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Iceman, Vol. 1: Thawing Out (Review)

Reading 150If you’re one of the original five X-Men and your name isn’t Jean Grey or Scott Summers, chances are you’ve got a bum deal. Angel is mostly known for having his wings torn off and replaced by cybernetic ones as one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. Beast was arguably most popular during his stint with the Avengers team in the 70s and 80s before rejoining his old team and curing the Legacy Virus in the 90s. Iceman, however, doesn’t even have an iconic storyline or fan-favorite supervillain to boost his street cred. Mostly, he’s just known for…well, being a member of the Original Five.

Writers have spent years looking for ways to make Bobby Drake more distinctive. He was classified as an Omega Level mutant sometime ago, but unlike others with the classification (like, say, Jean or fellow X-Man Storm) he’s not one of the first names you think of when an extinction-level threat rears up. Several writers have put work in justifying Iceman’s designation, but nothing’s really stuck in the popular consciousness. More recently Iceman made headlines when a past version of himself was outed as gay by Jean, which raised all kinds of questions. How could he have been gay for this long without any inkling from anyone else (including readers)? Especially when he’s had a bit of a reputation for his love life?

During one of their many recent X-Men relaunches, Iceman was one of the two Original Five X-Men to get a solo series. (The other — of course — was the time-displaced Jean Grey.) The first five issues debuted back in 2017, and I have to admit I gave it a pass at the time. It wasn’t a great time to be an X-fan, and the constant upheavals in the status quo with subsequent relaunches didn’t give me much faith that this title would last. Sure enough, it was cancelled after 11 issues, renewed months later, then cancelled again after six more issues. In this particular age of Marvel, 17 issues is a decent run — but what about the story that was told in that space? The first collection of Iceman, Thawing Out, establishes the “new normal” for Bobby Drake as he tries to figure himself out and live up to his Omega-level potential.

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He’s smiling because he’s finally figured an ice-based gay pun

If I had to describe the first five issues of Iceman in one word, it would be “accessible”. Writer Sina Grace has the unenviable task of making sense of Bobby’s controversial status quo while also providing readers with a compelling reason to see him as a potential ‘leading man’. Iceman has never felt like a big deal; for the ongoing to work, the first arc really needs to establish him as someone capable of anchoring stories as well as Spider-Man or Captain America. However, Bobby’s recent embrace of his sexuality means that he might need to seem like the “same old Iceman” so he doesn’t further alienate a vocal contingent of the comics fandom. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and for various reasons it feels like Grace and the editorial team made a series of choices that put the title into a place that doesn’t appeal to anyone who might be willing to give it a shot.

In the first arc, Iceman struggles to come out to his parents as gay — which makes sense, since they still haven’t fully accepted him as a mutant. The whole affair is complicated by an appearance from the Purifiers and a dust-up with Juggernaut, but when the dust settles there’s at least hope that the cold war between Bobby and his parents can thaw given time. Grace wisely echoes audience sentiment — “Who IS Iceman, really?” — within Drake himself, who states from the jump that his legacy isn’t very strong and he doesn’t have a well-defined self-image. By bundling the audience questions into the narrative, Grace acknowledges the challenge directly while offering an implicit promise we’ll get an answer through Bobby’s journey of self-discovery.

And we get an idea of why it’s so difficult for Bobby to reconcile what makes him different through his parents. It’s clear that his parents’ inability to accept him for who he is makes it hard for him to accept himself; he’s torn between who he feels he is and who his parents want him to be. Anyone who’s spent some time being closeted in their family can relate to this. The tension that comes with weighing your desire to be a part of your family against the need to be true to yourself is so hard to reconcile. But it also feels like Bobby should have pulled the trigger on a decision about this by now. He’s been living this way for years at this point, and he’s been his own man for long enough to decide for himself who he is.

I think that’s one of the reasons why this first arc doesn’t quite work — it feels like it’s speaking to a dilemma we’ve gotten past as a society. Folks who don’t accept LGBQTIA people aren’t likely to be swayed by this story, and the folks who are LGBQTIA don’t quite see themselves in Bobby’s situation. Those still closeted under their parents’ roof don’t have a team of superheroes to lean on, no superpowers to save themselves (or their family) from bigots, no external threats to unite their family. The resolution with Bobby’s parents feels at once too small a win to celebrate but at the same time too easily achieved — he hasn’t really learned to address the flaws keeping him from a resolution, and his parents haven’t really budged from their vague disapproval or dealt with the reasons they have such trouble accepting their son.

Iceman’s core conflict doesn’t drill down into the specifics that would make the story more compelling and Bobby Drake a superhero worth rooting for. We still don’t quite understand why Bobby decided that he didn’t want to be both gay AND a mutant, especially since Northstar is around; we don’t understand how being forced to confront his sexuality is connected to living up to the potential of his mutant powers. Instead, we’re left with the idea that the process of accepting himself has begun and that’s satisfying in its own way.

Sina Grace has spoken out on his Tumblr about his experience writing Iceman, and it is not pretty. According to him, he had little support on the title itself and with the cultural fallout that comes with being a lightning rod in the industry. While paying lip service to the potential to tell diverse stories, Marvel apparently asked him to keep things relatively beige to help its slight chances at being a hit. More assertively gay stories were dismissed, and the arrival of a trans superhero named Shade was not given any publicity. I could easily see Grace being hamstrung from telling the kind of story he wanted by a nervous editorial group, which is a shame.

Because Iceman really does feel like a half-measure on Marvel’s part, telling a difficult story with a series of mis-steps designed to reduce offense instead of speaking truth. It simultaneously acknowledges the hard truths of being gay while diminishing how hard they can be to cope with; it still thinks that featuring a gay character is enough to be progressive. The fact of the matter is they were going to take heat from the same corners of the comics world no matter “how gay” they made the title; it would have been better to take a big swing than the sacrifice bunt they ended up with.

Still, there’s enough to recommend Iceman as a title — especially if you’re a fan of the X-Man himself. It’s just too bad it’s yet another example of a Bobby Drake story that fails to live up to its potential. It’s decent enough, but not nearly what could have been.

 

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(Review) Miles Morales, Vol. 1: Straight Out of Brooklyn

Reading 150The runaway success of last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse raised the profile of Miles Morales in a big way. Created by Brian Michael Bendis in 2011, Miles became the second Spider-Man of an alternate Marvel universe after a cataclysm took the life of that reality’s Peter Parker. It’s been an eventful eight years for Miles. He was a controversial figure during his debut, but has won over fans with amazing stories. He made his way over to the “main” Marvel continuity in 2015 after a “Crisis on Infinite Earths”-type situation that destroyed — then drastically reconfigured — the multiverse, and since then he’s been a key figure of the emerging ‘young superhero’ community. When Into the Spider-Verse dropped, Marvel thought it might be a good idea to give Miles a fresh look with a new ongoing title and a new creative team. Thus, Miles Morales: Spider-Man was born.

For his fourth(?!) solo series, Marvel brought in Hugo Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron. While it can be a bit of a risk to bring an unproven talent to a new title, here it’s an absolute genius call. Ahmed clearly loves Miles Morales and, even better, knows how to write stories that speak to his multi-racial experience while also being an incredibly fun superhero book. Unlike Bendis, who often came across like he had a ‘dad’s’ understanding of what kids are like these days, Ahmed’s writing feels relatable enough to play in middle America while also providing an authentic window into the life of a 15-year-old New Yorker. If you’re looking to jump in to Miles’ further adventures after Into the Spider-Verse, the first collection of his solo series — Straight Out of Brooklyn — is an excellent way to do it.

Miles Air

Ahmed has a natural talent for comics pacing, quickly establishing Miles’ status quo. He’s a student at a boarding school called Brooklyn Visions, where he shares a dorm with best friend Ganke Lee (who knows his secret identity) and a poet named Judge (who doesn’t). His parents both know about his after-school job, though it appears secrets run in the family — his father, who Miles thought was a cop, revealed himself to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, while his uncle Aaron was unmasked at the super-villain Iron Spider. He’s holding down his grades as best he can, but being Spider-Man doesn’t give him much chance to sleep, so his schoolwork is suffering. But he’s sweet on fellow student Barbara, so things aren’t all bad.

Of course, things won’t remain quite so manageable for long. Barbara’s little cousin, visiting from California, has gone missing! While tracking strange, uniformed people committing crimes, he runs into the Rhino — a gamma-irradiated member of Peter Parker’s rogues gallery whose attempts to go straight often fall apart. The Rhino is tracking the daughter of an estranged girlfriend who also went missing; after the initial obligatory dust-up, the two form an uneasy alliance. Even though he’s just a supporting character for the first arc, Rhino is fully-drawn: it bothers him that people make assumptions about him based on his enormous size, and there’s a weary resignation beneath the ‘frienemy’ banter he shares with Miles. Even Eduardo, the cousin who serves as the macguffin for the story, is allowed to have problems completely unrelated to what’s happening. His father was deported, and his mother is drowning in a sea of bureaucracy trying to gain citizenship for her family.

The first arc is just three issues long, enough to get us grounded in Miles’ world and acquaint us with how he handles the frequent conflicts he has to deal with. So much of his character is revealed through how he interacts with other people in his orbit — whether it’s calming down the hot-tempered Rhino or reflecting on how being around Captain America affects him. Miles is determined, laser-focused, principled, but with the swagger of a Brooklyn teenager. It’s the same heroic template that’s been fueling Peter Parker’s stories for decades, but expressed through someone with a different culture and background. If nothing else, it carries the central idea of Into the Spider-Verse — that Spider-Man has become so iconic he can work as an archetype as well as a character — and proves it through practice. The next two stories are brisk — a stand-alone issue further complicates Miles’ world by making Barbara certain he’s keeping something from her, and a two-part story introducing an intriguing anti-hero ends on a nice cliffhanger that bookends the collection really well. Ahmed knows how to work with momentum here, and it’s impressive the way he juggles the personal and professional crises thrown towards Miles. They connect and complicate each other in interesting ways, constantly throwing our hero off-guard.

Garron’s art is a wonderful complement to Ahmed’s art, dense and lively. The composition is a controlled chaos; figures from one panel bleed out into the next, connecting the disparate parts of Miles’ life in a way that confirms how impossible it is to keep his two lives separate. There’s a great blend of expression panels that ground the characters emotionally, mid-range panels that carry conversation and exposition, and huge splash panels that sell super-powered action. But what’s most impressive is how Garron manages to give each character small touches that provide a sense of consistency. Rhino, for instance, is always looming in every panel he’s in; wherever he walks, he stands in small craters of broken cement or floor. Judge’s body language screams bravado and a devil-may-care attitude; Ganke has a geek’s body language; almost everyone is depicted in a pose that speaks directly to who they are.

Even Miles’ different spider-powers are shown in novel ways, from the ever-reliable ‘Spidey-sense’ to his Venom Sting, to the invisibility that comes in handy for scouting and stealth. Both author and artist are in sync, and it shows. The world they’ve created is crowded and chaotic, but always interesting — much like New York. It’s a fruitful pairing that I hope is given enough time to deepen and mature.

Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn is a great first collection for anyone looking to continue this Spider-Man’s adventures post-Spider Verse. While it’s anyone’s guess how long the title will last given the whims of Marvel and its endless appetite for new #1s, this is a story that’s worth investing in. Spider-Man has been given a 21st-century update that allows him to keep being your friendly neighborhood superhero, and we even get to visit neighborhoods that feel a bit closer to the ones we live in today.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2019 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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(Comic Review) The Totally Awesome Hulk #1-4

Reading 150The Hulk has been one of those characters where it’s been impossible for him to settle down for very long. Every writer has a wild idea with him that they’d like to try out, and that means over the past several years he’s had wildly different status quos. After Greg Pak’s legendary run with Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, Bruce Banner has been imprisoned and replaced as the Hulk by his nemesis, Thunderbolt Ross (Hulk by Jeph Loeb); separated from the Hulk as payment for services rendered to Doctor Doom (Jason Aaron); remerged and used as a “tactical nuke” for the worst case scenarios (Mark Waid); underwent a moral inversion to become the villainous Kluh (AXIS); and finally managed to remain the physical Hulk with Banner’s intellect intact, intent on depowering every gamma-irradiated hero or villain in the Marvel universe.

After Secret Wars destroyed the old Marvel multiverse and replaced it with…something else, it was time for another big status quo shift. As part of Marvel’s ongoing initiative to replace its A-list superheroes with more diverse legacy characters, it was revealed that Amadeus Cho — teen super-genius — would be the new Hulk in the All-New, All-Different Marvel. Better yet, Greg Pak would return to write the series and the character he created, while Frank Cho would be the regular artist. I’m not entirely sure, but this is the first time one of the Big Two publishers have had an Asian superhero written and drawn by Asian creators. It’s kind of a big deal.

So…how is Amadeus Cho doing as the new, totally-awesome Hulk? Not bad! I don’t know an awful lot about Amadeus before now, but he’s considered the eighth (?) smartest person in the world and has been the sidekick of both Banner and the “god” Hercules. Amadeus was convinced that if he had the power of the Hulk, he could remain in control and be the “best Hulk ever”. Under mysterious circumstances that unfold over the course of the first arc, he gets his chance.

TAHCompared to Bruce, Amadeus is remarkably well-adjusted. He’s a happy-go-lucky kid that seems to relish the chance to be a superhero, and with his sister Maddy there to keep him focused and level-headed he might actually have a shot at sticking the landing. What’s clear in this first batch of issues, though, is that he’s got a few blind spots that are going to bite him pretty hard in due time.

His first set of missions sees him finding and capturing giant, powerful monsters before they can wreak havoc in populated centers. This puts him at cross purposes with Lady Hellbender, who wants to collect the monsters for an intergalactic reserve where they can run and play and be monsters to their heart’s content. I think folks would like Hellbender’s civilization, which sees insane power as something to be respected, almost idealized; though Amadeus thinks this is a good idea, Maddy and others think it might not be the best thing.

Once Amadeus “proves” his might by defeating Fin Fang Foom, Lady Hellbender then tries to take him as Earth’s ultimate monster. Which, you know, probably doesn’t go very well for anyone involved, right?

What’s interesting about the comic so far is how character-focused it is. Amadeus is a vastly different person than Bruce Banner, so his Hulk is triggered by a different set of emotions. It’s not his anger that you have to watch out for — it’s his youthful inexperience, his arrogance, his irresponsibility. Now that Amadeus has achieved the great power side of the equation, the consequences of not mastering the other side has risen to unacceptable levels. What happens when he makes his first major mistake?

This being a Hulk comic, there’s still plenty of smashing to be had. Frank Cho — he of Liberty Meadows fame — is one of the absolute best superhero artists out there right now, so it’s a thrill to see him taking on this monthly comic. Each character is excellently-designed and wonderfully detailed, and he has a particularly good eye for the feminine figure. He can draw women as powerful, dynamic people while not necessarily pushing them into objectified figures for the male gaze. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and I think he does it well. That might be me unable to spot his excesses in an industry where women-as-sexual-objects are more or less the norm, though.

tah2

Even though sales figures for The Totally Awesome Hulk aren’t stellar, they’re solid enough that I’m not really worried about the series being cancelled. With Cho taking part in Marvel’s big summer event — Civil War II — and being promoted as part of the Champions (a sort of “Young Avengers” who have different ideas about superheroics), it’s clear he’s not going anywhere soon. It’ll be interesting to see what Pak and Cho have in store for Amadeus after the dust settles from the latest superhero dust-up. For now, though, his solo series is a solid spin on the traditional Hulk tale, and a worthy update for a new generation.

 

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in Comic Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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(Friday Fiction) The Job Interview of Dr. Henry McCoy

Writing 150I’ve had superheroes on the brain for a while now, and there are a number of reasons for this. However, Beast of the X-Men is someone I just can’t get out of my head — also for a number of reasons. Ever since All-New Marvel Now!, when Brian Michael Bendis took over as the guiding hand of the X-Books, Hank has been in worse shape than usual. He pretty much broke the multiverse going back in time to get the original X-Men; he underwent another mutation that turned him into a cross between an ape and an elf; his future self was brainwashed by the son(?) of Charles Xavier into becoming one of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and subsequently died; he succumbed to the power of the Black Vortex, becoming an all-powerful nemesis; and finally he threw a hissy fit when the other X-Men confronted him about his hypocritical, out-of-character actions, leaving the Jean Grey School before Secret Wars hit.

I firmly believe that in better hands Hank can be a really fascinating and fun superhero. But to be honest, he hasn’t been written well in a long time and the current X-Universe being what it is, it’s unlikely he’ll be better served any time soon.

I keep thinking that it would be neat to allow the status quo of the X-Men to settle for one god-damned minute in order for characters to evolve and grow in ways other superheroes get to do in the Marvel universe. The period after the Schism — where Cyclops and Wolverine split mutantkind in two with their differing ideologies — is a great one to go back to for that. Here, we see the older generation stepping into roles of mentorship and command. New mutants dealing with their own evolution in the unending battle for acceptance are coming up, learning the lessons of the previous set and adapting them to their own time. It’s a rich setting, and one that suits Beast perfectly.

So here’s a conversation between Wolverine and Beast, who is signing up for a position at the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning.
Hank McCoy slipped between the trees with a feline grace that somehow enhanced the bulk that looked to be at odds with it. His boots — modified to fit his new digitigrade stance — whispered along the undergrowth of the forest, leaving only the lightest of tracks on a path he scented more than he saw.

It figured that Logan would want to meet him out here. A quick scan of the area told him there was a cabin somewhere in this wilderness, though most people would have a devil of a time finding it. He had to leave his car behind a couple miles ago, slinging a backpack over one broad and furry shoulder to walk the rest of the way.

It wasn’t a bad day for it. The sun shone through a thick canopy of leaves, small pockets of light reaching the ground ahead of him. A gentle breeze carried the scents of the forest to him; trees struggling to procreate in the springtime, birds and animals that remained out of sight but which were present just the same, the slight but noticeable trace of Wolverine leading him forward. It was even cool enough that he didn’t feel overheated as he moved. Since his latest mutation, his fur had gotten thicker, enough to shift the range of temperatures he was comfortable with. It had been a long adjustment, and he was only now becoming comfortable in his own body again.

Which is why he had no hesitation dropping to all fours (though he looked around, as if to check for anyone watching him) to speed up his pace; it was nice to take a stroll in nature, but he wanted to be prompt for his meeting. Logan might not care about punctuality, but he certainly did.

Hank had only recently taken to exploring the new, bestial attitudes that flitted across his ever-thinking brain. Since becoming a bouncing blue cast member of the musical Cats, he had difficulty accepting his new-found fondness for raw meat, or the powerful instinct to chase or pounce others. It disturbed him, not just because they were present, but because sometimes they were so strong. The Cassandra Nova business hit him where he lived there, and it was a long way back to being unafraid of himself. He had hoped getting back to what he did best — being the chief scientist for the X-Men — would complete the healing of that trauma and allow him a chance to feel like himself again at long last.

But first, he would have to convince Logan to take him on.

He loped between the trees quickly now, his paw-like hands churning up leaves and dirt as he galloped along. Wolverine’s scent became stronger now, along with the smell of coffee, alcohol, cigars and burning wood. He paused for a moment, then pivoted towards the northeast. Another few minutes, and dense wood gave way to a small clearing with a modest cabin squatting right in the center of it. He scanned the area with sharp and slitted eyes. The birds were at ease here, and he spotted a squirrel or two darting between the safety of two tree trunks. A lazy plume of smoke rose from the cabin’s stone chimney, and another one rose from the porch. Logan was there, wearing simple jeans, a flannel shirt and boots. He was chewing his cigar like it was his breakfast. The mutant stared right at him as he stood and stepped out of the trees.

“Hank,” he said, as if he had been waiting this whole time.

“Logan,” Beast said, clapping the dust off of his hands as he cleared the small distance between himself and the new headmaster of the Jean Grey School. “It’s so nice of you to invite me to your summer home.”

Wolverine shook Beast’s hand without smiling. Hank wasn’t offended; it was a weak joke. “I just figured you’d want to meet somewhere private. Those SWORD guys still after you?”

Beast waved him off. “Heavens, no. That was sorted a little while ago, thank the stars. Dr. Henry McCoy has a spotless record once more.”

Wolverine simply grunted, turning to sit on one of the chairs next to the cabin’s door. “Have a seat. Can I get you something? A beer?”

Hank glanced at the chair; it was solid wood, but a bit too narrow for his hips. He chose to lean against one of the porch posts instead. “No, thank you. It’s a bit early for me to indulge. I did bring you something, though.”

He slung his backpack off his shoulder and opened the zipper with a claw. “I know it’s customary to bring a token of esteem in these situations; most would have gone with a fruit basket of some sort, but I figured you’d appreciate this more.”

Wolverine eyed the bottle of whiskey, staring at the label once it was handed to him. “Single malt, huh? Not bad.” He wasted no time twisting the top off and taking a long swig.

Beast glanced at him, then looked out over the clearing. “Yes, a small batch distillery from Cork that I thought you’d like. I thought the apple notes were quite a nice distinction.”

His ear flicked as he heard the bottle upend once more, a full tumbler of the stuff disappearing down Wolverine’s throat in the span of a few seconds.

“Mmm, it’s all right.” Logan sat the bottle down on the porch, then exhaled. “Now that you’ve broken the ice, want to get this over with?”

Hank grinned. “Certainly. Though I have to admit I was surprised you wanted to interview me for the position. We’ve worked well together before, and we seem to be of the same mind on what we want for these children.”

“We are. But I need to know where your head’s at. You left the X-Men, Hank. You went out to space with your girlfriend and only reached out to me when you found out I was rebuilding the school.”

Hank furrowed a brow. Was Logan upset about his defection? Or something else? It was hard to get a read on him; his scent was mostly covered by burning tobacco and the stinging alcohol he had drained a half-bottle of in under a minute. “If you’re worried about my commitment, then you certainly don’t need to be. I believe I’ve proven myself to be quite dedicated to causes I believe in.”

“True. But you’ve also had a hell of a time of it in the past six months. This school is going to be a target for a lot of people…maybe some of our own’ll be gunning for us or our kids. You sure you’re ready for that?” Wolverine kept his voice even, calm, but there was something about that question…

“I’ve been fighting to protect the innocent for over a decade now, Logan. It’s my life’s work.” He turned towards the mutant, arms folded. “And you’ve provided me with the opportunity to continue it.”

“So why didn’t you open the school yourself? Why wait for someone else?”

Beast blinked. “I…didn’t think I could do it on my own.”

“Who said you would have been?” Wolverine stretched out, leaning back in his chair.

“Call it an educated guess. I am many things, Logan, but a leader of man and mutant I am not. I’ve never been comfortable convincing others that my choices are the ones that need to be followed. I don’t have the knack for it that you or Scott or Ororo do…”

“You think I want to be a leader, Hank?” This time, Wolverine smiled. “I’m stepping up to this because somebody’s got to. You’d think that one of Charles’ students would want to be the ones to take on his legacy…”

“But Scott is becoming increasingly militant, and Jean is no longer with us. Warren….good heavens, who knows what’s happened to Warren. And Bobby is…well, Bobby has his own issues.” Beast shook his head. “As much as it pains me to say it, none of us are capable of doing that at the moment. But you are. Let me help you.”

Wolverine stared at him for a long time. “Of course you’re going to help me.” He stood and stepped forward, offering Hank a hand. “Welcome to the Jean Grey School, Dr. McCoy. She’s going to need you.”

Beast beamed, showing the full measure of his fangs before he could help himself. “Thank you. Now, shall we talk about compensation?”

Wolverine grunted; it’s what passed for a laugh most of the time. “Free room and board, provided you design the school and lead the building of it.”

Beast blinked. “You mean the mansion isn’t rebuilt? How…far have you gotten in this process?”

Wolverine slumped back into his chair and picked up the bottle of whiskey. “So far, I’ve hired on a Vice-Principal to help rebuild Charles’ dream from the ground up. Not a bad start.”

Beast took a deep breath and grabbed the whiskey when it was handed to him. He took a swig himself, straight from the bottle. “Not a bad start at all, my friend.”

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2016 in Comic Books, Writing

 

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(Review) Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1-6

Reading 150When Marvel resumed their regular universe in the wake of Secret Wars last November, they released a really great line-up of diverse comics under the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” banner. I wrote a little about the titles I was most interested in here, and it’s taken me a little time to get to most of the titles. Still, they’re in my pull box and I’ve been steadily making my way through. So, how are they faring eight months later?

Not well, I have to say. Red Wolf, Howling Commandos of SHIELD, and Weirdworld have been cancelled already, and a lot of the other fledgeling comics aimed at diversifying their line-up in either character or tone have been consistently soft-sellers for your local comic shop. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the diversity initiative is a failure; with a more diverse readership comes way more diverse ways of reading, so while a lot of the audience for these books might not be heading to the LCS to pick them up they might be getting them somewhere else — digitally through the Marvel or Comixology app, or in graphic novel form through their local bookseller or on Amazon. Still, the Diamond sales figures reported from comic shops is essentially the Nielsen rating that comics titles live or die on, and the big two publishing houses still use that as a key figure of success.

So let me preface this review by saying that if you’re a comics fan who has been championing more diversity in superhero stories, it’s vitally important to offer feedback to the companies giving it to you in a way they understand. Visit your local comic shop, pre-order the title or buy it off the shelf. A lot of these businesses are locally owned and operated, and they can certainly use the patronage (and the proof that broadening the tent of the superhero story is bringing in new and diverse fans).

MG and DD

One of the titles I was most intrigued by is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which wrapped up its first arc last month and released its first graphic novel collection. Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare have been doing some great work here, establishing Lunella Lafayette as a next-generation Peter Parker who just so happens to have a supernatural dinosaur as a best friend. Lunella’s story is relatable and engrossing, even when the more ridiculous elements dominate the scenery. It’s grounded in street-level concerns, coming off a bit like Netflix’s Daredevil — a look at how the high-minded heroics of the Marvel universe affect the working stiffs who have to deal with the fallout.

Lunella, for example, is a ten-year-old super-genius whose parents simply can’t afford to send her to a school worthy of her intellect. Worse, her repeated applications to the prestigious Future Foundation are rejected. So she’s stuck at her local elementary school where she fights off crushing boredom and disconnection by working on a problem that’s complicated enough to engage her and personal enough to motivate her: finding a way to keep the Terrigen Mists making their way around the globe from turning her into an Inhuman. She knows she has these dormant genes locked up inside of her, and exposure to the Mists will activate them, turning her into a different person. Of course she doesn’t want that; she just wants to be a normal girl. So, she tries to hunt down a Kree artifact in the hopes that it will tell her how their experiments worked. Maybe if she gets an explanation, she can reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, both Devil Dinosaur and a tribe of early hominids called the Killer Folk are displaced through time after a fight; when Lunella finds the artifact that sent them into the modern day, she becomes the Killer Folk’s new target.

This is my first exposure to Devil Dinosaur, though I’ve seen his name pop up here and there in various Marvel cartoons and games. I suspect I’m not alone in this, especially if this particular comic book is meant to draw in readers who would have never gotten into the Marvel universe some other way. I’m intrigued by his back-story, even though I don’t think we’ll get much explanation of it here; the first arc is all about Lunella making sense of her world and the crazy things she gets caught up in and DD is very much a sidekick. But it feels like his fight against the Killer Folk reaches back across the eons, especially since the inciting incident involves a ritual that the Killer Folk perform a blood sacrifice and the dinosaur’s original companion — Moon Boy — is *also* an ancient hominid. What’s going on here? And how does it tie in with Lunella’s life beyond the Kree connection? Maybe that will be answered in future arcs.

MG and DD coverThis one, though, is a lot of fun. We’re introduced to Lunella, her family, her school, her neighborhood and problems through these intensely disruptive influences that reshape them quite a bit. We see Lunella’s fearlessness as she draws her strength in the face of adversity; how she gets that from a mother willing to do what it takes to protect and provide for her family; and how her work ethic comes from a father who sacrifices his time and attention to make ends meet, but still does his best to be present for a daughter he doesn’t really understand. Lunella, on some level, recognizes the good intentions of her parents even while she knows they can’t possibly get what she’s going through. That tension between love and isolation is well-drawn here; and it informs so many of her decisions. She puts up with the teasing from her classmates, the impatient hostility of her teachers, the dismissive ignorance of the world at large — not because she thinks she’s better than they are, but because she knows how her differences sets her apart from just about everyone. If her own family doesn’t understand her, how can she expect anyone else to?

I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it is. Lunella is a great heroine because she doesn’t let this fundamental disconnection get her down. She still believes in the people around her, she still wants to be a part of the world. The first arc of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur establishes that desire while also showing her that she can embrace the full oddity of who she is and how she relates to the world around her. Seeing that is a true joy and ultimately inspiring.

We don’t see black heroines who are smart, fearless and devoted to excellence all that often. Most of the time we see them as tough powerhouses who don’t take shit from anyone (see: Zoe Washburne, Amanda Waller, Miss America, etc.). And while that’s awesome, Lunella is in a class all by herself. She gets by on her brain, and her strength comes from her ability to stick through a tough problem until she finds a solution. She just doesn’t give up. That willpower is her birthright, and she’s applying it to the problems that we face in the 21st century. Ours is a complex, interconnected and quickly-changing world, and just when you think you’ve got things down the landscape shifts under your feet. Lunella is simultaneously firmly rooted in who she is and adaptable to whatever the world lays at her doorstep. She’s incredible.

The art from Amy Reeder and Natacha Bustos is a big part of this comic’s appeal. It’s bright and dynamic, capturing the lightness of childhood perfectly blended with the hard edges and long shadows of living in a big, dangerous city. They’re able to run the gamut of grounded scenes at the family dinner table, the primary-colored chaos of an elementary school classroom, the neon-and-shadow contrast of a city at night, and the traditional craziness of big superhero action without sacrificing their style; it’s consistent and balanced, simple but extraordinarily capable. This book isn’t only a pleasure to read, but so many of the panels are a joy to look at as well.

I really love this comic, and I think a lot of you out there will, too. And, as much as I hate to say this, it’s important that you find it. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur debuted in November 2015 with nearly 39,000 copies sold; sales figures have since dipped into the 12K range — beneath Contest of Champions, Star-Lord and Hyperion. It’s not quite into “automatic cancellation” territory, but it’s close. The most recent issues of Weirdworld and Red Wolf have only pulled 9K and 7K copies, respectively; Marvel’s top ongoing comics generally pull around 75K copies.

I’m not going to pretend Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur will ever pull that many numbers, but it’s important for us to show Marvel that there’s room in their universe for heroes like Lunella Lafayette. Now that the first collection is out, go to your local comic shop and pick it up. If you like it, make it a point to grab individual issues every month. I know that the feedback model is bogus — digital and bookstore sales absolutely need to be given more weight — but let’s deal with things as they are. Now that Marvel has listened to us and given us diverse and compelling heroes, it’s up to us to show our appreciation with our wallets and words.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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(Writing) Marvels of Character

Entertainment 150One of the benefits of holding myself to a regular writing schedule is being able to quickly identify the things I should be working on. The first couple of chapters of THE CULT OF MAXIMUS feel a little boring to me, and that’s mostly because my main character — Officer Thomas Beck — is so inert as a protagonist. I had initially envisioned him as someone who was “Indiana nice,” to steal a phrase from a friend — polite to a fault, treating the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” adage as a life-or-death value, but being fairly judgemental inside his own head. The events of the story would identify that as a problem and force him to speak up about the things he felt; he’d then have to actually engage with the world, become a part of it in a way he mistakenly believes he shouldn’t in order to be a good police officer. In some ways, it’s a lesson that’s top of mind for me right now.

But in the first couple of chapters, Thomas is a little…quiet and reactive. He’s observant, but writing the act of observation doesn’t really offer us any insight into his character — how he thinks and feels. It’s something that I’ve been focusing on in chapter three, and when I rewrite the first two for general consumption that is definitely the thing that I’ll be focusing on; that and seeding themes and events happening later in the story here.

It’s clear to me now that the “discovery” style of writing didn’t quite work for this story — that isn’t to say I won’t try it for another, but with a long-form project like this you have to at least have *something* pinned down. If not your character, then the plot, and if not your plot, then a solid world, or a theme, or something you really want to say.

Since characterization has emerged as a big deal for me, I’ve been paying closer attention to it in the stories I’m reading or watching, too. It’s struck me that Marvel comics and their cinematic universe excel at this — being able to create, communicate and maintain distinct and engaging characters across the board.

The husband and I recently finished the first season of Daredevil, the first entry into their “Hell’s Kitchen” corner of the shared universe with Netflix. It’s an astonishing series that draws a dangerous and shadowy world over thirteen episodes, fully populated with wonderful, mesmerizing characters. My favorite TV shows are often a series of conversations between two people with distinct points of view and a sharp wit; Daredevil‘s characters may not be the lightest in the world, but oh man are they earnest. Every single one of them enter a scene with clearly-drawn desires, and the stakes for them are increasingly high through each episode. They’re earnest, good at communicating, and incredibly strong-willed. Looking at them, you understand who they are and why they want the things they do.

This treatment doesn’t stop at the heroes — Matt Murdock, his partner Foggy Nelson and their assistant Karen Page. Wilson Fisk has emerged as one of the best villains I’ve seen on television in a long time, thanks to the incredible attention paid to his inner world by the writers’ room. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a hell of a performance, too. His character journey is utterly fascinating as we learn who he is, how he made himself from who he was, and who he thinks himself to be. He’s a truly tragic figure who is also incredibly dangerous.

Daredevil has taught me a lot about how characters are shaped by what they say, what they do, and how they say and do it. I love it for that, and I can’t wait to take that lesson to my writing.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is about to wrap up their third season later this month and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of that as well. I know a lot of folks sampled it through a comparatively slow first twelve or thirteen episodes, but the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier kick-started it into a higher gear that it hasn’t slowed from for the remainder of its run. The series is now focused on the Inhuman corner of the Marvel cinematic universe, all while constantly reshuffling the deck when it comes to SHIELD and its nemesis organization, HYDRA.

What Agents does particularly well is balancing a pretty brisk plot with deep characterization, making really effective use of limited screen time for its massive cast. Each scene between its characters does multiple things — often expanding, progressing or revealing a character’s motivation while also establishing another link in the plot’s chain. When someone makes a choice, you understand what it means for them to do that AND know how it’s been forced by circumstances AND wonder how it changes the direction of consequences for everyone involved. The sense of forward momentum creates this complex, unpredictable world that’s forever evolving; you see how Coulson and his crew are forced to change in order to keep up, and the toll that takes on everyone. Even more impressive, the protagonists aren’t solely reactive; their experiences give them this drive to enact these missions or change their views enough that they make pro-active (or rash) choices that are understandable, even relatable, but clearly mistakes.

Agents of SHIELD is a great marriage of character work and tight plotting in an ensemble cast. There’s almost no weak link in the show, and that’s really impressive for a story of its scope. I can take that lesson to THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, too — now that we’re nearly finished with the establishment of the characters and the world, I can use the show as something of a template for how the action moves forward, and how it’s formed by the inextricable threads of character and plot.

I’m genuinely grateful to be living in this Golden Age of Television — learning how to tell engaging, complicated stories in an episodic format has developed into a really great art, and watching the work of people who are really good at it helps me with my personal storytelling development.

How about you lovely writers? Are there shows that have storytelling aspects that have influenced you bunches? Which stories have you used for inspiration or lessons in how to deepen your own craft?

 

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(Comics) A Wolf for the People: Sam Wilson’s First 100 Days as Captain America

Reading 150Sam Wilson has not had an easy time of it during his short stint with the shield. He’s basically operating on a shoestring budget out of the basement of a neighborhood church, with only two (testy) people on his staff and no resources. He’s on the “wrong” side of an ideological difference with his best friend and former mentor, Steve Rogers; that same difference has caused most of the public to turn against him. And, for four issues, he was transformed into a wolf/human hybrid against his will by a mad doctor.

Fortunately for us, Sam’s trouble is our delight. The first six issues of Sam Wilson: Captain America makes a bold statement about how he handles the responsibility of being a symbol; writer Nick Spencer positions Wilson as a superhero in an intensely divided country, so no matter what he does he’s going to piss off half the population. Still, Wilson takes a stand even though it’s unpopular, because he’s learned the only lesson worth knowing from Rogers. In order to be worthy of the costume, you have to live up to your morals unflinchingly.

What makes Sam so interesting as Cap is that his morality is so different from Steve’s. Their big rift comes from the fallout of learning that SHIELD has been working on a Cosmic Cube that has the power to reshape reality. The person who leaked this information, an Edward Snowden-type known only as The Whisperer, was nearly caught until Sam helped him — he believed that blowing the whistle on SHIELD’s activities is a public service that he shouldn’t be punished for. Rogers, on the other hand, thinks that though The Whisperer did the right thing, he should still be brought to trial for his actions. Wilson doesn’t believe it’s possible to trust due process in this case, but Rogers does. It’s the difference between Lawful Good and Neutral Good.

That rift deepens when Wilson takes on a militia appointing themselves as border patrol to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, and it’s there he discovers people are being taken and experimented on by Dr. Malus. On the run from SHIELD and Rogers, Wilson is captured and turned into Cap-Wolf, which is the real reason you folks should get these issues. Of course.

Wilson’s investigation takes him through the business world, where Serpent Solutions is making a power-play on behalf of other corporations. The commentary on the current state of corporate politics is a little more ham-fisted, but Sam’s resolution of the arc is surprising yet pragmatic; what I love about the way the story winds down is his realization that ideals don’t happen in a vacuum. Choices have far-reaching consequences, because at this point of American life everything is connected. You can’t advance your morality without stepping on a political landmine, and those politics are deeply influenced by gigantic corporate interests whose success and failure affect the livelihood of millions. If you shut down one thing, you begin a cascade that quickly spirals outside of your control.

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson have different ways of reacting to the system. Rogers’ Captain America was wholly inspirational; he wanted to be the physical embodiment of the best principles America was founded upon. He believes that the system works, but only as long as the people within it strive for the ideals they serve to the best of their ability. Wilson’s Captain America isn’t so sure; he believes that the system is rigged and leaves out a lot of people who can’t defend themselves against it, and those are the people he wishes to serve.

The Whisperer is the embodiment of that difference in opinion. Since Steve believes in the system, he believes that he can convince people to do the right thing and justice will prevail. But Wilson understands that even if they win in the courtroom, other connected threads will act to preserve the status quo however it can. The system will protect its own, and Steve is inextricably tied to it. Sam has always been an outsider, so his morality doesn’t depend on that allegiance.

So who IS Captain America these days? What interest does he serve? As our understanding of the government shifts and our ideas about what it should and should not be doing changes, every once in a while we need to step back and check on that. I love that Nick Spencer is really diving into that through Sam’s turbulent first days on the job, and I’m really curious how Wilson’s journey continues. There is going to be a lot more fighting for him coming up — Avengers: Standoff is getting into full-swing, and there won’t even be time to take a breath before Civil War II lights up comic stores this summer. Somewhere in all of that, Steve Rogers will don the mantle of Captain America once more, giving us two versions of the hero serving two different visions of America.

Maybe, at this point, that’s the best we can hope for.

 

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