Wait, What? Ep. 81: On Tact Cleanses

Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone App [Image above from the awesome Sharknife: Double Z by Corey Lewis, which we did not discuss in this episode, but believe me it was rad.]

Sorry, sorry, for reasons that will probably be apart for those who listen to the podcast, I've got to pull some serious Hello!, I Must Be Going shit because I'm on night nine of the ten day Flowers for Algernon diet.

So join poor old Graeme McMillan and I for two-plus hours of the jibberty that goes jabberty.  Our topics include The Silence of Our Friends by Nate Powell and Mark Long; Shooters by Steve Lieber, Brandon Jerwa and Eric S. Trautmann; Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks; digital comics and Infinite comics; Spaceman issues #4 and #5; the Wednesday Comics HC; Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, and Joe Casey; Jim Shooter's Legion of Superheroes, New Deadwardians #1, Avengers Vs. X-Men #0, Scarlet by Bendis and Maleev, and the proverbial much, much more.

Nine out of ten dentists who choose Jif, etc., etc., iTunes, turn, heel, kick--jazz hands!

Wait, What?, Episode 81: On Tact Cleanses

P.S. please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.

Verse Chorus Verse: Jeff's Capsule Reviews from 6/8

Does it bode ill for my reviews when I can't think of a clever thing to say while convincing you to follow me behind the jump for capsule reviews?  It probably is, isn't it?  Ah, well.  I just finished watching the screen adaptation of The Black Dahlia.  I mean, I'd heard that movie would be bad, but there were wrong casting decisions, terrible direction, and some bad mistakes in adapting Ellroy's skeezy epic to the screen. As a quasi-fan of Brian DePalma, it's a painful, painful movie to watch.  And I blame it for my inability to bring you a witty intro: the movie is a like a form of slow-acting toxin to the higher brain functions. Anyway, after the jump:  lower brain function reviews of Empowered: Ten Questions for the Maidman, Invincible Iron Man #504, Witch Doctor #0, and more.

EMPOWERED: TEN QUESTIONS FOR THE MAIDMAN:  Maidman -- the cross-dressing vigilante of Adam Warren's Empowered universe -- gets his own one-shot with alternating black and white sections by Adam Warren and color sections by Emily Warren. It was a book I wanted to deeply like, but really only admired. You can read this one-shot as a deconstruction of Batman (Maidman is one of the few non-powered superheroes in the Emp universe and easily the most feared), a deconstruction of Batman analogs (in some ways, this is the funniest issue of Midnighter never published), or maybe even a spoof of the cape industry's current trend in Mary-Sueisms.  Alternately, you could also take it as a face value, with Warren using the same gimmicks to get the reader to like Maidman that Johns or Bendis or a host of others use these days -- (a) introduce character; (b) have everyone talk admiringly of character; (c) show character doing something impossibly awesome; (d) profit.  Empowered: Ten Questions... shows Warren as being as skilled a practitioner of the current bag of comics writing magic tricks as anyone currently working.  I'm glad he at least has his own little universe to toy about with, but I wish I could get more worked up about a more-or-less OK one-shot...in no small part because I worry about him getting it yanked out from under him if the sales aren't there.  Vexingly OK.

INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #504:  Really interesting to read a book where the regular writer is caught off-balance by the obligatory line-wide event when the same guy is writing that event, too.  I mean, that two page scene with Tony and Pepper is really quite good for what it is.  But the meat of the issue, where Tony goes to Paris because one of the hammers of the Worthy has landed there, is underwhelming. Fraction clearly built the issue to that last page climax but it feels like that's the only thing he's trying to  accomplish.  So when you get to that last page, it definitely has some punch to it but it also eaves you feeling super-empty and annoyed immediately after.

Also, that last page what feels like part of an ongoing tug-of-war between Fraction and Larrocca. Instead of focusing on rendering that kinda-important pile of stones Tony is on top of, Larroca focuses on the building beside it.  It doesn't feel quite like a "fuck you" from one collaborator to another, but it does suggest painfully opposing goals\.  $3.99 price-tag + ineffective storytelling + forced event crossover=AWFULness.

POWER-MAN & IRON FIST #5: Similarly, last issue of this miniseries turned out very meh in the end despite my modest expectations.  Wellinton Alves' work ended up rushed and ugly, and Van Lente's script tried to do wayyyy too much in too short a time.  Not only do both heroes have romantic relationships resolved in this issue, but a mystery is solved, fight scenes are had, and the creepy Comedia Del'Morte are...well, frankly, I have no idea what happened to them.  It's a shame because I was won over by so much less with that back-up story from Amazing Spider-Man. (On the plus side,with very little rejiggering, Van Lente and Alves could re-tool this as an arc of the post-Morrison Batman & Robin and it'd fit right in.)  I'm tempted to get all Rex Reedy on you and say this puts the EH back in "meh," but I won't...in part because it was AWFUL.

SECRET AVENGERS #13: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! No. CRAP.

WALKING DEAD #85/WITCH DOCTOR #0:  Although I like the swerve Kirkman made with this storyline a few issues back, I don't know if there's really much more going on than that.  I suspect as we come 'round issue #100, Kirkman's biggest flaw --his ability to dramatize character development is rudimentary at best, and so he has to have scenes where his characters explain their motivations to one another for us to get it --  is getting more and more apparent. While I'm at it, Charlie Adlard's biggest strength -- drawing a large cast of characters to keep them easily identifiable without resorting to any flashy tricks -- may also be hindering this book:  the dramatic scenes either run to the inert or the occasionally overheated.  Energy, ambition and craft have gotten these guys farther and higher than anyone would've suspected and I in no way mean to diminish their achievement.  But I think if this book is going to make another 85 issues, they're going to need to shake up their skillsets for a change, not their storyline. OK stuff.

As for WITCH DOCTOR #0, despite having very little interest based on the material I'd seen online, I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.  Everyone [by which I mean at least me] has always wanted to write a biologic explanation for vampires, a la Matheson's treatment in I am Legend, but writer Brandon Seifert really goes to town here. Lines like "his saliva's got the usual bloodfeeder chemistry set-- vasodilator, anticoagulant and an anesthetic--plus some interesting mystical secretions.  I think one's a anterograde amnesiac--" make my heart go pitter-pat, and Seifert has a lot of them.  I can easily see how it might feel dry to some, but to me it showed a commitment to research and world-building I think you really need to make a series about a doctor (even a mystical one) work.  As for Lukas Ketner's art, it's enjoyably quirky, especially when it chooses to go detailed and when it decides to loosen up: panels of this remind me of Wrightson, others of William Stout, and still others of Jack Davis, and I could never figure out when the next swerve was going to happen.  VERY GOOD stuff and I'm definitely on-board for the first few issues of the regular title now.

WOLVERINE #9:  Not the most recent issue I know, but so much more satisfying than issue #10, I figured you'd forgive me for writing about it instead.  I mean, to begin with:  God damn, this is some gorgeous looking work.  Daniel Acuna (who I guess is doing both the art and the colors) really sold me on this story about a mysterious assassin (Lord Deathstrike) and Wolverine both trying to hunt down Mystique on the streets of San Francisco. But I should point out that there's three full pages of wordless action that feel perfectly placed in the script and I think writer Jason Aaron should really be commended for having the confidence to let the art do its stuff.  And there's also a hilariously over-the-top assassination scene at the beginning that I loved.  I suspect this book is going to have diminishing sales in no small part because Aaron just can't keep away from writing Wolverine's adventures with a strong dash of the absurdly extreme, and a larger audience for this character really want this stuff served straight-up.  I can understand that desire (especially when you get issues like #10 where it's Logan vs. the Man with the Jai-Alai Feet) but when you get such an artist who can sell you on both the sweet & sour sauce of Aaron's mix of awesome and absurd? It's really pretty satisfying.  This was one hell of a  VERY GOOD issue.

UNCANNY X-FORCE #11:  I guess this is what you can do with okay art and good characterization--you can make me care somewhat about stuff I wouldn't ordinarily care about. I missed out on the original Age of Apocalypse stuff powering the plot here and yet, thanks to a forty-issue Exiles habit, I'm pretty familiar with what's going on.  In fact, arguably I'm too familiar as I felt like I was at least a beat or two ahead of the plot at all times.  But at least some of the time I was surprised by what the characters said or how they said it.   I still quietly pine for the awesomeness of the first five issues, but this was on the high end of OK for me.

SECRET AVENGERS #13: Seriously, though.  Do you need to know why I thought this was terrible?  Well, let's just say when your plot about a Washington invasion hinges on the fierce determination of a congressman who also happens to be a magical negro mutant, and that leads to Lincoln from the Lincoln Monument and all the dinosaurs from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History rising up to hold the line, then I think it's safe to say things have gone wrong.  Weirdly, I could've bought it in a DC book -- for whatever reason, I expect the surreal and the schmaltzy to intermingle more freely there -- but here it seems like a big ol' misfire.  Again, to sum up:  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! No. CRAP.

And that's my week in pamphlets.  As for my TRADE PICK....

BAKUMAN, VOL. 5:  Oh man, how I love this series.  It's not an easy sell, I know, and I'll be the first to admit that first volume is more than a little forced.  And in fact, here in volume 5, there is still a surprising number of misfires:  for example, there's a chapter here about an artist who is so committed to proving his worth to his writer that he draws pages outside her window in the middle of a blizzard and it's really treacly and ineffective. And there are more than a few hilariously cynical moves by the writer and artist to pander to their publishers:  in more than a few places, the editors and publishers of Shonen Jump are treated with a degree of reverence that borders on the fanatical.

On the other hand, Bakuman has changed my understanding of how manga is created so much I've since read other titles with new eyes --I doubt I would've enjoyed my thirteen volume romp through One-Piece nearly as much without it. And even more than that, I'm totally a sucker for the way Ohba and Obata have introduced so many different young manga creators and then blurred the lines between enemies and allies so much you realize none really exist.  As a book about the comics industry properly should, Bakuman is very much about who you have to decide to trust and the possible long-term implications of those choices.  But it's also a book where competition doesn't preclude comradeship and that totally hits a sweet spot of insecurities and needs I didn't really know I had.  Really, the series is so very far from perfect it's kinda painful...and yet the last four volumes now have been some of my favorite reading of the last year.  VERY, VERY GOOD for me, but you really not might feel at all the same.

The Inventory #1: Jeff Considers Immortal Iron Fist #10-14

From time to time, it's been suggested in our comments that we post follow-up reviews of story arcs after reviewing them in issue-by-issue fashion for so long, as a way to see whether or not the whole thing came out in the wash. The Inventory doesn't quite do that but it's close: I'm so far behind on my non-manga reading that I thought I might review a batch of purchased issues of a single title at one go and see how they shape up.

First up, The Immortal Iron Fist #10-#14, plus The Immortal Iron Fist annual.

As you may remember, I've been a fan of Iron Fist from way, way back (like back when Claremont and Byrne first worked on the character) so I was delighted when writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and artist David Aja tackled the character by crafting a story arc that re-examined the character's origin and took it as the jumping off point for an epic story that spun backwards in time even as it moved forward.

Part of what thrilled me about that it was unabashedly such a classic piece of Marvel storytelling: when I was growing up, Marvel characters were always having their origins re-examined, the gaps of believability being grouted over with more backstory and, whenever possible, more continuity. (The examples that stand out the most for me are both from Steve Englehart: his sprawling storyline in Avengers that revealed the true history of the Vision; and that great Captain America story that puts the Captain America of Marvel's '50s comics in continuity.) That stuff will probably always resonate with me, but never more so than when I was at the age where I was starting to figure out the underlying cause and effect in the world around me. There comes some point when it really sinks in that everything existed before you came into the world, and that everything has a history, and the effect is a little bit like those Marvel epics: even as you're moving forwards, this epic backstory of the world is spinning out before you simultaneously.

The first six issues of The Immortal Iron Fist have Danny Rand, the current Iron Fist, meet Orson Randall, the previous Iron Fist, and discover the true nature of his origin. At the end of it, he's whisked away to the magical city of K'un L'un where he was raised, so he may fight in the Tournament of Heavenly Cities. Issues #7-14 show that tournament, re-introduce us to K'un L'un and the political struggle behind its facade, introduce the other Heavenly Cities which are tied to K'un L'un, as well as the champions of those cities, fill in the backstory with Danny's dad and Davos, the villain of the first arc, and, in the end, set the warriors of the tournament and the warriors of K'un L'un against the forces of Hydra.

It's all audacious as hell, jammed to the gills with characters and action, cool fights and finishing moves. Even with the wit and insouciance of Fraction's dialogue, these issues of Immortal Iron Fist feel like Scott Pilgrim's deadpan cousin: Hong Kong movies from the '80s and '90s, video games, and Marvel comics all hold equal sway over the proceedings. At its best, the book becomes almost operatic while still being cobbled of out of little more than thirty years of beloved pop culture detritus.

Yet, weirdly, by the time I'd plowed through issues #10-14 (and the Annual, must not forget the Annual), I found myself simultaneously satiated and hungry, pleased and grouchy, content and unsettled. While comics have many, many advantages over movies and videogames, several of the biggest differences can work to their disadvantage: neither movies nor video games are assembled in a linear fashion, and the work on the slam-bang finale can be the first task undertaken. Also, comics both benefit and suffer from being the product of a much smaller team of creative personnel--when a member of the team takes a powder or loses interest, the change in the product is noticeable.

All of which is a fancy-dan way of saying that in issue #10, artist David Aja contributes fifteen pages, and Kano contributes five. By issue #13, Aja contributes three pages, Kano contributes six, and Tonci Zonjic the other eleven. And in the big finale, Kano does five pages, Clay Mann does five, Tonci Zonjic does the remaining twenty, and Aja is nowhere to be seen. (Unless he did the cover--why the hell aren't they crediting the cover artist on these books?)

Now, Zonjic has a clear, clean style--and Matt Hollingsworth's colors (which are so superlative throughout the entire series he deserves to be counted as one of the key creative personnel) help provide a visual unity with the preceding issues--but Aja's work gains its power from fluidly moving from elegantly simple linework to byzantine detail, and often in the same panel, in a way that underlined the ambitions of the book: Immortal Iron Fist similarly swings from the simplicity of a big, gaudy kung-fu fight book to a richly backstoried epic in almost as short a span. And so the big final issue, with all of the legendary warriors fighting side-by-side in Zonjic's clear, clean style, has a flattened feeling to it, just because a dimension has visually dropped out.

Additionally, the "Seven Capital Cities of Heaven" arc manages to more or less forget about the main character entirely, which is something Marvel's '70s epics never did. While some of this is because Brubaker and Fraction are too dutiful to succumb to mere hackwork--after setting up the reader's expectation that Iron Fist will fight against six other awesome kung-fu adversaries in the Tournament of Heavenly Cities, they have Danny lose his first match and remove him from the action--I can't help but feel, despite the writers' insistence in interviews, Brubaker and Fraction don't have much interest in Danny Rand.

Indeed, the real center of the piece turns out to be Davos, who starts off as a villain in search of vengeance, and ends up conflicted, torn between his self-righteous anger and the opportunity to truly act righteously. Issue #14 of Immortal Iron Fist really turns on that choice, and it's the resolution of his story that gives the arc tremendous power. It's kind of like if Lucas had done Star Wars right, and we really had started the story thinking it was about Luke Skywalker and finished it realizing it was actually all about Darth Vader.

And yet: couldn't the arc have also been about Danny Rand? As much as I appreciate that Brubaker and Fraction make Danny a genuine hero, noble and self-sacrificing and kind, I'm sort of frustrated they are either unable or unwilling to figure out what to do with the character apart from discover his origin. As Claremont and Byrne did before them, they surround the character with the flashiest supporting cast around. By the end of the arc, it's not enough that Danny already has an ex-girlfriend who's a detective with a bionic arm, a best friend who is a steel-skinned superhero, and a good friend who's partners with the bionic-armed ex and has been trained as a sword-wielding samurai--he ends up accompanied to Earth by the five other champions from the Tournament of Heavenly Cities. Danny Rand, Brubaker and Fraction seem to be saying, is basically a kung-fu Richie Rich from a magical city: after you've spent a story or two on that gimmick, you've got to bring in Robota and Dollar and Jackie Jokers, all of whom also come from magical cities, but who have an endless number of cool finishing moves that are fun to think up and splash across action panels. You have to keep attaching cool geegaws to hide that the center is dramatically inert. And that may be the case, but I didn't get the sense the creators were trying very hard to see if that was actually true or not. (That the creative team is pulling up stakes so soon after the conclusion of this story lends some weight to that suspicion.)

And so, if I had read and reviewed each of these issues on their own, they would've ranked along the spectrum of the Very Good rating (apart from the Annual, which I thought was shockingly close to Awful--all geegaws and nearly no point) but, read as whole, I would rank the storyline as highly Good, maybe a little more than that. Issues #10-14 of The Immortal Iron Fist are ambitious, clever, and the high points are, really, everything I want in a superhero comic. But the formidable skills of the creators may not be enough to conquer the realities of the marketplace, where a fastidious artist can become overwhelmed. Indeed, the skills of the creators may not be enough to outweigh their own creative passions, which may be drawn to places darker than a unambiguously good man may be able to take them. These issues of Immortal Iron Fist are certainly worth buying and worth reading. But they're also worth considering for their negative space, for the areas where they cannot, or will not, reach.