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.
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.
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.
Comic book, 2002
I was lucky enough to find a full run of Igor Kordey’s issues of Cable in the dollar bin the other day. It had been on my radar because I had noticed a number of think pieces online about it, which is especially unusual to see based around a character like Cable, who is one of the poster boys for early 90’s, Rob Liefeld-styled comics dreck. My only familiarity with Kordey was his issues of New X-Men, and my only thought about his work at the time was taking quick note of how distinctive it was (think 80% Richard Corben, 20% Peter Chung). The book as a whole is one of those things that merits more thought than something of its quality might normally merit, due in large part to its distinctiveness in its field and its ambition. To that end, it’s probably mostly only noteworthy to people who would have an interest in seeing superhero comics feature a broader range of themes and topics. Kordey’s issues of Cable were a part of a small group of Marvel comics at the turn of the century doing just that, including Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix and Morrison’s New X-Men. Out of that group, Cable was probably the hardest for traditional superhero fans to stomach. It takes a superhero, there’s little reason for it to have been Cable, and inserts him, somewhat awkwardly (especially in the early issues), into the World News section of the New York Times. I imagine it could be hard for some people to not get self righteous about being presented this type of material wrapped in a superhero comic, and I wouldn’t hold that against them. But if you’re capable of taking such a concept at face value, Cable is an interesting, strange little comic. I picked issue #105 in particular, as its the run’s first stand alone story, and also the first to be written by Darko Macan, who was replacing David Tischman. Tischman’s pitch at the end of issue #100 implies that he’s the person who got the ball rolling on this take on the character, but it’s all but impossible to imagine it without Kordey, both because of his distinctive visual style and because of his connection to the material as an ex-Croation soldier. (Macan, as we learn in the letters column, was as well.) This perspective seems to have done a lot to inform the book. There’s are no cliches, but many hard truths, and nothing is black and white. More often than not, all parties involved have dirty hands, not the least of all Cable himself. Cable features a bunch of tangled messes of situations that are not untangled in the least once a superhero is plopped in the middle of them. If you broaden your perspective on this material to include narrative fiction at large, it’s probably passable at best, possibly not even that. But I was thrilled to find this new-to-me product of this interesting creative period at Marvel (frequently referred to as “Nu-Marvel”), and I’m secretly optimistic that there’s more waiting out there for me to discover. In the meantime, I’m off to eBay to get the continuation of this series, Soldier X, which I’m told ratchets up the weirdness a bit.
Comic book, 1989
Nexus isn’t an especially emotional comic for me, and I say that as someone who just gleefully devoured sixty plus issues of the series over the last couple of weeks. I don’t suspect it’s an especially emotional comic for many of its biggest fans. Nexus‘s true strength lies in the unique flavor resulting from the juxtaposition of two of its most considerable strengths- its fun, vibrant design and its dark, brooding themes. But there’s a moment in this issue that almost brought me to tears. In it, a depowered Nexus has just had his life saved by his estranged, immensely powerful adolescent daughters Sheena and Scarlett. They are joined by Claude, the good-hearted, if ineffective, vice president of Nexus’s planet Ylum. Nexus: “Girls, say hello to your Uncle Claude!” Claude: “I remember when you girls were knee-high to a gnat!” Sheena: “Hello, Uncle Claude.” It’s the kind of small, reflective moment, rarely allowed in a book as grandiose as Nexus, that immediately brings into focus the full, immense history of these characters. We, like Claude, also remember the girls when they were infants, and are also delighted to see what precocious young women they’ve turned out to be. This small moment is especially powerful in comparison to the huge, dark developments that occurred moments before it. It’s the kind of moment that only works the way it does because it’s a long form story, because of the particular bond you form with characters whose lives unfold over a period of many years, parallel to your own. Are there even any other comics that can fit in this category besides Nexus and Love and Rockets?
Comic book, 2012
Due to a drastically increased output over the last bunch of months, with none of the added material holding much weight plot-wise, one might get the impression that the B.P.R.D. editorial staff is throwing a bunch of new artists at the wall to see which ones stick. Of course, they announced Tyler Crook as the new main artist after mainstay Davis’ departure, but the last few months have seen more artists draw B.P.R.D. than the few years before them combined. Some really work James Harren and Jason Latour’s styles maintain the savage, energetic personality of the series established by Davis. I find Crook and Cameron Stewart, artist of Exorcism #1, however to be too restrained and conservative. Stewart’s got chops, don’t get me wrong. Technically, he’s a marvel. But I don’t think he’s a good fit. (Additional complaint about Stewart and Crook- when drawing a figure that is far away, they alter their proportions making their subjects appear child-like.) And while I wouldn’t say Stewart’s writing is bad, there’s a fair amount not to like- his characters’ dialogue is often guided more by the needs of the plot than the characters themselves, and I found the protagonist, a plucky, eager to please, young go-getter who is insecure about her abilities, to be a personality more familiar to popular media than the very real characters this series normally hangs its hat on. The final nail in the coffin for Stewart for me was his monster design, another backbone of B.P.R.D. Most of the creatures looked no more threatening than Ninja Turtle villains. (I’ll give credit where credit’s due on that demon-goat though, that looked pretty good.) While I think he’s a super talented guy, I’m sorry to say that I hope Stewart’s jaunt into the world of B.P.R.D. is as short as the tangential nature of this series suggests it might be.
Comic book, 2012
My obligatory B.P.R.D./ James Harren rigamarole: James Harren draws perhaps the most visceral and entertaining monster fights I’ve ever seen depicted in comics, and kudos to the B.P.R.D. editorial staff for having the good judgement to provide him with scripts depicting, almost exclusively, them. Okay. My Harren caveat for this month is that his rendering of the black guy in this issue looks way too much like an ape. Now I’m just going to geek out on the story: I’ve suspected that Daryl killing Ben was going to happen since we saw Daryl towering over a naked, blood-stained Ben in 2007. It makes so much sense- Daryl finally gets peace, and Ben, becoming a wendigo in Daryl’s stead, is essentially no worse off than before. It finally happened in this issue. It felt a little anticlimactic. Don’t get me wrong, the sheer joy of reading the thing makes up for it, but if something you’ve been saying is going to happen for five years simply happens, you can’t help but feel at least a tiny indifferent about it. I realize that we’re told in no uncertain terms that there are other forces at work here (Johann asks us why Daryl didn’t kill Ben before now, and what did Ben mean when he said “I can’t” and “It’s all gone”?), but I think I could have used something a little meatier than more mystery to feel completely satisfied by this meal after being made to wait for it for five years.
Comic book, 2012
Well, I’ve bought and really enjoyed Brendan Graham’s Prophet, and now I’ve bought and really enjoyed the new issue of Orc Stain, so I guess I’m officially on-board the Graham/ Stokoe Image fantasy comics train. I’m a late adapter, obviously. I’ve never been into fantasy, comics, movies, games, any of it, not even when I was 13, the age these comics are ostensibly aimed at. Are 13 year olds actually reading this stuff? Or is it just people that were 13 at the time Graham and Stokoe were, and remember when this exact flavor was edgy and dangerous? Time will tell I guess, but in terms of me reading and enjoying this right now it doesn’t matter. These comics are good. The thing that’s really stood out for me in the second issue of Prophet and also this comic were the elements of surprise. When the story took a turn so unexpected that it actually surprised me. Not an easy, and especially not a common, feat for genre material such as this, let alone in the non-operatic medium of comics. As for Orc Stain itself, I was really pleased with the amount of story contained within it, especially for an art-centric action comic. At a base level, these comics are really well done from both craft and storytelling perspectives, and comics artists of any aspiration would do well to take notes. For my money, that (and raw, expressive imagination) is the greatest gift genre material of any medium can deliver.
Coaching from the sidelines corner: Although I don’t think it would be in Stokoe’s best interest, Kevin Eastman should be throwing as much money as necessary at him to get Orc Stain published under Heavy Metal.
Comic book, 1986
Full disclosure: I’m friends with the creator of this comic, Jim Lawson. But I was a big fan of his work a long time before we met, and I was very interested to see this extremely early instance of it. In what must be close to his first published work, Lawson shows an unexpectedly high level of influence from 70’s illustration like Sergent Pepper and Vaughn Bode. His high-waisted, long legged depiction of the human form has an undeniable weight and motion to it, showing Lawson to be a naturally gifted artist from minute one of his career. The story is fine, the typical case of an artist throwing their interests in a blender in their early work, but it has a lightness, in both content and storytelling (at least after we move past the exposition), that make it a pleasurable enough read.
Comic book, 2012
Like Dan Clowes says, comics aren’t a very operatic medium. (I repeat this, as he originally stated it, as “someone who would rather be reading comics than anything else.) It’s rare that they’re able to deliver visceral emotional responses, but Arcudi comes up with no less than two in this issue. A joke on the first page, and a retort from the plucky female reporter midway through that earns her stripes with the boy’s club. I’m certainly also still loving Tonci Zonjic’s artwork here, but I’m wondering if this subject matter isn’t a little too on-the-nose for him. I fell in love with his work on an old Madman special, and the discrepancy between his aesthetic and the material produced a more unique, exciting energy. Maybe that’s not exactly my disconnect, but I can’t help but fixate on that small chink in this otherwise flawless armor.