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, 2012
The few Brian Wood comics that I’ve read have proven to be frustrating experiences for me. This is due in part to the fact that the ideas for them sound so good on paper. It’s the execution of those ideas that doesn’t agree with me. I first experienced this with his relaunch of the Wildstorm property DV8 a while back. The basic premise was that a bunch of young, bratty superheroes get transported to a primitive land, where they are then worshiped as gods. It’s a unique idea rife with potential for action and drama, except the fact that the entire story was being told by one of the superheroes in the past tense, eliminating much of the immediacy and danger inherent in the concept. I had a similar experience with Wood’s new comic Mara, which takes place in a world where government supported sporting leagues serve as a distraction from a constant state of war, and is centered around its biggest celebrity, a volleyball star named Mara. Another great concept with built-in social commentary and visual potential. Unfortunately, Wood again takes a smart concept and tells it in a way that allows only for the minimal amount of thought from the reader. The first half of this issue is nothing but narration, explaining Mara’s world in a way not dissimilar from the way I do above. It tells us its story by practically reading us a summary of itself, instead of showing us this world and letting us discover it for ourselves. I want to love your stories Brian Wood. Please let me enjoy them instead of cramming them down my throat.
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, originally serialized in 1981 this edition published in 2006
Abraxis and the Earthman is the first long form work by one of my favorite creators, Rick Veitch. It’s a metaphysical re-imagining of Moby Dick in space. It bears many of the hallmarks of Veitch’s work that I love so much, but their effect on me left me feeling troubled, whereas his later work often leaves me feel as if the author is messing with my subconscious, so I feel this work is less developed. Another funny note is the coloring. The essay in the back tells us that it’s all been done by hand, but it strongly resembles early attempts at Photoshop coloring- the colors are gaudy and have an almost inhuman three dimensionality to them. A testament to Veitch’s technical skill, even if the finished product isn’t something I love the aesthetic of. But even the early themes and imagery of early Veitch has the power to produce images and ideas that I’m sure will stick in the back of my brain for a long time to come.
So, while this series’ stunning physical beauty is more than enough of a reason on its own to experience and love it, I’m going to free associate for a minute and see if I can’t figure out if there’s any particular message or point of view being expressed by the themes, because there isn’t any that I was able to see on my initial read through. So, the whole thing is very melancholy and introspective, told from the point of view of a mother figure who is attempting to let a son go out into the world on his own. She accidentally sends him to a terrible place to get his life started (an ocean planet, fulfilling his nickname of “Boundless Ocean Boy”, perhaps some sort of comment on his potential). She battles the planet to get him back, fighting a number of clones of him in the process. In the end it’s unclear whether or not Boundless Ocean Boy stays with his protector, who it is probably worth noting is a ruthless space pirate named Emeraldas who destroyed no less than two planets of bad people in these three issues. So yeah, I don’t know if I see a real perspective being delivered, but the whole thing is certainly drenched in emotion. It’s also got that Japanese comic thing, this being an adaptation of an older Japanese comic, where it seems like there’s no plot and all character development, because there’s so much focus on the characters’ origins, emotions and introspection, but then you say something about it like “Emeraldas who destroyed no less than two planets of bad people in these three issues” and you realize a whole lot actually did happen. Still haven’t wrapped my head around the differences in Japanese storytelling, I guess.
Comic book, 2012
Yeah, so, everyone’s right. This is great. It’s kind of like Daredevil for me. This shouldn’t be special. There’s nothing new or remarkable about it other than the sad fact that it’s as good as it should be and that stands it head and shoulders above everything else on the stands. The coloring is a conscious throwback to 80’s genre comics (but more sophisticated), and the drawings are great. Just loose enough to give your imagination room to play, and the protagonist’s pursed lips evocative of the playful sensibilities of it’s writer, King City cartoonist Brandon Graham. I like it when this happens. When someone with a normally loose style with some substance to it buckles down and makes a straightforward genre piece without winking. Not that Graham’s older work is slighter than this, but this feels like the big league culmination of everything he’s been doing up until this point. I was worried about it’s aimlessness. I’m not sure I would’ve been on board every month for a comic as aimless as most of this issue is, but an overarching plot is breached toward the end and that was enough to make this the second regularly released comic I currently have a sub for at my local shop.
Comic book, 2011
This issue picks up the pace a bit from this series’ dreamy opening, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s got all the outstanding qualities of its predecessor, and it has one of those ideas in it that’s so good you can’t believe you’ve never seen it before. Can’t give credit to the artist for that though, as this is a cover, or a remake, of a piece of manga from 1979. How close it hems to its source material I do not know. I heard the artist remark that the next issue turned out unexpectedly long which makes me think it can’t be a direct translation, so who knows. I’m reserving my thoughts about the story until the conclusion. Until then, Jesus this thing is pretty.
Comic book, 2011
I think there’s something intrinsic about comics that makes you want to focus on the form and the format. Maybe because it’s the best narrative storytelling medium for getting the most pure vision possible from the work’s creator. This is especially true of Ryan Cecil Smith’s comics. His color choices are lush, his low-fi, hand-made printing methods make his work approachable and tactile and his rendering style is saturated in personality and expression. Even the fucking envelope and receipt he shipped the comic to me in are amazing. This guy is going out of his way to make every aspect of his comics delightful, and it’s paying to huge for his readers. Which is great, because this is a little wisp of a story. Literally three things happen in the space of its 24 pages. Which is appropriate, as it’s based on an older Japanese work, a country famous for sacrificing plot for character.
Comic book, 2011
The new Dark Horse Presents series, on a base level, just doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t feel there’s a broad enough comics readership to support a monthly anthology, even if they are loading it with all the biggest print comics names they possibly can. And it costs eight dollars. Monthly. Okay guys, I’m sure you know what you’re doing. But in my experience comics fans cling tenaciously to the idea of smaller purchases that reward them with a slowly revealed extended narrative. Prove me wrong! Really. Overall I’ve only kind of liked the content of this series. There’s no one short I can point to and say “This. This is why the new Dark Horse Presents needs to exist,” but I’m hoping it comes. The biggest problem with this series is its lack of scope. The editorial on this thing is… not fresh, to say the least. Pretty much everything here looks twenty years old. My advice to Dark Horse would be to make this thing more diverse. There have been a few new names to hit the scene since Neal Adams and Dave Gibbons, guys. They’re great old masters, but they’re not going to give you the wide appeal that could make this book really vital. Get Kate Beaton, CF, Cursed Pirate Girl, Ethan Rilly, the guy who draws Dresden Codak. This is all new stuff that would totally fit Dark Horse Presents that people who aren’t forty would get fucking jazzed about, and you could mix it right in with the stuff you’re doing now. This could be so great.
Here’s what we get in this issue:
- Dave Gibbons’ Treatment is I don’t know. I like looking at his art sometimes, but it didn’t do too much for me here. The story seems kind of like a bunch of cliches thrown together (cop’s last day before retirement, reality tv parody, ultraviolence, etc.)
- Number 13 is awful. Awful writing, awful art. I checked to see if any of the creators have the last name “Richardson”, but they don’t. The worst part about it is probably the colors. They’re not terrible, they’re standard mainstream comic book coloring. But the art is most definitely “underground” and would probably look better if it wasn’t colored the same way as Dave Gibbons’.
- The new DHP is my first exposure to Finder, which always seems to be a pleasant little poof of a story that leaves my head just as soon as I turn the page.
- The Concrete story is appropriately preachy, but has an ending so silly and weird I kind f love it.
- I only found out about Howard Chaykin within the last couple of years, and other than loving Black Kiss, I just can’t seem to “get” his stuff. But I don’t really care about Snatch or Reservoir Dogs either, so maybe it’s not just for me. Something about this installment of Marked Man really caught my eye though, enough to make me think about going back and reading the previous installments.
- Similarly, the Jim Steranko material seemed good but not for me.
- Patrick Alexander’s humor material, of which there will apparently be some in every issue, has taken a nose dive for me, going from brilliant in the first issue, okay in the second and this issue’s Indecisive Man being totally boring.
- Richard Corben’s Murky World serial has been my favorite thing in all of the issues, due to it being nothing but a clearing house for Corben’s unbridled imagination and skill, a feat for which the medium of comics is particularly suited.
- Rotten Apple reads like the dull, lifeless adaptation of a video game that, as far as I know, doesn’t exist. I read the first installment a month ago and remembered nothing about it, then promptly understood nothing about the second installment.
- David Chelsea’s Snow Angel is delightful, but it seems to take up a bit too much space for how light it is.
- I consider having read every word of Neal Adam’s Blood to be an achievement in endurance, like holding your hand in a bucket of cold water for an extended period of time. Seriously, what the fuck is this?
- Mr. Monster. Dude. ENOUGH! This is the third goddamn loosely drawn story about Mr. Monster fighting the same tree monster. I would have preferred that Michael T Gilbert work three times as hard on a story 1/3 the length, or made three completely different MM stories. Reading about this fucking tree monster again and again feels like work, and that’s the worst thing you can say about something like this. I’d say thank god it’s over, but I’ve been burned before.
At this point I’m kind of waiting to see how long it takes my ambivalence toward most of the material to win out and cause me to yank this title from my pull list. But for now there’s enough stuff coming that I’m genuinely excited about (Beasts of Burden, Geoff Darrow interview, Bob Burden, Hellboy and BPRD stories) to give it a stay of execution.
I’m not going to lie; the abysmal release schedule of RASL has diminished the reading experience for me. I love the pamphlet format, but it seems like we’re going through the motions here, an initial part of Smith’s creative process that is only a stepping stone to the story’s true format; a collection. A complete (quote) graphic novel (endquote), at which point everyone will start talking about this again. It’s been so long since the last issue I don’t have a clear idea of what’s going on anymore, and as far as I can tell, not much happened in this issue. Smith’s style seems to be loosening. A product of artistic experimentation, or just trying to get the book out? Or both? And maybe I’m holding his reputation against him, but Smith’s tough-guy posturing in here doesn’t seem to fit him. 3