Comic book, 2014
I struggle to get myself to read comics published by Image Comics. I greatly appreciate the part they’ve played in inching mainstream comics away from the extremely limited subject matter and dire presentation they’ve been mired in for the past several decades, but I find the often neat, tidy packaging of their central conceits to be such a boring initial step that I’m seldom moved to take a second. “A thief who steals from thieves”, “TMZ with superheroes”, “Peter Pan fights in World War II”. I’m skeptical of anything that appears too easy to pitch, as this is usually an indication of the creators’s intention to do just that, resulting in an emphasis on dressing up their vapid, catchy concept over utilizing the comics medium to create an engaging work. Not to mention that inherently shallow approach to storytelling being actively resistant to creating work of depth.
So, this is my perspective on the ecosystem that Bitch Planet exists in. And while Bitch Planet does suffer from some of these pitfalls, it does so with a different motivation on its sleeve, and manages to be an entertaining and stylish comic book in the process.
Joe McCullogh tweeted that a recent Grant Morrison comic was “more effective on a broadly metaphorical or emotional level than point-by-point ‘convincing’”. Bitch Planet, similarly in a few places, sacrifices logical plot progression and believable characterization for a more blunt communication of its themes, leaving me confused. The husband of an inmate saying his wife “doesn’t belong” in prison doesn’t seem to jibe with the later revelation of his true intentions, and his use of the word “compliant” seems like an unnatural way to directly tie his motivations to that of the prison’s. Less disorienting and more just distracting, is the prison’s use of a leather-clad hologram of a nun to address the concerns of one of its inmates. Perhaps someone could make a case for why the dehumanizing, brutal prison would use this vibrant spectacle for its effectiveness or something, but to me it read as a very consciously-placed faux edgy flourish.
I wish action was a higher priority in Bitch Planet, especially since it’s such an essential characteristic of the work that comprises the aesthetic it’s riffing on. There are two riots in this issue, and they aren’t very exciting. There’s no defined movement, an essential aspect of action, just consecutive panels of unrelated moments that fail to build on each other in any way. (One striking image, of the largest inmate in midair above a guard, becomes a promise of action unfulfilled as we never see the resulting impact.) I’m reminded of another thematically-obsessed recent work, Snowpiercer, whose fight scenes were also merely signifiers of action, shots filled with flailing arms and weapons with no apparent impact or result. Both works seem to want to have action, but don’t care enough about it to give it any follow through.
So while the resulting failings are similar, I think the instinct to prioritize what’s at the heart of Bitch Planet has a different origin. Bitch Planet very smartly uses its poppy hook, “Women’s prison in space”, to focus on the very timely theme of women’s oppression. It’s a theme beyond worthy of the attention it’s currently receiving in culture at large, and I’m enthused that Bitch Planet expounds on it in a way that has the issue so deeply embedded in its DNA, and is also fun and exciting at its foundation. Despite the toll I think it takes on the storytelling at times, I think that theme is communicated effectively and thrillingly, and is pushed past the inherent commentary contained in the concept at its most basic level (women are in prison) through two big bait and switches which (despite hearing the writer say on Inkstuds that she hadn’t seen it) I can’t help but see as call outs to a couple of the weaker conceptual points of the very prominent women-in-prison television show Orange Is The New Black. I won’t spoil them here, but suffice it to say that Bitch Planet depicts the state of male support of women as much bleaker than Orange, and it’s emphatically not holding readers hands, and relegating the majority of real life prison’s actual populations to the background, by presenting the story through the POV of someone upper middle-class white people can easily identify with. These are adjustments to this concept I can get behind, and think serve the themes much better.
Outside of those themes, Bitch Planet manages to be fun too. The naked riot is a wild, thrilling camp idea. (Which I’m too unfamiliar with the women-in-prison genre to know if it’s been done before. It must have, right?) Also notable for catering less to the male gaze, due to the more diverse than usual body types on display. This idea, in contrast to the leather nun hologram, did not seem contrived. The reveal at the end of this issue’s also promises an emphasis on more focused action moving forward.
Thankfully, coming from somewhere other than being movie option-bait frees Bitch Planet up to actually be a good comic formally; Its existence as a comic book has been taken into account, down to the pleasant, pulpier than normal paper it’s printed on. It’s stylish in a way that seems more geared toward being a good looking comic than a set of storyboards, including a distinct and effective visual aesthetic and conceptual page layouts that would actively work against that purpose.
So while I might have significant issues with its storytelling, I think Bitch Planet #1 is strong in a number of ways where it really counts. and I’m excited by how it’s representing its important themes.
The Double has a lot of things going for it in terms of craft, including gorgeous compositions and color, smooth, languid pacing, and nuanced, effortless performances from its main cast (even if the camera movement goes a little overboard occasionally). Unfortunately, it’s all in the service of a feature-length ode to “but I’m a nice guy.” Eisenberg’s Simon is a sensitive soul invisible to those around him, his greatest wish to be noticed and appreciated by Wasikowska’s Hannah, who is more interested in Simon’s confident, successful double, James. How dare she, oh the horror. Honestly, if I never see another filmed POV of a man looking longingly at a woman, as if she’s a desirable object to be attained, I’ll be extremely happy. The movie does directly acknowledge the fact that its protagonist is a huge creep, an outright stalker, but ultimately we’re meant to wish for Simon’s desire to be fulfilled. It’s a notion that, despite the absolutely lovely decoration, comes off as very ugly.
Snowpiercer has a cast filled to the brim with brilliant, entertaining actors and a director whose back catalogue is, for my money, closer to perfect than any other working director’s. Despite this, I didn’t go into it with high expectations, mostly due to some pretty dull trailers. And my fears were confirmed. Whereas Bong Joon-ho’s previous films are delightfully entertaining with complex themes so subtle that engaging with them is basically optional, Snowpiercer is as direct and hard to move around in as the train it takes place in. I can see how the stripped-down nature of the concept could seem like an exciting one for an action film; A train full of Earth’s last survivors where poor people live in squalor in the back and rich people live in decadence in the front, and the journey from one end to the other. It’s a concept that travels along with its plot, and has momentum built into it; It’s probably the most inherently action oriented concept for a movie since Speed. And the themes of class are sound, they’re astute and well constructed. But after seemingly endless monologues from multiple characters who exist only as mouthpieces for said themes, you start feeling sorry for the dead horse Boon-ho is beating long before the end of the movie. This is a movie where they dress Tilda Swinton, hamming it up like never before, like a cartoon character and then make her endlessly deliver dialogue like “We must occupy our pre-ordained position.” and “Know your place.” Stating this outright once would have been hand-holding, but practically all the dialogue in the film is merely restating it. Then you have to sit through Ed Harris explaining it all again like three or four more times.
Who can say why Joon-ho decided to abandon subtlety for Snowpiercer. It sure wasn’t for a wider appeal, not in his home country anyway. He’s basically the James Cameron of South Korea, helming many of the top-grossing films in their history. Was it a concession to the English speaking audience, this being his first movie primarily aimed at them? (If so, that blew up in his face- the US distributor was apparently worried that this movie wouldn’t play well domestically and crippled its distribution when Joon-ho wouldn’t let them re-edit it.) Did he just simply want to try something new? At the moment we don’t know, but it feels like the release of the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty; A whiff so hard from someone previously so consistently excellent you can’t help but struggle for an explanation.
Adding insult to injury are the action scenes. The one or two that work, work because they’re excellent ideas, not because they’re presented especially thrillingly. The rest of the action scenes, the bulk of them, present us with no specific action, just signifiers of action; frames filled with people swinging objects at other people with no apparent effect or consequence. Noise. The action in The Host, the most action-oriented of Joon-ho’s previous films, worked as anti-action; It was a monster movie in broad daylight, everything happened slowly, there were very few surprises. It radiated subversive glee. In a movie as direct as Snowpiercer, if the action doesn’t carry the weight, the whole affair doesn’t land with a thud, it lands in a puff of air.
I was ten in 1993, so nothing charges me with nostalgia like the X-Men. Gambit was my favorite. As such, today buying and reading Gambit comics is something I enjoy doing but take little pride in. Partly because I have considerable disdain for Marvel Comics due to their poor treatment of creators, and partly due to the fact that Gambit comics are almost always complete garbage. If Gambit has a prominent role in a comic, which is something that doesn’t happen terribly often, I’ll give it a look. If it’s bearable, I pick it up new off the racks. If it’s not, I wait for it to hit the dollar bins. I usually get to save my money. I sure did with this Gambit solo series that launched in 2012. James Asmus’s stories and dialogue were hollow and dull, qualities that were reflected aptly by Clay Mann’s stiff, lifeless, photo-esque art. (Mann did occasionally produce an image that I enjoyed however, a few of his covers were quite good.) To make matters even worse, the series had frequent, even worse fill-in artists. If history is any indication, Gambit will have another solo title in about five years. I hope it’s better than this one was. In the meantime, he’s a main character in All New X-Factor and, while the writing is only approaching bearable, I like the art quite a lot, so I’m pretty happy.
Credit where credit’s due: There’s a bit in this issue where a super villain pays someone in advance with shrunken money (which the recipient examines with a magnifying glass), and promises it will be restored to normal size upon completion of their deal. It’s an Adam West Batman caliber gag.
Comic book, 2013
Rain Comic #1 is a recent release in a series of anthology comics published by Mickey Z and featuring work by her, Patrick Kyle, and Michael Deforge, each focusing of a different subject (Basketball Comic #1, Xmas Comic #1, etc.) Sometimes the subject, as with the most recent release, Butler Comic #1, contains thematic elements so intrinsic that they can’t help but surface in each author’s piece, no matter how far outside the realm of human experience and perception they twist it. So I was interested to see how they handled the subject of rain, possibly their most thematically broad topic yet. Reading it, I was surprised at how central the authors managed to make rain to their stories, both to the plot and thematically. In the various stories, ranging from one to six pages long each, rain is used to talk about legacy, experience, and as a transformational agent. All in all, only a couple of the one page strips seemed to say “oh, and it was also raining”. After I finished the book, I remembered what James Kochalka did with the same subject in his Hulk Vs Rain story, and felt silly for not realizing ahead of time that, in the hands of a storytelling lineup as strong as this one, a broader subject could actually serve as an even more direct tool.
When a serialized work evolves into something distinct from its initial form, it can sometimes be hard not to miss the bits it shed in order to make room for what it became. Is it a creator’s duty to maintain the work’s original aim, or to at least guide its evolution in a way that will mitigate any disappointment on the part of the audience? Certainly not, but it does call into question whether it’s a good idea to keep referring to it by the same name.
This, as you may have guessed is the difficulty I’m having with the third season of League of Gentlemen, a season with big differences from the two that came before it. In my view, so far, there are two departures of note: the absence of a laugh track and the relative mundanity of the characters. The inclusion of a laugh track in the early seasons was something that took getting used to for me. Distracting at first, but once I was able to tune it out it became a part of the ambience, a part that brought out the humor/ horror juxtaposition I previously discussed being central to the show. Without it, we’re no longer watching a network comedy gone delirious, we’re watching something delirious of its own free will, which is much less exciting.
Although it might stand to reason that this would free Gentlemen up to extend the boundaries of its insanity even further, it opts for just the opposite. This season consists of human interest stories- characters fall in love under difficult circumstances, experience career setbacks, and maintain extra-marital affairs. While those elements were always presented in the show, they now dominate it. Royston Vasey is no longer home to the monster children of deranged shopkeepers, menacing circus demons, and malicious psychic twins of seasons past. Where these characters had their roots in nightmare, season there’s characters have their roots in reality.
The thing that compensates for these loses somewhat, and what I imagine what the show’s creators intentionally sacrificed these things in order to achieve, is deeper stories that relate more directly to humanity. And it’s certainly not a failure on that front. But with the depth of its comedy and the heights of its insanity cut off, you’re forced to wonder if it’s really the same show.
League of Gentlemen is a show I’ve heard mentioned here and there over the years, most notably a few back when the Kids in the Hall reunited to produce a miniseries that was said to be a weak xerox of it. But that’s selling the Kids in the Hall short, as League of Gentlemen clearly owes much to their original work as well. “If Kids in the Hall made Twin Peaks” is how I’ve been pitching it to people after having made my way through half the series over the last few weeks. As much as it owes to Kids in the Hall (the limited male cast portraying a wide array of characters including cross-dressing for the women, the rapid fire nature of sketch comedy, the off-beat sense of humor) it owes equally to Twin Peaks, with its recurring cast of oddball characters populating a small town, the sagas and mysteries of which continuously spiral forward, often ending up in very dark places. The place where those two distinct flavors, humor and horror, clash is where the show draws much of its power, as you’re often left to wonder, as you’re watching something absolutely ghastly or downright viscerally terrifying unfold, “How is there a laugh track on top of this?” But the loose and dangerous structure of the show, in addition to being an ideal vehicle for the creators’ wild imaginations, showcases intricately structured, and unexpectedly emotionally intelligent, storytelling.
There are three Pat McEwons known to us, and they’ve appeared in this order. Work for hire Pat McEwon, who, early in his career, turned out many issues of work for creative interests other than his own. Then came Pat McEwon the auteur, who released a few inventive short stories from anthologies such as Dark Horse Presents and Dave Cooper’s Weasel. Then came milk carton Pat McEwon, who’s been largely absent from the comics scene for years, apart from one short story (for the Madman 20th anniversary book) and one graphic novel (Hair Shirt). Zombie World: Champion of Worms #3 (the only issue of the series I’ve read) occurs at a bridge between work for hire McEwon and auteur McEwon, being a work he created for someone else while still possessing many of the hallmarks of his auteur work. In it he’s paired with an early instance of Mike Mignola as a writer only, and the result is a Hammer horror tinged take on Tintin. It’s a good match, but not a perfect one- McEwon’s layouts and characers pack the appropriate amount of whimsy, but his ghouls are too cartoony to be truly menacing. As for Mignola’s side of things, this is writer-only Mignola pre-John Arcudi, so seemingly all consideration is given to plot, with none apparently given to characters. But if you’be got a kid edging up on feeling too old for Tintin and might respond to something a little darker, I imagine this would work like a charm.
Comic book, 2012
Josh Bayer’s drawings sure let you know they’re working hard- beads of sweat fly off the character’s furrowed brows as they struggle to convert simple thoughts into comprehensible communication. After seeing his work online for years as one of the more visible faces of the current alt-comics scene, Transformer is my first time reading one of his actual books (barring the Suspect Device series he edits, in which all his contributors seem to adapt his visual language to varying degrees). It’s a comic about comics, in the way I suspect his Raw Power series is about punk. Furthermore, it’s a comic about making comics, almost making it self-referential twice over. Postmodernism can often feel impersonal, but Bayer seems to be able to overcome this. It’s just as easy to imagine the beads of sweat flying off the protagonists of Transformer are Bayer’s own as they are the artistic icons they ostensibly represent.