Comic Short Review (2/28)

Getting a weekly sub list at the Local Comic Shop, I’m hoping to do some short reviews. These are less about “I recommend you buy these” and more my own sketchy attempts to figure out what works and doesn’t work in comics.

Thor #2 by Jason Aaron and Mike Del Mundo – 4/5

I’m taking this off my pull list, but it’s got a lot going for it. Aaron is clearly building off his prior years on Thor, and I’m finding that I want to go back and read those before continuing at this point.

Story: Aaron’s weaving a big tale of war across the realms. While the last issue was mostly a “here’s where Thor is” issue, this one begins painting the multitude of players. Hel, the land of the dead, is the main stage here, and by the end of the issue we’re seeing three claimants to it’s throne moving around their pieces.

While this is interesting, Aaron makes sure to keep things personal. This is not a story about the Realms, but about Thor and his relations dealing with that problem. To that end, Aaron brings out the other dead Odinson’s – Tyr and Balder – along with Loki for a family reunion occur. Seeing them interact is great, and Aaron does a good job of making them unique characters.

Of special mention is Thori, Thor’s faithful hellhound. The beast, a lovable mutt who just wants to murder his master’s enemies, steals every page he’s on.

Art: Mike del Mundo is a skilled and attractive artist, but is crap as a sequential storyteller. His style makes for great pages when things aren’t concrete. See the opening pages where an unseen speaker describes Hel, the disembodied voice overlaid on a map, through a which a train is making it’s way. These sort of dreamy formalist pages are beautiful.

But as soon as he needs to give a sense of specific place, things quickly get murky. His painterly style should be great, in theory, for the flame and ice images of fire giants roving through frozen Hel, but it just gets messy with pages that constantly take effort to discern the basics of what’s going on. The guy would make a great cover artist or a guest artist for specific storylines (I’d love to see him do Dr. Strange on a dream-adventure), but not concrete enough for the basics.

Further reason why I’m taking this off my list. But Aaron is great.

Marvel 2-in-One #7, by Chip Zdarsky and Ramon K. Perez – 5/5

Zdarsky’s Marvel 2-in-One continues to be my favorite monthly read. Full of heart with great artists, it’s a pitch perfect Fantastic Four story (minus 2 of the Four). This has set the bar for Slott’s run on the main F4 title beginning next month, and it’s a damned high bar.

Story: Zdarsky continues the tale of Ben, Johnny, a reformed(ish) Dr. Doom, and newbie Rachna Koul traveling through multiverses. While the vistas have changed and allow for great high-adventure tales, the core of the story continues to be the lie that Reed and Sue are still alive. Johnny is still in the dark, Ben continues peddling it, Doom digs the knife into Ben for his lies, and Rachna has her own schemes.

While Ben and Johnny are great, Doom is stealing the comic. He’s still the prideful jerk he always is, but being on the side of the angels means that, well, he’s often right. He sees right through Ben’s very dangerous white lie. And really, one is left siding with Doom. It’s delightful, in a terrible sort of way.

Art: Perez’s work is great. This book’s art has been nothing but awesome – Jim Cheung, Valerio Schitti, Declan Shalvey – and Perez continues. It’s a clean style, emphasizing soft, curved lines. It gives it the feeling of a cartoon, but it stays classical enough in it’s form to keep it mature. There’s a few panels which are confusing, but nothing egregious (though one clearly mis-applied word balloon does raise one’s ire).

The designs also continue being great. As a multiversal travel book, each locale offers their own unique take on classic characters. This world shows off a Dr. Strange with an Eye of Agamotto eye-patch and a Spider-Man gone Mad-Max crazy with a Captain America hood and Kraven jacket.

I adore this book.

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Some thoughts on Kennedy’s retirement

Commentary on the Catholic side of my title. The retirement of Kennedy is an oddly subdued yet momentous moment. Everyone’s looking at what’s to come, but of greatest import is looking at what may be lost – the rank nihilism of a centrist who doesn’t believe in anything:

I can think of few sentences in our language more chillingly nihilistic than the one from Pennsylvania v. Casey in which Kennedy asserts that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” It’s almost impossible to describe just how terrifying a suggestion this is. In a mere 26 words, it would, if it were possible for any sentient adult to take it seriously, reduce ontology, epistemology, ethics, and biology into a matter of taste; it would make a quasi-commercial preference for one thing — the life of an infant, say — as opposed to another. That it has possessed, for nearly my entire life, the absolute force of law in this country seems to me almost unimaginable.

Matthew Walther

And see PJ Smith on “The demise of the American King“.

For a Pulp example of this sort “nihilism for peace”, see Remender’s otherwise fun Captain America.

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Kings and Superheroes

I’m kind of obsessed with royal superheroes. My favorite characters in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers run were hands down T’Challa (Black Panther), Namor (Sub-Mariner), and Blackagar Boltagon (Black Bolt). Each are the monarchs of Wakanda, Atlantis, and the Inhumans respectively. A piece of Hickman’s Fantastic Four run that was sorely underused was Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) as regal emissary of the Peak, the society of Old Atlanteans. Any and all of my Thor knowledge tends to revolve around him being the heir of Asgard’s throne. My recent comic binging is the post-New 52 run of Aquaman which is all about Arthur Curry (Aquaman) struggling with accepting and then being king of Atlantis (in the DC universe – Namor is king of Marvel’s Atlantis).

There’s something rather natural about kingship and superheroes. Kingship was always tied with divinity in the past. Certain cultures, especially Oriental, believed their monarchs to be actual gods. The Jews recognized their kings as being adopted by God. Medieval Europe contended that ruling a society was a divine-like act and so all authority derived from Christ, the King of Kings. These myths manifested in stories of almost magical blood, of miraculous powers of healing, and, in the more heroically inclined cultures, kings of great martial prowess.

Superhero stories are all about those with great power – power foisted upon them, power they inherited, or power they sought. In all cases, it comes with an authority. We term it “responsibility” for kids like Spider-man. It’s obsession for guys like Batman. It’s a way of life for the likes of Superman. And it’s literally care for a society in the case of royal superheroes.

I want to take this a bit farther. These stories also recognize the essential inequality of men. There are some who are “greater” than others – stronger, faster, smarter, more able. But what do we make of these people?

Modern answers vary. Randians and Nietzscheans see them as those who transcend and thus define our way of life – beyond good and evil. Liberals find them a danger and threat to true liberty – certain democratic tendencies were fearful the “smarter” and “influential” in a society would gain too much say.

The Christian answer, and I would argue the majority of superhero stories, has been that these individuals are akin to divine – a gift of God to bear the weight of ruling and defending us.

Strict egalitarianism is blasé. It’s boring. It’s why we break up the monotony of our egalitarian-obsessed society with stories of larger than life soldiers, spies, politicians, and overly dramatic doctors, lawyers, and cops. It’s why we adore superheroes. It allows us, for just a few moments, to recognize the gift of God we’ve so long sought to toss away – the gift of royalty.

We love heroes, super or otherwise, because we crave kings.

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Nostalgia and Power Rangers

Among my recent favorite comic book reads has been Boom Studios’ Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Kyle Higgins (and Ryan Parrott in Go Go Power Rangers) have done a feat of magic in taking the absurd premise and campy aesthetic of a children’s action show and turning it into an epic of multiversal conquest and the trials of being a teenage soldier. It’s no great piece of literature, but it’s still fun, even for the adult who can’t believe his younger self was obsessed with color-coordinated teams of ninjas that screamed out dinosaurs as their battlecry.

The magic is clearly the power of nostalgia. While Higgins and Parrott are good storytellers in their own right, their real skill is in tapping into how we remember these crazy TV shows and presenting them as such. If the comic tried to actually present the real Power Rangers, it’d be a gag at best. Rather, the nostalgic vision makes us remember less of the formulaic and absurd plots and instead the childhood fantasy of young adults striving against the skilled machinations of a world conqueror, of the struggle to overcome evil tendencies in order to do good, and an imaginative world which only a child can make out of Japanese superhero show B-roll stitched together with American actors.

Nostalgia isn’t about looking at things through rose-colored glasses. Rather, it’s about letting one’s adult imagination expand and mature the affections one had as a child. It’s letting childhood wonder become and develop into something that can sustain and inspire the adult.

We do this often in the culture of comic books, cartoons, and video games. In a post-Christian world, these are often the icons of our mythology – Superman, Darth Vader, Mario. These things were first made for children, but struck children so deeply that they (we) grew and matured with them.

Some have forced this effort at nostalgia driven storytelling. With our current subject, Adi Shankar’s Power/Rangers (NSFWish) is a good example. The tendency to give the light-hearted a grimdark treatment is a temptation for many wanting to force childhood affections to grow up.

However, it’s more powerful when it’s natural, when the creator simply respects the affections of his audience and let’s the maturation come from there. Higgins and Parrott’s work is a textbook for this. Geoff Johns’s work on Green Lantern and Aquaman are other examples. In the realm of novels, this was Timothy Zahn’s great achievement in the Thrawn Trilogy – tapping into then almost 10-years dormant childhood affections for Star Wars and offering a more mature tale out of it.

Nostalgia driven storytelling is the mature and better cousin of deconstruction. Deconstruction has its place in identifying what makes a given story or genre formula work. Nostalgia, though, is about letting one’s childhood affections mature and become something that can sustain the adult mind and imagination.

It would have been easy to deconstruct Power Rangers (Shankar’s little video above did it). But it takes someone with more imagination and bit more desire for goodness to tap into nostalgia and bring gold from that purer mine.

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Comments on… Rick Remender’s Captain America

So my superhero love is not limited to film. I’ve spoken before about my rather sporadic history with comic books. I read a few when I was younger, got really into them in college, and am returning to the medium now. I don’t have the kind of “grew up with these characters” mentality that a lot of comic readers my age have, but I’ve found the medium and the themes they explore interesting. It’s normally a highly collaborative art form and allows for intensely imaginative explorations – the budget to depict a character flying off to another dimension and fight and semi-divine being is much less for a comic than it is for a movie. And the juxtaposition of images allow for interesting temporal effects and thematic emphasis.

I like comics.

So my most recent read has been the first two volumes of Rick Remender’s Captain America. I’m a somewhat guilty fan of Remender. The man has a tendency to tear down his characters while working to build them up which makes for some powerful drama. Combine that with a fecund imagination and you get some great works like Black Science.

But my enjoyment of Remender is definitely a guilty pleasure. For all his great aspects, he tends toward lionizing liberty and choice over all else. It’s a species of liberalism with supreme optimism attached to it. Or benign sort of naivete. Specifically, if people are given choice in the direction of their life, they will choose goodness.

These first volumes of his Captain America run really drive home both these aspects. It’s got a real pulp sensibility in throwing Cap into the eponymous Dimension Z – a land of monsters and mutates with a cyborg overlord from Cap’s Nazi past. Cap grows a beard and spends 10 years there (time moves differently) raising a boy he rescued as a babe from his Nazi enemy. There’s a half-naked chick wielding “Tachyon Fu” seeking to reclaim her brother, the aforesaid boy, that Cap rescued from her Nazi father. And Cap is infected with the Nazi’s consciousness who appears like a giant television screen in his chest.

It’s madcap, and I love it. John Romita Jr gets a lot of hate for his style, but I’m actually a big fan of his. It fits really well with the different world vibe, utilizing powerful squares and straight lines in the same way most wield fragile curves to depict the alien. He can also depict violence with the best of them. His greatest weakness is close-ups on faces – his figure drawing is fun and interesting, but things get weird when he focuses on the face.

Remender also builds up a lot of potential for drama. Cap is taken out of his home for a whole decade, right when it appears he might tie the knot with longtime romance Sharon Carter. Flashbacks reveal an abusive father and a tough as nails mother. He is pushed into being father to his enemy’s infant son. Jet Black, the aforementioned half-naked chick, raised to despise mercy, is “tempted” by Cap’s goodness. Zola, the nazi, is seeking to copy Cap and ends up with mutants carrying screwed up memories from Cap’s past.

The whole time, Remender put Cap through the ringer physically and emotionally. I’ve a high tolerance for reading through this kind of “break your darlings” storytelling, but it could be a bit much for some. I mean, Cap’s a superhero, but one can only stomach so much “Ribs cracking, can’t breathe, but I have to go on” interior monologuing.

In the end, Remender doesn’t give much payoff for all this setup. While his run still has a goodly number of issues ahead of this, everything still tends to revolve around giving people choice. Cap’s greatest hope for his “son” is for him to choose his own way of life. Jet Black throws off most of her father’s influence by Cap appealing to her sense of choice. His understanding of his abusive father is as a fundamentally good man who broke when life took away all his choices.

Modern Americans will, in the abstract, laud this, but I find it weak in comparison to the potential. Jet Black becomes the most interesting character in the end, wanting to live up to her father’s twisted love – “I just wanted to give you the world” – while finding the “temptation” of Cap’s goodness as a way out of her inchoate guilt. The final scenes of volume 2 has her confronting both the failure and her own redemption.

Remender may do more with this in the rest of the run, but it could have been so much more if there wasn’t so much emphasis on choice.

A final critique is Remender’s depiction of Cap’s sense of self-sacrifice. Cap, traditionally, is a man who will die for the sake of his principles, but eschews killing for them – he will sacrifice himself, but not others. Remender comes dangerously close to breaking this, with Cap killing mutates (Zola’s enforcers) left and right. He even speaks of killing how many ever he needs to in order to save his son. Yes, there’s points where Remenders tries to say these things aren’t human, that they’re irredeemably monstrous, but there’s still some discomfort in Cap taking things too far.

So great potential, awesome and madcap ideas, great art, but a weak wrap-up (so far, we’ll see how the run comes to an end).

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Comments on… Incredibles 2

The Incredibles is one of my all time favorite films. An open embrace of Silver Age superheroics perfectly interweaving family drama with worldwide threats. The animation is great with an art style that helps it be enjoyable even lacking today’s finer details. It’s just a great film all around and, to date, the best Fantastic Four film we’ve gotten.

I went into Incredibles 2 with a lot of hope. I really wanted to love this move. And it’s got a lot of the heart of the original. It’s taken advantage of modern animation without losing reliance on it’s retro-futurist aesthetics and identifiable art style. However, the more I think about the film, the more I dislike it.

Incredibles 2 seems less like a thematically united whole and more like a bunch of very interesting ideas strung together with astounding animated sequences between them. Yes, the events follow structurally in a fashion, but rarely do they interpenetrate or move toward some holistic vision. That’s a lot of jargon, yeah, but it’s something the original film achieved and Incredibles 2 didn’t.

Go rewatch the classic. You can discern two major thematic lines in the film. The one is the more simple “Defeat Syndrome’s evil plot” while the deeper one is the re-enlivening of the Parr family. However, Sydrome’s plot only begins (movie-wise) because it taps into the ennui of Bob (Mr. Incredible) – the two struggles become active together. The Act 2 turn to defeating the villain only comes about because Helen is going after her husband, thinking he’s cheating on her, and her children, making a bid to be a part of the exciting world of supers, tags along and get in trouble. The extended family struggle comes to bear in trying to save Bob. The Act 3 finale is really all about the family embracing their potential together and bringing that to bear in stopping the villain.

At every step, the movie’s inner life of family struggle is in dialogue with the outer drama of beating up the bad guys. It allows what should be just spectacle to become about big ideas and grasp one’s heartstrings and intellect with pretty profound themes of family and its hardships. It gives guys like me matter to reflect on. It’s also what makes for a really great superhero film (and something Marvel has tapped into over and over in unique ways).

Incredibles 2 wants to do this, but it’s trying to do too many things and never ties them together beyond structural chronological order. The whole movie begins with discussion about the legality of heroes with high-minded talk about doing the right thing versus following the law. Helen and Bob switch parental roles and the movie tries to explore that. The villain talks a big game about being enslaved to our screens and fantasies. Helen and her new employers go back and forth on issues of image and creativity. New heroes are introduced which gesture toward diversity and inclusivity debates. The villain pivots towards the end and is motivated by hatred of supers. Along the way, Dash and Violet go through all the troubles of modern children, like changing math and crushes.

All of this is fine, on it’s own, but it seems more a smorgasbord of ideas and themes and never really works to reinforce one another. This also makes it so none of the themes or ideas of the film have any real closure beyond a rubber stamp. The villain is defeated and supers are made legal because that’s the ending this sort of movie has. However, both are really just pro-forma. The heroes were stronger and thus were rewarded with being made legal. Never is there any attempt to actually address the themes or ideas.

Look, the movie has fantastic spectacle. The Jack-Jack v Raccoon sequence is just awesome. And Elastigirl’s fight with Screenslaver is terrifying and gripping. And the final fight sequences are a feast to watch. But it never goes beyond being a delight to the senses. All the parts in between, the parts which give spectacle and violence an actual human value? Those are just weak and the move is lesser for it.

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Comments on… Avengers: Infinity War

Comments on… Avengers: Infinity War

The blockbuster of the decade (until, hopefully, it’s uncrowned next year), Avengers: Infinity War has had mostly positive reviews and I can only add to them. Much of the commentary has been about Thanos as the villainous protagonist of the tale, and it’s an interpretation I heartily agree with. Give me some time and I might have some comments on that.

Today, though, I want to comment on other themes.

The Dignity of Life

There’s a number of commentators which have placed Infinity War in a Pro-Life context. This is mostly as allegory, and I share Tolkien’s distaste for it.

Still, it’s pretty easy to see it. Thanos is pretty clearly inspired by Malthusan societal concerns, and the overpopulation argument was historically among the most used arguments in favor of abortion. That we see our favorite heroes untimely killed for the sake of his plan adds the emotional grip. From there it’s only a skip and a hop to seeing the movie as an allegory for Pro-Life concerns.

Even outlined like that, I’m skeptical of such a reading. I don’t think pointing out the allegorical power of the movie will help many to see the light and is really doing little more than preaching to the choir – helping to justify us Catholic Fanboys in our love for the movie.1

However, I do think the film makes clear the dignity of human life, or specifically the dignity in respecting human life. Over and over again, the movie will not allow it’s heroes to make the sacrifice of an innocent for the greater good.

Two storylines highlight this: Wanda and Vision, and Gamorra and Quill.

As the heroes discern Thanos’ plan, it becomes clear to Vision, as he carries the Mind Stone, that he should accept death (or destruction, being an artificial lifeform and all) in order to keep the Stone from Thanos. For story reasons, the only one on hand capable of destroying the stone is Wanda, his lover who was given powers by the Stone. He asks that she destroy the stone in his head, thus taking his life. (I love Comic Book Soap Opera!)

It’s the moral compass that is Steve Rogers who points out the obvious – “We don’t trade lives.” Cap has consistently been a man of principles, of eternal truths, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Here he takes it a step further – he can’t allow others to sacrifice such truths for the sake of any material gain. The willful taking of an innocent life for the sake of billions is not an option. He’d make an integralist proud.2

Gamorra and Peter Quill (StarLord) have a similar conundrum. Gamorra, aware of the location of the Soul Stone, wishes Quill to kill her to keep the knowledge from Thanos. Quill accepts, and is even able to go through with it when the moment comes. However, Thanos’ intervention keeps Gamorra from dying. Gamorra will later attempt to kill herself to keep the stone from Thanos, but again is frustrated.

The affirmation of human dignity is oblique here, less something arising from the story and more the subtle influence of the author, the hand of god. This is not a deal that can be made. The taking of an innocent life, even one’s own, for the sake of the greater good will be frustrated at every turn.

This frustration is made palpable in the final sacrifice of Vision. Wanda, at the 11th hour, successfully destroys the Mind Stone and kills her lover. It appear Thanos will not get the full power of the Infinity Gauntlet. Again, the author intervenes. Time is reversed, and Thanos pulls the stone from a “resurrected” Vision and kills him.

At every step, the taking of an innocent life for the greater good is either denounced or frustrated.

Except for the villain. Thanos is the only character who successfully takes an innocent life, Gamorra’s, for his perceived greater good. This should make clear the self-corruption of such an act.3

Heroic and Christian Self-Sacrifice vs. Despairing Suicide

There’s a final scene which adds an interesting twist to all this – Nebula’s torture by Thanos. Here, Gamorra is confronted with her sister’s torture and potential death if she doesn’t give up the location of the Stone. Watch the scene. Nebula makes clear she doesn’t want Gamorra to cave. This is not the willful taking of an innocent life, the request that another commit an injustice or the committing of an injustice oneself. Rather, it is the bearing of an injustice one cannot stop. Nebula performs a great act of heroism.

Gamorra caves. It’s understandable, but ultimately fruitless. Fruitless because it frustrates Nebula’s moment of self-sacrifice.

The only thing that can truly stand against great evil is self-sacrifice. At it’s most apparently glorious, it is standing shoulder-to-shoulder and fighting off the enemy until the bitter end. We see this is Wakanda. Okoye voices it perfectly. In response to M’Baku’s despair “This could be the end of Wakanda”, she says “Then we shall make it the noblest ending in history.” They are soldiers and will fight until death takes them for the Good. It is heroic self-sacrifice.

However, there is also the self-sacrifice of bearing an injustice for the Good – Nebula was confronted with just such a sacrifice and accepted it. Prior to this, it’s modeled by Captain America in The Winter Soldier. He will bear all of Bucky’s confused hate and rage just to bring his friend back from the depths, even experiencing a kind of death in replunging into the waters below.

This second self-sacrifice, the deeper sort, is the Christian sacrifice. It does not belittle the first, but it is so much brighter for it is something divine. It does not seek to simply halt evil, no, it seeks to bear it that it may be purged and transformed. This is Christian self-sacrifice.

Self-sacrifice and it’s many species are perhaps the overriding theme in superhero stories, with an abiding sense of the Common Good.4 This is what I love about them, and I wish they got more respect for.

1. I’m also uncomfortable making a pro-life allegory out of the creation of authors who are probably no amenable to the movement. Sure, it looks like an end run around the opposition, but it amounts to foisting one’s own worldview on a work. There are better forms of commentary.

2. NB: Moral Theologians can bring up “double-effect” theory here, but I think doing so is just looking for liceity when the higher road seems too heavy a burden. And no, Vision’s willingness to die is not enough to make it licit.

3. Pace #ThanosDidNothingWrong crowd. Who are just horrible human beings.

4. Or how a lack of the Common Good makes things senseless – see Watchmen.

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