Week 43: Captain Maximum Meets Retopistics UptownAs a few people have commented, the dramatic tension of the Black Adam storyline that J.G. Jones indicates will be dominating the next three issues is a little undercut by the fact that we know Adam comes out of this story alive and well. Ditto Steel and Adam Strange, since they're all visible in the promo piece for Countdown. (Unless it's one of those fakeouts, like the first draft of the Justice League of America cover!)
Even though I've written a bit about Countdown, I don't know much more about it than anyone out there does at this point; what I do know is that we've been promised that it'll be more action-oriented than 52, since apparently 52 is right up there with "Bruno" on the novelistic talkity-talk side, as comics go.
Now, I love action scenes in comics. Wolverine MacAlistaire running from a bear? One of the most exciting things I've ever read. Clark Kent jumping out a window? As Greg Rucka noted at the DCU panel at New York Comic-Con, that's an incredible moment. Zot zooming through 99 floors of a building like he's in a video game? Great story. The Great Cow Race? Unimpeachable. But the Marvel Family scene in this week's is the kind of action sequence that makes me lose interest in a comic very quickly. They stand around and talk. Then they hit each other for a little while. Then they talk some more. Then they hit each other some more. Then they make up and hug.
Superheroes hitting each other to underscore their philosophical differences--in what would just be a heated discussion in any context that didn't involve spandex--is not, in itself, exciting. It just isn't. A few artists can make superhero fight scenes look genuinely exciting; every time one of Jack Kirby's heroes hit another one, for instance, heaven and earth quaked. Here, though, it just looks static and clichéd, and the gigantic panels devoted to the fight effectively tell us, rather than showing us, that there's something big and loud going on. Between those, the full-page shot of Buddy being reconstructed, and the full-page shot of Sobek's snack, this issue ended up feeling kind of scanty. Besides, as Bully pointed out, isn't Montoya's butt getting cold by now?
J.G. Jones' cover this week is another example of what I love about his work and wish the interior of 52 reflected more often: a sense that cartooning can get across more than the rudiments of what's actually happening in a story's plot--that it can take care with composition, with color as a design element, with the psychological overtones associated with drawing style as well as images. There are a few other cartoonists working in superhero comics right now who clearly think about that stuff a lot; some of them have even met monthly deadlines for full-length comics in the relatively recent past. (What is J.H. Williams III working on these days, anyway? I'd ask the same about Alex Maleev, but this weekend we found out he's drawing Halo.)
Clarity's necessary for this kind of visual storytelling, of course--that's what Giffen's working on 52 for, and he's great at it. (Speaking of which, the layouts on the official site are still at Week 39, as of this writing...) But this issue is all clarity and no flair. When a crocodile has to bite someone in half to generate a little visual excitement, there's a problem. In fact, even beyond the flashback effect of Dan Jurgens' artwork (is this the first comic book crediting separate people with "art breakdowns" and "layouts"?), there's something that feels very twenty-years-ago about this issue.
It took me a while to figure it out, but here's my best guess: it's effectively a pre-Miracleman comic. The bit where the Marvel-family type changes back to his frail human self and promptly gets slaughtered is straight out of Miracleman #15. The dying gasp of the magic word/mentor's name, left incomplete, is Alan Moore's Young Miracleman riff. And then there's the gruesome but weirdly clinical violence, which looks like the kind mid-'80s comics were just starting to experiment with. Even the way the story is paced reminds me of some comics of that era.
What a surprising number of mid-'80s comics had, though, was a look more distinctive than most superhero comics have right now. At the New York Comic-Con, I picked up a few things I hadn't seen in a while from one dealer's four-for-a-buck bin, including DC's best previous attempt at a weekly miniseries: Millennium, a huge crossover that ran for eight weeks in the fall of 1987. Every issue of the core title was drawn by Joe Staton and Ian Gibson--both of them excellent, eccentric stylists--which gave it the kind of unique, consistent visual vibe I wish 52 had (and I hope Countdown at least tries for).
On the subject of style, the "Comic Abstraction" show that's opening later this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is worth a look to get a sense of how much you can take away from cartooning--including representation, which often seems like the unshakeable core of cartooning--and still have some of cartooning's visual grammar left. Sometimes, you can even have some of cartooning's local dialect left. There's a series of pieces by Rivane Neuenschwander in which she's taken a few episodes of "Zé Carioca" (a Brazilian strip from Disney's studios), whited out all the text, and replaced the visual content of every panel with a solid color. What's left of the original is panel outlines and word balloons; fascinatingly, it still immediately scans as a light-entertainment humor comic. Not that I have time to do this, but it'd be interesting to try the same exercise with 52, sampling the dominant color in each panel and using it to replace the entirety of the panel's image. Would it still look 52-ish? Like a circa-2007 superhero comic? Will its visual pulse be easier to "place" twenty years from now?
(My favorite piece in the MoMA show, though, is Julie Mehretu's fantastic, wall-filling "Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation"--an enormous drawing/painting that's non-representational but still obviously an action scene, and includes things that Mehretu apparently thinks of as characters. I actually visited her studio a couple of years ago, and saw some old Jimmy Olsen comics lying around as conceptual source material. Runner-up: Arturo Herrera's "Untitled," another huge painting, consisting of lines and curves sampled from Disney's Snow White--even though there's scarcely a recognizable piece of a character in the whole thing, its source material is so strongly mannered that it looks like Snow White anyway. It's a bit like Richard McGuire's brilliant Random Popeye Generator, actually.)
Both last week's issue and this week's have crucial roles played by keepsake snapshots of loved ones. Happenstance? Coincidence? As you know, if next week Isis is staring longingly at a Polaroid of her brother, that constitutes enemy action.
Apropos of nothing but this week's title: some guy's homemade video for his surprisingly excellent one-man-band cover of Jacob Miller's "Baby I Love You So." I especially like the three-stringed bass.
Pg. 1: Sobek's wearing a skintight T-shirt and tight pants (with the inevitable tail-opening in the back). Where does he put his loaf of bread and jar of olives when they're not in his clawlike hands? For that matter, where does he put them after panel 2?
Pg. 2: We've been over this before, but in short: "terrorism" is not an organization, and terrorism requires some kind of agenda it's trying to intimidate somebody into going along with. Why on earth would the DMA think that the Titans would have terrorist ties?
Pg. 3: I guess Billy's sane within the Rock again. Can anybody tell me if this has been explained in The Trials of Shazam? I tried to read that thing, but in a world where Jeff Smith is also writing and drawing a Shazam book, no contest.
Pg. 7: I don't think we've heard of the Rock of Finality before, although I'm hoping it's "finality" in the Kantian sense of noncontingence. (I don't expect my hopes will be fulfilled.)
Pg. 9: Adrianna's fall here, even its pose, recalls the greatest comic book fight scene ever--I refer of course to Scott McCloud's immortal Destroy!!--and the scene in which the commissioner's daughter is struck senseless by a pathetically small piece of flying debris, leading Captain Maximum to declare "Good Lord! She's been struck senseless by that pathetically small piece of flying debris!"
Pg. 10: The "Black Adam has a family now" beat, struck with a large mallet.
Pg. 11: This is practically an end-of-episode gag. I can almost see the freeze-frame.
Pg. 12: Ah, metafiction.
Pg. 13: If Buddy's supersenses "don't reach to the next planet"--which seems rather visible in the background--then how's he going to sample a Sun-Eater? Aren't Sun-Eaters kind of big, if they can eat suns? And their migratory patterns meant they passed by... seven weeks ago. They way they've been treated lately, Sun-Eaters seem almost like harmless grazing ruminants. I always figured they'd be something everyone was terrified of--like a Galactus that can't be communicated with.
Pg. 14: Not that this isn't a "rock"-sign-in-the-air scene anyway.
Pg. 15: It looks like there's a causal link between Buddy manifesting Sun-Eater abilities and zombie-Luribel's difficult labor/the revivification of the Stygian zombies. Is there, or is this a "meanwhile" scenario? I assume that everybody on the space station Buddy's been buried near is dead/zombiefied, but does Lady Styx count as a living creature who'd show up on Buddy's "red radar"?
Pg. 16: Q. Why didn't Lady Styx just go ahead and burst out of Luribel's chest cavity? A. Because then everybody would think this was a ripoff of Alien, as opposed to... uh... okay, it is. Also, she's quoting Hostileman's dialogue, just like Jean in Week 27...
The Origin of Plastic Man: I would not have figured Ethan Van Sciver to be a natural for this one, and in fact his post-Neal Adams/Jim Lee approach for a character usually associated with a broadly cartoony style reminds me a little of the "Shazam!" stories that Don Newton used to draw: It's a formally inappropriate style, but you can also tell how much the artist loves the source material. (The cheek-pulling bit is directly lifted from Jack Cole's first Plastic Man story--speaking of which, wouldn't it have been nice to acknowledge Plas as Cole's creation?) And it turns out this is an actual two-page story: a nice touch! Also good to see Kyle Baker's criminally ignored Plastic Man stories acknowledged among the essential Plas material.