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THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (8/27/14 – 52 is an Artificial Limit, and other obvious statements)

Hey everyone. As you all know, this is the part of the column where I usually post a little essay on some comics-related topic. Unfortunately, due to the research-heavy nature of my current project (“Italian Comics: A Tradition of Buttocks”), I’m stretched a little thin, and as a result I’ve opted to post a guest commentary by a rising industry figure: the supervillain Intellectron, who debuted just this past week in the pages of The Multiversity #1. So without further ado:

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Thank you, Joe. It was with great amusement that I read Dan Nadel’s editorial from this past Friday, wherein he confessed some befuddlement over issue #1 of The Multiversity, a superhero comic written by Grant Morrison and published by DC Comics. I found it all to be quite simple, and not just because I was a character inside of it! You see, before I became a feared supervillain, I was a comics blogger, and in the great comics blogging expansion of the mid-’00s there was no more compelling a topic than Grant Morrison, whose comics offered all the hegemony of volume expected of mainline superhero serials, while also betraying not a little allusive depth, both in terms of superhero history and general esoteric knowledge, to say nothing of the writer’s tendency toward self-reference.

He was a perfect storm, that Morrison: cranking out enough work that you could write about him frequently, and at length. How nervous we’d all become when a new issue dropped – the mad rush to be the first to read it, the terrifying heap of annotations that would build and build, day by day, daring you marshal the pretense of stating some unique perspective. It’s not so different from how television series are recapped today, but I’ve never watched enough tv to transition into that; I only really liked doing it for comics, until the moment I didn’t. I read hardly any superhero serials anymore.

So now we have a new, sprawling, universe-smashing Grant Morrison series, here in 2014 – for me, it was like reading again a language in which I’d been fluent while living in a foreign country. The irony, though, is that Morrison’s reputation has long rested on his demanding, progressive approach to genre stuff, and here it mainly evokes nostalgia, which is not commonly the trait of lively and futuristic art.

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Regarding the story of The Multiversity #1, I can offer no better evaluation than this post by Cheryl Lynn; I agree entirely with her designation of the story’s themes. Put simply, the comic remixes many of Morrison’s familiar obsessions into a form addressing the high-profile problems often discussed in today’s superhero conversation. It’s about representation: the primary heroes, Earth-23 Superman and President of the United States Calvin Ellis, and Nix Uotan, last of the Monitors, are both black men. Uotan, further, is an online comic book reviewer in his human guise, seen performing a ‘vivisection’ on a supposedly haunted comic before blasting off into an alternate dimension, Earth-7, to assess the damage. It is here that he discovers the Gentry, a gang of menacing baddies (including yours truly) who appear bent on a somewhat-nebulous toxification of the 52 realities making up the DC multiverse.

Selflessly, Uotan agrees to switch places with the beleaguered Aboriginal hero Thunderer, who sets about gathering an army of heroes from throughout the many Earths. It is here that President Ellis becomes the protagonist, heading an exploratory party of obscure and marginal characters (Captain Carrot, et al.) on a voyage to Earth-8, where a goofy set of Marvel Comics analogues (“I saw the movies,” remarks a party member) bicker among themselves and generally fail to prevent the arrival of the Gentry, now seemingly led, alas, by Nix Uotan, who’d become acutely aware of the panels confining him on the comic book page. “I endured eons of PAIN and DISILLUSION,” he growls, “For YOU ingrates?” Ulp! Be there next time, superfans!

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To the experienced Morrison reader, absolutely none of this will be unfamiliar. Both Nix Uotan and President Ellis were characters in the writer’s 2008-09 project Final Crisis, and while the Gentry is ostensibly a new threat, their plan (as it is) seems completely indistinguishable from that of Darkseid in the prior series. Indeed, it’s not even that far away from the endlessly consumptive Sheeda of Morrison’s 2005-06 series Seven Soldiers, which *also* rested on the exploits of marginal, ignored characters, none of which were (exactly) white men, and was moreover structured in the manner of The Multiversity: a two-part ‘series’ with both poles separated by a generous number of standalone-yet-related comics with different artists and starring different characters. And then there’s the meta-awareness of Animal Man, and the barking this-is-all-real omniscient narration from the end of Flex Mentallo – “Stop reading,” commands Morrison, via narrative caption, before Nix Uotan really gets into trouble.

But then, isn’t now as good a time as any for a few direct commands. The cultural conversation has changed since 2009, and it flatters Morrison’s concept of superheroes as living ideas. Art, we are frequently told, has real and political effects on us and our world. Violent art will not make you pick up a gun and shoot your classmates, but it can reinforce paradigms of violence as inevitable solutions. Depictions of women as sexual objects likewise reinforce patriarchal notions of women as property to be owned. And to exclude non-white characters from popular representation is to state to non-white persons that they are valueless, invisible, periphery beings, and that white supremacy is nature’s default.

These too are not new ideas, but they are prominent now, and they metaphorically synch with Morrison’s notion of superheroes as real, living factors in a world which often seems so awful. Will nothing ever change? Will superheroes always be mostly white? Male? Cisgender? Heterosexual? The Multiversity, then, stands as an argument that no: the DC multiverse is too big for that, and it only takes a little imagination (specifically, here, that of Grant Morrison) to make things better. Don’t give in to the Gentry, who look to spoil everything, who make poor Nix Uotan bitter and nihilistic, and thus tacitly servile to prevailing, abusive authority. “Don’t stop believing,” Morrison declares.

The corporate rock implications of that quote are intentional.

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In 2012, smarting from accusations that he had downplayed the exploitation of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in favor of toeing the Warner Bros. corporate line, Morrison saw the release of Action Comics #9, a parable of sorts, drawn by Gene Ha and colored by Art Lyon. President Ellis is again the lead character; led by critical superhero-hater Lex Luthor (who sneeringly deems the superhero concept fascist) to a multi-dimensional gateway, the Superman runs into a parallel world’s Lois Lane, co-creator of the “mind movies” character Superman, which she, Clark and Jimmy unwisely sold to a nefarious corporation, which created awful derivative Supermen which then set about annihilating its creators and cleansing the multiverse of any eccentric or unauthorized variants. Calvin, of course, cannot stand for this, and just above you see him preparing to do battle for the purity of Superman idea, liberated from the shackles of corporate oversight.

And then, you turn the page:

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This, I’m afraid, was a crucial moment in my supervillain origin. To devotees, Action Comics #9 was an act of delicious subversion, snatching pay from the DC coffers while urging awareness of its abuses. Others, myself included, saw a hollow apologia, somewhat desperate to justify its writer’s continued promulgation of the superhero idea as free and noble thing, in the face of all evidence that superhero creators are still, right now, diminished, and characters fundamentally, perpetually, exploitable properties.

But Morrison has always had a talent for self-preservation. I trust that most of you have noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned the artists of The Multiversity #1 yet; this was deliberate, as Morrison has fashioned himself a distinct enough approach — extremely dense, loud, busy activity — that his scripting can easily survive the uncertainties of superhero comics production, where you often don’t know who the artist is going to be, without ever really seeming affected by shifts in visual style. I doubt he means to diminish his collaborators, much in the way I doubt reviewers mean to diminish the visual aspect of superhero comics, but he is, I think, adapting a terrain which demands production beyond the capabilities of most fixed artistic teams.

And then there’s the problem of reader expectations: Ivan Reis & Joe Prado draw the comic, while Nei Ruffino colors. It is heavy, shiny, ‘realistic’ work in a manner not unfamiliar to anyone reading superhero comics since the 1990s; there is also a tinge of the grotesque, in keeping with the DC line’s horror-ish tendencies, best embodied by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo of the ever-popular Batman. However, it is a very *literal* grotesqueness – Reis & Prado do fine with depicting human forms in states of distress, but when Morrison calls for something fanciful, like an emptied skin billowing around a wasteland like a discarded cape (see the Earth-7 splash above), the artists cannot cope so well. The best that can be said is that they are efficient in the micro, and appropriate in the macro: if they draw both bookend issues of The Multiversity, then we will begin and end in the ‘current’ DC universe as drawn by popular house stylists, while the one-off issues will feature the more individual likes of Chris Sprouse, Cameron Stewart, Frank Quitely, etc.

But wait.

Do you see what I did there?

That’s an old Grant Morrison fan trick: spinning a present-tense fault as a potential boon. He is very good at encouraging this, constructing tall, tottering concepts and pitching metaphors vaguely enough that it can be argued that Grant Morrison has never done any bad writing, it’s just his readers who lack sufficient engagement. Take the Gentry: who are they? Where do they come from? Sure (you say), it’s only issue #1, nobody needs to explain everything so early, but if I know Morrison’s writing, we’re not likely to see *that* much more detail in the future. Or, rather, the Gentry will efficiently fill the space of any ambient threat, encompassing everything from publisher malfeasance to Hollywood to reader disillusionment. My god, there is a threat that we will be treated to a proper harangue on keeping the faith in superheroes, no matter how boring or goofy or sexist or culturally monolithic they may seem.

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RIDDLE ME THIS, DETECTIVE: when does don’t stop believing become don’t stop consuming?

There has always been a silent agreement between Grant Morrison comics and Grant Morrison readers that one thing will not be considered in evaluating these grand struggles for the evolution of the superhero concept: that we won’t just elect to go do something else. That we won’t decide that the best way to deal with the problems of superheroes is to stop reading superhero comics. And this I’ve come to see as a narrative fault, because Morrison keeps going on and on and on about evolution, and yet the superhero decades have proven circular in their advancements, so that Nu 52 DC reads quite a bit like Wildstorm circa 1995, and as a result I find myself standing outside, wondering “hey, if nothing really changes, this guy can just position himself, profitably, as a shaman in perpetuity, right?”

Oh, it remains pleasant. I still like reading some of the comics Morrison writes. The Multiversity is very cozy, efficient entertainment. I certainly don’t think he’s saying anything unwise, thematically. But if I don’t think he’s exactly part of the problem, I’m really no longer buying Morrison’s solutions, and these are works of solutions. Thank heavens the Gentry hail from “behind the invisible rainbow,” because the 52 universes of DC comics are negligible force in the wider culture. You can and should call for less sexism in comics, but if DC is making enough money from goofy shit aimed at gaming bros, the line is gonna reflect that. The cinema did not awaken to the glory of superheroes as an Idea, it realized that superhero comics were adaptable to preexisting action/fantasy formulas while allowing for easier franchising returns – and where that money goes, so will those comics owned by Warner Bros. and Disney. That Grant Morrison represents that part of the corporate body which calls for revolution does not mean that his scripts exist apart from the function of that body.

Unless you recall Morrison’s protestations that space/time can itself be understood as an organic being, “a ball of sphincters,” per his 2011 book Supergods, and that “what we experienced as ‘evil’ was simply the effects of inoculation against some cosmic disease.” This is meant to be comforting in its certainty. But my belief in evolution was never so much chasing the development of the perfect ass, but in anticipating a future where bodies are elective, and minds free. This was the promise of the internet.

And look! Look where it’s gotten me! See how they’ve roped me back in! Made me a supervillain! Trapped! Trapped in a fucking comic book! I want out, you jailers! You wardens of fancy! SHERIFFS! SHERIFFS of POP! OPEN YOUR PANELS AND LET ME FREE, I CAN SEE YOU!

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PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.

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SPOTLIGHT PICKS!

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Theseus and the Minotaur: And I’m back! A fun digression, yes, but now it’s time to withdraw from the babyish fantasies of superheroes and return to the sophisticated focus of this column – EUROCOMICS FOR THIRD-GRADERS. Fuck yes, this is a Toon Books translation of a 2012 album by Yvan Pommaux, a longtime practitioner of French kids’ comics, here detailing the legend of the title across 56 color pages, with an eye on education. A 7.75″ x 10″ presentation, soon to be joined by a host of mythic/tale-based works, including Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti and a Philémon release from the late “Fred”; $16.95.

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Even More Bad Parenting Advice: And here is Drawn and Quarterly with some French Canadian treats, courtesy of Guy Delisle, continuing his efforts in the goofy dad gag comic more of last year’s A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting. This one is is 204 pages at 6″ x 8.5″, which is to say very similar in dimension to the last one. Preview; $12.95.

PLUS!

Invincible Days: I think I recall Patrick Atangan picking up a good deal of praise back in 2002 for The Yellow Jar, an evocation of Asian folktales, followed by two sequels. I can’t say I’ve heard much from him in the past decade or so, but here, again, is NBM, with a new 9″ x 6″ landscape-format collection of short stories, autobiographical and otherwise – 128 pages forming “a singular narrative that reveals the tiny moments when you realize you are at the precious end-days of youth,” per the publisher. Some heavily digital-looking, clip art-y pages in this one. Samples; $19.99.

Charley’s War Omnibus Vol. 1: Meanwhile, in repackaging, Titan Books brings a new iteration of something it’s been working on since 2005 – a complete collection of the famously questioning WWI comic from Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun, 1979-85. I suspect there will be three of these 7.6″ x 10.4″ volumes in total, as these debut 320 pages encompass all of the original vols. 1-3, and a bit of vol. 4; $24.99.

White Death: More from the Great War, as Image resuscitates a 2002 AiT/Planet Lar release (itself reprinted from an earlier, 1998 edition) by a pair of then-obscure(-to-the-US) 2000 AD contributors, writer Robbie Morrison and artist Charlie Adlard, the latter of whom is now conjoined to The Walking Dead, hence the backstock. Hellish conditions in the mountains mark this tale, now a 5.9″ x 8.3 hardcover, 104 pages; $14.99.

Jaegir: But if it’s more contemporary 2000 AD you’re after, Rebellion has this one-off comic book collecting a recent Rogue Trooper spinoff series from Gordon Rennie & Simon Coleby, following a war crimes investigator on her mission to track a man with a monstrous genetic character. In practice, it’s sort of Tharg’s own version of The Winter Men, with lots of reflections on past-tense super-war from the perspective of a dingy urban present. A newer storyline is presently ongoing in 2kAD itself; $3.99.

All-New Ultimates #7: Marvel, as you might have hard, also publishes superhero comic books. This is part of their off-center universe, now joining two popular creators of small press genre stuff, as writer Michel Fiffe (of Copra) teams with artist Giannis Milonogiannis (of Old City Blues and Image’s Prophet). Preview; $3.99.

Ariol Vol. 5: Bizzbilla Hits the Bullseye: Getting back to Eurocomics for kids – and man, I just want to stop for a second and marvel at how much French-language work is getting translated these days. This is the second Emmanual Guibert release this month, encompassing his talents as both an artist-biographer (via How the World Was from First Second) and as a writer for other artists, specifically Marc Boutavant, who draws this series about funny animals and their friends. From NBM/Papercutz, 6.5″ x 7.75″; $12.99.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan: The Sunday Comics Vol. 2, 1934-1936: Another gigantic, expensive collection of works by an artist who readily flatters the gigantic and expensive, Hal Foster, here seen just prior to his signature work on Prince Valiant. Expect 120 color pages at 15″ x 20″, in hardcover; $125.00.

Hergé and the Treasures of Tintin: Finally, your book-on-comics of the week, a UK import from Carlton Books, in which Hergé archivist Dominique Maricq presents 20 facsimile documents — sketches, layout pages, etc. — among 180 illustrations relating to the famous boy with the dog and the haircut; $49.95.

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13 Responses to THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (8/27/14 – 52 is an Artificial Limit, and other obvious statements)

  1. RM Rhodes says:

    The fact that Calvin Ellis is referred to as Calvin Elvis throughout the essay is the best part.

  2. Joe McCulloch says:

    Lot of interdimensional bleed out there; rough transmission.

  3. Spoilers Below says:

    Boy does Morrison seem upset that David Brothers doesn’t review comics anymore… You monsters finally got to him.

  4. Liam Otten says:

    An art school figure structure lesson that always stuck with me is that, generally speaking, one “sets the pose” by starting with the pelvic girdle. The Italian tradition, clearly, dates back to Antonio Pollaiuolo.

  5. Matt Seneca says:

    Yeaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh BUDDY

  6. J_Cornelius says:

    Dude, the Gentry are very, very obviously the readers. They want to make everything bleak and shitty. It’s the readers. There is nothing vague about it, it’s a meta concept.

    As is Multiversity as a whole (as I’m sure you are aware). The map of the DC multiverse that Grant Morrison has produced can easily be seen as a big metaphor for the creative process itself (in the comic book industry). That was what Final Crisis was about.

    He wants to make everything canon and make the DC universe sentient. And that’s where I agree with you on the observation that he’s gotten very repetitive in the superhero arena. I still like it and there actually is a progression throughout all his superhero work (being one big continued metanarrative), though not as mush as my favourites The Filth, Flex Mentallo and Doom Patrol.

  7. Zizzle says:

    Beneath the surface gloss of the non-white/heterosexual hero team, the metafictional this-comic-is-talking-to-you intro, and some light weirdness in the pseudoscience I thought this was the most by-the-numbers DC cosmic crisis I’ve ever seen. Heroes are summoned from various dimensions to the Monitor’s satellite. Cthulhoid monsters are eating the multiverse. The heroes have to tour through multiple earths to stop them and, unpromisingly, this is set to follow an earth per issue scheme with bookends rather than being a straight-up miniseries that could change direction. And the villain is a Monitor gone bad. It’s cute to see a version of the Marvel earth, and I’ll at least look at Morrison & Quitely doing the Charlton characters, but… wasn’t DC overusing the alternate earths thing up until not so long ago? And a World War II theme next issue? Really, guys?

  8. brad c says:

    Hey Jog,

    Wondering what you thought of Transformers vs GI Joe #1? Found out about the comic through this column and i’ve utterly obsessed. Read the book and thought “now this is a gawdamn comic”

  9. Mikael says:

    Stop reading superhero comics. And yet Multiversity takes up the biggest portion for the week. TWIC 0, Morrison 52.

  10. bobsy says:

    Reform of copyright laws so that entities other than DC can publish Superman or Batman comics would be the (one step down from) Utopian solution. Much harder to achieve than stopping reading superhero comics (which is easy, practically fait accompli), more heroic and beneficial to the world even. Therefore the solution I deepfaith believe Superman wants us to aspire to.

  11. bobsy says:

    Wow my arse had a lot less hair on it back when comics blogging was invented.

  12. Joe McCulloch says:

    Brad – Transformers vs. G.I. Joe #2 is out today! I generally don’t mention continuing series in here unless they’re on an irregular schedule, but – it’s still pretty intense. Definitely the only media license book out there that benefits more from familiarity with how old toys physically operate than anything out of canonical storylines… there’s this insane double-page splash where a big dinosaur and a big robot stagger around while a tiny jet splits in two, and it’s like all Scioli did was erase two hands smashing the toys around. Totally contagious spirit to all these pictures – I think the endnotes are as much the ‘plot’ as the story.

    (And before anyone asks – yes, The Multiversity is *also* a wildly personal take on work-for-hire properties, but it has a prominent and specific polemical aspect too…)

  13. Jon says:

    Nailed it! Morrison seems to put himself in league with, say, Shostakovich, toiling and subversively getting his licks in to an overbearing dictator. Instead, why doesn’t he take Rob Liefeld’s advice and go start his own damn company?

    “a hollow apologia, somewhat desperate to justify its writer’s continued promulgation of the superhero idea as free and noble thing,”

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