Fourth Age of Comics Mon, 20 Aug 2012 01:06:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 My Darkseid Mon, 20 Aug 2012 01:04:47 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]>

I never thought I’d be friends with Darkseid. He had his own crew anyway. They were a pretty rough sort, and I saw the way he treated them. But, still, he had an attraction to him, a kind of craziness that had a gravitational pull. And he was crazy – single-mindedly crazy. I heard a lot of things about him. That he vaped a guy with his eyes. That he barked like a dog in a lost kid’s face. That he beat a man to death in Austin over a five dollar debt, bit a woman’s finger off when she was waving it at him. His craziness seemed strange and unfathomable, like it mattered.

I never thought I’d be friends with Darkseid, and I didn’t think I wanted to be either. But when he called me, I answered. It was always favors, mostly rides. His crew could probably have done it, but he didn’t like them much. Eighth and Vine Street. Riverside and Pleasant Valley. Twenty-Second and Main. There would be days where I’d be holed up in the apartment, dodging phone calls or emails from friends and family, sometimes just lying in bed and trying to pass the time away, but if it was Darkseid calling, off I’d go.

This time, he didn’t tell me where we were going. He tossed a duffel bag in the back and took a seat, told me to start driving, and barked out directions every few minutes. I kept glancing over at him, and his eyes were sometimes smoldering red coals, sometimes just white slits. It was getting darker and we were getting further from the city, but he tell me to stop yet. We’d pass a farm house or barn every few miles, and he’d just shake his head and grunt. He told me to stop, and I hit the brakes. Slowly, laboriously, he unfolded himself from my car – it was a marvel he even fit in my Civic. He started unpacking his duffel while I looked around. A few hundred feet from the road was a little rundown shed, still important enough for its owners that a lock was on the door. A few hundred feet beyond that was a little house. Nobodies for Darkseid.

The duffel, it turned out, had a bunch of tins of lighter fluid, a few packs of matches, and a pair of mismatched old shoes. Over the next twenty minutes, he popped tin after tin and sprayed it on the shed. I sat there on the hood of the car in silence, trying not to inhale the acrid scent, kind of wishing I were dead. It took him ten or fifteen tries for him to get a match to stay lit when he threw it at the barn, but when it did, oh boy. I wondered for a second why he didn’t use his eye lasers or micro-mark nanobots, but then I knew why. It was the same reason he wasn’t sending his cronies to do this and came himself.

A couple minutes later, when the fire was really going, I heard a door slam. I guess the shed’s owner had seen the flames, and he came running out in a sweatshirt and boxers. Then I heard it, like screaming, but too high pitched, a squealing whine that made my bones judder. I heard a door slam – the shed’s owner must have seen the fire from the house – and he came running out in a t-shirt and boxers. He was screaming, too, about his babies, about his bunnies, about his babies. He paced around the shed, flailing his arms, tearing out his hair, too scared, too smart to try to get in. His face was covered with snot and tears. I looked at Darkseid’s face, a stony crag, expressionless, silent, not even a smile.

]]> 0 Wed, 31 Aug 2011 14:31:51 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]> In his blog Greg Rucka writes,

Pet peeve time: for the contingent out there who sneer at heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman and Captain America, those icons who still, at their core, represent selfless sacrifice for the greater good, and who justify their contempt by saying, oh, it’s so unrealistic, no one would ever be so noble… grow up. Seriously. Cynicism is not maturity, do not mistake the one for the other. If you truly cannot accept a story where someone does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, that says far more about who you are than these characters.

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Panels of the Week 9 Wed, 29 Jun 2011 18:24:41 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]> One of the most memorable episodes in Seaguy volume 2 is his short stint as El Macho, the greatest bull dresser in the world.

I think about Seaguy often and don’t need much of a reason to make a post about him. But I was reminded of this by Bruce Wayne’s visit to Argentina in Batman Inc. 3 and his dance of the TANGO OF DEATH with the villainous SCORPIANA.

It’s strange that of all of Morrison’s mainstream stuff, his work on Batman has been the most reminiscent of his work on Seaguy.

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“The crow was sucking cock for a reason”: The Unfunnies Tue, 28 Jun 2011 20:55:00 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]>

I still read the occasional Warren Ellis book because even if I sometimes find him distasteful or a little lazy in his writing, he usually is still dealing with the kernel of a good idea. I don’t think I can say the same of Mark Millar, and I don’t know why I sometimes still read his work. Millar has called The Unfunnies the “most uncompromising thing” he’s ever written and says he’s “immensely proud” of it; I think it’s repulsive and wholly representative of him as a writer. When I discuss it below, I’m going to spoil it, to the extent that it can be spoiled. You should never read it.

The Unfunnies is set in a world that is a pastiche of a Hannah-Barbera cartoon: it’s populated by such carefree anthropomorphic animals as Legal Begal, the canine lawyer; Pete the Penguin, the avian mail-man; and Moe the Crow. The world takes a turn for the worse near the beginning of the book when Moe is arrested for possessing child-pornography and molesting children. Moe the Crow’s wife, Birdseed Betty, is reduced to prostituting herself to pay the rent and feed their kids while Moe the Crow is in prison.

When the police question Moe the Crow about how he got started on his pedophiliac ways, he tells them it began when a guy on the internet, Troy Hicks, contacted him and started showing him child porn. In the mean time, the whole world is becoming more depraved and corrupt: Birdseed Betty kills her landlord when he tries to evict her; Sally Gator has her no-good, drug dealing daughter, Allie Gator, murdered; Moe is repeatedly gang-raped in prison; and someone is killing children.

The police track down the child killer, and it proves to be Pete the Penguin; but it’s also Troy Hicks. Troy Hicks is revealed to be a denizen of the “real world” – a comic writer and artist who created the strip The Funnies, of which everyone in the book is a product. Troy was a pedophile, a child killer, and a satanist, and he was caught and sentenced to death for his crimes. As part of some kind of occult ritual he was, while on death row, able to write himself into his comic and swap places with a character – Pete the Penguin. Now, he has his run of the cartoon world, and Pete is on death row. When the cartoon cops close in on Troy, he butchers them. Troy – in the body of Pete – is in charge now.

So The Unfunnies is a book about a creator who not only savages his creations, but makes them as depraved and disgusting as he is. We’ve seen similar considerations of the relationship between a writer and his fictions in Moore and Morrison, and the key text to compare to The Unfunnies is Morrison’s Animal Man, especially issue 5.

There, Morrison tells the story of a thinly-veiled analog of Wile E. Coyote transported from a carefree, but violent, world (more a Merrie Melodies world than a Hanna-Barbera one) to Animal Man’s “real” world, where he is subjected to an agonizing life and death. The character struggles to understand why the world is the way it is and on what ground he is subjected to such torment; the issue, like Morrison’s entire run on Animal Man, meditates on our relationship as writers, readers, and inhabitants of the “real” world with our fictions. At the end of his run, Morrison comes to the conclusion that it is not only cruel but stupid to try to make our characters and their world more like ours; that, on the contrary, we should make our world more like theirs. We should not make them more amoral, but ourselves more moral; not make their lives more meaningless, but our own more meaningful; not treat them mercilessly, but be more merciful to them and ourselves. And Morrison indeed ends issue 5 and his run by being merciful to his characters and giving them happy lives, or at least happy deaths.

But the fictional Grant Morrison that appears at the end of Animal Man is, as the man himself would presumably like to be, concerned about his characters and feels some responsibility towards them. Indeed, in some way the whole run is less about Buddy Baker than about an author trying to make sense of the things writers and readers inflict on their characters. Troy Hickman feels no such compunctions, and brutalizes and corrupts them for his own benefit. And boy, the things he does to them.

Issue 3 of The Unfunnies is mostly about Pussy Whiskers, a classically trained actor cat who loses his job and is reduced to standing on the street wearing a sandwich board that advertises for a carpet store. He’s told by his doctor he has testicular cancer and has his testicles removed; it turns out the doctor was lying and he was healthy. Pussy Whiskers’ wife, Polly, says she’ll leave him if he doesn’t give her a baby, and she forces him to find men for her to sleep with.

Only, later she reveals that she’s on birth control and is manipulating him because she likes casual sex. In the last issue, we learn that the first man Pussy Whiskers found for her had AIDS – just before that man rapes Moe the Crow in prison.

Troy Hickman’s creations become broken and corrupt because he is broken and corrupt. They are pedophiles, rapists, and child killers because he revels in such depravity and feels contempt for his own creations. This is not the kind of question I’m normally inclined to ask about a text, but on the other hand this is a text about the relationship between a fiction and its author: what does The Unfunnies and Troy Hickman say about Mark Millar?

Mark Millar says of this book, “My wife got about six pages into it when she was reading it in the bath the other night and she just threw it at me. She said it was the most horrible thing she’d ever read in her life and she didn’t want to think this sort of s**t even went on in my head. I tried to explain that the crow was sucking cock for a REASON, but it actually does sound kind of creepy saying it out loud.”

I guess it’s to his credit that he sees a “reason” here. But like The Unfunnies, so many of his books hinge around treating his characters and the reader with contempt. Telling a good story so often means brutalizing and demeaning them; good dialog means mockery and swearing; a good ending means spitting in the reader’s face. Wanted, one of his most well known books, after all, ends with Wesley looking the reader in the eye while fucking him in the ass.

It’s a grotesque, violent, disgusting re-imagining of Buddy’s fear, awe, and enlightenment at seeing the reader in Animal Man 16:

It should be no surprise that Wesley looks on the reader with hostility and contempt, given the nature of his own treatment and the book he’s in.

I guess I hate The Unfunnies so much is because it is so self-conscious about what it’s doing. The corruption and abuse of the characters is so thoughtful and intentional. It happens because the writer is not just a dick, but a monster, and it shows that Millar can think about his characters and fiction in the same way as Morrison does – only he chooses not to or sees things differently. Knowing that makes it much harder to read his work and simply dismiss him as a bad writer rather than, like Troy, a corrupt human being. And it makes me wonder – how was this guy ever Morrison’s protege? How did this guy ever write Red Sun or have the compassion to write a book like Superman: For the Animals?

Some Mark Millar bibliography:

The Simpsons

Tales from the Millardome

A Facebook thing

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Supergod: “Messiahs dressed in human form” Sat, 25 Jun 2011 17:25:00 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]>

I’m pretty sure Warren Ellis doesn’t like superheroes very much, though he’s certainly still managed to write more than a few bang-up superhero comics. But I haven’t read any from him lately.

His superhero work lately – I’m thinking No Hero, Black Summer, and Supergods – are, like most Ellis books I’ve read lately, lazy and poorly developed. Take Orbiter, for instance. It has a truly novel and interesting premise: a space shuttle that had disappeared, crew and all, many years ago lands at Kennedy Space Center. The book hinges around the mystery of where it has been all these years, what happened to its crew, and how a ship designed only to orbit Earth could have traces of dust from Mars on it. But this mystery unfolds in the most boring and linear way possible, leaving one to wish that such a premise hadn’t been wasted on such an execution.

Supergod is the same way, and with it Ellis commits the same sins. The idea is that in a world where Superheroes haven’t naturally occurred, governments have gone out of their way to create them. They were intended, then, to be instruments of their governments’ usually amoral agendas; most of them, even the ones that prove to have superhuman intelligence, were supposed to be dumb tools. But one of the book’s premises is that there is another simultaneous motivation for their creation: in inventing superheroes, we are not really trying to invent heroes, but the gods we feel like ought to exist but don’t. They are making, then, what are on the one hand supposed to be stupid weapons; and, on the other, what are supposed to be their salvation.

So far, this is largely compatible with my own observations about superheroes. I’ve mentioned a few times the paradox that  superheroes tend to be more moral than their opponents, but that they are also physically superior. There is almost always a kind of overdetermination to their actions whereby they triumph while being both more right and more strong, and we are induced not to think about what would happen if one or the other were not true. The latter parts of Morrison’s run on Animal Man meditated on this problem.

Ellis plays with this by doing what he usually does with superheroes, that is, through gross over exaggeration. Most of the superheroes the governments create are absurdly, incomprehensibly powerful – some of them have the abilities to play with matter like Play-Doh, to manipulate space, to see through time. The Indian government creates a being called Krishna; he looks the part.

After proving he is far more intelligent and powerful than his creators had intended and breaking out of the lab that birthed him, he recites Vedas that had never been written, deflects back on Packistan a nuclear assault, and then sets to work fixing his country. That turns out to mean destroying 90% of its population and remaking its polluted, degenerate cities. He’s more a god than a man – that’s what humans want for their superbeings here, after all – and, like a god, he is above us and different from us, his motives are ineffable, and his actions are inhumane.

Most of the other supergods are like this too, though their thought processes are somewhat more mysterious. The Iranians were trying to create and angel that will act as a conduit to god. But the god they create – he’s named Malak, of course – for some reason goes on a rampage. His power is only to destroy stuff. The Chinese supergod can, like Krishna, manipulate matter, and he focuses his attention on human flesh. He brutally constructs a Cthulhu out of the flesh of millions of unwilling Chinese.

What is Ellis trying to say about Iran or China? Anything? As I mentioned, there is a certain laziness about the book that makes it difficult for me to take it too seriously. Nearly all the story is narrated as an oral history by a scientist involved in the creation of the British supergod. Mostly it’s text boxes of him giving exposition overlaid on supergods fighting each other or killing their people; I get it: Ellis is trying to make the supergods seem inaccessible, inscrutable, horrible, and mysterious. They’re inhuman, and like gods, they operate according to a different moral system than we do. But this makes it a book that feels dominated by exposition, and there is very little dialog or, you know, interesting interaction among characters. Instead, the story unfolds as a linear, and rather boring, narrative about characters who we never understand or are induced to care about.

Indeed, it’s a book that feels like a series of concept sketches about superheroes instead of a developed story: “This one’s Malak! And he can destroy stuff at will! And he, like, blows a hole in the moon! And-and…”

To Ellis’s credit, there is one actually interesting character, the American supergod, Jerry Craven. Whereas the other supergods were for the most part invented to be the gods their creators wished already existed – gods that proved more inhumane than they ever guessed – Jerry must be more like an avatar of the American people. He’s confused and deceived, but he’s well meaning, and I don’t think we ever see him try to kill someone for no reason. He’s a pastiche of the 6 million dollar man, though in his case the government caused the crash so they could fake his death and operate on him with impunity. When he’s rebuilt, he’s powerful, but he’s also convinced that he must be dead and in hell now, and he keeps pealing his skin off to expose the electronics beneath. To control him, his superiors must set him up in a facsimile of a perfect, midwestern American town, and they tell him that he is indeed dead and in heaven. Only, sometimes jets land in heaven, take him to distant countries, and for America’s sake he fights and kills for causes he doesn’t really understand until they deposit him back in paradise.

So maybe Jerry does say something about America, its people, and their government, but he’s not representative, as I said. The other supergods kill people of their own and other countries, as well as each other, without much explanation. Is it because it is the nature of superheroes to make war? Because the world is not big enough for more than one god? Because it is humanity’s natural conclusion to create everything it has always dreamed of and to use that to destroy itself? These might be, and probably are, all true, but Ellis doesn’t try very hard to prove these points.

The most programmatic speech comes out of the mouth of the British supergod, Morrigan Lugus, a true abomination. The British, trying to create a supergod but not quote sure how to do it, shot three astronauts into space on an unshielded shuttle, and there they were infected by a space fungus that fused them into one being with an alien intelligence.

His keepers, the British scientists involved in the project, come to revere and worship him – even though he rarely speaks and has unclear motivations. The book’s narrator, one of his caretakers, breaks down at one point and asks him “what he’s for.” Morrigan Lugus tells him: the human brain has evolved such that it produces pleasure when one gazes in fear and awe at anthropomorphized objects from the natural world; organized religion is a product of this, as is, indeed, all of human culture. It’s that old chestnut, then: religion as a narcotic, though introducing superheroes into it adds a little novelty.

But here, as usual, this proposition is too simplistically described and explored. So in a world without gods, we have created superheroes to fulfill that compulsion of ours to worship something. What of it? That doesn’t explain why they need to be so dark, ridiculous, and destructive. On the contrary, that we are left to create our own gods could introduce a wonderful element of self-determination in an otherwise indifferent universe. But this book doesn’t do anything with this, and, like any bad superhero book, it degenerates into supergods fighting each other, killing each other, and saying things that sound kind of cool but make no sense.

Ellis is right that our superheroes are our modern mythology, and given the technology, we might try to make these objects of our veneration a reality. And given our imperfect conception of them – overwhelming power plus unexamined righteousness – they could turn out as brutal, inscrutable, and inhuman as these supergods, who are pretty much the same as the old gods, only they’re real. But what Morrison has shown us is that superheroes are indeed kinds of gods, but they are different and better than our old gods. The old gods were mighty but unreasonable and vengeful. But Superman will save the life of even his bitterest enemy. And, what’s more, we can be like them – all Batman is is a guy who transcended his traumas and fights against evil. Anyone can be a Batman. Superheroism is contingent on psychological, not physical, transformation.

We know that what makes our superheroes heroes and not merely gods is that they have in fact not become something other than human, but rather represent what is best about humanity. Superman is great not because he’s inhumanly powerful, but because he is superhumanly humane; and Batman because he is a man who has perfected himself and now walks among gods; and Jesus because he is a god who became a man.

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Panel of the Week n + 1 Wed, 08 Jun 2011 21:03:19 +0000 fourthage

It’s not so flashy; but it’s funny and informative. Here, Bruce trolls the internet, spreading information and disinformation

The funny thing is it’s all true. . .

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“Some say Batman died and came back as a kind of god”: More Batman, Inc. Mon, 06 Jun 2011 20:59:09 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]>

While Superman was recently courting controversy by relinquishing his American citizenship, Batman went international too. He never really represented America in the manner Superman did to begin with.

As we’ve discussed before, Superman is superhumanly moral and somehow above from the messiness of reality, and we can never really live up to him and what he stands for. It’s upsetting that even in this fictional comic-book world, he and his country have so badly let him down, but in truth neither they nor we ever really stood a chance. Superman is an otherworldly savior who will fight and die for us, no matter how weak or base we prove to be. He is different from us and singular.

Batman is something else. He is the man who by force of will triumphs over trauma and perfects himself; he is marked by personal transformation – a metamorphosis that comes not from the stars, but within. That Morrison was conceiving of Batman this way started to become quite clear in Final Crisis: Last Rites (=Batman 682-3), where he, pretty much a brain in a vat (or a powerless fictional character), overcomes every absurd or dehumanizing revisionistic alternate life he is subjected to. It became clearer in Return of Bruce Wayne and the first issue of Batman Inc., where Batman began to be described as a New kind of God, and not just Bruce Wayne, but the right type of person anytime and anywhere could be a Batman. Now, it’s more explicit than ever.

All it takes is transcending the trauma that mars us; resisting the anti-life; overcoming the darkseid. I thought at first Morrison’s latest arc too closely resembled his work on Batman RIP and Batman and Robin: Leviathan, like the Black Glove, is a massive, powerful, secret, and old organization with fingers in a lot of pies and moles among Batman’s friends. But while still only known to us as a sketch, Morrison has already differentiated them: the agents of the Black Glove have all given in to their depravities and manias, like his typical rogues. Indeed, most of them are ridiculously exaggerated compared even to those usual villains. From what we can tell so far, the Leviathan’s agents are different: they are mindless and sociopathic; they no longer have agency.

Instead of transcending his trauma, as Batman did, or giving into it and being characterized by it, as his usual rogues do, the agents of Leviathan have become inured and callous to it. They are very much like the people who were overcome by Darkseid and anti-life, estranged from humanity and from themselves.

In another life, maybe that would have been Batman: broken and callous, something inhuman. Or, in another life, he would have been indistinguishable from his rogues, as Moore’s Killing Joke and Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth imply. We, and he, know now why he’s different. The revelation came in Return of Bruce Wayne 5, where he finally understands that he isn’t, and never was, alone. He isn’t, and he never was, really estranged.

He isn’t, like so many superheroes are, a crazy man with overwhelming physical and mental prowess, whom we call a hero merely because his mania and lawlessness coincide coincidentally and roughly with what we call justice. He has realized what Lex Luthor realized in All-Star Superman 12, though this was something Luthor only got when endowed with super-perspicacity:

Anyone can be a Batman. We should all be Batmen. Your friend should be Batman; your wife should be Batman; your neighbor should be Batman; you should be a Batman

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Panel of the Week #? Wed, 20 Apr 2011 03:46:05 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]> I’ve been doing a horrid job with this blog lately, I know, but I simply haven’t gotten to read many comics lately. Most recently, on a tip from a friend, I checked out Nick Spencer and RB Silva’s Jimmy Olsen. I never would have picked it up in a million years without his recommendation; every Jimmy Olsen I’ve seen over the last couple decades has fallen short, with the notable exception of Morrison’s. Like Morrison, Spencer understands the character: he’s not stupid, boring, or a perpetual squire in distress. He’s cool, and Superman is his pal for good reason. This panel, though, is of Lois, who is pledging to help him find a new girlfriend (it turns out she was lying). She looks strange, even deranged; actually, her look here very much reminds me of something from Young Liars. She’s a character that has rarely been done well either, I guess.

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Marvel Cats Sat, 26 Mar 2011 19:30:22 +0000 fourthage Someday soon, I’ll get back to posting regularly, starting with a post on Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme. In the mean time, here’s some Marvel Cats.

My favorite is Lar Desonza’s cat Thor.

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Panel of the Week 6 Sun, 13 Mar 2011 18:37:56 +0000 fourthage Continue reading ]]>

I’ve been sick lately and have pretty much been out of commission, but I hope to be back in the saddle soon. In the mean time, I’ve been reading 52, or at least some of it. I can’t stand some of the plots and characters – anything involving Steel in particular gets on my nerves. I hated him even back when he first debuted in 1993 when I was a feckless boy.

Some parts are really good though. I’m not always sure which of the five authors wrote what, but I’m certain that Morrison is responsible for the adventures of Animal Man, Dr. Strange, and Starfire in space. Early on, they meet Lobo, who has become the archbishop in the church of a Triple Fish God and sworn an oath of nonviolence. He’s accompanied by a floating, talking space dolphin. In the panel above from 52 #37, Lobo and the Dolphin speak some words over Animal Man’s corpse (don’t worry, he gets up on the next page).

Remind anyone of another partnership?

The talking space dolphin doesn’t talk nearly as much trash as Chubby, though he does have a pivotal scene where he convinces Lobo to give up his vow of non-violence  by convincing him that a client is calling him a coward. That actually ends pretty well for everyone.

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