Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
May 2010

All orange rock. All the time.

Fantastic Four: World's Greatest, Master of Doom (Marvel) Arrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms (Wildstorm)

Hop in the handy time machine, folks. We're headed back to the early 60s, to your average newsstand to pick up a few comics. (No, we can't go save the library at Alexandria. Stop asking.)

Here we are. Smell the cigarettes and the nuclear tension. In these heady days, comics are cheap little magazines printed on the same stock as newspapers, the pages festooned with ads for X-Ray glasses and Charles Atlas's muscle course with Dynamic Tension. Marvel is an upstart publisher, just different enough to attract the college crowd but just fun enough to keep the kids reading. And the leader of the pack for these Marvel comics is not Spider-Man, nor the X-Men (whose sales are actually quite wretched) but the World's Greatest Comic Magazine, the Fantastic Four.

You can always be sure that when the FF are done right, they will deliver something entirely different from your average hero comic. Unlike all superheroes out there, for whom family is a liability (at least according to the editors) the FF work on a family dynamic. The Thing and the Human Torch are the quirky uncles to Reed and Sue's children, Franklin and Val. While Batman and Spider-Man shove around petty crooks in alleyways, the Fantastic Four's adventures take them to hidden dimensions on the surfaces of electrons.

Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's early work was so great that the comic has often languished in their shadow. It's not just how good the stories were; it's how well the comic reflected the events of the time. In 1961's Fantastic Four #1, Reed and Ben are old World War II buddies who steal a rocket in order to beat the Russians to low orbit, where the "cosmic rays of space" transformed them into super-powered beings. Galactus was a personification of nuclear Armageddon, and a good portion of the first FF run took place on the moon, fighting the Russkie Red Ghost.

So any writer who comes to the FF is challenged to keep the dynamic fun of Stan and Jack while making the comic different and relevant. Few can do it. John Byrne, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo did it, bringing the Four up to, alternately, the 80s and the 21st century. Walt Simonson and J. Michael Straczynski almost made it. Chris Claremont and countless others fell flat.

Add Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch to the A-listers.

Millar and Hitch are known for being "edgy" from their hard-edged work on The Ultimates, where Millar followed the HBO aesthetic of making his characters interesting, but not very likeable. But here, Millar and Hitch aren't worried about being "edgy." They are having fun. The first issue opens with Reed, Sue, Ben and the kids racing along a train track on Reed's newest time sled. Their trip through time to the grand opening of Disneyland has gone awry due to a temporal storm. They have rescued the Thing from 1682 and are now either about to hit the mail train or, if Reed's calculations are correct, go home.

The sheer fun of this series is a pleasant surprise from Millar and Hitch's work on The Ultimates. In the first few issues we get a killer robot versus an even stronger killer robot, a substitute Earth, and Johnny Storm's forbidden relationship with a super-villain. The Thing remains the heart of the book as he romances a schoolteacher with his classic Brooklyn gruffness.

Millar is good, and his overexpository dialogue actually works here, but the book might seem a bit fluffy with the wrong artist. Luckily, Millar got Bryan Hitch.

How can I describe Bryan Hitch? Think of one of the truly cinematic directors in Hollywood; Ridley Scott or Peter Jackson or someone who communicates size and grandeur.

Then imagine someone who can outdo them all and has a budget limited only by his imagination.

No comic artist has the depth and power of Hitch. His art is dynamic but photorealistic. Most of all it's big. The opening chapter of World's Greatest sets up his brilliance: it closes with a double-page spread of Nu-World, the recreation of our world set to house refugees from our eventual doom. Pylons the size of Saturn's rings stretch into space from a framework around a dead moonish rock that is gradually being transformed into a replica of Earth.

You can feel every inch of Hitch's bigger-than-life work, and Millar takes advantage of it with these constructed planets, Lovecraftian sea-beasts and a vast energy-sucking machine perched on the corpse of Galactus.

And yet Hitch is also a master of the close-up. No one since Jack Kirby has put this kind of emotion into a face made of orange rock. Light and shadow play across the Thing's craggy face around his exaggerated eyebrows and bright blue eyes so that one can see Ben Grimm, the human, within the monster. And his women! Simply let Hitch tousle the hair of Sue Storm and despite her simple blouse and skirt, she is the sexiest woman on paper.

Despite the sheer fun, Millar does manage to pull off a touching and complex ending to Master of Doom that shows why the Thing has always been the heart of this team. And no, I won't tell you where the story goes. There are too many surprises on each page to ruin them.

Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms is a blast, even though it's got its dark moments. Arrowsmith's premise will immediately sound familiar to the fantasy reader: World War I with sorcery. In recent years, Harry Turtledove did it with the Civil War and World War II and Naomi Novik wrote the Napoleonic Wars with dragons in her Temeraire series.

Now if only they had been drawn by Carlos Pacheco. Too often comic artists who draw historical scenes skimp on the detail that makes such things more fun. Not Pacheco. He creates an alternate New York, a magical battleship, and combat between sea serpents and flying troops, but he is just as detailed in his creation of quaint European towns, trench warfare and life hiding in an old cathedral. Should an artist take on Ms. Novik's work, I think Pacheco might even outdo my other suggestion, Ryan Ottley.

His pictures have power and grandeur, from the epic battles all the way down to the expressions on their faces. Pacheco has many of the cinematic strengths of Hitch, though his art has a slightly more simplified sensibility that fits these tales of yore.

Fletcher Arrowsmith seeks to join the Aerial Corps, a group of magical volunteers from the "United States of Columbia" who fight above the trenches of the Western Front. Although one might expect them to ride dragons a la Temeraire, they actually fly by the power of tiny little magic dragons and boots made from the shed skins of the dragonets' mothers, so that they appear to be standing on air as they swordfight with the enemy Prussians.

Fletcher's life goes from an idealistic round of training and writing letters to harsh combat above the trenches, realizing slowly that the sorcerers on his side may be as ruthless as the Prussians in their determination to wipe out the enemy. As he watches his friends die in combat, his hope is kept alive by his relationship with a beautiful ambulance driver.

In the end, Fletcher's own despair and disillusionment must be put aside for his own duty to the men and women (and trolls) under his command.

Arrowsmith is written by Kurt Busiek. Busiek is renowned at Marvel and DC for his encyclopedic knowledge of superhero comic history. Here, he shows that he knows his World War I history as well as he knows those made-up histories, and he also shows that he is still able to balance idealism and disillusionment in his characters as well as he did in his runs on JLA and Avengers -- still my favorite incarnation of the Avengers, by the way, and well worth picking up in the "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" trade.

Comics should be fun, and Arrowsmith, World's Greatest and Master of Doom are not deep and complex and interesting, but they are first of all fun. The best comics, from Maus to American Born Chinese, always add just a hint of whimsy to the mix.

P.S. If anyone close to Ms. Novik is listening, she ought to grab a piece of Pacheco, once he and Millar are down with their current incarnation of the Ultimate Avengers.

Next issue: Jeff Smith goes R-rated in RASL. (Jeff Smith? The Bone guy?) Yep, that's him.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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