Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
July 2008

Walks Among Us

Secret Invasion/Final Crisis, IncogNegro, Spider-Man 2099

Can you hear it?

There is rumbling in the sky. Dogs howl. Parakeets swear. Two titans battle, and the winner will determine . . .

Uh . . .

Well, he'll determine something.

In a move that is in no way related to marketing, Marvel and DC have launched their summer crossovers. Last year you may remember, oh fearless one, this column was brave enough to stand in the way of World War Hulk. This year, undaunted by the task and having drunk enough Coke to revive a dead man, I stand between the competing opening rounds of Final Crisis and Secret Invasion.

Both boil pots o' plots that have been simmering throughout the main DC and Marvel titles for the last few years. DC's got the death of the New Gods and subsequent relocation of Darkseid to Earth where he's sowing nastiness, not to mention problems with the newly-restored DC Multiverse. Marvel has the infiltration of shape-shifting Skrulls who are responsible for a lot of the weirdness that has gone on in the Marvel Universe for the last few years.

Both stories can be understood, if you're a hardy soul, without reading the tie-ins and lead-ups to them. In the case of Secret Invasion, I read the tie-ins, and in the case of Final Crisis, I haven't. That makes Final Crisis a little harder, but I spent all my other money on other comics, so no way am I a-spendin' more. Nuh-uh.

Final Crisis is written by Grant Morrison, well known for his runs on Justice League and X-Men, and also for testifying publicly of his abduction by aliens. Seriously. And Final Crisis, like all Morrison's work, is so amazingly ambitious that you start to think this guy really has been to the fifth dimension. He's not just threatening a world, he's threatening every Earth, everywhere. In the first issue of Final Crisis, a god is found dead in a dumpster. Orion's corpse, previously a New God, heralds the subtle invasion of the bad New Gods, including Darkseid, who is masquerading as a human in order to turn children into Anti-Life zombies, and is possibly connected to the murder of the Martian Manhunter by a new contingent of super-villains, not to mention the corruption of a group of Green Lantern corps. Also there's the casting out of one Multiverse guardian by the others into the realm of humans. By the second issue you will have been woven a dizzying skein of plot threads, a prismatic onion that you have to peel apart to see its full brilliance. (There's a multiverse somewhere where that simile makes sense.)

J.G. Jones's art is nice when it gets room to breathe, as in the first issue when the New God Metron appears to a caveman. He also manages to be one of the few artists who can keep up with Morrison's landscapes -- see his rendering of the Guardians, heads of the Green Lantern Corps, and of the pillar of Earths held by those who watch over the Multiverse. Sometimes the typically Morrisonian exposition crowds his art, which is a shame. The gorgeous colors by Alex Sinclair only helps.

Secret Invasion is written by Brian Michael Bendis, who started on crime comics like Jinx and Torso, then progressed to marathon runs on Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man. He is also known for loudly swearing at his fans. In contrast to Final Crisis's approach, the first issue of Invasion is a bang that rides its own shockwaves, as the Skrulls strike from various different disguises. They blow the Fantastic Four's headquarters into another dimension, send a full fleet to attack the earth, and infect Iron Man's entire worldwide network with a massive computer virus. And then there's the downed Skrull ship that opens to reveal a host of Marvel heroes who may or may not be the real thing.

While the first issue sets an amazing standard, the dumb slugfestery of the next two doesn't really match up, although there is a nice moment as Hawkeye discovers that the woman claiming to be his long-dead wife is not a Skrull at all, but his actual wife. Still, all the world seemed ready to go to hell in the first issue, with the Negative Zone portal expanding from the Fantastic Four's headquarters and the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier about to fall on New York. In the next two, the portal has somehow stopped growing and the helicarrier has actually landed far out on the Atlantic Ocean, and the Skrull fleet around the earth discharges a bunch of super-powered Skrulls into a giant fight with the superheroes of New York, rather than oh, say, nuking Earth.

It's almost as if the story decided to tone itself down into a big slugfest instead of the massive madness it promised. Although Leniel Francis Yu's art (previously reviewed in Superman: Birthright) is at a new height. One of the greatest shots in a comic, ever, is the appearance of a Skrull fleet in the wreckage of the world's satellites. Looming insectile ships swarm into the distance.

With Final Crisis, one gets the sense that everything is building slowly, even if it occasionally seems to be written in Greek. With Secret Invasion, much of the bang seems to be leaking away after the first issue. Monthly updates on the crossover madness to come! Who dares? I do.

I've gotten really into the seamier side of American history lately, as I had a chance to teach James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book that anyone who went through high school history classes must read. You will be amazed at the things you unlearn.

For example, the book minutely details the viciousness of Southern resistance to Reconstruction. In contrast to the Gone With the Wind image of corrupt carpetbaggers, Lies exposes Southern vigilantism, to the point where lynchings became community activities and Klan membership was considered a mark of respectability. Typically, the men and women of the town would string up a black man or occasionally a white Northerner who worked for desegregation, castrate them, burn them, and take a group photo with the dead men, so unafraid were they of justice. Saddest of all, it worked. This practice became so common that, like the death of soldiers in Iraq, it was often relegated to back-page news unless something was different.

In Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece's IncogNegro, a Harlem-based black man who looks white has made it his job to make these lynchings news. Passing as a photographer, a Klansman, and generally risking his life every second of every day, Zane Pinchback gets photos of lynchings and the people involved on the front page of newspapers across the North, using the nom de plume of IncogNegro and bringing a personal and dangerous aspect to the stories.

How does he not get killed? In the first part, it's attributed to luck as he jumps the tracks just before a train that cuts him off from a mob. It's also helped by his immense confidence in his role, playing the powerful Klansman to the hilt. He has learned all the bywords: "Arak?" for "Are you a Klansman?" and "Akia" for "A Klansman I am," and is not afraid to declare himself a high-up Klansman in order to save a black man's life by "kicking him out of town" rather than letting him be strung up. He relies on ignorance, telling a local black man who has figured him out that, "White folks see what they want to see." "That's what makes them so dangerous," the local replies.

After one-too-many escapes, Zane is tired of risking his life for the front page. He attempts to retire until his editor tells him that his brother has been thrown in a southern jail for killing a white woman, and is entirely likely to swing on a rope as his only form of trial. Zane goes IncogNegro one last time, accompanied by a friend who seeks to be his replacement. Zane finds out that his brother didn't kill the white woman, but someone did, and has framed his brother for it. He has to solve the crime before the mob outside the jail grows too restless, before someone sees through his identity, and before the actual high-level Klansman hunts him down.

Mat Johnson, who really has lived a biracial life, produces a beautiful mystery in a brilliantly unique setting and time period that carefully uses the brutality of the time. Warren Pleece's art sets the mood, his settings and interactions shifting between southern-style-laid-back and creeping horror. A knotted rope threatens Zane, his brother and his would-be successor, and not all of them escape it. Best of all, unlike a lot of Vertigo's deliberately provocative work, IncogNegro is never gratuitous. That's what makes the violence of the lynchings all the more horrific in the sleepy Southern setting.

This is a comic that matters. You can approach it as social commentary or as a damn good mystery, but there's no way that you won't recognize it as both while reading it, and be shocked, moved, and damned satisfied by the end.

This last review, dear readers, is pure indulgence. I sold off most of my old comics in college, mostly for the purpose of not having to move them around, but also to get rid of some truly fetid stories, like those crappy Image comics filled with scantily clad big-haired women with bodies segmented like ants and permanent tiptoes. Do an image search for "40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings" to see what I speak of.

For some reason, the other day I found I had kept some Spider-Man 2099 comics. A future version of Spider-Man. With fangs. And he has a skull on his chest. When I found it in a box I had to take a look and figure out why I kept it. After the first read, I knew I must have the rest.

I had to resort to the Stone Age process of searching through back issues at my local shops to complete my run. If you've never done this, it's an obsolete, stinky, vision-deteriorating process designed to test your devotion to comics.

The comic was written by Peter David, one of the only decent writers at Marvel at the time who wasn't being stretched to write every title available. The gorgeously minimalist, dynamic art of Rick Leonardi and Al Williamson made the title even better. Though the setting was a fairly standard mix of urban Blade Runner and rural Mad Max, the writing and art transcended the potential awfulness into something great.

In another seeming cliché, Spider-Man 2099 was the victim of a genetic experiment gone wrong. Yeah, that's pretty standard. But he was trying to rewrite his DNA after his boss got him addicted to a DNA-bonding company drug in order to ensure employee loyalty. (In 2099, there is no government save corporations, and no behavior is illegal if it's in the name of business.)

Due to some tampering with the equipment, he accidentally got imprinted with an attempt to recreate Spider-Man's powers. It included lot of the nastier spidery stuff -- venom and fangs and these tiny little hook talons on his forearms that he could use to climb and slash bad guys into Julienne fries. Much better than the vague suction thing that Peter Parker uses. And he got the first instance I know of with organic webshooters gooping out his arm, ten years before the Sam Raimi movie used the idea.

(As a matter of fact, I think Spidey 2099's powers were probably the inspiration for that terrible terrible story "The Other" that came out a few years ago, in which Peter Parker gained a whole bunch of new powers that were promptly never mentioned again. Peter was much too nice for fangs and talons.)

The corporation tried to discover the secret of Spider-Man, never guessing he was one of their higher-ups now aware of how corrupt his job was. Peter David is not just good at transcending clichés -- he made Spidey 2099's alter ego, Miguel O'Hara, part of a great family dynamic. Miguel was the sarcastic, callous and corrupt member of the family, working in the high levels of an evil corporation. His brother and mother were always trying to convince him of his evil ways. Ironically, he became Spider-Man and spent his time fighting the corporation that made him, having seen their corruption from the inside out. One of the best moments in the series is when his mother yells, "You'll never be a man with true courage! Not like Spider-Man!" Miguel yells back, "Mom, I am Spider-Man!" His mother looks at him for a moment, and breaks into guffaws. "Look!" he yells. "I've got talons and fangs and everything . . ." She keeps laughing, and finally says, "Oh, honey. It's nice that you want me to like you that much that you would pretend to be Spider-Man."

The funniest moments are the jabs at the original Spider-Man. When Miguel's brother Gabriel, who knows the secret of Miguel identity, says, "With great power comes great responsibility," Miguel responds, "You read too many fortune cookies." Later on he modifies the motto into "With great power comes great guilt."

Were this the early 90s, I would encourage a letter-writing campaign and a march down Main Street to reprint Spidey 2099, who still pops up in the Marvel books every once in a while (most recently in Exiles, with some of his old villains making an appearance in Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man). Since we have moved to the Cyber Age, people should just blog it. And IncogNegro. Though Secret Invasion and Final Crisis probably don't need the help.

Next issue: Hellboy. Wanted. The Dark Knight. Before they were movies, they were comics. Are they caterpillars to the movie's butterflies, or fresh sweet corn to weird high fructose corn syrup? Join us as we squeeze between the enclosing walls of Hollywood and comicdom.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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