Interesting, this. There’s a bit of talk going on at the moment about the notion that DC are looking to bring the DCU-originated characters now living in the Vertigo line back into the DCU proper. There are quite a few ramifications for this, relating to a couple of significant characters in particular. Read the rest of this entry »
My favourite issues of Demo‘s first volume were the slightly more down-to-earth, more relationship-focussed ones. Not that I didn’t love reading about a boy who commands demonic pets, and a pair of immortal siblings – but compared to the likes of “Mixtape” and “Breaking up”, it was no contest about which I preferred. And so it follows that as much as I enjoyed the dreamlike fatalism of #1 and the raw viscerality of #2, I can’t help but be won over by this issue.
The story follows Marlo, a woman living in Los Angeles who leaves post-it notes for herself. Everywhere. They’re the first thing she sees when she wakes up, and the last thing she sees at night, directing her thoughts and behaviour at home, at work, and even on public transport. With the help of her psychiatrist, she’s getting over this form of obsessive-compulsive disorder – until she starts finding notes from someone else. Someone who has noticed what she does, and wants to find out more. And it’s not a spoiler to say that what results is an upbeat story about two people beginning a relationship without ever having met.
Although the story was originally conceived for the 2004 volme of Demo, the idea of falling in love with someone entirely through the medium of messages stuck on a wall gains interesting new relevance in the social-networking era. Online romances aren’t an especially new concept, but in 2004, the analogy wasn’t as direct, as perfectly formed as it is today. By externalising – or even, broadcasting – her thoughts and actions, Marlo finds herself connecting emotionally with someone around her, without even realising at first. It’s a modern romance in all but the characters’ choice of medium, and it’s interesting that although Demo isn’t afraid to be dark when it wants to be, this story isn’t the cautionary tale it could have been – it’s one of seredipity. A love story.
Reading Demo, it’s impossible not to be struck by the talent and techniques of Becky Cloonan’s artwork – though as a critic, it is a little frustrating to reach the end of the issue to find that all the points you wanted to make (about Cloonan’s emphasis on the lead’s body language; the way the panel layouts reflect Marlo’s state of mind; and the detail and wit of the post-it notes) have already been made by the creators in the backmatter! On the other hand, that does force us to analyse things a little deeper.
We can, for example, consider the sheer amount of light in the issue. Not only does Cloonan shy away from shadows and shading whenever possible, evoking a summery, optimistic tone to every page – she even goes so far as to directly render the light. In the first panel, a reflection dazzles us on the porch. An establishing shot of LA has the sun blazing between two skyscrapers. Towards the end, light streams in through the bedroom window. The absence of darkness means that the tone never becomes uncertain or threatening, which is is particularly important when you consider that we never learn the identity of Marlo’s admirer. For all we know, it’s the guy from “Pangs”! Only, it clearly isn’t, because the visuals are entirely devoid of negativity – there’s no question that it’s going to end well for her.
There’s also a secondary effect that the “dazzling” achieves, which is that the issue takes on a more movie-esque quality than ever before. Most issues of Demo are structured like a short film, with a lot of visual elements and twist ending, and this one is no different – but it’s rare for us to see visual artifacts being inserted into the artwork which subconsciously evoke a “camera” rather than the usual, fourth-wall omnivision. Combined with the Andi Watson-esque ligne frêle style that Cloonan has adopted for this issue, all curls and blank linework, and – of course – the fact that it’s black and white, you can’t help feeling like it’s only a few subtitles and a jazz soundtrack away from being a Cannes entry.
If there’s any fundamental flaw with the story, it’s that Marlo, as a character, lacks any kind of burden to snap her into life. As a mood piece, it’s perfectly pitched, but as a story it comes over as one-dimensional. There’s no conflict, only a brief moment of panic that never becomes threatening or uncomfortable. The mystery is simplistic, and there’s only a small amount of dialogue with substance. Were it any lighter, it could happily be an advert or music video.
That said, it’s exactly these qualities which make this issue feel like a fresh read. Such a story rarely happens in comics, and even more rarely in a comic from Vertigo. It’s unusual, it’s interesting, and it’s brilliantly executed – and that’s typical of Demo. If you’re not reading this series, you’ve only got yourself to blame.
You’ve probably already had a look at Seb’s review of the latest issue of Demo, but I also wanted to point people in the direction of the review of it I wrote for CBR. If only because it articulates a little of what I love about the series (and because I’ve seen some rather odd interpretations of the issue out in the comics-ether. This issue is prone to interpretation, and I know it’s not good form to tell people their interpretations are wrong, but if, as I’ve seen some people say, you think this issue is a commentary on extreme dieting as part of a weight loss regime, I really don’t know what comic you were reading.)
Well, with Phonogram over and done with, I suppose I’m in need of another series of standalone vignettes each focusing on a different (yet not entirely unconnected) facet of a central high concept, doing so in a way that emphasizes the single issue format, and which is generally worthy of a deeper and more nuanced investigation than many of its peers in the field. Unlike The Internet’s Biggest Brian Wood Fan James Hunt, I’ve never read volume one – but therein lies another common trait with Phonogram, the irrelevance of such prior context a point I was always keen to press when reviewing that book. That said, having read #1 of this second volume, I think I actually enjoyed it more than m’learned colleague – perhaps because I didn’t actually see the twist coming (this despite it being, when it happened, pure Tales of the Unexpected).
So to issue #2, then, and a clear indication that the hook that holds the series together is a looser one than previously appeared. It was my understanding that each issue dealt with a different individual in possession of supernatural powers of some kind – and while it’s just about true of this one, it’s not really what you’d call a “power”. If anything, it’s the opposite of a “superpower” – it’s a superdeficit. Or a “subpower”. However you want to linguistically flip it. But the thing is, you could take away any hint of supernaturality from the story, and it would be exactly the same – the literal reading of it is that it’s a physical characteristic, but it could just as easily (and this is, perhaps, the scary part) be a psychological one instead.
Either way (and since the latter view changes the overall interpretation somewhat, I’m choosing to look at the issue from the more supernatural perspective implied by the series as a whole), while the topic in question is hardly untouched in fiction (heck, there’s another comic out there – Chew – covering broadly similar territory, albeit in a wildly different fashion), Wood brings to the table an examination that’s thoughtful at the same time as shocking. This is a stark, bleak little comic – and yet it’s hard to truly argue with the way it sympathises with its lead character. This isn’t about a twisted desire, it’s about something more unstoppable: a hunger that the (unnamed) protagonist can’t, for whatever reason, otherwise sate. In other words, it’s taking to an extreme – yet logical – conclusion an aspect of living that we all experience; it’s just that in this case, pushing this particular biological impulse past society’s usual boundaries makes it immediately grotesque to us. And while we and he know his murders to be reprehensible, there’s a punishment – of sorts – in the alternative action he later forces himself to take. You’re left never really knowing whether this is someone truly sinister, or a victim that we could in some way be empathising with.
This ambiguity is only enhanced by the work of Becky Cloonan – someone I’ve never fully clicked with, but reading this shows me that her true strength lies in stark black-and-whites rather than the coloured work I’ve seen in things like American Virgin. She makes the protagonist a terrifyingly thin and haunted figure – thus immediately casting him as an obvious-looking “villain” – yet something about him softens towards the end, even as he’s making himself frailer and thinner. She also somehow manages to emphasise the pure body horror of the story even when working in two colours and heavy shadow, and almost entirely with implication – indeed, you suspect it’d be rather less creepy if we were seeing everything in full-colour splat-o-vision.
I’m not sure, though, that Demo – in this second volume, at least, as I can’t comment on the first – quite takes on the role of being the deep and surprising examination of the human psyche I might have expected. This is certainly interesting – and really quite well-crafted in the way it makes one shiver to read it – but much like the earlier Wood work with which I’m familiar (Local) it intrigues rather than full-on captivates. Not that that intrigue isn’t enough to keep me interested in trying the next issue, or indeed catching up on the much-lauded first volume – but it’s not made it to New Favourite Comic status just yet.
Hellblazer stories never quite seem to work when they’re not based in London (or, at a pinch, Liverpool or Newcastle). There’s no real reason why this should be, but nevertheless, many a writer has fallen foul of the trap of losing momentum on a promising run by shifting geographic location in order to tell more of the sort of story they personally had in mind (it’s why the book should really, in a post-Ennis age at least, only be written by Londoners. Preferably Londoners who originally come from Liverpool. Cough.), and it’s certainly one that Peter Milligan’s done here, with “India”. It’s not been a terrible arc, and it’s had its moments (as well as, at least, being something of a refreshing and eye-opening change of scenery for an American comic), but at times it hasn’t really felt all that Constantineish.
In wrapping it up with this issue, however, he does rediscover a bit of spark – and not just because of all the exposition that handily explains the bits from earlier that were a little tricky to follow. Pushing a storyline in which Constantine’s generally wandered about not really getting a handle on what’s going on – or doing much about it – into its endgame finally allows the character to display more of the attributes that make him. The Phoebe saga has turned Constantine back into something of a down-at-heel mage, unable to function at his best due to the blindness of obsession (something of a reversal, then, of the way Andy Diggle’s run had represented an attempt to return him to his “I know more than any of you ha ha ha” roots) – but here, at least, he’s able to demonstrate that when he puts his mind to it, he’s still a force to be reckoned with. His dispatching of the Colonel Burke demon, in particular, is a classic bit of Constantine lateral thinking, and for some reason it’s simply amusing to see him utter the line “Damned bad show” (and, presumably, with the affected accent that would imply).
In the wake of John’s obsession with Phoebe (now hopefully at an end, although the shock of that character’s all-along intended purpose and lifespan still resonates), meanwhile, it’s good to see a potentially much more interesting character begin to establish herself. It’s another one of those Hellblazer rules that whichever writer comes onto the book will bring with them their own smart-mouthed female sidekick/potential love interest/mild antagonist/all of the above (for example, whatever happened to Mike Carey’s Angie Spatchcock? Or Ennis’ succubus Ellie?), and to begin with, Milligan’s effort – Epiphany – was little more than an annoyance. But she’s developed over the course of this arc, showing genuine concern for – rather than mischievous teasing of – Constantine, and gets to play an important role in its resolution, as well as trading barbs in some of the issue’s wittier moments (although if Milligan’s run has lacked anything so far, it’s been that in general – there’s not been quite enough of the book’s characteristically sharp wit among the darkness). It’s unclear at the end if she’ll be sticking around much longer, but that’s not as unappealing a prospect as it was previously.
Indeed, now this arc – seemingly an important chapter in the overall story Milligan has planned for Constantine, but far from the most essential read in and of itself – is over, things look quite bright. No slight against Giuseppe Camuncoli, who turns in as solid a job as he usually does on this book (although I can’t help but feel the colouring work isn’t quite suited to the tone and feel of the story – it should have been a bit grimier, really – and his version of John is occasionally far too young and handsome-looking), but following his work earlier in the run, I’m excited to see Simon Bisley back next month. Milligan, meanwhile, is yet to set the world on fire, but nor has he really dropped the ball yet, and if the stories have been slightly underwhelming, at least the character work is good. If a slightly more relevant theme or point could emerge, though, it could be even better.
The first series of Demo was, to put it bluntly, fantastic on just about every level. In a time when it seemed everyone wanted a comic to service the reader purely as an instalment of a larger collection, Wood and Cloonan made issues that stood deliberately, powerfully alone. They even went so far as to include “backmatter” in every comic, never to be reprinted, as an incentive to make people buy the individual issues.
The high concept of Demo is familiar to virtually any comics reader: How would your life be affected if you had an unusual, supernatural ability? However, unlike most takes on that concept, these aren’t stories about donning a mask and cape and fighting crime – indeed, they’re about anything but. In this issue, The Waking Life of Angels, a woman named Joan receives visions of someone, somewhere apparently falling to their death, and finds herself compelled to investigate.
One of the essential challenges of a single issue story is to make the reader care about the lead. Wood and Cloonan instill an instant, if wearied humanity in Joan. Given a cause, however tenuous, she’s happy to drop her life at home in pursuit of this new role. When the vision arrives, it (as you might expect) doesn’t quite occur how she interpreted it – but despite this, someone is saved and she perhaps even begins the new chapter in her life that she was looking for.
One of Demo‘s selling points is the polymorphic art of Becky Cloonan, who demonstrated a range of styles in the initial series. In this, the style is stark and architectural – except when the real world dissolves into a dream, at which point things become intricate and elaborate, almost more real than Joan’s actual reality, which helps demonstrate the seductive charm of her obsession – it is, after all, far more interesting than what she leaves behind in pursuit of it.
Although the issue stands firmly alongside those fromthe previous series, it nonetheless tends towards the weaker end, which is a little disappointing as an opener. The story’s twist is predictable from the outset, with a inevitability to it that previous issues of Demo lacked. Personally, I’ve found the series is its best when telling one of two types of story – the traditional twist ending (Bad Blood; Stand Strong; Girl You Want), and the mood piece (NYC; Mixtape; One Shot, Don’t Miss). This one falls right in the middle of those types of stories, neither one nor the other – the mood isn’t powerful enough to be the centre of the piece, and the twist isn’t strong enough to define it.
Perhaps future issues will give this one a little more context in terms of Demo‘s re-appearance – however, even if that isn’t the case, one of the best things about Demo is that by showcasing a range of styles and approaches from its superb creative team, every issue is worth a look, regardless of the ultimate quality. It’s already objectively good, the only matter to resolve is how much you, personally, enjoy it.
As I’ve noted on this site in the past, there’s generally a set way of reviewing comics online. As far as the sequence of paragraphs goes, discussion of the story takes precedence, followed by a look at the art – which itself has the heirarchical structure of penciller first, then inker (if applicable) and colourist (if considered worth a mention). It’s not intended as a sight against artists, merely a reflection of the limitation of our critical vocabularies. However, in looking at Joe the Barbarian, I’d like to flip that order on its head – because first and foremost, it’s the colourist that demands attention. Because once again (for the second time this week, even), it’s Dave Stewart making a book look utterly incredible.
Lest you think I’m doing Sean Murphy a disservice, though, let me clarify – his work is absolutely stellar as well. As strong an artist as he generally is, I’ve never seen him this good before. On more than one occasion in this issue we’re treated to double-page spreads that are simply gorgeously expansive – no mean feat for a book that spends most of its page count living in everyday suburban mundanity. For an artist with such an ostensibly loose and scratchy style when it comes to figures, the level of detail picked out of – and the level of thought and attention put into – locations such as Joe’s bedroom is phenomenal (without ever being done in that slightly over-laboured, Bryan Hitch sort of a way). Panels are constructed, framed, in a meticulous and careful manner. And the icing on the cake is the way it’s given that absolutely gorgeous, washed-out look by Stewart – who copes equally well with the grey and orange of a graveyard in Autumn, or the exciting and lush vistas that open up as Joe’s “fantasy” world makes its ingress into the “real” one. He works as harmoniously with Murphy here as he does with Williams on Detective – and yet in a way so different you’d barely tell they were the same person.
There’s a story in there too, though. Well, admittedly, not much of one so far. Despite being a new Grant Morrison book from Vertigo (always an exciting prospect), it’s not something big and idea-packed and frenetic – instead working from a single (admittedly very good, even if slightly “done before”) high-concept and spending this first issue slowly painstakingly building a mood in a manner that will surely annoy many an impatient reader, but which at least serves an important purpose in truly drilling home a mundane world against which to set the unreal. In a way, it’s not entirely unlike the two issues of his aborted Authority run – quiet, careful and muted in tone, but with enough of a sense that Interesting Things are about to happen – and for the sake of Murphy and Stewart’s stonkingly good work alone if nothing else, we can only hope it lasts for a few more issues than that. On the strength of the art alone, not to mention the $1 price point, it’s hard to call this issue anything other than a must-buy – I’m looking forward to seeing whether the other seven will stay that way.
After a decade in which – the odd exception such as 100 Bullets and Fables aside – they struggled to live up to the success of the likes of Sandman and Preacher (and let Hellblazer meander round the place a bit), Vertigo are quietly, without a huge amount of fanfare, starting to put out some interesting and potentially brilliant comics again. I didn’t really get my head around the first issue of Unwritten, but enough people are raving about it now that it looks like one worth checking out in trade, while Milligan is doing interesting things with Greek Street and we’re about to see the launch of a new Morrison series with Joe the Barbarian. And now they’ve gone and done the eminently sensible thing of letting brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon – two of the most exciting visual storytelling talents in the industry – do a fairly personal series of their own devising. Already, it’s turning into quite a charming and engaging little comic.
It’s also shown, with the closing pages of the first issue, a determination to subvert expectations – so there’s little sense in trying to assume just where it will go for the remaining eight issues. Nevertheless, having already shown us the final day of Bras’ life, it’s clear that a certain level of story-based suspense has been lifted, leaving the book free to establish itself as a more thematic examination of humanity. Deliberately jumping twelve years earlier to a twenty-one-year-old version of the character allows for strong contrast between the disillusioned lonely dreamer of issue #1, and the more hopeful yet still lonely dreamer of this one – and already, meeting Bras at two different points in his life is allowing for a fuller connection with an increasingly likeable, if slightly vague, personality. Meanwhile, the book also serves as a pleasing cultural education, enlightening English-speaking readers about a custom and festival that I’d imagine most will have been previously unaware of.
Indeed, it’s the Brazil-centric nature, along with the musings the first issue offered on use of talent and artistry, that makes this such a personal work for the brothers – and offers perhaps partial explanation for why their work on the series is so difficult to separate. Both in terms of the story and the art, they function more as a gestalt entity (nicely underpinning the recently-mooted thesis of the Gillen-McKelvie Paradigm; although it’s also worth pointing out how strong a contribution Dave Stewart – yes, him again – makes with his colouring), though if I had to hazard a guess I’d say the visuals veer ever so slightly more towards Fabio’s side of things. But being a true “team” effort between two such closely-linked individuals is part of the series’ appeal, and despite ending the first issue on something of an unexpected downer, it’s a very difficult comic to dislike – and well worth keeping an eye on, as it could yet develop into something really special.
Since the Absolute Sandman compendiums were what finally convinced me to buy (and read) the series, it was a given that Absolute Death would also be on my list of purchases. After all, Death herself was arguably the breakout character of Sandman, and one of the few who made it into her own Gaiman-penned spin-offs – the only reason I waited to read some of these comics at all was because I was waiting for the release of this collection.
However – that does perhaps put me in the unique position of being one of a small number of people buying an Absolute edition expecting it to provide “new” material, even though the format is largely archival – and that colours my opinion of it. At first glance, this is as fine an Absolute collection as any of the others. Oversized artwork, beautifully reproduced on high-quality paper and in fantastic binding – as a physical object, it’s a more than worthy companion to the four volumes of Absolute Sandman. But much like many of DC’s recent Absolute editions, the contents feel a little rushed, and the collection itself actually suffers slightly by its association with Absolute Sandman.
The quality of the work it contains is not in doubt, nor is the value factor of the supplemental material, which includes the pencils and script for Sandman #8. However, large chunks of this book comprise Death-centric stories that have already been included in the Absolute Sandman volumes. The introductory story from #8. The Death story from #20. The famous instructional comic, Death talks about Life. In isolation, it feels natural that they should be included – but alongside the existing collections, it’s hard not to wish that they’d gone with some different material – for example, the rest of the Endless Nights tales, which by this point represent about the only Gaiman-penned Sandman comics not collection in Absolute format. It’s fair to say that the attempt to be comprehensive has led to a certain amount of redundancy – which, when you’re paying over £60 for a comic, you’d understandably want to avoid.
Now, all that said, it’s not exactly a misfire on the same level as, say, Absolute Black Dossier. If you haven’t already got Absolute Sandman, the collection is utterly beyond reproach, containing everything you need to know about Death and more – but beware that it isn’t, in any way, intended to serve as Absolute Sandman Vol. 5. Despite the common ground of the characters, it is a collection designed to stand alone. Approach it thusly and there will be no disappointments.
This week, we’re handing out the Second Annual Comics Daily awards – one per day – between Christmas and New Year. Each award has been written up by a member of the Comics Daily team after a consensus was reached, and highlights what we feel have been the best of superhero comics this year.
Best Miniseries: Seaguy- The Slaves of Mickey Eye
Given that doing justice to Slaves of Mickey Eye in the space of four hundred words feels difficult, it’s hard to imagine what its creators felt during the book’s construction. Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart manage to cram more into three issues than many writers manage in twelve parts of standard arc. The storytelling is so intricate, with metaphor layered on top of metaphor, that it’s a wonder that there’s space for a plot at all, yet Seaguy’s crusade against the dark heart of Comfort Zone Seven feels inevitable as the reader is driven forward.
Managing to continue Seaguy’s unique story would have been no mean feet, but Morrison actually manages to improve on his hero’s debut adventure. Where the second act of the original series felt like a slightly meandering traipse through quirkiness, every element of Slaves of Mickey Eye is integral to the plot. Unusually, the main source of bonding between the start of show and the reader is shared dissatisfaction with events, and helplessness in the face of the situation. At the story’s close, Seaguy has apparently succeeded in all his aims, with Seadog’s plan thwarted and the sinister Eye theme park burnt to the group. It soon becomes apparent, however, that this is not the revolution that had been hoped for, with the controlling force on the moon untouched by the drama on Earth, and Seaguy being co-opted into maintaining the status quo as the new ‘Comptoller’. For all the flying fish and fairytale romance, it’s an unusually mature book, featuring a world with problems more similar to our own than many more pseudo-realistic settings.
The most distinctive aspect of the book is its willingness to let humour and horror sit side-by-side. Mickey Eye in all his forms is easily the most disturbing creation that comics have seen for a while, and lacks the affection with which Matt Groening’s various parodies of children’s cartoons unfold. It’s important not to regard the corporate entity as simply a parody of the Disney organisation which is its most recognisable reference point, with Mickey’s fingers extending into the political religious and cultural areas of Seaguy’s world. Morrison captures the feelings of helplessness which most feel when presented with the various arms of western culture, with only a few cranks shown as being willing to step out of line. There are so many metaphors in each page that the first reading of the book introduces more bewilderment than comprehension. When Death is arrested for spoiling the party atmosphere, as a throwaway moment in a single panel, you know you’re entering deep waters.
With a reach that encompasses sociology, politics, feminism and capitalism, Slaves of Mickey Eye is a breathtaking masterpiece.
Runners-up: Phonogram: The Singles Club, Beasts of Burden, Ghostbusters: Displaced Aggression, The Umbrella Academy: Dallas
Previous winners: 2008 – Kick-Ass