Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
August 2007

Superman: Birthright, The Walking Dead Hardcover

Hello there, I'm the comics guy.

Oops -- I mean: Come one! Come all! Pictographs of wonder and amazement! Here be adolescent power fantasies and breasts that defy the laws of nature themselves! Scoff not at yellow spandex, for it can provide world-saving powers!

I'm very excited to be paid to read comics. If things go on this way, I'll get thin on the Ben & Jerry's diet and sell a how-to book on avoiding work.

Let's get a few things straight:

1 - Despite the Superman comic I review this month, this won't always be about mainstream superhero comics or American comics.

2 - Please email me with suggestions for review. I'm always looking for new, different stuff to read.

3 - Graphic novels are long comic books. I use the terms interchangeably. If you can explain to me that there's a difference, I'll listen. I can't promise I'll agree.

4 - Wolverine could take Superman.

Got it, true believers?

Superman: Birthright is not my usual type of comic. I don't like Superman -- he represents the trusting WWII mentality that I, raised by disillusioned hippies, could never understand. I'm much more of a Marvel fan than DC. The public distrust of Marvel heroes rings truer.

So I find myself stunned and amazed, true believers, that I chose a Superman graphic to deflower my column. Why Birthright? Because of Superman Returns. Or Jesusman Returns, as a friend called it. Okay, it was a decent movie. But I left a) rooting for the other guy; b) with zero understanding of who Superman was and why he did what he did; and c) no more love for the Big Blue Boy Scout than I did before. Also d) an urge to make lists.

Birthright is the movie that Returns should have been. Writer Mark Waid picks up at the beginning, retelling parts of the story that were in the 1978 movie and the TV series Smallville, but weaves them together into a much more satisfying whole. In this version, Clark's quest to understand his true origin drives he and Luthor in a parallel race against time. It's painful and poignant and it humanizes the Man of Steel.

Not to mention that the entire epic is chronicled in the most dynamic art I've ever seen. (For the uninitiated, comic art is usually the work of several people -- one person provides pencil breakdowns, one goes over it with pen-and-ink, and another colors.) Leinel Yu's pencil work is often too dark and murky. Not here -- it's bright and alive, helped by Gerry Alanguilan's inks and Dave McCraig's colors. The shots of alien invaders and Kryptonian landscapes are gaspworthy. Clark, Lois and the other characters all look personable as actors, far from the generic comic book brutes/babes so many other artists resort to.

The story opens with Krypton's explosion, then flashes forward until we meet Clark in Ghana at the age of 25, now a freelance journalist. He has contacted a controversial African politician in the mold of Nelson Mandela, facing a crisis in the mold of the Rwandan genocide. Clark intervenes in the crisis, perhaps more than he should. He uses journalism clout to arrange a televised conference. He stands (literally) in the way of assassination attempts. Despite his best efforts, genocide and assassination happen. He does what he can but he can't save everyone.

I almost missed what Waid was doing in these first few pages, because I was so hooked. It was only when I finished the comic that I made the connection. For the first time, I understood Superman. I not only respected him, I felt his pain and his drive. Like Christopher Nolan's masterstroke in Batman Begins, Birthright shows us the man before he came up with either identity. He is neither Superman nor mild-mannered Clark Kent. He is a young man who cares very much about making a difference but unsure what kind of difference to make. When the fictional Ghuri tribe is slaughtered, Waid shows the anguish in Clark, the determination not to let it happen again. This is a motivation for a modern Superman, making him a part of the generation that has grown up on these headlines.

As the comic rolls on, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, the blue tights and red cape all make their appearances. There is indeed a plot by Luthor (portrayed here as a genius who has deliberately removed himself from the rest of humanity) to rule the world. There is Kryptonite. There is Clark Kent stumbling over Perry White's desk and pretending to be clumsy, and a wonderful bonding moment with Jonathon Kent, his adopted father.

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The comic almost jumps the shark trying to make Superman modern. He IMs Ma Kent and stops a school shooting. At one point he says, "My bad." But he's still the same Superman/Clark Kent character that we know, and that saves the comic from the weight of modernism. He's optimistic with the experience to add poignancy to that optimism. That's needed for any generation.

There is a deeply felt moment of despair as Clark, having spent all this time looking for his identity, realizes that Luthor is using that identity to discredit him. And there is the moving moment where Clark discovers his true heritage. And then … well, I won't spoil it for you, but you will believe a man can cry.

I think I'm a Superman fan. It's rare that a comic makes me wish for a real superhero to protect humanity from their folly, but this time I did. This Superman is empowered by humanity rather than removed from it.

The Walking Dead also put me in mind of a movie, though in a more deliberate way. You see, the comic is a zombie movie. That never ends.

Writer Robert Kirkman makes no bones about his Big Concept in the afterword. "I love zombie movies. It's true, there's not much else I like more in this world … That said, there is something I hate about each and every zombie movie … THE END."

He's right. Zombie movies can only have two endings. Everyone dies or the cavalry rides in. Both are, from a dramatic point of view, some degree of cop-out. Kirkman discards the easy ending to tell an ongoing story about the disintegration of civilization and the struggle to survive, about, as the back cover blurb reads "a world ruled by the dead [where] we are finally forced to start living." It's a cool idea.

I, however, suck at zombies. I didn't see the original Dawn of the Dead. Or 28 Days Later. I did see Shaun of the Dead, mostly because my friend Rob played a zombie. (Rob … zombie?) But I have no idea of the reverence that Kirkman has for the art of the living dead. I picked this book up because I liked Kirkman's superhero book, Invincible.

So in reading The Walking Dead, I felt like I was crashing my friend's club. I was invited, but it wasn't my thing, even if it was fun.

Kirkman is good at playing up conventions. Invincible does traditional superhero comics one better, and The Walking Dead does the same for horror. The characters must be punished for foolish decisions, whether against each other or against Nature. So in the first half of the hardcover, our hero constantly urges the others to forget the cavalry and get as far into the backcountry as possible. When they don't, zombies attack. In the second chapter, the characters meet a man who seems to have preserved his farm life whole, save for the family zombies he keeps in the barn, hoping to "rehabilitate them." Yeah. They get out. And attack.

Kirkman is especially good at killing his characters. One of the benefits of the never-ending story is that he doesn't have to throw in a slaughter just before the end. So he can draw out the turning of the first man to be bitten. He can show the character with her husband and kids right before her gruesome zombie bite -- and her husband's gradual breakdown afterward. Every death means something.

The comic's pace creeps with the suspicion one feels halfway through a horror movie. Horrible things are going to happen, we know, but we never see things go to hell. Occasionally I surfaced from that feeling of "Aw, geez, don't go in there…" to a feeling of "When is this going to start moving?" Mostly I squirmed.

The art is painted in grayscale, pen-and-ink with varying degrees of gray shading. The artist for the first half of the hardcover, Tony Moore, was dynamic but too light and superhero-ish, which was totally wrong for this comic. The dark, up-close Dave McKean-ish stylized work of Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn in the second half are much better. They suit the brain-eating pace.

So if you like zombies, it doesn't get much better than The Walking Dead. If you don't … well, it might be interesting to see anyway for the ending. Or lack of.

Next ish, true believers: Yellow tights (for real) and our hero battles the fearsome beast Warren Ellis.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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