Monthly Archives: March 2014
Hey, Extremites, thanks for sticking around and sharing your ideas.
We are looking for guest bloggers, or contributors, on fan topics. Do you write or write about comics? Do you write about geek stuff? Star Warsian? Whovian? Tolkienist? Martinite? Lewisite? Potterite? Whatever else? Do you want your ideas to be seen by tons of people and discussed in an informed way? Do you want be one of the masters of Extremis?
Then pop in a writing sample to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are looking for new fan writers who have a scholarly eye and a geeky tongue.
As always we want you to join in! Come be a writer here.
My best, Julian Munds.
They look just like us. They eat with us, sleep next to us, wear the same clothes and watch the same movies. They live just beneath our notice, masters of infiltration and secrecy. If we are the sheep, they are the wolves in wooly clothing. We see them, but we know not who or what they are.
And behind their masks, they thrive.
They are lawyers, politicians, law enforcement, journalists, stock brokers, business tycoons, porn kings, drug dealers and weapons manufacturers. They smile and laugh like we do, but behind their eyes is a darkness we don’t share, a callous disregard for their fellow man that is as antithetic to us as our empathy and affection is to them.
We have a word for them now. We call them psychopaths, and as far as the world would have us believe, they are a fairly new phenomenon – but truthfully, they have been with us since the beginning. Warlords, inquisitors, conquerors and slavers have traded their swords and whips for power suits, batons and smartphones, but their urges are no less sadistic. They see themselves as the heroes of their own story, and we, the weak, are merely expendable extras.
The truly sad part of it all is that they are not to blame. If modern psychology can be trusted, the existence of psychopaths is as much a result of nature as it is of nurture. In fact, the difference between the two – genetic predisposition as opposed to environmental and social influence – now have their own definitions. Those considered to be “natural” are called psychopaths, while those created through traumatic life experience are known as sociopaths.
In essence, the two terms are deviations of the same subject. Whether psycho or socio, both are manifestations of that which we call evil.
You remember evil. I mentioned it once or twice in my last piece, mostly in regards to how it has become such a frequent theme in recent years. I won’t deny that it has always been a theme – perhaps the theme – of our art and literature, but until now it has been largely portrayed in a fashion that leaves us out of the equation. Evil has been personified in a myriad of forms, from Shelley’s Frankenstein monster to Stoker’s Dracula to Conan Doyle‘s Mr. Hyde.
And there is, of course, Shiva, Loki, and Satan of ancient lore, embodiments of those things which we fear or hate within us – but within us they remain, regardless of our constant externalization.
But when we talk about psychopathy, we are not strictly talking about esoteric topics such as morality. We are talking about the human mind; in particular, a small percentage of men and women who have a difficulty interpreting emotion.
Current research suggests that the difference between a psychopath and a so-called “normal” person is that a psychopath does not feel. They act, they comprehend, they observe our mannerisms and study our habits, they can even mimic us so perfectly that we are unaware of them; but they do not understand us – any more than we understand them.
It’s more like Jekyll and Hyde than Doyle even realized.
But can we say definitively that either we or the psychopaths are “correct”, or “healthy”?
Can it be as simple as black and white? Is it ever that simple?
I understand that this is likely not going to be a well-received idea, but I believe that historically, we are very proficient at pointing at things we don’t understand and calling them evil – race, gender, belief systems, sexual orientation, the list goes on. Most of these moral arguments are still going on today, even in the societies that we consider the most progressive and open-minded.
If this says anything to me, it’s that we have a long way to go before we’ve redeemed ourselves for our transgressions.
And it’s this idea of redemption, the concept that we must atone for our sins, that makes my question all the more poignant. I don’t think any of us can argue that murder is evil, and mass murder more so, but does that only pertain to human life? What of the millions of animals slaughtered every day to feed us? What of the terrible conditions they’re forced to live in – conditions that, if the creatures stuck in them could speak our language and use our mannerisms, we would call criminal. Is this sort of daily massacre that we all tolerate something that deserves redemption, or is it simply “normal”?
This isn’t a vegetarian rant, don’t worry. I’m simply using this as a comparison. We look at Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, and John Wayne Gacy with disgust and revulsion, but the simple fact is that they don’t relate to us any more than we relate to the goat or the sheep. What we find disgusting is that they do it to us, not that they do it at all.
Face it: as much as it may be hard to admit, if Gacy had relegated his sadistic urges to birds and insects, we might not have hung out with the guy, but he’d still be in society. And for me, that says something very important about the so-called “healthy” members of our species.
The great thinker J. Krishnamurta once said: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Take a look around folks. Do we look that healthy to you?
Now, with all that said, I’m not defending serial killers, and I’m definitely not suggesting that they’re blameless. What I’m saying is that by separating ourselves from them, by treating them as aberrations and monsters, we’re only fueling the dark flame that burns within them. I’m not a psychologist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know people (it’s kinda my thing), and I don’t think anyone does anything unless they either want to or they feel that they have to. And when people with the need to fill an emotional void with progressively more dangerous and terrible acts feel like they have to hide who they are, it simply makes it harder to find them – and easier for them to justify their sickness. Their isolation feeds the beast, and all of us suffer as a result.
If we want to truly call ourselves open-minded, we have to try and do what these psychopaths can’t seem to do themselves. We have to try to understand them, because by doing that, we will also understand ourselves. As previously stated, this evil is not outside our doors — it’s right there inside us.
Always has been, always will be.
But how do we reach out to this evil without somehow inviting ourselves to become a part of it? How can we have a conversation with the darkness – and more importantly, what would it have to say?
Well, folks, there is now A Voice In The Dark, and it is more authentic, eloquent, and self-reflective than I could have imagined.
The author of this brilliant, if a little less visually-stimulating, comic is Larime Taylor – and let me tell you, this guy is probably the most remarkable comic creator I’ve ever had the pleasure to write about.
No offense … umm, everyone else.
Seriously, though, this man’s story is almost as good as his comic – and that’s saying a fair amount.
Larime was born with a very rare congenital disease called arthrogryposis, and it’s no picnic: basically, Mr. Taylor is bound to a wheelchair, unable to properly (if at all) use his limbs. He lives on social security (which is a pittance if you’ve ever looked it up) and spends his time writing and drawing.
“Wait a tick,” I know you’re asking. “How does a dude with no use of his arms write and draw a comic?”
That’s the trick, folks – the entire comic is written, drawn, and lettered with his mouth.
Yes, that same thing that’s hanging open right now on your face is the primary tool used in Larime’s work.
So what does this mean for the art? It means that considering the guy draws with his cake hole, it’s a fucking masterpiece. It’s definitely not Jim Lee, but damned if Lee could do a better job with no hands. Frankly, there are some comics I’ve discussed before that rely on the art to make them worth reading – Prophet, Manhattan Projects, and Fatale to name a few. This, however, is not one of them. In this case, the pictures are nothing more than a visual aid – it’s the story that makes this book stand out.
So what is A Voice In The Dark all about?
Teenager Zoey Aarons tells us right away that she’s just a normal kid – good parents, nice school, solid upbringing, no serious trauma. But there has always been this darkness inside her, a part of her that is simultaneously thrilling and frightening.
She has already indulged it once in recent months, but the feeling persists. Even though she counts the days since her last kill, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she loses control again.
But she believes she’s found a way to cope – now in the first few months of college, she has spearheaded a radio show on a local college station: it’s a show where the troubled, sexually-frustrated teenagers of the town can call in and talk about their darkest fears and urges. For the town’s youthful residents, it becomes a place of refuge, where they can go to be heard and given some strong, helpful advice from a peer.
For Zoey, it’s a confessional; a place where she can be reminded that she’s not alone. And for a few hours a week in the dark silence of the sound booth , she can let her dark side out, give it a chance to connect with kindred spirits without it resulting in a body count.
But all is not as it seems in her new town, a place appropriately known as Cutter’s Circle. It appears that the bustling, somewhat gentrified community has a tumultuous past – and a daunting present. Even as Zoey takes steps to keep her urges at bay, another is indulging them on the wealthy, pretty girls of Zoey’s college campus. And when one killer is on the loose, others invariably get pulled into their orbit, as our protagonist quickly discovers.
That, for all intents and purposes, is the pared-down story thus far. There’s a lot I’m leaving for you to discover, but let me just say that the hole goes deeper and I’m sure we haven’t seen the bottom yet – after all, it’s only six issues in.
However, there is a small problem. You see, there’s a reason why every article I’ve written has been about comics that no one talks about. Honestly, independent creators like Larime Taylor are not wealthy. In fact, this comic is in serious danger of being scrapped if it doesn’t get more attention.
The issue here isn’t a lack of praise or limited availability – it’s that no one talks about comics like A Voice In The Dark. And we should, because as much as I hate to admit it, we don’t need any more Wolverines or Supermen. What we need is fresh, new stories without six decades worth of convoluted story dragging along behind it.
It’s easy to make a beautiful, colourful and ultraviolent comic book with millions of dollars to back it up like the big dogs do it. Guys like Larime are doing it on $750 a month. Just think what he could do with a little more cash in his pocket — I mean, the guy creates a brilliant, well-developed comic book every month, and he does it without PR teams, syndicated television shows, and business deals with Disney.
Shit, he does it without hands.
So if you really love comics – not characters or superhero teams, but comics as a literary art form – then please, tell your friends, tweet this review, and buy an issue or two. If your local comic store doesn’t have any copies, you can purchase them online from the Image website.
For the future of independent comics, leave DC and Marvel on the shelf and put your money where Larime’s mouth is.
Until next time.
Decoding DC – Part 9
Extremites, sex is a fun thing.
It is also a tough topic to talk about. There’s all sorts of reasons for this. From its political and religious importance— and sometimes derision — to its dark side: rape and exploitation. From a literary perspective, sex is a massive subject to cover.
Up until this issue, in Jonah Hex, sex has been mentioned only through derogatory comments and aspersions. It’s always present but never depicted.
According to American rating systems, sex is more offensive than extreme violence. Despite the possible ratings implications however; Joe R. Lansdale, Sam Glanzman and Tim Truman have seen fit to have Jonah Hex involved in a sexual encounter. This encounter is a wonderful and detailed scene.
In one of my past reviews, I mentioned a women named Brunnhilde that is a member of the Graves culture tribe. I mentioned her poor creation. I stick by that, but I want you to note that my opinion has eased somewhat. It’s clear that she is very important.
In the misogynistic and brutal world of Jonah Hex, women are out of place. In Joe R. Lansdale’s comment that he left on Decoding DC Part 7 he mentioned how he, and the other creatives, were parodying the brutality of the world. That is clear. We can agree on that.
In this brutal world it is important that the transgressors are male. The few female characters are either angry murderous grotesque monsters, that evoke memories of debased freaks in Victorian gothic, or they are the few, what I’ll call, ‘untouched’ women who serve as beacons of a better and brighter world.
Hildy is short, stocky, and looks like Monica Lewinsky. In some other comic she might be relegated to the sidelines, but here she figures as Jonah’s main love interest.
Hildy breaks the mould of traditional female secondary characters. She is smart, of the world, and adept at gunplay. She, however, does become the mould when she, without much provocation, falls into the arms of Hex.
Sex is not an act of love in Jonah’s world. It is an act of release. This viewpoint is solidified in the words of Jonah’s friend: The Kid, as the couple goes off into the moonlight together: “Well, reckon, I’ll go and choke my weasel and make it spit.” Even the Kid needs release.
This simplification of sex is further reiterated, in a far more foul form, by the Autumn Brothers. The brothers are the product of unholy union between the Cthluloid worms (my name for them, not Lansdale’s) and a poor farmer’s wife, making them part worm and part human. The Brothers speak in a monosyllabic and stunted way. They look like a steampunk nightmare and smell of a hillbilly fantasy. When the Brothers venture into the worm underworld, at the behest of the Great Worm: the leader of the race, their stomachs open up and green tentacles rise out to become a mass of slimy awful.
The Autumn Brothers are introduced peeping on Jonah and Hildy having sex in the graveyard.
While marvelling and cracking terrible jokes— which are very right for these two to be cracking — they reminisce about a favourite pig of theirs. This pig is no longer alive because they both had sex with the poor beast and the thing had to be put out of its misery.
While Jonah is having moonlight sex with Hildy, the Autumn Brothers are having a simultaneous discussion of beastiality.
I love this juxtaposition. It is just so twisted.
I must applaud Lansdale and Tim Truman for their fearlessness in treating sex in such a base and human way. It is refreshing and authentic.
What can be said about the sex of Jonah Hex?
It is depraved, without pleasure, without love.
It is just plain dirty.
Just plain dirty like the world it exists in.
Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.
Story I Read: “Chapter 4: Autumns of Our Discontent” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #4, June 1995)
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Pros: Twisted writing, gripping tension filled ending, neat detail in Truman and Glanzman’s rendering of the worm underworld.
Cons: Slightly sexist writing. (But could be just in the interest of the genre.)
Previous Issue: “Chapter 3: Big Worm” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #3, May 1995)
Upcoming Issue: “Chapter 5: Cataclysm in Worm Town” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #4, June 1995)
Journey Into Marvel – Part 46
Extremites, historical perspective changes depending upon when it is being looked at.
If, for instance, I was examining WWI in 1963, I might focus on the importance of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in the causation of the war. However, if I was examining the same time frame from the vantage point of my desk in 2014, I might change the focus to the Treaty of Vienna, or even the Napoleonic War.
The literature that we write in the present of our time is the best glimpse into the minds of people who live in that time. This applies best with comics.
Comics are pulpy high consumption mass media. They are structured to appeal to a wide range of people. They often reflect common beliefs and fears of those who write and read them.
The comic descends from cartoonish political satires that were featured in newspapers. They functioned as editorials on politicians and ideas. Over time, these single satirical panels developed into long form narratives which formed whole stories. This heritage has never been more clear then in this Thor adventure.
Today’s issue is a zeitgeist satire of the political events in Cuba during 1962.
The US has always had a very close connection to its island neighbour.
Cuba is ninety nautical miles off the coast of Florida. The island has always been a trade gateway to North America. After the slave uprising in Haiti, the slave trade — the most important industry in the foundation of the US — moved through the Spanish ports of Cuba. Rum and tobacco, essential to 18th Century North America, were first cultivated here. An incident involving an attack on a American frigate, docked in Havanna, inflamed the Spanish-American War. Cuba has always been a major part of American foreign policy.
In 1959, the Communist rebels, under Fidel Castro, forced Baptista, the longtime Cuban president, to leave the island and seek asylum in the United States. Castro installed a Communist government on the island making an anti-Capitalist country only a few hours sail from Miami. Nikita Krushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Union, opened up an alliance with Castro and a Cold War showdown began.
In 1961, after hasty planning with the CIA (and the Mafia), President John Kennedy ordered an invasion of the island. Called the Bay of Pigs fiasco, it was an utter failure. Those who were not gunned down attacking the island were captured by the regime. Furthermore, the invasion attempt pushed Cuba into the arms of the USSR.
The story is as follows:
In a fictional central American republic, San Diablo, a new communist ‘El Presidente’ has seized control. His name is The Executioner. Note, he is not the later villain known by the same name, these two have no connection. Dr. Don Blake, having returned from his vacation in Norway, hears about the incursion and volunteers to act as a medical liaison. The Executioner orders a MiG jet to destroy the ship of American volunteers. Little does he know that Thor, in the guise of Don Blake, is on board and the Executioner just declared war on America’s favourite Asgardian. After Jane Nelson — Jane Foster’s first appearance, but for some reason, under a different name — is kidnapped by the Executioner, Thor defeats the Communists and San Diablo is once more a friend to the United States.
The story is bland. There is not an exciting moment in the lot of it. It’s obvious, from the outset, that Thor will defeat this moustachioed Latin tyrant because he’s a mortal.
What are guns up against a god?
Not even the kidnap of Jane is a credible threat because the Executioner declares that he will marry her; taking any real threat of execution out of the situation.
The suspense just isn’t there in this one. Perhaps, this is in some part due to the oppressive rules of the Comics Ethic Code.
None of this matters, though, because Kirby and Lee are more concerned with securing Thor as an emblem of American Patriotism, than a rip-roaring story.
Kirby and Lee want Marvel’s own version of Superman.
During World War II, and the early Fifties, Superman was an iconic mascot of American patriotism. In my article that tackles Thor’s debut, I talked about Lee and Kirby’s reliance on the DC model in Thor’s creation. Today’s issue debuted a month later and was meant to secure Thor as the new flag bearer of Marvel American hopes.
America, a month later, could have used a real life Thor, for the ‘Cuba Crisis’ grew into a World crisis . The events of October 1962 would serve as a model for super-villain plots of the next 30 years.
True life is far scarier then anything in a comic book.
Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.
Story I Read: “The Mighty Thor vs. The Executioner” (Journey Into Mystery #84 Sept. 1962)
Rating: 1 out of 5.
Pros: Some excellent Kirby art.
Cons: An obvious two dimensional stereotype, thinly veiled allegory, and lack of story.
Previous Review: “Return of the Ant-Man” (Tales to Astonish #35 Sept. 1962)
Upcoming Review: “It Came From The Skies!” (Fantastic Four #7 Oct. 1962)
So we take a little break from the main arc of Slade and Oliver to focus on Diggle, A.R.G.U.S., and the Suicide Squad. Though Oliver’s story has its good moments, the main story for this episode wasn’t a let down. I’ll go over Oliver before I get into the Suicide Squad.
Admitting you need help with something is a difficult thing to do, especially for guys. We just want to be macho and do it on our own to prove that we can. Well this is what is happening with Oliver as he’s attempting to find Slade and take him down. This creates a rift between he and Sara which is completely understandable.However Oliver is stubborn and insists on doing this on his own. You’d think by now that Oliver would accept some help knowing how strong Slade is.
Slade just seems to be a few steps ahead of Oliver in…
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Decoding DC – Part VIII
Extremites, I want to take a moment and say ‘Hey! and Howdy’ to the esteemed Joe R. Lansdale: the fearless writer behind both Two Gun-Mojo and Riders of the Worm and Such. He sought this blog out to call the articles on his work misguided and pretentious.
To Joe: Yes, my last article on your work, may have been a tad pretentious. Like I do with Steven Moffat, I try to give you the benefit of the doubt.
I tried to decipher an artistic reason behind the shoddy and stilted dialogue present in that issue.
I used too much conjecture to inform the reason. I should have just said ‘this was crap dialogue’ and left it at that. For this, I am sorry, and will take my hat firmly in my hand and crush it.
Joe, this issue, the topic of today’s article, is miles ahead better than the last one.
Hear me out here. I know he was a racist. Let’s look at the influence of his body of work and not the man.
I just finished reading Stephen King’s memoir: On Writing. In it, Steve extols Lovecraft’s style; from his prose to his mythos. King says that without Lovecraft there would be no Stephen King.
Further to this anecdote, I have come across his name time and time again in my research of comics. It seems everyone from Mignola to Lee draws upon his work for inspiration.
Lovecraft’s influence is obvious in Riders of The Worm And Such, for the worms are Cthuloid in both look and culture. Their crawling, muling, tentacles scream ‘old God.’
For non-Lovecraftians, an ‘Old God’ is a being, created by Lovecraft starting with his story The Call of Cthulhu, who existed in an ancient world that time and humanity has forgotten. Since humans have stopped praying to them, they have gone away; but this does not mean they no longer exist. On the contrary, Cthulhu (the destroyer god) could still return to consume the world if given the chance.
Read Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. It will change your life and give you a better appreciation of the brilliance of the film Cabin in the Woods and countless other Horror, Sci-Fi, comics, and books.
You can see H.P. Lovecraft in every image of drawn by Sam Glanzman and Tim Truman.
Lovecraft ‘Old God’ mythos drips from the panels.
Take a look at the backstory:
The worms, according to the rancher Graves, lived in prehistoric times as sentient creatures that required sacrifice by the ancient people. One day, Ancient Man rose up and forced the creatures under ground. No longer figures of reverence. They were now foodstuff of myths. That was until they returned, craving for the old days, to wrest the land back by raping a horrible Wild West farmer’s wife.
I don’t like how Tim Truman, Glanzman and Lansdale portray women as monsters. This is a far to often trope in their work. I love, however, the idea of revenge through crossbreeding. It would have been a more powerful image if she was beautiful and corrupted by evil. Something is lost if she is already a monster.
The byproduct of this unholy union is a pair of men that look like the Cabinet of Doctor Cagliari mixed with roustabouts from the Django films. The Autumn Brothers, the surviving byproduct, are the most sinister pair since Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.
Lovecraft is not the only literary force felt in this issue. Another classic author makes a cameo. Oscar Wilde, wit of Victorian England — a man who represents the elocution and genius that is that age— not only makes a cameo but even throws a couple punches.
If you’ve followed my assessment of Riders you are no doubt aware of Graves. Graves is an important presence in this story because of his intent to bring culture to the brutal West that has led him to conflict with the worms. He’s not unlike a British version of Calvin Candy, from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, except without the genocidal tendencies. Graves is an allusion to a very real and hilarious historical event. His presence alludes to Oscar Wilde’s whimsical tour to the American West.
The United States had a fascination for the closeted and puritan people of foggy Victorian London. The US represented a cultural freedom. A freedom not hampered by tight lipped moralism which flooded 19th century British culture. Oscar Wilde was critical of this moral tyranny and thought it a a grand idea to venture out to the American bastion of liberty.
In 1882, Wilde set off for New York. However, it was not his intention to stick to the high society experience of the Eastern cities. He wanted to see ‘Aesthetic America.’’ He traveled the annals of the US for a year. During that year, Oscar saw the dusty states of the Wild West at its most authentic.
Wilde, aside from being a satirist, was an accomplished philosopher. His fascination lay in aesthetics which is the study of sensory experience and how humans interpret these experiences. Oscar focused on a branch of aesthetics that tries to define the motive and method behind the creation of art. Wilde defined this motive as causation for its own sake. ‘Art’ exists for its own sake.
Some historians have later claimed that this tour was influenced more by a search for notoriety then a search for philosophical meaning. Joe R. Lansdale uses this issue to add his two cents on this idea.
I gotta say Joe, if you are reading, I love you for it.
The reason why I love you is you take both views, that it was a journey of self discovery and that it was a journey to solidify his fame, and married them together.
When we meet Oscar, in Graves’ story, Oscar is delivering a lecture on the merits of Art for Art’s sake. Confusing the word ‘art’ with the name ‘Art,’ some philistine Americans storm the stage and start a fight with the author. Oscar, who in real life was said to be a bit of bruiser despite his rather effete charm, right hooks a marauding audience member. Graves jumps into defend the “great man,” and so the bright light of culture is both crushed and revelled in.
Wilde’s mantra ‘Art for art’s sake’ gives both credence and amplification for the existence of comics in the first place.
Joe you were right when you said that my former article is pretentious. I now see that you are a Wildean and create works for their own sake. I see that your work, and the others who worked with you on this project, exists just to exist. You accept that and I applaud you for it.
One quibble, though.
The sense of humour in this issue is still juvenile. Every time the word ‘art’ is mentioned throughout the story, another character asks the question: “who’s Art?” This is funny the first time, but the next three or so times that it happens, it is just repetitive and uninventive.
This issue is an improvement on the last and sets up what will be a wonderful showdown. I look forward to it.
I applaud you Joe, Mr.Glanzman, and Mr. Truman for creating such a literate comic.
And with that, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.
Story I Read: “Chapter 3: Big Worm” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #3 May 1995)
Rating: 3 1/2 out 5
Pros: The Literate Allusions, The worms’ plot, Oscar Wilde’s Cameo, and the philosophical importance of the whole story.
Cons: Juvenile dialogue, reductivism of women, overuse of one joke, the general exposition of the whole issue.
Previous Review: “Chapter 2: Wilde’s West” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #2 Apr. 1995)
Upcoming Review: “Chapter 4: Autumns of Our Discontent” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #4 June. 1995)
Recently Marvel studios head Kevin Feige said that he would like to see Carol Danvers get the next movie. And you know what? I agree. I agree so much that I had to compose a list of the top five reasons why she should get her own movie.
1. No other female character would work better
I mean let’s look at the options. Black Widow wouldn’t work because she works best in tandem with other characters like Nick Fury. Knowing Hollywood, she would end up the tail end of some man’s story, and we want a woman to have her own movie. Plus she doesn’t have any superpowers which might lead to her main skill set (namely seducing men and killing fools) to make the movie a little too R rated. Spider-Woman Jessica Drew might be cool, but I doubt that Marvel Studios wants to go to battle with…
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There’s a subject that has drawn my avid interest of late. Well … perhaps interest is an understatement. It would be a little closer to the mark to call it an obsession; however, to use that term in conjunction with the subject at hand is, to me, a little ironic.
It’s not just me that seems to share my infatuation. As with all art throughout history, there are themes that become the focus of an era or a generation, subjects that fascinate not just the artists in question, but also the audience. Michelangelo; Pablo Picasso; Andy Warhol; Stan Lee; Frank Miller; all of them were the pioneers of an artistic movement that was (and still is) equals parts aesthetic innovation and social commentary.
You think I’m a little crazy. That’s okay – in fact, it fits the subject quite appropriately. But before we move on, allow me to give you some evidence of my thesis.
Michelangelo … well, I hope I don’t have to tell you who he is. His most famous work is, of course, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a massive undertaking that consists of dozens of frescoes covering over 5,000 square feet.
But that’s not the piece that has always grabbed my attention. Instead, it’s a painting he was commissioned to add to the chapel twenty years later known as The Last Judgement. It depicts the ol’ Man Upstairs and Mary, the seven trumpeting angels of the Apocalypse just beneath – and below their clarion call, we, the puny mortals, are being split into our respective camps of Saved and Damned like cattle at a factory farm.
Why is this relevant?It’s not just because of what it depicts, but where it’s located – right at the exit of the chapel, where the pious could stare in horror at their fate if they missed next week’s Mass — an example of how art and propaganda were once synonymous with each other (ah, how the old becomes new again…)
Next, Picasso. This guy is one of the most influential artists of the past hundred years, but to be honest I used to hate him. When I was a youngster in first year Art History, I always scoffed at the Cubist movement the same way that some city councillors scoff at graffiti. After being forced to stare at his work for a while, though, I must say that I understand him much better – even though I’m still not a fan.
What made Picasso important to art was his ability to deconstruct; that is, break something natural into its basic geometric components. Looking at Picasso’s Cubist work is like seeing the artist’s sketch – and it allows us to put the art together in our own mind.
Warhol, on the other hand, was in many ways the antithesis to Picasso. Where Pablo was breaking it down for us and leaving it to our imagination, Andy was all about redundancy – his movement, known as pop art, was made up of single images that were recast infinitely with different colour schemes, all shown in tandem together to create a monotonous tone. He was the first artist to employ “factory art”, and even had employees solely for the purpose of creating his redundant work.
Stan Lee is someone you should all know – and if you don’t, GET OUT!
Seriously. Don’t come back. You’re not welcome here.
Why is he even mentioned? Because he, along with Will Eisner and Jerry Siegel, was one of the first writers to bring art and literature together for an audience above the age of nine. Sure, his early stuff is pretty tame by our standards, but considering that he was writing in the war-torn ’40s and the censor-ridden McCarthyist ’50s, he did the best he could. If you consider that he was writing stories about genetic and radioactive mutation, employing concepts such as homo superior and cosmic otherworldly influences to a generation that was fond of using the colour pink to describe social assistance programs, you can see the sort of prophetic insight the man really had.
And then there’s Frank Miller, arguably the man most responsible for the darker edge we now attribute to the comic realm. His first true impact began with his depiction of Daredevil in the early ’80s, where he was the man to make Hell’s Kitchen worthy of its name. From there the list gets longer and more notable: Sin City, 300, The Dark Night Returns, and the original Wolverine mini-series, the famous four-part legend of “Patch” and the island of Madripoor that brought our clawed anti-hero into the annals of Marvel one-shot history.
“Holy shit, dude. Is there a point to this?”
Watch your mouth, friendly reader. I’ve been really good about keeping the swears to a minimum in this one.
The point is that each one of these artists, from Michelangelo right on down to Miller, in some way represented the zeitgeist of their time.
The Last Judgement – and the rest of Michelangelo’s work – depicted the mass obsession of the 16th Century with damnation, the divine, and the End Times – an obsession that barely seems to have left our consciousness today.
Picasso was using his art to deconstruct natural forms, much in the same way that particle physicists and chemists were performing the same task in the laboratory in the early 20th Century.
Warhol’s pop art was a blatant commentary on the factory-fed super-consumption of the 80’s – something we still grapple with in the early years of the 2000’s.
As for Lee and Miller, they were able to successfully deliver the spirit of their time periods to a mass audience in a way that left both the aesthetic and literary sides of us satisfied – something that had previously never been done as successfully as they performed it, at least until the adoption of comic-to-film adaptations and the subsequent increase in attention to the world of comics – and thus, fandom – that has resulted.
And now we return to my recent obsession, the focus of my own increasingly divided attention over the past month or two as I’ve barraged my mind with series after series of graphic masterpieces in the pursuit of subjects worthy of my penmanship and your perusal.
Ah, but as I said, this isn’t just my obsession; true to my thesis, a quick account of the successful films and television shows of the past five years will show that we are all fascinated by the same phenomenon: Hannibal, The Following, American Horror Story and True Detective are just a few of the examples of this current trend.
I’m talking, of course, about psychosis.
But is that really what it’s about? Looking at this from the same perspective as the artistic movements I just described, one might even consider that this isn’t just about the nature of the mind, but the nature of humankind itself. For me, this appears to be not just an investigation into criminal minds, or even into our psychology as a whole – in truth, this is an inquiry into morality.
In the same way that a painting can force us, even unconsciously, to observe the intrinsic components of form as Picasso did; or that a photo of a celebrity, repeated into redundancy, can be a commentary on the banality of mass production; television, film, and comics – the nouveau art form – are reviving an age-old discussion, one that Michelangelo himself was neck-deep in almost five centuries ago.
Unlike the old days, though, we’re no longer trying to gussy it up, putting pretty bows and flowery words on it, gluing wings to its back or planting horns on its forehead, giving it some sort of anthropomorphic representation. Gone is the era of glancing sidelong at ourselves through a tinted glass. Now we must stare directly at it, study it in full, gory detail, for our fascination is not with psychosis or maladies of the mind, even if that’s what they call the morsels they feed us — no, what we are studying are maladies of the soul.
We all have a capacity for it – that godlike ability to justify our immorality while we belabor the same vices in others, slowly putting one foot in front of the other on that road paved with the oh-so-smooth tarmac of our “good intentions”. And the less we acknowledge it, the stronger its hold on us becomes, until we are laughing maniacally at the horror that we have inflicted … the horror that we are growing to love.
It’s called evil.
But is evil something you are, or is it something you do?
This is the question that Nick Spencer posits on the cover of Bedlam, a tale of mayhem, morality and madness … and it’s a question that remains the centerpiece of his feverish 11-issue rampage through the darkest corners of the soul.
Yeah, it’s that Nick Spencer – the same dude who was hurting my brain with his mad story skills in Morning Glories. If you haven’t read his work, get on it! This is going to be a man who shares the halls of 21st Century comic fame with Bendis, Millar, and Kirkman (among others, but these guys are the top dogs to me).
Alright, I don’t have to laud Spencer’s skills, since they’re staring you in the face in everything he has a hand in. With Bedlam, however, the power of the story is shared equally with the art and colouring – and I mean hand-in-hand, death-do-us-part, hold-these-rights-self-evident kind of equal.
I’m a writer, so when I say that the art had as much impact on me as the writing, that’s like a pop singer digging a guitar solo; there’s always an appreciation, but it’s gotta be top-notch to get our undivided attention. And with Riley Rossmo (Cowboy Ninja Viking, Daken: Dark Wolverine), my attention is assuredly undivided – he has a style in this book that gives me shivers: as much sketch as it is detail, it gives everything this sort of frenzied madness that brings the emotions right to the front, ready for Spencer to slash to bits with his sharp wit.
The colour takes this work from impressive to awe-inspiring: Jean-Paul Csuka uses his palette to paint the past in vivid monochrome, forcing your eyes to places you’d prefer to hide from. The present, on the other hand, is faded and almost listless in tone, as if the main character’s memories are more real than the present will ever be.
And who is this protagonist – a term never used more loosely in comic history than it is in this case?
His name is Fillmore Press.
His name is also Madder Red.
Which is his real name? That remains to be decided: each is a creature of their own motivations, each unfortunately sharing the same vessel, like siamese twins attached at the brain.
Madder Red is the past, a monstrous villain who brought the city of Bedlam to its knees … years ago. As far as the terrorized citizens are concerned, he’s long dead.
This, of course, is not the case. The truth is that Madder Red was … rehabilitated. Sort of. In the same way that Alex was turned from his life of ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange, or Darth Vader was made Sith through the Emperor’s machinations, Madder Red has been crushed, twisted and re-molded into a semi-functioning, heavily-medicated social moron known as Fillmore Press.
But the memories remain – as hard as Fillmore tries to forget his days as the criminal overlord of Bedlam, he sees Madder Red in every mirror. Somehow, though, Fillmore resists. He knows what he’s done in his past is terrible, barely even passable as human, and he craves redemption. As such, he begins showing up at the scenes of horrific crimes inspired by his former scarlet persona, and before long his natural kinship with psychosis gets him involved in bringing his acolytes to justice.
But with every case, Fillmore brings himself closer to Madder Red. He’s always just on the edge, clawing at the door of his mind, staring through his eyes, waiting for his moment to regain the advantage. And as the plot thickens and the madness he’s unleashed in his past begins to bring him closer to his past, it becomes less and less clear which identity is the true one.
I’ve warned you all before in previous articles, but this warning is more serious than ever – if you are the least bit queasy, do not read this comic! This story is not, in any way, for the faint of heart. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s for the strong of heart. As far as depravity, violence and insanity portrayed in graphic form are concerned, Bedlam isn’t even in a different league – it’s a different game altogether.
But isn’t that how it always is with the most poignant of human expression? Like Michelangelo and Picasso, like Lee and Miller, the best art forces us to look at ourselves from an angle we’ve never considered before.
Even if that angle shows us as the very devils we crusade against.
More evil for y’all next time, folks.
Journey Into Marvel – Part 45
Extremites, around Christmas, as part of my Journey Into Marvel series, I discussed Hank Pym’s unassuming debut in Tales to Astonish #27 in which Hank is introduced as a mild mannered doctor who creates a potion that makes him shrink to the size of an ant. The issue follows his adventure as he gets lost in an anthill. At the conclusion, Hank has a pro-environmental epiphany that all animals should be respected no matter the size because some good-hearted insects saved his life. As we all know from history books, or from casual viewings of AMC’s Mad Men, people had little regard for the environment in 1962. A character discovering that other animals on the planet are important is a novel idea. Kudos to Marvel for breaking the barriers.
Snap to nine months later. SNAP!
It’s September 1962. You picked up this month’s Tales to Astonish and you find a very different Hank Pym. You find a Hank is no longer a mild mannered scientist but a miniature warrior for justice.
He’s now Ant-Man: the scourge of Red Communists everywhere.
The environmental message has changed as well. The ants are no longer equal. Ant-Man now governs them as his slaves.
Ant-Man’s conception is unique in the early Marvel Silver Age. He’s special because his character was never intended to be a recurring face.
The fan reaction to the story of Hank Pym was enormous. After his simple debut, the readers were desperate to see what happened next. As a result of the positive fan reaction, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created another member of their fledgling superhero gallery. The Pym shrinking potion was made a super ability and Ant-Man was on the scene.
The first official Ant-Man story has all the marks of a Silver Age rush job. It has a haphazard and cliched villain, a lofty proclamation of justice, and a diagram of Ant-Man’s office with unique travel method. Ant-Man’s catapult is the most absurd method of travel in the Marvel world. He is said to be able to shoot anywhere in New York. I can see about ten problems with this method and don’t want to waste your time going through them. Let’s all just agree that this catapult is nuts.
That’s not the only change that is nuts. Ant-Man’s changing relationship with the ants is just as absurd.The first thing Hank Pym says to the ants, the same ants that saved him last time, is: “all right, slaves, do Ant-Man’s will.” Nature is no longer to be embraced but dominated.
Hank dominates these ants through his helmet which manipulates electric impulses to emit orders to the miniature creatures rendering them automatons under his control. He uses their collective to drive to take down Comrade X’s gang, our hackneyed gang of antagonists.
In comics of this period, the Soviets, and sometimes Chinese, are often faceless zombies. What is marvellous, excuse the pun, is Ant-Man’s ants act in exactly the same way. Ant-Man’s treatment of the ants as drones is no different then the way Nikita Kruschev, who appears in this issue, is said to treat his comrades.
American historical jingoism, of the period, often reduces Soviet Communism to a mass of drones doing whatever the dear leader dictates. This depiction looks something like a mass of people hurtling themselves into situations like lemmings to the sea. The stereotype results from two places. One, the astounding and frightful ‘Scorched Earth’ policy that was so effective for the Soviets in World War II, and two, a belief in a false sense of U.S. individualism.
It is unclear why there is such a drastic change in the relationship between Ant-Man and the ants. Perhaps, it comes from a need, on Stan Lee’s part, to create a unique power for Hank Pym but feeling dry of inspiration.
As the title progresses, as you know, having read some of my other articles on the Silver Age Ant-Man, Hank Pym’s character changes from issue to issue. The way he treats his ants does as well depending upon their role in the story. In 1963, the ants even start to disappear from the story line all together
I have read that Stan Lee and his creatives found this character hard to write, and Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers both found his stories difficult to draw, often forgetting to scale his size.
Something never quite works about Ant-Man’s character because the powers that be at Marvel never had their hearts in the character and were always writing to the demands of the readership.
Having just come off a desperate issue of The Incredible Hulk and seeing what fan demand does to many of these characters in the near future, I am beginning to grasp what it looks like when the writers are not writing for the passion of it, but rather to sell issues.
Writing for the fans does not lend itself to good creation.
Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds
Story I Read: “Return of the Ant-Man” (Tales to Astonish #35 Sept. 1962)
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5
Pros: Neat depictions of Ant-Man running with the Ants. Absurd ideas.
Cons: Hackneyed and desperate ideas like the catapult. Lack of antagonist.
Preceding Review: “Captives of the Deadly Duo” (Fantastic Four #6 Sept. 1962)
Upcoming Review: “The Mighty Thor vs. the Executioner” (Journey Into Mystery #84 Sept. 1962)