Saturday, July 31, 2010

Impossible Princess: Wonder Woman #601

This is it. This is the first full issue of The All-New Wonder Woman. It says so right there on the cover. It's "all-new". It's issue #601. That's six-hundred-and-one. A lot. I'm repetitively saying the same thing over and over in a slightly different variation. I want you to know it's important. Special. Meaningful.

This is how new Wonder Woman scribe J. Michael Straczynski (JMS, to his friends and neighbors) seems to have approached his new assignment, with a pedestal under one arm and a thesaurus under the other. The pedestal is not for his main character, mind you, it's for his story. The thesaurus? Well, we will get to that.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, a little back story. Wonder Woman is no longer Wonder Woman. She is just plain ol' Princess Diana. Everything that was Wonder Woman is no longer, destroyed by the whim of the Gods who lift their veil of protection over Paradise Island, leaving it vulnerable to attack by an army of, well, it's never really stated who this army is, suffice it to say, they are flush with body armor and bullets, jets and helicopters. They are Blackwater, apparently, because they wear no recognizable flag from any known country on their uniforms. They are just "military", generic soldiers here for the purpose of destroying an island and setting the story in motion. Diana's mother is killed, whilst Diana is secreted away off the doomed island before the final blow can be felled. Somewhere, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster are spinning in their copyright attorney's grave.

So, that's it. No Steve Trevor. No Bullets and Bracelets. No star-spangled uniform. No invisible jet. No Wonder Woman. It's "all-new", remember?

Therein lay the real problem with this new direction: there is no there, there. Once you open the book, get past the cover that states this is a Wonder Woman comic, you are faced with the emptiness left by the absence of Wonder Woman. This woman in the role of Princess Diana is recognizable, sure, but she feels like an impostor, like an actor taking over the role from a more famous celebrity on Broadway. There is that little slip of paper in your Playbill informing you the understudy is in tonight's performance, and so you watch with a little sense of disappointment. It's a decent enough show, but nothing without the Star.

JMS wants you to not notice this, however. He wants you to understand the gravity of this new direction, this new story, this new path, this new journey, that requires sentences be repeated like hammer blows to the head. From the first page to the very last page, JMS gives his characters dialogue that feels overwrought and weighed down with bloated language. On the first two pages alone, the character of Oracle preaches to Diana of the last days of Paradise Island. It goes a little something like this:

"This is the home that was... the scorched and blackened earth, the weeping sky, the stones that stood for thousands of years... thrown down. Burned. Destroyed. ...This was our home before the darkness fell ... Before the fires came. Before we were abandoned... Before the Gods themselves turned away from us."

Did you get all that? How could you miss it? It screams "THIS IS IMPORTANT!" It screams it four times in a row. Later, as Queen Hippolyta leads her troops into final battle, she implores them with this little speech:

"BRING FIRE! BRING STEEL! BRING PAIN! BRING DEATH! This is our home and we will not submit! BRING RAGE! BRING HORROR! BRING BLOOD! Our lives are our own and we will not surrender! Bring all you have against us! But we SHALL. NOT. YIELD!"

To recap, they will not submit, surrender, or yield to all the pain and blood and death. They also will not yield. And they will not submit. Oh, and they will definitely not surrender. Clear on that? There's more. When explaining why she is unable to leave the area around a bridge, the Oracle explains:

"I'm kind of bound to the bridge. It's a mandatory metaphor ... for being between two worlds, two places, two realities..."

Not only does JMS use a cliched metaphor, he tells us it's a metaphor, and then tells us what the metaphor is, explicitly, THREE TIMES! Still, there's more. Later, a clown selling ice-cream shoos away a kid trying to buy ice cream with this gem:

"Now scram, beat it, take a hike, do a fast fade and cut to black, okay?"

Later, when a few of the remaining Amazon sisters who have been charged with taking care of Diana whilst in hiding explain to her why she is unable to fly yet, they give her this speech:

"We did not say you can fly, only that in time you could fly, and in another time you did fly, and one day ... you will fly, but that day is not this day."

And the true piéce de résistance, the issue ends with the best repetitive speech of all, as these same sisters give the young Princess her mission statement, to locate and protect the other Amazonian survivors:

"They have scattered to the four winds, they are in hiding alone, waiting, waiting for vengeance. Waiting for the right moment. Waiting for their Princess to return to them. Waiting for you. be saved."

These girls are doing a lot of waiting. JMS is doing a lot of heavy lifting, pushing many leaden words around to form that pedestal for his Most Important Story. The editors of this book, Sean Ryan and Brian Cunningham, are doing a lot of sleeping on the job. This type of trite, unimaginative dialogue should have been snipped down, trimmed, cut back, EDITED.

The only ones to come out of this mess unscathed is the art team of penciller Don Kramer, inker Michael Babinski, and colorist Alex Sinclair. Their combined talents have produced a stunningly beautiful 22 pages of comic art. Mr. Sinclair deserves special accolades as he once again showcases his deftness for the art of coloring, providing enough rendering to add dimension and depth to the drawings, without over-modelling the characters which tends to bring an odd artificiality to comics. Mr. Sinclair is considered one of the best working in comics today, and his work here demonstrates why.

Comics are more than art, though, or at least, they are supposed to be. Wonder Woman #601 is only beautiful art, in service of a clichéd story of revenge. I wanted to like this issue. I wanted to like this new direction, that seemed so ridiculous and ill-concieved that it could just work. Alas, the curtain raises on a stage full of understudies, with an orchestra of third-chairs blaring out a second-class score, and I am reminded that what I am seeing is not the real thing, after all. There is no Wonder Woman here.

Wonder Woman #601 written by J. Michael Straczynski, with art by Don Kramer, Michael Babinski, and Alex Sinclair, was released on 28 July, 2010 by DC Comics.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"This Is Futile!": CBGB #1

315 Bowery, New York, NY 10012.

That's the address of a John Varvatos clothing store. Varvatos is a much-celebrated menswear designer who trades in rock-and-roll iconography and symbolism in his aesthetic. His styling is minimalistic, his silhouette is slim, his color-palette mostly muted. If you are a skinny boy with money and a solid sartorial sense, you could do rather well by donning a wardrobe consisting of select Varvatos pieces. You would more than likely be thought of as a man with a very modern sense of style, despite the obvious retro-leanings of the clothing itself.

That is generally how design works. A style comes to be, ignites the imagination of a generation, inspires a group of influential artists and designers who take that aesthetic and then push it out into the public eye hard and fast. Then, it gets stuck. Like a child making a gruesome face, it freezes that way, and it is forever trapped by expectations. To call something 'modern' is not necessarily the same as calling it 'contemporary'. 'Modern' is an aesthetic. 'Contemporary' is right now. Skinny jeans are both 'modern' and 'contemporary' because the skinny aesthetic is seen as adhering to a mod sense of style, one that shuns the superfluous and accentuates a clean line; they are 'contemporary' because they are what is in style right now. Skinny jeans will always be 'modern', even when they are no longer 'contemporary'. This is how fashion works. It is also how music works.

315 Bowery, New York, NY 10012.

This was the address of a very famous and infamous bar and nightclub that went by the simple acronym CBGB. The letters stood for "Country, Blue Grass, and Blues". That's what the letters stand for, but that's not what the name CBGB actually means. The name means 'punk'. What does 'punk' mean? I haven't that kind of time to answer that question. Really. Because the three-chord blast of The Ramones is 'punk'. The art-school dissonance of Television is 'punk'. The slightly kitschy 1950's throwback rock-and-roll of early Blondie is 'punk'. Many think the droning nihilism of The Velvet Underground is 'punk'. And there are those who think the snarling juvenilia of The Who is 'punk'. And truly, if you listen to those three-chord blasts by The Ramones carefully, they make a strong case that the staccato simplicity of Buddy Holly is 'punk'. Hell, isn't Johnny Cash shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die totally 'punk', too? And if NWA shouting "Fuck The Police" isn't 'punk', then music needs new definitions. See, 'punk' isn't any one particular sound, necessarily, it's an aesthetic.

But, as with all aesthetics, 'punk' got stuck. Say the word to a kid today, and they probably conjure up images of ripped up t-shirts held together by safety pins and spiked mohawks dyed neon-green; studded leather jackets and Doc Marten boots with Anarchy symbols scrawled on them in paint marker. 'Punk' is now a very specific sound, a loud, hard crunching sound, abrasive and fast, it's yelling at you, it's angry. Tell a 13-year-old kid today that Blondie was 'punk', and they may scoff, may even laugh. "Blondie? You mean that 'Heart of Glass' band?" Yeah. "Heart of Glass" is 'punk'. To some people. To some people, snarling like an Ice Queen, cooing with all the combined empowerment brought about by late-70's sexual politics, all over a disco bass-line that out-thumped almost anything of it's day IS 'punk'. Blondie? Yeah. Blondie.

Now that stage once covered in blood and beer and cigarette ash is now covered in designer fashions and fine leather goods and 'vintage' t-shirts. There are those who cried foul, shouted out their rage at seeing a part of the grand artistic narrative of NYC become a gentrified monument to the Post-Guiliani trust-fund era. I was not one of them. CBGB had been dead for years; a shadow of it's former self, no longer relevant on the music scene, much of which had made the move to Brooklyn years ago. The name on the door is New York, not Old York. Times change. Things die out. You have to let them go and build new.

People hate letting go. Oddly enough, it often seems like kids are the worst at it. Kids hate letting go of the past, especially if it is a past they had nothing to do with. Stooge is one such kid. He is a character in the comic book CBGB #1, a 4-issue mini-series seemingly meant as a mini-anthology of stories of and about the long-gone club. Stooge is part of the first story featured, a sly take on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol written by Kieron Gillen, he of Phonogram and Thor fame, with art by Marc Ellerby. The title of this tale? "A NYC Punk Carol". Yeah, Mr. Gillen is not hiding his influence here, even having the main character point it out to us, just in case we are drunk, high, stoned, dense, or all four, whilst reading this comic. Stooge gets drunk whilst IN this comic; drunk and angry whilst standing outside the Varvatos boutique, lamenting, "I could have been part of it. I would have, if I'd been then." Everything is always better before you get there, Stooge. That's New York.

When he falls on the pavement and passes out on Bowery like a good little punk, he is visited by his three ghosts who proceed to give him a history lesson of the scene (and then some) that comes straight out of several very good books, including "Please Kill Me" and "From the Velvets to The Voidoids". I know because I've read these books. And also because Mr. Gillen has these ghosts name-check them at the end, college-thesis bibliography-style. It all reads like a Sesame Street scene, brought to you be the letters C, B, and G. Fittingly - and most likely not intentional on his part - because New York is the home of the Children's Television Workshop, home of Big Bird and the gang. Remember kids, learning about shit is totally 'punk'.

The second story in this first issue, written by Sam Humphries with art by Rob G., strikes closer to the bone and concerns a teenager caught up in the thick of the scene in 1979. When tasked with cleaning up the downtown Manhattan apartment of a recently deceased uncle, he does what any ignorant, self-absorbed teen would do, he throws all the junk and detritus away, tossing it out on the street. Then, he learns that his uncle was once a one-man distortion pedal who performed on the hallow stage of CBGB just a few years prior. Oops. Guess all that junk wasn't junk, after all. He races down the street like a desperate lover at the end of a rom-com chasing a girl ready to board a bus out of town, and rescues the "memorabilia" from out the filthy grasp of dread city workers. You know, trash collectors. Garbage men. See, all the little notes and shredded pieces of paper; all the photocopied gig posters and set lists; all the tapes and tapes of endless loops of distortion and musical experimentation, that's all documentation now. What this kid does, it's archeology. He proclaims at stories end, "I'm gonna be the most punk fucking rock thing you've ever seen." Yeah, and all it took was stealing his uncle's garbage.

The stories in this comic are definitely entertaining, if somewhat pretentious (Gillen) or precious (Humphries). This is a tribute anthology, after all, so a little bit of both of those qualities is to be expected, and they do nothing to degrade the overall beauty of the book. The fawning tone is also to be expected. People miss the past. It's natural. The past is where EVERYTHING happened. Right now seems so un-special when compared to before. Right now is high-fashion and before was DIY. Right now is corporate and mainstream, and before was independent and raw. Right now is so iPod and before was so mix-tape. It's difficult to see right now as being the before of tomorrow. Maybe 30 years from now, there will be a comic book anthology about a designer clothing boutique in downtown New York that changed lives? You'll be telling some ignorant kid about it. "John Varvatos?" Yeah. Varvatos.

CBGB #1 written by Kieron Gillen and Sam Humphries, with art by Marc Ellerby and Rob G., was released on 21 July, 2010 by Boom! Studios.

Further Reading:
"Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk" by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain", published by Penguin.

"From The Velvets to The Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World" by Clinton Heylin, published by Penguin.

"England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond" by Jon Savage, published by St. Martin's Griffin. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Why Won't You Come Over Here? We Got a City to Love." : Forgetless

People love New York. It's true. There are even t-shirts available that proclaim that very statement, complete with a big red heart to symbolize all that juicy love. It's a city of dreams, of hustlers and playboys, chorus girls and rockers, artists and writers, all of whom are probably waiting tables as you read this. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, according to Frank. Sinatra, that is, but you knew that. It's a city where you can famously get anything you want at any hour of the day. You can order Chinese, a new sofa, and a bag of marijuana, and have them all delivered to your doorstep at 3 A.M. by a bike messenger who's studying Romance Languages at NYU. New York City. There's nothing you can't do, according to Alicia. Keys, that is, but you knew that.

People hate New York. It's true. There are even t-shirts available that proclaim that. Well, actually, they read "Yankees Suck", but that's pretty much the same thing. It's an equivalent, The Bronx Bombers being such a symbol for the city. New York is a dirty, dense, over-crowded urban tangle of concrete and garbage piled in endless mounds on every street. The summers are thick with sticky humidity; the winters clogged with dirty, befouled icy slush; the air throughout the canyons reeking of urine regardless of season. There is never a moments peace in New York City, as the streets and sidewalks remain crowded with cabs and delivery men, dropping off furniture and Chinese food at all hours of the day. Rents are impossibly high, only the trust-fund generation can live comfortably, and all the artists and writers, chorus girls and rockers, are forced to wait tables and live in studios in Queens with three roommates apiece. Most people are so rent-poor they spend their time feeling beat down, trapped, that there's nothing they can do.

New York City is complicated. Peoples' feelings toward New York often are informed by the fantasy of NYC, the televised image of endless flickering re-runs of Seinfeld and Law & Order, Sex & The City and Friends. They feel the pulse of the city in the endless looping mixtape of indigenous music; the wail of a Charlie Parker alto solo that gives way to the simmering strum of Bob Dylan that leads into the dissonant drone of the Velvet Underground that begets the three-chord blast of glue-sniffing Ramones that births the post-Modern nostalgic ennui of The Strokes. New York exists in all five senses, for better or worse. You can smell the city, taste it, even. There is a taste in the winter in Mid-Town that is unmistakable, almost disgusting, yet oddly comforting, because despite the funk of it, it's New York. It's home.

Art that attempts to deal with New York so often embodies these complications. The City inspires it. It inspires contradictions and hypocrisy. A New York comedian will travel all the way to Los Angeles to produce a ground-breaking sit-com about New York, with references and insider humor, and film it all on open sets of one-sided flats in a soundstage in Burbank. Another show will be filmed on the very real streets of Manhattan, will itself, also, be filled with insider humor and references, and will take over the cultural landscape with it's fairy-tale romantic vision of the modern dating rituals of well-heeled professional women. Neither will be completely realistic. Both will be more uncomfortably honest than was probably originally intended. Both will polarize, spark passion and revulsion, and serious, often hyperbolic debate. It's the City that does it to them.

Darla Danberry loves New York. Darla Danberry is a teenaged girl from South Jersey who wears a garish red faux-fur Russian ushanka and white leather 8-hole Doc Marten boots. She designs clothes, has a gay male BFF named David who spins, records that is. He DJ's in playgrounds because he's a teenager, too. They both have a friend named Leigh who, well, doesn't say much of anything. She's just there with them, an anchor of chill to keep the group together. They're childhood friends who've grown up together in the 'burbs of the Big Apple, and have all internalized the common malady of kids raised in Jersey, that of inbred inferiority combined with grandiose ambitions. They're wannabes. They wannabe creative, famous, and most importantly, free. They wannabe free. They wannabe older so they can get into the big club nights, run their own parties, live the televised fantasy of New York. They are kids with Big City DREAMS, in all caps. They've drank the fairy-tale Kool-Aid and on the side of the bottle are the letters N-Y-C.

Sara Schmidt hates New York. Sara Schmidt is a college-aged quote-unquote model living in downtown Manhattan who doesn't seem to like much of anything, except a particularly bad late-night talk show host, oh, and killing people. For money. That's what she really does for a living. She's a model ostensibly only because she's signed to one of the many random model agencies that populate New York; in actuality she's been hired by a shadow agency, that apparently also deals in low-budget downtown pornography, as a covert assassin. Sara is essentially heartless; taking the demeanor of cool-as-ice aloofness of your average urban hipster and typical too-cool-for-school teenager to a ruthless extreme. She won't just make fun of the clothes you wear or the music you listen to, she'll stab you sixty times with a knife. Without blinking. She's a disease, too. She infects her roommate Sonia, also a wannabe model, and recruits her into the little group of killers. They're wannabes, too. They wannabe on the covers of Vogue, supposedly. Really, it seems, they just wannabe making money while staving off boredom.

Then there is Derrick, a college-aged prankster, aimless and shuffling, who loves New York so much he copulates with it, literally. He has sex with inanimate objects - buildings, espresso machines, mops - and films it, posts it online. He is an internet star, his videos garnering hundreds of thousands of hits a day. In the city built by men such as Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller, a city that celebrates the ideals of self-actualization, therein enter Derrick, the self-made celebrity, thrusting away in a crack in the Empire State Building. Most people feel screwed by the Big City; Derrick returns the favor.

This group of dreamers and schemers coalesce during the final night of the most famous party in New York, Forgetless. This is the story of Forgetless, the five-issue mini-series by writer Nick Spencer and artists Scott Forbes, Jorge Coelho, and Marley Zarcone. This is the bizarre, complicated, hilariously sick mess that is and is of NYC, and if it all sounds like it's too much, the truth is that it's not even enough. Five issues barely contains this story, one so full of life and vitality, that even it's most ludicrous moments ring with resonant truth. It's that uncomfortable artistic contradiction rearing around again; this is truth dressed in the most unbelievably ridiculous fiction.

Everything here is truth, stood on it's head a bit. Struggling artists exasperatedly cry out every day 'who do I have to kill to get some recognition around here?'. Well, Sara and Sonia take that to heart and push it to it's logical conclusion, literally killing their way through Manhattan for prosperity and consumer goods. Perhaps killing isn't your thing. Maybe you'd prefer to sleep your way to the top. Well, Derrick seems to have that strategy down cold, except the objects of his rutting are not people in powerful positions who could reward him his sexual favors with career advancement and money, but the very objects and consumer products that are generally seen as the end result of fame. He is screwing your architecture and all your mod cons, and creating his own fame. These three people have figured out that the system is theirs to break apart and make for themselves. Unfortunately, what they wish to make for themselves is only themselves. The end product is narcissism. So self-absorbed are they, they barely know how to communicate with each other, dealing instead through text messages and Twitter posts, FaceBook status updates and Flickr albums.

The story of Darla, David, and Leigh is the real heart and soul of this book. These three are the inverse of the above group, and they are a nostalgic throwback to innocence wrapped up in an outward package of street-savvy wiseacre-ness. Darla Danberry may rock the sarcastic 'tude of a teenaged hipster, but she bears none of the aloofness. She is intelligent, clever, and in possession of the type of passion that probably makes her the target of scorn by the "cool" kids in her Jersey high school. (Cool kids always hate anyone who displays any kind of real passion.) She's friends with David because he, too, is driven to greater things, passionate about music and unashamed to wear his heart on his sleeve. These are the types of kids who feel put upon by a society that doesn't seem to want to help them out, so they learn to fight their way through it. They may scheme a little bit - sell a step-mom's dog through Craigslist, use the money to procure fake IDs - but they never do anything out of heartless malice, and everything is meant to serve the grand ideal of a greater, more noble purpose. Whereas Sara and Sonia find their way to Forgetless to perform a nefarious deed, Darla and David are fighting their way through the exclusive velvet ropes because inside be their dreams.

These stories form the beautiful duality that is the great paradox of New York City. It is a city that appreciates hard work, even forces it upon the citizenry - (a San Francisco psychiatrist once warned me, upon my telling her of my want to move back to New York, that New Yorkers live, on average, five years less than residents of other major American cities. I've not verified this, but instead of putting me off the idea, it caused me to move up my move date. C'est la vie.) - all with the unspoken promise that that hard work will be rewarded. But as any hardcore hustler, and hip-hop mogul, will tell you, the hard work can take many forms. And the city rewards just the same.

Writer Nick Spencer weaves these tales with effortless skill and shows off a remarkably powerful knack for dialogue. Every character has a unique voice, a specific cadence and vernacular that makes them full and unique. They are not a group of "youth types" out of Central Casting, whose sarcastic dialogue could be entirely interchangeable. Each character speaks words natural to them, to their experiences. Spencer has done an outstanding job of writing very real people and by doing so, using them to ground the surreality that surrounds them. The situations don't seem as bizarre when read in context because these people are so genuine. It causes the parts of the story that are sick and depraved to ring even more frightening, while the parts that show heart and zeal shine with true hopefulness. That he gives all these characters, to varying degrees, some form of "happy ending" at series end, is a true testament to Spencer's deftness.

The art of the book is equally accomplished and yet stylistically mixed. Scott Forbes brings a clean quality to his pages; a thin line weight and shiny surface that gives Sara and Sonia that gaunt under-fed model look. He provides a world where backgrounds are sparse color fields blurred around the edge, as if large-scale Rothko's have been hung to form stage flats for sets. This allows the bold expressiveness of his characters to pop even more.

Jorge Coelho's work is far more detailed and carries with it the essence of underground comics in that it provides a cartoony veneer to very realistic settings. He draws the majority of issue #4, which centers on the story of a certain talk-show host as he tells tale of his sexual activities involving online personal ads and a Koala suit. His work fits this perfectly; certain panels having a mid-60's MAD Magazine vibe to them which accentuates the deviant tone of this chapter.

The true stand-out art star of this series would be Marley Zarcone, who is responsible for drawing the entirety of the "Jersey" story line. It is an absolute triumph. Her storytelling is seamless and flows with a graceful ease, never once losing momentum. Her characters crackle with living energy; she has given each one a soul that is unique to them. Zarcone's real success is Darla Danberry. Darla is the engine that moves this entire series; she is a stand-out figure whose personality looms large on the city landscape, and Zarcone fills her with blood and guts, humanity and verve, right down to the David Letterman-style gap between her two front teeth. Spencer gives some of the funniest and sharpest lines to Darla and Zarcone sets about to match the pose, posture, facial expression perfectly to drive each witticism, each barb, each deft turn of phrase deep into the skin. By stories end, Darla positively lives and breathes as surely as a person standing next to you on the subway. I can't imagine reading too many more characters stronger than she in comics this year. Darla Danberry is my new hero, and Zarcone and Spencer stand as the hero-makers.

There is a famous book, by a famous British author, that's famously about two very famous cities. It opens with a very famous line about the contrasting nature of these two bustling metropolises. In one city, things are going quite well, one might even say it was the best of times. In the other city, not so much, perhaps described depressingly as the worst of times. This is really the everyday existence in New York City, and perhaps you would have had to live there for some time to fully understand that. Then again, a certain sit-com about a Jewish comedian on the West Side was originally thought to be too New York-y, too Jewish, and it went on to conquer the world. When a work of art, regardless of medium strikes the right notes, it transcends location and time, transcends the boundaries of ethnicity and geography. Forgetless is a New York story, through and through. It vibrates with the very rhythms that propel that city and it's populace every single wonderfully lousy, god-forsaken day. It recognizes the heartbreak of the City, laments that which is seemingly missing, like an amputee forlorn over a lost limb. Yet it celebrates the ability for New York to provide redemption, hope, and even miracles at any given moment. Serendipity isn't just a candy store, it's a way of life. In a City of dreams. In a City where anything is possible. It's 3 A.M. Your dream is here.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Witchcraft: Zatanna!

In October of 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America, a collective of comics publishers, distributors, and printers, held a press conference to announce the creation of what would be known as the Comics Code, a set of self-imposed guidelines aimed at cleaning up the comics and salvaging the business as it faced the death knell of government censorship. Amongst the codes' original 41 requirements were such stipulations as:

-Scenes dealing with ... walking dead, torture, ... ghouls, ... and werewolfism are prohibited.
-Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
-Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.

Hmm.... No ghouls and ghosties? No walking dead or demons, nor devils and minions of the netherworld? No suggestive and elongated posturing or embellishment of the female form? All this considered, it's a very good thing for Paul Dini and Stephane Roux, and DC Comics, that we find ourselves not in the repressed and closed-minded world of 1950's America, for what would be left of Zatanna? Pulped down to a mere pamphlet one would think. Good for us, too, for this is a top-notch comic and a welcome addition to the DCU landscape.

Now, now, prudes and watchdogs, before one gets the impression that this fine monthly title brings with it only the salacious, the lurid, the dark and murky, dressed up in curvaceous fishnets and black patent-leather, let's be clear; it's all those things, but with STORY! and CHARACTERIZATION! and even a little bit of HEART! thrown in. Dammit if this comic doesn't make you care.

Zatanna is a most intriguing character, one who has so often been merely a bit of window-dressing on the fringe of the Justice League, brought in when a spell or some quick teleportation is needed, or just to add some sexual spice to the mix. She is, after all, a walking gallery of fetish from head to toe. Thigh-high patent-leather boots glistening wet and glossy encasing her strong calves; fishnet stockings forming a lattice wrapping up to her hips; tight brocade waistcoat cinching in her waist, pushing up her ample bosom that is nestled in the crisp clean cotton of tuxedo shirt topped with bow-tie; the masculine energy of the fitted tuxedo jacket with tales adds the element of playful androgyny, as do the fitted white gloves and tall top hat that finish off the look. Add the flowing cape and one has all the elements to fuel the fires of endless sexual fantasy. Just putting her in a panel, in a group scene, immediately adds a sensual energy to the dynamic. She almost requires no dialogue, no real characterization. This is her curse.

It is a sad curse, too, because there is an undeniable charm, grace, and devilish mystery to the character of Zatanna that is brought out by the best writers (and sometimes worst) that touches on how much more she could be, if given the space. Say, like her own 22 pages of space every month. Oh, look, like magic, here it is!

Writer Paul Dini, best known for his work in Warner Bros. animation and on a long run on Detective Comics, has been tasked with bringing the great magician to life and making us care about her as more than just fetish. He does so with seeming ease. Three issues in and Zatanna has struck out as a strong and credible character and formidable superhero, with deft humor and cleverness. She is fearless in battle, ready to step into the lair of a villain without breaking a sweat, and when faced with attack both mystical and physical, shows her skill not just with the casting of spells, but also with the throwing of a punch when the need arises.

Dini has given her a base of operations in the beautiful, fog-drenched hills of San Francisco, and given her a sense of purpose, to aid law-enforcement with her expertise in the dark arts of sorcery and magic. When San Francisco's finest stumble upon a gangland killing in a nightclub, and discover the bodies of the human victims have been transformed into toads and pigs, they call in Zee. She swoops in like a plainclothes detective in (stylish) trench coat and lays down the supernatural CSI routine without batting a long Maybelline eyelash. She takes care of business, see, no fishnets required. Dini writes Zee with an element of noir-ish "dame", a gal-Friday for our Modern Times; it fits perfectly with the setting and tone of the book. Don't be fooled by the abracadabra and hocus-pocus, this is West Coast crime fiction; Sunshine Noir without the sunshine.

But this is comics, kids. These are the picture books, the funnies the younger generation is going mad for. We want those salacious and lurid drawings of the exaggerated female form that spits in the eyes of your Comics Code. We want hell-spawn demons and dream-stealing imps, brought to oozing and dripping life in vivid color. We want comics in all their glory, and here, thanks to the wonderful work of artist Stephane Roux, we get it, and we get it so good. There is more to his art, though, than mere cheesecake and gore, and in actuality, those terms seem dirty when describing Roux's art, for it transcends those crude descriptors by leaps. His Zatanna is no helium-filled inked up sexual marker; she is a full-bloodied woman of strong emotion and power of expression. Roux animates her face with such ferocity in certain panels that one feels Zee's face may burst off the page. Zee doesn't just merely say her dialogue and cast her spells, she feels it all naturally, experiences every line as if it is being brought forth from deep inside her. Her laughter, her tears, her veracity, her compassion are all real and honest. And when there are moments where we are afforded a sly glimpse of protruding hip or décolletage, it doesn't seem exploitative in the least; she is an attractive, sexual woman, and is empowered enough to be allowed to be all of herself, all the time. Roux presents her as a work of art; she exists already, he is only drawing her essence.

The real remarkable magic with Zatanna is in the span of three issues, it has managed to give a often misused character a strong foundation for a long and healthy run into A-list relevancy. The ghouls and walking dead, the suggestive illustration are all part and parcel to what makes this magic work. It's not simply about the ingredients, however, but how those ingredients are used. Dini and Roux prove to be fine artisans crafting together a strong work of comics art. Spellbinding stuff, indeed.

Oh, that little Comics Code? It's still around, by the by. You can still catch the seal of the CMAA on an ever-dwindling random assortment of titles. (There it is, under the #54, on this months Supergirl.) The original administrator of the Comics Code was a man by the name of Charles F. Murphy, and he enforced the code with an unflinching ruthlessness. He's gone now, as is the real power and meaning of the Code. Now, we are left with all the full-color zombies, bloody murder, gratuitous mayhem and unbridled sex we could possibly choke down. Have we won the fight for freedom of speech? Mostly. The battle for good taste? Always questionable.

Zatanna #3, written by Paul Dini with art by Stephane Roux, was released on 21 July, 2010, by DC Comics.

Further reading on the Comics Code: "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Change America" by David Hajdu, published by Picador, New York.

Madame Xanadu R.I.P.?

When I first started this particular blog here you find yourself reading, it was for the dual purposes of satisfying my overwhelming need to over-think and overanalyze every comic I read, and to serve as a vehicle with which to practice my writing. What better way to force myself to write than to cover something I have an undying love for, namely comics. The intriguing thing for me, that I discovered early on, was that writing about comics forced me to dig deeper into them than I originally foresaw. Comics I didn't particular like would show themselves to be better when looked at through the microscope of critical analysis. The attempt to put my feelings into words, into paragraphs, into cohesive and understandable essays that would clearly express my feelings forced me to see things I would not have normally seen. I learned a great deal about myself, what I truly loved, what I truly found disappointing. One of these personal discoveries was that I have a very real sensitivity to the way female characters are portrayed in genre comics, specifically superhero comics.

So, here's how it happened. I came up with the name, Desperate Worlds, (more on this title some other time), I bought the domain, I started the blog, and I looked over the comics released that week to decide which one would find itself as the inaugural write-up. There was really no question about it, actually, because I knew that I would start with my favorite issue of that week, Madame Xanadu #9, released 25 March, 2009. To say that I was starting this whole blog with the express purpose of writing about this comic would be only slightly disingenuous. In fact, it was important that this title be the first. It was important to me.

Let me be clear in all kinds of ways, I was and still am in love with Madame Xanadu, and by this I mean the character specifically, not just the book. If you have never fallen in love with a particular fictional character then I truly feel sorry for you. I'm speaking of real honest-to-goodness adoration, not simply fan-worship; but a true attraction to a particular character's depth, charm, elegance, wit, intelligence, and, yes, beauty. Those are all the things I fell for when I discovered this book back in 2008. This woman, this titular heroine, was everything I admired in a strong woman, and yet flawed enough to register as real and relatable. She was what all superheroes are supposed to be, extremely driven to do the right thing, to pursue justice, to be fair, to help those who find themselves victimized by society, by crime, by forces they cannot begin to understand. The girl couldn't help herself. Nimue (her birth name) lives to serve humanity, to make the world a better and safer place for those who seek her help. What's not to love here?

The credit for this goes to the superior creative team of writer Matt Wagner and artist Amy Reeder, who designed the current incarnation of the character as well as drew most the of the current titles' run. Together they created a woman and a universe fully-formed, living and breathing, pulsating off the page. Whether the story took place in the medieval forests of Europe or the humid urban streets of mid-Century Manhattan, it was always filled with intricate and charming details that lent character and power to the tales being spun. This book stands as an example of what magic can be wrought out of a truly collaborative creative effort by a team that so obviously cares. This book has been an absolute joy to behold every month.

Looking over these past few paragraphs I notice, and you may have too, that I seem to be oscillating between tenses. I keep veering from past to present tense when referring to the book. I seem to be at a loss, and the reason is simply, that today, rumor has run rampant on the internet that Madame Xanadu has found itself on the chopping block. The cancellation pile may have grown by one more title and I couldn't be sicker about it. While nothing has been officially confirmed, usually these rumors have a nasty way of panning out to bear truth. So, I describe my love, as she sits on her death bed, not quite in the past tense, yet with difficulty in using present tense. It is uncomfortable to speak of the dead while breath still occupies the body.

I read back over that first review of Madame Xanadu #9 with a bit of cringe on my visage. It is not my best piece of writing, a bit forced in parts, perhaps repetitive and contrived; still, it makes valid points I still believe to this day. The most important part of the piece is that my admiration for the book, the character, and the creators who brought both to life, comes through with clarity and shine. I did not waver then in my feelings and I do not waver now. Past and present tense served well.

If the end is truly nigh for Madame Xanadu I will find myself saddened at it's passing. It will feel like losing a dear friend, one that came to visit me regularly for the last two years of my life. I will miss the woman, her stories, her very presence in the stack of comics I will hold under my arms as I leave the shop on Wednesday mornings; her very presence in my life. I look at the issues now, as they sit encased in bag and board filed neatly in longbox, and I feel a deep warmth at being able to pull them out now and hold them. The tangibility of art is something that is very important, something especially important with the comics medium. It is not simply about treating issues as collectible items, speculating on their potential for increased monetary value. It is about the beauty of being able to hold onto the stuff of life in ones hand. I will hold onto those issues of Madame Xanadu as dear objects containing great stories of sorcery, magic, history, romance, pain and pleasure, heartbreak and triumph; of one strong and vibrant woman who possessed incredible powers, none more incredible than her compassion.

Thank you.

Previous reviews on Desperate Worlds:
Madame Xanadu #23
Moments of the Year: Madame Xanadu #7
Madame Xanadu #17
Madame Xanadu #16
Madame Xanadu #12
Madame Xanadu #10
Madame Xanadu #9

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DW welcomes writer Nick Spencer to DC!!

In recent weeks, DC Comics has been on an announcement spree, regaling the comics-reading public with news of new creative talent joining the ranks of the legacy publisher. Of these many announcements, the most exciting for me was that of writer Nick Spencer joining the fold to tell the stories of Superman's pal, the one and only Jimmy Olsen. Starting in Action Comics #893, Spencer will pen the back-up feature focusing on the world's most famous bow-tie wearing photojournalist.

Mr. Spencer's most recent work has been on several critically acclaimed books published by Image Comics, including the recently concluded Forgetless, and Shuddertown, the third issue of which releases shortly. Forgetless told the tale of two different groups of young hipster urbanites made up variously of struggling models, internet stars, and Jersey kids, who come crashing together as their lives converge in Manhattan for the closing night of a famous nightclub. It presented a warped yet real view of modern New York City with a biting and fearless satire. Contrast this with Shuddertown, it being the very dark and dirty story of a drug-addled homicide detective trying to solve a group of murders that are seemingly being committed by dead perps, and one sees very quickly the breathtaking range Mr. Spencer possesses.

What will Mr. Spencer bring to his time in Metropolis? In an interview with the website Comic Book Resources, the writer provides his perspective on the urban environment that is the backdrop of the Superman Universe:

"One thing we talked a lot about during the pitch process was the idea that, in a place like Metropolis, there are all these young people who live and work in close proximity to these awe-inspiring heroes and villains, and they sort of build up the infrastructure that makes all the high-action stuff we see in comics normally possible in the first place. In a city like this, there would be a lot of interns, entry-level post-grads and junior executives for whom guys like Steel, Booster Gold and Lex Luthor aren't far-away legends; they get their coffee, handle their schedules and write up their press releases every day. The closest real world comparison I can make is to Washington, D.C., where you have all these idealistic younger types doing a lot of the behind the scenes work for The President and The Senate and whoever. Metropolis is exactly the same way, except there, we're talking about The Daily Planet, S.T.A.R. Labs, Steelworks, LexCorp, etc. Jimmy, semi-famously known as Superman's Pal, basically the closest thing he's ever had to a sidekick, would obviously be a very big part of that scene. It's a pretty interesting position to put him in and impacts our story in a lot of different ways."

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen has a long and storied history within the DCU. It is a hallmark of the much-maligned/much-beloved Silver Age, giving us great moments of bizarre adventure and indelible images such as Jimmy Olsen as Turtle Boy. Mr. Spencer seems an inspired choice to marry a modern sensibility with a satirist's irreverence and play with that in the most legendary playground in comics. Combined with writer Paul Cornell and artist Pete Woods who are producing the main feature, it would seem Action Comics is primed to return as a premier title on the racks once again.

Action Comics #893 by Paul Cornell, Pete Woods, and Nick Spencer is scheduled for release on 29 September, 2010 by DC Comics.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"How Could It Be Over" - Batman #701

At first, it's difficult to understand why this issue exists. Sub-titled as "R.I.P. The Missing Chapter", it implies that parts of that story, somehow were lost in the fray, misplaced in the mad-rush of deadlines and story meetings. Pages needed to be off at the printers, you see, and they just didn't have time. Now, here it is. Brought into existence. Your questions finally answered, right? You had questions, didn't you? Surely. If only it were that simple.

Let's begin. Everyone who read "Final Crisis" or is currently reading any of writer Grant Morrison's Bat-Universe books now, surely already knew that Bruce Wayne survived the helicopter crash at the end of "R.I.P." The only mystery here would be to explain how, and really, the answer to that is already inherent in the story: he survives, because he is Batman. The opening sequence of issue #701 serves to explain no survival technique, only to show Bruce swimming away from the devastated wreckage of the copter, narrating to us, through his journal, that he survived because it's what he does. The sequence is exquisite and possibly the strongest work done by artist Tony Daniel on the Batman title. The pacing and flow of panels is strong, and the final moments of Bruce hauling himself up onto a dock and sitting there unmasked as fires rage and police helicopters swarm in the distance is a rare beautiful moment of stillness for a character so often depicted as full of unbridled rage. While nothing new is offered here in terms of story, it's a sparkling character moment, a chance to see the man in the moments after the case is solved and the last punches have been thrown. This is Batman after the credits roll and we all go home.

Perhaps you'd been wondering how "R.I.P." bridged to "Final Crisis", the book in which Batman stares down an angry dying God and plants a toxic bullet in him before being tasered by magical eye-beams that shoot him off into the time-stream. (Yeah, it's awesome.) Issue #701 gives us the moment when Superman comes calling on Bruce to join with the Justice League on a planetary emergency, that being the murder of the God Orion. But, really this plays itself out in "Last Rites" the two-issue arc that was released immediately following "R.I.P.". Some of the conversation between Bruce and Alfred is even repeated verbatim. We already knew that the Justice League called their number one detective in. Why must this scene be played out again, and now under the guise of a 'missing' chapter? Again, it's not that simple.

It would seem that these scenes are now playing out from a more personal perspective, not just as plot points to be moved about to further the story. In "Last Rites", Bruce simply tells Alfred that the JLA called. It's a straightforward and simple explanation that pulls him into the storm of "Final Crisis". Here, we see Bruce witness the Red Skies event that accompanied the death of Orion. As he gazes into the sky with Alfred he comments, "How soon before we hear from someone who can fly?" In his journal narration, he refers to his colleagues, these people who can fly, as "super-people". There is a tell in his comments and his use of language that speaks to the disconnect he feels between himself and these super-powered beings. "...sometimes they forget I'm flesh and blood.", he writes in the aftermath of a case that tested that very theory. After everything he has endured and survived, how can he be anything other than "super" himself? How can he not be seen by Superman and Wonder Woman as anything other than their equal? In this moment, he is so beaten he almost wants them to treat him as just a man in a cape and mask. It's shockingly touching.

Bruce does not call in sick, of course. Batman takes no sick days nor personal time, and when Superman calls because a God has been murdered, his body dumped on Earth, Batman suits up, climbs in the Bat-Plane and heads off to the clubhouse meeting of the JLA. He proceeds, as he sees it, to his inevitable fall. As he does so, he asks himself one simple question, "How could it be over?" Like a child being pulled away from an amusement park after a very long day of thrills, he asks as though surprised at where the time went. How did 70 years pass so quickly? How can it all be over now? There is a scene in "R.I.P." where Jezebel Jet lectures Bruce about his life, calls him out on his paranoia, stating that his exploits as Batman are the cries for help of a stunted adolescent still coping with the violent death of his parents. Essentially, she says what many have thought through the years, that he is an overgrown lost-boy, dressed up in costumes, parading around in tricked-out cars and planes, loaded down with toys of every imaginable stripe. He is still a little kid playing at being a ninja in the backyard, except he has made those adventures real. And now, while dressed as a bat sitting in a plane shaped like a bat, flying off on what may be his last adventure, he laments the possibility of the end of his days as Batman.

Of course, we know it's not his last days as Batman, merely the odd beginning of yet another bizarre and mind-bending adventure. Bruce Wayne is always Batman, and will always be Batman. It's as simple as that.

Batman #701 written by Grant Morrison, with art by Tony Daniel, was released on 14 July, 2010, by DC Comics.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Hello, Little Ghost." - iZombie #3

On one of the several stints I did in New York, I let slip in a cafe in Astoria, Queens, that I had been a fan of the television show 'Friends', to which was met with some very slight agape looks. Yes, I realized, especially as a rent-poor New Yorker, that the exploits of a group of Gen-Xers with low-paying jobs as massage therapists, line cooks, and bit actors living in great apartments in the Village while dating, flirting, and sleeping within their small incestuous group was (only) somewhat  unrealistic. I didn't care. I still don't. I stand by my belief that it was, for the most part, a clever and humorous show that embodied the essence of New York if not the reality of it. It was a fantasy world where your best friend lived next door and could walk in at any time to comfort you or make you laugh, because, hey, the door is conveniently left unlocked, you know, to make the impromptu entrance easier. Filmed in a three-camera style that seems antiquated now in our single-camera filmed-like-a-movie sophisticated alt-comedy world, 'Friends' is now a throw-back to a simpler pre-9/11 New York time. I love it more now than I did then.

What does this have to do with a zombie comic? iZombie, the new Vertigo series by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred, embodies a similar innocent spirit and wraps it all up in a classic movie-monster motif painted day-glo Laugh-In colors. The main characters consist of a brain-eating zombie, a ghost from the Sixties complete in Nancy Sinatra ensemble, and a man who turns into a terrier every month on the full-moon. Throw in a group of sexy supermodel vampires, two monster hunters, and a mystery involving a spooky house on the hill, and you've got the makings of something truly bizarre and thoroughly entertaining, not to mention, utterly charming in a retro-milk-and-cookies way.

That's what made me think about 'Friends'. This group of hipsters hang out at a local coffee shop and are the only friends each other really seem to have. They dress in vintage clothing, either by ironic choice or because they, well, died in the clothing and are stuck in their era, and one even has a crush on the other, setting up a will-they-won't-they scenario á la Ross and Rachel. It's a sit-com in comic book form.

iZombie #3 is the first issue to really pull away from the exposition station and start moving down the tracks toward storyville. This issue sees the intertwining story lines of vampire hunters and monster-friends literally crash into each other, as our heroine-zombie Gwen, has a meet-cute with monster-hunter Horatio. (Yes, I love hyphens!) They run into each other outside the coffee shop like high-school kids in the hall after homeroom. The dashing Horatio helps Gwen to her feet, and their eyes meet in a moment of instant attraction. The gruff hipster-facade Gwen wears slips as she is overcome by her feelings of desire for this mysterious square-jaw new on the scene. It's also a moment of revelation for the comic, as it introduces the element of romance to the already overflowing mix. It's wonderful.

iZombie could really be titled something along the lines of Racy Horror or Spicy Mystery with taglines like "Zombies in Love!" It's truly a sweetly innocent interpretation of the Bill Gaines EC-style comics of the 1950's as filtered through a 'Scooby-Doo Where Are You?' kaleidoscope. These meddling kids are going to solve this mystery, save the town, and maybe groove to some right-on tunes before all is finished. For now, Gwen and company can let themselves in, the door is open.

iZombie #3, written by Chris Roberson, with art by Michael Allred, was released on 8 July, 2010 by Vertigo Comics.