Comics, Part 1: Not The Superhero Comics

In between my Read More Novels kick I’ve been keeping up with all manner of graphic novels / trade paperback comics collections.

For people who don’t read comics, it’s nearly incomprehensible why any adult would want to do such a thing, I know. For me the fusion between words and pictures is a sublime thing, in the same way that a pop song is neither music nor a poem, but a unique combination of the two. It can be rubbish, but when it’s written and drawn well, it can be Art.

My tastes are generally skewed away from superhero stuff, and I tend to follow writers rather than artists. DC’s much-touted Vertigo range has housed some of the finest mature-readers comics ever written, including The Sandman, but it’s also sometimes guilty of being weird for weird’s sake, and its recent output often seems overly-familiar; like endless riffs on past successes. Nonetheless when it’s good it’s a haven for non-superhero comics, so I decided to pick up a few of their ongoing series.

Human Target, Volume 2: Living in Amerika
By Peter Milligan and Cliff Chiang

I was a big fan of Peter Milligan’s old Shade: The Changing Man series, before it went off the rails towards the end. Here he uses the same trick of rescuing a traditional DC character from oblivion and spinning him off in entirely non-traditional directions. The Human Target, Christopher Chase, is a forty-something man who imitates other people when their lives are under threat, using uncanny Mission Impossible style latex masks. So far, so pulp-fiction. The twist is that Chase is so good at his job he literally “becomes” the person he imitates psychologically, often to the point of forgetting who he really is. Chase is a hollow man, mentally scarred, bereft of his own identity, unable to even function sexually as himself. It’s this psychological complexity which makes the series utterly compelling, and very unpredictable.

Milligan first tackled the character in two standalone collections: Human Target (illustrated by the late Edvin Buiukovic) and Human Target: Final Cut, both of which are superb. The ongoing series (recently cancelled) has spawned two collections to date, which are a bit more traditional than the standalone books, but still edgy, unusual stuff. The art throughout recalls the broad strokes of pulp comics, with all the dynamism the premise demands, but also the subtlety to cope with the psychological dimension. Probably the best comic I’m reading, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Fables, Volume 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers
By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham and others

The premise of Fables is that characters from fairy tales such as Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf have fled their homeland after an invasion and are living secretly in modern day America. The ones who can’t pass for human are consigned to a farm, resulting in myriad tensions amongst the Fable community.

I was less-than-wowed by Volume One, which is structured as a murder mystery: both the writing and the art feel extremely self-conscious, stiff and mannered, with characters continually Explaining Things to one another. The setting, while interesting, does resemble parts of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman or American Gods.

Nonetheless, I stuck with it, and the second volume, Animal Farm, is a huge improvement, not least because of Mark Buckingham’s arrival as artist. The execution is much less twee than you might expect from the premise – for example in volume two Goldilocks turns out to be a murderous communist agitator, and there are clever political and social parallels drawn throughout. I still feel that Willingham is over-rated as a writer – his tone is often smug and his dialogue leaden with exposition – but by Volume Four he’s developed a lightness of touch that was missing at the start. The characters have real depth, and the plot is becoming increasingly dark and twisty, leading to all-out war. Enjoyable.

Y: The Last Man, Volumes 1 & 2
By Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra

In Y, an as-yet-undisclosed macguffin instantly wipes out every male on the planet, bar two: our hero Yorick, and his pet monkey. It might sound like the opening of a tacky sex fantasy, but it’s also a classic SF apocalyptic “what if” premise, as society is thrown into disarray. It’s the perfect jumping-off point to tackle many issues: primarily gender roles and attitudes.

I’m a latecomer to this series, which is one of the few genuinely SF comics I’ve ever encountered. I ploughed through Volumes 1 and 2 in short order, which is a testament to their cinematic style of storytelling. It’s also potentially a weakness, since this series is a very easy read. Nonetheless, the comic easily rises above its pulpy premise, and tackles some surprisingly prickly ideas, including a cult of latter-day “Amazons” who see the apocalypse as a righteous punishment directed at abusive men. I can’t say there’s a great deal of complex analysis going on here, but the ideas are in themselves provocative and interesting. This is a series with lots of potential.

The vast majority of the characters are by necessity women, and they’re largely complex, well-drawn individuals, ranging from secret agents to criminals to scientists to politicians to bikers. Yorick is far from an everyman – at times he’s a bit of an idiot – but he’s close enough to act as one while being an interesting character in his own right. Like the comic, Pia Guerra’s drawing style is deceptively simple, but reveals a lot of interesting human drama.

Lucifer: Volume 6: Mansions of the Silences
By Mike Carey, Peter Gross and various

Lucifer is a spin-off from The Sandman, focussing on the machinations of the former Angel and retired ruler of Hell. Given the complete lack of inspiration found in previous Sandman spin-offs I’ve read, notably The Dreaming, I initially steered clear of this one. However, it’s by far the closest thing to The Sandman that Vertigo has yet produced, and I mean that as praise.

Mike Carey has borrowed wholesale Gaiman’s structure of long story arcs punctuated by standalone short stories. But rather than the dreaded one-note side-story to The Sandman where nothing can ever really change, he’s created a genuinely epic series with mythological complexity, a large supporting cast, and massive changes to the status quo. Like the Sandman, Lucifer is pivotal to the plot, but not always central to the action. We’ve seen entire new universes created, wars with angels, deaths, curses… you name it. The art duties alternate between Peter Gross’s traditional art and Dean Ormston’s far darker, stranger material. Unusually the series has kept the same artists consistently throughout, with Ormston either tackling the short stories, or one particular strand of an ongoing plot. It’s a very successful approach, and consistency in both writing and art is impressive.

If I have a criticism it’s that it does remind me of the ongoing Books of Magic at times, especially given Gross’s art and the sometime focus on a fated young schoolgirl. Mostly this series is its own creature, though, and all the stronger for it.

Global Frequency, Volume 2: Detonation Radio
By Warren Ellis and loads of artists

Not a Vertigo comic this, though it would sit within the imprint well enough. I’m not really familiar with Ellis’ other work, including his well known Transmetropolitan epic series. Global Frequency concerns an international rescue operation whose structure more closely resembles a series of terrorist cells than a traditional organisation. Its members are loners recruited from all walks of life, in all parts of the globe, who act as sleeper agents, becoming activated when they get the call. It’s pacey, cinematic and clever. Each issue is a standalone crisis, with a different artist and tone, usually centred around a high-concept SF idea, and often with a ticking clock of an hour or less. Sometimes the solution is ingenious, at other times it involves gratuitous amounts of violence, or some combination of the two.

And this is my problem with Volume 2. Volume 1 featured a range of extremely varied, extremely quirky situations ranging from psychological terror, to action, to hard SF. It felt inventive and fresh, and the nastiness was balanced by the ideas. In contrast Volume 2 is shorter on ideas, and amps up the violence to implausible levels. One issue is just a prolonged one-on-one fight of a kind that makes the fist fight in They Live look positive snappy, and the art makes it extremely hard to tell the two combatants apart. It’s still enjoyable, but by the end of the collection the series is definitely wearing thin.

(I hope the TV show finds a home, though, as the premise is nifty.)

I do still dabble in the odd superhero when it involves a favourite writer (yes, Mr Whedon, I’m looking at you), but I think I’ll leave my eccentric collection of superhero comics until another day…

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