Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Brutal Canvas: Action Comics #876 and Green Lantern Corps #35

Action Comics #876

Writer: Greg Rucka
Pencillers: Eddy Barrows & Sidney Teles
Inkers: Ruy Jose & Julio Ferreira
Released: April 15, 2009

Green Lantern Corps #35

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Penciller: Patrick Gleason
Inker: Rebecca Buchman
Released: April 15, 2009

The super hero comic book is a violent world. Characters possess superhuman strength, speed, and invulnerability or weapons that replicate these powers; punches thrown are brutal and damaging. Fights are writ large on a canvas as infinite as the universe itself. This world is populated by beings seeking power and control through violence and suppression; stopping them involves combatting this aggression with aggression. Battles and wars never end in cease-fires or peace treaties, but in one party standing triumphant as another lays vanquished. Comic books are a visual medium and one with inexhaustible possibilities. What can be imagined can be drawn and no artist nor writer, nor reader, will find the signing of a piece of paper to be a satisfying conclusion to a monumental struggle. It is an epic world of good versus evil and its violence reflects this at every turn of the page.

Action Comics #876 devotes the first 19 of its 22 pages to one fight, as Commander Ursa has ambushed heroes Flamebird (Thara Ak-Var) and Nightwing (K'riss) in the Fortress of Solitude. These are characters with phenomenal powers and all three share deeply personal connections to each other. It is vicious and bloody hand-to-hand combat set against an elegant backdrop of crystal and snow. In the hands of Greg Rucka and Eddy Barrows it is also deeply affecting and shockingly discomfiting. Where so often long fight scenes fail is that they present the violence strictly for show with the bombast of the punches serving only to show off the strength and power of the characters involved, and rightly they become tedious as a result. Entire issues built around fights generally feel empty. Not so here.

In #876, the violence is intimately detailed. One page in particular features Ursa repeatedly stabbing Thara with a kryptonite blade, complete with inset panels showing close-ups of Thara's bloodied face, eyes and mouth wildly agape in shock and horror. Her pain and fear are presented unvarnished. It is graphic, but the reaction it elicits is one of revulsion and sadness. 

It is Thara's emotional pain and fear that lead her to lose control initially and to fight without focus. Her emotions are what Ursa exploit to cause this vulnerability. Ursa uses emotional cruelty to prepare her victim for the physical cruelty to follow. It is Ursa's strategy of the hunt and she works it here to near perfection, thwarted only by her son K'riss coming to Thara's rescue. The needles are plunged deeper still as mother gleefully turns her tactics on her own child, spitting out cruel insults as fierce as her punches. 

These first 19 pages are relentlessly brutal and some may find them unnerving, but they serve to display the relationships between the main characters as vividly as an open wound and the story is greater for it. The violence has traumatic consequences and in the end, scars will remain.

Within the first three pages of Green Lantern Corps #35 one character has his eyes burned out of his skull, while another character has his head pierced open and his heart punched out and smeared onto the glass of a prison cell. We are dropped into the middle of a prison riot and the Grand Guignol level of gore present here has become somewhat typical of the house of horrors that the Green Lantern Universe has become since the epic Sinestro Corps War two years ago. It is torrid and most unabashedly graphic, and also most assuredly powerful. 

The message here is simple: the universe is an exceedingly dangerous place to be a cop. 

The hallmark of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force, has always been that the officers who serve in uniform are those who can overcome great fear. The men and women who serve in green are faced with a universe ever-expanding and spinning ever more erratically out of control. Basically, it's not a pretty sight, and both Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps have stepped up the violence to ever more fiendish heights to demonstrate that being a space cop is truly only for the select few. 

The gore in issue #35 straddles an interesting fence where on one side lay the sick and on the other lay the thrills. For it cannot be forgotten that at its heart Grand Guignol horror is always meant to entertain by tapping our base pleasures. We understand the epic space opera of GLC and its accompanying limitless canvas and we demand it be pushed to the untold edges. We get what we wish for. We get a unfathomably gigantic snake encircling a planet, mass suicides, a tongue worn as a necklace, ever more dismemberment, and even a few genuine comedic moments, all thanks to the creative team of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. It's breathtaking, but never without merit or grounding in story. This is macabre comic book theatre at it's finest. 

Special accolades should be given to penciller Gleason and inker Rebecca Buchman, whose work in this issue has a peculiarly stunning modernist quality. Gleason's figures and panel compositions verge on the abstract. Buchman's feathering, in particular, is strong and classic. Scoff though some may, I was reminded of abstract drawings by Picasso, particularly his sketch studies for Guernica. This is like no other superhero art on the shelves and it fits Tomasi's scripts masterfully. 

These issues portray violence in the large outer spaces of the universe and in the intimate personal spaces of family, neither glorifying it nor glossing over its consequences. They show both the torment and suffering brought about by its use as well as the excitement and euphoria it has the power to elicit. They are 44 pages in the lives of characters who are trapped in a world where violence is inescapable. They are super hero comics and proudly so.

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