isn't just incorrect, her core being is in-tune with Lance Blastoff.

More kinda sexual imagery. The romance comics-esque embrace, the red and black, the anti-feminist declaration, "a real man."

Miller kinda saves himself with this final panel because it's just so goofy and hilarious and once more, shifts the satire to Lance Blastoff's moronic moralizing and over-simplication. This was hardly a comic about why kids should eat lots of meat, right? It's kinda tacked on which is really funny. Also, it did nothing to confirm the benefits of meat or whatever, it just takes them as a given and spends most of its time mocking a wimpy, tree-hugging-ass bitch who eventually comes to her sense and loves um, "real meat". Miller's aware of this and he's kinda having it both ways, mocking Lance's sloganeering and over-the-top macho, but finding just as much, and maybe a bit more wrong with the character that's the antithesis of Lance.

Frank Miller Week: Miller and Gravity's Rainbow

If I had been involved in the decision making which resulted in Frank Miller's commission to illustrate the cover for a new edition of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Miller's would likely not have been the first name to come to my mind. Rick Veitch, whose Maximortal, like Gravity's Rainbow, considers some of the dangers inherent in the use of comic book heroes as propaganda, seems an obvious choice. Robert Crumb is another. But sometimes the obvious is not the best, particularly when dealing with a writer as intentionally diversionary as Pynchon.

But leaving aside for the moment Miller's suitability for the job, it is important to point out that comics are really central to what Pynchon does in Gravity's Rainbow. The book is too damned long and complicated to get into an extended discussion of what happens, but it is enough to know that it largely takes place in Western Europe during the final months of the Second World War and is concerned in varying degrees with the German V-2 rocket program, race and imperialism, with a healthy dose of scatology and buggery mixed in.

The novel's ostensible hero, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, discovers that a map that he keeps of his sexual conquests in and about London matches precisely with a map of sites targeted by German rockets—Slothrop always comes before the bombs. This leads him to discover that he may have been programmed at birth by a secret cabal of Fascist occultists, known as PISCES, to play some part in the creation of the Raketestadt (Rocket State). Along the way he temporarily assumes the identity of Rocketman, instrument of Raketestadt propaganda, then joins the quixotic quest of the Floundering Four, heroes of the preterite, and is eventually deconstructed and left to languish in a sort of postmodern version of the Negative Zone.

Miller's decision to rely on minimalistic, negative imagery nestled in a wildly entropic background is pretty much dead on. Pynchon employs images of sexual violence and scatology in order to convey Nazi propagandists' version of the threat posed by inferior races. Moreover, he does not shy away from the phallic association of rockets—they are more or less the massive steel penises with which the Raketestadt buggers the degenerates of the world. Thus, Miller's stark rocket stenciled into a background of Pollock-y drips and smears conveys pretty succinctly Gravity's Rainbow's barrage of great white dicks smearing about in shit, semen and the ashes of bombed-out cities.

What is doubly interesting about this illustration is that it turns out that Miller returned to the image of a rocket, nosecone down and foregrounded by Superman, on the variant cover of All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder #4, thus implicitly associating that maligned series with Pynchon's almost universally praised novel. Bizarre though that may sound, when considered in this context, it goes a lot to explain Miller's conception of Superman and the relationship between Superman and Batman in this and his other Batman books. Superman, though ostensibly subjecting himself to the rules and norms of his adoptive planet, is not of our world and is in a position of superiority over humans in pretty much every sense that matters. He thus aligns quite neatly with the propagandistic hero of the elect as envisioned by the psychopaths at PISCES. Batman, on the other hand, is the hero of the preterite. He spends his time in Gotham's slums, wrestling with pimps and defending prostitutes. His day job as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is nothing more than a distasteful cover, which allows him to live his real life, wallowing about in the city's piss and shit, unmolested.

But while Gravity's Rainbow is perhaps the incredibly cumbersome key to this portion of Miller's oeuvre, this is still the guy who is ostensibly going to launch Holy Terror! on the world. Though, as with much of Miller's more controversial work, this is perhaps not as contradictory as it might seem. While Pynchon was clearly aware of the potential dangers of comic book propaganda, he was also demonstrably anti-Fascist and it would be difficult to argue that he would have opposed the propagandistic aims of many World War II-era comics.


Frank Miller Week: Jurassic Park Cover

"To the left, to the left" is where Beyonce is going to move all your shit when you do wrong. Why left? Most human left hands are non-dominant and religions often revere the right hand/side of the body. So, I guess the left is the less significant side. But we read from LEFT to right. This Frank Miller cover for Jurassic Park plays on our reading from left to right, but because this is such a minimal cover, I feel it's also using the left side to increase the scare-factor. When you first look at the cover, your eyes impulsively go left and follow the dinosaur body down to the human body in its mouth. Your eye hits the body last, as its not even the center point of the image. The right always gets the last word when we're reading, it's where our eyes stop or pause and this cover suggests: Dinosaurs: 1. Human Race: 0.

To texturize the skin of the dinosaur and to shade the human, Miller employs chunky, sharp-edged sections of black. This kind of sectioning-off reminds me of Miller disciple Mike Mignola's work more than Miller's own work, but it's a clever trick to the eye, as the same blocky shading/texturizing is present on the back of the dinosaur and the human (the wrinkles in his clothes are especially well-done and strange). The background is a little cheap, using a muted contrast with variations of orange and green in the dinosaur (rather than red), while also looking like a wall your mom decided to sponge-paint back in 1994. Perhaps it's the result of an old veteran like Miller having to confront digital art and computer coloring.

But the most annoying aspect of this cover is the blocking lines around the edges of the picture. These would work to better balance and improve composition of the image if they were on the right rather than on the same side as beginnings of the T-rex body. I guess the lines may be there for a textual reason on the completed cover. Like most work from Frank Miller. it's complex and conflicted, nearly schizophrenic and despite its flaws, the cover remains a success because it doesn't look traditional (which is eye grabbing) and it serves its purpose: to make the dinosaur the focus and not the humans--which is what Jurassic Park is all about.


Frank Miller Week: Miller's Gummy Politics

Kinda bouncing off what David said about Miller and Moore--or even, Miller vs. Moore--one of the most baffling aspects of comics fandom and comics criticism (which are more of less, one in the same) is the unquestioned love of both Frank Miller and Alan Moore, often by the same people. If you're actually reading these works, there's really no way to be "a fan" of both of them.

Sure, one can appreciate both artists and enjoy reading their stuff, but I've met too many people that list both of these guys as their favorites and don't really seem to grasp the themes, ideas, and politics behind the work. Moore is your kinda classic bohemian liberal, tinged with the nihilism and knowingness that many aging left-leaning idealists have. Miller's essentially a hard-line Libertarian and in recent years, especially post-9-11 (which is something that's really infected his rhetoric in pretty much every interview) perhaps something of a nutty, FOX News-style Neo-Con. The only thing they have in common is a very fashionable cynicism.

Last year, Sean T. Collins over at Robot6 "Frank Miller, conservative comment-thread commentator" pointed out Miller's comments on a Conservative message board. This was interesting not only because it was a quasi-private discussion in public from a comics legend, but because it's a tangible confirmation of where Miller "stands". If you read them, he's sometimes nutty, sometimes smart, usually conflicted--and that's great.

Now no one's surprised that Miller's something of a conservative, but that point is often ignored or used as part of the comics nerd in-joke that Frank Miller's essentially, over time, lost his fucking mind. To contrast with his supposed right-wing turn, we're reminded of Superman as Reaganite goon in The Dark Knight, Miller's work with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, or black feminist superheroine Martha Washington. And his conservatism's used to explain why All-Star Batman is retarded. And to parse-out the roots of the movie 300's propagandistic qualities. And to mock the apparently no-longer having much to do with Batman, "superhero vs. Al Quaeda" comic Holy Terror!.

The thing is, these two supposed "sides" of Miller say more about the way many perceive the right, than anything about Miller. Like Christopher Hitchens, who took a supposed "right turn" after 9-11, it's more the result of readers reading what they wanted to read in the guy's work and assuming a grand, over-arching political understanding because of some key issues in common. Indeed, Miller's work has always been informed by a rarefied mix of Nationalism and Libertarianism. Miller's a smart guy, he's hardly a knee-jerk like most actively liberal comics artists, and he's well aware of the full extent of his politics, and is comfortable taking them to their logical, complex, sometimes not-so-pretty end. With superhero comics, that's pretty much always the uneasy attraction and repulsion we have towards vigiliante-ism. This is something I'm going to work out in some longer pieces later on, but I'd encourage everyone who's been so skeptical of Miller's recent work, to go back and look at his older work and finds the connections.

Frank Miller Week: Reading Elektra

There is really no analogue for Frank Miller's Elektra anywhere in mainstream comics. She isn't a superhero, though neither is she a villain, in the strict sense of the term. Her origin, as it were, is rooted in familiar generic tropes, and yet these lead her along a very different path than that followed by the typical costumed warrior. For most of her appearances, she is inextricably tied to the psychic narrative of Daredevil/Matt Murdock, but you just have to read the exceptional Elektra Assassin to understand that this Hellenic pugilist has plenty of her own shit to deal with. Indeed, while there are a few definitive things that can be concluded about the impact of Miller's Elektra tales, it is just possible that her most profound significance is her intoxicating inscrutability.

In considering Elektra, particularly her initial appearances in the mainline Daredevil book, it is important to remember that Miller began writing these stories some five years before Alan Moore's purportedly ground-breaking Watchmen hit the shelves. I mention this because if you consider Moore's stated intention in composing Watchmen—to show just how batty superheroes would be if they lived in the 'real' world—you have to conclude that Miller had already been doing exactly that (and doing it in a much more affecting and believable way than Moore ever would) half-a-decade before Moore's self-involved buffoons were even a twinkle in their creator's myopic eye.

Lest you think I'm simply taking an opportunistic swipe at Watchmen, I think this is a really important point. It is clear that like Moore, Miller believes that someone would have to be batshit crazy to be a superhero—or super-assassin, in the case of Elektra. But unlike his British counterpart, Miller reasonably surmises that there would likely be some overwhelming psychic trauma as the underlying cause, rather than olympic-level self-involvement.

What separates Elektra from Daredevil, what leads her to become an assassin, rather than a hero like her irrepressibly moral lover, is the fact that the death of her father triggered a collapse of her world view. While I don't think it is particularly useful to linger over the specifics of superhero origins, it is important to recognize Elektra's transformation as the slide toward nihilism that it is. For one thing, it is humanly more understandable—at least for me. But even more importantly, it helps to demonstrate that Daredevil and Elektra are two sides of the same coin—or at least suffering from the same philosophical misconception.

What I mean by this is that both characters are hampered—in a way, both are ultimately doomed—by their failure to recognize the constructed-ness of their respective world views. For Daredevil, this is the source of his crippling obsession with Elektra, both before and after her death: committing himself at once to saving her life, imprisoning her and ultimately relentlessly reliving his 'guilt' over her death. Of course the consequences for Elektra are more profound and ultimately more tragic, but this is what makes reading Elektra so rewarding.

The best literary creations are those that transfix despite our ability to recognize their flaws. I am not comparing Elektra to, say, Milton's Satan, but I am suggesting that they operate on the same principle. I am haunted by Elektra, whether it is the living assassin from Daredevil, or the hallucinatory specter of Elektra Lives Again, or even the batshit apparatchik of Elektra Assassin, the same way Matt Murdock is haunted by Elektra.

And this is a pretty important observation because most of the time that Murdock dwells on Elektra in the stories she is absent. Thus, in a way, Murdock is 'reading' Elektra, in much the same way that I am reading her. While this is certainly the case before her death at the hands of Bullseye, this notion of Murdock interpreting Elektra takes on added significance after her demise.

Nowhere is this more important than in Elektra Lives Again. In typical Miller style, the reader (and Murdock, for that matter) is initially left guessing as to whether the reappearance of Elektra is genuine or if it is a figment of the lawyer/hero's tortured mind. But this is just a ploy and the real significance of this superb story is in Murdock's painstaking insertion of himself into the moments of Elektra's life from which he is most alienated. Thus, while Murdock may see himself as somehow protecting his departed former lover, what he is really doing is 'reading' the gaps in her biography so that he can ultimately let her go.

One blogger has suggested that Miller only knows how to write two sorts of female character: the woman who is created to be killed, and the woman who is really a man. While Miller may have known that Elektra would die when he first introduced the character, I do not think that this in any way lessens the significance of the character. In a way, Miller's Daredevil is more defined by Elektra than the other way round, or at least this is so in my reading of the stories. However you interpret her, though, Elektra is clearly one of Miller's most inspired creations.

Frank Miller Week!

Why Frank Miller week? Why not. Though we usually try to wrap our theme weeks around some current comics event, it seemed appropriate to tackle the quasi-grizzled, bat-shit crazy, mainstream comics game-changer without thinking about it too much. Miller is also of course, the big, looming figure over smart-dumb comics and there can never really be enough analysis and argument about his work. The guy's both incredibly overrated and incredibly underrated. Loved by "entry-level" comics fans and enlightened fans surrounded by whiteboxes of 70s Marvel, and fundamentally misread by both of those groups, Frank Miller's exactly the kind of figure we're all attracted to over on this blog. So, all this week we're going-in on Frank Miller. Should be fun. Use that "comment" button and join in, and provide links to any pieces you've written (or end up writing) if you're moved to do so.


Wake Up Wake Up It's The Best Of The Month: July 2010

The Bulletproof Coffin #2 by David Hine and Shaky Kane

This issue continues the series' meta-comics thread, wrestling around with themes of escapism, and once again, it's done in an intelligent, complex, but very comics manner. The pull of this issue is the fleshing-out of the Steve character, who comes off equal parts pathetic and sympathetic. His home life's pretty awful (meaningless sex, fat annoying kids, etc.) and his reasons for escape pretty obvious, but it's the form of escapism that solidifies the character. Even his escapism inactive and non-commital: "The costume chooses you!" And really Steve does what plenty of depressed nerds do--he reads a comics and pretends he's the comic book character. Hine basically wrote the worst fanboy one could imagine (quite different from the type parodied ad-nauseum in the media, mind you) and it just so happens that the worst fanboy is also Hine's best friend. Pushed along by Shaky Kane's pop-art Darrow style, Hine grabs onto all that's great about comics and stuffs it in their book, but aren't afraid to call bullshit on the medium's faults.

Red Mass for Mars #4 by Jonathan Hickman and Ryan Bodenheim

When All-Star Superman finally came to a close, I was instantly disappointed. I was so excited for the final issue, that when I first read through it all I could think about was, “This is it?” After letting it sink-in and reading it a couple more times, I finally began to make sense of it and realized how well-done it actually was. The same thing happened with Red Mass for Mars #4. Of course, Bodenheim’s extraordinary artwork and colors are a highlight, but at first glance there’s not much going on here other than a big battle and even that, has a strange distance to it. It feels more like a flashback of a battle--like in a comic or movie when a character provides exposition of some great, universe-altering war--but, it's just Hickman's quasi-mythic style and the issue's about Mars deciding the fate of mankind.

Each issue has been framed around a different view of Utopia. The last issue dealt with Equality: Through a Mars-founded superhero coalition, they virtually eliminated crime and created a society that was "equal". Then, that society failed. At the beginning of this issue, Mars sees the dark side of himself in the form of an enemy commander. He's at a crossroads, which isn't a place you see super-powerful characters in comics very often. Mars will either run away as he did before or take a stand and fight.

What ultimately moves Mars towards the more noble of those choices is his memories with the other superheroes. He recalls their sacrifices in battles and it ultimately, moves him to sacrifice himself for Earth. This final issue's utopian ideal is Fraternity, an ideal deeply rooted in experience and one that can only be achieved by moving through the three previous stages. Note too that Mars is the catalyst for the book's "Fraternity" theme, that it's his active thoughts and decisions that solidify it, and also note that it's through violence (in comics the experience) that this utopian ideal's achieved. Mars is basically Superman, only he's made more complex and real and flawed (he's like a Greek god in that sense) and so, he contains both the best and worst of humanity within him. He's still a widescreen comic book epic hero but he's much more complex and less glamorous. Hickman though, ends the issue on a wizened but hopeful note, with peace and perhaps utopia there temporarily. Yet Mars' actions hang around in the background, hinting at the inevitable fate of every person (death) and the reality that gut-level, non-utopian things like acts of violence are part of the natural order.

RASL #8 by Jeff Smith

RASL is such a weirdly perfect series. It comes out every couple of months so it’s hard to remember the exact plot points, but when you pick up a new issue, the series' eerie but earnest world is vivid again and all the tiny details come back. What's really great about RASL is that it has this elaborate plot but its rarely the focus on the comic. When the first page of an issue begins with a perfectly penciled and inked beat-up face from Smith and the quote, "It's never too late to fix it. That's what I've always believed," it's just instantly engaging regardless of plot details and continuity concerns. It feels fresh and exciting like a brand new comic. The previous issue of RASL got a little too bogged down with plot points and those way too late references to the Patriot Act just felt off. This issue though, steers away from that and focuses on something small but significant: Rasl's relationship with Maya.

From Bone, it's clear that Jeff Smith is a world-builder--the sort of guy that gently places details into a narrative until the reader's eyes are opened to the whole picture. In the beginning of the series, Rasl's sleeping with Annie, who appears to be a round after his relationship with Maya. But here, we see Annie and Rasl together at the same time that he's with Maya, and it's Annie that gives him the advice to stop seeing her. In a series that flirts with time and time-travel conventions and concerns, it's cool to see Smith employing the actual narrative and hiding or rearranging details and having them mess with the reader's timeline and knowledge of events.

But the center of this isn't some Inception-like narrative trickery, but the emotions and personalities of these characters. Smith begins showing Maya as perhaps a little off her rocker. When she says, "I feel like I’m the conduit between two scientific geniuses – helping you both to greater heights," it's probably one of the strangest, most disorienting moments in the whole series and it has nothing to do with trippy time-travel physics. That line, the expression on Maya's face, and Rasl's wordless reaction feel very real, like you can feel the awkward pauses as if it were happening in front of you. That moment too, fills the scene with tension that builds and builds until Maya leaves. The issue's second half deals with the strange little girl that was introduced earlier in the series. Her overt strangeness actually falls flat though compared to very-real weird stuff between Rasl and Maya, and it ends up really just furthering the plot along.

Also: King City #10,
Abe Sapien: The Abyssal Plain #2