Thursday, July 31, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: Wildcats Version 3.18

[Continuing my look at Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0. New posts Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

This is the best issue of the series for my money. This issue manages to pack everything in, but focuses on Marlowe and Halo primarily--and does so with skill and intelligence. But, it also works on a level the rest of the series doesn't by commenting on the larger Wildstorm universe. This issue came out the month prior to the "Coup D'Etat" storyline with the Authority overthrows the United States government (and the Wildcats Version 3.0 issue of that story will be discussed on Saturday), so Casey takes this opportunity to demonstrate how fucking stupid the Authority are--and how they may seem like a step forward in superheroics, but Jack Marlowe is the true step forward. Of course, that's also discussed in Coup D'Etat: Wildcats Version 3.0 #1 since it works primarily as another issue of this series than as part of that story.

The focus of this issue is the US government's response to the technological innovations of Halo, specifically their cars, which run on Halo batteries (and their ever-lasting energy supply). The first scene in this issue is a little over-the-top, but if Jack Marlowe is the new face of superheroics, the government is the new face of supervillainy. We get a special committee in Washington, led by a senator, that may have a fancy name but is dedicated to taking down Marlowe and Halo. Or, as the senator puts it: "SO... / ...WHAT'S IT GOING TO TAKE TO BRING THIS PRICK DOWN?" Of course, he's got his hands clasped, looks very serious and is sitting at the head of a table. You know, any time I sit at the head of a table, I always (ALWAYS!) have the urge to lean forward and ask everyone sitting around it, "So... how do we kill Superman?" That's what the senator is really asking. He is Lex Luthor, Jack Marlowe is Superman and this is the Legion of Doom or the Injustice League or whatever fancy name you want to give it.

And there is some justification here, as I've said before. The senator claims that Marlowe doesn't give a damn about America and he's right. As he told Agent Wax last issue (well, two years ago in comic book time), he doesn't care about the artificial borders humanity creates. He sees it as one world and is working to unify it. He is determined to destroy the American way of life. But... is that really a bad thing? Someone in the room raises that possibility--that Marlowe is altruistic and working for the betterment of humanity and the senator responds,


And he's not entirely wrong, either. The relationships between nations are fragile and have taken decades to form, and Marlowe is moving at a very fast pace. Yes, limitless energy is good... but what about countries that provide oil? How do Marlowe's choices affect them and how they will view the US--and, more importantly, react to the US? While we're not meant to agree with the senator, he does raise some interesting points. However, he also places a bit too much emphasis on maintaing the status quo as if things are perfect and this is the way things are meant to be, which is by no means certain--in fact, it's just wrong. Things are not good, except for those in power. And that's what this is really about: those in power. But, as we'll see next month, the steps Marlowe is taking are nothing really. He's working within the system to affect real change, but the Authority will not. But, I'm getting ahead of myself again.

Wax calls Marlowe as Downs to warn him that he's heard various rumours and such about Marlowe upsetting things too much--and how super-powered assassins are one option being discussed. Marlowe seems unconcerned. Dolby takes a conservative view, reminding Marlowe of those international relationships the senator mentioned to his staff, like "THERE'S A TRILLION DOLLARS IN SAUDI MONEY INVESTED IN OUR STOCK MARKET. ANOTHER TRILLION IN OUR BANKS." He warns Marlowe not to act like a superhero, not to go off half-cocked and "TURN THIS INTO SOME CLICHED ACTION MOVIE WITH A BAD THIRD ACT" (an ironic comment on the state this book, actually). Marlowe assures him that he knows what he's doing and his decisions will be "efficient and effective."

To that end, the issue ends with Marlowe teleporting into the White House, specifically the president's bedroom and teleporting secret service out to a desert. This act is a direct commentary on next month's story, particularly Marlowe's speech to the president:


As evident from his allusion in Youngblood #1, Casey is a fan of The West Wing and a lot of Marlowe's actions--and his speech here, in particular--have the same optimism displayed on that show. In fact, this speech is the type that Aaron Sorkin peppers his scripts with. But, it also has elements of the superhero speech--the end, for example. This is Superman popping in on Lex Luthor to convince him that, no, he's not his enemy, they both want to make things better and they need to work together to do it, not waste time fighting one another. That isn't the exact tone here as Marlowe explicitly states that the president's motives aren't the same as his, but the implication is that they should be. What Marlowe wants and what the president should want are the same thing. This issue is a rant about politicians not serving the people who elect them. Of course, that could be why I love it so much.

The other plot of the book is the FBI agents in Athens tracking the Coda while Grifter listens in via Agent Orange. We get some insight into the female FBI agent as she discusses how lonely it is being a Fed, but it's nothing spectacular or worth discussing. It blends well enough into the rest of the issue and doesn't distract from it. That plot is advanced, which is necessary, but it's still a plot that's going to "TURN THIS INTO SOME CLICHED ACTION MOVIE WITH A BAD THIRD ACT."

On Saturday, Coup D'Etat: Wildcats Version 3.0 #1.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: Wildcats Version 3.17

[Continuing my look at Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0. New posts Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

A Wax-centric issue that fills in some gaps and also shows how he's adapting to his new life as Downs. The first few pages are designed to demonstrate that Wax is a better Downs than Downs was. First, we get some stuff at home with "his" wife Miriam where they are nice and loving and seem to genuinely care about one another, which is a stark contrast from the "cold war" metaphor Downs used to describe his marriage. Then, we get various scenes of Downs at work fighting for his people, being kind and actually seeming like a decent boss--which, again, is a contrast to the Downs we've seen who was short-tempered and an autocrat.

The only problem is when Jack Marlowe shows up in Downs's office wanting answers. The conversation the two have is not entirely unfamiliar to readers as it's very similar to the one he had with Garfield back in issue 11. Here, Marlowe is a little more judgemental, but it seems only because he doesn't know what's going on. He thrives on information and needs to know what his employees are up to. Wax acts much like we'd expect: makes excuses, seems upset, deflects questions--but Marlowe cuts right through it, saying, "SPARE ME YOUR FORCED DISPLAY OF ANGST. WHATEVER ACTS YOU'VE COMMITTED... YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO LIVE WITH." Marlowe is... beyond the usual bullshit. He acts with thought and commitment, and expects others to do so as well. Wax has killed his boss, Agent Downs, and taken his place, it's as simple as that. As Casey shows, this is a positive thing possibly. Perhaps, the world is better off with Downs dead and Wax in his place--and, you know what, I think Wax thinks that, too. However, he acts guilty and angst-ridden because he thinks he should. Marlowe has no use for that, though.

This leads to some flashbacks drawn by Sean Phillips. First, the introduction of Agent Mohr, Wax's former partner who died during the "Serial Boxes" story in Wildcats volume two. There's also a scene showing how the two got involved in tracking Samuel Smith. In both scenes, Wax makes reference to disliking Downs, making the antagonism between them go back even further than we knew already. The third flashback shows what happened between the two volumes of Wildcats, after Marlowe teleported Wax away from Florida.

This is how Wax came to work for Jack Marlowe and has a few interesting tidbits. My favourite is when Marlowe tells Wax that the first order of business is Wax rejoining the National Park Service, Wax ranting about Mohr's death and Grifter telling him to "STOP LIVING IN THE PAST, MAN." Of course, Grifter was (and possibly still is) stuck in the past, never changing--although, here, he was on the cusp of embracing the future with Marlowe. Marlowe convinces Wax that he is trying to make the world better. The speech he gives is a little hokey, but what "save the world" speech isn't? He takes Wax up to an unmanned NASA research station that also doubles as a CIA surveillance satellite--something Marlowe sees as problematic ("AND YET, INSTEAD OF USING THESE CONNECTIONS TO FOSTER UNITY, DISPARATE NATIONS CONTINUE TO FOSTER MISTRUST... AND CONTINUE TO ACT UPON THAT MISTRUST"). He shows Wax a view of the world and points out that you can't see the borders that divide humanity... it's all one world (like I said, a little hokey). And when a super-powered android says this shit, you tend to believe him. Wax agrees to join up...

And we return to the present were Marlowe sees the advantage on Wax's new life, Wax convinced he was going to be fired. But, as we've seen, Marlowe doesn't make moral judgements often, especially when he can see a way to advance his cause. Marlowe is very much an "ends justify the means" type of thinker, viewing morality as flexible depending on the situation. A closer relationship between Halo and the NPS could be very advantageous.

The scene ends with Wax looking at a picture of Miriam that's kept in Downs's desk.

The issue ends with our trio of FBI agents in Athens hot on the trail of the Coda and Grifter listening via the bug on Agent Orange. Nothing insightful there, merely reminding us of that plotline.

This issues show the development of Agent Wax from field agent to unemployed loser to inspired Halo employee to imposter... and also hints that he hasn't really changed. In the NPS, he saw example after example of humanity tearing itself apart, specifically superhumanity. He saw how agencies supposedly dedicated to protecting innocents were often more concerned with advancing their own goals. He sees Marlowe as a real chance to save the world. He's always had superpowers, but never became a superhero. Why is that? His powers don't exactly lend themselves well to heroics, most no doubt seeing them as immoral when used... but, here he acts immorally for a larger cause. As I said, he killed Downs, but was that necessarily wrong? Is the world better off without him? This issue shows that his wife seems better off, as do his employees, and Marlowe's cause is certainly better off with Wax in Downs's place. Wax's life is also better off. It's almost like Wax is a superhero and Downs is his new secret identity...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Raymond Chandler's Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: Identity Crisis

[The first in my application of Raymond Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" to comic book mystery stories. New posts at random.]

I'm a big Raymond Chandler fan. So big that I'm one of those people who bought The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, a handy little paperback containing odds and ends like his essay, "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story." Well, it's not so much an essay as it is... a series of notes. Also included are 13 addenda, bringing the total number of notes up to 25. I figured it would be fun to take these notes and apply them to some comic book mystery stories and see how well they match up to Chandler's standards.

Before I begin, I should note that I'm reprinting the notes in full rather than summarising them. Now, this is a total copyright breach and if those who hold the copyright want me to take down this post, I'm okay with that. I'm using Chandler's notes in full, because he says what he means better than I could. I began with the intention of summarising and quickly decided against it, because Chandler is clear and to the point often. In some spots, he goes on tangents, but they help, I think. Chandler's notes are in bold.

Also, my selection for this first post is Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer. We all remember this book and since it is primarily a mystery story--and one of the better known and received ones in recent years--it seems like the logical starting point. I reread it for this post and enjoyed it quite a bit, but I'm warning you ahead of time that it doesn't quite make it as a mystery story according to Chandler.

My plan here is to go through Chandler's notes and apply each to Identity Crisis. Some notes are repetative or don't apply, but do allow for discussion nonetheless. I don't know how well this will work, so let's see. Should be fun.

Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story (Revised April 18, 1948)

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the denouement; it must consist of the plausible actions of plausible people in plausible circumstances, it being remembered that plausibility is largely a matter of style. This requirement rules out most trick endings and a great many "closed circle" stories in which the least likely character is forcibly made over into the criminal, without convincing anybody. It also rules out such elaborate mises-en-scene as Christie's Murder in a Calais Coach, where the whole setup for the crime requires such a fluky set of happenings that it could never seem real.

So, do we buy Jean Lorring as the killer? Her motivation is to attack Sue Dibny and not kill her, just scare the superhero community enough that her ex-husband, Ray Palmer (aka the Atom) will want to get back together with her. Meltzer emphasises that the families of superheroes are the ones to benefit, so there's a certain logic there. I'll give credible motivation of Lorring's actions here.

But, is this a story "in which the least likely character is forcibly made over into the criminal, without convincing anybody"? I think Meltzer justifies Lorring's actions within the context of the story, but if you knew the character ahead of time, it could be hard to believe. Little explanation is given as to why she didn't just call up Ray and ask him to dinner. There's no set-up for her turn, so while the motivation is plausible, it's only that way because we don't know anything about her otherwise. Since this does take place within a larger world, I don't think Meltzer succeeded here.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection. No fantastic poisons or improper effects from poison such as death from nonfatal doses, etc. No use of silencers on revolvers (they won't work) or snakes climbing bellropes ("The Speckled Band"). Such things at once destroy the foundation of the story. If the detective is a trained policeman, he must act like one, and have the mental and physical equipment that go with the job. If he is a private investigator or amateur, he must at least know enough about police methods not to make an ass of himself. When a policeman is made out to be a fool, as he always was on the Sherlock Holmes stories, this not only depreciates the accomplishment of the detective but it makes the reader doubt the author's knowledge of his own field. Conan Doyle and Poe were primitives in this art and stand in relation to the best modern writers as Giotto does to da Vinci. They did things which are no longer permissible and exposed ignorances that are no longer tolerated. Also, police art, itself, was rudimentary in their time. "The Purloined Letter" would not fool a modern cop for four minutes. Conan Doyle showed no knowledge whatever of the organization of Scotland Yard's men. Christie commits the same stupidities in our time, but that doesn't make them right. Contrast Austin Freeman, who wrote a story about a forged fingerprint ten years before police method realized such things could be done.

Okay, obviously the "fantastic poisons" and such don't apply here since this a story that takes place solidly within the realm of the fantastic. We'll ignore that part of this note. This note does raise a few problems with the story, though. The first is, who is the detective? This is a narrative problem I've had with Identity Crisis since the first time I've read it as I think it's too expansive in the number of voices it includes. I understand that Meltzer was going for an expansive story, but it makes the mystery element much weaker. Green Arrow is the only consistent voice throughout the entire story in that his first-person narration shows up in every issue. But, Green Arrow also isn't the detective since the mystery is solved, ultimately, by Batman, Dr. Mid-Nite, and Ray Palmer. Since there are so many people involved, it's difficult to get behind any of them and it also allows for various methods of detection to ultimately solve the mystery--leaving the reader in the cold. (Actually, Elongated Man/Ralph Dibny's detective skills are so emphasised in the first issue that you'd think he would play a bigger role, but he doesn't play an active role after issue three. After that, he appears in flashbacks and single panels that show he's still grieving--except for the end of issue seven. Odd, don't you think?)

The second problem is that the methods of detection aren't sound. Jean Lorring gains access to the Dibny house by phone and then "grows" to regular size. At one point, Mister Miracle notes that there are 17 methods of gaining entry to the house and they didn't check the phone records? Really? They didn't do the most basic of police procedures? Or, they, somehow, didn't find any physical evidence despite Lorring standing there at full size with a flamethrower? These are such basic things that our detectives--who are supposedly better than the police--miss. A pretty big flaw in the story, I think.

I also have to wonder why the autopsy takes so long. It takes Dr. Mid-Nite at least a week, it seems, to complete it from when he began. Does that seem a bit long to anyone else?

3. It must be honest with the reader. This is always said, but the implications are not realized. Important facts not only must not be concealed, they must not be distorted by false emphasis. Unimportant facts must not be projected in such a way as to make them portentous. (This creation of red herrings and false menace out of trick camera work and mood shots if the typical Hollywood mystery picture cheat.) Inferences from the facts are the detective's stock in trade; but he should disclose enough to keep the reader's mind working. It is arguable, although not certain, that inferences arising from special knowledge (e.g., Dr. Thorndyke) are a bit of a cheat, because the basic theory of all good mystery writing is that at some stage not too late in the story the reader did have the materials to solve the problem. If specal scientific knowledge was necessary to interpret the facts, the reader did not have the solution unless he had the special knowledge. It may have been Austin Freeman's feeling about this that led him to the invention of the inverted detective story, in which the reader knows the solution from the beginning and takes his pleasure from watching the detective trace it out a step at a time.

The story isn't honest with the reader regarding the death of Sue Dibny. Meltzer and artist Rags Morales give us a panel in issue one where Sue hears a noise downstairs and this is obviously a red herring. Those few panels exist only to throw the reader off and are cheap tricks.

Some would jump on the misdirection when Lorring is almost killed, but the information we get there is from her, so it's misleading, but for the characters as well. The portrayal of Sue's death is seen only by the readers, so puposeful misdirection only affects the readers. It's a cheat that hurts the resolution of the mystery since the reader will then look back and see that the authors lied.

4. It must be realistic as to character, setting, and atmosphere. It must be about real people in the real world. Very few mystery writers have any talent for character work, but that doesn't mean it is not necessary. It makes the difference between the story you reread and remember and the one you skim through and almost instantly forget. Those like Valentine Williams who say the problem overrides everything are merely trying to cover up their own inability to create character.

Here, Meltzer shines. He does his best to make sure this story is rooted in realistic characters. I've read this story three times now and it's been good each time, because Meltzer does such good character work. Actually, I think his devotion to that element of the writing hurts the mystery--and it's almost certainly a choice he made while writing. The story is so expansive and deals with so many characters that it's more a character piece than a mystery, honestly. And, as Chandler himself will point out, there's nothing wrong with that. However, it does leave the story open to certain criticisms--but what story doesn't?

5. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element; i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

Again, the murder of Sue Dibny kicks things off, but the story becomes so much more with the villains, the exploration of what it's like for the families of superheroes, the mind-wiping of villains... Meltzer created a story that works very well outside of the mystery.

6. To achieve this it must have some form of suspense, even if only intellectual. This does not mean menace and especially it does not mean that the detective must be menaced by grave personal danger. This last is a trend and like all trends will exhaust itself by overimitation. Nor need the reader be kept hanging on the edge of his chair. The overplotted story can be dull too; too much shock may result in numbness to shock. But there must be conflict, physical, ethical or emotional, and there must be some element of danger in the broadest sense of the word.

This is a very nuanced "note," but it's one that I think Meltzer pulls off. There is action and threat of death, but there's also the suspense of the secret the old Leaguers share, of Batman finding out what they did to him, of the whole superhero community possibly torn apart... there's also the intellectual suspense of how Wally will handle it, how he'll come to terms with what was done--or, even how Green Arrow will defend it despite not agreeing with it at the time. Again, Meltzer uses the murder mystery as the catalyst for a lot more.

7. It must have color, lift, and a reasonable amount of dash. It takes an awful lot of technical adroitness to compensate for a dull style, although it has been done, especially in England.

Yeah, I'd say the story has all of these things. While I didn't like what I read of his Justice League of America run, Meltzer has his own style and he uses it here. His overuse of narrative captions, for instance, is very much part of his style as he wants to show us the inside of a lot of characters' heads. Also, his pacing is very good--that's more technique than style, but it's a stylised pacing that works with the suspense and mystery elements.

8. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes. (This is possibly the most often violated of all the rules). The ideal denouement is one in which everything is revealed in a flash of action. This is rare because ideas that good are always rare. The explanation need not be very short (except on the screen), and often it cannot be short; but it must be interesting in itself, it must be something the reader is anxious to hear, and not a new story with a new set of characters, dragged in to justify an overcomplicated plot. Above all the explanation must not be merely a long-winded assembling of minute circumstances which no ordinary reader could possibly be expected to remember. To make the solution dependent on this is a kind of unfairness, since here again the reader did not have the solution within his grasp, in any practical sense. To expect him to remember a thousand trivialities and from them to select that three that are decisive is as unfair as to expect him to have a profound knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy, or the mating habits of the Patagonian anteater.

The denouement is simple: Jean Lorring wanted to attack Sue to scare superheroes, including her ex-husband, into becoming more protective of their loved ones. To keep up the rouse and throw suspicion elsewhere, she fakes an attempt on her life and hires a supervillain to attack Jack Drake--but sends him a gun to make sure the villain fails.

9. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader. This opens up a very difficult question. Some of the best detective stories ever written (those of Austin Freeman, for example) seldom baffle an intelligent reader to the end. But the reader does not guess the complete solution and could not himself have made a logical demonstration of it. Since readers are of many minds, some will guess a cleverly hidden murder and some will be fooled by the most transparent plot. (Could the "Red-Headed League" ever really fool a modern reader?) It is not necessary or even possible to fool to the hilt the real aficionado of mystery fiction. A mystery story that consistently did that and was honest would be unintelligible to the average fan; he simply would not know what the story was all about. But there must be some important elements of the story that elude the most penetrating reader.

I don't remember anyone guessing this solution until maybe the end of issue six. Although, I do think that's partly because of the way Sue's death was portrayed, and because of Lorring's misdirection. But, this is a baffling mystery until the denouement, I thought.

10. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed. This is the least often emphasized element of a good mystery, but it is one of the important elements of all fiction. It is not enough merely to fool or elude or sidestep the reader; you must make him feel that he ought not to have been fooled and that the fooling was honorable.

Here, I think Meltzer fails. This goes back to the cheap manner of fooling the reader regarding Sue's death, but I don't think the fooling was honourable. I'm not sure how I'd feel without that factor.

11. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance. An atmosphere of terror destroys logical thinking; if the story is about the intricate psychological pressures that lead apparently ordinary people to commit murder, it cannot then switch to the cool analysis of the police investigator. The detective cannot be hero and menace at the same time; the murderer cannot be a tormented victim of circumstance and also a heavy.

This is one area where some would be tempted to say that Meltzer fails, because he does try to do a lot, but he doesn't mix elements that aren't appropriate. The closest he comes is having the old Leaguers erase the minds of criminals, alter Dr. Light's brain and mindwipe Batman--but, those actions are open to interpretation. I agree with them, others may not. Meltzer does try to do a lot, but he doesn't push the story beyond its limits.

12. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law. Contrary to popular (and Johnston Office) belief, this requirement has nothing much to do with morality. It is a part of the logic of detection. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

Lorring is locked away and has her loved spurned by her reason for everything she does. However, the way Lorring is punished conflicts with addenda #11, so Meltzer may not have succeed her after all...


(Quick note: some of these are comments, rather than instructions like the above, but that leads to discussion nonetheless.)

1. The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing. It would be nice to have Dashiell Hammett and Austin Freeman in the same book, but it just isn't possible. Hammett couldn't have the plodding patience and Freeman couldn't have the verve for narrative. They don't go together. Even a fair compromise such as Dorothy Sayers is less satisfying than the two types taken separately.

As I said above, Meltzer's strength is character and mood, not the creation of the perfect mystery. The mystery here has some serious flaws, but the story works despite them because it plays to Meltzer's strengths so well.

On the other hand, would fixing the problems with the mystery detract from character? Obviously, altering the portrayal of Sue's death wouldn't, but making the heroes as good of detectives as they're supposed to be would, because the mystery would have been solved on page 29 of the first issue. Granted, the story could have continued as a meditation on the dangers of families and superheroes, but it would have worked then only as a 64-page graphic novel at best. In order for the story to continue as he wants, Meltzer had to make the mystery flawed. It's a clear choice.

2. The most effective way to conceal a simple mystery is behind another mystery. This is litrary legerdemain. You do not fool the reader by hiding clues or faking character [ala] Christie but by making him solve the wrong problem.

Meltzer doesn't do this exactly, but he does use the old League stuff to distract the reader. By issue three, Sue's murder was pushed to the side in readers' minds, everyone so focused on what the League had done--and when Batman's mindwipe was revealed, the speculation and interest increased. It may not be another mystery exactly--although Meltzer does make it one since we see Batman struggling with Dr. Light along with the rest of the League in a flashback in issue three and his sudden appearance isn't addressed until issue six, which I'm certain caused speculation and wondering by readers.

3. It has been said that "nobody cares about the corpse." This is bunk. It is throwing away a valuable element. It is like saying the murder of your aunt means no more to you than the murder of an unknown man in an unknown part of a city you never visited.

Meltzer focuses on character and he makes you care about not just Sue Dibny, but Ralph, too. Same with Jack Drake and even Jean Lorring. He wants you to care about these people and want their killer(s) caught.

4. Flip dialogue is not wit.

Too true. I don't think Meltzer ever falls into that trap--except maybe any time a villain is on panel. They kind of attract flip, witless dialogue.

5. A mystery serial does not make a good mystery novel. The "curtains" depend for their effect on your not having the next chapter to read at once. In book form these curtains give the effect of a false suspense and tend to be merely irritating. The magazines have begun to find that out.

I have the trade paperback, but did read it in serial form, too. Meltzer really plays up the suspense element with the end of each issue, but the transition between issues six and seven is the only awkward one (excluding some narration that recaps events) with the repition of panels from the end of issue six at the beginning of issue seven. The rest of the time, events either pick up immediately following the last issue or begin with different characters, which works with the internal pacing the issues where a surprise often happened only to cut away for a scene or two before returning. I recall reading somewhere (maybe even in the bonus material at the end of the trade, which I skipped this time) that Meltzer turned in the entire series at once, not single script by single script, so that helped--as did his experience as a novelist where you learn that it's good to end chapters with little surprises or pieces of intrigue, but also how to work those into the larger narrative. It's about wanting to the reader to keep on reading, but not making it tedious. Meltzer does that well.

6. Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic and not complementary to the detective's struggle to solve the problem. The kind of love interest that works is the one that complicates the problem by adding to the detective's troubles but which at the same time you instinctively feel will not survive the story. A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm.

Since there is no central detective, this one doesn't necessarily apply here. As well, the story itself is about loved ones, so it really doesn't apply. That said, Batman has no love interest here, so he is not distracted. I'm not sure about Dr. Mid-Nite. The fact that it took him a week to complete the autopsy suggests a girlfriend, I must say.

Although, is this rule why Ralph doesn't participate more? He has no objectivity, he's lost his sense of detachment?

7. The fact that love interest is played up in the big magazines and on the screen doesn't make it artistic. Women are supposed to be the target of magazine fiction and movies. The magazines are not interested in mystery writing as an art. They are not interested in any kind of writing as an art.


8. The hero of the mystery story is the detective. Everything hangs on his personality. If he hasn't one, you have very little. And you have very few really good mystery stories. Naturally.

Who is the detective? Who is the protagonist? I don't know. Is it just all of the heroes? There can be multiple protagonists, of course, but who are they here? Besides the mystery, I think this is the weakest area of the story. I especially think giving a narrative voice to the villains doesn't work at all. I think the same story could have been told by focusing on Green Arrow (who I pick because he is the only consistent voice in the story--and probably the strongest voice, too). The stuff he narrates is fantastic and are probably the best parts of the story, in my opinion.

9. The criminal cannot be the detective. This is an old rule and has once in a while been violated successfully, but it is sound as it ever was. For this reason: the detective by tradition and definition is the seeker of truth. He can't be that if he already knows the truth. There is an implied guarantee to the reader that the detective is on the level.

Not an issue here since there is no detective--or, at least, none of the detectives turn out to be the murderer.

10. The same remark applies to the story where the first-person narrator is the criminal. I should personally have to qualify this by saying that for me the first-person narration can always be accused of subtle dishonesty because of its appearance of candor and its ability to suppress the detective's ratiocination while giving a clear account of his words and acts. Which opens up the much larger question of what honesty really is in this context; is it not a matter of degree rather an absolute? I think it is and always will be. Regardless of the candor of the first-person narrative there comes a time when the detective has made up his mind and yet does not communicate this to the reader. He holds some of his thinking for the denouement or explanation. He tells the facts but not the reaction in his mind to those facts. Is this a permissible convention of deceit? It must be; otherwise the detective telling his own story could not have solved the problem in advance of the technical denouement. Once in a lifetime a story such as The Big Sleep holds almost nothing back; the denouement is an action which the reader meets as soon as the detective. The theorizing from that action follows immediately. There is only a momentary concealment of the fact that Marlowe loaded the gun with blanks when he gave it to Carmen down by the oil sump. But even this is tipped off to the reader when he says, "If she missed the can, which she was certain to do, she would probably hit the wheel. That would stop a small slug completely. However she wasn't going to hit even that." He doesn't say why, but the action follows so quickly that you don't feel any real concealment.

Meltezer uses a lot of first-person narration (14 different first-person narrators to be exact), but he does avoid using Jean Lorring as one. That said, I think this overuse of first-person narration both helps and hurts the story. It helps in creating that expansive feeling that these events affect everyone, but it also makes the story unfocused and kind of all over the place. This relates to the question the detective or of the protagonist(s). It's clear why Meltzer chose to tell the story this way, I just don't think it's an effective manner and should have been changed.

11. The murderer must not be a loony. The murderer is not a murderer unless he commits murder in the legal sense.

Jean Lorring is institutionalised and portrayed as insane. So, Meltzer violates this rule. I'm still not clear what drove her insane exactly, because it wouldn't be Palmer rejecting her. Was it Sue's death? When did she become insane exactly? It's rather vague, I find (I could be missing something obvious, of course).

12. There is, as has been said, no real possibility of absolute perfection [in writing a mystery story]. Why? For two main reasons, of which has been stated aboved in Addenda Note 1. The second is the attitude of the reader himself. Readers are of too many kinds and too many levels of culture. The puzzle addict, for instance, regards the story as a contest of wits between himself and the writer; if he guesses the solution, he has won, even though he could not document his guess or justify it by solid reasoning. There is something of this competitive spirit in all readers, but the reader in whom it predominates sees no value beyond the game of guessing the solution. There is the reader, again, whose whole interest is in sensation, sadism, cruelty, blood, and the element of death. Again there is some in all of us, but the reader in whom it predominates will care nothing for the so-called deductive story, however meticulous. A third class of reader is the worrier-about-the-characters; this reader doesn't care so much about the solution; what really gets her upset is the chance that the silly little heroine will get her neck twisted on the spiral staircase. Fourth, and most important, there is the intellectual literate reader who reads mysteries because they are almost the only kind of fiction that does not get too big for its boots. This reader savors style, characterization, plot twists, all the virtuosities of the writing much more than he bothers about the solution. You cannot satisfy all these readers completely. To do so involves contradictory elements. I, in the role of reader, almost never try to guess the solution to a mystery. I simply don't regard the contest between the writer and myself as important. To be frank I regard it as the amusement of an inferior type of mind.

And this is why the mystery itself doesn't necessarily matter that much. It's a catalyst for the true purpose of the story, which I think Meltzer aims at the fourth type of reader. Granted, the other three types will no doubt find some benefit here (especially the third class, which I can't help but see as the equivalent of the "fanboy" type of reader; the one who follows these characters primarily rather than writers). But, it's clear that Meltzer aims for a story that goes beyond just mystery, continuity and cheap thrills--or, is it? This story does rely heavily on continuity and the reader having a pre-existing attachment to these characters, so, perhaps, the third reader is the target here after all. I'm not sure and think arguments could be made for both. However, I do think the mystery/puzzle is not the primary focus of this story.

13. As has been suggested above, all fiction depends on some form of suspense. But the study of the mechanics of that extreme type called menace reveals the curious psychological duality of the mind of a reader or audience which makes it possible on the one hand to be terrified about what is hiding behind the door and at the same time to know that the heroine or leading lady is not going to be murdered once she is established as the heroine or leading lady. If the character played by Claudette Colbert is in awful danger, we also know absolutely that Miss Colbert is not going to be hurt for the simple reason that she is Miss Colbert. How does the audience's mind get upset by menace in view of this clear knowledge? Of the many possible reasons I suggest two. The reaction to visual images and sounds, or their evocation in descriptive writing, is independent of reasonableness. The primitive element of fear is never far from the surface of our thoughts; anything that calls to it can defeat reason for the time being. Hence menace makes its appeal to a very ancient and very irrational emotion. Few men are beyond its influence. The other reason I suggest is that in any intense kind of literary or other projection the part is greater than the whole. The scene before the eyes dominates the thought of the audience; the normal individual makes no attempt to reconcile it with the pattern of the story. He is swayed by what is in the actual scene. When you have finished the book, it may, not necessarily will, fall into focus as a whole and be remembered by its merit so considered; but for the time of reading, the chapter is the dominating factor. The vision of the emotional imagination is very short but also very intense.

Meltzer does place a great importance on each scene captivating the reader's attention. He knows how to write a scene so that it draws you in and Rags Morales's art helps with this. What's key here is that the quiet scenes do this just as well as the shocking, suspenseful ones. There's a rise and fall pattern throughout the story so it's not all just action, death and suspense, but it's always interesting and captivating.

Ultimately, I think Identity Crisis fulfills enough of Chandler's criteria to be considered a success. While the mystery itself is deeply flawed in its execution and lack of logic in some points, Meltzer obviously made a choice to emphasise character, preferring to use the murder mystery as a catalyst for the story of superheroes and their families. That's a valid choice and the story itself is engaging and works as a result.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: Wildcats Version 3.16

[Continuing my look at Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0. New posts Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

You'll note that in my little "intro/infotag" bit at the beginning of these posts, I refer to it as "Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0" instead of "Joe Casey's run on Wildcats Version 3.0" like I do with every other book. It occurs to me that this may be perceived as a slight against Dustin Nguyen when really it's just that this book is Joe Casey's book. It stems from his work on Wildcats volume two and he writes the entire thing. This is Nguyen's last issue on the book, although he provides the covers for the rest of the series.

I don't think I've discussed his art at all, because I'm a literary critic and don't know how to discuss art exactly. Also, my focus is Casey. That said, Nguyen's art on this book is quite good. He does 16 issues (plus eight more covers) with great skill. I find his work a little cartoony or simplistic at times, but it realy set the tone for the book. I'm particularly impressed at how he handles talking head scenes since he is very good with action, but the non-action stuff shines. His figures can be a little stiff, but this was earlier in his career and he's only gotten better since. Not only that, he didn't miss an issue until leaving the book and, if I recall correctly, the series stayed on schedule. His art is also a nice contrast to Sean Phillips's work on the previous book, which is naturally dark and ink-heavy, while Nguyen's work is much brighter with thinner lines. Since this book is a brighter, more hopeful one, the shift in art is very appropriate.

Also, apologies for the short post on issue 15, but there wasn't much there. Thankfully, this issue has a bit more going on.

Wax continues to act as the now-dead Downs. What I find interesting is that in some panels, he's Wax and in others, he's Downs. He visits Miriam in the hospital and appears as Downs except for his shadow and in a single panel--it's designed to show how much he truly cares for her.

Throughout the issue are three full-page TV ads involving the new Halo cars. The first is for a movie, "The Longest Ride," which features the new Halo Predator (sports car), and then two more for the Halo Prestige (luxury car) and the Halo Panda (family SUV). I like the consistency of the names and how each works with the type of car. The ads are kind of hokey, but work.

We finally see the rebuilt Ladytron as Grifter Version 3.0 and Cole Cash controlling her. Nothing major happens, but I do like the subtle touch of having her smoke a cigarette--despite the fact that Cash isn't there to enjoy it. Or, is the sensitivity of the robot that great that he can virtually smoke?

Dolby continues to have nightmares about his activities as the new Grifter. Marlowe seems satisfied with the car part of Halo's business, but is already looking ahead to taking over an ISP and extending Halo's reach into that area as well. World dominaton through corporate takeovers.

The Coda dispatch the Grand Sarin to kill Zealot. The Grand Sarin looks exactly like Boba Fett.

The issue ends in Washington with the president meeting with a senator and one of the members of his cabinet regarding Marlowe and Halo--where he's being discussed as a rival country more than a businessman. His brash style is obviously pissing people off. The question here is his motivation: why is making this sort of technology available? What is his ultimate goal? We, as readers, almost want to jump into the comic and assure these guys that Marlowe is doing good, but he's not, really. Marlowe's goals would, ultimately, eliminate government and the conception of nation states, it seems. Marlowe has, in fact, begun the first steps to overthrowing not just the United States government but all governments.

Next issue, Sean Phillips returns and we get some more insight into Agent Wax.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Splash Page 24: The Ambitious Failure

In this week's Splash Page, Tim Callahan and I discuss the ambitious failure. Tim likes to think this is because of a post he did on Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, but I was already writing that Deathblow post by that point. It's just that I was very, very slow with that post, so it got posted nearly a week later. How much does that suck? Actually, not that much, since what does it matter? But, then again, I felt the need to bring it up, so it must matter some... gee, I dunno.

Basically, this week, we talk about Deathblow, Southland Tales, Charlatan Ball, Countdown, Raymond Carver versus Philip K. Dick, and how it's all really bullshit. That's right, we get to the end and realise that we're just talking bullshit. Maybe I should give Tim more credit for this one actually...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: Wildcats Version 3.15

[Continuing my look at Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0. New posts Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

The confrontation between Agents Wax and Downs is quick as Downs tries to shoot Miriam and Wax uses his powers to make Downs kill himself. Quick and effective. Wax then assumes Downs's identity using his powers.

This issue suffers from continuing to set things up, particularly stories that... seem antiquated somehow. A good chunk of the issue is taken up by Zealot fighting Coda and Cole Cash testing out his new artificial Grifter proxy--the rebuilt body of Maxine "Ladytron" Manchester, which he controls in a fluid tank where his movements are mimicked by the robot. We don't actually see "her" yet. The concept is rather intriguing, though; in one step, Cash rejoins the field, does so as a woman AND as an artificial lifeform similar to Jack Marlowe. Grifter Version 3.0 matches the book, in a way.

The issue ends with a little bit more on the Halo cars where it's revealed that they've received top marks from consumer studies in all areas and there's a lot of buzz, particularly concerning the limitless energy source powering each car. Marlowe makes a nice little statement about how it's about time this has happened and it is for the betterment of the world. Nothing too original.

Basically, the book is in... well, not a holding pattern--it's just more concerned with action and violence than corporate intrigue and politics. It can't seem to break free of its roots. And things don't get better in coming issues.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I Bought Comics: Fourth Week of July 2008

[In which I discuss the comics I paid legal tender for on this fine July Wednesday... I bought many comics with my legal tender... I also bought a coke slushy with legal tender... And I'm listening to a CD I bought earlier this year with legal tender... I like the term "legal tender" today...]

Oh, I haven't read Glamourpuss #2 yet. I began it, but it requires more attention than I feel like giving right now. Maybe I'll say a few words later this week or just jump it in with next week's books.

Gravel #3

...holy shit, I forgot this comic even existed. I missed it, because seeing how I buy Hellblazer in trades, having a monthly book (or something approximating one) that's devoted to magic is good. Particularly since William Gravel is a pretty unique figure within magic. In this issue, he continues to hunt down the Minor Seven and actually encounters one with some brains. Funny that. Normally, I like Oscar Jiminez's art, but his Gravel doesn't work for me. Too skinny, too ragged... Everything else he draws works for me; he just can't do the main character quite right. Jiminez's figures have always leaned towards the lanky side of things, so it's not surprising, but Gravel is a big guy who should scare you a bit with his size. He's a soldier and Jiminez draws him more like a Constantine. Ah well. I'm tempted to go back and reread the two-and-a-half issues that came before this one since it's been so long. Hopefully they'll get this book back on track since it's the closest thing Avatar has to a flagship book these days (well, one that someone may give a fuck about), which I find funny since Hellblazer is the spine of Vertigo (in my opinion, at least) and Avatar is a place that out Vertigos Vertigo (or seems to want to sometimes). A comparison between Constantine and Gravel would almost certainly point out many fundamental differences between Vertigo and Avatar. Someone up for that?

The Immortal Iron Fist #17

"New Iron Fist Creative Team Doesn't Suck!" the headlines read across the blogosphere... Not a bad start. Of course, not quite where the book was, but Duane Swierczynski does his best to continue the Fraction/Brubaker plots while also injecting his own stuff. Travel Foreman's art does little for me, but it doesn't interfere with the story, so that's a pass from me. I'm glad I didn't drop this book since Swierczynski's work here is better than it is on Cable. A lot happens in this issue compared to not much happening over with our mutant friend. I'm on board, boys.

Liberty Comics

Picked this up for three reasons:

1. New Boys story by Ennis and Robertson.

2. New Criminal story by Brubaker and Phillips.

3. Fantastic way of giving money to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

There's a lot more here than the two stories I was interested in and most of them are decent. The Boys story is kind of funny as Hughie makes a sales pitch to all of the superhero fans out there--basically, donate money and your favourite heroes won't get fucked up by the Boys. It's a nice little joke.

The Criminal story does a good job of working within the context of that series and within the context of the overall book here. The message in most stories deal with freedom of speech and not being silenced by "authority." The Criminal story has Tracy Lawless visit a reporter and discuss what happens to reporters with integrity.

The other stuff here is decent, too. Some new work by Darwyn Cooke is always cool; I rather like Rick Veitch's Brat Pack pin-up--same with Arthur Adams's contribution. If you didn't buy this book, make sure to. It's easily worth the four bucks cover price.

The New Avengers #43

Insight into the ship full of "heroes" that are really Skrulls as "Captain America" dies. Whoo. Again, a whole issue given to this? It's not bad, it's just not great.

Omega the Unknown #10

The shop had a copy this week! YAY! An odd end to an odd series, but entirely appropriate. I always like it when the cover of a comic acts as the first panel, too. Am going to reread this series as a whole in the next week at some point. Really, it was good. The end here is chilling and depressing, in a way--but not, almost. I don't know.

Uncanny X-Men #500

Fraction joins Brubaker on the book here, so, what the fuck, let's check it out, shall we? Rather mediocre, really. Not bad, but nothing here that makes me want to buy another issue. The Magneto stuff wasn't too bad, but everything else was just too... I don't know... cutesy? This is a cute book. It's all "Things are so good that we're going to get pissed off about an art exhibit!" and shit. Really? We're at the point where it's the X-Men versus an art exhibit? Throw in art by artists whose work I don't like and... well, sorry, folks, but no.

Youngblood #4

Still not sure about this book. Casey seems to have a plan, particularly with how he moves the team away from its reality TV show here (leaving its new leader to fight the villains alone... ouch!), but... it's also kind of bland in how it does it all. There hasn't been any really insightful commentary on "superheroes as TV stars" nor any real drive towards rising above that beyond Shaft kind of telling them to. Maybe next issue will do it better since it looks like they're introducing a new Youngblood team and the return of Televillain... This book was supposed to reclaim Youngblood as the supposedly forward-thinking book it once was (and, if you look at the early stuff on a purely conceptual level, it was in its own way) and has yet to. And, like Gravel, it needs to get back on schedule.

That's it for this week.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: Wildcats Version 3.14

[Continuing my look at Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0. New posts Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

One of the things I particularly like about this issue is the beginning where we get a window into CC Rendozzo's life now that she has her son back. Basically, her son hates her, wants to go back to his father to resume his training, and is a complete little shit. It reminds me of Cole Cash and Jack Marlowe. It's an extreme parallel, but Marlowe is CC while Cash is Donovan; the former has his ideas about how things should be, the latter has different ideas and wants to do things his own way. Now, Cash is an adult and could leave at any time, but he's also more experienced than the kid--he knows the importance of familial bonds and having a place in the world. Cash could leave and were he younger, he would, but he's not a young man anymore. Despite his disagreements with Marlowe, there's a part of him that not only needs Marlowe, there's a part of him that wants to stay where he is.

That said, Cash does get to do a little field work in this issue. He goes along with the Beef Boys and, when things get too rough, he shoots a bazooka out the back of a van. He even has his mask on. Because, while he needs and wants to stay with Halo, he's got to be true to himself. This scene further foreshadows his re-entry into the field--albeit in a compromised manner.

The situation with Agent Wax and his boss, Agent Downs progresses to a dangerous spot as Downs sets Wax up to find Downs and his wife, Miriam in the sewer, far from the eyes of the world, where things can be settled. Downs figures out that Wax has superpowers and it looks like he's going to kill both Wax and Miriam. But, that's next issue.

The main plot here is the unveiling of the new Halo cars. First, there's the product placement in a blockbuster film. Remember the film director from issue five? He's back and he's been "bribed" to do some reshoots with a new Halo Predator. Although, the gift is more a nicety by Dolby since Halo owns Belljar, which owns the studio that's making the film and getting reshoots done isn't a problem, really. A subtle showing that Dolby knows that brute force isn't always necessary--something Marlowe tends to fall back on a bit much, because of his past. There's also hints that this is too big a step, these cars that don't require gas. I mean, Halo cars are outfitted with Halo batteries as their power source and those batteries have an infinite amount of power... it kind of changes the way the world works rather quickly, doesn't it? Casey drops a few hints about the upcoming political backlash Marlowe and Halo will face.

Next issue, Wax kills Downs and assumes his identity.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

U.S. v. T.H.E.M. with Little Ol' Me Stuck in the Middle

I'm not sure what to make of Brian Azzarello's nine issues of Deathblow, "...And then You Live!". I read the book faithfully when it came out, hoping it would all make sense as a whole. On Saturday night, I read the series in one sitting for the first time and am still not sure. I know that this book was a failure, but I'm usually interested in failures. Failure is so much more interesting than success, I find. In failure you can see ambition and possibilities, whereas success is so static. Failure leads to unaswered questions and needed efforts for explanations; success has everything laid out for you in a neat little row. One of the reasons I enjoy discussing Joe Casey's work so much is that he is, more often than not, a failure. His work fails a lot because he is so ambitious and willing to try new things. He's not afraid to fail.

And, here, I don't think Brian Azzarello was either. Anyone with half a brain could see that something wasn't working in the first issue of Deathblow and it never got back on track. But, that's okay, it's an interesting sort of failure.

I'm having a hard time figuring out exactly what sort of story is being told here. Is it meant to be a serious look at the world today? Or, is it an absurdist comedy of some sort? Is it satire or spoof? It's a book filled with humour, but is that the overall point? And, if it is a comedy, is that why it failed?

The plot is both simple and needlessly complex (in that absurd sort of way). Michael Cray, codename Deathblow, has been in a foreign (Middle Eastern) prison (or, detention centre) for the past six years and presumed dead. He is rescued by International Operations and the American military (U.S.). They believe he is telling the truth about what happened in this six years, but they can't trust him, because who knows what sort of brainwashing he's undergone. He could be working for T.H.E.M. (The Hidden Extreme Militia) and we can't have that. So, they set Cray up in New York with a family he doesn't remember having and condition him to have an aversion to violence. They make him a victim, a role he embraces and channels into vigilante activity. Meanwhile, he makes friends with Mr. Jiminy, a talking dog, and is being hounded by a gen-active teleporter (Jump). His "kids" discover his nightly activities and are ordered to "earn a vacation," so Cray kills them and the nanny (his wife died before he was rescued--a wife he doesn't remember, but whose death affects him as if he knew and loved her). He is taken in by the dogs who are actually T.H.E.M. and have undergone species reassignment surgery. They attempt to kidnap a military scientist, but he is saved by Jump. Jump then kidnaps Cray, and he finds out that Jump and the doctor are part of the Underground, which plans to set off a gen-active bomb... maybe, but probably not. Ultimately, it becomes a giant cluster fuck where Cray discovers that Mr. Jiminy is the leader of T.H.E.M., but before he can kill the dog, IO does, so Cray sets off the gen-active bomb. This results in genetic mutations in people (Marvel superhero analogies--we see Giant-Man, Wasp, Spider-Man and young kids who resemble the X-Men) and kills Cray. But, will Cray stay dead when his superpower seems to be coming back from the dead? He died three times in prison and always came back. But who knows.

As you can see, it's a paradoxically simple/complex plot, and I don't know what to make of it all.

T.H.E.M. is heavily implied to be Islamic in nature, but also communist. The references in their language aren't exactly clear with references to virgins in heaven and the evil capitalist system (which could also point to Islamic terrorists). However, the specifics of their cause isn't important, because T.H.E.M. is just a blanket group, a way of identifying the evil other. T.H.E.M. is every terrorist group, every foreign enemy, everything America has to fear.

While T.H.E.M. stands for The Extreme Hidden Militia (even the word militia alludes to American militias, which are the enemy as well), U.S. is never explained, but I assume it refers to the United States, but does it? It obviously doubles as "us" and "them" for that classic cliche, so there are at least two meanings for each acronym. But, does "U.S." have any other meaning?

This whole idea of "us versus them" is central to the book as the actual objectives of each group are never outlined beyond defeating the other side. And Cray is stuck in the middle, not so much wanted for any reason other than to prevent the other side from having him. He's often asked if he's with U.S. or T.H.E.M. and, of course, he doesn't know what that means. While we, the readers, can see that these are acronyms, he just hears the words us and them... and how is he to know who us and them are? In a way, Cray is an innocent, he is a relic from a pre-9/11 world and doesn't have the proper contextual intelligence to properly understand what is going on around him. Throughout the series, everyone knows more than he does.

Azzarello said that what brought him to Deathblow were recent events (and Jim Lee asking), which is evident. Look at the cover to issue one (at the beginning of the post) and how it references kidnapping videos by terrorists, but also the placing of bags over the heads of US-taken "enemy combatants." Right there, we're given a clue to this idea that the two sides don't matter, only the dominance of one. U.S. and T.H.E.M. are the same thing! Same methods, same goals, it's just semantics of which wins. Both attempt to use Cray for their own purposes and hail him as a hero when he actions accidentally cross paths with their goals. There's a dualism there, which relates to the two parallel red lines that are Cray's trademark facial markings, but also appear on every cover: two identical lines that run in the same (although, possibly the opposite) direction--U.S. and T.H.E.M. are those markings.

That duality continues in Cray himself; he is both a confident killing machine and an insecure, confused man looking for his place in the world. The conditioning of Cray after his rescue purposefully robs him of his confidence and security, it places him in an unknown environment--one of peace. Cray is at home in war and is uneasy when trying to raise a family and running errands. We don't actually see him do much with his family, though, because he has little to no interest in his kids. When he's out running errands, at one point, he purposefully drops his wallet in an effort to create conflict, to give himself an excuse to become that killing machine again. Michael Cray is America in this post-9/11 world: uneasy, uncomfortable, confused, and looking to strike out at an enemy, even one created exclusively for the purpose of fighting.

Actually, almost every element of this book points to America in the post-9/11 world. In the second issue, General Ruckus (oh, you've got to love that name) and Ivana discuss why they placed Cray in New York, and New York becomes the microcosm of post-9/11 America. Invana says:


It's not hard to see how New York here acts as a stand-in for the United States as a whole, particularly in light of reactions to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nor, when confronted with the over-the-top patriotism of a large segment of the population, especially as it relates to the country's standing compared to everywhere else in the world. Or, as it relates to the goings-on in anywhere else in the world--that simply doesn't matter as much, if at all.

The idea of "victim" here is important as Cray recasts himself as a victim in order to act as a vigilante, much like the US. (Before I continue, I also want to point out that this "victim becoming vigilante" is also a commentary on superheroes in general, almost all of which suffer some sort of trauma that spurs on their crimefighting career. Are all superheroes victims, I wonder?) Because the US was attacked, it invaded Afghanistan with the full support of the Western world, for the most part. But, it also invaded Iraq, which was unrelated to its victimisation. Now, Cray partly does that when he becomes a vigilante: it's one thing to react to those who attack you, it's another to react to possible threats. Granted, Cray does only attack those engaged in criminal activity.

What's also interesting is the guise Cray chooses to wear:

A black robe and hood that is both the garb of a superhero vigilante, but also reference the Ku Klux Klan, another American group that considers itself a victim, of sorts. The KKK is reacting to what it perceives as threats that harm its chosen lifestyle. The validity of this perceived threat isn't the issue, but how the group chooses to view itself: as victims. Not that important (or effective, necessarily), but obviously purposeful. When Cray first appears in this garb, the television says, "...AND THE HAUNTING FACE OF THE VICTIM," which is meant to be both ironic and meaningful. In the picture, Cray looks like anything but a victim and we can't actually see his face; to transcend his victimhood, he must lose his identity and become faceless.

This idea of loss of identity or humanity turns up throughout the story, particularly with T.H.E.M., who are humans surgically altered to be dogs, so they can be more effective (I assume). It's also a little joke by Azzarello, basically calling terrorists dogs, but also dehumanising them--which the government and media like to do (whether they're right or wrong to do so is another issue). Why not cast "them" as animals when that's how we prefer to view them?

At the same time, one of the big innovations of U.S. is turning rats into soldiers via surgical modification and armament. This could be a commentary on the US military's practice of lowering its standards for recruitment because of demand for new soldiers--basically, training and arming the unqualified. Also, there's a habit of dehumanising the military, too--by both the left- and right-wings. To the left, they are generalised as thugs and killers of the innocent (in private, of course, never to be said aloud in front of people), and, to the right, they're all heroes to be reveered and praised. The humanity of the soldiers is often forgotten despite such a focus on "the troops" (itself a dehumanising phrase).

Then, there's the cyborg dinosaur soldier. Yeah. A cyborg dinosaur soldier. Is it any wonder that I view this is a black comedy? This... character, let's call it a "he," shows up in issue four and works for U.S. He doesn't acually speak in anything but gruns, but we're provided with translations of these grunts. His first off-the-wall monologue:


Azzarello is having a lot of fun with this character (and continues to do so whenever he appears), just going for absurdly violent and crude mutterings. But, this character is another form of commentary on soldiers and black ops military types. Notice that his speech is laden with not just violence, but sexual imagery as well. In stereotypes, the military is associated with those things (again, whether rightly or wrongly is a different question), so this creature that doesn't just obey the reptilian side of the brain, it is a reptile, focuses only on those two urges: violence and sex. Now, there is the question of whether or not he actually says any of this since all we get are grunts. That first section quoted above appears as "OARRAGH SHRAA AARR," which somehow means "I WILL EAT YOUR FLESH. AND THE FLESH OF YOUR CHILDREN. AND YOUR CHILDREN'S CHILDREN"? Is that what he actually meant or is Azzarello playing with our expectations, that this is what we expect the cyborg dinosaur soldier to mean to say? Are the translations true or are they just our assumptions?

As a result of his "extracurricular activities," Cray's "children" are revealed to be military operatives who are assigned to "earn a vacation." Before I go on, the use of language in this book is astounding as euphemisms are used over and over again. At the end of the first issue, Ivana refers to Guantanamo Bay as a "prisoner of war camp," but General Ruckus corrects her: it's a detention centre. That's actually a distinction Azzarello loved to make in his promotional interviews--whenever he referred to Cray as having been in prison the past six years, he always corrected himself. Also, in the first issue, the interegator of Cray refers to the military who come to rescue Cray as "liberators." Azzarello clearly enjoys the language games the government likes to engage in, mocking them when he can. He also just likes language in general and what it can do. Cray bets on football with Mr. Jiminy and, when he loses, the dog rebuffs him for betting against the Patriots. Or, a television (maybe radio) pundit playing around with the terror alert levels. Language play like this isn't exclusive to Deathblow, it's something Azzarello enjoys elsewhere, but I figured I'd point out a bit of it.

Anyway, I'm not exactly what the children being soldiers means. Like the rats, it could show the extreme lengths to which U.S. go to win (much like T.H.E.M. infiltrating New York as dogs). It also plays upon the paranoia of sleeper cells, but, here, it's U.S. that have one, showing again that there isn't much of a difference between the two sides. Cray kills them and doesn't remember it exactly. Because of his conditioning, there is a separation of his personalities, in a way. Throughout the story, he reacts oddly when people call him Deathblow despite him recognising that that is his codename in the first issue. The invocation of the name here allows him to become the killing machine he actually is and it's what everyone refers to him as after, except for Mr. Jiminy

The language games continue after Cray is kidnapped by Underground (United Not Deterred Even Routinely. Given Righteousness, Or Unity Neither Determined), they ask him if he's with us or them and Cray responds, "I'M WORKING FOR ME," which they take to be an acronym and Jump says he'll look it up online. Here, Doctor Romulus (along with Jump, the only other member of the Underground that we see) reveals that "THE TRUTH IS NEITHER THEM NOR US BELIEVES FREEDOM IS OBTAINABLE WITHOUT THE SUBJUGATION OF THE OTHER. / NOT LIKE UNDERGROUND--WE WANT FREEDOM FOR EVERYONE. / AND THAT'S WHERE THE GEN-FACTOR COMES IN." Of course, this argument only works if you believe Romulus and ignore that he's got his own agenda. Each of these groups say they're fighting for the same thing, but keep only fighting one another.

Ultimately, Cray is the only one who works outside of these labels, because he works for himself. He doesn't trust any of the groups and is not above killing any of them. Underground plans to use a gen-factor dirty bomb, but Cray gets ahold of it and seems ready to give it to T.H.E.M. when he learns that Mr. Jiminy is the leader of T.H.E.M.--and then the dog is killed by U.S. This action shows exactly how out of date Cray is, because it causes him to set off the bomb. Cray is a man out of time who still believes in loyalty and honour--and since his best friend betrayed him, dammit, he should have killed him, not U.S. Not only that, but this scene shows how someone becomes a terrorist, in a way. I'm really not certain that this is what Azzarello intended, but, before Mr. Jiminy is killed, Cray makes reference to not wanting to be a soldier anymore. He doesn't side with U.S., T.H.E.M., or Underground. Then, U.S. kill Mr. Jiminy and Cray discusses some things with Ivana before blowing the bomb up--because U.S. killed his best friend. He becomes a terrorist, first, after his family is taken away from him (he participates in the kidnapping of Romulus) and, then, after his best friend is killed--all by U.S. Now, the story wasn't working by this point, but is this where it falls apart? Does it become too serious, too didactic? There's nothing funny about setting off a dirty bomb in the middle of New York because the military shot your dog.

The gen-factor bomb, though, has the intended effect: it gives people superpowers. Here, we get various Marvel stand-ins--Azzarello referencing that those heroes were created during the Cold War and out of nuclear worry, while, this time, they're created out of terrorism. The bomb didn't kill anyone except for Cray, either. It just gave them powers. What does that mean? Is it just part of the absurd joke of the book? I honestly don't know.

The ending has change happen, though, which references a speech Ruckus gives in the first issue where he says that the only thing he hates is change. Cray is a terrorist here because he's an agent of change? He didn't kill anyone but himself, he just changed the world. And even death won't stop him for long--he was killed three times before and came back. He's a superhero, the catalyst for the creation of other superheroes... Since these new heroes are all Marvel one, is Deathblow their Captain America? A military hero thought dead, but soon to come back? Is this book really just a cynical, post-9/11 rewriting of the beginning of the Marvel universe? And, if so, why? Just for a laugh? Maybe to explicitly state that this isn't a serious comic, that you can tell stories that express contemporary concerns in a variety of ways? Is Azzarello just asking, "Why so serious?" Or, is he reminding us that, at one time, superhero comics did reflect contemporary concerns? Of course, that still happens, so I'm not sure. I will tell you that I enjoy that I'm not entirely sure what's being done here. And the final issue ends with some word play, of course: Jump tells Cray what happened while eating an apple by his grave and, when he walks away, says,


This book is steeped in the contemporary world and is not a serious look at it. I think the problem with the readers is that they took it as a serious book when it's a dark comedy of the absurd. It's Brian Azzarello having himself a laugh over a drink. Does it work? No. Azzarello attempts to do a large commentary on the post-9/11 world, treating it as an absurdist comedy (and probably rightfully so), and fails. But, it does say a lot of things no one would expect it to see and is worth a read. I won't lie and say that it's a good comic--it's an interesting failure of comic.

[The trade paperback, Deathblow: ...And then You Live! is scheduled for an August 6 release and should cost $19.99 US.]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: Wildcats Version 3.13

[Continuing my look at Joe Casey's Wildcats 3.0. New posts Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

The larger story of the second year "begins" here (it was actually set up in Wildcats volume two, but let's ignore that): Coda War One. A good chunk of this issue features Zealot in Spain killing Coda. We're also introduced to FBI agents Chandler and Addison who are assigned to work with Agent Orange on tracking and taking out a group of female assassins in Europe. These two things are connected, obviously.

Agent Wax shows Cole Cash the torso of Maxine "Ladytron" Manchester, which is being kept in a tank in some room in the Halo building. Cash doesn't care, but this scene does get the thought process started when Cash says, "ALMOST A SHAME, REALLY. SHE WAS ONE HELLUVA WAR MACHINE... A WALKING ARSENAL..." Cash is about two steps away from rejoining the field without leaving the building. Grifter Version 3.0? Heh.

Wax's subplot also kicks up as he reveals that he's been demoted to motor pool, which Cash finds pathetic. Also, that condom Wax left at the NPS fundraiser after having sex with his boss's wife? It was found, analysed and now Agent Downs knows that Wax and his wife have had sex. We also get a short scene involving Wax and Miriam where she's woken from his influence and pretty much reaffirms that this is rape. Wax sees it a little differently, saying, "THIS MAY NOT BE ONE HUNDRED PERCENT CONSENSUAL, BUT YOU'VE HAD YOUR MOMENTS OF WILLINGNESS, BELIEVE ME. [...] LOOK, YOU'VE TOLD ME BEFORE YOU WEREN'T HAPPY. LIFESTYLE CAN'T MAKE UP FOR A LACK OF PASSION. YOU SAID IT YOURSELF. ONE OF YOUR MORE PROFOUND MOMENTS UNDER THE INFLUENCE..." These short bits of dialogue hint that Wax cares for Miriam and, more than that, doesn't view his actions as that wrong. He sees himself as something of a hero, in a way. He appreciates her where her husband cheats on her; he provides passion and caring... I mean, he likes her so much that he keeps using his hypnosis powers to fuck her... Classy guy, a regular knight in shining armour, eh?

Rounding out this issue are a couple of Marlowe/Dolby scenes where work progresses on manufacturing Halo cars that will run on Halo car batteries as their only fuel source.

The Coda, the FBI, Grifter Version 3.0, Wax/Downs, and the Halo car are the plots for year two and this issue acts as an introduction to all of them. Nothing of great import, just set-up mostly.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Best of 2008: Halfway Mark Rankings

Over at his blog, Tim Callahan posted his top ten comics of the year so far, so I figured I'd follow suit.

1. Casanova
2. Scalped
3. Criminal
4. Omega the Unknown
5. Thunderbolts
6. The Boys
7. Captain America
8. Batman
9. Young Liars
10. Captain Britain and MI:13

Hmmm... half of this list is repeated from my best of 2007 list, but some comics have changed position. Guess we'll see where things are in six months.

The Splash Page 23: Authorial Voice

Sorry about last week's lack of Splash Page, but Sequart's site was down. Tim Callahan and I had one all ready to go, but we couldn't get it to you. Very frustrating. But, here it is this week! YAY! We discuss authorial voice, "stewarding" characters, and manage to include references to many of our own little private obsessions. Like Joe Casey and Hellblazer.

So, yeah, go read all about that suff in last week/this week's THE SPLASH PAGE!!!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Joe Casey Comics: Wildcats Version 3.12

[Continuing my look at Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0. New posts Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.]

Did you know that this is the 500th GraphiContent post? Well, it is, and is there any better way to reach that number than to discuss the final issue of the first year of Joe Casey's Wildcats Version 3.0? Ah, probably, but this is still pretty good, eh? Let's get on with "Level One Effect"...

In this issue, Halo buys the Belljar Company, which gives them access to all sorts of media outlets and, well, furthers Jack Marlowe's path to world domination. But, for the first time, we see that he needs others to accomplish his goals. Up until this point, there has been a sense that Marlowe uses others because he wants to for various reasons (loyalty and appearances being the two major reasons), but, here, he demonstrates that he needs Dolby to help him. Part of buying Belljar means dealing with its shareholders, a task Marlowe has no experience in since Halo is privately owned. That isn't that surprising, but Casey also shows Marlowe needing others in a subtler fashion.

Near the beginning of the issue, Cole Cash is doing physical therapy to recover from his leg injuries when Marlowe appears to tell Cash of the discovery that a racecar was somehow powered by a Halo car battery after it ran out of gas. Now, this is partly Casey reminding us of this development, but it also demonstrates Marlowe's social needs. He stops by to tell Cash about his day, basically. Now, Marlowe and Cash don't particularly like one another, but they're family and that matters. It's a subtle reminder of their dependency on one another and that Marlowe is more than a distant, emotionally detached android. Cash provides no insights, nor does Marlowe solicit any. It's a social visit disguised as an employee briefing.

Marlowe manages to convince Dolby to return to work despite Dolby still having nightmares about shooting Special Agent Tyro. Marlowe makes a convincing case by explaining his goals and by telling Dolby that he needs him. And, yeah, Dolby helps the shareholders meeting go well.

Cash even apologises to Dolby for ignoring Dolby's lack of desire to be the new Grifter, focusing on his talent instead. Cash does provide insights that we've been aware of for some time: "NOW IT'S LOOKING LIKE I'M THE ONE OUT OF FASHION AROUND HERE. / YOUR BOSS HAS A NEW WAY OF DOING THINGS, AND I'VE BEEN FEELING... OBSOLETE." It's been apparent that Cash is part of the past, while Marlowe is the future. In this series, Cash has been progressing, but not enough. He's still a man of violence, a "gunslinger" and "loose cannon" as he puts it. And he admits that using Dolby as he did was probably a way of getting back at Marlowe.

There's an interlude in this issue where Agent Wax has sex with Miriam Downs at a National Park Service party... and makes the mistake of leaving the condom on the floor of the custodian's closet. This is not good for Wax.

The issue ends with Marlowe looking at holograms of Cash, Dolby, Garfield, Agent Orange, Wax and CC Rendozzo... and it's suggested that these are representations of each of them as they are at the moment. Surveillance footage, if you will. Marlowe spying on his people and musing over the future, while fondling a Halo battery. In the final panel, he says, "IT'S GOING TO BE AN INTERESTING YEAR." It has been and the next one certainly is as well.

On Saturday, we begin the second and final year of the book.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Bought Comics: Third Week of July 2008

[In which I review the comics I bought today. Normally, I review comics on Sundays, but I figured, what the hell, I'll review stuff the day I get it instead of waiting. Reviews are random, personal and nonsensical. Not to be taken too seriously.]

Goddamn shop didn't have any copies of Omega the Unknown #10. Why? WHY? And it was too hot for me to consider hitting the other shop in town on the off chance it would have a copy (unlikely at best). Dammit. Guess I'll have to wait until the next time I visit my parents to check the shops there. But, I did get many good comics, so let's get to those...

Captain America #40

What am I supposed to say about this book each month, really? It's quite good. It moves at a slow pace, but that works. This issue had a couple of big fights, including two Captains America--or, would that be "two Captain Americas"? Since I know it's "attornies general" or "surgeons general" or whatever when pluralised, so would it be "Captains America" or "Captain Americas"? Does it count as a proper name or an actual military designation?--both of which are not Steve Rogers despite one looking and sounding just like him. I'm a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but it did hit me that this series has really revolved around the concept of identity with the Red Skull taking over Lukin (kind of), Faustus messing around with people's heads, Bucky turning out to be a brainwashed Winter Soldier... is there anyone in this comic certain that they are who they think they are?

And I loved the end of this issue, because you just know the Red Skull wanted Sharon to have Rogers's kid so he could have a final victory over his arch-nemesis by raising the kid to be his successor... and look where Syn stabbed Sharon... oops.

But, yeah, good comic. I am looking forward to the day where I can spend a weekend rereading the entire epic story.

Charlatan Ball #2

I love books where Joe Casey can just do whatever he wants, because this man fails on epic levels sometimes. I'm not sure this book qualifies yet, but I do know that it's not working, partly because it has many Casey trappings. Oh look, there's a drug trip and a metafictional reference and a Kirby-esque artist and music lyrics and a cross between Silver Age and modern narration styles... It's already looking like a book that won't work... as it's not working now. It's too random and all over the place. It's entertaining, but lacks the focal point to pull it all together. Caesar the rabbit is the only character with... well, character. Chuck Amok is still a bit of a cypher--and a moronic one at that. I do admire Casey's "sink or swim" mentality regarding the storytelling, and Andy Suriano's art is decent enough, but... this book isn't doing it for me yet. Because I am a Casey fanatic, I'm sticking with it and hoping things will pick up. Even so, there is a lot here worth the cover price even if the book doesn't work.

Ghost Rider #25

Tan Eng Haut's art still doesn't wow me as much as Roland Boschi's did. Boschi's work was more gritty and rough, which suited the book more than Haut's slicker style. Not that Haut is that slick, just slicker than Boschi. I will admit that Haut's rendering of Ghost Rider's skull-face during the fight with the Deacon was well done. Very expressive. The rest of the issue, though... meh.

Jason Aaron's writing is still good. I'm still not sure I buy the whole "rogue angel trying to take over heaven" stuff--if only because the conception of "God" in this universe isn't defined enough for me. But then again, I also take terms like "omniscient" and "omnipotent" to mean that a rogue angel wouldn't be stupid enough to try to take on God and... well, God would know about it instantly. Hey, that's me. Thankfully, that element of the plot is not really important. All of the stuff involving Zadkiel is window dressing when you realise that this is just a straight-up revenge story. Johnny Blaze was fucked up by Zadkiel and wants to fuck him up in return. The rest doesn't really matter. Who cares why? I sure don't.

Mighty Avengers #16

While I enjoy that Bendis wants to go back and show us where Skrulls infiltrated Earth, using an entire issue to tell these stories is really fucking tedious. It's interesting to know that "Skrullektra's" death was planned and that she was who hired Electro to break into the Raft, but... yeah, an entire issue for that?

Scalped #19

This continues to be one of my favourite books as we begin a new story where Dash and Carol's relationship heats up some more. Aaron's writing on this book is rather compelling in its slow, methodical storytelling. He is taking his time to tell his story and that's one of the reasons I like this book so much. The plot is very important, but the emphasis is on the characters... and their actions dictate the plot. Honestly, I'm surprised this is a comic book and not an HBO series...

Davide Furno does art for this two-part story and his work is really good. His style is sketchy but still realistic--he gets across body language and facial expressions well.

One thing I'm confused about... how is this a horror book? It was nominated for some horror prize and I've seen it classified as horror elsewhere. I mean, sure, some horrific things happen, but I don't really see how this falls into the horror genre at all. Great that the book was nominated for an award--it should be nominated for many awards, but, really, it's a horror book?

War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #5

This was a good series that I'm going to have to reread now that it's complete. We get a nice little journey of Karl Kaufmann from eager wannabe war hero to seasoned cynical veterin. Kind of typical of Ennis, but also more optimistic than some of his other work. Kaufmann doesn't "damn" himself, he just gets a lot of reality shoved into his face. Of course, there is the obligatory "World War I was a fucking horrific waste of life" scene... but it's obligatory for a reason. Howard Chaykin's work is decent--I particularly loved the way he depicted Kaufmann walking through no man's land. And, come on, the joke twist on the name "Phantom Eagle" was fantastic--who saw that coming?

That does it for this week. Tomorrow, more Wildcats Version 3.0 commentary.