Four comics and some very disturbing fairy tales

Yesterday, I mentioned that I got to see the works of some of my beloved impressionists. What I didn't tell you was the the highlight of the day, hands down, was the Natalie Frank Grimm's Fairy Tales exhibition. I've always known, on an abstract level, that the original versions of these stories were very dark and extremely carnal in nature. I've never read the originals, but I've read several which hinted at the more adult version of the stories. The second collection of Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman," The Doll's House,  changed the way I looked at the Red Riding Hood story.

Natalie Frank takes that to a whole 'nother level. She is a visceral artist in the most literal sense of the word. She doesn't merely illustrate the stories; she gets at the disturbing, gut-level...horror? Is it horror? That's not quite the right word, but it's in the ballpark. Her work is unflinchingly bright and she borders it almost like a circus freak-show poster. Rather than listening to me continue to try to describe it, I urge you to check out her work for yourself. I found it unforgettable in the way a really excellent nightmare is hard to shake. 

This weekend's comic book haul was the most literal representation of a "mixed bag" one could hope for. The first one I read was issue 6 of Grant Morrison's "Annihilator." This final issue was classic Morrison in that I'm not going to be certain I've understood what was going on until I go back and re-read the previous issues. Re-read them several times, in all likelihood. With most writers, you might think that this was meant as a complaint, but if you're at all familiar with Morrison, you know that this is part and parcel to reading his work.  Frazer Irving's art is stunning. I didn't much care for his earlier work with Morrison on Klarion the With Boy, but that as more do to with the specific book than Irving's ability. He produces almost psychedelic images that are very much his own, which, given the history of comic book art, is very impressive indeed. I'm very nearly certain that this book is a work of genius.

The next one in the pile was issue 3 of Warren Ellis' "Injection." We're only just now starting to get a tiny peek at what's going on and it looks like it's going to be spectacular. Ellis reminds me of one of my favorite sci-fi authors, Larry Niven, in that he can take a really weird idea or two and craft a compelling story around it. Add in the fact that Ellis has become a true craftsman at telling the story, which isn't at all the same thing as having a compelling story to tell, and you get the start of what promises to be a hell of a book. The dialog crackles without getting corny, the beats land reliably, and you find yourself really wishing the whole thing were already available in a collection. Oh, and Declan Shalvey's art fits like a glove He and Ellis worked together on a spectacular Moon Knight run which featured some of the best art the character has every seen (and Moon Knight has always been more about look that story.) This is a very different story with sprawling locations, huge exteriors and tight interiors. It's got to be a challenge and he seems very much up for it.

It's been far, far too long since I've been able to pick up a new Jhonen Vasquez comic book, and it's been too long since we've had any new Invader Zim material to devour. Both of these problems are now official solved with the release of Invader Zim #1. The weight of expectations made me a little nervous about picking this one up, but it's a worthy successor on all levels. That is to say, it's funny. It's really, really funny. Now, I suspect it's even funnier if you've seen the old Nickelodeon show a gazillion times. You won't be able to read the dialog without hearing the voices from the show in your head. But, I suspect this would work for readers who've never seen the show. If anything the tone and voice of the characters is even stronger than in the original. I'm not 100% sold on Aaron Alexovich's and Megan Lawton's somewhat streamlined take on the art, but I'm pretty sure it will grow on me. Vasquez' visual style has always been busy to an almost distracting degree, and I suspect that once I get used to the change, I'll grow to like it.

The last book wasn't anywhere nearly as successful. I picked up issue #1 of J.G. Jones' and Mark Waid's Strange Fruit. Let's start with what's good: Jones' art is absolutely stellar. It evokes an era and a point-of-view beautifully. It's been compared to Norman Rockwell and the comparison has some merit. I think that the intent here is to write a powerful story on race relations and I think that this is a project the writers believe in deeply.

Reading it, though, it didn't work for me. From a standpoint of mechanics, it was very much a typical superhero origin story: Set the stage, identify the villains, identify the need for the hero, and then unveil the hero at the end. However, trying to  paste tropes that work in ,say, Superman's origin into what is meant to be a very serious Book With A Message On Race feels off to me. There's a better, more thorough discussion of the problems with this book over at Women Write About Comics. J.A. Micheline makes a powerful argument that Strange Fruit shouldn't have even been made. I'm torn on that conclusion. I'm suspicious of arguments that tell writers what subjects they may and may not cover, but I do think when you're wading out into the realm of other people's experiences, you have an obligation to get it exactly, perfectly right. 


I'm not familiar with "The Six Swans" I think I ought to rectify that.

Boys Will Be Boys (Why I'm so angry about calling a fictional character a "whore")

This made me angry:

The Interview started with saying how Natasha/Black Widow was being ‘shipped with Hawkeye (Renner) or Captain America (Evans) and now she’s been written with The Hulk (Ruffalo). When asked what were their thoughts, Renner blurted out, “She’s a slut.” followed by Evans agreeing with boisterous laughter how it’s “something along those lines, she’s a complete whore.” It didn’t stop with “slut” and “whore”, Renner chimed in with “trick, man.”

Dibdin (interviewer) seemed unbothered by this revelation of Black Widow and hopped right in with, “Whatever the movie is, she’ll be the sidekick; she’ll be flirting.” Evans had more to say, “that’s right she’ll be flirting with everybody.” Then for some reason, Renner just felt like dropping, “she has a prosthetic leg anyways.” and Evans brings it home with, “leading everybody on.”

Let me start by saying that I'm not offended on the behalf of anyone else. It's not my place or my desire to stand up for women who are perfectly capable of standing up for themselves or even deciding that Evans and Renner were just joking and to let it go. That's not why I'm pissed.

I'm pissed because I'm a comic book fan and I feel like this kind of bro-ish misogyny sets the whole community back. We've been fighting this boy's club, you can say anything you want about women because they're just meat to us, attitude for decades. We were finally starting to make some progress and these dudes had to come out and make jokes about the one woman on their team being a whore? That's so far beyond unacceptable. 

Comic fandom shouldn't be "a safe place for dudes to treat women like objects." I don't think any community should be that, but, if you're trying to make a community I'm a part of into a frat house? GTFO.

Additionally, it's hard not to hear Evans and Renner saying these things and not think that they're talking about Scarlett Johansson as much as they're talking about a character. (Very talented) comic book artist Jamie McKelvie put it well:

How we talk about fictional characters is absolutely reflective of how we talk about real people

Yes, exactly that. Casually sexist talk, even casually sexist talk about a comic book character, reveals says something about their attitudes about women. 

There's a war going on in comic book culture, just like there is in gaming. There are men who feel like it's their community and women aren't welcome, so they do everything in their power to make women feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. The good news is that this point of view is dying out. The bad news is that they're not going gracefully into that good night.  Even if they had the best of intentions (and I think that's an extremely generous reading), Renner and Evans have sided with the MRAs and gamergaters and other dead-enders. It's the wrong message for them to be delivering. If they truly didn't mean it, then I expect to see a better retraction than "I'm sorry if you were offended." If they really don't feel like they did anything wrong? I want them out of my community, even if that means casting different actors in upcoming Marvel movies.. They can go be assholes somewhere else; those attitudes aren't welcome here.

P.S. If you want to read a really good Black Widow story, the kind that makes Evans' and Renner's comments look kinda stupid, pick up Secret Avengers #20 by Warren Ellis and Alex Maleev. 

Re-reading "Locke & Key"

I'm going to admit something right of the bat here: I don't like scary stories. I don't care for scary movies or books or comics or TV shows. It's not because I find them "too scary." I have the opposite problem: I don't find them scary at all. This is due, in large part, to the fact that once you know it's a "scary story," there are very few surprises. Even the shock endings and "twists" are tropes by now. Or maybe that's not it, maybe I'm just not wired to "get" these kinds of stories. The bottom line is that I'm not scared by scary stories.

Or, rather, I wasn't until I read Joe Hill's and Gabriel Rodriguez's "Locke & Key." I've never encountered such a finely-balanced story of this type. The setup ensures that the balance of power between the heroes and their antagonist shifts in unpredictable but nonetheless true-to-the-story ways. I won't give anything away here, I've never had that "I can't wait to see what happens next month" feeling from any book, not even "Sandman" at its peak. The pacing and the art are pitch perfect, and, well, just go read the books.

I finally bought the last of the trade collections so I decided I'd re-read the whole story, start-to-finish. I wasn't sure if a scary story would survive multiple readings since I already knew all the twists and the conclusion. 

I needn't have worried. "Locke & Key" not only continues to work as a scary story, but the emotional arcs of the characters are even more touching the second time around. Knowing what's going to happen, it's a little easier to delve in to the setup and marvel at how shocking but inevitable the twists and turns are.  The villain of the piece is a genuinely worthy opponent, one who deserves everything they achieve. There's nothing remotely cardboard about any of the characters, but by having a bad guy who seems to have real agency, who has the ability to counter setbacks and come up with new plans, Hill created something approaching timelessness. 

The villain felt real, the heroes felt real, and the sacrifices and losses felt especially real the second time around. I am not sure I cried the first time I read "Locke & Key", but I can assure you I did so tonight when I finished it for the second time. If you haven't read it for yourself, I encourage you to do so. If you have read it, read it again...just have a tissue or two handy.

Because you demanded it! The Marxist in his most thrilling team up EVER!

I remember playing City of Heroes when it first came out. I'm not sure I've ever purchased a game which took me longer to get from "installation" to "playing." That's not because the learning curve was steep or the installation was buggy or there were a gazillion updates and configuration settings to apply. No, it took me forever to get into City of Heroes because the character generation was just that good.

When it comes to superheroes, look is everything. The look is even more important than the powers. There a plenty of heroes who don't even have powers but their look is so overwhelming that it doesn't matter. If there's one thing a superhero game absolutely, positively must have, it's that ability to make your hero look exactly the way you want them to look.

My favorite hero, the one I played the most, was a black man wearing camo pants, combat boots, a white t-shirt with a bomb on the front, gold sunglasses, and a red beret. The Marxist used to spout slightly-altered lines from The Communist Manifesto as he pummelled bad guys into submission. The game had the tools to let you create your vision of your hero and then execute them in a way that surpasses any game I've played to-date.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game wasn't up to snuff and I wound up cancelling my account. Maybe if I'd stuck with it I'd have found some content that interested me, but it had turned into an endless, repetative grind. Despite that, it remains a guilty pleasure in my memory. It delivered one of the best start-of-game experiences I've ever had.

I took DC Universe Online out for a spin, but I just couldn't get into it. Aside from the fact that the game felt as though it'd been developed for a console, it the character generation was just dreadful. It didn't come close to the options available in CoH. Sure, you could set you exact muscle mass and alter your eyebrow angles, but in the end, you all pretty much looked the same. Bah.

I bring this up because the estemeed Mr. Chuck Wendig provides some of the most evil (and evocative) fiction-writing prompts I've ever seen, and this week's prompt has me cackling with delight. I'm not sure exactly where I'm going to go with it, but it's an opportunity to bring The Marxist back to life.

Thank you, Mr. Wendig. And the rest of you? You've been warned...