Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
December 2007

Holiday Special on Battle Corsets

Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships, World War Hulk: Conclusion, Scary Go Round

Beware! Beware!

I was once a man like yourself. I went through life thinking that there were more important things than giving my loved ones the gift of an illustrated page on Christmas morning. Comics? A humbug, I said. Now see the chain I must bear!

I have been sent to warn you. If you don't stick some comics in a friend's stocking, the chain you wear will be longer than mine. There is one hope. Tonight you shall be visited by three spirits: the ghosts of comics past, present and future. Heed their exclamatory speech bubbles!

(You know, more than one person on staff at this magazine has told me "You are having way too much fun with this" and "you should be paying us." I agree.)

Comics Past!

One of the nice things about comics is that they fill a cultural niche between "trash" and "high art," a bridge from fine wine to singing octopi. If you, for example, gave up on reading The Iliad and watched Troy instead, no matter what you learned, you shall be shunned at cocktail parties. But if you read Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, you are just going for Iliad-lite, and most importantly for previously mentioned hypothetical cocktail parties, you can fake it.

It gets more complicated, though. Age of Bronze is, in many ways, more difficult than the Iliad itself. Shanower's ambition is to tell the entire story of the Trojan War in at least six volumes, of which A Thousand Ships is the first. And I mean entire. Every little connection and footnote from three thousand years of writers, from Homer to Virgil to Shakespeare to Berlioz, as well as every character in all those stories. We start with Paris as a cowherd on a mountain, and we will presumably end with Odysseus and Aeneas setting out on their journeys home. We meet Agamemnon, Cressida, Odysseus, Menelaus, Helen, Priam, Hektor, and about twenty more in the first volume. Shanower has us sit with the Achaeans on the beach waiting for Achilles, complaining about wheat shortages, and raid Sparta in the night with Paris's Trojans.

Sadly, if you saw Troy you were probably slightly more entertained. As a writer, Shanower makes a great academic. Age of Bronze is hampered by its three thousand years of baggage and the endless connections Shanower is trying to trace between the various adaptations. Too often the pages are cluttered with dialogue and exposition. It's a shame, because Shanower's art is beautifully unique and deserves to be seen. It is drawn in exquisitely clear, sharp black and white, with faces and figures as gracefully formed as the marble statues they inspired.

It's not all wheat shortages and obscure characters. Every once in a while Age of Bronze achieves a sublime marriage of text and art. The best part of A Thousand Ships is the flashback-laden chapter that details Paris and Helen's romance. In extreme close-ups of a mouth on an apple, and shots of the back of Helen's head, avoiding the undrawable face of the most beautiful woman in the world, the story of her forbidden lust for Paris is told with beautiful visionary style. In another affecting bit, a mystic is caught in eternal visions of fire, with a laughing Paris at the center.

For any Greek nuts, Age of Bronze is a must, but for the rest of us, it's good mostly as a preparation for these cocktail parties. For entertainment, we must look to the next ghosts.

Comics present!

Marvel's big "summer event," World War Hulk, finally wrapped up in November. For those who missed the previous review, Hulk got sent to another planet because the Marvel heroes decided he was too dangerous, where he became first a gladiator, a soldier and then a conquering king, subduing lots of weird alien races. Then his ship blew up, killing most of his friends and subjects including his wife, so he came back to Earth to open up a can of you-know-what on the Marvel heroes, which he did for five issues full of slugfestery until only one Marvel hero was left who might be able to beat him: the Sentry, otherwise known as Marvel's Superman. Whew.

As of issue #4, the questions of who really planted the bomb and whether or not the Hulk will force his enemies to kill each other have yet to be answered. There is also the question of how the Hulk is doing this when there's a different emergency hitting New York in every other Marvel book . . . but such thoughts are designed to drive men mad.

So the end? Well, the Sentry shows up and proceeds to hit Hulk. A lot. Hulk hits him back, releasing a lot of the Sentry's built-up crazy energy through the city. They hit each other some more. And more. This is a comic series that has already pushed the limit for slugfests -- in issue one, Hulk beat Iron Man through forty floors of a skyscraper, while in issue four, Doctor Strange jammed spiky contraptions through the Hulk's green chest cavity. But the Sentry fight obliterates the cake. Not only does it demolish an average of three buildings per panel, it acknowledges the homoeroticism at the core of these fights. "You're the only one I can hit like this." "Good. Just once more. That's it." The erotic and the explosive, with the power of a million exploding suns. Who could ask for anything more?

Well, an ending not tied up in Marvel trying to sell more comics might be nice. In order to tie in to the three (like Dickens, Marvel does things in trinities) new comics spinning out of the ending of World War Hulk, the ending hinges on some unexplained stuff.

At the end of the Sentry and the Hulk's copulation -- sorry, I mean confrontation -- the smoke clears to show them both reduced to human form. Both, according to the dialogue, have reached their point of madness and made a choice not to give in to their rage, thus enclosing the Hulk in Banner and making them both one, for a rare time. One of Hulk's war-hungry alien buddies is clearly upset about this sudden truce, and to make his point he stabs the Hulk's old buddy Rick Jones, (pun not intended, I promise) standing on the sidelines. Hulk reforms, tears his buddy's alien body limb from carapace, whereupon dying alien buddy reveals that he planted the bomb that killed Hulk's wife because things were getting a little too quiet on Sakaar. Hulk starts stomping around and causing earthquakes with his rage, and then -- this is where it gets kind of weird -- some satellites that belong to Iron Man shoot him and he lies there, kind of looking dead except, as mentioned before, the ad for a new Hulk series that shows up at the end of the comic. Whaaa?

Marvel's average crossover is a lot more ambitious these days than it used to be. World War Hulk had no major villains, just heroes on different side of a conflict. It featured the evacuation of all New York and the public humiliation of Marvel's sacred cows. It's full of lots of good moral dilemmas, sandwiched between some of the most glorious fighting ever. But the company has to let go and let the writers write actual climaxes. Last year's Super Awesome Event, Civil War, was full of ambition and danger, but the ending hinged on a clichéd and overly simplistic turn that any reasonable person would have considered before. World War Hulk climaxes on the sudden presence of magic satellite weapons that can kill a guy who has survived nuclear bombs, Black Bolt's awesome screams, and having spikes shoved through his heart. What's happened here? Marvel is trying to have their cake and obliterate it too; to make massive upsets to their status quo and still sell the same comics with the same characters. It doesn't work. And we are left empty and sad, also broke.

Am I right in proposing that this is the feared spirit of Comics Future?

One odd thing about culture and critique is that the more popular something is, the longer it takes to gain recognition. I'm not talking about the academy thumbing their nose at popular culture -- there are students in my graduate English program writing papers about toothpaste commercials and werewolf novels -- but there is a human impulse to say, "Everyone loves it so much that I never thought of that." For all the recognition Sandman and Watchmen get, for instance, the most influential and well-loved work of comics in the late 20th century was Calvin and Hobbes. You read it. Your mother read it. Your kids will read it. And it pushed the boundaries of its medium just as much as those other works. But hardly anyone who talks about comics in the 80s and 90s bothers to mention it.

So when the comics history of the early 21st century is written, the writers will likely forget to spend the time on online comics that is their due. That's okay. Penny Arcade and PVP will still sell shirts and need more bandwidth because the collective office culture of the world reads them everyday. And John Allison's Scary Go Round will still be the funniest, most original webcomic out there.

Scary Go Round follows a rotating cast of cute teen-and-twentysomethings in their struggles against mad scientists, doomsday cults, giant kraken, and occasionally love. In an early storyline, now collected as Looks, Brain and Everything, Shelley Winters, a murder victim, is missed by her friends so much that they use sorcery to bring her back. There is the unfortunate side effect of her being a zombie. Undeterred, in true Brit fashion they take her for a night on the pub, which includes a pop culture quiz. Zombie Shelley doesn't do so well -- her answers are " 'blood, bones, all flesh is grass,' and for an extra point, '1806.'" And then there's the other side of the deal -- the devil, looking like a sharp-toothed Abraham Lincoln, appears demanding his due from these resurrection men. "I believe you owe me your soup. Oh no, can't read my own writing. Soul. You owe me your soul." Things get messy and brains are eaten, but a revivifying bolt of lightning soon brings Shelley back to her original self. What about the brains she ate, one character asks? "By an incredible coincidence, she at the 90% of the brain that no one ever uses."

It's hard to say what the best part about this comic is. Allison's art, whether it is the cute cutouts he used to create in Illustrator or his current flowing hand-drawn style, is always expressive and alive, full of quirky little looks and odd creatures. (The best is the Welsh land shark, devouring his natural prey, the swirly-eyed devil bears.) The comic not only features some of the prettiest girls I've ever seen drawn, but Allison always clothes them like fashion models, so that the clothes in this comic are more fun to look at than most superhero suits. The humor is deliciously dry -- in another favorite scene, a genius boy's IQ is traced during the course of his seduction by his classmate. As she gets closer and closer, he drops from 148: Genius through 101: Plumber all the way to 27: Beast Man and ends up at Negative: Cocker Spaniel. And the one-liners! I can't express the joy of lines like, "I tried to get addicted to something even cooler than smokes so, you know, I wouldn't want to smoke. But the fifth time you pop a wheelie in a double decker bus, it doesn't even feel like you're doing it." Or from a mad scientist: "I am a renaissance man! When an idea takes flight like a rare bird, do you shoot it down or let it soar? And when that idea is an emu with robot wings flying to the moon, how can one stop it in good conscience?"

The best part is, Scary Go Round will cost you as much as your monthly internet bill. Much like this column, it herald the Future of the Information Age with delightful witticisms. But if you really like it, like I do, I suggest buying the pretty and affordable trades advertised on the site, which are packed with extras one can't find online.

And let it be said no man kept Comics better than you, in plastic baggies and everything. God bless us everyone.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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