Sunday, July 31, 2005

SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants (UPDATED!)

Vol. 1, No. 4
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In this issue:
reviews of GØDLAND #1 and JLA: Classified #10 /
notes on religious motifs in Rags's cover to JLA #115, five sure-fire relaunch schemes for Batman and the Outsiders, and awesome, brilliant people with impeccable taste / rants about my own bloody shortsightedness

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


GØDLAND #1 (Image)
Joe Casey (Writer) / Tom Scioli (Artist) / Bill Crabtree (Colorist) / Comicraft/Rob Steen (Letterer) / Richard Starkings (Designer)

Kirby purists will snort, but I think GØDLAND’s nifty.

In an insightful interview with Matt Fraction at CBR, Joe Casey describes the series as “Grand Kirby Spectacle mixed with the particular bent I happen to get my rocks off writing.” That, True Disbeliever, is a pretty fair summary of what we get in GØDLAND #1, a book that runs 1960s Marvel dialogue through a metafictional time warp while keeping the King’s pulse-pounding layouts and trademark energy dots front and centre.

The story concerns some big (BIG!) doings: former American astronaut Adam Archer has acquired the power cosmic after surviving a mind-bending close encounter on Mars and, at the beginning of this issue, is called into action to investigate a mysterious meteor that has crashed into the Great Wall of China. Casey give us big battles, big mysteries, and big villains. Launching another salvo in the war on “decompression,” Casey also gives us big subplots concerning, among other things, Adam’s sisterly trinity (straight arrow Neela, anti-establishment brat Angie, and acerbic den mother Stella), purple-armored alien scientists and their vats of reptilian wardogs, some costumed fellow named Crashman, and the paternity of sadistic superdom Discordia.

As much fun as Casey’s tongue-in-cheek tweaking of superhero conventions provides, and as much of an intellectual punch it promises to pack in the future (see below), the main attraction of the series at this point is the lightening-bolt-to-your-cranium sublimity of Tom Scioli’s stunning artwork: an eerie channeling of Kirby, brought gorgeously to life by Bill Crabtree’s award-worthy coloring. Casey’s cosmos-spanning story gives Scioli an abundance of weird scenes and exotic settings to draw, and Scioli’s high-powered renderings are transformed by Crabtree into pages so vibrant that I defy even those who would cry “pastiche!” to affect indifference. Don’t be fooled by the bland cover design: this is one beautiful book.

The quality of Crabtree’s work deserves special mention here, for his coloring provides a subliminal but potent emotional score for the issue, becoming an integral component of the book’s affective power. His technique is to treat each multi-paneled page like a single painting--a painting that is often connected to adjacent pages in subtle, complicated ways.

For instance, in an extraordinary two-page flashback of Adam triggering an ancient alien machine in a Martian cave (done almost entirely in greys and greens), Crabtree makes the facing pages perfect chromatic inversions of each other to reinforce Adam’s through-the-looking-glass experience of being overwhelmed by sinister spectral versions of himself.

A later two-page sequence depicting Discordia’s ice fortress in the Arctic Circle is even more impressive. In this instance, Crabtree uses a cold blue palette on the upper quadrants and a warm orange palette on the lower ones to divide the two pages horizontally. In this way, the coloring complements the action depicted in the panels: the blue-over-orange conveys the impression of an icy crust over a blistering inferno that is a visual metaphor for scarlet-clad ice-queen Discordia’s salacious torturing of Crashman inside her fortress dungeon.

(Intriguingly, the scene shifts to another battle in the lower quadrant of the second page of this spread, but the continuity of the orange palette suggests that these scenes might be more closely related than they appear. This detail is a further sign of the care with which the coloring has been executed, for the oranges of this two page-spread pick up the color scheme of this other fight sequence that has been ongoing throughout the issue.)

The obvious stumbling block for a series like this will be the perception that GØDLAND is just a lame Kirby rip-off or another tedious “homage.” That Scioli sees imitation as the sincerest form of flattery is undeniable. But for many reasons, this should not be cause for scorn. Postmodern art is almost by definition non-original and hyperreal, so unless one subscribes to the prescriptive view that postmodernism is necessarily shallow and pernicious (in which case “postmodernism” becomes an evaluative rather than a descriptive category), there’s no call for a rush to judgment. Based on the evidence of the first issue, moreover, I think we should take Casey at his word when he says, “if the series was just a pastiche, it wouldn’t be worth doing for me,” and also when he tells us that “the Kirby art riffs are a storytelling tool in the same way that captions and thought balloons are storytelling tools.” If we take Casey seriously here, and obviously I’m so inclined, then the question GØDLAND poses is not “do we need another Kirby tribute, no matter how pretty it might be?” but rather, “what kind of postmodernism is this, and what kind of conversation is it having with Kirby?”

It’s too soon to tell how interesting this conversation will be, or exactly what form it will take, but there are already a number of promising signs in the script that make me want to find out how Casey, Scioli, and Crabtree will develop it. The promise of the series for me is crystallized by the title, which plays not simply on the gods-among-us theme common to the Kirby oeuvre, but also on Kirby’s own deified status. In both cases, the negated O in “GØD” announces Casey’s iconoclastic intent, but in a way that suggests something more complex than either homage or parody. GØDLAND promises to put Kirby “under erasure”--that is, to make him paradoxically present and absent simultaneously, crossing him out in such a way that requires us to see both the original and the line that bars it. This is what Casey means, I think, when he refers to the Kirby art riffs as storytelling tools. We will see them, but they will no longer mean precisely what we expect them to.

What might they mean? Earlier this week, I wrote about another group of creators who paid tribute to Kirby by locating him in a mythic past, by casting him as founding father and presiding spirit of the Marvel bullpen. GØDLAND’s Kirby appears to be something quite different. For Casey and Scioli’s hyperrealist retooling of classic Marvel suggests that they view Kirby not merely as a creative luminary from the past, but also, in sense, as our contemporary. This is neither pastiche nor nostalgia, in other words, because Kirby (like Casey’s other creative crush, Kafka) was a postmodernist before the fact. His weirdly contorted “Futurist” machines and surreal, nightmarish visions may have been products of the trippy sixties, but they speak directly to our science-fiction present in the increasingly bizarre here and now of postmodernity.

Whether or not GØDLAND will end up moving beyond the amusing metafictional hijinks of its premier issue to explore this territory fully and prove the Kirby purists wrong remains to be seen--but the smart money’s on Casey.

JLA: Classsified #10 (DC Comics)
Warren Ellis (Writer) / Butch Guice (Artist) / David Baron (Colorist) / Phil Balsman (Letterer)

Lexcorp employees are killing themselves in droves and Lois and Clark are on the case. Meanwhile, Batman investigates the murder of a Defense Industry Contractor, and Wonder Woman gets a very nasty surprise. So begins the Ellis/Guice JLA arc, “New Maps of Hell,” and it’s well worth your nickel. In fact, it’s probably the best “big three” DC book on the stands this week, despite riveting installments of trinity-shattering goodness in Wonder Woman #219 and The Omac Project #4.

The cover tells us that “it begins with the Batman,” but don’t believe it. It begins with Ellis’s wonderful take on Lois and Clark who banter here like a real married couple and behave like genuine reporters. The scenes between them and Perry in the Daily Planet offices are the most fun I’ve had with these characters in a very long time.

What really makes the issue, though, is Butch Guice’s sumptuous art. I’ve been a huge fan of his work since Crossgen’s late, lamented Ruse, and if possible, he’s gotten even better since then. His establishing shots of Metropolis, Gotham, and Themyscira are stunning, and his detailed backgrounds give each city an incredible sense of concreteness and depth. As one might expect, he draws Clark, Bruce, and Diana expertly, but I especially love his Lois Lane.

There’s a wordless three panel sequence of Lois alone in her office, working out the mystery of the twenty Lexcorp suicides that is truly memorable.

This one’s a gem.


Allusion Watch: Rags’s Assumption of Batman

I finally put my finger on why I’m so enamored of Rags’s cover for JLA #115 from a couple of months ago: he’s depicted DC’s god-like pantheon with the grandeur, power, and feeling of religious art. I don’t know enough art history to say if this cover is based on a specific painting, but the style of its composition seems closest to that of Renaissance or Baroque painting.

In works depicting religious scenes like Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) (above), Rubens’s Descent from the Cross (1611-12) (right), or Pietro da Cortona’s Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII (1633-39) (below), figures are naturally arranged along a vertical plane to convey the hierarchy of human and divine.

The divine focal point of the paintings is clearly appropriated (and complicated) by Batman’s ambiguous position on the cover (is it an ascent or a descent? are we witnessing the ascension of a human or the fall of a god?). Likewise, the awed, upturned faces of the figures near the bottom of the paintings, as well as the expressive, ecstatic poses of those closest to the divine figures are captured in Rags’s cover by Zatanna and Martian Manhunter respectively.

Also noteworthy is the use of space in both the cover and the paintings, all of which present the viewer with elaborate frames of human bodies around an empty gap at the centre of the image. The significance of this gap in the religious art should be obvious enough (especially in da Cortona’s painting, where it is given a luminous glow). In Rags’s work, however, it brilliantly suggests the hollowness at the core of the Justice League that Batman appears to be either escaping from or falling into in this incredible scene. DC: please sign Rags to a cushy contract...for life.

A new BATO monthly? Try Five. Relaunch in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

Okay, so the old-school hijacking of Winick’s Outsiders this week isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but the art by Will Conrad and Sean Parsons is moody and attractive, and Peter J. Tomasi’s story (something about a telepathic madman who detonates human bombs) is serviceable, despite the corny dialogue. What really matters here is that someone at DC (Tomasi?) was willing to pull a few of the old guard out of mothballs and thrust them momentarily into the spotlight at a time when fans have genuine cause to be optimistic that their neglected favorites from the ’eighties will finally be revived as decent, sometimes even spectacular, ongoing series.

Don’t toy with us, DC. You know that there’s a legion of nostalgia hounds (okay, six, counting me) who are dying to see a well-conceived relaunch of the classic BATO team in 2006. Black Lightening, Katana, Geo-Force, the real Metamorpho, some version of Halo perhaps, a new and better Looker (what say you just give plain old Emily Briggs Looker’s powers but let her keep her own body?), and of course, Batman. Given the current unraveling of the JLA, the stage is set for Bruce Wayne to reconnect with the team he forged when he quit the League in disgust way back in BATO #1. Even if the rumors about Batman are true, this hardly nixes the possibility of a rekindled relationship between Bruce and his former colleagues.

Do we really need to revisit BATO, you ask? Let me put it this way: yes! There’s so much untapped story potential here, particularly in a DCU that’s turned its rich history of obscure and half-forgotten characters into one of its strongest assets. If I may be permitted to fantasize for a moment, here are five creative teams that could work wonders with Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo’s colorful group of misfits:

Batman and the Outsiders
by Grant Morrison and Val Semeiks

At the end of the day, Barr and Aparo’s series was simultaneously dark, weird, and quirky—a strange mixture that stemmed from the oddball pairing of the Dark Knight Detective with a brightly clad collection of troubled souls who all had hearts of gold. Morrison will of course be too busy designing sentient universes to step up to the plate here, but who better to write Metamorpho, to make Looker into a new Emma Frost, or to exploit the cosmic oddity of the Aurikles than the architect of New X-Men or Doom Patrol? Besides, who doesn’t want to see Grant Morrison’s New Wave? Semeiks is an underrated artist whose energetic layouts would be perfect for a book like this, and he and Morrison have worked well together before.

Batman and the Outsiders
by Geoff Johns and Leonard Kirk

Again, no hope in hell, but a man can dream. Johns and Kirk were my favorite writer/artist pairing on JSA, and their magnificent “Savage Times” arc even featured Ahk-Ton, a villainous ancient Egyptian version of Metamorpho who first appeared in BATO #17-18. Johns is the obvious choice for a nostalgia project like this and he seems to know his BATO history; he also has a sentimental streak that would not be out of place with these characters. In fact, there are many compelling reasons why Johns’s BATO would soar: his skill at making ridiculous villains menacing (no shortage of these in BATO!), his ability to make new versions of old characters feel simultaneously fresh and familiar (I’d love to see him reinvent both Halo and Looker), and his knack for subtle characterization generally (BATO was always a character-driven book and I’d love to see what kind of depth he’d bring to Pierce, Brion, Tatsu, and Rex). He could probably even devise an interesting way to bring back Dr. Jace after she was so disgracefully dispatched during the Millennium crossover nonsense when the series fizzled out. Come on Geoff: six series a month, would it really kill ya? Leonard Kirk’s beautiful pencils speak for themselves.

Huntress and the Outsiders
by Gail Simone and Chris Batista

Batista’s doing a great job with straight-ahead superhero stuff on JLA right now and Simone’s Villains United is one of the most entertaining anti-team books on the stands. If anyone could make Katana the “it” character she deserves to be, it’s Simone. I have no defensible reason for proposing that Huntress lead the team besides the fact that I've always liked her, she has vague Bat-connections, plus the fact that Simone writes the heck out of her over on (guilty pleasure) Birds of Prey.

Red Hood and the Outsiders
by Judd Winick and Will Conrad

If there’s any team book suffering from an “identity crisis” these days, its Winick’s Outsiders, a book that has been uneven from the get-go, partly because it’s been played as a low-rent Titans and partly because few if any of the new characters have been crowd pleasers. His Batman, however, is firing on all cylinders, so why not combine the best of both worlds? Winick’s already played this game with us once, but having Jason Todd (mis)lead the team under the cowl of his former mentor or even as Red Hood might be interesting. Perhaps the current Outsiders series can still be salvaged, but my vote is that DC scrap the whole mess and start again with a retooled version of the classic team and one or two new ingredients. Winick’s taken a lot of shit for his writing on Outsiders, and I’m sorry to be adding to it here, but given the strength of his Batman I’m confident that he could make RHATO into a snappy noir adventure book.

Batman and the Outsiders
by Keith Giffen

And finally, an oddball choice for an oddball book. The very dark, very adult Legion vol. 4, which Keith Giffen worked on with Tom Bierbaum, Mary Bierbaum, and Al Gordon back in the late 80s and early 90s remains one of my all time favorite DC series, and his and DeMatteis’s zany Justice League continues to charm. The amorphous sensibility Giffen displays in these two very different projects is why he would be a perfect choice to helm a new BATO book. I can’t quite imagine what Giffen would do with this bunch, but it would undoubtedly be bold, funny, grim, and challenging, especially if he handled the art as well. If this happened, I would weep with joy.

Awesome, Brilliant Folks With Impeccable Taste

If you haven’t done so already, I’d urge you to check out Mark Fossen's awesome, brilliant blog of comics criticism, Focused Totality. I say criticism rather than reviews because even though he sticks to the review format, what he’s really producing are lucid, engaging, literate analyses of contemporary comics. His post on Desolation Jones #2 has justly received a lot of attention, but his most accomplished piece, I think, is his extensive reflection on music and magic realism in Scott Pilgrim, Vols. 1 and 2. He’s also a really nice guy with impeccable taste.

And speaking of really nice guys with impeccable taste, you should also be reading Greg Burgas’s terrific, politically astute comics and culture blog, Delenda Est Carthago. Greg has been kind enough to include me not once but twice in his encyclopedic (and hilariously annotated) Sunday link lists where he trolls the web so you don’t have to, dredging forth more buried treasures than you can shake a stick at. Greg says he wants to rule the world. I say we let him.

Finally, some more brilliant awesome types:

Between the huge reveals of Wonder Woman and Flash, announcements about next year’s 52*, and the Infinite Crisis preview in Wizard, it was a big week for DC. Over at The Great Curve, Tom Bondurant has a really thought-provoking piece on Wonder Woman, violence, and sexism. Meanwhile, at the indisputably named Comics Should Be Good, Bill Reed raises some pertinent questions about the pitfalls that lay in store for the weekly 52* series next year.

Anyone who has somehow managed to miss Nielalien’s director’s commentary on Black Jack #1 should rectify that problem immediately.

I’ve also spent some time this week catching up on the posts at two really great sites: Kurt’s Return to Comics and Zilla and the Comics Junkies. The reviews at Zilla’s are thorough and top notch, and Kurt’s thoughtful four-part account of his time away from comics as well as his gradual return to the fold makes for fascinating reading, providing not just a personal history but a snapshot of the major shifts in the comic book landscape over the past 20-some years.

Finally, over at Nobody Laughs at Mister Fish, Disintegrating Clone poses the question that will be on everyone’s lips once Rob Lefield begins his two-issue stint on Teen Titans next month. His answer rings true.


I am an Idiot

I don’t know what I was thinking: I decided to wait for the trades. And as a result, I’m missing out on Morrison’s Seven Soldiers in the format that is probably most congenial to the whole experience. The horrible irony here is that, with the exception of Seaguy and WE3, I’ve always bought Morrison’s comics as single issues. Fuck.

Friday, July 29, 2005

“The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” (Part 4): What is the Impossible Man?, or Mighty Marvel Metafiction in Fantastic Four #176

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pleasures and perils of comic book metafiction. Why some of it works for me and why some of it falls flat. After picking on Bendis for the ending of New Avengers #7, I concluded that I like my metafiction and my adventure stories the same way I like my steak and my mashed potatoes: segregated, on separate ends of the plate, preferably with a sturdy wall of green beans between them.

Naturally, there are exceptions, and I glanced at some of them in my rant about the Purple Man at the end of last week’s Spoilers Abound. What I concluded there was that the metafictionalizing of an otherwise unselfconscious title or character (the sudden appearance of a comic book creator as “god” in the story itself, say, or She-Hulk literally smashing through the fourth wall to address us directly) was only welcome when the story in question could implicitly be separated, meat and potatoes-like, from the superhero series or universe to which it ostensibly belonged. This was only possible, I speculated, if the reader was sufficiently forewarned, either by other elements either within the story or by the identity of the writer/artist himself. (Grant Morrison can always be counted on to do something weird, for instance, and John Byrne announces his project on the cover of She-Hulk #1: caveat lector.) In other words, the enjoyment of superhero metafiction, for me at least, seemed dependant on the management of readerly expectations. If its appearance is too much of a non sequitur, the breaking of the illusion is no longer interesting; it’s just cheap.

So how to account for Fantastic Four #176, “Improbable as it May Seem--the Impossible Man is Back in Town”? This issue by the team of Roy Thomas, George Perez, and Joe Sinnott, is a stellar example of successful comic book metafiction; it is yet another illustration of why Marvel of the late 1970s could truly brag of being “The House of Ideas”; and it is confirmation that Fantastic Four really was, at times, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” It also seems to stomp on every one of my over-precious aesthetic sensibilities concerning the strict division of metafiction and straightforward superhero adventure books. What gives?

The story, in brief, is that the FF are returning to earth from a cosmos-spanning adventure, with the shapeshifting, egg-headed Impossible Man in tow. Having saved the world from Galactus, they crash their spaceship in Central Park and make their way to the Baxter Building, on foot, by cab, and eventually by green and purple triple-decked surfboard. Impeding this parochial quest is the Impossible Man himself, who wanders into the Marvel Comics offices, confronts Stan Lee, and demands his own Marvel Comics series. Stan’s dismissive response (he’s still smarting over negative fan reaction to the Impossible Man’s “silly” first appearance in FF #11) precipitates bullpen chaos as Impy Imps-out, attacking the assembled Marvel staffers (including current writer/artist team, Roy Thomas and George Perez, as well as a visiting Jack Kirby, on loan from DC). In a winning parody of comic book slugfests, the staff dive for cover as the Impossible Man apes the abilities and weapons of various Marvel superheroes, blowing the Marvel offices to smithereens with Poppupian versions of Cap’s shield, Iron Man’s repulsor ray, Cyclops’s optic blasts, and Thor’s hammer, among others. As the office is getting trashed, the FF show up and Reed resolves the battle by strong-arming a promise out of Stan to feature the annoying Poppupian in one special issue of the FF comic book--presumably the very comic we readers now hold in our hands.

At one level, this story is a simple wish-fulfillment for Thomas and Perez. As Perez confesses in an interview in Wizard #165, this was his favorite issue from his run on the FF: “The fun part was drawing myself and [writer] Roy Thomas--boy, did I look good in those days!--and having my comic book self talking to Jack Kirby whom I had never met and wouldn’t meet for the first time until 1985.” Of course, this thrill of being inscribed into the four color world of the comic book page is the central theme of the issue: this is exactly what the Impossible Man wants too. In this way Thomas crafts a story that is at least partly about the desires and satisfactions of comic book creators. The story is both an extended in-joke and a fun reversal: the comic book’s creators (new and old) not only get to write themselves into the universe they created and interact with their characters, Lee himself gets to save the world (albeit reluctantly!) from the “silly” but potentially devastating threat of the Impossible Man. No wonder Perez cited this issue as his favorite or that Thomas wrote in his wonderful letter-column Afterword: “Every once in a while, a story comes along that, like it or don’t, you just feel you want to do--no, have to do. Once conceived, this issue of The Fantastic Four was one of those stories for me.” At this level, the Impossible Man is Perez and Thomas, gleefully seeking admittance to world they bring to life every month at the tips of their pens.

If this were all there was to it, the story would be a pleasant, slightly self-indulgent trifle. What makes this issue a classic is that, ultimately, Thomas and Perez’s fondness for this story is not rooted in the vanity such a wish-fulfillment might imply (in fact, they are mercilessly self mocking throughout the tale). As both Thomas and Perez suggest, and as central as Stan Lee might be to the resolution of the plot, the story, at its core, is a love letter to Jack Kirby--and to the comic book medium itself. It is, in other words, a story that is at once an exploration of the unique creative process that underlies the art of comics and a brilliant metafictional analysis of the language of that art form--an analysis, one might add, that anticipated Scott McCloud’s own seminal study by a number of years.

At the centre of this comic book analysis of comic book form is the weird, anarchic figure of the Impossible Man.

From the moment Impy inflates himself into a balloon and floats into the Marvel Comics offices, it’s clear that this shape-changing alien has begun to symbolize the very conventions of comic book storytelling through which he is represented. The panel in which Perez juxtaposes Impy’s floating balloon-head with a word balloon announcing the address of “the best comic-books in the world” and a thought balloon in which Impy thinks simply, “comic-books,” provides a taste of how this issue blurs the distinction between conventional signs (word balloons, which our reading habits “erase” from the visual plane) and concrete signs (the images we interpret as literally “there”). This panel invites us, in short, to read the Impossible Man as a protean embodiment of the invisible language of comic books.

This is confirmed--spectacularly, and in several ways--by the fight scene itself. Here, Impy’s malleability makes him a kind of degree zero of character construction as he assumes the distinguishing features of both male and female Marvel heroes (Black Bolt’s crepe-paper gliders, the Wasp’s wings, Namor’s ankle feathers). Because these transformations are literally taking place within Marvel’s offices, the impression one gets is not that he is imitating, but rather that he is generating the raw material of Marvel’s super-powered characters. Moreover, Impy is also “bigger” than any of the characters he generates, since he never completely becomes them, but simply sprouts wings or a hand in the shape of mjolnir. And he always, of course, remains purple and green, whatever new form he takes. The Impossible Man’s multiplicity in this regard hints at the mixed or hybrid nature of the comic book medium itself. As a medium that appears at the intersection of word and image (an intersection suggested by the word balloon device itself, an “image” that is all about words) the comic book, like Impy, is a protean, hybrid creature--hybrid not only in its form (words and pictures) but in the collaborative nature of its production (writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, editor, cover artist, etc.).

Indeed, it would not be impossible to regard Impy as a emblem of both the visual and the verbal aspects of comic book narrative itself. For not only does his potential to infinitely assume new shapes make him a master-signifier of visual art; his infinite capacity for boredom and his consequent appetite for conflict also make him emblematic of narrative itself. In the opening scenes of the issue, the Impossible Man yawns and complains that he’s “already bored” as the High Evolutionary’s spacecraft hurtles earthward, threatening, as the Thing puts it, to splatter the FF “from the zoo to Morningside Heights!” Only when the ship actually crash lands in the lake in the middle of Central Park is Impy momentarily reassured that things aren’t going to be “as boring as [he] feared.” His literal desire as well as his narrative purpose in this tale is to avoid boredom by complicating the plot. A task at which he is doubly successful: his destruction of the Marvel studio is the climax of the action in the comic book we read (the conflict that makes the narrative “fun”), and its metafictional significance is underlined by the fact that the fight is the consequence of his desire to be represented in an exciting narrative form--the comic book! Thus, between his powers and his temperament, the Impossible Man embodies the hybrid union of pictures and narrative that Scott McCloud fittingly dubs, “sequential art.” Impy is comics.

This is evident in other ways as well--perhaps most importantly in the way that Impy’s control over his own bodily transformations suggests that he is not simply the raw material from which anything can be made, but is also the shaper of that very material. In short, Impy is both sides of the creative process represented within a single being: he is maker and matter, will and imagination, artist and clay, all at once.

The artist/clay metaphor is, I think, a particularly appropriate description of creation and creativity within a medium like superhero comics that relies heavily on genre conventions and in which stories are not created ex nihilo, but are part of a dialogic process between a “creator” at any given moment in time and the “clay” (the rules of the superhero genre, the accretion of stories and images of the characters he or she is working with, etc.).

Fantastic Four #176 represents this dialogue between artist and clay, present and past, through an encounter between the FF’s current creative team (Roy and George) and its original creative team (Stan and Jack), all of whom are hanging out in the Marvel bullpen. As if to underline the creative dependency of the present upon the past, Thomas exploits the clever conceit (established in FF #10-11) whereby the Marvel Comics produced “within” the Marvel universe are a sort of non-fictional, semi-journalistic infotainment. This fictionalized “Marvel Comics” produces an “authorized F.F. Comic Mag” that details the FF’s “real” adventures, so when the team goes off on an interstellar trek, the boys in the bullpen are left in the lurch. As “George” outlines the dilemma to “Stan”: “We’ve been trying to reach the Fantastic Four all week! Their answering service says they’re out of town.” Only Jack Kirby is accorded the role of genuine creator, for of the writers and artists present, only “Jack” makes the audacious suggestion that the current “creative” team “just make up some stories about the F.F.” “What? Make up stories--?” Roy gasps. “--instead of just drawing what really happened?” an astonished George finishes his sentence. (A lovely detail, since as artist, George literally does “finish Roy’s sentences”!) Stan (in what I take to be a wry nod to his role in creating a “realistic” superhero universe; heroes with real problems, etc.) rejects the route of complete invention, saying, “Nice try, Jack... But it just isn’t done.... No, we’d better come up with a more realistic plan before it’s too--” And at this precise moment, Impy, the madcap embodiment of the medium’s creative energy, pops in and says admiringly of the comic book covers on display: “My, my! How very imaginative!”

Ultimately, Roy and George are inspired by and keen to take up Kirby’s challenge to imagine, and it’s obvious that we are to understand this exchange as a tribute to Kirby’s visionary creative genius. (Impy is the spirit of Kirby made flesh here in all his joyful, green and purple glory.) The conceit of writing an “authorized” tabloid version of the “real” FF’s exploits thus becomes, in Thomas’s script, the basis for a profound compliment to Kirby in which Thomas humbly suggests that a comparison of his and Perez’s own creative efforts with those of the “King” can only be understood in terms of the difference between fiction and non-fiction, creativity and imitation. Over the course of this scene, however, imitation (of the “real” FF) is transformed into inspiration (by Kirby), and the creative relation between present and past, artist and clay, is thus also brought squarely into view.

Kirby becomes, in Thomas’s appreciation, the exception that proves the rule of Marvel superhero comic book artistry: that creativity is always already intertextual and dialogic. Kirby himself becomes the paradoxically original “ground” upon which this truism of non-original creativity is staked, and Impy comes to signify the collaborative spirit of this marvelous new alchemy. What is the Impossible Man? A better question might be, who? On Kirby’s magnificent cover at least, he is a peculiar kind of self-portrait. Stepping nimbly over a table strewn with pages of comic book art, the hybrid Impossible Man dominates the scene with the ever-changing organic powers that, like Kirby’s, are literally at the tips of his fingers. The Impossible Man is, at this level, the “King” of Marvel Comics. As the nick-name “Impy” implies, however, he is also an “imp,” a mischievous, Puckish genius loci that extends beyond Kirby to “inspire” (en-spirit) the entire place, keeping the new generation of artists and writers in permanent touch with both the accretions of history (all the issues of the FF that precede theirs) and with the protean spirit of creative energy itself.

By the happiest of accidents, the complex hybrid creativity of comic book storytelling that the Impossible Man and the scenes in the Marvel bullpen represent is inherent in the creative genesis of this very story. As Thomas recounts in the special edition of the FF letter column, then called “Baxter Building Bulletins,” Kirby’s role in the issue far exceeded the simple job of cover artist:

[Production Manager] John Verpoorten and [John] Romita informed me that if I wanted Jack “King” Kirby to pencil the cover for F.F. #176, I’d better give him a coast-to-coast phone-call right away and describe the cover scene to him.

And did I ever want Jack to do it! After all, he and Smilin’ Stan Lee created the character, a decade and a half ago in one-and-one-only story which, while it did not lead to fabulous sales or such-like, had become a cultish favorite among certain F.F. lovers (myself included, but definitely, since the night in late 1962 I first laid eyes on F.F. #11).

So I called Jack. Yes, he said, he vaguely remembered the Impossible Man. The thin green guy with the pinhead, right? I said right. And here’s the important part: I asked Jack to have Impy, on the cover, using some of the gimmicks George and I had planned for the interior, such as hosing the Human Torch and hammering the Thing....

A few days later, I got this strange penciled cover in the mail which was just what I’d asked, except that Impy was blasting the F.F. with hands shaped like Iron-Man’s glove and Thor’s magic hammer! And there was even a note suggesting he could have shaped a fist like Captain America’s shield! Immediately I saw Jack’s reasoning: this was the Marvel Comics office, right? So why not have him using Marvel-type gimmicks?

Ten minutes later I was on the phone describing the cover to George, and we instantly decided (since George was just beginning to draw the first half of the book) to utilize Jack’s ideas.
Given the nature of Marvel scripting (which typically happened after the finished art had been produced), it’s safe to say that Kirby’s influence on this landmark issue was on more than just the art choices Perez would make in the second half of the story. It no doubt provided an added layer to Thomas’s script as he was forced to reckon with the catalyzing force of Kirby’s creative input. (Was Kirby even in the original plot? I wonder.) Most importantly, Kirby’s idea of “using Marvel-type gimmicks” suggests that he saw something even more profound than Thomas had about the relationship between the Impossible Man and the comic book form--something that Thomas and Perez’s final product ultimately captures and something I have been trying to articulate here under the rubric of “metafiction.” That it should flow from the conjunction of past and present, from a genealogy whose components are still in vital contact, is one of those extraordinary instances of planetary alignment that happen only once in a lifetime.

My reading of this phenomenal metafictional issue has been moving outwards from the centre, into increasing degrees of abstraction. I’d like to take it one further degree: from the hybrid nature of comic book form, to the hybrid nature of comic book storytelling and creativity, to the hybrid, paradoxical nature of art as such. As always, the Impossible Man is glue that holds it all together.

As I noted above, the battle in the bullpen concludes when Mr. Fantastic persuades Stan to give the Impossible Man a special issue (the very issue we are reading), thus having the esteemed EIC save the day, a conclusion which acknowledges his power as a creator--a power that is equal and complementary to Jack’s. This complementarity is hinted at again in the epilogue to the bullpen story where Stan revokes his promise to placate the Impossible Man on the grounds that “Marvel Comics hasn’t time to waste on silly-looking characters.” Meanwhile, a poster of Howard the Duck smiles on the wall behind him! Serious Stan’s refusal of “silly” things like the Impossible Man is obviously ironized by the image of Howard, and of course, even more fully by the very “silly” issue we hold in our hands. Moreover, this silliness that Stan pretends to repudiate in the name of “realism” is none other than the “silliness” of raw creativity itself, represented earlier by Jack’s wild idea that the current writer just “make up some stories.” What this suggests to me, at least, is that the opposition between the “Stan” and “Jack” in this issue is really not an opposition but a dialectic: the dialectic of art, and specifically of the Marvel comic book, in which of which the thesis of realism and the antithesis of silliness meet in the impossible synthesis of the Impossible Man himself.

Like the Impossible Man, comic books (and especially Marvel superhero comic books of the 1970s) were inescapably realistic and silly all at once. Their “silliness” in fact seemed realistic, because it was naturalized through conventions. (To my mother, adults with powers running around in capes and tights was “silly”; to me, it made perfect sense.) As an embodiment of the comic book medium and a synthesis of its creative processes, the Impossible Man is true to his name. For the implied paradox of possible impossibility--of something that must be impossible, and yet manifestly is--is the paradox of all art and all representation: that strange absent presence that transports us elsewhere, without ever, for a moment, being “real.”

To return, very briefly, to my original question as to why this metafictional issue of the FF is so genuinely fantastic despite its violation of my personal (and no doubt idiosyncratic) rule against interrupting a serious superhero saga with a garish burst of self-consciousness, one could propose various answers: Its metafictional plot is not only contained within a single issue, it is also totally superfluous to the book’s ongoing storyline. It is, for all intents and purposes, an imaginary story. (A smaller version of Bryne’s She-Hulk or David Mack’s Daredevil: Echo). It may take place within the numeration of the regular FF comic, and we may understand it to literally have happened, but we are not required to integrate it into the overarching narrative of the FF comic book. Its metafictionality is also tempered by “realism” within the context of the Marvel universe’s “real world” focus and within the specifically New York flavor of the FF comic. Moreover, it had been established long before that Stan Lee and the Marvel bullpen were already part of the Marvel Universe. Besides, Lee’s face was well-known to readers of the Bullpen Bulletins page that appeared in the monthly comics (where he was drawn in semi-realist caricature), as was his persona, which receives an amusing satirical treatment here.

Ultimately, however, The Impossible Man is a metafictional treat because Thomas and Perez give his rampage through the bullpen in FF #176 real emotional depth and genuine explanatory weight. This brilliant “off-beat” issue is not just a clever bit of self-reference, not a “gimmick,” not even simply a tribute to a legendary creative mentor. It is a subtle object lesson on the sequential art of comic books, and school has never been this much fun.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants

Vol. 1, No. 3
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In this issue:
reviews of Wrath of the Spectre (TPB) and Day of Vengeance #4 / notes on allusions to Hamlet in Astonishing X-Men, the lost art of promo art, and remembering Jim Aparo / rants about the Purple Man and comic book metafiction

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


Wrath of the Spectre (TPB) (DC Comics)
Michael Fleisher (Writer) / Jim Aparo, Ernie Chua, Frank Thorne, Mike DeCarlo, and Pablo Marcos (Artists) / Jim Aparo, John Costanza, and Augustin Mas (Letterers) / Adrienne Roy (Colorist)

The best comic I bought this week was DC’s collected edition of Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo’s The Wrath of the Spectre, released earlier this year. David Fiore’s appreciation of Aparo’s work on these issues last week got me to pick it up, and I’m sure delighted that I did. What a read!

Most of the stories follow a simple pattern of crime and retribution in which the Spectre metes out ghastly forms of poetic justice to evil men and the occasional evil woman. But don’t let the simplicity or (apparent) repetitiveness of the plots fool you. These stories are simultaneously deeply satisfying as well as deeply unsettling, and the peculiar form of elemental pleasure/horror they evoke springs from their amplification of a contradiction that is already inherent in the concept of the revenge ghost upon which the Spectre is based.

Revenge ghosts are a staple of horror in every iteration of the genre, but the type of affect these ghosts generate is not adequately described by the term “horror.” As the cover to this issue of Beware from 1953 illustrates, the revenge ghost mixes horror with the idea of just deserts (in fact the latter ostensibly “justifies” the former, albeit not enough for Frederic Wertham). The result of this mixture is a bifurcated plot structure that complicates our reading experience by splitting our identification between the innocent victim/revenge ghost on the one hand (the justice plot) and the murderer/victim of the revenge ghost on the other (the horror plot). Thus, in a typical story of this type, we don’t care much about the original victim--they’re barely on stage before they’re dispatched, their sole function being to motivate (and embody) the action of supernatural revenge. The meat of the story is the haunting and grisly destruction of the murderer with whom we must sufficiently identify in order for the story to produce the desired effect of horror. Hence the contraction of the motivating murder (the murder of the innocent) and the expansion of the revenge murder (the murder of the guilty), a murder we “experience” more intensely through the story’s use of time and point of view (extensive scenes of flight and fear are usually given to the guilty victims, not the innocent ones). This double-plot ensures that our relation to the murderer is ambivalent: we are horrified by his torment at the hands of a genuinely frightening supernatural agency, and yet we also enjoy his inevitably horrific fate as form of justice, sadistically identifying with the revenge ghost itself, no matter how horrifying it appears. It is thus no contradiction for Uncle Creepy to entreat us: “Feast your bloodshot eyeballs on comics guaranteed to leave you senseless with delight!”

Fleishman and Aparo’s Spectre stories follow this double-structure, but with a very significant difference. In a typical EC story of this sort, one feels that, despite this structurally mandated ambivalence, the balance still ultimately tilts in the direction of horror. We might to some extent be invited to identify with the ghost, but it is very hard to reconcile the ghost’s manifestly “evil” appearance with the moral order it ostensibly embodies. In fact, the very monstrosity of the retribution (the thing that we find most horrifying) fatally undermines the story’s putative “moral” alibi. (Really, Mr. Wertham, these stories teach lessons!)

With the Spectre, however, the possibilities for identifying with the revenge ghost change substantially. Now the revenge ghost’s function is embodied in a single character who acts as sort of meta-phantom from which all revenge ghosts spring. (In other words, he embodies a structural feature of all revenge-ghost stories that normally remains implicit: the convention of the revenge ghost itself.)

This unique premise has many fascinating consequences, the most pertinent of which is that our increased ability to identify with the revenge ghost (now the story’s protagonist) thoroughly complicates the effect of these stories. The “horror” of 1950s horror comics is now supplemented by a much stronger “moral” component. But this does not mean that these stories are more reassuring. In fact, they are less so because what the expanded emphasis on the justice plot now makes visible is the possibility that horror resides within the actions of the “just” law itself.

Despite the protests of certain stories in this collection which anxiously address this very question, the supernatural punishment of the criminal always feels excessive, no matter how evil a crime he has committed (and Fleisher pulls no punches here: these criminals are bad guys). Moreover, this excess is attributed not to a satanic-looking corpse whose ambiguous brand of “justice” is easy to dismiss, but to a superhero-ghost whose mission is implicitly divine. Thus, just as the Spectre’s embodiment of the revenge ghost’s function increases our identification with him, it also increases the extraordinary ambiguity of our response to his actions, and invites us to look critically at the notion of justice itself. This wonderfully subversive aspect of these stories (which has implications for a critique of capital punishment, among other things) is abetted by the fact that with the Spectre’s embodiment of the revenge ghost concept comes the possibility of self-consciousness, memory, learning, and change. We are no longer stuck in the endless cycle of repetition that was inevitable with stories featuring individual revenge ghosts who were all driven by the same abstract principle and who simply disappeared when their task was discharged.

Later writers like Doug Moench and John Ostrander would go on to explore the ethical possibilities of the Spectre’s self-consciousness in considerable depth. But such an exploration is already developing in the Fleishman/Aparo stories where it takes the form of an external questioning of the Spectre’s methods via the character of Earl Crawford, a magazine freelancer who tracks the Spectre and articulates a more liberal point of view about the rights of the criminal.

It is also implicit in the star-crossed relationship between would-be lovers Jim Corrigan and Gwendolyn Sterling, a relationship that ultimately leads Jim to ask “The Voice” to release him from his bondage to the vengeance-driven Spectre.

I am even tempted to see this critical exploration of justice reflected in a disturbingly topical tale entitled, “The Human Bombs and...the Spectre” in which a criminal scientist brainwashes people into becoming suicide bombers with a “stroboscopic hypno-wheel” of his own invention.

This “hypno-wheel” bears a suggestive visual similarity to later stories’ representation of “The Voice” as a set of bright lights that produce a similarly “hypnotic” effect on the helpless soul of Jim Corrigan to transform him in to the instrument of divine vengeance.

Is the mad scientist’s hypno-wheel any different from the voice of god and the unyielding version of justice it sanctions in these tales? Are the Spectre’s divine acts of vengeance any less perverse than the mad scientist’s creation of human bombs? Beyond the genuinely visceral pleasures it unquestionably provides, the enduring strength of Fleisher and Aparo’s legendary work on the Spectre is that it does not allow us to answer any of these questions simply.

Given the philosophical weightiness of Fleisher and Aparo’s Spectre, catching up with this character in the present day DCU is a journey from the sublime...

Day of Vengeance #4 (DC Comics)
Bill Willingham (Writer) / Justiano (Penciller) / Walden Wong (Inker) / Pat Brosseau (Letterer) / Chris Chuckay (Colorist) the ridiculous. But not in a bad way.

Unleashing Bill Willingham on the magic pocket of the mainstream DCU was a very, very good idea. Day of Vengeance is flat-out fun. I’m enjoying all five Countdown minis probably more than is actually defensible, but this one has been the big surprise. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with magic-oriented books, but Willingham has sucked me in by focusing on character rather than plot (which is paper thin at best; someone on a message board described it as a giant slugfest, which is about right). The dust up between Captain Marvel and the Spectre (hardly recognizable as the same character that Fleisher and Aparo worked on) is deftly confined to the background, serving only as a pretense for generating amusing interactions among the loveable weirdos of DC’s magical Z-list.

Detective Chimp, Nightshade, Enchantress, Ragman, Shining Knight, Blue Devil: I feel like I know these people. (And in one particular case, I’m worried that I am one of these people). Besides, I’m a sucker for “assembling the super-team” stories (probably why I adored issues #1-6 of Bendis’s New Avengers), and here, the assembly of a team of supermagicians hybridizes the magical characters with superheroes in a way that makes them extra-palatable to an unreconstructed superhero geek like myself.

Granted, a few of the jokes are a bit broad. But I laughed out loud at least four times when reading this issue, and I laughed the second and third times I read it too. (Pathetically, I’m still giggling over the third-last page of issue two from two months ago.) For this, Justiano and Wong’s phenomenal, nutty artwork deserves as much credit as Willingham’s script. The scenes of Detective Chimp’s memories on page two, and the panel of Chimp and Nightshade’s awkward coffee klatch with Mr. Zechlin on page four are hilarious even without the dialogue. What’s more, the cartoony flare of the art perfectly bridges the potentially jarring gap between the essentially comic content of the story and the larger, more portentous, Crisis-story frame.

I do have one teensy gripe, and here I must echo Johanna Draper Carlson’s complaint about the characterization of Blue Devil; his personality (what I recall of it) seems to have been filched by Ragman. Perhaps all those years of bouncing drunken magicians hardened him. In any event, I look forward to learning all of the details when the Shadowpact ongoing by the same creative team premiers later this year. Um...right?


Allusion Watch: Alas, Poor Yorick!

Meaningful or not? The visual citation of one of the most famous and frequently reproduced and parodied scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in this week’s Astonishing X-Men has me wondering...

In Shakespeare’s play, the troubled, indecisive avenger, Prince Hamlet, treats us to a grimly ironic soliloquy on the inevitability of death when he is confronted with the skull of his beloved childhood Jester, Yorick:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.

(Shakespeare, Hamlet, act V, scene i)
Here in Astonishing, Professor X ruminates about his special relationship with Jean Grey when he confronts the head of his homicidal “daughter,” Danger, which he has just severed with an axe.

They seem pretty unrelated, but there’s more of a basis for comparison than one might think. Both versions of the scene are confrontations with dead (or almost “dead”) characters who are not exactly blood relatives, but are indeed very nearly relations, and are in both cases, extremely intimate ones: the childhood jester that Hamlet loved and the non-human “child” Xavier’s mind. Moreover, both scenes are on some level confrontations with death. And both have the key player making an allusion to a dead, absent woman. Hamlet refers to “my lady” (presumably his girlfriend Ophelia), pointing out that even if she applies makeup to make herself look younger, she’ll end up just as dead as poor Yorick (which turns out to be ironic since, unbeknownst to him, Ophelia is already dead--her funeral procession wanders through the graveyard a few lines later); similarly, Charles refers to Jean, who is also both absent and dead (or at least as dead as Jean gets).

Because the scene in Astonishing culminates in Charles’s casual chucking away of his “daughter’s” head (reinforcing his preference for his real “daughter” Jean), the allusion is parodic and its purpose appears to be simply to provide a convenient contrast between the mental fragility of famously indecisive Hamlet and the iron will of Prof. X, who, unlike Hamlet, is stoically unphased by his symbolic close encounter with death and guilt. (Hamlet, you will recall, ends up falling to bits and flinging himself about in Ophelia’s grave with fellow hysteric, Laertes.) Well done, Mr. Whedon!

Moreover, we’ve seen this scene cited in the X-Men before--and in Genosha, no less. The second issue of Grant Morrison’s “E is for Extinction” arc had Beast quoting the Bard once again, at least implicitly, to comment on the nature of mortality in the context of genocide. Is Whedon quoting this scene too? Are there more pulse-pounding layers of allusion to peel back? Stay tuned!

The Lost Art of Promo Art

Remember when companies commissioned original art to promote their books?'s Nostalgia Zone has the complete issue of DC Sampler #2 from 1984 in all its splendor (my own copy of this issue suffered what was probably a common fate: being disassembled and cut up to make posters for the bedroom walls...).

Among the fantastic promotional art it contained were two-page spreads for The New Teen Titans, Atari Force, Blue Devil, Legion of Superheroes, Swamp Thing, Vigilante, Warlord, Jemm Son of Saturn, Batman and the Outsiders, Infinity Inc., Justice League of America, Thriller, Star Trek, Amethyst, and DC Blue Ribbon Digests. Ah, memories.

Remembering Jim Aparo

In addition to the great set of links compiled by Tegan, here are a couple of other really nice posts from last week from Ramblings and Left of the Dial.

Um, er, gosh...

I had a number of really nice suprises this week. Ian Brill of Brill Building said some very kind things about the site--thanks Ian! You really made my day. Thanks also to David from Clandestine Critic, Conductor from Hatful of Hollow, and John from Sore Eyes for the links and props. I feel all, um, er, gosh... Thank you one and all!


The Metafiction Police

I’m sorry, but I’m just not enjoying the Purple Man. His appearance in New Avengers was fine, but his role in New Thunderbolts is hobbling the relaunch of this once-great title.

Last week, I groused about the Paul Jenkins cameo in New Avengers; in that instance, I was irked by the sudden shattering of the horizon of expectation that the series had established up until that point. Successful metafiction, in my view, tends to be systemic. That is, metafiction works for me when self-consciousness is built into the structure of the story as a founding presupposition, rather than providing a jarring “surprise!” cliffhanger. Systemic metafiction is very difficult to achieve in mainstream superhero books because the horizon of expectations for most superhero fantasy on books that have gone on for 400+ issues is incredibly entrenched, and the genre itself is generally hostile to metafiction, its entire point being to free us from self-consciousness.

There are exceptions, of course. But they tend to follow a pattern. Grant Morrison on Animal Man, David Mack on Daredevil, John Byrne on She-Hulk: all these examples of successful superhero metafiction are the work of comic book “auteurs” whose tenure on a series announces a recognizable break in the usual horizon of expectations and whose very name often indicates a raising of the “literary” or philosophical stakes. (Case in point: DC’s ad campaign for Seven Soldiers actually features a photograph of Morrison and announces that the series is “From the mind of...” Morrison’s genius has become a brand--an irony that would not be lost on Morrison himself.) Moreover, what all three of these examples of comic book metafiction have in common is an interest in either the nature of the comic book medium and its conventions as such, the relationship between representation and reality, or both. They are, in other words, primarily concerned with exploring metafictional questions using the superhero as a point of entry; the breaking of the fourth wall in their work is not incidental, it isn’t just a neat twist or an cheap in-joke, and it certainly isn’t introduced as a way of solving continuity problems in the context of a superhero universe. The only reason that Morrison, Mack, and Byrne are able to get away with exploring metafictional questions within a regular superhero universe is that their metafictional stories do not seem to actually take place within that universe because the stories themselves violate the conventions of that regular fantasy universe so drastically. The problem with the Paul Jenkins appearance in New Avengers #7 is that it seems to want to have it both ways--to sustain the conventional universe in the presence of metafiction--and the result, for me at least, is an irreconcilable narrative split.

My problem with the Purple Man in New Thunderbolts is basically the same as this, even though it takes a different form. Here we don’t have the unwelcome parachuting of a real comic book writer into the pages of our new favorite action/adventure book, we have his fictional proxy: the seemingly omnipotent supervillain who styles himself as a “writer.” Like all writers he wants to write a good story and good stories require conflict. Fortunately, his powers allow him to manipulate his “characters” in any way that suits the generation of his “plot.” Etc. The metaphor is too obvious, and that’s the problem. We are made all too painfully aware of the parallels between the machinations of the Purple Man and those of real series writer Fabian Nicieza, since both appear to have identical aims: torturing the characters, producing unfathomably Byzantine conspiracies, generating twists and surprises to keep things interesting. The result is a reading experience that is almost impossible to get into because disbelief is never adequately suspended.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of torturing the characters and entangling them within an absurdly vast and indecipherable conspiracy. That’s why I’m reading Thunderbolts and why I was so pleased that Marvel decided to give the series another shot. In its heyday, the first run was one of the best guilty pleasures on the stands. But thematizing the premise of the series (jaw-dropping twists! unbelievable betrayals! mystery characters!) and embodying the process of the story’s composition drains all the life out of it. If the point of the twists and turns is simply to satisfy the whims of a sadistic villain, we’re denied the fun of trying to fathom the meaning of the twists. Sadism is boring, and even if there is some deeper conspiracy at play here beyond the Purple Man’s puerile rape fantasies (and I hope there is!), so far, I don’t even care enough to speculate about what it might be. I’m skimming along the surface of a book that was once a treat to dive into. I thought that Fabian did a fantastic job of following up Kurt Busiek’s defining run on the series the first time around. In fact, Fabian got me hooked: I only jumped on board the series after he had taken over, and then went back and read the series from the beginning. Here’s hoping that the best is yet come.

This is all to say that I prefer my comic book metafiction in one pile and my superhero fantasy in another. (I say this in the interests of the full critical disclosure that Harvey Jerkwater sagely called for over at Filing Cabinet of the Damned last week!) And yet, there are still some exceptions, beyond those of Morrison, Mack, and Byrne accounted for above. Next week, if all goes according to plan, I will try to account for one of these--the “incredible” Fantastic Four #176. In the meantime, if you care to pass on any other examples of good comic book metafiction, I’d love to hear them. (If anyone can suggest a better, more accurate term than “comic book metafiction,” I’d be grateful to hear that too!)