Saturday, February 7, 2015

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Review X-Men Days of Future Past Chris Claremont John Byrne Terry Austin John Romita Jr. Wolverine Kitty Pryde Shadowcat Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: John Byrne, John Romita Jr.
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #138-143 and Uncanny X-Men Annual #4 (1980-81)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $19.99

Although The Dark Phoenix Saga is most often cited as the high-water mark of Chris Claremont’s comics-writing career (and, in particular, of his much-celebrated collaboration on The Uncanny X-Men with artist John Byrne), it’s a story of relatively little social force, a fantasy more in line with the likes of Star Wars than with the more politically radical genre narratives whose attitudes Claremont would seek to emulate in his later work. Of greater political and ideological interest, I think – especially given the allegorical weight the X-Men franchise has been invested with in recent decades – are the issues Claremont wrote directly afterward, collected in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Here we see Claremont’s writing in a state of transition, grasping at the social consciousness he would achieve a year later with X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, and yet also falling noticeably short of it.

At the heart of Days of Future Past is a two-part storyline set, in part, in a dystopian future in which mutants have been hunted nearly to extinction by giant robots known as Sentinels. The last remaining X-Men – Kate Pryde, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Franklin Richards, and the red-haired psychic Rachel – conclude that their only hope is to change the past, and so Kate is vaulted back through time to prevent a political assassination in the series’ present day. Now possessing the body of her younger self – who has only recently joined the team’s ranks, as “Sprite” – Kate leads the X-Men in thwarting an attack on the U.S. Capitol, saving the life of the anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly in the process. Whether Kate has succeeded in changing the future, however, is left an open question. (Later storylines, beginning with 1990’s nearly unreadable X-Men: Days of Future Present, would reinforce time and again that she did not.)

The reader is reminded with some frequency that events in the “present day” take place on October 31, 1980, described by the narrator as “the final Friday of one of the closest, hardest-fought presidential elections in recent memory.” And yet, despite setting the story at such a culturally charged moment, Claremont misses the opportunity to make anything more than a vague political statement. The only presidential candidate introduced to the reader is Senator Kelly, and what role his McCarthy-esque anti-mutant hearings play in his presidential campaign is never made clear. Ronald Reagan appears not once, although, as in real life, he would apparently win this election (he appears much later in Claremont’s run on this series, in 1986’s Uncanny X-Men #201).

Confusing things even further, a brief epilogue set a month after the election depicts the president re-activating the Sentinel project. The president appears only in shadow in this scene, although he is obviously (and, by historical necessity, must be) Jimmy Carter – who, if he has indeed lost the election to Reagan, could not realistically possess the political influence necessary for such a move. The attempt to conceal Carter’s identity is all the more baffling considering the fact that he had made a full appearance in the series just a few years earlier, at the height of the original Phoenix Saga.

Any potential for a coherent political commentary in Days of Future Past is thus lost in the book’s ambivalent attitude towards real-life figures and events. Furthermore, I think a great deal of its falling short in this sense can be contributed to artist John Byrne. While he’s credited as “co-plotter” on the issues collected here, the partnership between Claremont and Byrne had in fact all but broken down by this point, with Byrne often drawing scenes in direct contradiction to Claremont’s scripts; the issue following the two-part “Days of Future Past” would be his last on the title. One of the major contributing factors to the book’s confused politics, I would argue, is Byrne’s avowed refusal to draw figures from real life: the aforementioned Jimmy Carter appearance was in fact ghost-penciled by inker Terry Austin. Byrne was notorious, as well, for using his favorite characters (especially Wolverine, who Claremont didn’t care for and planned at one point to write out of the book) as vehicles for his own right-wing views.

It should come as fairly little surprise, then, that a book “co-plotted” by Claremont and Byrne would possess something less than clear political sensibilities. Nor should it surprise us that the story’s most pointed political statements occur only in its script. A caption accompanying an otherwise innocuous establishing shot of the Pentagon, for example, ends with a surprisingly perceptive diagnosis of America’s renewed militarism at the turn of the 1980s:

This is the Pentagon, the largest building of its type in the world, command headquarters of the mightiest military machine that world has ever known. To many people, it is more truly representative – for good or ill – of the reality of America than the White House or Congress just across the Potomic [sic] River.

Claremont addresses the post-Tonkin breakdown of the checks-and-balances system even more pointedly later, in this exchange between civilians fleeing the story’s climactic battle: “‘Good grief! That sound – someone’s bombed the Capitol!’ ‘Yeah – and it was probably the White House that did it!’” As in the narration, Claremont’s politics begin to come through only where Byrne is literally unable to erase them.

While initial printings of Days of Future Past included only Uncanny X-Men issues 141 and 142, an additional five issues have been included since the publication of the 2004 trade paperback edition; the added content begins three issues before the book’s two-part title story, and ends with the issue that follows. Despite the inclusion of a John Romita, Jr.-drawn Annual that relates only tangentially to the rest of the book, the new contents make for a more thematically coherent narrative than in previous editions. The first issue collected not only wraps up The Dark Phoenix Saga with Jean Grey’s funeral and the departure of Cyclops from the team, but serves also as a flashback-filled recap of the franchise’s nearly twenty-year history to this point. It ends with the arrival of a new student to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters: Kitty Pryde, whose character arc forms the crux of the 2004-and-beyond editions of Days of Future Past. The effect is to de-emphasize the dystopian and alternate-future aspects of the title story itself; newly framed, rather, “Days of Future Past” serves as a super-powered bildungsroman starring Kitty Pryde.

However, this shift in focus also further reduces the impact of a story already weakened by its artist’s failure to endorse the politics of its script. As we can see from later texts, Claremont’s politics would only become clear after he became the sole plotter of his work; in fact, as if to herald what was eventually to come, the first issue of Uncanny X-Men following Byrne’s departure was drawn (but not co-plotted) by Brent Anderson, who would go on to collaborate with Claremont on God Loves, Man Kills. We might well view Days of Future Past as not just the end of the Claremont/Byrne era, then, but also as the start of a progressive sensibility that would be fully realized only in the years that followed.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil, Vol. 1

Review Marvel Masterworks Daredevil Volume One Stan Lee Bill Everett Joe Orlando Wally Wood Yellow Costume Marvel Cover MMW trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Stan Lee
Artists: Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood
Collects: Daredevil #1-11 (1964-65)
Published: Marvel, 2003; $49.99 (HC), $24.99 (TPB)

A lot changed at Marvel Comics in the first half of the 1960s. At the beginning of the decade, the company was still mostly publishing science fiction, horror, war, and romance comics in the incredibly tame post-Comics Code vein. In 1961 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted the Fantastic Four, and within three years, Lee and his various collaborators’ new creations were selling comics in numbers unseen for decades. Daredevil, who premiered in 1964, was among the last of Stan Lee’s major Silver Age co-creations. And yet, at many points in Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil, Vol. 1 – which collects the character’s first eleven appearances – the series feels like it could just as well have been among the first.

Some aspects of the character’s early issues feel downright proto-Marvel. The first issue, in which teenager Matt Murdock’s other senses are enhanced after a chemical accident leaves him blind, reads like a 1950s Jack Kirby crime comic. Matt’s childhood may be the sedentary one of a boy committed to his studies (his father wants him to “become a lawyer, or a doctor” – anything other than a prizefighter, like him), but the outside world we glimpse every so often is one populated by boy gangs, petty thugs, and organized crime – the same trappings that adorned so many of Kirby’s comics throughout the 1940s and ’50s.

How strange it is, then, that Kirby’s name appears not once in this collection; oddly, Daredevil was one of the few early Marvel characters he was never associated with. (A caveat: Mark Evanier has recently asserted that Kirby designed Daredevil’s original costume, but this remains unverified.) Instead, the artists here include Bill Everett, whose work had been appearing in Marvel publications since the company’s first comic book in 1939, and former EC artists Joe Orlando and Wally Wood – two comics veterans with styles uniquely their own. This is pretty remarkable for a Marvel comic published in 1964, since by this point the majority of the company’s output was drawn either by Kirby or, as in the cases of Sol Brodsky and the early Gil Kane, by a close imitator of Kirby’s style. (The major exception, of course, was Steve Ditko, but he rarely strayed from the pages of Dr. Strange and Amazing Spider-Man in these days.) The result is a comic that often looks as though it could have been published in the 1950s.

Art aside, the plots themselves often hearken to the conventions of the previous decade’s most popular genres. While other Marvel series of the mid- ’60s pitted their heroes against alien invaders, roguish demigods, and planet-devouring cosmic entities, Daredevil’s nemeses were run-of-the-mill thugs who, when struck by what little ingenuity they possessed, donned garish costumes to commit largely bloodless crimes. There is one notable exception in this volume: Daredevil #7, illustrated by Wood and often considered amongst the best of Lee’s writing. (It was even included in the anthology Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee, a book I reviewed some years ago.) This issue implements what would become the signature plot formula of Silver Age Marvel comics – the superhero crossover battle – but here the guest-star, Namor the Sub-Mariner, is such an outlandish inclusion, and the story ends in such definitive stalemate (Lee was adamant that no character should ever achieve complete victory over another in these battles), that it stands as one of the formula’s great exemplars.

While Daredevil’s earliest issues may feel a bit anachronistic when compared to the likes of mid-’60s Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, the series is no less interesting for it. If anything, its reiteration of some of the previous decade’s most popular themes and iconography – the latter enhanced, no doubt, by the presence of ’50s mainstays like Everett, Wood, and Orlando – may actually complicate our understanding of comics’ Silver Age: for as much as the work of contemporary writers may evince nostalgia for this period, Daredevil is concrete proof that the 1960s were an age just as invested in the history of the medium.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fantastic Four: Season One

Fantastic Four Season One Julian Totino Tedesco Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa David Marquez Mr. Fantastic Invisible Girl Human Torch Thing Marvel Cover hardcover hc original graphic novel ogn comic book
Writers: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Jonathan Hickman
Artists: David Marquez, Dale Eaglesham
Collects: Original Graphic Novel; Fantastic Four #570 (2009)
Published: Marvel, 2012; $24.99

As much as Marvel’s “Season One” graphic novel initiative may seem a shameless attempt to emulate the success of DC’s “Earth One” graphic novels, the first book in the series, Fantastic Four: Season One, also happens to be a surprisingly well put together comic. Designed with both new and older readers in mind, the book tells an updated version of the Fantastic Four’s origin story – probably the most thematically coherent one, in fact, since the Lee/Kirby original.

One of the main differences between “Earth One” and “Season One” is that the marketing for the latter has focused much more on the characters than on the creators involved. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is no stranger to Marvel’s original team of superheroes, though, having written a handful of issues of the main series and its short-lived Marvel Knights spin-off back in the mid-2000s. Here he does probably the best work he’s done with the characters since Marvel Knights’ earliest issues, wrapping some of the most established plot devices from Fantastic Four history – cosmic rays in outer space, giant monsters attacking New York City, the Thing temporarily reverting to human form (only to choose to become the Thing again, to save his teammates) – into a fairly cohesive narrative.

It helps that Aguirre-Sacasa hits just the right notes with several of the characters – the Human Torch and the Thing, in particular – to give the story a fittingly light-hearted tone. This sense is greatly enhanced by the art of David Marquez, who takes clear inspiration from the work of Kevin Maguire, especially in the realm of amusing facial expressions. The book is saturated with light blues and greens, provided by colorist Guru eFX, with most of the action taking place in broad daylight. It’s a nice diversion from the darker color palettes used in so many superhero comics these days.

But the book isn’t without problems. The reason given for the team’s doomed space flight is that Reed Richards wants to fly “the first privately-owned, privately-financed, privately-designed, privately-launched, utterly rogue rocket ship.” Although Reed insists that “proving himself” in this way is a means to an end – space tourism, he argues, will eventually subsidize the rest of his scientific work – such a hubristic display of power doesn’t really square with Aguirre-Sacasa’s otherwise unfailingly humanitarian portrayal of the character. Reed plays the role of absent-minded professor here; his ego doesn’t even approach the level at which it’s been portrayed over the last several years in other Marvel comics. Reed the businessman has been done, and done more convincingly, by Aguirre-Sacasa himself – especially at the beginning of the Marvel Knights series (in which the Fantastic Four go bankrupt).

The book shifts focus in a major way about halfway through. Having gained their powers and defeated the Mole Man in the first half, the team goes on to face Namor the Sub-Mariner in an updated version of the events of Fantastic Four #4. The book ends without completely resolving this subplot (Namor is captured and held prisoner in the team’s headquarters), leading me to wonder whether this was originally meant to be an ongoing series or miniseries, rather than a standalone graphic novel. Aguirre-Sacasa also introduces a new female character, Reed’s lab assistant Alyssa, who serves both as the manager of the team and as a secondary potential love interest for Reed. Her inclusion is to the author’s credit – his Susan Storm lacks much of a presence, and Alyssa provides a surprisingly multidimensional feminine voice. It’s a shame that her only appearance is in this book.

It’s unclear whether Fantastic Four: Season One is intended to be the characters’ “official” origin story from here on out, or if it’s just meant to be another version among the many others already out there. The fact that Marvel pads out the book’s length by reprinting the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s run on the main (i.e., canonical) Fantastic Four series makes me lean toward the former, although it doesn’t really matter either way – Season One is a book that, in spite of its flaws, works as a standalone retelling of a familiar story.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Batman: Gates of Gotham

Review Batman Gates of Gotham Scott Snyder Kyle Higgins Trevor McCarthy Graham Nolan Nicholas Gate Bradley Gate Architect Dillon May DC Comics Cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Scott Snyder, Kyle Higgins, and Ryan Parrott
Artists: Trevor McCarthy, Graham Nolan, and Dustin Nguyen
Collects: Batman: Gates of Gotham #1-5, Detective Comics Annual #12 (2011)
Published: DC, 2012; $14.99

Batman: Gates of Gotham, originally published by DC Comics as a five-issue miniseries in 2011, may be the most flagrant attack on creator rights that I have ever seen in a mainstream superhero comic. From beginning to end, its cast of characters enacts a corporate-fantasy version of the struggles over creative ownership that have rocked the comic book industry in recent years, with creators and their supporters effectively condemned, in the end, as mentally unstable individuals whose actions are tantamount to ideological terrorism.

Gates’ story is partially told through flashbacks to the 19th century narrated via the diary of Nicholas Gate, an architect who, along with his brother Bradley, designed and built much of Gotham City. The story of the Gate brothers bears striking resemblance to the well-known partnership of comic book writer-artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who together created Captain America), as well as to that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. Not only are the Gates, like those real-life writer-artists, the impoverished sons of immigrants, but their initial place of work, with its crowded artists hunched over drawing boards, visually recalls the Eisner-Iger comic book studio in which Simon and Kirby began their careers. Furthermore, just as Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster saw their creations come to life through the financial backing of Timely Comics and National Comics, respectively, so the Gates aspire to work for the individual whose wealth will facilitate the achievement of their artistic vision: “we approached Mr. Wayne with several drawings – drawings for our Gotham. Which we proposed to make his Gotham,” Nicholas says.

Also like Simon/Kirby and Siegel/Shuster, Nicholas Gate eventually has a falling out with the men who have thus far commissioned his work. The difference is that, in Gate’s case, this falling out occurs not over an employer’s refusal to return original artwork or to give financial compensation where creative credit is due, but over the mysterious death of his brother, which Nicholas believes to have been murder. He accuses one of his wealthy patrons, Cameron Kane, of being behind Bradley’s death, and as a result he loses the financial support of his employers. Gate’s suspicions are never confirmed and thus are cast into permanent doubt – unlike in Kirby’s case, for example, in which Marvel's refusal to return original artwork was admitted openly by the company.

If Nicholas Gate at first seems to represent the archetypal “wronged creator,” though, then the second half of Gates of Gotham is a character assassination of that archetype. Following his brother’s death, Gate is portrayed first as hopelessly naive when he tries to convince Alan Wayne that foul play is involved, and later as a madman when he attempts to murder Cameron Kane in revenge; he ends up killing Kane’s son Robert instead. At the end of the story it is revealed that Nicholas was subsequently locked away at Arkham Asylum; for questioning the way he is treated by his employers and expressing his anger towards them, the book declares him insane.

There is metonymic significance, too, in the names of Gate’s antagonists. Although it may be tempting to dismiss the naming of one character after Batman “creator” Bob Kane as merely an in-joke, in view of the rest of the book’s position toward comic book creators it can hardly be overlooked. Nicholas’s murder of Gates’ Robert Kane is the act that “proves” the book’s argument: that creators who retaliate against their employers do so carelessly, vindictively, and without legitimate basis. That argument is made even more troubling by its invoking of the real-life Bob Kane – a man who continues to receive sole credit for Batman’s creation, despite the fact that the most familiar elements of the Batman mythos (apart from the name) were created by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. In Gates’ corporate-fantasy characterization of comic book creators, the murder of Robert Kane marks an “end of the innocence” not unlike that which took place after the death of the real-life Bob Kane: in the years since the truth of Batman’s creative origins became common knowledge, moral and legal questions about the way publishers treat creators have become significantly more complicated. It is not hard to imagine the leadership at a company like DC yearning for simpler times, but the way that sentiment is transcoded in Gates of Gotham, intentional or not, is appalling.

The same themes pervade Gates’ present, in which a terrorist calling himself the Architect is attacking bridges and skyscrapers built by the Gate brothers and owned by the prominent families that had supported their work. The Architect wears a steampunk-influenced diving suit, which Batman discovers had been worn by the Gate brothers and their employees during the underwater construction of their largest bridges. Based on this connection, it requires no great leap to understand the Architect’s actions as “revenge” for the wrongs perpetrated against Nicholas Gate over a century earlier. The Architect’s rhetoric is filled with hatred for Gotham and its wealthiest citizens, who he calls “liars and thieves,” and he accuses Batman of being a “traitor” even as he tries to blow up Gotham’s bridges with Semtex. If, as I have argued, Nicholas represents the archetypal “wronged creator” reimagined as an angry lunatic, then the Architect is the struggle for creator rights reimagined as literal terrorism.

The story’s only real mysteries are who the Architect is and whether Bradley Gate was actually murdered. While the latter question is never answered, the Architect is revealed to be a character named Dillon May. May is identified at first simply as a “collector” (what he “collects” is never explained), but in the final issue he is also exposed as a descendant of Nicholas Gate. With this move, Gates effectively conflates the two groups most prominently involved in the struggle for creator rights – longtime comic book readers (“collectors”) and the families/heirs of those creators – into an undifferentiated, self-deluded mass. The fact that Batman declares he will defeat the Architect “by proving everything he believes is a lie” underscores the book’s argument and positions its protagonist as an obvious stand-in for companies like DC and Marvel, which have made it their mission to refute even the smallest allegations of wrongdoing made by former employees and their heirs.

Gates does not stop there, but give Batman these lines at its conclusion: “There are reasons and there are excuses. If it wasn’t his family, he would have found something else to rage over.” There is merit, certainly, to the argument that the most dedicated of comic book fanboys will always be angry about something, but to equate the arbitrary whims of fanboys with the dedicated positions of those who advocate fair terms for writers and artists is insulting. If anything, supporters of creator rights are defined by qualities that directly oppose those of most fanboys: the questions they ask are not “would this or that superhero win in a fight,” but “have Marvel and DC adequately compensated their writers and artists for the fruits of their creations? If not, what is to be done about it?” Batman: Gates of Gotham is little more than an ad hominem attack on the people who would ask these questions, made with as much mean-spirited “rage” as the antagonist it so doggedly seeks to vilify.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

XIII, Vol. 1: The Day of the Black Sun

Review XIII Volume One Thirteen Jean Van Hamme William Vance Dargaud Cinebook Cover original graphic novel ogn Franco-Belgian comic book
Writer: Jean Van Hamme
Artist: William Vance
Collects: XIII #1 (Dargaud, 1984)
Published: Cinebook, 2010; $11.95

A few weeks ago, I watched the first three films in the Jason Bourne series. (In the truest sense, these are the only three. The title character doesn’t actually appear in The Bourne Legacy – the fourth, most recent film.) While I first saw The Bourne Identity around the time it was released on DVD, I had avoided its sequels until now. At the time I saw it, the first film had struck me as an unintelligent, convoluted thriller with motion-sickness-inducing camerawork and a color palette evoking dirty snow. Having watched it again now, ten years later, I realize that my first impression may not have been completely accurate. Although I still think it’s a lackluster film, there are characters, and even a plot, if you look hard enough.

The third entry (The Bourne Ultimatum), by contrast, is an impenetrable, utterly incoherent film. It has no characters, only talking chess pieces – grim and implacable – that screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Paul Greengrass seem to move around the proverbial board at random. In one of its most baffling moments, the final scene from the first sequel (The Bourne Supremacy) appears halfway through the film, cheapening what had previously been one of the series’ few human moments. The film is almost a pastiche of all the negative qualities I’ve spent the last decade projecting onto Identity, its final scenes perhaps the most muddled of any in the series. In other words, I had been perfectly right about Jason Bourne – I was just a few years early.

I bring up my experience of the Bourne films as context for a book I read shortly after watching them – XIII, Vol. 1: The Day of the Black Sun, the first entry in a Franco-Belgian comic book series which takes as its inspiration the Robert Ludlum novels on which the Bourne films are based. XIII, similarly, is the story of an amnesiac on a quest to piece together his own mysterious past. Both XIII and The Bourne Identity begin with their protagonists bullet-ridden and comatose, saved from watery graves by kind-hearted, unsuspecting people. From the start, though, XIII makes a more concerted effort to humanize its supporting cast. When tragedy befalls the people who care for Thirteen (as XIII’s protagonist comes to be called, after the Roman numeral tattooed on his shoulder), we feel actual, palpable grief.

The main appeal of the Jason Bourne films, I think, is the globe-trotting aspect (i.e., “where in the world will Matt Damon turn up next?”). Incidentally, this is a quality the James Bond films used to hold as their claim to fame, before they became mired in what I think could aptly be termed “post-Bourne malaise.” I have the feeling XIII will eventually send its hero around the world, too, but it doesn’t get there in the first volume, much of which is spent on Thirteen being chased around New England by assassins who seem to know a lot more about his identity than he does. Although the story doesn’t exactly feel rushed, it moves at fairly breakneck speed while still providing clues about Thirteen’s past. The book is less than 50 pages long, which is almost unbelievable given how much plot it contains.

The level of detail in XIII’s artwork is remarkable. Artist William Vance treats each page as a discrete unit (which makes sense since the series was originally serialized – in one- or two-page installments, I’m guessing), and that has its advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, there’s a formal quality to the layout and structure of each page that you simply don’t often see outside of adventure strips like Flash Gordon or Prince Valiant; on the other, though, this means conversations rarely have the space to become very detailed or to go on for more than a few panels. As a result, continuity between pages is occasionally a little awkward.

Overall, XIII is beautiful to look at, and it makes a better case for the continued existence of narratives like those in the Bourne series than the actual films do. And, of course, Thirteen has one other pretty distinct advantage over Jason Bourne: while his story may not be perfect, at least you can read it without getting motion sickness.