Thursday, March 27, 2014

Green-skinned Everyman

I first started reading Erik Larsen's The Savage Dragon in the spring of 2006. I had just finished the second trade paperback of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary, and I felt greatly disappointed. It had all the right elements to be a new favorite, but the more I read, the less I liked it.

With a splitting headache only making my mood worse, I decided to head down to the comic shop and find something that'd really deliver the goods. Something loud and colorful and weird. I browsed through their shelf and came across the first trade paperback of The Savage Dragon. I wasn't very familiar with the character, but I instantly liked his mohawk fin. I flipped to the back and found a section filled with sketches of other villains and heroes. The designs were quite eccentric and it brought back fond memories of drawing monsters in my social studies textbooks.

So, with no expectations, I bought it. Over the course of that weekend, I think I must've re-read it eight times. The next week I started buying each issue on the stands. All very surprising.

The Savage Dragon, written and illustrated by Erik Larsen, concerns the life of an incredibly strong, green-skinned, fin-headed amnesiac. Found unconscious in a torched vacant lot, the Dragon later joins up with the Chicago Police Department and for much of the series acts a police officer and battles against an army of criminal "super-freaks." Like Doonesbury, the characters of The Savage Dragon age in real time, and since the comic's debut in the early 90's, the eponymous Dragon has had children, written an autobiography, and even (briefly) became President of the United States. Currently, the comic is transitioning its focus to the Dragon's teenaged son, Malcolm.

Larsen is one of the original founders of Image Comics, and The Savage Dragon is the only one of the original Image series still being written and illustrated by its creator. Larsen has been drawing variations on the Dragon for his entire life. The series was based on characters that he developed for fanzines, and those in turn were based on childhood drawings. His enthusiasm is infectious.  There are few things as rewarding as reading a comic made by someone who loves their job, and Larsen's devotion to The Savage Dragon is obsessive in just the right way.

While seeped in the traditions and mythology of superhero comics (especially those from Marvel), The Savage Dragon has a radical approach. The Dragon doesn't wear a mask, doesn't conceal his identity, isn't tormented by personal problems, and works openly in his community. He has an appealing, working-class integrity that is impossible to find in other superhero stories. He's also flawed; not in a perfunctory way like most superheroes, but just like you or I. Great care is taken to show that he can be obstinate, reckless, or irritable and sometimes he just simply fucks up. When this happens, he works hard to deal with the consequences and learns from mistakes. The Dragon evolves. For a comic filled with countless bizarre monsters, goofy supporting characters, and endless fist-fights, this strong characterization makes things feel believable.

The Savage Dragon is a true original, both in style and in content. There is a deliberate refusal to adhere to the conventions of traditional superhero narratives. The meter oscillates rapidly; sometimes the Dragon's life will be going great and other times things are disastrous. There can be moments of great warmth and tenderness, followed by astonishing violence, followed by absurdist comedy, and the contrasting tones can be difficult to reconcile. The plotting succeeds in being every bit as random as real life can be, without ever being an unsatisfying read. While mainstream superhero comics are predictable and stale, The Savage Dragon is exhilarating. You can never anticipate Larsen's next move. The comic is continually changing.

Larsen also plays around with structure. Depending on the needs of the story, he's keen to experiment with different panel-layouts, different coloring schemes, and a variety of inking styles. One issue was done in a Watchmen-style nine panel grid, while another was composed entirely in splash-pages. He's continually challenging himself to do something new and interesting.

Another, purely fun aspect of The Savage Dragon are the team-ups. A longtime proponent of creator's rights and independent comics in general, Erik Larsen has been eager to have his creation rub elbows with an array of guest-stars. In addition to regular collisions with his brethren at Image Comics, the Dragon has encountered Hellboy, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Madman, Marshal Law, Destroyer Duck, Jack Staff, and many, many others. On one occasion, he even battled Don Simpson's Megaton-Man, in a knowing parody of brainless superhero fights.

I quickly grew to love The Savage Dragon, but for many it's an acquired taste. While the comic has a small, devoted fan-base, it has never enjoyed the success of other Image Comics offerings (like Spawn). Larsen's cartooning style (a rugged, kinetic mixture of Walt Simonson, Herb Trimpe, and Frank Miller) couldn't be further from the vogue. There is also an unfortunate but undeniable streak of sexism in the comic, and while the emphasis on T&A has diminished over time, it can be tiresome. Additionally, Larsen himself is famously outspoken, and he may have alienated some readers with his vociferous opinions on various comics. However, his strengths as a comic-creator and the quality of The Savage Dragon overshadow all this.

If you've grown tired of the cyclical, editorial-driven corporate comics, and are looking for a change, then I'd heartily recommend The Savage Dragon. Accept no substitutes.

Further Reading
Erik Larsen created a 24-Hour comic called Herculian, which is included with many of his comedy strips in an oversized volume of the same name.  He continues to illustrate The Savage Dragon, and has said numerous times that he intends to do so until he dies.

Further Listening
Tiger Army "When Night Comes Down"

Friday, February 28, 2014

Crisis Casualties

For every successful superhero property owned by the big publishers, they're probably saddled with twenty losers. The also-rans, the has-beens, the throwaways, and the dead-on-arrivals. Because these characters have no real value to the company, they are expendable. They are maintained only to be mauled and executed. They are ruthlessly thrown beneath the spiked tank-treads of whatever crossover juggernaut happens to be rumbling through, while the major players escape unscathed.

I've always been more interested in the weirdos than the flagship characters. They don't have to support an ocean of tie-in merchandise or hold broad readership appeal. Consequently, they're far more versatile. The best superhero comics put out by the big publishers have all made use of such characters, and told stories that could never be done with established icons. It's always a pleasure to see what a talented newcomer or established pro can do with these ugly ducklings

Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality utilizes a parade of oddballs from DC's back catalogue, in particular: Dr. 13. Originally a paranormal-investigator foil for the Phantom Stranger, Dr. 13 proved obsolete and absurd in a comic-book world populated by all manner of aliens, demons, and fantasy creatures.  Here he is depicted as a cynical, self-important skeptic who refuses to believe in the extraordinary. Much to his frustration, his zealous quest to debunk the world has earned him zero respect. Even his teenage daughter Traci refuses to take him seriously.

What begins as a typical case for Dr. 13 takes a rapid turn into the surreal after the discovery of a wildly incongruous vampire and the kidnapping of Traci. Later, he encounters a flying pirate-ship with a ghostly crew, a hidden enclave of Nazi gorillas, a French-speaking caveman, and a futuristic superheroine with the power to make people puke. Throughout, Dr. 13 is pursued by a group of seemingly omnipotent figures called the Architects. They have been tasked by outside powers to restructure and streamline reality. Dr. 13 and the rest of the misfits have been deemed superfluous and are doomed to erasure.  Despite his dogged disbelief at the impossible people around him, Dr. 13 joins forces with them to uncover the true identity of the Architects, and save his daughter from deletion.

Doctor 13 is such an unlikely comic. Produced at a time when DC Comics was particularly desperate for greater market-share, and frantically remodeling its line-up for mass appeal, Doctor 13 is a welcome piece of counter-programming. It refuses to take the banality of superhero comic continuity seriously, and is unashamedly clever and colorful when grim-n'-gritty was all the rage.

It's also the exact opposite of what one would expect from writer Brian Azzarello. Known chiefly for his hardboiled crime comic, 100 Bullets, Azzarello's name is forever associated with morally-ambiguous noir. As Doctor 13 was originally a perfunctory back-up feature in an eight issue Spectre mini-series, you get the sense that Azzarrello realized that he could do whatever he wanted because no one was breathing down his neck. Fans of 100 Bullets know about Azzarello's love of wordplay and puns, and here he cuts really cuts loose. Doctor 13 is laden with in-jokes, sly references, and great comedic moments, but never descends into lazy wackiness.

He has the perfect collaborator in Cliff Chiang. His artwork is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. It has a great pop-art sensibility, like Jaime Hernandez or Mike Allred, and each panel has an electric buzz to it. Despite the ridiculousness of the characters, you're always thoroughly invested in the action and you feel the gravity of their plight. I don't think that there are many artists who can make a scene involving a garishly dressed alien with antennae weeping over the loss of her newfound ghost-pirate boyfriend emotionally authentic, but he pulls it off effortlessly.

That's the whole appeal of Doctor 13. There are several examples of metafiction in superhero comics, but the conflict is usually unaffecting. It's difficult to feel concern for fictional characters when their status as being fictional becomes so immediate. But in this case, the stakes are a high as they can get. These characters are battling for the right of continued existence. DC Comics has become famous for sweeping revisions and deletions, and this eventuality is nightmarish. It's somehow worse than death. There's plenty of sinister irony too, given that Dr. 13 has made his living proving that things don't exist and must now confront that he, too, is unreal. It forces him to reassess things and suddenly his fanatical mission isn't as important as his deliriously uncool, yet genuine, love for his daughter. He's still as uptight as ever, but it's a very nice moment of character change.

Most of the characters in Doctor 13 have been reworked into DC Comics continuity, but this story remains their strongest interpretation. It's a terrific story, perfectly realized, that flew under most people's radar. Get yourself a copy.

Further Reading
Cliff Chiang and Brian Azzarello were unexpectedly given control of Wonder Woman, and only recently wrapped up an acclaimed run on the series. I hope that there will be future collaborations.

Further Listening
Rockwell "Somebody's Watching Me"

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


It was impossible to escape the Black Parade.

Back in 2006, the song was constantly on the radio. It would be there in the background, playing faintly, like a long-form subliminal message. Having gone to a high-school with an atavistic punk scene, I was aware of My Chemical Romance, but I had never been exposed to their music to such a degree. I was alarmed to find that I had memorized the lyrics purely through osmosis.

I hated it.

The Black Parade was a ridiculous, self-indulgent rock opera, and borrowed liberally from the aesthetics of other pop and rock songs. Sgt. Pepper. Alice Cooper. Nirvana. Queen. It was all in there. The entire country had been trapped in a five year funeral dirge since 9/11, and the national narrative was one of panic, doom, and paranoia. The Black Parade seem like a calculated packaging of all that gloom; the perfect prefabricated song of woe for all the frightened kids.

Two years later, I read that MCR lead singer Gerard Way was going to be writing a superhero comic, and I grimaced. I was living in a house by the cemetery and I had no money left after months of unemployment. Staring down into the can of tomatoes that was my only meal for the day, I was struck by how bleak things had gotten.

I resented that this successful pop-star was going infect superhero comics with his emo sensibilities. Previews of the artwork confirmed by suspicions. It looked derivative, and worse, obvious. Nonsensical ideas wrapped up in black and white stripes and domino masks. Tim Burton does Doom Patrol.

The Umbrella Academy.

Just what the world needed.

Years later, things improved. I forgot all about it. And then, by some quirk of probability, I received a copy in the mail. Someone had botched my Amazon order, and I was stuck with a copy. I shrugged, opened it up, and started reading.

Damn was actually good.

Perhaps not up to the hyperbolic praise on the back cover, but certainly very good. The Umbrella Academy is self-assuredly weird without ever feeling ostentatious. It's a genuinely funny, surprisingly affecting, gothic take on superheroes, and while it wears its influences on its sleeve, its also unafraid to deviate entirely from the tone and values of mainstream superhero comics.

The Umbrella Academy takes place in a world with peculiar blend of jet-age futurism and soot-stained Victoriana. Without explanation, 43 children are born spontaneously across the globe. The Monocle AKA Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a mustachioed inventor/adventurer (and closet space alien), senses that these children will be extraordinary, and locates and adopts seven to raise as superheroes. The children have an array of surreal powers, and are only too eager to please their adopted father, but he remains distant and unkind. Their lives are strange and traumatic, and the children develop into unhappy, lost adults.

Luthor, the precocious leader, was critically wounded and had his head surgically attached onto a massive gorilla body. Diego, the petulant brat, fermented into a grizzled, one-eyed vigilante. The rebellious one ("the Boy") vanished on a time-travel voyage. Allison, the needy one, tried to build her own family, only to see fall apart in a bitter divorce. She rarely sees her daughter anymore. Klaus, the sickly one, turned to drugs, and is now in an institution.

Ben, the quiet one, is dead.

And then there's the last child, Vanya. She never manifested any sort of powers, and was neglected as a result. She's become an accomplished violinist, and has tried hard to move on, but harbors deep resentment.

Estranged for years, the siblings are called together after the death of Sir Hargreeves. The funeral is compounded by the arrival of the time-traveler (who, as an unintended effect of his journey, finds himself returned to childhood). He has brought a warning of the apocalypse, although he is uncertain what form the end of the world will take. As it happens, the threat of global annihilation comes from Vanya. The embittered, alienated violin player has transformed into a creature capable of demolishing the planet with destructive music. Her dysfunctional siblings must band together again to stop her.
The Umbrella Academy is a synthesis of many pop-culture influences, and as such it could have been a cluttered mess. But while there are broad allusions to Wes Anderson and Grant Morrison, Gerard Way smartly avoided any specific homages. Instead, the comic has a sharp focus on the interplay between the unhappy siblings. They resent their cold, manipulative father and they resent each other, but they also understand that they need each other. Their bizarre lives set them apart from ordinary people, and no one else could understand or appreciate them. The characterization is very strong. Like any family, there are small alliances and old grudges and deeply held secrets.

This tension is well-served by Gabriel Ba's expressive artwork. The spite, longing, frustration, and fear is readily apparent in the gesture of his tall, long-limbed figures. Their bendy physicality reminds me a lot of Peter Chung's Aeon Flux cartoons, and makes for wonderfully frenetic action scenes. His design aesthetic, though, is all Mike Mignola, and there's plenty of pulsing dynamos and riveted engines.

The most appealing trait, though, is its absurdist humor. There are many, many great lines and throwaway gags in The Umbrella Academy that nicely undercut the oncoming apocalypse. I laughed several times while reading this comic, particularly due to the repeated references to the Monocle's own line of breakfast cereal (called Clever Crisp). There's also a robot that's eager to help, but has a terrible sense of timing.

The Umbrella Academy won the Eisner Award for the Best Limited Series in 2008. I can see why. It was followed by a second volume ("Dallas"), which I have not yet read, and I've heard that a third and final installment is to materialize in 2014. I look forward to these, as there are still many unanswered questions.

However, one thing is for certain:

I'll always hate the Black Parade.

Further Listening
The Presets, "Are You the One?"

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kick to the Head

Innovation in mainstream superhero comics has come to a grinding halt. Under greater and greater pressure from their parent corporations, the big publishers obediently maintain an arbitrary status quo, applying superficial cosmetic changes in predictable intervals. Some of the most spectacularly mediocre creators have found popularity and commercial success in this environment, while true talents are ignored or saddled with condescending labels like "cult-favorite" or  (even worse) "zany." One such person is Joe Casey, who I feel is a criminally underrated writer. Cutting his teeth on such well-established titles as Cable, Uncanny X-Men, and The Adventures of Superman, Casey has largely transitioned to creator-owned works, where he can operate more freely. The results crackle and burn with a manic energy.

What makes Casey so appealing is his zeal to push the superhero idea into different and unexpected directions. One gets the sense that he deliberately sets out to violate expectations, and we get fresh, decidedly non-commercial stories. One of my favorites is Codeflesh. Produced in a time when The Ultimates had popularized sensationalist widescreen havoc, Codeflesh is instead (mercifully) a stripped-down noir story. The comic boasts some wonderfully grimy, two-fisted artwork from Charlie Adlard, who would later find great success with The Walking Dead. As in that comic, the violence is convincingly painful and the characters are believably vulnerable. It's lean, brutal, and over far too quickly, but it succeeds in being unlike anything else.

Codeflesh focuses on the exploits of Cameron Daltrey, a bail bondsman who caters to the lowlife super-criminals of Los Angeles. He seeks out the most unreliable clients, and when they inevitably dodge their payments, he pursues them under the guise of Codeflesh, and then collects the bounty on their heads.

Visually, Codeflesh evokes the urban superheroes of Steve Ditko, like the Question or the monstrous Mr. A. His strange name is a reference to his striking mask: a simple white hood stamped with a bar-code. Despite the low-budget nature of Codeflesh's operation, his appropriation of the bar-code ensures that he always has his prey surrounded. Bar-codes are everywhere, and he's made them into an extension of himself. Reminiscent of prison cell bars, the once meaningless symbol is charged-up with menace, and can be seen on the cover of each issue.

With his recklessness, fighting prowess, and penchant for sarcastic jokes, you'd think Codeflesh is just another smart-ass antihero. However it soon becomes clear that this crimefighter is actually very troubled. The unsettling aspects of the urban vigilante, so often taken for granted, are brought up into the light for full examination. Codeflesh's lifestyle is not glamorous. He's addicted to risks and violence. He does what he does not out of any sense of justice, but instead out of a disturbed compulsion to fight. It's wrecking his body, ruining his relationships, and will inevitably end in tragedy, but he can't stop. It feels too good.

By treating vigilantism as an addiction, Joe Casey found an interesting new take on the superhero idea. Ultraviolence is sadly ubiquitous in superhero comics, and it's exceedingly unusual to see it depicted with any sort of repercussions. Codeflesh isn't a realistic comic in most conservative sense of the word, but it attains a degree of sober self-awareness that has rarely been matched. Violence changes lives, and the characters of Codeflesh are all scarred. One particularly memorable scene involves a super-thug (the kind we've seen a hundred times before) reveal that his cyborg powers came with a shocking cost.

While Codeflesh offers unique content, it also experiments with form. In one issue, Cameron Daltrey is writing a letter of apology to his girlfriend, and the text of this letter is conveyed through every speech-bubble and sound effect as the scene shifts from character to character. The effect is disorienting at first, but interesting, particularly as the action on the page gradually echoes the beats of the letter. The comics medium offers a lot of fascinating interplay between words and pictures, but its rare to see people take full advantage of this, especially in superhero comic.

I think that Joe Casey has yet to write his masterpiece, but Codeflesh is a triumph. His approach nicely blends the bold, muscular sensibilities of superhero comics with the unashamedly wacked-out style of underground comix. For someone like me, that's irresistible. Check it out.

Further Reading
Nixon's Pals by Joe Casey and Batman Incorporated artist Chris Burnham tells the story of a parole-officer for supervillains. While it's more overtly comedic than Codeflesh, it offers another look at the sleazy fringes of a superhero world. Charlie Adlard continues to illustrate the popular zombie comic The Walking Dead. Maybe you've heard of it?

Further Listening:
The Bollock Bros. "Harley David"

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Weekly Reviews

I've fallen behind with many of my planned reviews for this blog, so I thought that a good way to get back into things would be to write some shorter capsule reviews every week. I'll bet you readers are doubtlessly clamoring to know what superhero comics I bought this Wednesday, and it'd be the height of indecency to keep quiet.

Glory #33 by Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell
I had originally intended to write a much more elaborate analysis of Keatinge and Campbell's excellent revamp of Rob Liefeld's Glory, but unfortunately I never got around to doing it and now the series is wrapping up. While I'm dismayed that things are coming to a close, it's been a great read.

In this penultimate issue, Glory assembles an army of superheroes to do battle with an extradimensional monster of frightening size and power. Ross Campbell has provided all these old Liefeld properties with impressive makeovers, and in many cases these characters are more fully realized than ever before.  The battle scenes are loud and explosive in a way that ostensibly "realistic" widescreen-style comics can never achieve. Tokyo (appropriately enough) is ravaged by wonderfully bizarre monsters, and Glory and her allies bring down brutality upon them. There are sincerely sad moments intermeshed with astonishing violence, and it concludes with a quiet, unsettling cliffhanger.

I eagerly await the final issue and I also look forward to future collaborations between these Keatinge and Campbell. Hopefully in the future I'll be able to review their run on Glory with the attention that it deserves.

I just hope that Prophet keeps trucking along.

Savage Dragon #185 by Erik Larsen
Larsen brings his usual idiosyncrasies and strong storytelling to this issue as the eponymous Dragon is placed on trial for the death and destruction that he caused while under the malign influence of an evil alter-ego. Obviously, the story deals with many ongoing plot threads, but I think that those unfamiliar with the title will find it surprisingly easy to get into; as opposed to the tangled gnarl of continuity that the corporate superhero comics have become. Despite involving aliens and gods and freaks, and despite having been in continuous publication since the early 90's, Savage Dragon has always had down-to-earth and relatable characters. The trial is nicely suspenseful as Dragon's fate hangs in the balance, while his son and step-daughter are forced to cope with this crisis and the other day-to-day drama that gets thrown their way. There are also some old-fashioned superhero punch-ups, and appearances by some old villains. This is the best straight ahead ongoing superhero comic available and deserves a larger audience. Check it out.

Sex #1 by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski
Joe Casey has made it his mission as a writer of superhero comics to constantly push the concept into new directions. When I heard that he was writing a comic called Sex that featured...well, presumably superheroes fucking...I was thought it sounded like a rather obvious attempt at a polemic. And maybe it would've been if somebody else was doing it, but beneath his frenzied, rock n' roll approach, Joe Casey is a very thoughtful writer. Sex isn't a comic sustained by the supposed novelty of superheroes getting it on. Instead, it investigates the undeniable sexual undercurrents of superhero characters, with particular emphasis on the "urban vigilante" type. In this debut issue, we are introduced to Simon Cooke, who has retired from his life as a hard-edged crimefighter. His drive to defend his city against various evils left little time or energy for normal human pursuits, especially sex. As a result, Cooke is alienated from regular people and unsure how to proceed in his new life. Appropriately, the artwork by Piotr Kowalski feels solemn and uneasy. In the hands of the other artists, the scenes of big city life and Cooke's tentative exploration into its sordid underbelly of sex shows and prostitutes would be depicted with superficial glamor and a sleazy sheen, but not here. The reader is submerged into Cooke's sad confusion.

Despite the density of the dialogue in this issue, comparatively little happens, but it leaves me very curious as what will happen next and I trust Casey to deliver. This the kind of smart, well-made superhero comic that I love to read.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Trouble with Heroes

I don't think that it's a coincidence that the most innovative writers of superhero comics have come from the U.K.

The world of superhero comics has traditionally been very insular, and the majority of writers were once fans. They spent their youth getting hooked on the exploits of certain superhero properties.  Later they made a career out of revisiting those stories. I've read so many interviews with nostalgic writers expressing their deep inner need to "do Spider-Man right" or "do Batman right"; devotedly maintaining an idealized status quo. American writers tend to be so reverent of superheroes; so firmly set in their notions of what makes a good superhero story that (when combined with the commercial restraints of the big publishers) the inevitable result is stagnation. We get endless riffs on old standards and call-backs to bygone eras.

The comics culture of the U.K. is different from America in many ways, and superheroes are only a part of a broader genre landscape. Superhero titles are also overwhelmingly American imports. The result is that U.K. comic readers are not in the constant pop-icon shadow the superhero, and those readers who later become writers can study the superhero more objectively (and with varying levels of affection). Accordingly, they have few qualms with bucking tradition and experimenting.

One of my favorite superhero comics was written by a man who had zero affection for superheroes. Known mainly for creating the now-famous 2000 AD with John Wagner and for his uncompromising World War I story Charley's War, Pat Mills' work was all heavily informed by his left-leaning politics and dark sense of humor. In 1987, he partnered up with artist Kevin O'Neil (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to create a superhero comic for Marvel's Epic Comics imprint. In the wake of Watchmen, the publisher was hoping that Mills and O'Neil could make something similar. What they delivered was a vicious satire that not only skewered superheroes but the entire American heroic ideal on the 1980's. 

This wasn't superhero deconstruction. This was superhero demolition. The twisted, burning wreckage was called Marshal Law.

The story takes place in a nightmarish future version of San Francisco, which has been largely destroyed by an enormous earthquake. Re-branded as San Futuro ("the City of the Future"), the heart of the city is a sprawling wasteland of toppled buildings, collapsed highways, and smashed cars. Those unfortunate enough to live in this hellhole are terrorized by the freakish super-soldier veterans of a barbaric war. Some of these monsters were driven insane by the carnage of battle, and by the side-effects of their unnatural powers. Others were just psychos from the start. They've gathered together into gangs and have bloody turf battles, all while enforcing their demented brand of "justice" on any bystanders that they run into. To keep these crazed "superheroes" in line, the San Futuro police department hired a "hero-hunter" to do the job. This is Marshal Law.

Clearly inheriting the fashion sensibilities of that other fascistic super-cop, Judge Dredd, Marshal Law's costume pushes things to the extreme and he's both horrifying and ridiculous to behold. He wears bullets in his hat-band and his mask has a permanent Antichrist scowl. FEAR AND LOATHING adorns his chest in blood-red letters and his black leather uniform is covered with jagged lightning bolts, skull studs, and chains. He has no right sleeve, and his muscular arm is instead wrapped in tight coils of barbed wire.

This is our hero. 

Like the men he hunts down, Law was once a soldier and was given inhuman strength and resistance to pain by military scientists. He's consumed with self-loathing and has a pathological hatred for superheroes. However, he reserves a special rancor for the Public Spirit, a square-jawed Superman analogue who is worshiped as America's greatest hero. One of the original supermen engineered by the military (and by far the most famous) the Public Spirit inspired a generation of young men to become super-soldiers and fight in a senseless war in South America. Law was one of these men, and now he blames the Spirit for the horror he lives through. Only Marshal Law can see the corruption behind the Public Spirit's facade of piety and patriotism. He knows the Spirit is a true bastard and lives for the chance of payback.

The story opens to one of a series of brutal serial killings. Several women have been raped and murdered by a terrifying figure called the Sleepman, the worst of all the "superheroes" that haunt San Futuro. He's a superhuman sadomasochist; a giant wrapped in black plastic with his face concealed under a greasy paper bag. His hands are lethal, Freddy Krueger-claws. All the Sleepman's victims have been dressed in the costume of Celeste, the slutty superhuman fiance of the Public Spirit. Convinced that the Spirit is somehow involved in the killings, Marshal Law doggedly pursues his prey and neither the military nor his own police department are too happy about it.

Like any superhero, Marshal Law has a secret identity, and when his work day is over, he clocks out, unravels the barbed wire from his arm, and removes his leather mask. Surprisingly, he isn't a scarred-up, grizzled soldier or a some dead-faced fanatic. Instead, beneath the mask is Joe Gilmore, whose appearance is that of an ordinary guy. Despite that he's capable of such intense violence, he has soft, gentle blue eyes.

Eyes filled with guilt.

The only healthy, positive thing in Marshal Law's life is his relationship with Lynn, a young feminist radical, who sees superheroes as the ultimate manifestation of destructive masculinity. He's attracted to her fiery determination, and also her normality. In a world of superheroes, Lynn is perfectly human: cranky, forgetful, and with a fondness for junk food. Law has concealed his double-life from her, as she hates his ugly alter-ego.

Through a series of tragic circumstances, Lynn becomes a victim of the Sleepman. With his only connection to humanity severed, Marshal Law drowns his sorrows in rage. His anger propels him to the truth behind the Sleepman, and the truth comes with terrible, life-altering realization. He defeats his hated enemy, but the victory is hollow and joyless.

The reader is fully immersed in the brutality thanks to Kevin O'Neil's remarkable artwork. The comic is a sensory overload of shattered, sprawling disaster areas and grotesque superheroes. Everything is blanketed with darkly funny graffiti and biting, aggressive slogans. Appropriately enough, the colors are a clash of garish pinks and greens against gray smog. As the series progressed, his artwork only became more expressive and stylized, and by the conclusion things were truly dialed-up-to-11. However, no matter how exaggerated things get, O'Neil maintains impressive inter-panel continuity, offering multiple viewpoints of familiar wreckage and crumbling walls. This lends the comic a disturbing verisimilitude. 

This queasy awareness of reality lurking in the shadows gives Marshal Law its potency. At the time of its release, jingoism and fantasies of wish-fulfillment violence were mixing together in unsettling ways. Oiled action movie stars were busy retroactively winning Viet-Nam, while Reagan employed cowboy swagger in the face of a nuclear conflict, and gun-wielding vigilantes were popping up in the pages of superhero comics. The dominant heroic archetype was an ultra-masculine solider capable of righteous violence in the defense of the American Way.  Marshal Law viciously mocks this ideal, exposing its absurdities and hypocrisies. It demonstrates that believing in such heroes can only have tragic consequences. The lives and achievements of ordinary people are drowned out by the PTSD Rambos that tear through the post-apocalyptic world of San Futuro. Worse still, in seeking to become tougher, harder, and stronger than these monsters, the "hero-hunter" Marshal Law only perpetuates the madness.

The comic ends with Law standing by Lynn's grave, his eyes squeezed shut in grief. He looks defeated and small inside his bulky great-coat and his old battle slogans have been changed to PAIN, RAGE, and WHY. Another new addition to his costume is a crown of barbed-wire. After his final battle, it has become clear the Law is the new king of the super-heroes; the unwilling king of a generation of dangerous, broken soldiers. With newfound, agonizing, awareness, Law gives a final salute and then returns to police San Futuro, walking through the granite moments of fallen heroes. 

Despite that it was a perfectly contained story, the success of Marshal Law lead to subsequent mini-series. Sadly, these stories had none of nuance, pathos, or intensity of the original work. Mills had already said everything he intended to say, and these follow-ups saw Marshal Law descending into self-parody. Things came to a quiet conclusion after Law met up with Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon (a crossover that I doubt appealed to fans of either title) and made a bizarre encounter with Clive Barker's Pinhead.

Fortunately, the great quality of the original series (collected as Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing) overshadows these inferior sequels. While the paperback is out of print, it can still be found online.
Marshal Law is one of the most troubling and uncompromising superhero comics I've ever read.  It deserves greater appreciation.

Further Reading
Pat Mills and Kevin O' Neil also collaborated on the similarly satirical Nemesis the WarlockKevin O'Neil continues to illustrate the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series (and at this point his  artwork is the only thing I  can recommend).  Mills still writes Sláine and ABC Warriors for 2000 AD.

Further Listening
Ministry "Stigmata"

Monday, July 2, 2012

Apocalypse and Transcendence

It's worth emphasizing that Rick Veitch's The One arrived a year before both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, but while they would become hugely influential, The One is usually overlooked. Originally published by Marvel's Epic Comics imprint in 1985, The One is audacious and exhilarating in a way that the latter two series could never be.

After exposure to Rick Veitch's artwork through 1963 (a collaboration with Stephen Bissette and Alan Moore) I was left very curious about his other comics. At the time, the internet yielded nothing but tantalizing snippets about The One, so I was very excited when I finally found a copy of the trade paperback. Based on what little information I had, I anticipated a grim horror story about freakish superheroes and the end of the world. I was surprised to find that, while apocalyptic, The One is an unapologetically optimistic comic.

The cover blurb reads "THE LAST WORD IN SUPERHEROICS." While it's hard to tell if Veitch was serious when making that hyperbolic claim, I don't think it's exactly accurate. The One doesn't really offer observations on the genre conventions of superhero comics. It's no more about superheroics than The Unforgiven is about cowboys. As I see it, Veitch makes superb use of the superhero concept as part of a broader exploration of salvation out of garbage. Like a network of arteries, themes of cheapness, excess, obsolescence, and accumulation/escalation branch through the story of The One. These themes are loudly advertised on the covers of the original mini-series, as each was designed to resemble a disposable item such as a pocket calculator, a pack of cigarettes, and a dripping Big Mac in a greasy styrofoam box. The One asserts that superheroes, with their origins in mass-produced juvenile pop-culture, are no different from these products. They're every bit as ubiquitous and ephemeral. Other examples of "low" culture that appear to have informed The One include Mad Magazine and Godzilla flicks. The world of The One is overflowing with physical and notional junk, and things have finally reached critical mass. Over the course of the comic, this terminal build up of flotsam is transformed into the resources for spiritual evolution.

The story begins in the near future (or at least the near future of 1985). After a war between the Soviet Union and the United States is instigated by a rancid old industrialist, metaphysical forces are accidentally set in motion that herald the end of the world. Two  entities are summoned into reality: the vicious embodiment of thoughtlessness and greed called the Other, and the personification of pure love called the One. They've been struggling against each other since the beginning of life on Earth, and their battle has taken the form of repeated cycles of growth and annihilation. This time the end has been started prematurely, but while the world is unprepared, the process cannot be stopped.

In the past the One has arrived in various beautiful, messianic forms, but this time he looks like a shabby Max Headroom with a tower of fiery hair, crooked teeth, and a garish plaid suit. Both the One and the Other enter the lives of a group of New Yorkers living together in a cramped apartment. There's an aging artist named Egypt (who still clings to outdated New Wave fashion), her idiot stoner boyfriend Jay-Hole, Egypt's little son Larry, hippie burn-out Doc, and his young black girlfriend Guda. As the world unravels around them, each member of this pseudo-family is drawn to the side of good or evil. Larry, Doc, and Guda accept the One, while Jay-Hole becomes a vessel for the Other, vomiting green slime like Linda Blair and shrieking demonic threats. Sad, conflicted Egypt becomes the focal point of the struggle between the two forces.

In an interesting spin on the superhero's secret identity, the One has a simultaneous second form: a silent, lithe figure whose otherwise featureless body is adorned with two concentric circles of radiating power. As people accept and join the One, they shed their outer appearance and become replicas of this figure, sharing his power. Those who join the Other become blank-eyed zombies; slaves to the petty whims of Jay-Hole.

Meanwhile, the governments of the US and USSR are determined to maintain their control and exterminate each other. With their arsenal of nuclear missiles defused by the One, they are forced to find new weapons. The President authorizes use of the Superiors, the product of a top-secret super-soldier program. Decked out in variations of Mary Lou Retton's all-American Olympic leotard (which adorned many a Wheaties box), they're a brother and sister duo named Charles and Amelia. Despite their attempts to be the wholesome patriots they were programmed to be, they're capable of extraordinary carnage. They also harbor incestuous desires, as the flesh of mere mortals is too frail for these indestructible people.

Russia races to develop its own superhero-weapon. An ambitious scientist turns to old Nazi experiments that once turned a lab-rat into a gargantuan creature called Übermaus. Using the same technique, they create Comrade Bog. His name comes from an old Slavic word for "god." It also nicely echoes "Gog" from the Bible's book of Revelations. Bog is a dimwitted stooge who spouts platitudes about the merits of Communism while rampaging through the streets. Due to a miscalculation, his metabolism is out of control and he's possessed by an insatiable hunger. As Charles is dispatched to demolish Russia once and for all, Bog is launched from a missile at New York. While scenes of mass destruction have unfortunately become commonplace in modern mainstream superhero comics, the havoc caused by Charles and Bog is every bit as horrifying as it was in 1985. Veitch imbues every panel with concussive force.

Inevitably, the American and Russian Superiors clash, and New York is shattered. Skyscrapers are toppled, streets are ripped up, and the Earth splits open. The city is reduced to a Hiroshima wasteland, and Charles and Bog continue to mutate into more monstrous forms as they smash each other. The bridges and tunnels are choked with millions of frenzied, screaming people. Many join the growing army of the Other. They mob together into an undulating landfill of humanity, with Jay-Hole riding on top; a new social and biological structure for mankind. In desperation, Egypt rides with the Other, but is saved by her true love for her son and finally becomes part of the One, joining a massive collective forming at the North Pole.

Bog is defeated, and in his death-throes creates a series of earthquakes that rattle the planet to its core. The old Nazi Übermaus rises from the ocean to dispose of the last remnants of civilization. In the end, the One cloaks himself in the swirling magnetic field of the Earth and departs into space, leaving behind a component to rejoin with the Other and begin the cycle anew. In the burning ruins of the Earth, Charles and Amelia are destined to become the Adam and Eve of a new race of super-humans. The One, meanwhile, enters a realm beyond comprehension to join with a Greater One.

The primary inspiration for The One came from a 1984 New York Times article reporting on a controversial statement made by a representative of the McLuhan Center. The principle idea was that nuclear weaponry could prove beneficial in that the prospect of mass genocide brought people together. This reasoning is at best debatable, but it did leave an indelible impression on Rick Veitch. Had The One been produced by any other person, it might have been an obvious parable about nuclear war; a grim funeral march. Instead, Rick Veitch was thoughtful enough to speculate that good can be drawn out of all things, even a looming doomsday. He saw the uncontrollable escalation as something that might bring about transcendence. Instead of a growing, lethal tumor, he saw a bud about to blossom. It's a particularly exciting idea that a simple adjustment of perception can mean the difference between extinction and evolution.

The comic is not without is faults. The characters tend to be broad and there are moments of ill-considered symbolism and ineffective humor. However, the only major problem that I have with The One is that (as with Grant Morrison's The Invisibles) revolution does not rise up from the ordinary people of the world, but instead is thrust upon them. The forces that cause a global paradigm shift are as out of their control as the corrupt activities of the President and Premier. The crucial element of choice and freedom is absent, aside from selecting allegiance to the dualistic agencies of all-that-is-good or pure evil. And while those that ascend into the One's gestalt find themselves in a paradise, they appear to be submerged within its vast consciousness and they have no real say about the further destiny of the collective. They dance inside of the One as he journeys through reality of his own accord. The decision is always out of their hands.

However, this was never intended to be a literal-minded rapture and much of The One is decidedly manic. The devastation is at once comically over-the-top and completely harrowing. This is one of the few superhero comics that conveys the incredible damage that an invincible man could inflict. To the Superiors, the world is a delicate place and even timeless icons fall before them. The appearance of Übermaus, hungrily gnawing at the Washington Monument like it was a discarded pencil, is a moment of mad brilliance, and one of my favorite parts.

Ultimately, The One is a shining example of how a talented storyteller can use the superhero idea to make striking observations about his time. While the world of the 1980's has long past us, certain dark aspects regrettably linger, ensuring that The One has lost none of its bracing potency. The One is a glorious comic and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Further Reading

Rick Veitch continued to work with the superhero concept through his own King Hell imprint, as well as writing and illustrating Aquaman and Swamp Thing for DC Comics. He also interpreted and illustrated his owns dreams in his Rare Bit Fiends series, which is a personal favorite and I encourage others to check it out.

Further Listening

The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster "In the Garden"