Friday, December 28, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The New Gods #6--"The Glory Boat!!"

That's the Glory Boat, you pervs.

What, you thought I wouldn’t go there? I only have class inasmuch as it stands in the way of my making an obvious joke.

We’re now getting into the run of New Gods issues that Kirby feels was the strongest thing he ever did, and the energy is palpable. As you might recall, the last issue brought us face to face with the horrifying Leviathan the Deep Six (“Mystic Mutators of the Deep”) had unleashed on the world: a gigantic pink warthog-whale thing bigger than an oil tanker. You know how I can tell that? Because in the opening pages of this issue, the thing eats an oil tanker.

Well, it doesn’t “eat” it so much as it gores it with its tusks and that weird phallic ram-thing under its chin.

My favourite moment in this sequence: a sailor, spotting the leviathan, announces, “The closer it gets—the bigger it gets!!” He’s just discovered the magic of perspective! Also, the oil tanker, despite being specifically described as being made of steel, is coloured to look like an old-fashioned wooden sailing ship.

There’s now a montage of the Leviathan trashing ships all across the ocean, ending with a nice panel of a life saver marked “S. S. Aurora” floating empty in the water to segue to the main story. It seems that one of the vessels wrecked was a yacht owned by a wealthy industrialist named Farley Sheridan and his two children, who are now floating in a life raft in the middle of the sea. These three, who we’ll be getting to know better in a few pages, provide our “everyman” perspective on the following events, starting with Orion blasting out of the water a few meters away from them. Farley immediately jumps to the rather odd conclusion that “he’s some kind of new Navy frogman type!” Right, because navy officers are always dressing up in flamboyant, skintight clothing.

…Well, OK, but not while they’re on duty.

Orion, rather dickishly, chooses not to talk to the lost and frightened people on the raft, but first does a sweep of the area while caught up in his own expositional thoughts (basically recapping the last issue). Eventually, he does deign to lend a hand, shooting a tractor beam-ish thing to grab hold of the raft, or as he puts it, “A magnetic force will saturate your craft’s atomic structure!—And bind us as one!!” Kirby sure had a thing for the phrase “atomic structure”, didn’t he? Oh, atomic structures! Is there anything you can’t do?

Orion offers them rescue, but he points out that he’s on a dangerous mission, and that tagging along with him could result in their death. Here we get our introduction to the basic character dilemma of this issue: Farley, a WWII vet, claims that he’ll happily jump into the fray if it’ll get them off the raft, whereas his son Richard, a pacifist, is reluctant, and his daughter Lynn is basically a nonentity. (It’s an unfortunate feature of Kirby’s books that, in a given group, the woman will usually be the one most devoid of personality and least helpful…though there are a couple of major exceptions, like Barda.) Richard, meanwhile, is the one who starts to maybe get a teensy inkling that possibly, perhaps, the helmeted guy on the flying harness with the futuristic technology isn’t a naval officer.

After skimming across the ocean for a while (shown from above in another very nice panel), Orion finds what Mother Box has been leading him towards: a weirdly shaped wooden boat (actually, it’s more like a raft with a a temple-like cabin built on top) and a human-shaped figure bound in some kind of weird wrappings where the mast would be. Mother Box indicates that it’s alive.

“Well, there’s one way to strip those bonds away!-- Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!!” Are you surprised? This is how Orion solves all his problems.

“Locked myself out of the car again! I’ll handle this Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!” (Melts car with laser blast.)

“My microwave is broken! I’ll handle this Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!” (Chars bagel to a smoking cinder.)

“America has become crippled by political partisanship! I’ll handle this Orion’s way! The way of the Astro-Force!” (Starts randomly shooting people.)

Anyway, the bandages—which turn out to be more of that malevolent mutated kelp Orion encountered a while back—come off, revealing none other than Lightray, who, it turns out, broke his promise to Highfather to join the war against Apokolips. Mere panels later, Orion declares that “Your kind brings an undeserved honor to war!” Well, someone’s honor’s undeserved, anyway. With Orion and Lightray now together, the pompous speechifying picks up. “Now—to see what demon’s swill the Deep Six have served up inside this craft!!” declares Orion, marching inside. Meanwhile, the Sheridan family introduces themselves to Lightray, with Farley making clear his sneering contempt for his son’s non-violent ways. “I’m a conscientious objector!” declares Richard, “I don’t like war, violence, or killing!!” “Is that right?” muses Lightray. Well, I know of a place where everybody’s like that!”

Hmmm…so conscientious objectors are like New Genesisians? That’s actually logical in a way, despite the amount of fighting they do—the idea seems to be that they only go to war when it’s absolutely necessary. Of course, that assumes that the magic wall that tells them what to do is always correct and good and just; somehow I think that a real-world conscientious objector would have a hard time falling into line with that.

Orion calls for Lightray, and they enter the hold to find a big, green, icky creature crouching in the corner, which they dub a “Sender” and an “organic director”. “There’s a mountainous sea beast out there, destroying ships!--And this—this is its brain!!” Um…wouldn’t a better place for its brain be, y’know, in its skull?

“It shouldn’t be destroyed!” reasons Lightray. “It should be changed!! Light! Light!--not to glisten on swordblades!—But light at play with atoms--to make them sing in other ways!!” Are you perhaps getting the sense that Orion and Lightray are allegorical characters?

Lightray transforms the critter into a “living basic life form!!” which apparently means a big cube of jell-o. There’s a lot of technobabble here, but basically they’re going to “imprint it with the image of New Genesis” and cause the leviathan to turn around and head back to the ship. Which it does, accompanied by another of the Deep Six, named Jaffar. Yes, Jaffar. Sadly, he does not own a wisecracking parrot voiced by Gilbert Gottfried. He does, however, have the ability to turn invisible and slip past the beams of light Lightray is sending down to the ocean floor in an effort to spot him. You’d think they’d know that about the guy and thus not waste their time, but…

Back on the boat, Richard is succeeding in pounding it into his dad that they may be just a tad over their heads here. By the way, I love how Orion was just casually going to let them go into battle, despite the fact that they’re regular humans, and thus would presumably be creamed by the forces of Apokolips. Well, he did give them a choice, I suppose. Nevertheless, having seen the “life cube” beginning to grow into a gigantic, bleeping machine, and “with Lynn to consider”, Farley is having second thoughts about staying. So, uh, Farley, you knew there was going to be a fight, and you were willing to risk your daughter, but as soon as weird mechanical cubes get involved, suddenly you’re determined to keep her from harm? You’re kind of a douche, Farley. This is driven home by the fact that, despite his admittance that his son is correct, he’s still getting shots in at him as a coward.

Unfortunately, a clean getaway isn’t in the cards, as Jaffar shows up to menace them. Richard starts calling for them to escape, but Farley is paralyzed with fear (as, I guess, is Lynn, but she’s barely in panel for this sequence). Richard suddenly finds himself galvanized into action and leaps forward into battle, threatening to fight Jaffar to the death to protect his family. But despite his newfound courage, this has about the same result you’d expect, i.e., none at all. Jaffar grabs him and uses his mutating touch to kill Richard by, basically, erasing his face. It’s a pretty damn creepy sequence.

Of course, now Orion shows up. Yeesh. If you knew the guy was going to return to the ship, why didn’t you just stay and protect them? Anyway, he blasts Jaffar off the ship with the Astro-Force, but Jaffar is already gloating that he’s impossible to kill in the water. So what does Orion do? He shoots him over and over again, keeping him in the air each time, until he’s exploded. Ouch.

Orion returns to the ship to find Farley babbling, lost in the delusion that his son has “joined his platoon—on the beach!! Yes--that’s it!!” And Lynn, as usual, just standing around crying. Jeez, why is she even in this story? Orion straps her into his harness and sends her up and away, out of the story to safety, even as her father refuses to leave.

Declaring Richard to be “another faceless hero!” Lightray sets him alongside the machinery in the cabin. Then, as the wind rises ominously and fish are seen streaming past, the remaining Deep Six—the Deep Four, I guess—launch their attack. The remaining Deeps are Shaligo, “the flying finback”, Trok, who has a whirling axe on a whip, Gole, who…has no special powers that I can see, and Pyron, who flies the manta ship with its flamethrowers. You wouldn’t think flamethrowers would be a huge benefit underwater, but they turn out to be useful when Orion repels the attack and Pyron sets fire to the boat.

Orion seeks to get away, but Lightray has apparently gone insane. First, he’s tied Farley to the mast (!). Then he draws Orion into the cabin, where Richard’s face has been restored—whatever—and their weapon has taken shape, even as the Leviathan and the manta-ship bear down on them.

From all accounts, Kirby claimed the next two pages to be the best things he ever did. On one side: the Deep Four, zipping alongside the vast pink monster as it rears out of the water. On the other, a bizarre missile formed from the techno-active cube, with Richard’s body lying pread-eagled on top, Lightray standing right at the tip, and Orion clinging onto the side, brandishing his fist at their oncoming foe.

It’s pretty awesome.

The two forces meet and explode, but of course Lightray is able to pull Orion from the point of contact at, y’know, lightspeed. We’re left with the image of Farley—who we’re hastily told was “backlashed far from the flaming area!!” left floating, adrift at sea, alone with his guilt that his supposedly cowardly son was able to fight when he couldn’t. (A tiny ship, visible on the horizon headed towards him, obviously implies that he’ll be rescued.)

As we’ve seen, of course, the Fourth World is full of this kind of tension, between the old and the young, between violence and non-violence, but here we have probably the purest expression of it. Kirby, as we all know, was a WWII vet himself, but he also seemed to have a lot of affection for the hippie types that presumably made up a chunk of his audience…and here we see the two types coming into conflict. The fact that the young pacifist seems to be proven to be in the right--though maybe not in a way that a real pacifist would agree with—is interesting; the point seems to be that, when the chips are down, Fairley, the war vet, is frozen in panic, whereas the pacifist leaps into the fight heroically.

This is a bit confusing. If we're meant to find irony in the fact that the two men act differently from how they behave, that's problematic because it sort of implies negative things about pacifism. That clearly wasn't Kirby's intent, and indeed, Richard is clearly the more likeable character both before AND after the battle begins and his true colours are shown, to the point where it seems like Kirby's almost pandering a little. But then, the point is apparently to praise people who "speak softly and carry a big stick". In fact, there's a fairly subtle and crucial point here being made about pacifism: it's not about cowardice or suicidal nonviolence, it's about keeping violence at a distance unless absolutely necessary, and not using it as a rhetorical club.

One thing's for sure, it's interesting that Kirby is so willing to write off the WWII vet while showing the representative of the younger generation in a more positive light. This is a theme the Fourth World comes back to again and again, a reverent awe for the flower power generation, which carries a lot more weight coming from someone who wasn't actually part of that generation. It's perhaps not hard to see how the Baby Boomers ended up with such high opinions of themselves.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mirror, Mask

There’s a phenomenon I’ve been fascinated with ever since I first had it elucidated for me in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”. McCloud calls it “the masking effect”.

Basically, cartoons can achieve a kind of universality that isn’t directly available to any other medium, through their sheer simplicity. We’re visual creatures, and to us the world outside is a rich, textured environment, and the people we deal with every day are distinguished via the details that we slowly become familiar with. Other people are something we observe, and take on an elaborate shape in our minds. But, McCloud says, most of us aren’t nearly as familiar with our own face, because we only see it comparatively rarely. To us, on the other side of the mask, our face exists more as a concept, or a series of non-visual sensations. We imagine the basic placement of eyes, mouth, nose, but we don’t connect it in a concrete way with how we look at any given moment. We don’t picture our freckles or pores or the spot we missed shaving, whereas to anyone encountering us these are prominent features. Everyone else is part of the physical architecture, but we exist to ourselves in an almost Platonic, semi-abstract state.

In other words, a simple, undetailed cartoon rendering of a face is a reasonably close approximation of how we see ourselves, and for this reason, McCloud argues, we’re far more likely to project ourselves onto it. The more details you add, the more potential there becomes for the image to break with how you see yourselves, and the more layers of potential detachment you’ve now added to the character. A smiley face could be literally anyone, of any race, age, gender. A detailed drawing of, say, Wonder Woman is a specific person, one with whom you’re likely to have certain differences.

Obviously that doesn’t mean you can’t relate to, or like, a detailed character; it’s just that that, unless you’re a statuesque Amazon brunette, that lavishly rendered Wonder Woman is someone else. The smiley face is YOU.

Of course books take you even more deeply into the character’s heads, but in the kind of story in which we can actually SEE our protagonist, only cartooning really allows for this “pure” a level of projection. But of course this whole principle exists along a continuum: a character played by an actor, for instance, presents us with a specific person, who, by definition, isn’t “us”. However, if the actor is a white male, it’s statistically more likely (in North America) that we’ll be able to project ourselves onto that character than if the actor is a black woman, for instance.

Yes, this is a ludicrous oversimplification that completely discounts the ability of humans to feel empathy for someone different. This is actually part of what I want to talk about. But for now, as relates to the “masking” effect, the idea is that the more universal the character, the more heightened the ability one has to project yourself onto them. Once you cast an actor to play your character, you’re limiting the ability of some of your audience to literally see themselves in their shoes in this way, but you can still trend towards the most “universal” type of look, be it in terms of race, gender (you’ve instantly got to discount 50% of the population there, no matter which way you go!), age, height, weight, etc. etc. etc.

And yeah, I think you may be getting an inkling of why this is a problem.

This goes beyond visuals; the same principle holds true of basic narrative, too. Consider this guy:

We’ve all heard more than we ever needed to about the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Monomyth” and all of Joseph Campbell’s theories in relation to Star Wars—which has, of course, become the template for much of pop culture. Well, what is “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” but a narrative application of the masking effect? Luke Skywalker’s a bland character—that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. He’s supposed to be a stand-in for the viewer, an empty vessel you can pour yourself into for a purer experience in narrative immersion.

Han Solo? There’s a character. He’s a specific person. Because of that, he works on a different level of narrative immersion—the kind that was more common before Star Wars came along. Because of course we want to be Han Solo. Why wouldn’t you? He’s awesome! He’s a badass smuggler who quips and flies a cool spaceship and gets the girl. Luke may have the awesome laser sword, but I’m guessing more little boys pretended to be Han.

So that blows my “masking” theory to shreds, right?

Not really. It’s just that Han represents a different philosophy of storytelling than Luke does. And here’s where we start getting to the root of an issue I have with modern pop culture wizards (because you knew I was going there eventually, right?)

Movies, in the olden days, strove more for Han-style characters. It’s not that there weren’t bland leads—Lord, were there ever!—but for the most part I don’t think they were trying for that. The idea was generally to produce textured characters who felt like real, which is to say, specific people. I do think there was some understanding of the masking effect, though it may have been rooted more in cultural concerns—of course the hero is going to be a square-jawed white guy—or marketing ones (as with the sudden shift to teenage heroes in the postwar years as they became a lucrative market). The idea of appealing to as broad a part of the population as possible isn’t some revelation, and “viewer insert” characters.

But there was something else at work: movies knew they set the trends for culture, and that people would look up to them to a certain extent. The people who made movies knew that if they could make X look cool, people would flock to X. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t an everyman. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t an everywoman. They were who they were, and people tried to be like them. Not vice versa. The movies, and thus pop culture, were dominated by the Han Solos.

This is one of many things Star Wars changed when everyone decided it was going to be the new bedrock for genre storytelling. The use of the masking effect was one of George Lucas’s triumphs, and it’s probably the single greatest reason that Star Wars was glommed onto as a formula—it (supposedly) provides a quick, easy way to make sure your audience of desirably young and cash-flush nerds can instantly relate to and love your story. Make your lead a bland everyman, and the viewer will fill in the blank themselves—with themselves. This is why, for instance, Harry Potter is such a blank slate, while his friends and teachers and enemies are so much more vivid characters. It’s why so many movies about other cultures are seen through the eyes of a white American, a la “Dances With Wolves”. And it’s why Hollywood is stocked full of blandly pretty leading men and women.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve gone from implicitly praising the masking effect to condemning it. In truth, the masking effect can be employed in far more sophisticated and complex ways. It’s shorthand, a nifty technique that can be laudable in the right hands. There’s nothing wrong with using a viewer insertion character to ease us into a strange world, for instance. But like so many useful artistic techniques, Hollywood has tried to reduce it to a formula, a crutch, or just an excuse to deliver vapid, bland characters. Perhaps more destructively, it’s led to a pop culture where so many protagonists are white heterosexual males in their late teens-early 30s without a distinctive job or any particularly strong beliefs, cultural background, or engagement in the world.

Because the problem is that we still crave Han Solos. Sure, we like being fooled into projecting ourselves into the role of a hero. But we can only be met halfway on this. On some level, when we read or watch stories, we’re looking for role models and aspirational figures. We need someone to admire. The masking effect essentially turns protagonists into mirrors—and thus, we’re constantly being told that we’re the heroes, if just for one day. (Not a coincidence that there are quote marks around that title!) As flattering as that may be, at the end of the day it becomes hollow, a deification of emptiness. If you keep portraying heroes who aren’t fully realized, who stumble through the world without viewpoints or ideas, who are only there to have things happen to them—then that’s the kind of figure people will start emulating.

But then, maybe that’s for the best. Those are exactly the kind of people who are easiest to sell movie tickets to. And everything else.

(I’ll have more to say on this subject after the holidays. Can you stand the suspense?!?)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Fourth World Fridays: The Forever People #6--"The Omega Effect!"

The Forever People is becoming quite the saga at this point—it’s the closest of the Fourth World books to the formula Marvel had evolved at that point, of endless, ongoing plot threads that weave in and out of an interconnected narrative. We’re now on our fourth issue that comes in sequence, and this is only made more explicit by the return of Glorious Godfrey and his Justifiers, who as you may recall were instrumental in the capture of the Forever People at the end of issue #3. The FP’s had left their vehicle, the Super-Cycle, on the cliff’s above Godfrey’s revival tent, and now a swarm of Justifiers in goofy flying shoes come across it and attempt to destroy it .

However, as the captions tell us…“On New Genesis, the creed is “life!” Programmed to ward off “death”, the “Super-cycle” defends itself!!!” Kirby, it seems, enjoyed using “quotation marks” for “no reason”.

The Super-cycle does an Optimus Prime bit and morphs into a high-tech self-defending fortress with, as far as I can make out, a radar dish made out of one of the wheels, and a laser gun formed from the chrome headers:

It incapacitates the patrol and earns the ire of Godfrey, who then sends an entire legion of new recruits to take the thing on (I couldn’t help chuckling—and thinking of Anakin Skywalker—as the recruits scream “YAHOOO!!!” with childlike glee on being sent out as cannon fodder.) “What’s the secret, Godfrey?” Asks his bespectacled sidekick. “The helmet? The uniform? The creed??” “Earthmen are given all those things at birth!!” beams Godfrey. “I merely justify their readiness to use them!!” Hey! I wasn’t issued a helmet and uniform at birth! Ripoff!!

Anyway, back to the FPs themselves. As you may recall, in the last few issues the Forever People were captured by Darkseid and held captive in Desaad’s torture palace/amusement park, Happyland, until their Mother Box escaped and found a warrior named Sonny Sumo who came and rescued them. Sonny also turned out to possess the power of the Anti-Life Equation which, when used in conjunction with the Mother Box, could be used to destroy free will, and Sonny is currently using it over the park’s loudspeaker to get the guards to surrender and release the prisoners.

Last time I mentioned that it was a little creepy to see the good guys wielding such a nasty power, and in this issue there’s at least some brief discussion of the morality of this. Obviously I can’t really blame them for making use of this ability when thrust into such a tight spot, but Beautiful Dreamer still comments on how “horrible” it is. Mark Moonrider says that, “as wielder of the power, Sonny Sumo is even greater than Darkseid himself!!” which seems like something you might not want to advertise. I mean, what if Sonny decides he likes using this power so much that he’s not going to give it up? It’s a lucky thing he’s shown himself to be such a noble warrior with a great moral code and all that. Also, what would happen if Sonny was to encounter Darkseid himself and start ordering *him* around?

It’s hard not to be a little frustrated here, since Kirby was trying to make a profound comic in some ways, that he pretty much ditched all these questions as soon as they come up. I guess that, for Kirby, when the urge to make a comic that “said something” conflicted with the urge to make a crazy explosive punch-up, the latter won out. It pretty much gets to the root of what I was saying earlier, about superhero comics being somewhat limited in their addressing of more subtle or complex topics due to their insistence on good guys and bad guys. Oh well.

Moonrider blasts a few bits of machinery, starting a chain reaction that causes Happyland to destroy itself. The prisoners crawl to safety, and the police arrive to arrest the meekly compliant guards (though, somehow, the Justifiers get away in their boxy shuttlecraft). Or, at least, most of them do—Big Bear manages to grab hold of one of them as he’s leaving and starts clowning around with it, thus providing this issue’s requisite Big Bear is Awesome moment:

JUSTIFIER: Mad-dog hippie!! You’re holding back this tonnage with your bare hands!!...
BIG BEAR: My stars, sir!! Can it be that high density atoms flow through, and reinforce my own atomic structure?
JUSTIFIER: You moving mattress!! You’re from New Genesis!!
(He shoots at Big Bear, grazing his skull. Big Bear makes a goofy face.)
BIG BEAR: Oops!! Well, Big Bear is my name, sir! – and power is my game!! That’s my bag, sir!! I store an excess of free atoms and send them where they’re needed!! Here, perhaps!!!

Then he hits the bottom of the shuttle and sends the Justifier flying, cartoon-like, out of frame.

(If they ever make a movie of the Fourth World, Big Bear will have to be played by a young version of Brian Blessed. Or possibly Jonathan Rhys-Davies.)

More Justifiers streak in and start firing before being put to sleep by Sonny’s voice power. “I’m glad you stopped this, Sonny!” proclaims Beautiful Dreamer. “Big Bear could have hurt these men!!” Sonny expresses confusion: “But I thought I was saving him!!” Like Big Bear ever needs saving, Sonny. He’s mostly just ticked off about “getting involved in all kinds of violence!!”

Off in the corner, Darkseid and Desaad are having a petty and slightly pathetic blame-fest of a conversation, in which Desaad whinges and Darkseid verbally lambastes him. “Don’t think I shall overlook your cowardice!! Then, all tormentors are notorious for this trait!!” As Desaad points out that there’s not much he can do against the Anti-Life Equation, Darkseid responds with, “Boldness, Desaad! Risk!! The raw meat of existence!!! I shall strike with these!!...And the Omega Effect!!!” Yeah, that’s right, Darkseid, castigate him for not taking risks, then whip out this heretofore-unseen superpower of yours that will let you destroy them all by remote control, without even leaving the room. That’s risk for you. Douchebag.

Darkseid proceeds to generate “finder beams” that shoot out of his eyes and start swooping around in vast curlicues. They don’t have far to look at first: Vykin the Black, hotheaded as always, has decided to barge in and confront Darkseid alone. This is really, really stupid, as, in traditional horror-movie fashion, the black guy dies first. Or gets eradicated from existence first. Yes, the Omega Effect is “The end—the total wipe-out!”, and now it’s streaking around, seeking the FPs.

Mark yells at Sonny to use the Mother Box to protect them, but Sonny and Mother Box are the next ones to go. One by one the FPs are annhiliated by the beams—Moonrider tells the remaining FPs to split up, but oddly, Beautiful Dreamer declares that she won’t leave him, and they go “foom” together. (That’s a little strange—there’d been a vague assumption on my part that Mark and Dreamer are lovers, but this is the closest thing we get to confirmation. And even this is a little vague, to say the least.)

The only one left is Serifan, who immediately breaks down sobbing and attempts to move into the path of the beam to end it all. What a wuss. Unfortunately for him (?) Darkseid turns off the finder beams, having lost interest in killing them all now that “the threat to us—has passed!!” Desaaad screams at him “You would leave such a dramatic experience incomplete? No, sire, no!” But Darkseid slaps him away. The kicker is that I would have bought it much more easily if he’d simply said that he wanted to keep Serifan alive and tormented by the knowledge that he’d failed—I mean, I agree Serifan doesn’t seem like much of a threat—but Darkseid explicitly says that he “doesn’t have the stomach” for Desaad’s sadism. So he’s decided to act like an idiot instead?

It gets even worse: Darkseid suddenly confesses that he didn’t actually destroy the Forever People: he just removed them from existence…in the present. OK, this makes no sense. It’s the height of convenient “villain leaves the room” behaviour that assures these guys will always be defeated. And besides, he just teleported the guy with the Anti-Life Equation—you know, the thing he’s utterly fixated on finding?—completely beyond his own reach. Smooth, Darkseid!

Serifan pulls himself together for the nonce, piles into the Justifier’s shuttle which Big Bear captured and uses it to head back to the super-cycle. Unfortunately, he manages to arrive just as the Justifiers from before launch their attack on it. (Wait—it took them all day to climb the cliffs?) Anyway, we’re now To Be Continued once more…

But wait! There’s a double-dose of Big Bear awesomeness in this issue, with a short back-up feature about he and Serifan fighting off an Apokoliptish patrol back in the days before the two planets openly went to war. Well, actually, it’s about Big Bear fighting them off, and Serifan whining and almost getting killed. My favourite moment is when Serifan glimpses the gigantic cannon the intruders plan to use to bring down Supertown: “It’s a horribly ugly pollutant!” Um, and it’s also about to wreck your home, Serifan. I’m concerned about the environment too, but geez. Meanwhile, Big Bear shows up carrying a huge log, gets shot at, declares “You’ve destroyed my exercise!” and proceeds to trash the invaders. Both of these guys are delusional and self-absorbed, but only one of them is AWESOME. Guess which.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Comics Quickies: Saga

I'm strangely conflicted about Brian K. Vaughn as a writer. It's not that I don't like his comics; indeed, his work is usually a must-buy for me. But as much as I enjoy his stuff while I'm reading it, in the days afterwards there's always a cascade of "refrigerator moments" where the narrative logic starts to fray, or I start to find some of his narrative cutesiness and SHOCKING TWISTS annoying or cheap in retrospect. But the biggest criticism I have of him is that he's one of these guys who feels like he'd rather be writing for TV or movies--indeed, Vaughn wrote multiple episodes of LOST--and this sensibility mars his comics somewhat. As propulsive and page-turning as they are, the pacing and structure is pure TV, with little attempt to make use of the medium of comics. Even the visuals in his comics tend to be pretty low-key and mundane, relying heavily on naturalism, real-world reference, and the "acting" of his characters. To his credit, he almost always pulls this off, which is a testament to the quality of the artists he's worked with as much as his writing, but it's disappointing to see his focus lie so far from the kind of stuff comics can achieve.

Which is what's refreshing about Saga. This new epic SF/fantasy hybrid comic sees Vaughn stepping well outside his comfort zone, tackling more grandiose and comic-y subject matter, and even starting to take advantage of the visual possibilities of the medium in a way he generally doesn't. Some of the credit here must surely go to his artist, Fiona Staples, whose style is looser and more expressionistic than Y: The Last Man's Pia Guerra or Ex Machina's Tony Harris, but there's an overall feeling that Vaughn is stretching himself, too, creating narrative captions that are scrawled diagrammatically across the panels, robots who communicate their inner thoughts by flashing pictures on their TV-screen heads, and an unrelentingly fantastical universe full of weird imagery.

Though set against the backdrop of an intergalactic war and filled with pulp SF tropes like spaceships, robots, bounty hunters and pleasure planets, Saga is really a fantasy story in the sprawling, multi-book mode we're all familiar with. It opens with the narrator's birth, which makes it safe to assume that events will be playing out over an extensive period of time, and possibly spanning multiple generations, as the title would suggest. For now, the focus is on Marko, a horned magic-user, and Alana, a winged high-tech warrior, whose planets are at brutal, unending war. The two have defied their respective governments by falling in love, marrying, and producing a child, and now they're on the run across the planet, and eventually the galaxy, pursued by bounty hunters and a member of a strange, as-yet-unexplained robot royal family. The world Vaughn creates is rich and detailed and full of imagination, setting a grand stage for years of adventures to come, and his characterizations are more heartfelt than usual (though Alana can sometimes fall into the reflexive, hipper-than-thou posturing a lot of Vaughn's characters are guilty of). Vaughn has, ironically, stretched himself by embracing what could be considered a more traditional "comic book world", and the results are quite appealling. While the cynic in me is positive Saga will eventually fall prey to the slightly rushed and credibility-straining plotting that dogged Y and Ex Machina (though admittedly it never completely derailed either of those series), for now, Saga is another typically strong start for Vaughn, and an interesting promise of something different than what he usually offers.