Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
September 2007

Pow! Kazam! Eek! I need to wash my tights…

Invincible Hardcover, Fell Volume 1: Feral City

Greetings, true believers!

When last we left our hero, he vivisected an army of zombies and dealt with the menace of a new, modern Superman. But there's no respite in this life of comicdom. (Except for Wonder Woman. She has to stay flowery-fresh. She gets respites.)

I will take a moment to discuss the deluge of disputes that have hit my mailbox since the first column. (Activate extra-nerdy voice) If Doomsday could puncture Superman's skin, without Kryptonite, Wolverine could get his claws through. And he fights dirty, anyway. Punch in the Super-nuts and that's it. (Extra-nerdy voice over -- back to regular-strength nerd.)

Yellow tights!

Invincible is the superhero book that could. It comes from Image, a company best-known for creator-owned quirks like PVP and Madman. Yet Invincible has become one of the company's bestsellers.

Adding to the oddity, it's tough to create a superhero in a vacuum. The benefit for the Young Hot Indie Writer who signs on for Spider-Man is, besides living out their childhood, getting to work with an established setting. Marvel and DC's stalwarts are full of supporting cast, villains and hero-buddies. Invincible has none of that. Apart from a short cameo by SuperPatriot, Shadowhawk and the Savage Dragon, Image's other heroes, writer Robert Kirkman (also of The Walking Dead) creates a whole universe from scratch. And he does a great job. Some of them are derivative, but for a purpose. Most are refreshingly, sometimes goofily, original.

This is, for the first fifty pages of the hardcover, the concept: Superman's son grows up and gets his powers. Oh, sure, the father's name is Omni-Man. And he has a moustache. But he's an alien emissary from a more advanced society, come to guide Earthlings in their evolution. He's also a writer, former journalist. There's a great conversation between Omni-Man and his son Mark, soon to be Invincible, early on. "Soon you're going to grow hair in strange places. Girls will start to look good. And there's a chance you'll develop super-powers."

Invincible has little of the tragic teen-angst that has been so popular in comics since the early days of Spider-Man and the X-Men. Superheroing is cool for young Mark Grayson. All his life he's watched his dad fly around and save the world, and now he gets to do it too. At one point he and his father fight off an alien invasion only for his father to be pulled into the aliens' portal. Upon returning home, Mark tells his mother, "Uh, I don't think Dad's coming home for dinner." A few pages and weeks later, Omni-Man walks in the door with a beard and says, "I need a shave." That night around the dinner table, they talk about their day. "I found the man who was creating the organic bombs." "I made contact with a rebellion in the other dimension whose scientists were able to send me home." Great stuff.

Around the fiftieth page, things change. The Guardians of the Globe (a transparently Justice League-ish team) is murdered in some seriously graphic shots for a PG-13 comic, and Omni-Man stands over them, bloody-handed.

Here there be spoilers, dear reader. The comic takes a turn darker than any angsty teen fare. You see, Omni-Man is not the beneficial alien visitor he pretends to be. He reveals the truth to Mark as his son catches him bloody-handed, starting of course with "Son, we need to talk." Omni-Man is an emissary, but one preparing the earth for conquest. His race will live for thousands of years and is systematically subjugating the galaxy out of a deep-rooted fascist ideology. This means Mark will outlive everyone he knows. And Mark can either join his father or be beaten to death by him.

In the fight scene between Invincible and Omni-Man, writer Kirkman truly makes us wonder whether or not Omni-Man will go all the way and murder his own son. Omni-Man thrashes Mark until the page is bright red with blood. He knocks Mark, in some spectacular shots, through buildings, into subway tunnels, and into the side of a ski resort. Standing over a broken, bloody Invincible in the snow Omni-Man shouts, "You will outlive all these people! In five hundred years everyone you care about will be dead! What will you have then?"

Mark answers, "You, Dad. I'd still have you."

It's a line that's easy to mistake for sentiment. And Omni-Man's teary eyes as he flies away, having backed off at the last minute, seem to support that. I see more. Mark is saying that after five hundred years, he will still be there to fight his father. There is far too much riding on this moment for Kirkman to turn Omni-Man away with mush. He turns away because he's failed. He raised a son who didn't accept Dad's view of the world.

Invincible is a good argument for the depth a superhero story can hold. And for the issues comics can introduce to the middle-school readers Invincible is aimed at. This is a story that seems to deal in absolutes. Brightly colored beautiful heroes fight ugly villains. Yet one of these heroes embodies all the darkness within the Superman concept. He's far more dangerous in his perfection than any of the villains.

Half of the Invincible hardcover was penciled and inked by Cory Walker, who sets the vibrant, dynamic pace, and the other half by Ryan Ottley, who only improves it. Though there are some fantastically complicated shots -- Mark and his father's aforementioned fight, Mark taking on an alien invasion from above, slugfest after slugfest with zombie robots and mad scientists -- both Walker and Ottley never draw a line more than necessary. Every move is beautifully rendered in lightning simplicity. After reading this, I want Ottley and Walker to draw every comic in the world. Bill Crabtree's colors improve it all with bright, solid tones, especially the pages full of red blood as Omni-Man conducts his dastardly deeds.

The comic remains pretty light-hearted, but there's a dark tone under Mark and his mother's lives through the rest of the volume and the next few. It makes for a fantastic story, full of both visual and plot surprises.

As for Fell: Warren Ellis is a fearsome creature, one with a power over profanity granted to few. He's best-known for writing the adult series Transmetropolitan, about an investigative journalist in a nightmare future city. Fell is his take on a similar character, in a similarly dastardly city, only as a P.I. in modern times. Detective Fell has been sent across the bridge into the "feral city" of Snowtown for a misdemeanor that remains unspecified through this first volume of the series. The tagline for the book is "Everybody is hiding something. Even him." Sadly, we don't find out what Fell is hiding in this one. Lucky the first volume is a pretty good read even without knowing the secret that sent him over the bridge.

This is not a middle-school comic. On the first page, Detective Fell arrives in his apartment building to see a body being carried out. A woman standing in the hallway says . . . well, this is a family netzine, and I can't really tell you what she says. Let's just say she details what she thinks Satan will do to the dead man, in which orifice, for the next thousand years. She follows it with "I love Jesus."

The humor only gets blacker. There's the police chief whose first line is "I'm not crying," and who is seen later with a copy of the Necronimicon, declaring, "All of our problems with crime in Snowtown are over, Detective Fell. I am going to learn magic." There's the secretary for the police department whose husband left her for the dog. "Aren't my nails pretty enough? Didn't I wear the suit for him? My throat is raw from the barking." And the coroner, noisily eating a sandwich while he stands over a body that has been slashed open. Detective Fell tells him as part of the sandwich tumbles, "If you retrieve that piece of tomato from the wound and then put it in your mouth I will shoot you." Undaunted, the coroner does just that. "I have to go over the bridge for organic tomato, you know."

And then there are the crimes Fell solves. Alcohol poisoning from a whiskey enema. Unborn babies cut out and used as magical charms. A child kept sick by her father with . . . actually, I don't want to repeat that one here, either. This is not a comic for the fainthearted.

But Fell mediates the madness. I'm a card-carrying wuss myself (ask my friends how often I closed my eyes during Children of Men) and though the black humor leavens things, Brian Templesmith's art makes the ultimate dreamy counterpoint to the over-the-top violence. It's skewed and surrealistic, draped in gorgeous watercolor washes. The characters see through angles into worlds of deep purple darkness or intense orange heat. Guns fill the panels, big as construction cranes. Blood is a red splash in murky blue. The maniacs and killers of Snowtown are freakish, all beer guts and brown gums. My favorite: the repeated visual gag of a man/woman/thing dressed in a nun suit who is doing something illegal-ish in the shadows, the details of which we never quite get, and neither does Fell.

Normally I'm a big fan of the trade paperback, whose rise in the halls of Barnes & Nobles across the nation has given comics more room to breathe. Fell, though, is one of the rare remaining comics that keeps to individual issues. Ellis fits each case into 22 measly pages, so that the only questions remaining as we finish each chapter are Fell's secret and his burgeoning romance with the bartender/possible psychotic Mayko. (The first time they hang out, she brands him.) I'll probably wait for the second volume to keep reading, but it's nice to know that I would enjoy the individual issues if I were to pick them up at my local comic store.

Speaking of my local store, I have to plug them because they're great. The Comics Place, Bellingham WA. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in and check out their great selection -- and their lending library!

Next ish, true believers: Our hero takes on the most dastardly foe of all: the Big Fat Marvel Crossover. World War Hulk and all related animals, here in 30 days! Be there!

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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