Bitch Planet #1

BitchPlanet_01-1

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.


Gambit #9 (2013)

imageComic book, 2013

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.


Rain Comic #1

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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.


New Jobs

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Comic book, 2013
 
Dash Shaw has put out very little work since the 2009 release of his Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD short story collection, and New Jobs is the first of the burst of new material he recently released that I’ve read, so I feel like I’m more or less back at square one with experiencing and interpreting his work. And that’s the biggest strength of Shaw’s comics- whether you enjoy them or not, they’re layered and complex in a way that fosters investigation and discussion. Even people I know who don’t enjoy Shaw’s work spend a few minutes explaining what they don’t like about it, seemingly unable to simply dismiss it.

New Jobs is dense, packing a lot of moments onto each of its tiny pages, in contrast to the fluffier, widescreen cinema method of storytelling currently in vogue in mainstream comics. I call them moments instead of panels because there are no borders. In fact there’s a complete disregard for the grid system at work here. Moments are placed with only pacing in mind, which, in addition to the Sharpie-imbued smoothness of the drawings, gives the reading experience a fluidity that suggests a different cinematic experience- animation. The drawings seem to move as they melt into one another. 

Shaw has a similar stripped down approach toword genre. New School isn’t quite science-fiction, but he adapts the society the characters live in to suit the themes of the story. By only using the most efficient parts of the various storytelling strategies at play, Shaw has managed to pack a lot of ideas into a very small package.

Zombie World: Champion of the Worms #3

 

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Comic book, 1997
 

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.

 
 
Super Inside Baseball, How The Sausage Is Made Bonus Round: Zombie World appears to be an attempt on the part of a comics company (Dark Horse) to create a franchise while sharing the rights with the hired talent (Mignola and McEwon), and the indicia is fittingly tangled, giving copyright for the text and illustrations to the creators and the publisher, the title trademarked to the publisher, the characters trademarked to the creators, and so on. It seems like Dark Horse planned for the series to continue without its original creators. From the editor in this issue’s letters page: “Thanks to Pat McEwon and Mike Mignola for getting this series off to such and interesting start. The books in coming months, from a lineup diverse enough to include…” continuing into a list of future contributors, many if not all of whch I believe were actually released. I’d be curious to check the indicia of future issues for McEwon and Mignola’s names. Interesting, and I assume an experiment on the part of the publisher in creating a franchise while keeping the creators properly in the loop. If this is true, their hearts were certainly in the right place. But, to go out even further on a limb, I’d guess that the franchise, concept and all, was publisher mandated. (“Make us a world of zombies, we’ll call it Zombie World!”) Catching lightning in a bottle can be tough, but you couldn’t hire two better creators to attempt it with.

Transformer

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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.


Curse Of The Molemen

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Comic book, 1991

Charles Burns’s Curse Of The Molemen barters heavily in 50’s science-fiction and horror, not unlike another comic of its time I recently read, Clowes’s Lloyd Llewellyn. Curse Of The Molemen, by contrast, casts a decidedly more ironic gaze upon its subject matter, effectively launching a much sharper jab at the faults of that era. (Specifically as depicted here, domestic violence.) Because of this, and the heavy use of surreality, comparisons to Blue Velvet would be apt. The main difference, besides being a lot more direct about its heritage, is that its protagonist, Big Baby, is actually a part of the surreality. Or, perhaps he is the only true piece of surreality, as all other depicted aspects of it could be attributed to his imagination. To be honest, I don’t quite understand the meaning of the Big Baby character, but this is the only story featuring him that I’ve read, and I’m under the impression there are more.


Lloyd Llewellyn #1

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Comic book, 1986

It’s difficult to view early work by a great artist outside the shadow of their later, more substantial achievements (if that’s the trajectory their career in fact took). This is the case with Lloyd Llewellyn #1, the debut solo book of the great Dan Clowes. The work stands on its own, with style and personality to spare, but what it has in those areas in volume it lacks in density, clipping much of that personality from a certain irony-tinted nostalgia for 50’s swank and masculinity. It’s an area of interest that comics doesn’t support any more. (I can think of a number of artists that paint with a similar broad, lively brush who stopped releasing work a number if years ago, although Steve Mannion recently seems to have found a new way to funnel interest for it via Kickstarter.) This could be due to a shift in the interests of comics readers, a shrunken industry no longer being able to support work this insubstantial, both, or something else. So it’s a good thing Clowes made the shift in his work he did- he went from this, to having his characters be into this, to this being only one of a variety of hues that color his work- because he saved his career, and helped shape the industry, by doing it.


Badger #46

Badger 46

 

Comic book, 1989

Deep into the middle of its run, Mike Baron’s initial series of Badger comics is starting to come loose at te seams. There are a couple new features of the comic I can attribute this to. First, the instances of Baron ham fisting his anti-left political agenda into the book have grown in both frequency and unpleasantness. There was the joke last issue where Baron, in an in-panel note from the editor, asked the “Madison lesbians” not to get mad at one of his characters for believing that a woman isn’t complete without a man. Then in this issue, Baron has a left-wing talk radio host hastily usher a caller off the air for stating she’s a happy housewife. Now, listen. Let’s give Baron the benefit of the doubt and say maybe there was a time when there was a group of extremely vocal social change advocates in Madison. Even so, actively discrediting an oppressed minority, even for turning it up to 11, just seems sleazy. Maybe there was a time when these references made at least a little sense. We are no longer living in that time, and this book isn’t aging well as a result.

Second, I don’t think Ron Lim’s art is a good fit for the series. I’ve already made the case that a realistic style is intrinsically important to The Badger‘s thematic success, and Lim’s art is too cartoony. There’s no danger in this world any more, only fun, and the loss of that dynamic is a huge blow to the series.

To be honest, it’s hard not to let the shortcomings of these later issues cast doubt on the quality of what came before. Was I wrong about The Badger being a subtle satire? Is it actually being straightforward in its depiction of violence? Was the deft utilisation of a stiff art style in fact a simple case of bad taste? These types of distinctions have never really mattered to me. I’ve always been much more interested in what I see in a work than what a creator intended. The key to a good work for me then is that it has enough complexity to provoke thought, or to at least imply depth, without telling you outright what it’s about. The Bill Reinhold era of this comic possessed those ingredients. I hope later issues find them again.


Badger #25

badger comic 25

Comic book, 1987

I love telling people about The Badger. It’s about a mentally ill Vietnam vet who is a martial arts expert and dresses like a superhero. He savagely beats anyone he doesn’t approve of, from supervillains to jaywalkers, all in equal measure. It uses the old gag that someone would have to be a militaristic crazy person in order to be a superhero and milks it for all it’s worth, somehow presenting The Badger as a sweet, likable guy in the process. Also, he’s employed as a bodyguard by a time displaced 18th century weather wizard turned stockbroker named Ham. And it has the best balance of humanity and humor in dealing with the subject of mental illness that I’ve ever seen. Did I mention The Badger can talk to animals, like Dr. Doolittle? So, after telling all of this to someone, I get to tell them that no, I wasn’t just free-associating. There’s actually over 70 issues of this comic. And it’s very good.

I used to be annoyed that the cover for this issue, #25, is the main image for The Badger on Wikipedia. It looks very morose, and a poor representation of what reading the freewheeling comic is actually like. But now that I’ve read the issue, I very much approve. Not only is it a solid story, but one that would definitely serve as a good introduction to the series. In it, The Badger helps an old woman get revenge on her neighbors for murdering the ducks in her pond. It shows The Badger’s sweet side, his physical prowess*, and his surprisingly accurate sense of justice. (It’s the amount of punishment in relation to the crime that he has trouble accurately gauging.)

The art in this issue is by Bill Reinhold, who I believe drew more issues of the series than any other artist. His art is generic, dull, and stiff, and I imagine it’s a big reason why no one ever talks about the title with any reverence. But I think Reinhold’s art is what makes The Badger really work. The humor in The Badger works because it’s juxtaposed against its presentation as a second rate action comic. When The Badger does things like irately yell “Honk!” at a group of confused ducks while flapping his arms like wings, as he does at the end of this issue, it appears truly absurd. If depicted in a style that appeared to have any sense of humor at all (like the art in, say, fellow funny superhero comic The Tick), the jokes wouldn’t have nearly the same punch. The classic humor comic Herbie uses the same strategy.

This conventional style also allows the action, guided by writer Mike Baron (a real-life martial arts enthusiast and practitioner) to have real weight. When The Badger’s eyes go crooked and he starts spouting gibberish, you know that someone is about to be seriously hurt. There will be no cartoon stars or birds shooting out of their head, only their own teeth and blood. And that’s exciting. Baron (as he does with his other signature creation, Nexus) stacks the morals of the situation so inarguably in his protagonist’s favor, primarily by making his villains unilaterally, absurdly rotten, that it’s not hard to get behind The Badger‘s acts of violence, and even to turn your head  and chuckle as he dispenses even more justice than is warranted.

The Badger reminds me of a New York Times pull quote Marvel frequently uses to sell Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix, which they describe as “a witty blast of media criticism disguised as a garish spin-off of the X-Men”. I hope someday more people realize there’s a similar level of satire at work in The Badger.

* Side note: I like that almost no one can defeat The Badger in physical combat. I think it makes the character exciting, and forces the narrative to go in unique directions. In my opinion, whenever writer and creator Mike Baron would write The Badger being defeated by anyone less than a world champion, he was fucking up.