Monday, April 12, 2021

Run the Reviews: The Jason Aaron Thor Era Part 1, "God of Thunder"

 Alright, back to this. First off, thanks to anyone who reads this, you're absolute class. I know it's still mostly just me kind of typing words into the abyss that is the internet but still, much like the Twitch streaming thing I picked up during this viral apocalypse, it's been a nice hobby indulgence to help keep focus off the downsides of the world out there right now. Also, just another quick note, and I probably should have mentioned this earlier because it was very much a "sore subject" kind of deal back when I was writing regular comic book articles, I am in no way trying to "deflect credit" or whatever all to the writers of these runs I talk about here. Obviously, artists, colorists, inkers etc all make the comic book magic work as much as anyone does in their production, but since I'm usually covering runs of books that are like, fifty to a hundred issues long, they almost always have a handful or more of artists that come along and help drive the book. Like in the case of this next series covering Jason Aaron's THOR era that just wrapped last year, there's tons of amazing artistic talent that worked on the series to make it as iconic as it was like Esad Ribic and Russel Dauterman and so on and so forth, but for header purposes it's just easier to simply say "Jason Aaron run" because, y'know, he wrote the whole thing. Credit will always show up where it's due, I always want to make sure artists get credit on their sections of a lengthy collection of books but for simplicity's sake, yeah. 

Anyway, how about we actually start talking about that run which, to be perfectly honest, I think may just be the best era of THOR I've ever experienced, but that may not mean the most here since I've probably only read a couple hundred issues of Marvel's version of the Norse God of Thunder in my comic book reading career.

                    Thor: God of Thunder (2012) #1 | Comic Issues | Marvel

I heap this high praise upon this run for one main reason: This half decade era of Marvel's Norse pantheon reveled as much in it's brand of "epicness" as it did its irreverence. Not to say Jason Aaron and those involved spent all their time cracking wise at this brand of godlike lore but for every instance where we would get something like, well, a Gorr the God Butcher in the opening arc of this era, Aaron and company would make sure to spin a tale of a younger, immature Thor who makes drinking buddies with a doggy-looking dragon. Trolls are eaten. Basically, this run revels in everything that makes both comic book ridiculousness and Norse revelry such ridiculous fun but with that twinge of "fuck yeah!" adrenaline running down your spine from seeing a centuries, old mass murderer of gods being beaten down with magic hammers by three Thors from different time periods plus his granddaughters. 

That's the culmination of the opening salvo to this run, the "God of Thunder" series and this Gorr the God Butcher introduction, which is easily one of the most vicious and harrowing Thor stories I've ever consumed. Aaron, joined by one of the most epically polished comic book artists in the game, Esad Ribic, just pitch perfectly show us one of the best renditions of Marvel's hammer-slinger because it might be him at his most human. It starts off with the normal doses of whimsy and brashness you would expect from the Odinson but then turns quickly into something we don't usually see expressed on the god's face: pure fear. Thanks to the handy-dandy trope of some time travel, Aaron and Ribic in very short order establish Gorr as a force of terror so great that he haunts Thor for literal millennia. From rendering a more youthful Thor paralyzed by the trauma of his first run in with Gorr all the way to the bone-weary version of Thor thousands of years down the line who just wants to collapse alongside the crumbling Asgard he rules over, Gorr is a pillar to the God of Thunder's very existence, even if he only shows up every thousand years or so. Every issue is a cool piece of puzzle that makes a picture of pure awesomeness as it develops over ten issues and several thousand years, establishing Gorr as a merciless yet actually tragic figure (as we see in his origin issue "What the Gods Have Wrought") that haunts the God of Thunder to his core; no small feat from both a character building standpoint and a scripting one. 

Oh, and it of course looks glorious. Ribic's line-work is the perfect balance of playful when it needs to be and then packs pure power when things get really moving. The man just has such a gift for scope, knowing exactly how to frame a set of panels that will go from standard posturing to a jaw-dropping splash for the "breath-taking" effect the juxtaposition will produce, or just having a great sense of how to sequentially ramp up the energy in a scene over a handful of panels. I would say it's the absolute best possible skillset you could hope for when it comes to pencilling a Thor comic, but I need to save a lot of praising words for the Dauterman addition to the run the next volume over. 

                    Why You Should Read THOR: GOD OF THUNDER - Comic Vine

The second half of the "God of Thunder" saga makes a miracle out of a comic book industry "staple" (at least since the 2000's began) and in its own right makes this run impressive: It has Jason Aaron take what was obviously a movie-related use of Malekith the Accursed (as he was the villain in the Thor movie sequel of the same time frame) and take him beyond just being a simple "mandate." Aaron and all the company around him went to great lengths to make Malekith more than just a returning flavor because there was a spotlight on him, Malekith became a Marvel Universe-level threat that plagued the God of Thunder (in all the godly variants) for the majority of this era and became the focal point of a company-wide event, "The War of Realms."  It does seem like a rather innocuous reemergence for the dark elf, but there's enough meat on the bone to see how it could be grown into a universal threat, which is the crux of why this Thor run is so excellent; the world-building is as good as it gets for an establishment title like this Marvel icon and the little things here and there at the beginning pay dividends literally dozens of issues later. 

Essentially, Malekith raises enough of a ruckus across the Realms that it causes Thor to do somethings he's not particularly great at; playing politics and playing with others that aren't the Avengers. Teaming up with representatives from various other tribes across the Realms - the Giants, trolls, dwarves, elves, etc - what looks like a standard "mischievous" villainous jaunt by Malekith ends up being the beginning of power-grabbing machinations by the dark sorcerer, but the story starts out as playful as can be given the circumstances, largely in part to the oddly jocular adventures of Thor's "League of Realms" compatriots. Between drinking contest with the giant of the group, the dwarf of the group, Screwbeard, constantly wanting to just blow everything up, and stuff like Thor's average reaction to the troll of the group to be to punch him in the face, the mission here ends up being full of quality gags and one-liners that really do make you think that it's going to be more a one-off adventure than something that is the first domino to fall leading toward near-oblivion for the Realms. "Escalation" is definitely the other 'e'-word that Aaron was masterful at when it came to this run, alongside "epic."

On the way to the real, real big shakeup of this book that I'll start the next part of this series off with, Aaron really ramps up that escalation with the last "God of Thunder" arc by moving from the Malekith stuff to amping up some catastrophic events the future Thor is dealing with in the wake of Gorr and by introducing a new bag of vile personified to antagonize Thor, Dario Agger. Dario is the new head of long-running Marvel universe corporate sleeve outfit Roxxon and is basically greed personified. He's also a frikkin minotaur and targets Thor specifically. Thor is left to team with another new character of Aaron's creation, SHIELD agent and potential love interest Rosalind Solomon and, well, it's excellent. It's all excellent.

The world-building is excellent. Going from Malekith who is a known quantity to Agger who is an immediate presence and rival to Malekith's despicableness starts to put some extra balls into Thor's hands for the juggling and properly ramps up the tension of the book. That said, the adventuring remains excellent. Agent Solomon plays off Thor perfectly in both how able she is and the flirtatiousness they have toward each other and helps cut through some of the horrors Thor has been enduring between the two villains. The cuts to the future are excellent, both with their amusing interactions via Thor's granddaughters and then just the sheer scope of destruction they and Papa Thor are being privy to at this part of the timeline, which is essentially the end of time and the death throws of the universe. Yippee! 

The book is just excelling at this point though, two years(ish) into the run. Between the characters and how they bounce off each other, the ever-increasing stakes as Aaron and his compatriots start to up threat levels with each and every arc despite starting off with a doozy of a tale with the Gorr saga. While each and every arc does keep heaping more and more calamitousness onto the god's plate the book does well to keep a playfulness about it, largely in part thanks to these side-characters like Roz and the Granddaughters of Thunder. And it always, always looks glorious thanks to having a hell of a rolodex of top-quality artists to take the reigns for an arc or a one-off story. Simply, this was just how an "instant-classic" run should be building itself for the long-haul. The fact that it immediately shifts into a universe-shaking plot-twist starting up the next volume and really throwing everything for a loop after all this effort just puts this run up on a tier that only the most special creative tenures reach.

And that will be that for a couple more weeks before I come back with the "Goddess of Thunder" material. Sorry this was a bit longer, I kind of focused a bit more on the Twitch-type stuff recently than reading and writing about comic books. I also kind f need to start reading more comics again so I have more runs about, so I'm doing my first STARMAN reread in like a decade. Thanks again for reading, I'll be back sooner than later, hopefully. Cheers!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Run the Reviews: The Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka Batman Era (Part 2)

Alright, once more into the breech. This time the "breech" is my going right at all the stories that really defined Ed Bubaker's and Greg Rucka's tenures in the Batman Universe in the early 2000's and the stuff I kept saying over and over again last piece that needed special addressing in a future column. Well that time is now and the stories I'm talking about are the "Officer Down" and the "Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive" storylines, as well as the showstopper series, GOTHAM CENTRAL. For better or for worse or for "arguably on of the best comic books ever written" when it comes to GC (to bury the lede on my discussion of that series) those were the stories that really emphasized what these two scribes were going for when it putting a stamp on this branch of the DC Universe. 

                  Image result for batman officer down                               

This smaller, one-month crossover between the Bat books in 2001 was really an eye opener for me when it came to comic books. It was a very personal tale with Jim Gordon as both the lynchpin of the story and showing how much of one he was to the Batmanverse, wherein this tale Gordon takes a bullet in the back and his survival rate is low. All aspects of every part of Gotham mobilize immediately and take drastic action on finding out who did such a spineless act on one of Gotham's most beloved citizens and it just shows what the character means to so many characters in that city and in the echelon of comic books in general as one of the best supporting characters ever created. To Batman and Nightwing he's a father figure, obviously to former Batgirl Barbara Gordon he is an actual one, and to a whole swath of some of the best developed tertiary characters in comic books like Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya, he's the mentor of all mentors. The emotional turmoil and how that resonates through the pages of all these Batman centric titles is palpable, especially when you get to the really dire material of Batman himself being so distraught that his stoic "always have a plan" facade drops and all he wants to do is revert back to that child in that alley thirty years ago who lost his biological father. That kind of material really hits hard because this is a character that always tries so hard to force people away when you know he really wants people in his circle to know how much they mean to him but he is afraid to attach like that; it really puts a pin on how broken Batman is at his core despite his whole mystique being that of the person who always is on top of everything. 

And honestly it's a roller coaster ride of a tale. Between all the emotion above broiling around the idea that we might lose one of the most important B-characters in all of comic book history, it's just a good thrill ride for a handful of issues. Catwoman gets caught at the scene of the crime so there's a race on to find her and see what role she played in the crime, there's the ER type drama of Gordon facing multiple surgeries in a short span of time to stay alive, and then when the prime suspect comes to light you get the dichotomy of a bunch of characters who dress up in costume and solve most crime with their fists being at the mercy of a couple detectives working the suspect in an interrogation box trying to get him to blurt out his guilt because the evidence on him is shoddy at best. Watching characters who stand toe-to-toe with literal gods sometimes be at the mercy of criminal procedure is actually one of the most thrilling and harrowing things to happen in a Batman comic ever because of the stakes in play and the character that is Jim Gordon. And the absolute shock of the prime suspect actually walking away from everything and the ramifications of that conclusion and how they play out over the next couple years in the remainder of this Brubaker/Rucka era is just *Chef's kiss* good and tragic. I hate crossovers most of the time but between the raw emotion, the brevity of the story, and the impact and consequences it had for years to come, "Officer Down" is easily one of the best crossover stories I've ever read in comic books.

Next up, though, are a couple of events that kind of pull some of the better traits "Officer Down" brandished, but also some of the worst ones that make event comics relatively despite in my nerd eyes.

Yes, we're talking the "Fugitive/Murderer" sage of the Batverse; a story line that teases to be "the end of the Bat Family as we know it (!!!)" and sends Bruce Wayne to the slammer when the body of sort of girlfriend Vesper Fairchild is found in his mansion and he is the primary suspect. On it's face this is a cool and interesting story to tell. The "World's Greatest Detective" gets caught in a frame job that threatens everything in his life and the family he's built around him and we, as the readers, get to wonder who could do such a thing and actually pull it of and how? Who actually knows the secret of the Bat and is able to take advantage of all the chaos in his life to sneak into his mansion and set things up in such a way that just as he's getting back from one of his "night excursions" he can be caught literally "red handed?" And on top of it all, Rucka and Brubaker, playing off the emotional distancing that they have committed the Batman to in the wake of Commissioner Gordon's near death experience and subsequent retirement, do well to play up the idea that, well, maybe Bruce finally went over the edge? Obviously that's never going to really be the case, but the .000001% chance that it's an actual possibility due to his mental state and how there is no actual alibi for him because he was home by himself, in an Alfredless mansion for a handful of minutes before Sasha joins him from patrol is enough to make you go hrmmmm. At the least, it plays up the tension of the family dynamic that it sows just enough doubt in them to permeate some of it into our brains as we go along for the ride. The rest of that ride, though, is where I get a little hand-wringy about this pair of events.

                Image result for bruce wayne fugitive/murderer

The "Murderer/Fugitive" trade paperbacks, when you put them side-by-side, are two pretty beefy boys, as you can imagine given how many Bat-titles there were in the early 2000's. As you can also imagine, if you have partook in any comic book "event" in the past handful of decades, most of those parts have nothing to really do with pushing the actual narrative of this murder mystery forward; they are just freebies to slap a shiny crossover label on because they have place in the Batverse and to score some sales they would not usually get in a month because of coimpletionism tendencies from the fanbase. And, man, there are some EGREGIOUS examples of this during the "Mur/Fug" story (sorry, tired of typing out those words out so much). There are some GOTHAM KNIGHTS issues in these volumes that barely even try to be related to the overarching story as they're just a one-off tale here and there telling generic detective stories while characters like Alfred are commenting at an escaped-jail-after-Bruce-Wayne-was-denied-bail Batman "shouldn't you be figuring out who set you up?" to grumpy "I've got work to do" retorts. Chuck Dixon, writing ROBIN, NIGHTWING, and BIRDS OF PREY at the time, obviously had a big case of the "hey, I'm already doing my own shit here's" because for every crossover issue he wrote that had substantial interaction with finding the murderer or confronting Bruce, there was an issue where the contribution was a page where we see, like, Oracle get an analysis of something and yell "it was a frame!" The amount of padding in this story overall just screamed "drive them sales" in a way that was a far cry from all the tertiary world building stories being told while the "No Man's Land" was in full effect, which is why they are especially frustrating here. 

And even the main books under the hand of Brubaker and Rucka were dedicated to either finishing up what they were doing before they initiated this storyline, like Batman having to deal with a mutated Triad gang leader in the wake of what Ra's al Ghul lackey, Whisper, was pulling in Gotham before the trial, and Brubaker has some random two-parter where some guy named Nicodemus goes on a revenge spree that culminates in kidnapping the mayor and sure. Batman has decided he doesn't need Bruce Wayne and is just going to be Batman. I get it, except I don't. "MurFug" DOMINATED these books for something like eight months and half of the pages printed about it couldn't be arsed to discuss it outside of Bat-family characters occasionally yelling at Batman to get his head out of his ass or a couple panels an issue of someone in the Fam finding a slight tidbit to help the case. Honestly, the best material in all of these issues probably came from Rucka putting a spotlight on Sasha Bordeaux as she is left behind in prison to fend for herself in all this and shows a greater dedication to preserving Bruce's name than he does (and also builds up her eventually revealed romantic feelings for him) and then sets her up for bigger things in the DCU as she gets recruited and sequestered away by the clandestine group Checkmate while Batman is off clashing with his own ego. Also, Cassandra Can as the new Batgirl gets a lot of props as she never gives up on Batman and her dedication to him helps win him back over plus her tenacity and physical skills really help "break the case" so to speak and find some pivotal evidence Bruce is innocent and needs help. Also, the grand reveal of (twenty year old spoilers!!) her father, world-class assassin David Cain being the man who almost destroyed the Batman "raises the stock" of the family line and what they are capable of, her being such a prodigy a his now being pushed as top tier threat.

Overall, though, "MurFug" tries again to tell a pretty interpersonal BatFamily tale and reaches mild success. If it were as tight as "Officer Down" was in conveying how important the relationships these people beyond their crimefighting bonds or the greater struggle of banding together in the face of cataclysmic adversity like "No Man's Land" was, then it could have completed the cycle of the Batverse being three-for-three on meaningful event-level stories. Instead this is just so much bloated storytelling, with a lot of the emotion being driven by an overwrought need to be moody for the sake of tension and conflict. Some characters shine and move on to bigger and better things, but for the most part this failed in most aspects except to be an okay murder mystery once it decided to be one about forty issues into the whole ordeal. And the real shame of it all is that this is essentially how both these writers ended this collaborative era of theirs on the Batbooks proper. But, as much as this was a letdown for the immediate BatFamily, the dynamic duo was simultaneously producing simply one of the best comic book series' ever created, GOTHAM CENTRAL. 

            Image result for gotham central

Look up the Michal Fassbender "Perfection" meme lifted from "X-Men: First Class" and this should slot right into it. I'd make one myself except I'm nearing 40 and never used a meme generator in my life and don't plan on starting now because I have better thing to do like slowly die while lamenting my life choices. But building off the success that was "Officer Down" where it was shown just how impactful the secondary characters running around in a Gotham dominated by Batman and the psychopaths he fights, GOTHAM CENTRAL is an amazing picture of life on the street's of Gotham and just how insane it is that this is a commonality that it's denizens have accepted in their lives. Of course, this is extra nuts for the cops caught in between the Bat and the super-powered crackpots that it's debatable exist because of him, not in spite of him. The forty-ish issues that comprise this run are some of the most character-centric, interpersonal, and human stories told the pages of a "Big Two" comic, and they don't skimp on the super heroics either. As they say, "not all heroes wear capes" and GOTHAM CENTRAL showcasing the adventures of the badges at the GCPD is a prime example. 

What is the actual "best" about how GC works on the lives of the officers is that it isn't always just a case of such-and-such running amok and they have to stop them because it's their duty, but Rucka and Brubaker just weave these little tales about the messed up circles these villains draw around them and eventually normal people get pulled into their gravitational well and get crushed by it in some way. The opening two-parter, "In the Line of Duty," kind of epitomizes this presentation. We get introduce to a lot of new faces that we'll become familiar with as the series moves on, but in particular here we start off with a Detective Driver who, while pursuing leads with his partner about a kidnapping case, ends up staring down the barrel of Mr. Freeze's cold gun and watching that particular device turn his turn said partner into a popsicle and then shattered into a dozen pieces. As that harrowing experience plays out, we find out that while this was a horrible case of "wrong place, wrong time" for Driver, there were machinations afoot as Freeze was building to basically cryo-bomb an award ceremony honoring now retired Commissioner Gordon, but still. This wasn't some giant blow out fight in the middle of the city where Batman and his family are knuckle-dusting Freeze and a dozen goons dressed up like Eskimos and the GCPD badges got caught in the shrapnel, this was just officers chasing leads and all of a sudden one of them is gone in a horrific manner than can only happen in a work of fiction. 

For the vast majority of it's three-plus year run, Brubaker and Rucka were just executing a master class of building these little lives of these characters with one of the most harrowing and entertaining backdrops in all of comic books. It's just a fantastic cop drama in an absolutely engaging world that also plays that world out in ways that defy norms. Take the "Soft Targets" story arc, the Joker-centric storyline you just knew would happen and be one of the most devious things ever and was, but it was executed in a manner so simplistic it was more horrifying than anything you could have imagined. It wasn't the Clown Prince of Crime holding the city ransom with another nerve toxic or some maniacal kidnapping or any of that jazz, it was literally just the Joker popping people off with a sniper rifle. Of all the possibilities that was it. The Joker at several hundred feet and cackling with the fear he was instilling in a city, and that city was right to be terrified despite seeing the Joker perform larger-scale atrocities in his time. 

                                The joke's on Gotham...

Again, though, the main attraction of this book is the characters that have to deal with the chaos, particularly Renee Montoya, who is arguably the closest thing this series has to a main protagonist and was an obvious pet project for Greg Rucka. Watching the worst thing to happen to Montoya in a world where she's watching coworkers become popsicles and getting EMT brain chunks on her from a Joker sniper shot be her outing as a lesbian and the fallout of that as her parents disown here is the ultimate "oh hell" defining moment of this series. How Rucka and Brubaker navigate that kind of storytelling in this still very superhero-influenced backdrop and in the time period it did when we as a society were just starting to become a little bit normalized to homosexuality in our pop culture like that is a master class. It, again, showed that there were greater stakes to be played at in the pages of GOTHAM CENTRAL, even though any issue could feature some being with the ability to liquify a city block crashing down on its pages at any time. Writing like that was definitely very prescient in and of its time and has ramifications in the medium even to this day. 

One of the few downsides to rereading this series, though, also has a lot to do with time-framing and hindsight because, woo-boy, in a modern era of watching militarized police forces beating on protestors like they were pinatas, seeing some pretty shady police procedures go on and be justified by the circumstances these folks went through is kind of cringey. Renee has no problem with regular beatdowns on everyone from shitty paparazzi to uncooperative store-owners and so on. Yes, these officers are dealing with the worst of the worst on a day-to-day basis and that's part of the story for sure is how your level of morality being keepers of it can be pushed in such extreme circumstances, but it gets to the point in this book where it feels like standard police procedure is to knock on a door to ask a few questions and then immediately toss the person around by their collar. "Grey area" is a bit of an understatement. 

But, that aside, this comic book is about as perfect as it gets from how it handles these characters, how it gets you invested in them, how it pushes them to their limits and regularly leaves you mouth agape at how often justice being served is just not a thing that happens in Gotham City. The plots and cases that play out are fantastic, the art between the likes of Michael Lark, Stefano Guadiano and Kano throughout the series is the stuff that Noir dreams are made of, and in general the book is a (mostly) timeless, character-centric read that plays at a different set of daily stakes than you usually see in a comic book that takes place in one of the two biggest universes in the medium. Everything in those aspects that Brubaker and Rucka tried and failed to play at in the "Murderer/Fugitive" saga looks especially pale in comparison to how well they achieve it here in GOTHAM CENTRAL. In some ways that's probably not a fair statement to make, a proper Batman story has more editorial restrictions than a book like this that was obvious a passion project, but Brubaker and Rucka obviously wanted it all to play together even if GC felt a little insulated and at the end of the day you can help but hold these stories up side-by-side. And this one dwarves the other; hell it dwarves everything Brubaker and Rucka did in the entire era even though there was a lot of good material in there. This is just an all time great series, period, no need to even draw comparisons.

Aaaaaand that's another one of these down. Yay. I like these. I'm going to keep doing these. But they'll also probably keep coming about once every few weeks because I'm trying to prioritize things like Streaming and, y'know, finding a new occupation a liiiiittle bit more than writing them and, as important, reading more stuff to fuel them. Next up will be the Jason Aaron Thor era because, well, that's amazing, and I'm working on a reread of James Robinson's STARMAN run because I want to know what it's like to feel joy again so, yeah. Those will be the next two of these for the couple dozen of you who actually check these out. Thanks again for reading! Cheers...

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Run the Reviews: The Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka Batman Era (Part 1)

Another one of these!! And another anecdote to intro the whole thing, because my experiences are all that matter! So, let's talk about Batman for a second, or more specifically my involvement with the Dark Knight of the comic book world. 

I've mentioned before I started pretty young in comic books (age 11ish) and had absolutely no idea what was going on with them so I just started buying the "greatest hits." I bought some Iron Man because the War Machine armor just debuted and that was, to a pre-teen, the hottest shit. I bought X-MEN Volume 2 #1 because literally everyone in the world did back then, and multiple copies at that. And I bought Spider-Man because it was Spider-Man, duh. Batman I never really latched onto, though, despite Batman also being the HOTTEST SHIT at the time. Between the two Michael Keaton led movies and Batman: The Animated Series (TAS) just being the best take for the character possible, in my opinion (which is one I still hold to this day and will divert to in a second), it was literally the best time to be a Batman fan and yet when it came to my newfound love of comic books, I never really tried to make the pointy-earned one a staple in my allowance-based purchases. 

A large chunk of the reason why I think I never got wrapped up into a monthly Batman fix in my youth is, quite simply, because he was handled so well in other media. While the movies may have fallen apart after those first two Keaton/Burton movies those were enough of a springboard into the character for me to fall head over heels in love with The Animated Series, which was just and is (again, to me still) the purest distillation of the character and his universe. Every weekly adventure of this animated version of the Caped Crusader had a huge emotional impact because it was typically such a hyper-focused lens on the malevolent or tragic backstory of an important Batman character, usually the villains. I don't remember much about my childhood but to this day I still feel goosebumps about episodes like when Harvey Dent is scarred and finally succumbs to his Two-Face split persona, or the melancholy end to Clayface's debut episode where he becomes a literal husk of what he used to be after the brutal accosting that made actor Matt Hagen the monster he was. Batman in both the movies and the cartoon were simple, idealized versions of the character and his beloved Gotham City that in any time will always stand up on their own because of how perfectly they presented those variations of the Batverse. Meanwhile, at this time, the Batman books themselves were... not so much.

Batman in the early 1990's was kind of the breeding ground for what was wrong with comic books in the 90's. One, there were like six different Bat-books at the time at any given moment because of course their was, he was hands down the hottest property in the world. And all of those book were heavily embroiled in another one of the worst offenders of comic books of that era and that was the giant, multi-mulit-multi-part crossover "event," in this particular case the "Knightfall" saga. As a relative newbie to comic books at the time with a whole five dollars in his pocket on a weekly basis to buy funny books with, seeing several months of story consuming this landscape of Batman books with crossovers stories that numbered legit upwards of twenty parts was very daunting to say the least. Oh, and then there was the whole idea that for a solid year-plus, Batman wasn't even Batman, he was a series of replacement actors after getting his back shattered, which adolescent me couldn't reconcile.  

Despite all my better judgement, though, I hopped onto the "Cataclysm" event train a little bit due to cajoling by my LCS guy who had gotten me hooked on the Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel NIGHTWING book of the time, which I adored. I was convinced by him and some regulars that this was an event actually worth catching. "Cataclysm," for those who don't know, was a Batverse story where a sizable earthquake hit Gotham and completely decimated the city to a point where it and its remaining citizens were essentially abandoned by the rest of the country; not the best thing to be when your city is home to some of the most sadistic and murderous human and super beings alive. But I was won over to that version of the Batverse because, as with Batman: TAS mentioned above, the event was very much a character-centric one that really emphasized the personalities of Batman's villains and his Gothamite supporting cast, especially the likes of Jim Gordon and Renee Montoya (who existed in the comics basically because she was about to exist in TAS) during such a harrowing scenario. And seeing as how one of the biggest architects of Renee's push to the secondary character forefront during the time after Cataclysm known as "No Man's Land" was, yes, Greg Rucka (IT'S ALL COMING TOGETHER!), well, when he took over DETECTIVE COMICS following the event, that's when I started buying Batman comics on a monthly basis for the first time in my then-young life. 

                            Batman: Cataclysm - Comics by comiXology

Okay, now that the "Internet recipe anecdote" intro is done and I laid the groundwork for what lured me into this era of Batman, let's talk about what made this few years of Bat-comics my favorite ever and one of my top Batman works behind TAS, Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," and Frank Miller's "Year One." It goes without saying, given what I aimed at with the last few paragraphs and talking about writers like Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker (now being introduced into the fray on the BATMAN book coming out of Cataclysm and No Man's Land) and what they have produced in their careers, it was all about their character work and injecting some actual factual emotion into the pages of one of comics' most iconically stoic figures. While being the "World's Greatest Detective" is cool and all and it's probably nice being one of the top martial artists on the planet, you know what else is pretty riveting material to have in a comic book? Relationships! Having a butler that basically raised you as their own child and the dynamic that creates, the friendships you make growing up and especially what they mean to an orphan, having a bunch of wards and sidekicks doing their best to both impress you and soften your oft times unbearable level of stonewalled emotion. This is the type of material Rucka and Brubaker emphasized more often than not in their Batman adventures and that's why their hold on the Bat-books stands out to me so much going on twenty years now of Batman buying. 

First we'll start with Rucka, since he was the established guy on Batman content going into this. There's two things about Rucka's material that really shine. One, that since he was already working with the Batverse before he pushed to keep "Cataclysm/NML" material reflective of the state of Gotham City, like how the city ended up being split and consumed by several gangs, the idea that Gotham Park was basically owned by Poison Ivy now and off limits, stuff like that. And, second, there was the introduction of Sasha Bordeau as a bodyguard/foil for Bruce Wayne then turned new sidekick and then an evolution into star-crossed lover by the end of the Rucka/Bru tenure on these books. Topping all that with a pinch of some Renee Montoya here and then wrapping it all up in a "Ra's Al Ghul and his agents pulling some fuckery again" in Gotham and it really created a nice filling meal on what can make a Batman book a hot commodity in the medium. 

Every issue there was just something engaging happening. While Batman is dealing with an all out territory war between several gangs, Ra's agents (Whisper and Abbot) are maneuvering these gangs against each other and working Gotham's socialite circles for connections. While Jim Gordon is wrestling with the loss of his wife during the Cataclysm, the Batman is being constricted by the aforementioned Sasha Bordeaux being forced into his life by Lucius Fox and Gotham Enterprise's board of directors trying to keep him safe also due to that (literally) earth-shaking event. Ivy's staging a last stand in Gotham Park, the Mad Hatter starts pulling his brand of nonsense via corrupting GCPD officers with his tech, Bruce starts dating a photojournalist named Vesper Fairchild who is looking to find and identify the Batman while at the same time Sasha discovers the secret and then becomes a part of it, and on and on and on. Every issue pushed a little moment or unfolded a bigger conspiracy or exposed the emotions of a side character in a relatable way to pull together a two year run that felt great for all the reasons that TAS did, with art by folks like Shawn Martinburough and Rich Burchett that actually captured the same visual aesthetic as that cartoon as well, fittingly enough. If there's anything "bad" to say about this run it's how some of its momentum got cut off due to how the way and story Rucka and Brubaker went out on, but I'll get to that in the next piece about this era. 

             Batman: New Gotham Vol. 2 (Collected) | DC Database | Fandom

Ed Brubaker, who at this point in his career (I believe) was still really only known as "plucky Indie writer" and was getting his break doing SCENE OF THE CRIME for DC's Vertigo imprint which landed him the Bat. Obviously he's established himself since then as a big hitter in comics writing very atmospheric and character-centric stories and Batman was no exception except that, unlike Rucka who had the running start that he did working on Batman material, was a little more time limited and therefore good, but not quite as impactful as what Rucka managed in two years on DETECTIVE. Like Rucka, Brubaker really emphasized the state of Gotham post-Cataclysm and personalizing Batman/Bruce Wayne a little more by tying the story into his private life, not the one he spends most nights in costume living. The thrust of this tenure was bringing an old childhood friend, Mallory Moxon, into his life by running into her at a socialite mixer. Of course, in true Batman fashion, there's a darker side to Bruce just getting to relive some few, happy moments from his childhood as it's quickly established that Mallory's father is a long-running underworld boss trying to make waves again and there are hints at him having dealing's with Bruce's father before that fateful night that left him and Bruce's mom dead and created the Bat. 

This is really the only story Brubaker gets to tell during his tenure that stands on its own, extenuating circumstances that I'll get into next time dominate the back half of it, but while it's running the story with Moxon's is a good and much needed one for DC's Dark Knight. For a character always so brooding and mopey, watching Bruce Wayne's eyes light up seeing an old friend and him reverting to "the good old days" before the world blew those lights out always leaves an impression. Obviously, though, these are short lived insights as the world around Mallory's dad, Lew, is steeped in the world Bruce has chosen to reside ever since he lost his parents and his machinations brought a new wave of crime and a new menace by the name of Zeiss into the Bat's domain. 


Again, there's just a lot of personal touches that make it a good little run, though it's also a little crowded and unfocused is really the concern. For every badass, action-focused issue that features Batman facing down Zeiss - who thanks to some tech basically has the Taskmaster powers of "technique duplication" - or there's an issue where Deadshot is in town to put a hit in on Mr. Moxon, there's a weird two-parter where an alien crash lands in Gotham and Batman has to protect him because, yeah. There's all these neat little moments throughout the run where you have, like, Batman feeling bad for once he did his usual disappearing act on Jim Gordon without considering how inconsiderate that may in the wake of Gordon losing his wife and then there's flashbacks to Bruce with his dad at a costume party and looking up at him in awe as he's dressed as Zorro and they're wonderful. And then there's a Joker Santa thrown into the mix because at the time DC was doing a "Joker month" where he infects a bunch of villains (mostly D-listers) with Joker juice and they run amok and, yeah, sure. The heart of the book is fantastic, it showed some of the most emotionally poignant moments I've seen in a stretch of Batman books possibly ever, but some weird creative choices and company mandates kind of cut it off at the knees (a trend that, again, will be something to talk about next time) since Brubaker himself didn't get to run his own act as long as Rucka did and the collaboration of the two talents was obviously the highlights of this couple year stretch on the Bat books.  

One more thing to note before walking out of here and coming back to talk the real meat of what Rucka and Bru did together is that this stands out as one of my favorite Bat eras because of the art teams that paired with the all star scribes. I mentioned Martinburough and Burnett earlier and how their styles so reminiscent of the Batman Animated Series made DETECTIVE COMICS sing, but Scott McDaniel doing the art chores for almost every issue of the Brubaker BATMAN book is one of my favorite things about all of this era, or any Batman era. He was just the quintessential Bat-family guy for several years as his playful, animated, and highly-kinetic style was just perfect for the kind of shenanigans the Bat family got involved in, especially when it came to Nightwing and his tenure on that book with Chuck Dixon. I personally think he's one of the best Batman pencillers of the past quarter century and give the man his due, he really ramped up the quality and enjoyment of this couple year stretch. 

But, yeah, that's the first half of this. I'll pop the second one out sometime in the next week or two; I got kind of hyperfocused on making sure I was streaming games on Twitch the past month because there was just so much to do between Cyberpunk 2077 and the Demon's Souls remaster and yeah. I still jones for my old comic book columnist days so I'll keep on myself to get a few thousand words out a month about something in comics I feel deserves a couple thousand words about it. So, yeah, take care and be safe out there. Cheers!

(Credit to Bill Sienkiewicz, John McCrea, and Scott McDanielon the image pulls, respectively)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Run the Reviews: Transmetropolitan

I'm still not sure if this is a good call, honestly, as my second foray into this kind of piece writing. There's two things to address off the bat when it comes to this book. One, I've loved this book for a long, long time. It and I are old enough that I can bestow upon it a share in the "comics that got me back into the medium back in college" award, alongside classics I was introduced to at the time like WATCHMEN, THE SANDMAN, PREACHER, etc. And my fandom for this book has run so long that I already co-wrote something similar to this with a former Ain't It Cool News cohort, Vroom Socko, over a (motherfucking) decade ago, so feel free to check that out while at it. As for the second thing, unfortunately, my "election year bastardry preparation" reread that I usually do of this book came a couple months ago, right in the middle of a comics-wide "speaking out" movement where a lot of mostly female creators were calling out creators for sexual harassment, grooming, just all manner of actions ranging from "disgusting" to "fucking abhorrent." For those who happen to not know about this and what I means here, TRANSMETROPOLITAN scribe Warren Ellis was arguably most prominent name in the slew of those called out during that dark time for the comic book industry. And, well, fuck him. We don't seem to know how deep the actions actually go so I'm not really going to call for jail time or anything like that because I don't think we officially know if what happened with him and the women he manipulated crossed legal lines, but it's more than apparent he manipulated women in MULTITUDES and that's scummy enough in its own right even if a law wasn't broken. I'll let the community at large and the companies that do the hiring decide how deep into a hole the man's career should be tossed and buried, but I do openly admit that his body of work was truthfully one of my favorite in any medium between books like this, PLANETARY, NEXTWAVE, etc and I'm here to say "fuck that guy." 

So, yeah, I'm not sure if writing a piece about a seminal work of calling out people for the bastards they are by a man who spent years being his own level of bastard behind the scenes is a "good look" or not. I legitimately don't and if it's a bad place to be I'll just delete everything and move onto the next piece, or I'll edit this to leave behind a public "fuck that guy" declaration in place for Ellis. But, given the new light shone on this book reading it with all that in the air and also reading it in a world where America is getting its first giant heaping helping of authoritarianism as we're wrestling with a narcissist President whose desire to be considered "strong" is only exceeded by his greed, well, I decided to give this a go. Again, I don't mean any disrespect to those affected by his actions, but as a commentary on just exactly the current status of America as we hit the final lap on this Presidential Election and, quite frankly, possibly American democracy in general, this book does mean a lot as a commentary piece to a large amount of people, myself included. Also, co-creator Darick Robertson by all accounts seems to be a stand up guy and it would be a shame if he and his contribution to this seminal piece of fiction were also buried in the ramifications of a former coworker considering how immeasurable his efforts was to making this Cyberpunk story of both the underbelly of society and politics come to life. So, without any more tentativeness and further ado...

                             Gonzo journalist 'Transmetropolitan' a hero -

The sole survivor of the ill-fated "Helix" imprint at DC Comics, TRANSMETROPOLITAN was a fire in the belly of a comic book industry that grew fat off a steady diet of crossovers, relaunches, and spinoffs in the 1990's. As I've noted before in these pieces, I was just coming back to the party at the turn of the century after all those factors I mentioned last sentence drove me away screaming for a few years and into the welcoming arms of Magic: the Gathering. TRANSMETROPOLITAN, though, was a kick in the teeth to an industry dominated by "Clone Sagas" and "Heroes Reborn" and whatever stupid half-hearted crossover DC was pulling out of their butts year to compete (Genesis, apparently, a quick search found out for me). Even with DC's Vertigo imprint still carrying the banner for comics that were harder edged and didn't get bogged down in such wallet drowning affairs, comic books were on the back end of a bubble that had just gone "kapop!" from these indulgences and was finding itself in a wild new frontier where all of a sudden books were selling literal fractions of what they were a few years earlier. Not only did this create a climate where a book like TRANSMET - which was selling numbers that were sketchy even with lowered expectations - could survive because of lowered expectations, but the landscape was getting a little more daring in general. Vertigo was starting to broaden its horizons with books like 100 BULLETS and adopting TRANMET, Jim Lee's Wildstorm line from Image was starting to reinvent itself at DC as an imprint with books like THE AUTHORITY and WILDCATS 3.0, and Image was starting to lay the groundwork to getting back to its being a place to launch creators and their books, like it did with Brian Michael Bendis and POWERS at this time. Comic books in general needed to do a little soul-searching after spending most of the decade of the 90's cranking out anything they thought could make a buck in the speculation era, and now that everything had crashed and burned, a comic book featuring a foul-mouthed ex-journalist with more drugs in him than every 80's hair metal band combined was as good a mouthpiece as any. 

                                TRANSMETROPOLITAN BOOK ONE | DC

Spider Jerusalem is what you get if you made a bullet sentient and it talked with a constant snarl. After alienating himself from society up a goddamn mountain because political journalism made him too popular - so you can tell this is a work of high fiction with that alone - and too overwhelmed by the attention to do his job anymore, Jerusalem is brought back to the harsh reality that is life in "The City" when a former publisher lets him know he owes them more books or his life basically. Spider returns to find The City even more bugfuck insane than when he left it and hooks up with his former editor, Mitchell Royce, and immediately winds up in the middle of what would be called the "Transient Succession Movement," where a group of humans slowly exchanging their DNA with that of aliens are vying to claim their own section of The City to live within. This movement is led by a lowly pusher named Fred Christ that Spider knew from his previous life in The City and politics and therefore knows how doomed is is to end in misery and pain because of how much a conniving scumbag Fred exists to be. There is also a Presidential election primary afoot, to add to the chaos.

Right off the bat TRANSMETROPOLITAN grabs you by the balls and doesn't let its grip loose. Look at what I briefly discussed up there and I'll expand upon some of it. The very first story arc of this series involves a very violent and always heavily armed journalist who came back to his old stomping grounds and immediately gets involved in an inter-species war, gets beat down by the cops for his efforts, and finds himself living in a megacity where more than ever the haves are living in posh towers with the best views in the heart of the city, and everyone else is left to scavenge in the gutters for leftover tech, supplies, anything they can scrabble up to survive. Substitute "inter-species war" for any of the ones plaguing current-day America - the culture war of science belief, immigration stances, etc - and how do you not just think, "oh yeah, that seems familiar." Yes, that's the sign of any good piece of dystopian cyberpunk, that no matter how deep into the far, weird future it occurs the material is easily transposable over what current society looks like and, uh, yup. That's the point. TRANSMETROPOLITAN may be brutal, it may be vulgar and overly sexualized and, uh, sometimes cannibalistic but even with all that craziness going on you can overlay it on the current day United States, especially motherfucking 2020 US of A, and easily go "oh, man, this material is twenty years old? How did they get it so right?!?"

Quite frankly they - they being Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson and inker Rodney Ramos - were ahead of the curve because they were about as cynical about society as they could be; and twenty years on it looks like they didn't go far enough. I'm going to be blunt for the rest of this paragraph. I'm working on this piece right now as this current Presidential election has entered another nailbiter because... reasons. As I type this a quarter million of my fellow Americans are dead due to a virus that ravaged the world but decimated the "strongest nation" on it comparatively. The past week I've been inundated with images of people with guns strong-arming polling places and chasing down campaign buses. There's been reports of African refugees being tortured in ICE centers to renounce their claims of asylum. A "militia" plotted to kidnap the Governor of their state because they didn't like the protocols she put in place to stop the spread of the virus I mentioned a couple sentences back. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

Getting back to TRANSMET, I'll go to the next laundry list that the "work of fiction" took on. Not only does Spider get instantly involved in a major species rights "war" out the gate, he's constantly barraged by daily human rights violations that are as embarrassing considering the overall wealth of The City and they are fatal to those living in the disenfranchised areas. Viruses that humanity had eliminated generations ago are ravaging the slums. History is being preserved in "reservations" where time periods are recreated for people to be physiologically dialed back to live in in order to preserve them because otherwise no one would bother to remember them. Basically, history can only be saved by people volunteering to relive it because no one can be fucked to remember it in any other circumstance. There's living breathing examples of history sitting there for people to learn from and they're all but abandoned but for the people that run them because "they're important." Back in 1997, cell phones were basically things the size of a canteen that Zack Morris cartoonishly played with on Saturday morning programming, not the computer in a pocket they are today, and yet Ellis and Robertson slammed home not just how these devices would be so ubiquitous, but also how they would wind up as instruments used basically for ads, cultish celebrity worship, misinformation, and more ads. When Spider finally does start covering the election, he goes to see a rally for the incumbent President that is essentially a bunch of jacked up white males hooting and hollering at "their guy," who was nicknamed "the Beast" by Spider and is escorted out to stage by pinup models and mainly talks about stamping out "the weak." Seeing as I still every fucking week have to deal with the memory of the news showing frothing at the mouth white men with torches shouting "the Jews will not replace us!" just a year into the current, real life Presidential administration, re-experiencing "The Beast" in all his glory in the pages of this work has never hit harder. I mean, come on, just look at this frame that's now twenty-two years old and look at literally any footage from Charlottesville just three ago...

                                   Transmetropolitan, Vol. 3: Year of the Bastard by Warren Ellis

TRANSMETROPOLITAN succeeds because not a single punch is pulled in its tone and as it does something American politics has been sorely lacking for decades until our backs were absolutely against the wall in the face of institutional collapse; it works its way from the streets up. Spider Jerusalem is a bastard. He is just as likely to punch you as he is to glance at you twice, but if he thinks you're a scammer he will destroy you and if he thinks you're the scammed he will both berate you for your indifference or complacency and then roll up his sleeves to verbally and physically rip your oppressor's throat out. He's a being of pure anger whose bile spatters on everyone in some way, but he knows that at the end of the day it needs to be directed at those with the power. It makes him a character with a weird charisma you can't deny the power of; he can be tiring in just how much energy he expels in railing against everyone in some manner, but he punches up significantly more than he does down. 

And what really helps the overall tone of this book are the cast around Spider; mainly his two "filthy assistants" in the form of Channon Yarrow, a stripper at the club the "Transient Riots" started at who was inspired somewhat by what Spider did there, Yelena Rossini, the "niece" of Spider's editor, Mitch, who turns out to just be a trust fund kid with a real knack for politics, and then Mitch himself, who quietly aids Spider throughout the book and behind his hardened veneer of "I just want my columns." One, let me point out right now, we PROBABLY should have known something was up with Warren Ellis personally when his biggest work featured a man who pals around with two significantly younger women, one of which was a stripper, the other of which he ends up sleeping with first by drunken accident, then regularly by the end of the series. Y'know, chances are we missed something about what was driving his scripting there. But! But, those characters are fundamental as to why this book works because they take the snarl out of Spider at the perfect times. They always know how to take the piss out of him whenever he's on his high horse, they're always (mostly) there when his inhuman rage eventually overcomes him and makes him "mortal" and wears him down. What Spider's biggest secret is is that down at his core he's a sad, lonely, disenfranchised human who grew up with a hard on to spit on the establishment, but that empty core has never went away. 

Beyond that, to actually break down the events of the book and not just the tone of it, it's an overall engaging storyline that is really just a build up of a "titanic" showdown between the highest power in the land, the President of the United States of America, and Spider himself. Our villain is Gary Callahan, nicknamed "The Smiler," who ends up being the out of nowhere upstart who takes down The Beast by being an even dirtier political operator than him. Now, over the years it always seemed to me like everyone wanted to likened The Beast to Richard Nixon because he was just every corrupt indulgence of politics that dumped on poor people every chance he could personified. Which, okay, that's fair. But the Beast was also a walking pile of toxic masculinity. He was a pile of arrogant and always cocksure and brusque about everything. Nixon was a sweaty piece of public anxiety that was a non-factor on the big stage in 1964 and didn't hit it big until he worked behind the curtain and then cozied up to Barry Goldwater's brand of politics which was, essentially, "hey, are we sure we want black people to vote?" Nixon was way too much of a mechanisms animal to be a good comparison for the Beast for me, who brute-forced and "common-manned" his way to victories fueled by angry people who didn't know anything about politics except who they hated. It's fair to say, presently, that I think our true comp for The Beast came significantly after Nixon and rode in on a gold toilet and a pile of his racist father's money while convincing right-leaning America he was "just like them."

                                Comics Presidents Worth Watching Out For | Magnett Academy

Callahan always felt way more Nixonish to me because how much he was more well, smiley and smarmy in the public eye and then always toiling away in the Oval Office, designing ways to use and bend the system to destroy people. Callahan starts off as quiet and reserved in his first encounter with Spider when Spider really starts hitting the election trail for his column, but then quickly lets the veneer slip a bit to one of disdain for people in general. Callahan makes it pretty clear that, unlike the Beast who enjoys being president for the power and the crowds, he wants to be president because he gets to fuck with people. And once he makes it to that high office, despite Spider's efforts, he uses every bit of prestige the position presents him with to make life hell for the "rabble" on the streets that champion Spider. He has always felt those disenfranchised masses were just fodder to be churned through to get to power he always assumed he rightfully deserved and makes that abundantly clear once he is their President.

Again, the main story that is the conflict between Spider and the Smiler is a good back and forth between a stalwart of truth and justice - just, y'know, with an obscene drug problem and hatred of everyone - and a power hungry despot with the power of the pen. But what really makes this comic book sing and read as such an amazing romp through a future that looks like the most psychedelic anime you've ever watched but with triple the LSD dosage is the adventures of Spider and his filthy assistants. In between fits of dodging whatever physical deterrents Callahan throws at them and grinding the pavement for proof of his power abuses, it's those harrowing or just plain surreal encounters on the streets of The City that are the heart of this book. Tales like the one where Spider takes Channon to a ceremony where she watches her ex-boyfriend convert himself to a "foglet," which is basically a cloud of floating nannites with his consciousness uploaded into them. There's the "Reservations" I mentioned earlier. There's a particularly devastating one-shot issue called "Business" where Spider finds himself watching a bunch of orphanage kids prostitute themselves out because that's simply how they survive. And then in another he's going "monstering" with his Filthy Assistants and essentially spending a week terrorizing a local politician who Spider knew was as a big a hypocritical scumbag as the job could make and he felt like destroying him because he could. There's even an issue where all Spider does is watch television all day and it's one of the most surreal things I've witnessed between the covers of a comic book. 

Between all the side stories and the main event game of cat-and-mouse that Spider plays with the Smiler, TRANSMETROPOLITAN is many things, from absurd, to laugh out loud hilarious, to absolutely heart wrenching and it is always, ALWAYS cranked to eleven on rage. And it's never dull, though it could be oft times exhausting and/or over-indulgent; but that was always the point and I feel why Ellis and Robertson made the book so relentless. Politics and life are relentless but they're important and cannot be ignored, otherwise the true bastards will triumph. Ellis would always take that energy and then ramp up the drama at just the right times in places so that the book was a work of perpetual motion of emotion and plot.  Like, for example, when at the midway point of the run Callahan creates the idea of the "D-notice," which is essentially a censorship order that makes journalistic pieces like Spider's have to run through government approval first for content. It's the equivalent of Bond villain cartoonishness given the arena the story plays in, but it works because it gives a weird bit of respite from all the raw emotion most of the street-level material exudes. And, of course, the highest drama comes when we find in the final stretch of the book that incidents of being exposed to banned and experimental tech has mucked with Spider's neural pathways enough that he most likely will find himself with a case of cognitive degeneration so extreme he may as well expect to become a vegetable. Again, it's a little on the nose as an ironic turn of events to happen to our dauntless lead whose biggest weapon is his cunning and wit, but in how it shifts the focus of the book when it needs to, it works admirably for added tension. 

And now, to start bringing this thing to a close, let's talk about one thing that goes beyond "admirable" to a point I would say it's one of the greatest exhibitions of its type in all of comic book history; let's talk about Darick Robertson's artwork on this series.

              Darick Robertson

Darick Robertson, like any top tier artist in the medium (and that all images used here in this piece are credited to, natch), was the lifeblood of this series. I simply don't think TRANSMETROPOLITAN exists as the classic it is without his pencil work gracing its pages. Now, I'm not saying this to underpin Warren Ellis' scripting because he's the (deserved) whipping boy of an ugly time in the comic book industry. His acerbic wit and mad energy that he channeled through his career and especially this work within it literally changed the business in the late 90's/early 2000's and inspired many a career. The revelation of his transgressions hurt because he was just that beloved for his body of work. But Robertson's pencils here are literally the distillation of everything that makes this book memorable. How he channeled all that raw emotion into in the somewhat "cartoonish" figures and rendition of future society he did is just an astounding. The pure imagination behind every detail and how he rendered this just batshit insane world is beyond me. 

Straight up, every page in this series is a visual feast. Any time Spider Jerusalem sets foot onto the street we really are just taking a trip inside Robertson's head. Every panel has its own story he wants to tell on top of the main plot point. There's always something going on behind the action revolving around Spider. In any given panel someone is falling into love or lust, or enacting some fit of rage, or there's just a weird bit of drug-addled depravity occurring amongst the populace of The City. Whether Spider is directly influencing these events or grumbling past it on his way to the next story doesn't matter; they're there and are the lifeblood of this book and The City. Robertson's attention to detail is staggering. His channeling of Ellis' raw energy into the script and then the pure emotion he packed into every line on top of it makes this one of the best art jobs ever to exist in comic books, full stop. This world that he and Ellis created together is really just the world Ellis gestated through cigarettes and rage and that Robertson carried to term, birthed, and then raised on even more nicotine and whiskey. Oh, and Rodney Ramos on inking and Nathan Eyring on colors were there to slap this bastard kid on the ass and start it up a college fund. Like I said, I know the world of comic book artists is a talented one, but I don't think there's very many that do the work that Roberson did here to make this insane cyberpunk future come together. 

Right now I'm wrapping this thing up two weeks plus after the election. I am just now starting to get a sleep schedule back in order because I lost an entire week of it staying up near twenty-four hours at a time watching coverage of that pivotal event in American politics. For the past four years I've watched police willy-nilly decide protestors were target practice for tear gas canisters, I've read stories like how not only have we been detaining asylum seekers at our borders indefinitely, we've separated children from their parents, doctors have performed hysterectomies without permission on some of the women being detailed. White supremacy has been on a dramatic rise for the past few years because they've been enabled to and encouraged to by those in political power. The virus I mentioned earlier in this has been so politicized that half the country laughs and/or screams at the idea of its mere existence and denies the reality of it to the point where it is now daily claiming the lives of over a thousand Americans and infecting 100,000-plus.  A FUCKING 100,000 PEOPLE ARE BEING INFECTED BY A HIGHLY INFECTIOUS DISEASE A DAY AND IT'S A MOTHERFUCKING POLITICAL ISSUE SOMEHOW!! This is the state of politics when bastards are allowed to thrive unabated in that ecosystem and they rally and raise a mob to enable them. TRANSMETROPOLITAN made this lesson abundantly clear over two decades ago and yet even the most cynical of us still weren't as ready for it as we should have been when this mob rule of ignorance and hate finally came to power and held on to it for way too long. And that was still just the tip of the iceberg.

Shrewd, "the glass is not only half empty but I'm pretty sure that's laced with cyanide" political followers like myself know this is just a brief respite from true fascism. Like, yeah, for the next four years we get to (most likely) breathe easily in knowing our government won't be treating refugees like fucking science experiments and unwanted dogs, but those of use raised completely on a steady diet of Neoliberalism don't expect the ills that led the mob to turn as hate-filled as they did to see any real treatment to the system to stop the bleeding. There's no reason to hope that our healthcare system that is exorbitantly the most expensive in the world and provides a mediocre at best level of access to care will improve. There's no reason to believe we won't continue to be the most indebted nation in the world between that healthcare system and our educational one. There's no reason to believe that the moral rot at the core of our society will go away because our society has very much done nothing but pit us against each other for wages that have stagnated for near a half century and jobs that provide no security in-and-of themselves and for retirement. Yes, we're not going to watch our President bumble over himself to slyly pat White Supremacist groups on the back for their support, but the crumbling structure of society that made the world of TRANSMETROPOLITAN and the "New Scum" within The City's limits the focal point of the work is more apparent than ever as a reflection of real world politics. I've breathed a little easier through the lack of sleep for two weeks now but I know the nightmare is far from over because the worst instincts of humans and worse yet, AMERICANS, have been activated and allowed to take root in the heart of the most powerful nation on Earth.

Again, works of dystopian cyberpunk realities to come are often hailed as successes as the years move on and they become more and more relevant as a mirror being held up to society. TRANSMETROPOLITAN is pretty much the best example of this to ever exist in the world of comic books and, while other real world events within the comic book have marred its reputation a little, its relevance has only strengthened as the worlds of global politics and technology have advanced around it. The narrative may not have always been perfect (there's a little bit of an oopsie about the timing of a major plot point late in the story) and yeah, there were some tropes in here like a cartoonishly vile main villain, the hero is some how the most curmudgeonly person to exist and yet he still commands ungodly amounts of loyalty from those around him, and some male wish fulfillment, but the book does genuinely have the heart, energy, reverence, irreverence, and mad fits of creativity that make any work of fiction a classic. It's one of the best comic books ever written. It just is and nothing is going to change that and nothing has changed that even if we are soured on the circumstances around the work after this hell year known as 2020. The creativity and originality that went into crafting this comic book was off the charts and with each full cycle of the Earth around the Sun it just means that much more and more from the biting social commentary it unleashed. From now on this comic will always hurt to read a bit from the standpoint of both Ellis' antics and just how painfully true to life the material within came to life, but it still should be both read and hail for the cornerstone work of comic book and cyberpunk fiction that it is in spite of all that. There's probably nothing more 2020 than one of the most pivotal parallels to the year in the comic book medium also wrestling with being problematic in its own way but, yeah, there it is and I don't know what to say about it anymore so I'm going to shut up now several thousand words into this piece. Form and stand by your own opinions about for sure and don't let me change your mind on how to perceive the work from the outside, but inside those pages it deserves all the credit in the world, even if the "Fuckhead" inside its pages is way more trustworthy than his creator outside of them. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Run the Reviews: Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski Part 2

Aaaand I'm back! And we're right into more of this Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski run that, like myself anytime I decide to take back up jogging, started off strong and confident and quickly devolved into broken bodies weeping on the floor. 

The next thing up to talk about in this run was "The Other," another much maligned tentpole event of this JMS era. Here's the thing about "The Other," it's not that it's a particularly bad story, it's just overwrought and overextended. It was JMS' last run on his Totem plot and making Morlun a large player in the pantheon of Spider-man villains, earning him the title of the one foe that "finally killed Spider-man." This story was also the payoff to a running plot of Pete's powers being on the fritz and having to rely on some of his new allies to help him out of the bind, particularly Tony Stark. And that payoff was that, yes, Peter "died," but he was also really just entering a new stage of his spider powers developing, so he shed his old skin, literally, and became a new and improved (!!) Spider-man, complete with webs that shot out of his wrists naturally, not through tools of his design, and that totally didn't have anything to do with the super successful Spider-Man movies Sony were putting out at the time where he had natural web shooters. Also, he apparently got weird stinger jabber things that came out of his wrists as well and that he used all of like twice before this run ended. It was weird. As a capper to what JMS had been doing with the totem stuff all this time, sure, whatever, it did its thing. As one last push to solidify Morlun as an all-time Spidey baddie and then to wrap up his tenure in Peter's life, sure, check that box also. And as something that was twelve parts of melodrama galore, it pretty much let us know that the darker material  like Sins Past wasn't going away anytime soon.

Spider Man – The Other | Worldwalker

At the least I can give JMS credit on this, it wasn't like he mislead us about the shift he was making. Hell, the art style switch alone to Mike Deodato Jr. with "Sins Past" was a pretty big precursor that the "fun times" were over. Deodato very much has a cinematic and more dramatic style than something like what John Romita Jr. brought to the table with a more cartoonish affair. This change was dramatic to the point where even during "The Other" when the parts that ran through the newly launched FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN title featured art from the much loved and missed Mike Wieringo, Ringo's art was the one that felt terribly out of place despite it being such a perfect style for Spider-man. It would have made a seamless transition for a post-JRJr timeline, but it was obvious that's not JMS was playing at anymore. There is no greater proof that the darker shift was in full effect on this era of Spidey when Ringo's more jaunty and light hearted affair looked so out of place alongside the other titles that "The Other" crossed into and the brutal, bloody battles with Morlun and then very animalistic imagery as Peter wrangled with and submitted to the totemic forces to get back to his loved ones. JMS does use this rebirth to really bring home some melodrama into Aunt May coming to full grips what this double life could mean for her nephew and their little family and it makes MJ realize just what her encouragement means to Peter each night in his fight just to make it home because, finally, he didn't and succumbed to the job for once. At the end of the day, it was a capper to the cornerstone theme of JMS' run, but that run was more and more showing that it was getting cannibalized by forces beyond the creative teams' control. Enter "Civil War." Mother$@#!ing "Civil War."

It's going to be hard for me to not discuss this next and penultimate chapter in the JMS Spider-Man era without first clearing my opinion of Civil War proper, since the two things are pretty much intertwined for the rest of the run. And, my opinion of that universe shaking run is that, well, it was pretty much shit. It's the worst payoff of the past couple decades trend at that point of comic books being written by grown ups for mostly other grown ups. Now, I opened up Part 1 of this series talking about how I was brought back into comic books because of ones like what JMS was writing in RISING STARS and that played more toward mature angles and took more "real world" views on how things would work, and yeah, that's totally what I wanted at the time and still do, but in their own places. The issues that come about analyzing a perpetual fictional universe like the Marvel one in that light is that, a) you will never, ever properly get to analyze, discuss, debate, propagate whatever the idea itself because the opportunities aren't as plentiful as you think they are even with dozens of titles and the benefit of such broad, serialized storytelling and b) you either have to live with the consequences of those "debates" (and usually the battles and deaths that ensue from them) for years and years of storylines to come, or you have to pull some bullshit to make them go away and become forgotten. The amount of sweeping of broken pieces you have to displace under rug way more often than not make you forget that the rug was supposed to be something pleasant that brought the room together. Instead you're just left with a raggedy, lumpy ass rug from all the junk you pushed underneath it and then you're off to find a replacement rug. 

Another way to say all that is to reference one of the many, many great Heath Ledger Joker moments from "The Dark Knight; "You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it!" 

"Civil War" was a bunch of dogs in a writing room thinking they caught the biggest, coolest tire (take) on superheroes ever and that they were going to tell such gritty, realistic material and it was going to be the hottest shit ever. Instead it devolved into just every piece of schlock that makes Big Two comic book events unbearable ninety percent of the time. Mischaracterizations, big dumb fisticuffs for the sake of having them and the property damage to match to add "weight" to the story, and "shock" deaths that are usually significantly more empty than impactful. And "Civil War" had that all in spaces, especially in the main series itself. In tie-in issues there was definitely some good work going on, particularly in the characterization department, like the work Brian Michael Bendis did with characters like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in his AVENGERS books and, as I will get to soon, what JMS partly did in this AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. But there was some straight up insulting bullshit being piled high in front of us as well (again, as I will get to in the JMS stuff) and watching the "wouldn't it be cool if we came up with this very realistic reason to have superheroes fight and sell more books" story degenerate into a goddamn Thor clone killing C-tier characters (ugh), such brilliant and "future thinking" minds like Tony Stark and Reed Richards running a gulag in another dimension because that was the best idea they could come up with when of course they met resistance to their pro-registration stance (ugh), and then the wet fart follow up to the series that was the extra edgy "Dark Reign" era where the Avengers were made up of super villains like Norman Osborn and Bullseye (ugh). I've disliked many eras of the Marvel and DC Universes in the twenty years I've been really back into comics, and the couple years surrounding "Civil War" and then "Dark Reign" pretty much take the cake.

All that said, let's go back to this JMS Spider-man run and say a few nice words about it before I pack this away with one more rant or two (oh goodie!!). 

Heroes And Shots Fired: Civil War – Heroes And

Playing to his strengths and developing as what I assume the writing room and editor pool imagined the whole build to and execution of "Civil War" to be, I am going to give JMS credit as being pretty much responsible for the best-handled material surrounding this whole ordeal here in his Spidey run. Well, outside of the "Bucky" Captain America material that Ed Brubaker wrote and that followed Steve Roger's demise in the wake of the titanic clash of superheroes. Fully riding the Stark train, Peter has become the apprentice of Marvel's "futurist" to the point that he's accepted a powerful new costume upgrade from the man and is accompanying the man to Washington D.C. where the beginnings of the Superhero Registration Act are coming together. And this is the last time frame where the idea of Civil War is somewhat cohesive and sensible. Tony knows that some very scared and/or power hungry government officials are going to push for a program that gets superheroes at the least under the American government's thumb, at the most gets itself an army of superpowered individuals who don't want to retire but also want to be out there saving lives. He knows this and sees it as a future the world is moving but also understands this is more a game and power grab to these people and presents a case as such and that these powers already do a fine job of saving the world without being on a leash, especially one that could make them targets in their other lives. The way he figures it, if he at least makes a compelling enough case superheroes work in their current form, he can run out the clock and the monotonous churn that is government will work this notion out of the political zeitgeist of the time. Having Peter there with him to, of course, make some impassioned pleas about the notion of how not every superhero is doing what they do because they were always aspiring to be that presence, but they happened into the powers and were compelled to out of a sense of greater responsibility. 

Obviously, we all know how that works out. An elementary school and six hundred students in Stamford go "kaboom!" during a superhero showdown and the Registration Act goes from an item that Stark hopes would die in committee to the unanimous will of the people and then the event known as "Civil War" proper really takes the grips of this run. Then flows forth upon it all the brutal mischaracterization and nonsensical leaps of logic that mired that event and the Marvel Universe for the better part of a year. In the span of seven issues after the more levelheaded "Mr. Parker Goes to Washington" arc, we see Peter Parker, the quintessential "everyman superhero" who has ALWAYS lived in fear of what would happen if one of his villains found out his real identity and went after MJ or Aunt May, just casually ripping his mask off on national TV at the behest of Tony Stark. The same Peter Parker who recently had to live in Avengers mansion with MJ and May because a villain who didn't even know Pete was Spidey and was just trying to get back at Pete and Tony destroyed their homes. The same "futurist" Tony Stark who knew this Registration Act would become an issue at some point but did no planning for that future. The same Tony Stark whose skyscraper HQ Pete lived in with was where Pete saw his Aunt threatened by a very tech savvy newbie villain named Tracer who got past its defenses literally just twelve issues earlier. "Sure thing Mr. Stark! Yoink!" Then Peter sees the dumber aspects of "Civil War" like gulags and villains being conscripted to fight against Captain America's resistance and, like me to a lot of Marvel comics at the time, and just three months into the war of civil says "I'm out" and goes on the run with what family he has left as the superhero world implodes around them. 

And, of course, Peter pays the price for everything because that's what Peter does, and because editorial by that point had a certain state of "normal" for Peter Parker in mind and they needed something dramatic to get there. Enter "Back in Black," a story centered around the aftermath of the Kingpin, fresh with knowledge of Peter unmasking on TV, ordering a hit on the Parker family that succeeds in critically injuring Aunt May, and also putting a bullet in the potential for this Spider-Man run going down in history as anything but mired more in shock and controversy than living up to its potential, at least in my eyes. Now, I don't know if this arc was JMS' one last grasp at striking out at "Civil War," I actually don't know if that story is something he was onboard with from the get go and he took it to its logical - i.e. of @#$%ing course this is what would happen, what did you think would @#$%ing happen??!? - conclusion with Pete's identity out there and this was always the plan or it was just his last ditch effort to make the next, most controversial story of his tenure work. If it's the former, sure, as much as I dislike Civil War as a whole, given the stakes and storylines that broad and reaching an event as that story wanted to be, May's all but certain death in the manner it transpired at least feels like an accurate consequence. If the run had ended that way I wouldn't have liked it, not because I'm opposed to a death like Aunt May's (and it's not like she hadn't taken a dirt nap before in my comic book reading background) but because it was in purpose of an event I abhorred for several months, BUT at least it would have made sense in the form of a price paid for the arrogance and stupidity about in the Marvel Universe at the time. As a means to an end for the final chapter of this rapidly deteriorating run by Joe Michael Straczynski, well...

Amazing Spider-Man: One Moment in Time – Comics Talk News and Entertainment  Blog

Cue Ralph Wiggum going "Stop, stop, he's already dead!" With May nearing the end and desperation running rampant, Peter Parker tries to pull out all the stops to save his most beloved relative, first trying to get Doctor Strange to work his mojo and then ended up in the presence of a more diabolical and malevolent mystical Marvel character, Mephisto. We know the deal. Marvel's version of the Devil offers Peter his precious Aunt back in exchange for his precious marriage. It's a veritable "Smeagol's Choice" of bad options. MJ makes the decision for him, the spend one more night in each others' arms, and then POOF goes twenty years of one of the biggest growing points of Peter Parker's existence on the comic book page and the potential for more as well, as both the marriage is erased and so is the last minute reveal that MJ and Pete were to have a daughter together had they continued on. Pete had officially been put through it all, ring the bell, he was done. Except that he would just be back next month in a "Brand New Day" and it would be like it was a season of "Dynasty" that never existed. 

Much like the idea of a not living Aunt May, I'm not necessarily opposed to such a dramatic shift in the life of a comic book character like this because, well, that's comic books. What has been written can be unwritten. What has been unwritten can be rewritten. These characters... these icons have been here longer than most of us who currently partake in their adventures and they will be here probably longer than most of our progeny. The status quo is meant to be shaken up. What does get to me is when the apple cart is overturned because someone looks at the cart and says "wouldn't it be fun to just @#$%ing flip that thing over?" and not because, hey, maybe the wheel on that apple cart was old and dated and rotting and needed some modernization. "One Day in Time" irks me because it was a combination of the two, except also someone purposefully sabotaged the shit out of that wheel. Someone high up in the company disliked the idea of a married Peter Parker because it "aged" the character. Which, y'know, is not an incorrect viewpoint. I get that these characters need to stay a semblance of "timeless" because, as I stated a second ago, they belong to the generations, not just a generation at a time. Everyone can identify with a single protagonist because that's a path we all take for a while, not everyone takes the married one. But we as humans are constantly growing, and while marriage might not be a branch all of us protrude as we age, it's absurd to think that single people or young people who don't know squat about relationships can't imagine a character they love and identify with ninety percent of the time can't at least wrap their head around. Most of us literally watch a long-running relationship and all the joys and rough patches they entail play out in out lives by watching our parents grow as we grow. So, I'm not necessarily going to agree that getting rid of one of the premiere relationships in all of comics was a must because of "accessibility" issues, but I can buy a viewpoint that says there's more storytelling pathways without it.

BUT, the hamfisted approach to the dissolution of this once premiere institution in comics on top of the overwrought build to it never once left me feeling like this was happening because someone in the Bullpen saw a greener patch of grass this way, but because they had spent a decade sowing the current field with so much "Clone Sage, reemergence and then death of Peter's parents, and now all this Civil War bullshit" salt. A continuity wiping deal with the devil that absolutely HAS to happen because a beloved character is at death's door? That HAD to happen? You couldn't just have had Pete and MJ get, y'know, divorced? I understand that comics get absurd at times but come on, people in their 20's get divorced; it's not exactly outside the realm of reason that Pete and MJ could have a split but still be in each other's spheres of interaction while Pete goes back to his swinging bachelor days. Lord Odin forbid you reset the character - the quintessential "everyman" character - in a realistic way that happens to millions of us every day. People grow apart, learn from it and move on, and sometimes they come back together again, which easily could have been a thing to happen decades later with a different Bullpen in place to be the ones to make that decision. "One Minute in Time" was the nuclear option for a problem that should have called for a fly swatter, except the people with their fingers on the nuclear codes ran mad scientist tests on the flies for so long the swatter no longer cut it. JMS, for all the enjoyable, sometimes downright classic rejiggering he did of the Spider-man lore was also complicit in the careless manipulating of it that led to this story. I know he clashed several times with his overlords but it's not like he wasn't sewing parts of his own onto the Frankenstein's monster that was the mess of a continuity that was the life of everyone's favorite wall crawler.

Spider-Man: Brand New Day - The Complete Collection Vol. 1 (Trade  Paperback) | Comic Issues | Comic Books | Marvel

Again, I'm not going to say that, with the gift of hindsight especially, this Spidery reboot at the time was the wrong call. I read most of Brand New Day through the glory of dollar bins about a year or so behind schedule and read all of the Dan Slott as primary writer material and can say that since Brand New Day hit this has probably been the most consistently enjoyable the character has been since I started reading him in 1994, and I've now read something like 400 of the 500 issues of Amazing Spider-man to have been released since. The highs aren't quite as good as those that JMS injected into the veins of the book and character early into this century and some of the lows have been near as low as some of the more rancid material I've now spent 8000ish words discussing, but it has been infinitely more consistently enjoyable and that makes it, uh, a long-running tentpole comic book. That's how it works. That's really what you can hope for is that the good runs more plentifully than the bad and sometimes you get something that's truly classic. We had that with JMS' Spider-Man, in my opinion, for about three years and then it pretty much went to the gutters of the comic book world. 

That also makes this run a product of its time. The early 2000's was so full of creative and editorial teams so confident and desperate to make their marks on the comics they were writing and to have comic books make their mark on the world at large because of the mainstream exposure the film industry was granting them that everyone was shooting their shot and either hitting the bullseye or blowing half their toes off their foot. For every CAPTAIN AMERICA by Ed Brubaker and company there was a half dozen runs like this. The true tragedy is that the vast bulk of those books, whether they went on to become the true classics or true duds, almost never hit as hard and awesomely as this JMS run did for its first third. Expectations were already so high and when JMS and JRJr nailed them out of the park for so long right up front you couldn't imagine this run wasn't going down as one of the all-time greats. Then the reality of what the mainstream comic book would was about, especially during this time period, settled in and really put a beatdown on those hopes and expectations. That seems like a downer to say but, honestly, that's kind of where this material kind of left me by the time we made it out of the aughts and it's a shame that this run became the rule not the exception for that time period because it truly was exceptional for a time.

Aaaaand that's that is that. Holy hell that went way longer than I expected it to, but it was also such a lengthy run that had so many tentpole events either of its own devising or because of the greater universe around it that I felt it was correct to get in there and get a little more detailed about the specific arcs instead of taking it more as a whole. I'm hoping/imagining that as I do more of these I'll get better at doing more "broad strokes" about these things from the various standpoints that are world building, tone, etc etc. But, yeah, I'm putting this monster to bed. If anyone has something they want to strike up a conversation about after all this, go for it. It's been, uh, six years since anyone left a comment so that'll be weird but welcome. Thanks for anyone bothering to give all this a whirl and I'm hoping to polish off my GOTHAM CENTRAL omnibus this week and put a couple thousand words down about the Brubaker/Rucka Batverse next time around. Still debating if I want to reread Brubaker's CATWOMAN run to include in that but it was so much more Brubaker's baby and it's own thing that I think I'll stick with the main things. But that's me and that's this, you all be safe out there. Cheers...