Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
January 2011

Beat the Post-Holiday Blues into a Bloody Pulp and Leave Them Tied Up For the Cops.

Transformers: For All Mankind (IDW 2010), Spider-Man Noir (Marvel 2009), PC in My DC

The "soft reboot."

This is another one of those comic terms, the knowledge of which proves your geekery. Along with "retcon," "adamantium" and "a few issues short of a full run." Every time you use one of these terms, the cheerleader or football player you tried to date in high school does that sound. You know, that "Fumf" sound of disgust that means, "You are such a neeeerd." Listen carefully. Do you hear it?

The soft reboot means that an older writer has left the title, willingly or no, and a new writer has been instructed to "take things back to basics" or "mix up the status quo" by the editors.

The things are a mixed blessing. The infamous One More Day was a "soft reboot" of Spider-Man, for all that it was about as soft as a kick in the nuts. But Kevin Smith soft-rebooted Daredevil a few years ago by killing Daredevil's girlfriend and driving Daredevil a little nuts, and the stories have never been better. J. Michael Straczynski recently soft-rebooted Wonder Woman into a hunted hero on the run.

IDW soft-rebooted the robots in disguise in 2008 with All Hail Megatron, a series that got an epically mixed reaction. AHM was about Decepticons running rampant after the Autobots are wiped out. Cool idea, though it undercut itself with predictable storytelling and deus ex machina twists.

So a year later, IDW created another soft reboot, both to hold on to jaded old readers and lure in new ones: an ongoing Transformers series as opposed to their previous series of miniseries. Aside from an ill-fated attempt by manga publisher Dreamwave, the TFs hadn't had an ongoing series since 1994. The writer was Mike Costa, who was gaining attention for his gritty work with Christos Gage on GI Joe: Cobra, and the conceit was simple but effective. How would humans really react if there were giant robots warring among them?


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It seemed cool enough. The story would start with an Army liaison reverse-engineering alien weaponry, a tragic loss for the Autobots, and a pack of scheming, leaderless Decepticons ready to fake an alliance.

But there was some disturbing talk by Costa about a philosophical shift from an action comic to a comic about "the aliens among us." He mentioned how he would focus on the human and Autobot relationship.

Costa obviously doesn't read many TF comics. That relationship is part of every Transformers comic, and it's been done to death. There are many more things to do with Transformers than another dozen pages of humans in special robot armor shooting at much more powerful metal aliens.

So. The day arrived. I went to the comic store and beheld an ongoing Transformers series at last.

And my worries were fulfilled four pages into For All Mankind . . . fulfilled and brimming over.

Let it be known, Internet:

I have never read a comic that misfires like this.

First of all, the art, from Transformers mainstay and drawer par excellence Don Figueroa, has morphed from what used to be dynamic and fun to . . . still dynamic, but hideous.


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Don Figueroa takes the Generation One figures and equipped them with the monstrous faces of the Michael Bay films. Why? This is a separate franchise from the Michael Bay movie-verse comics IDW is already releasing. The "Generation One" comics are about robots that look like they did in the 80s.

The Transformers hang out and talk for much of the comic, and when they don't, they fight humans in old Hulkbuster armor. A confrontation with the Decepticons comes only at the end of the long, talky graphic novel.

A-list Decepticons like Starscream or Shockwave or Megatron are nowhere to be found. Jet fighter Decepticon Thundercracker provides a nice monologue about human oddities, but it's over too soon, and has no relation to the rest of the story.

Optimus Prime, the heroic and visionary leader, gives himself up to the humans in order to try and foster understanding between their races, leaving all his men far from home with no way to get back. Of course. That's exactly what a military leader would do in hostile territory.

Clichéd army jock Spike leads strikes against the Autobots in between his booty calls. Unlike TF writers Simon Furman, Nick Roche and James Roberts, Costa didn't even attempt a female character in the male-dominated TF world; instead they just hang out in underwear in the background.

The Autobots make a hopeful alliance with a Decepticon named "Swindle." Yes. Swindle.

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I really had no idea what Costa and Figueroa were doing, and rather soon into the trade, I didn't care. I flipped through this comic at the store when it came out, but held off on buying it, and now I'm especially glad that I got For All Mankind from the library rather than putting my cash into it.

Why does Mike Costa think that people read Transformers? These are giant robots that turn into cars and fight each other! Why is that hard?

Simon Furman has written great TF stories for twenty-five years by focusing on the science-fictional fun to be had with robot planets, robot gods, and robot zombies. Last Stand of the Wreckers, by James Roberts and Nick Roche, played up the military aspect of the series with a robot-black-ops-mission. Furman, Roche and Roberts have found ways to slip in some Shakespearian moments and provoke the occasional oily robot tear -- but they did it among lots and lots of action.

Even All Hail Megatron followed a good idea. The Decepticons wasted Earth, half in fun, while the Autobots attempted to gather their suffering forces.

But For All Mankind is about how Optimus Prime gives up while his followers bicker and moan. All Hail Megatron was a good idea written badly. For All Mankind is a bad idea written and drawn badly.

Costa and Figueroa are still, sixteen issues out, working on the TF series, despite vocal fan objection. IDW has produced some fantastic Transformers stories, but mismanaged the production of such from the beginning: instead of one ongoing series, we got years of spread out miniseries, Simon Furman's climactic arc Revelations was shrunk to four issues from the planned six and shunted aside for All Hail Megatron, and now IDW keeps at this flagging series.

I can't fall for you again, IDW. I mean, since the separation I've dated a lot and not found that special something we had. It's true that you made me happy, IDW. But I respect myself too much to let you in again.

Um . . .

Well, that's how it feels!

Spider-Man: Noir is not a soft reboot, but an alternate-reality tale. (There she goes again -- "Fumf." Yeah, well, cheerleader, you got pregnant at eighteen and I'm now dating a supermodel and I'm a billionaire computer baron. Okay, actually I'm an English teacher, but my wife is much hotter than you.)


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Noir got some attention recently for its place in the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions video game. The game provided four separate incarnations of the Webhead: classic Amazing Spider-Man, black-suited, younger and more foolhardy Ultimate Spider-Man, futuristic Spider-Man 2099, and Noir. I hadn't read Noir when the game came out, but I became interested. Not because I'm much of a gamer, but the game used Spider-Man 2099, one of my favorite incarnations, so I had to see if it would stand with the others.

It did. Spider-Man: Noir is a fun, violent, gritty little tale, taking the myth of Spider-Man and inserting it into the gangsters and corruption of Depression New York.

Alternate reality tales will give us, the nerds of nerddom, a familiar character in an unfamiliar context. In the case of Noir, Peter Parker is a young idealist in poverty-stricken New York. His uncle Ben has died, off-screen, torn apart for messing with Norman Osborne, the Goblin, the crimelord who controls everything in the city.

Aunt May continues the crusade Ben started, preaching Emma Goldman-style, power-to-the-people anarchy and feeding the hungry.

Reporter Phil Urich and newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson fight what is mostly a good fight, although neither one of them is willing to take on the Goblin. After Urich notices Peter's discontent, he recruits Peter to be his photographer, trolling the city and finding sob stories of poverty.

But Urich is on the Goblin's payroll, held in check by his morphine habit. Urich saw Ben Parker murdered, and witnessed a dozen other atrocities committed by Osborn, but he has never blown his information in the press, because he needs the drug money the Goblin bribes him with.

Peter happens to intercept a tip at Urich's apartment, leading him to a warehouse where the Goblin's goons are unloading a mystical spider totem. The totem promptly comes alive with thousands of spiders, who devour the Goblin's goombahs. One bites Peter, and a mystical spider appears and declares, "Why do you tremble, little man? My bite brings death only to those of evil intent. I will bestow on you a greater torment . . . the curse of power."

He wakes up in a tangle of black webs, all secreted by his own self. And thus he has the power to fight back.

The rest goes on in the style of the very best Spidey books. Nightclub mistress Felicia Hardy, Urich, Jameson, and the cast of gangsters are caught up in the furor caused by Peter's one-man war against the Goblin. Aunt May is caught in the middle. Peter is pushed to the limit. Each character faces their fears and faces death, and is changed.

David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky seem to have been born to write Spidey. This is just like the best Spider-Man stories, a meditation on power, responsibility, and the trickster who cannot be contained, with a juicy and complex supporting cast.

Camine di Giandomenico's art is dynamic and big. The hideous spider that appears to Peter is particularly memorably for its all-too-human legs and hair, uncomfortably grotesque as it is. Shots are claustrophobic and dark, like when the Goblin breaks out of a panel to shoot into the audience's eye and Peter flashes across the Goblin's office, taking out his goons.

I do think that di Giandomenico could have been more liberal with the inks. This is a dark, tight world, but it's too well-lit.


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But it's no biggie; this is the best Spider-Man comic you'll read these days. Now if only we could get both more Noir and more 2099. It's not as though Amazing Spider-Man is worth the nickel it would have cost in the 30s.

At this point, I've written the two reviews that the Great and Powerful Card pays for. And now, like a metaphorical proctologist, we delve into other opinions. If you don't like metaphorical proctology, you have been warned.

The Internet was set a little bit on fire a few months ago with the announcement that Idris Elba, of The Wire, would be playing a Norse god in Kenneth Branagh's Thor. Seems the Norse weren't black.


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Anyone who really understands Marvel's Thor comics, as Branagh does, won't be bothered. If Marvel respected the Norse myths, Thor would have a red beard, red hair, and would be pretty darn stupid. Sif would have golden locks and stay home raising Thor's two children. Also, when Thor was finished fighting Doctor Doom, he would hang his dead body from a tree as a sacrifice to Odin.

Marvel Thor is blonde and selfless, Sif is a raven-tressed warrior woman worthy of Xena, and Thor kills his foes about as often as Superman does. Who cares? Kenneth Branagh is making a superhero movie. Kenneth Branagh is making a superhero movie.

Now the Internet has fired up again after a DC story in the new Batman Inc. title. This series follows Bruce Wayne as he trots the glob, creating Batmen in every major city in the world, since he has gotten a little old to put the suit on. Batman's pick for the Batman of Paris is a sixteen-year old master of the gymnastic art of parkour named Bilal Asseleh. Bilal, as you might have guessed, does not have a line of Frankish ancestry as thick as crème fraiche. Bilal is Algerian by ancestry, though he was born in Paris, and is a practicing Muslim. He stood by during the riots and unrest in Clichy-Sous-Bois until a friend's arrest led him to don cape and cowl to help quell the volatile unrest.


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Naturally, a French commentator got pissed off that Bilal is not a "real Frenchman" -- which will lead us down a thornier and more galling pathway than black Norse gods. I didn't want to write an article about the ethics of nationalism and immigration, so I'll leave that debate, even if France got their silly selves into Algeria in the first place . . .

Some yanked out the old "Islam is a terrorist religion." This comes from people who could never talk to an imam or read the Qur'an without their own prejudices getting in the way, so there's no point talking about how Islam is an autonomous religion without one central dogmatic interpretation. These people would never listen when you tell them that Bilal's interpretation of jihad -- "struggle" -- is maybe what Islamic kids need to see in a role model.

Point is, there's the nutty racists who call for boycotts, and then there are those who simply mutter and pull out the old complaint about "making superheroes PC." And while the second seems like a normal complaint, it's a bit more insidious than it seems.

It's true that heroes are diversifying. The openly gay Batwoman took over Detective Comics for a while and dated the Question, leading to lots of bad jokes. DC chose a black Green Lantern, John Stewart, for their JLA cartoon instead of original whitey Hal Jordan.

There is a simple answer: we live in an increasingly globalized world. Superman and Batman are everywhere and are heroes to every child. Different races, religions and sexual orientations should be represented. If you don't like it, well, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and most other heroes are still WASPs and you can buy comics only about them.

But there is a better answer.

Have you ever heard of Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzman? Really? What about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, their pen names?

Take a moment to run down the real names of famous comic book pioneers. Batman's Bob Kane was Robert Kahn. Superman's creators were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Superheroes were created by Jewish guys in the 30s, a time of casual anti-Semitism. This was before the extent of the Nazi horror was known, in a time when many Americans wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe.

There's a great scene in the Band of Brothers miniseries where the troops discover that the concentration camp is full of Jews, and they all look at their fellow Jewish soldier, who many of them have degraded unthinkingly. Jack Kirby fought in Europe in 1945, and served on several dangerous scouting missions so that he could sketch maps of enemy positions.

The creators of superheroes fought for Judaism, and superheroes were a part of that fight whether we admit it or not. Clark Katz couldn't have carried a comic in the 30s, but the torment of a geeky Jewish kid was all there in Kent: an alien nature, a fundamental need to hide his true identity, and power fantasies to make Golems look the pansy.

Tokenism isn't invading comics. Minorities have been there all along. And it's brave of DC to shuck off "political correctness" accusations and proudly display Muslim heroes.

Although it would have been much braver a few years ago. Big companies won't take big risks, but these little steps will add up. Maybe, in the World War II tradition, Bilal will go kick bin Laden's butt the way Captain America kicked Hitler's.

You know, that cheerleader really is missing out. Come back next month, where we won't do too much metaphorical proctology . . . we'll do just enough.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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