Wednesday, August 31, 2011

THE LITTLE MOMENTS - Morrison's JLA - part 2

Here are two more images from the JLA: American Dreams collection by Grant Morrison, et al. These moments highlight, even more than the first of yesterday's images, Morrison's ability to infuse his comics with humor.

The first image is a classic Flash scenario - though the details aren't as classic as one might expect. We have two images that are basically the same (Superman doesn't even get a chance to take a step) but in the moments between the seconds, Wally West does some rearranging of the trophies in the League's trophy room of their Watchtower headquarters. And check out the remark from Superman: deadpan, sarcastic, and yet, full of affection - pitch perfect and wryly funny.

And this second image hearkens back to the JLI, for me, as Martian Manhunter (whose schtick under Giffen, DeMatteis, et al. was always to be yearning for Oreos) tells Wonder Woman that her perfect grammar must have stunned the angel behind her, which she just landed on with a hard Amazonian kick. Again, the humor isn't over the top, it isn't calculated, it's just sly, understated, and terribly funny.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

THE LITTLE MOMENTS - Morrison's JLA - part 1

I have finally gotten around to reading Grant Morrison's much-lauded JLA run, and though the first collection left me disappointed, the second one - American Dreams - was absolutely fantastic. Morrison provided interesting villains, great action, high drama, and everything required in a superhero comic, and that was great.

But Morrison also provided something more, which - for me, a comic reader for almost thirty years - is important. He offered us, the audience, those "little moments" that elevates a comic (or story) from being just good to being great. In this second collection, there are a lot of really great little moments, and over the course of the next six days, I will be highlighting some of those.

The first two moments are ones that showcase Grant Morrison's ability to laugh at superheroes, while also accentuating that which makes them heroes. And both of the images I am sharing today involve the original superhero - Superman.

First, we have a moment I commented upon in one of the pieces I wrote about this collection. It opens the book and is the part where Superman is standing above Metamorpho's grave discussing with the minister why so few came for this funeral when so many came to his own (when he died at the hands of Doomsday). it's a touching moment, but also a humorous one, and it's a moment that made me realize I was going to enjoy "American Dreams."

The second image is of Superman coming to the Martian Manhunter's aid. It's a scene we have all read many times over before, but the way Morrison set it up and the simple, quiet dialogue just nails this moment. Morrison conveyed true emotion in this scene, and I really appreciated that.


Monday, August 29, 2011

NEW TO ME: JLA American Dreams – part 3

JLA: American Dreams by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, Oscar Jimenez, et al.

Forgotten JLA nemesis, the Key, uses his enhanced intelligence to break into the Watchtower and capture the League members, minus J’onn J’onnz. Having paralyzed them with a neural shock, the Key injects them with a programmable psycho-virus that produces structured hallucinations for the heroes, causing them to experience an alternate reality.

The “key” to the Key’s plan is that he realizes the JLA will figure a way out of their predicament and defeat him. Ultimately, the Key wants to use the surge of power that will result from the JLA breaking from their dream states to boost his own powers and allow him to project himself into negative space so that he can completely control our universe. Luckily for the League, Green Arrow shows up and the Flash burns through the virus faster than expected in order to defeat the Key.

These final two issues in the second of Grant Morrison’s JLA collections were fabulous. As I stated in the previous post, the bad taste left in my mouth by the mangled “New World Order” collection (mangled by horrid art from Porter and some marketing intern’s stupid idea to include the plot twist on the back cover copy) is long gone. The stories in this collection are fun and smart and – unlike most superhero comics – excite my imagination.

One of the main things I appreciate about these stories from Morrison is the fact that he’s building on the past to enlighten the present. That is, Morrison is using a lot of old-school storytelling techniques to enliven the narrative. This second collection includes five chapters (issues 5-9) and in those five chapters, Morrison gives us three complete stories. Three! For most trade collections today (and I have to keep reminding myself these comics were originally published in 1997, nearly 15 years ago), this would fall one issue short of the single 6-issue arc passing for comic stories these days.

Too many creators are writing for the trade and give us, the audience, pre-packaged (and overstuffed) six-issue arcs that say little and excite even less. This is one of the things that has turned me off to many current comics and probably why I have been enjoying the “Wait, What?” podcast with Jeff Lester and Graeme McMillan – two comic fans and bloggers who have a great affinity for classic comics.

Decompression – ugh!!

But I digress.

With this iteration of the League, Morrison was trying to tell superhero tales in the grand tradition of comics from the silver age and before, and it is incredibly exciting. Like Chris Claremont and Steve Englehart and Roy Thomas and many writers before him, Morrison lays the groundwork for later stories with subplots in previous ones. With this two-parter involving the Key, the villain is introduced in issue #6, lying in a coma, only to come out of it in the subsequent issue (#7) so that he can trap the JLA in this storyline (#8-9). And the wrench in the works, the new Green Arrow (Connor Hawke), does not feel like some deus ex machina thanks to the recruitment story three issues earlier. Morrison’s deft handling of the storytelling in JLA makes things flow naturally rather than feeling forced. It’s a simple thing to ask, but something that often gets lost in most of today’s comic stories.

Morrison also eschews decompression for a fully packed storytelling style. He understands comics and allows readers to fill in the blanks for things that lie within the gutters of the panels. He isn’t afraid to have us readers jump into the middle of a conversation between characters, especially when the first part of the dialogue would have been nothing but exposition. In his mind, the readership is smart enough to connect the dots, and I applaud Morrison for that. And the density of ideas found in his stories is astounding.

  • Intelligence-enhancing perfume
  • Manta Raiders
  • The use of a clockwise Buddhist swastika and maggots (that devour necrotic tissue) to defeat undead Nazi zombies
  • The Speed Source leaking into the world once every day, causing all the inhabitants to fun as fast as the Flash (in his dream state)
  • The use of the JLA’s power to boost the Key’s own power

It’s all fantastic stuff that many writers would return to again and again until they’d bled the idea dry, but Morrison drops these and other similarly inventive ideas into a single page or even a single panel and then doesn’t return to them because he doesn’t need to. It’s brilliant.

The dream sequences in these two issues were reminiscent of Alan Moore’s & Dave Gibbons’s Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” in Superman Annual #11. But Morrison takes our heroes into far different places and makes this trope – which, if we’re honest, is the same premise utilized in DC’s Elseworlds stories – his own. These new versions of classic characters are extremely interesting, and a part of me wishes that DC had looked to this story for their impending relaunch.

  • Superman as the Green Lantern of his sector
  • Bruce Wayne, with wife Selina Kyle, now standing in for Alfred as Tim Drake and Bruce Jr. fight crime as Batman and Robin
  • the quicksilver-coated Flash

It’s all great stuff.

Morrison also subtly presents the overall theme of his run on JLA (as pointed out to me by Peter Rios) with the characterization of Connor Hawke (the new Green Arrow) in these two issues. Connor is arriving to be inducted into the League and finds the Key already deep into his plan – the members of the League all unconscious and hooked up to the Key’s device. Connor tries to intervene but is driven back and loses his arrows in an explosion.

This leaves him with no recourse other than to utilize his father’s trick arrows, which are stored in the trophy room. But, Connor has no idea how to use the boxing glove or handcuff arrows. He comments that his father was either a madman or a genius. And when the Flash comes out of his stasis, Connor remarks that his father’s arrows are “impossible” to shoot. But Connor doesn’t give up, though we can see in his voice-over that he is pondering it. And, in the end, Connor Hawke does what a superhero is meant to do, he perseveres through the impossible in order to do what is possible and save the day.

It’s a subtle bit of storytelling hidden among the bombast of the Key and the excitement of the heroes’ “other” adventures, but it is at the heart of this two-part story as well as at the heart of Morrison’s approach to the JLA.

And, finally, the art from Oscar Jimenez is a beauty to behold after the horror that is Howard Porter’s JLA (with apologies to Porter, with whom I have no personal grudge; I just have a hard time appreciating his art). Jimenez’s clean, polished style and clear storytelling provide a much-needed injection to the visuals of this series. If only he could stay on, but I’m pretty sure Porter will return with the next collection.

Anyway. I loved this entire collection and am anxiously looking forward to reading more. Can’t wait!


Sunday, August 28, 2011

FROM THE LONGBOXES: Amazing Spider-Man #30-35 by JMS & JRJr – Part III

Forgot to post this on Wednesday, so here's a Sunday bonus. The final installment in my short series on J. Michael Straczynski's & John Romita, Jr.'s run on Amazing Spider-Man that originally ran at the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog.



One of the best things about J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Amazing Spider-Man (at least up to the point I stopped reading, which was when JRJr left the book and Mike Deodato came on as artist) was his characterization of Peter Parker. JMS had a firm hold on what makes this character tick. Despite being older, Peter is still a person who takes very seriously his responsibility to his family (Aunt May and, though she is gone at this point, Mary Jane) as well as his responsibility, as Spider-Man, to the populace at large. This does not mean his exploits as Spider-Man are not nerve-wracking. This is why Spidey has always been a wise-cracker, spewing ridiculous jokes to cover up the fear he feels. It’s a common defense mechanism and one that has been a part of this character from the start. And JMS’s dialogue smoothly fits into this aspect of the character.

JMS also has Peter moving forward in his civilian life, having him become a science teacher at his old high school, as another way for him to give back to the community. This is a natural extension of the Spider-Man template set forth by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in the early sixties where they had him graduate high school, move on to college, and have evolving relationships with the likes of Betty Brant and Gwen Stacy. Again, it fits the character and is a nice way of “showing” readers who Peter Parker/Spider-Man is rather than telling us through some dull expository caption boxes. It’s a subtle bit of storytelling that too few writers in comics miss out on, even today.

The pacing of this story is also excellent. There’s an ebb and flow to the narrative that allows readers to enjoy the story and experience the emotional crescendos when they arrive. One of the best bits of writing advice I’ve gotten came from the DVD commentary by JMS for the final episode of season one of Babylon 5. He discussed how one should have a quiet moment prior to a major disruption in the narrative – whether it be an emotional disruption or an alien attack or whatever – in order to make that emotional instance resonate with the audience. And JMS deftly weaves the quiet moments with the “big” ones in this storyline.

Straczynski also sets things up nicely. He doesn’t have any resolutions come out of left field. The way Spider-Man defeats Morlun is reached through a natural progression of events, none of which feels forced or hackneyed. The way Morlun goes on about feeding on a pure totemistic host, and Ezekiel’s surprise arrival that catches the villain off-guard and bloodies his nose – offering Peter an opportunity to study what manner of creature Morlun is – all make sense and feel like the events they are (the villain monologuing, Ezekiel helping Peter) before you realize that they have secondary consequences (the opportunity for Peter to survive this primal force). It’s wonderful storytelling.

And that brings me to another aspect JMS brought to his initial storyline. He incorporated Peter’s scientific background when he had Peter take Morlun’s blood and analyze it for a possible way of defeating him. This is something I have rarely seen utilized in Spider-Man comics. It was refreshing. This has always been a cornerstone of the character, and yet it is hardly used within the stories. Peter’s webs were originally created by him, a scientific breakthrough that he tried to sell to some scientists way back in issue # 18 – a deal that fell through when they discovered the webs dissolved in minutes.

Yeah, editors have made his webs organic – actually an extension of Peter and emanating from his wrists – and I can’t say where the “continuity” stands on this aspect right now, and I’d rather not think about that. Ugh.

Bringing this aspect back into the book, accentuated by Peter’s decision to become a science teacher at his former high school, was something I greatly appreciated.

And John Romita, Jr’s artwork has never looked as good, in my opinion. He draws a lithe, ballet-like Spider-Man who is wiry and able to contort his body in a manner reminiscent of a spider and, again, a body type that hearkens back to Steve Ditko’s seminal work.

AN HISTORICAL NOTE: Initially, Jack Kirby was tapped to draw Spider-Man and he finished five pages of an initial story. But Stan Lee discarded that and chose to have Ditko draw the book. He obviously made the right choice. I don’t know the reasoning, but it seems to me that Kirby’s blocky style really would not fit with the character of Peter Parker – a teenage bookworm with a slight physical frame – whereas Ditko’s lithe artwork was a perfect match for the young hero.

JRJr knows how to draw comics, especially action-packed ones like Spider-Man. And he does not disappoint here. When Spidey first faces Morlun, the double-page spread we get from JRJr is fantastic, a whirlwind of these two larger-than-life characters pummeling each other. It’s a collage of images without panel borders that gets across the frenetic pace of the battle. It really is a masterfully drawn spread that showcases the unique properties of comics storytelling.

But, though this may not be his strong suit, JRJr can also evoke emotion from the quieter moments of the story. It’s these moments that help punctuate the action and give it the emotional tenor necessary in a story like this. Thankfully, JRJr is not afraid to let these softer moments breathe within the larger narrative. He understands, better than a lot of artists, how to tell a comic story effectively and give readers a full and satisfying experience. Having a veteran of his stature, who can also hit deadlines, on this book with JMS was a good move on Marvel’s part. It really elevated the first half of Straczynski’s tenure as writer on Amazing Spider-Man and is a major reason why this first storyline won the 2002 Eisner award for best serialized story.

And finally – JMS went there. He finally had Aunt May discover that her nephew is Spider-Man. And the way JMS handled that was brilliant.

But that’s best saved for another time.


Friday, August 26, 2011

NEW TO ME: JSA volume 2 – Darkness Falls

Thanks to Comic Geek Speak, I’ve heard a number of glowing things about this run of comics – begun by James Robinson & David Goyer and continued by Goyer & Geoff Johns – through their series of “Footnotes” spotlights on the initial twelve issues of the run (discussions of issues 1 -11 are currently available at their site, with the twelfth issue’s discussion yet to be recorded). So, seeking out something new – for me – in the world of superheroes, I chose to start reading, and writing about, this series and Grant Morrison’s JLA.

JSA: Darkness Falls is the second collection of the acclaimed relaunch of the Justice Society from 2000, and I have to applaud DC comics for offering ten issues of the comic, in this trade collection, for only $19.95 (and if it has gone up since it was initially published, I apologize). But I have to say, the stories inside left me wanting for something more.

The biggest problem I have with this series is that I don’t care about these characters. Having not read Infinity Inc. or Young All-Stars back in theday, or the Justice Society even further back, my knowledge of them is meager, to say the least. And the writers give me little within these first fifteen issues to grasp onto and make me care. There’s a lot of exposition, and I learn a bit about these characters and am told a number of times how dire a situation may be, but I never feel it, with the exception of one, single moment:

The JSA have captured Kobra, who opened that particular story arc by destroying a passenger jet upon which Atom-Smasher’s mother was journeying. Atom-Smasher, aka Al Rothstein, who has been trying to deal with his mother’s death, grows to a size he’s never achieved before (pushing his psyche and his physical body to limits his friends know to be dangerous) and is ready to crush Kobra in his hand. Jack Knight (Starman) flies up and tells Al to stop. But he doesn’t want to listen; he’s apoplectic with rage and heartache. And Jack tells him, “I know it’s not fair, Al. You’ve dedicated your life to saving people. I know. My brother was killed by the Mist’s son, Kyle. And then I … I killed him. In battle … it was … there’s not one day that goes by that I don’t wish my brother was here with me, Al. That I was there to save him. But you know what? There’s also not one day that goes by that I don’t think about Kyle. You don’t want that, Al. You don’t want your mother’s memory tainted like that.”

It really is a beautiful little moment, but one that is ruined by the overt melodrama seen when Atom-Smasher returns to normal size damning Kobra as he sheds tears for his dead mother. (I don’t’ know if it’s the art or the writing that ruins the moment here, but it goes from subtle to “hammering over the head” very quickly).

The stories also suffer from some horrible one-liners:

  • Dr. Mid-Nite: “Nice wing chun, Canary.” Black Canary: “Flattery will get you everywhere, Doc.”
  • Mr. Terrific: “Extant didn’t create this world with sugar, spice, and everything nice.”
  • Atom-Smasher: “All right, guys. For once, leave the flying to me.”

Dialogue like this included in such “end of the world” situations as the writers throw at us, the audience, make this feel like a schizophrenic series – does it want to be a comedy or does it want to be high drama? It’s frustrating and I would cringe every time I came to one of those “quips.”

And, with the final chapter, the writers make a poor storytelling choice by opening that chapter with the Star-Spangled Kid writing about the outcome of their battle with Extant in her diary. Her description tries to accentuate the dire position she and the other heroes were in, but by having it told from the perspective of someone who survived the ordeal, it bleeds all the tension from it that the creators have built up over the course of the previous issues.

There are, ultimately, some interesting panel layouts when we see the heroes battling Extant, and the climax provides an intriguing moral decision – utilizing the Worlogog’s time-bending properties to switch Kobra for Al’s mother as the plane from the opening chapter crashes – on the part of Atom-Smasher that could very well provide fascinating stories down the line (a moral choice that is made more profound and powerful if one is familiar with Geoff Johns’s personal tragedy). But, overall, I found the stories to be rather dull.

The art, again, is serviceable but Stephen Sadowski’s pencils lack the dynamism that could, in my eyes, elevate these stories. Buzz coming in to do a couple of fill-in issues is very much appreciated (this was my introduction to Buzz, a favorite of CGS). His beautifully feathered linework and facility with anatomy really shine in his two issues. And I greatly appreciate his ability to convey a realistic martial arts battle (see above). That was just fantastic stuff.

But that saving grace couldn’t save the entire book for me. I think, for now, I’ll leave the JSA and move to other stuff I haven’t read. Maybe I’ll return another time, but for now, I’m going to introduce myself to the world of Mark Millar, at least mainstream Mark Millar, and see if I can stomach his writing.

Stay tuned.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

NEW TO ME: JLA American Dreams – part 2

The next two issues in the “American Dreams” trade paperback by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, John Dell, et al. comprise a quick story dealing with the fallen angel Zauriel – a member of Heaven’s angels who attune their frequencies accordingly, in order to exist on a given plane of existence – and his unwillingness to return to the fold.

Zauriel is surprised to find, once he regains consciousness, that he has become mortal – as, we discover later, he wished. J’onn J’onnz finds him in San Francisco Bay just before the first ranks of Asmodel’s army show up to try and take Zauriel back. Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) alerts Superman and Flash (Wally West), who are in the JLA watchtower on the moon, and Flash zips into the transporter for San Francisco. (At this point, the league members aren’t sure what the alert might be). But when Wally hops into the tube, he becomes stuck in time, unable to jump to Earth or retreat back into the watchtower.

Shortly thereafter – once the heroes (GL, Wonder Woman, J’onn, and Aquaman, along with the angel Zauriel) have dispatched the preliminary group of angels – the league finds out that, not only is Wally stuck in the transporter, but the moon is falling to Earth, which means Superman cannot come to their aid as Asmodel approaches.

We also learn that there is another entity, Neron, behind this entire catastrophe. And the first of these two issues ends with the arrival of Asmodel’s ship in the skies of San Francisco, an event of cataclysmic import.

In the concluding issue, the League members come together in order to take down Asmodel and his ranks. Flash calms down and thinks through his predicament, changing his rate of molecular motion to pull free of the wave of ambient matter utilized by the transporter to teleport members between Earth and the moon. In San Francisco, J’onn J’onnz faces off against Asmodel while Wonder Woman and the angel Zauriel attack the ship causing much of the destruction in the Bay Area. And Arthur Curry (Aquaman) stands ready to take over for J’onn if he should fall, while Green Lantern works to keep the other angels at bay with his ring.

And, on the moon, Superman takes enormous chains, wraps them around some smaller towers at their base, hooks them up to the gigantic power cords they have for the Watchtower, and utilizes his electrical powers (since he’s Superman blue, at this point) to channel the electricity into the chains, producing an enormous magnet. He creates magnetic poles on the moon that are charged oppositely to those of the Earth and, in turn, causes these two astral bodies to repel one another, averting the devastation that would have occurred had the moon fallen to Earth.

He is the mother$%#*ing Superman!

Having averted this catastrophe, Kal-El flies to Earth where his friends are turning the tide of battle, but are still not assured of winning. J’onn is tired, but still standing, when Superman arrives and tells his friend to take a breather. This was an incredibly touching moment for me. The dialogue by Morrison is spot on and really gets across the depth of feeling Superman has for the Martian Manhunter through a minimum of words. Just brilliantly handled.

Meanwhile, Flash and GL join forces to find a way of defeating the angels. Kyle creates a device that will translate Flash’s speed into sound waves, sound waves that will negate the supersonic frequencies of the angels and cancel them from our plane.

And all is right with the world again.

The epilogue has the members of the JLA teleporting to the watchtower – with Batman taking the place of J’onn so that the Martian Manhunter can recuperate from his battle – and before Batman can say anything, the six members find themselves unconscious on the floor, an old enemy standing over them.

With this second collection, I can see Morrison really coming into his own with the JLA. I love how he writes the characters, and the fact that he has them utilizing their brains (Superman creating the magnetic poles on the moon, GL and Flash conceiving of the sonic disruptor to defeat the angels) in order to defeat their enemies is a refreshing change from the boring battle scenes that pass for drama in modern comics. It shows a lot of thought and care, and it excites my brain – something that made me a science fiction fan long before I discovered comic books.

Morrison has some great little bits in these two issues as well, including Aquaman believing Zauriel (who, being an angel, has feathered wings) might be the return of his lost friend Katar Hol (Hawkman, whom, I believe, was dead at the time), and Flash re-arranging trophies in the watchtower in less time than it takes for Superman to take a step.

And although the art is still not anything approaching stellar, the inclusion of Ken Branch as inker for much of the second issue of this two-issue arc does improve the quality quite a bit. I apparently need to re-assess Porter’s artwork. It’s bad, but can be made worse by an inker who is, as John Dell appears to be, beholden to Rob Liefeld and the “Awesome Studios” style.

The bad taste of the first trade is long gone now, and I am anxious to read more. And, flipping ahead, the arrival of Oscar Jimenez for the next two issues will be very welcome indeed.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

FROM THE LONGBOXES: Amazing Spider-Man by JMS & JRJr - part 2

It's new comics Wednesday, so here's another piece from my writing over at the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog. enjoy!


First go read part I, then come back.


Peter, bloodied and severely bruised, goes to Ezekiel to accept the offer of sanctuary this enigmatic businessman with eerily similar spider powers had proffered earlier. But it is too late. Morlun has touched Spidey and can now track him no matter where he hides. And, despite having extra-normal powers – or maybe for that very reason – Ezekiel declines to assist Peter in his battle with Morlun. If he did that, Morlun would be able to latch onto his scent, as he’s done to Peter, and he would come after Ezekiel next to leech him of his own totemistic powers. Ezekiel has too much to lose. He can’t forsake all he’s amassed for a fool’s errand.

So Spider-Man returns to the maw of destruction created by Morlun, and he must save a young child from this primal force of nature before going on the attack with his fists and his webbing. Nothing stops Morlun, and Peter realizes he needs to get some breathing room. But he stays within his enemy’s field of vision so that Morlun will remain fixed on the prize and not go after anyone else.

But first, in a nice touch by JMS, Peter calls the school to tell them he won’t be in. Too often, questions within the hero’s private lives (such as why would Clark Kent not be missed from the Daily Planet if he was off in space for weeks at a time as Superman) are never confronted, let alone answered. Having Peter do this in the middle of a battle not only firmly establishes this new status quo in Peter’s life, but it is also another example of JMS exhibiting Peter’s conscientiousness, which is a hallmark of the character.

Then the battle continues, with Morlun devastating Spider-Man in his relentless onslaught. Hardly able to move, after Morlun smashes him into a building with a lamppost, Spider-Man snags the bumper of a car with his webbing and lets it drag him along the paved road in order to get away, if only for a moment. Once he’s put some distance between himself and Morlun, Peter takes a moment to call Aunt May and tell her how much he loves her. He realizes it may be the last opportunity he has to do this.

And then Morlun is on him again, driving Spidey toward the docks.

But out of nowhere, Ezekiel knocks Morlun down from behind. With the enemy momentarily confused, Spidey and Ezekiel pour it on, bloodying Morlun’s nose before he regains his edge and sucks the energy from Ezekiel, who falls into the bay. Morlun, having quenched a bit of his thirst, leaves Spider-Man to look for his friend, content in the certainty that he will feed on him soon enough. And he returns to his aide, Dexter – a human liaison who wished to be close to power and has been helping Morlun make his way through New York – in order to prepare for the final battle.

But this altercation gives Peter something he hadn’t had before. He takes the bloodied timber from the dock and examines it at home. In so doing, he discovers that Morlun’s cells are made up of an amalgam of every kind of animal cell – the purest forms of DNA Peter’s ever seen. That is why Morlun needs to feed on a pure totemistic life-form, so that he can recharge those cells before they break down.

And that’s the key for Peter. He needs to dilute the purity of his Spider powers. To do that, he considers seriously Ezekiel’s earlier question: “Which came first, the radiation or the power?” Which is to say, did the radiation give the spider the power with which Peter was infected, or did the spider already have that totemistic power and inject Peter with it when it knew the radiation was going to kill it?

So, Peter injects himself with that same radiation, in order to dilute his totemistic purity and give Morlun something poisonous to feed on instead. And when Morlun tries to take Peter’s spider force, he burns with the radiation. Spider-Man now has a weapon, and with every punch he pours more radiation into Morlun – weakening him, changing him, making him vulnerable.

As Peter pounds on Morlun, he realizes that just defeating him isn’t enough. Morlun is a primal force that cannot be stopped in any conventional manner. Only through such an extreme scenario as this one, in which Peter injects himself with a near-lethal dose of radiation, is there any hope of defeating him.

Peter realizes Morlun must die. But can he do it?

And then Dexter, Morlun’s aide, comes out of the shadows and shoots him, wrenching the decision away from Peter. Part of Dexter’s services to Morlun included providing sustenance for the centuries-old vampiric being. It may have made Dexter feel important at first, but it hurt – a lot – and the toll it took on him was overwhelming. So, seeing his opportunity to be free, Dexter takes it.

And we, and Peter, will never know if he would have made that ultimate choice. It is a question that will haunt Peter for a long time, and it’s a perfect, emotional ending for this initial story from JMS and JRJr.

Except that this wasn’t the end. There still needs to be a cliffhanger, a reason for readers to come back and buy the next issue. There has to be the denouement. And JMS provided one helluva denouement.

When Peter had called Aunt May earlier to tell her he loved her, she had offered to pick up his clothes and take them to the cleaners. But, with Morlun on his trail, he didn’t have time to answer then.

So Aunt May decides to go to Peter’s and pick up his clothes – always wanting to do for her nephew, it makes complete sense. Peter is sleeping, and had taken no time to put away his tattered costume when he arrived home earlier. He is so exhausted from his battle with Morlun, that his spider sense does not warn him of Aunt May’s arrival.

And she sees his bloodied body and his Spider-Man costume, and realization hits her like a lightning bolt from a clear sky.

But that story is reserved for another day.


Monday, August 15, 2011

NEW TO ME: JLA American Dreams - part 1

JLA American Dreams - "Woman of Tomorrow"

By Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, John Dell, et al.

This second volume of Morrison’s JLA run, New World Order, starts out with far more promise than was left for me after finishing the first volume. It begins – after a quick introduction of the “Woman of Tomorrow” created by Professors Ivo and T.O. Morrow – at the funeral for Rex Mason, Metamorpho. I did feel a bit confused about this (did Metamorpho die in the first collection?) since I wasn’t sure when Rex died. But I went with it because the commentary between Superman (now Superman Blue):

“…it just seems a little sad. There were so many people at my funeral,”

and the minister:

“… normal people aren’t very interested in metahuman funerals anymore, Superman. Everyone knows you people come back all the time. Heaven knows how many times I’ve buried the Immortal Man! I’m sure Metamorpho won’t stay down for long …”

was so engaging. It’s only a quick scene, but Morrison gets to have fun at the expense of this superhero trope. And it whet my appetite for more.

In the next few pages, Morrison offers up some nice bits of characterization for the members of this incarnation of the Justice League. We have Batman putting Gotham first (“I promised the league I’d be prepared to function in an advisory capacity…”), which would not have come off as such a parody if Porter hadn’t chosen to give us the “gritted teeth” Batman saying this to Superman. It’s a simple freakin’ statement, Batman doesn’t need to look as if he’s constipated when he says it. But, being Batman, he is still able to take on another case to help the League:

Wonder Woman: I realize you have another case, but …

Batman: I’ll work on both.

We see Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) and Flash (Wally West), the youngest members of the league, playing a boxing game as created by Kyle’s ring, while Kyle makes an off-handed remark about preferring “him with the short hair.” We can assume he means Superman, who was in his mullet stage as Morrison began his run on JLA. And this is confirmed when Superman comes through the transporter and tells Kyle “So, you thought I needed a haircut, Kyle?” which is a brilliant reminder of Superman’s powers, in this case, his super hearing.

We then get to the reason the League has assembled in their watchtower atop the moon. They are having a recruitment drive. We get a nice scene of J’onn sitting patiently, listening to the likes of Damage and Hitman – his only response: “Next.”

Once they finish interviewing, the five members present – minus Batman and Aquaman – are discussing the candidates’ merits, when the ceiling explodes and falls in on them, only to be suspended in midair before any more damage can be done. The cause of this incident is Tomorrow Woman, the construct created by Ivo and Morrow, as seen on page 2 of this collection’s initial chapter (and this is only page 10).

From here, we watch as Tomorrow Woman integrates herself into the league, taking center stage in their pursuit of an entity known as “IF.” IF pops from one city to the next, leaving destruction in its wake and the Justice League as little more than a clean-up crew working to keep the carnage to a minimum as IF blinks out of existence again.

Meanwhile, Ivo and Morrow watch as their automaton gets closer to the League in preparation for her ultimate assignment – to destroy the League with an electromagnetic pulse weapon in her artificial heart that will trigger a telekinetic wave front, causing all electrical activity in the brains of the JLA to cease. And, as they watch on, these two evil scientists debate which of them is the genius- Professor Ivo claiming he is the more ingenious inventor since he created such a perfect simulation of a physical being with Tomorrow Woman, while T.O. Morrow claims it is he by dint of his creation of her artificial brain with all its false memories and dreams.

As the League unlocks the secret to the creature IF – standing for Implicate Field, a weapon derived of 32nd century advanced quantum technology confiscated by the U.S. military from the Lord of Time’s arsenal. They discover the only way to stop IF is to detonate an electromagnetic pulse.

We, the readers, can see the culmination of Ivo’s and Morrow’s plan driving toward us as Tomorrow Woman volunteers that she can create such an EMP. But, she also realizes what such an act would cause – the decimation of the Justice League, the heroes who took her in and gave her a purpose – and she tells them, “…but I can’t.”

Though an automaton, Tomorrow Woman has spontaneously generated a rudimentary ethical code. Tomorrow Woman overrides her programming, shuts down her telepathic broadcast facilities, and destroys IF without harming her new friends, the Justice League. And in the end, Morrow stands triumphant, because he created an artificial brain that was able to think for itself.

Seconds later, J’onn shows up to take these villains away.

This was a great story from Grant Morrison, and done all in one issue. I enjoyed the interaction of the members here, the recruitment drive and the understated humor of J’onn stoically asking for the “next” interviewee, and the twist ending with Ivo and Morrow, along with the little bits he included within the narrative. This single issue felt very condensed, with a lot going on in twenty-two pages, and it helped wipe away the disappointment of the first trade. Porter’s art is still subpar and keeps this issue from, overall, being great. But the story was so superior that I was able to overlook the artistic shortcomings and am looking forward to the next chapter of this collection.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

FYC Replay: The Process with Joe Infurnari

The archiving of my Pulse columns continues. Here's a look at one of the more inventive webcomics I've read by the incredibly talented artist Joe Infurnari. Check his stuff out!

For Your Consideration: Joe Infurnari’s The Process

By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: Joe Infurnari is the artist for Oni’s Borrowed Time, written by Neal Shaffer. With that book, he showed that he is an accomplished comic artist. But online, Infurnari is experimenting with style, pushing himself to evolve as an artist while pushing the boundaries of comic storytelling. His webcomic, The Process, is an entertaining experiment that is well worth checking out. Click on in and find out more about this intriguing artist.

The 411:

The Process webcomic

Story & Art by Joe Infurnari

Color, b/w, collage

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

At Joe Infurnari’s website (artist of Borrowed Time and Wasteland #14), the artist is experimenting with his art – with style, with storytelling, and with the process. The tale begins with a mad stampede of strange creatures barreling over the rolling dunes trying to stay ahead of a great storm that pushes them forward. Witnessing this mad dash is a scrit, a small land crustacean similar to a small crab that is able to curl into a ball and shield itself with its hard outer shell. Unlucky enough to be in the path of these wild animals, the scrit rolls itself up and manages to avoid being crushed. But the storm is close behind and the tiny animal moves off searching for shelter.

Hiding under an overarching leaf of a tall plant, the scrit does not avoid being drenched as the upper leaves of this same plant quickly fill with raindrops, the rush of water cascading down from one upturned leaf to another before reaching the one just above the scrit’s head, sending the crustacean sluicing along the now moist ground. Realizing the flora of this strange place will not provide the shelter it needs, the scrit scuttles off to a cave. There it is indeed dry and warm, but as the scrit moves further into the darkness it discovers another inhabitant residing within the cave. A young boy has already sought shelter there, and when the boy sees the crustacean he smashes the tiny animal with a rock, killing it instantly and bringing chapter one to a close.

With chapter two, things become surreal. The soul of the Scrit leaves its mortal body, devolving down to its component DNA as it returns to its maker, the mind of the artist – Joe Infurnari. This is a beautiful sequence, and the images created by Infurnari are beautiful and strange and elegantly communicate these strange events. With this transition, readers are now invited to experience the inner workings of the artist as the audience watches Joe finishing up his day. But when he steps away from the drawing table, the work is not done. His mind is still swirling with ideas and images, and it is obvious that the fantasy world he created for chapter one is working to push its way into the artist’s “real world.” As these two worlds overlap, readers must try and decide which of the two is real and which imagined, because it is not readily evident from the narrative, though readers should be excused for their bias toward one perception of reality.

Joe Infurnari is an accomplished artist. That was apparent from his work on the Oni press series Borrowed Time, which he created with writer Neal Shaffer. But the work he is doing on The Process at his website is far beyond what he’s already achieved. His coloring is nuanced and creates a fully realized fantasy landscape, while the choice to showcase the “real” world in black and white gives the story a nice dichotomy that helps to differentiate the two realities as the fantasy world pushes up against its boundaries, threatening to break down those barriers and become part of this “real” world.

As the second chapter moves toward its conclusion, Infurnari again moves outside of the familiar and utilizes photography and sets created out of cardboard in order to push along the narrative. Infurnari seems unfazed about leaving traditional comic art behind for new and inventive techniques and choices. And contrary to what one might believe, the transitions from full color to black and white, and from traditional pen and ink to photography and constructed sets is not jarring in the least. The story continues to flow along smoothly, keeping readers engaged while raising questions of what will come next and what will be the fate of the artist.

With The Process, Infurnari is working to push the boundaries of comic storytelling while also pushing himself to evolve as an artist, experimenting with design, style, and technique as he creates this webcomic. Most of his pages divert from the traditional panel borders, preferring to allow the various images to provide their own borders (another reason to create the fantasy in full color and the reality in black and white). This not only helps to convey the feeling of panic and tension that is evident in the middle of the second chapter, but it also accentuates the flowing realities, enhancing the possibility they might merge as the story continues. It’s a masterful blending of technique with story that showcases the unique ability of comics to not only tell a story, but also show that story and allow its audience to experience it in a manner they could not if they were watching a movie or reading a novel. Each medium is different with various strengths and weaknesses, and the best creators are those that are able to grasp those unique strengths of a particular medium and utilize them.

The Process is an entertaining webcomic that is also an intriguing experiment – one for which Joe Infurnari should be applauded. Few artists are confident enough to put themselves on display in this manner, and even less are able to pull off such an experiment with as much facility as Infurnari. What will come in successive chapters is a mystery, and I am anxious to find out what Joe Infurnari has in store for us.

An Interview with Joe Infurnari:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Joe Infurnari: My attraction to comics fits the usual profile; a childhood fascination with them combined with a love of drawing and art made the temptation to create my own comics too hard to resist. As an adult, after years of studying fine art, I came back to this medium intrigued by some of the things unique to it. Readers can experience an extended period of time, travel across vast distances in the space between two images, become different people and much more in just one page of comics! There's a wonderful synesthesia at play, too. Sounds and smells and other senses are all experienced visually! When I get a comic or graphic novel I love to take in the art by flipping all over the book and there's a really fun sense of time travel to that. Simply scanning the various pages let's me drop in and out of a story at different stages. There are strange forensics to that where I can imagine what is happening between these events experienced out of order. It's not unlike what happens between panels, except I just do it between pages front and back. That's another thing about this medium and its fusion of word and image. It's very cerebral. Comics can be easily adapted to the representation of thoughts, memory and consciousness. It very closely approximates for me the way the mind works as a very fluid flow of images and words.

Beckett: The first chapter of The Process is unlike the art you did for Borrowed Time. That may have to do with the coloring of the work, which was terribly impressive. How did you achieve the coloring of those pages (it looks like well-blended colored pencils) and did your approach to these pages differ from how you create your black and white pages?

Joe Infurnari: For every project I work on, I try to adapt my visual style to tell the story to its highest effect. The pages for chapter 1 of the Process were definitely approached differently from Borrowed Time. I wanted to draw the reader into this world by creating a visually rich and immersive experience. The style is very similar to what I did for Mandala where I used ink for the drawing and watercolors to flesh out the colors. In some cases I used grey or colored Pitt markers for some of the line work and sound effects. Very little coloring was done digitally. What you see is pretty much what happened on the page itself.

Beckett: Chapter two was a major change in the narrative and felt like a stream of consciousness piece. It flows naturally, as if you are making it up as you go along, and I was wondering how structured is this story you’re creating, and, being the writer and artist, how is it different from doing art only?

Joe Infurnari: When I'm working from a script by another artist, I can focus all of my attention on making the art tell the story. Certainly, I'm going to try and be inventive and take some risks here and there but for the most part I have a map and I know where I am going. All that's needed is for me to take the journey in the art.

It's much more difficult doing the Process! Going into Chapter 2, I sort of knew what needed to happen at the end of that chapter with most of the key events mapped out in between. Then it's just a matter of building the story page after page until I get there. Along the way, things change, get reconceptualized and new ideas find their way into it. What starts out as just an idea ("at the end of Chapter 2, I'm going to black out!") has to be given form ("I'll use thought bubbles to thread the various storylines!") and that form has to adapt as I approach Chapter 3 where it will change all over again. This sort of ad hoc approach works for this project because it fits in with the stream of consciousness narrative; it keeps it open enough to allow new things to happen and it lets the process of its creation influence the story. Sometimes I have to redo pages later or insert pages here and there but that's okay. This webcomic is about finding your way and art, like life, can go in many directions at once. Part of this story is its own creation and so I have to let that unfold as it happens. It's that story that keeps me really invested in this, too. If I had all the answers and knew exactly what was going to happen and how I would do it, it wouldn't be half as much fun! Right now I am making a chandelier out of cardboard for Chapter 3 and I didn't know about it until just over a week ago!

Beckett: What was the inspiration for The Process, and how were the images that open chapter two conceived (did you picture them immediately, or was there an editing process involved in creating that opening sequence so that it would flow, and what are you hoping to accomplish with this work, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

Joe Infurnari: I'm inspired by all kinds of comics, myths, movies, books and art. I am a comics omnivore and I read everything from Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library to Eric Powell's The Goon. Some specific creators whose works have been influential on the Process are Rick Veitch who I think has one of the wildest imaginations in comics. Abraxas and the Earth Man and his dream comics collections are necessary reading. Another writer who I admire is Grant Morrison for a lot of the same reasons. He is constantly surprising and his imagination seems to know no limits. Jim Woodring's work is also influential because he touches on a lot of universal and primordial themes in a way that always seems to hit the right balance of mystery, poetry, beauty and horror.

The Process has been something that I've been thinking about doing for a long time. Its first incarnation was the minicomic, Mandala, which was a very condensed version of the larger storyline. For the Process I wanted to do something epic, mythic with many layers of meaning and something that used art's openness to interpretation to expand its mystery. I felt that it shouldn't be easily categorized as either arty autobiographical comics or pure sci-fi/fantasy escapism. It should be both and everything in between. Since it was going to be a webcomic, this diary-like aspect could be adapted to reveal the process of its own creation. I want to bring people into the story of how this is created. People who comment or review this project are participating in it and are influencing its development. I wanted to be conscious of that and let that happen. Audience participation is unique to this web format so I want to use it! Another goal for it is to create a vast clearing house of visual ideas. This thing is going to challenge and push my art into new areas and will test what I can do in this medium.

As you already pointed out, Chapter 2 is very different. It's a shift out of the imagined world of Chapter 1 into the 'real' world of its creator. This happens by showing how this world is encoded in its creator. Chapter 2 starts off showing a spiritual aspect of the scrit creature leaving its body. Already we've taken a step closer to the immaterial and the world of ideas. We discover from it's anatomy that it was a female creature with many eggs. Focusing in on one of the eggs, we zoom in on its DNA strand. From there we pull back again to see that this DNA structure is part of a neuron or brain cell. Pulling back even more reveals that this brain cell structure belongs to my brain, the creator of Chapter 1. How I came upon this is similar to the rest of the chapter. I knew I needed to bring the story to my world and I also knew that I needed to shift the visuals into a new style. That sequence of images afforded me those two goals the best, I felt.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Joe Infurnari: Chapter 2 of the Process is coming to a close with the art shifting its way into Chapter 3 which should begin later this month. I'm currently working on Borrowed Time 3 with Neal Shaffer for later this year and have just finished doing the art for Wasteland #14 which is in stores now. Later this month, I have Mandala reprinted in Ape Entertainment's Fablewood anthology of fantasy comics. I've started work on a short story for an upcoming series on the web. Looking even further down the line, I have a short story that I worked on with writer Alexis Sottile that will be published in an anthology based on missed connection ads. That book is called I Saw You…Missed Connection Comics and it will be published by Three Rivers/Random House in 2009. Anyone curious about that story, called Nocturnal Transmission, can go read it now on my site. I think that's most of it. Other projects are still too early on to discuss but I have a few other fish in the frying pan!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

FROM THE LONGBOXES: Amazing Spider-Man by JMS & JRJr part 1

It's new comics Wednesday, so here's another piece from my writings over at the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog.


In 2001, Marvel decided to make a big splash with their books and re-energize a number of titles. These included New X-Men from Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely, Daredevil from Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev, and Amazing Spider-Man from J. Michael Straczynski & John Romita, Jr. It was a great time to be reading comics, and, for me, this was the first time since John Byrne was working regularly for them that I took any notice of Marvel comics. I mean, come on – Grant Morrison did Animal Man and Bendis did Torso, and I loved those books. How could I not pay attention?

But, for me, the biggest news was that JMS was going to be writing Amazing Spider-Man. This was huge. I love Babylon 5, and, for my money, it is the best science fiction television show ever to hit the airwaves. The evolution of characters, the laying down of story seeds in the first season that payoff two or three or four seasons later, the big ideas coupled with fully realized alien races and political intrigue – JMS kept me excited and wanting more throughout the entire five seasons of this seminal science fiction show.

So when he was hired for Spidey, I was all in.

And the first storyline, encompassing issues 30-35 and entitled “Coming Home,” did not disappoint and ended up winning the Eisner award for best serialized story that year.

In interviews, I remember JMS stating he wanted to stay away from the typical Spider-Man villains and create new characters for his run. And he dropped everyone into the deep end of the pool with the first issue when he introduced Ezekiel.

A successful businessman – something we don’t discover until shortly after we first meet him – Ezekiel knows an awful lot about Spider-Man, including his origin, his powers, and who it is beneath the mask. Ezekiel also has very similar powers to those of Spidery. And, to top it all off, he tells Pete that maybe everything he believed about his life as Spider-Man is wrong.

Ezekiel claims that Peter’s transition into Spider-Man isn’t merely a random occurrence. He asks Peter, as the two of them stand atop the Empire State Building:

“Did the radiation enable the spider to give you these powers?

Or was the spider trying to give you those powers before the radiation killed it?”

And Peter’s mind is blown. This puts everything he’s believed since that fateful day into question, and Peter doesn’t know what to think. And then, Ezekiel is gone.

A few days later, Ezekiel finds Peter at his new job, science teacher at his old high school. He invites Peter for pizza to discuss what he thinks he knows about his powers. Ezekiel tells Peter about these totemistic forces that used to walk the earth, race memories that still haunt our DNA. These forces were ones that could bridge the gap between humans and other species. Ezekiel claims that Spider-Man is one of these totemistic forces. As he explains, you can judge a hero (or man) by his enemies. One type of hero attracts the same type of enemy, and in the case of Spidey, he’s attracted a lot of totemistic pretenders – Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, the Rhino, the Lizard, and the Scorpion, to name a few of his rogues.

After their pizza, Ezekiel invites Peter to his office building where he offers Peter sanctuary in a specially built panic room where he can hide from the evil that is coming to hunt him down. Peter declines, worried that whoever may be after him would put innocents in danger in order to draw him out. And, having battled numerous enemies through the years as Spider-Man, he feels no need to run and hide. He’s done this before. He will do it again. And he always comes out on top.


I loved this new perspective JMS took with regard to Spider-Man’s powers and origin. There was an outcry from loyal Spidey fans who denigrated such a reworking of Peter Parker’s story – and many posited a strong argument that this new idea took away the strength of the character, i.e. a forlorn teenager accidentally endowed with great power who must come to terms with his new reality and realize that with such power comes great responsibility. The randomness of the spider bite plays into this depiction of the character very strongly, and I can understand how some might perceive this as undermining the character. But, for me, I always took Ezekiel’s story with a heavy grain of salt, intrigued by this notion but content to believe it was only a possibility and nothing more.

But I digress

The evil coming to hunt down and feed on Spider-Man is the other major character JMS introduces in this first story arc, Morlun. A vampiric creature who feeds on the life-force of those who have totemistic powers, Morlun believes, as Ezekiel does, that Spider-Man is one of these totemistic forces. It has been a long time, possibly centuries, since Morlun fed on a pure totemistic force. So he is determined to capture Spider-Man. And he is a badass. With inhuman strength on a level that allows him to effortlessly shake off Spider-Man’s strongest punches, unyielding stamina, and the ability to track his prey anywhere once he’s come in to contact with them, Morlun does not stop for anything. This is something Spidey learns very quickly, when Morlun uses Spider-Man as a rag doll in their initial confrontation.

Worn down and fearing for his life, Peter goes back to Ezekiel. He is ready to take the sanctuary now. But it is too late. Morlun has touched Peter. He can track him anywhere now, sensing him even within a full-proof hideaway such as Ezekiel constructed. Sanctuary is no longer an option.

It is at this point, that things look bleakest for our hero.

To be continued …