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, 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
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.
Comic book, 2011
I bought this for the art, hoping the story would also embody its Mad Magazine-esque qualities, but was disappointed on both fronts. The art is fine, but seems a bit dashed off in most places. The artist, Steve Manion, is a great renderer, there’s no questioning that, but he seems to be in a hurry through a lot of this. And it’s not because he spent so much time writing it. What pages aren’t merely sketchbook material subject us to plots that forsake everything to throw tropes and some really bad jokes at us. This book does have it in two places where it counts, however. That’s with a really fun design for its lead character and some killer monster art.
Comic book, 2004
This contains the second part of a Ninja Turtles story I didn’t like very much. After that, it has something truly baffling; Steve Murphy and Jim Lawson hand in an earnest attempt at a piece of drug-themed melodrama, starring tiny, pink, brain-like aliens. At one point a hard boiled detective, complete with his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, walks into their drug den and one of them pleads through its drug stupor “Please don’t tell… my parents.” It’s just crazy enough to enjoy.
Comic book, 2004
I was excited when I found out about this, as I’m a big fan of Steve Murphy’s writing and Rick Remender’s art. But I found the story lacking the passion of Murphy’s best work, and seeing this I remembered that Remender’s art was being inked by Hilary Barta when I fell in love with it, and I found it much less compelling here. The story itself is the worst kind of sequel. Continuing off one of the biggest moments in Ninja Turtles history with an addendum that has no reason to exist story-wise or thematically, and whose light nature is an affront to what came before it, it actually takes away from its predecessor. A lightly drawn and written backup by a different team of creators doesn’t really help matters.
Comic book, 2002
One indication of an inspired work can be a high number of connections made by the author. By this measure Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics, publishers of Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset #3, was a lightning rod for inspiration. Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset #3 is full of references. It references the issues of Greyshirt that came before and after it, it references the careers of its creators, it references the industry that spawned it, it references the medium it’s constructed in and it references itself (a faux newspaper in the back reports on the fallout of events taking place earlier in the comic). This policy of connection-making works well with creator Rick Veitch’s most consistent theme across his entire body of work, dream logic, which seems to have an influence over even his most conventional work. The fact that Veitch seems to have here been given the freedom to make as good a comic as he could, combined with the high production vales and conventional slickness, to make this seem like a culmination of Veitch’s career. (In fact, one of my favorite creators, his mainstream work from the 90’s is my favorite work by him, by which I mean this and Tekno Comics’ Teknophage.) The fact that Greyshirt is played almost exclusively for fun also makes it a lot easier to get behind than Veitch’s more recent political work. Also, can we talk about how great V For Vendetta artist David Lloyd is in this? Where are we hiding him and how can we get him drawing more comics?