Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Another View: A Critical Examination of the Final Issue of Age of Ultron

I am proud to announce the first in a series of books collecting my various online writings on comics, Another View: A Critical Examination of the Final Issue of Age of Ultron. It collects the 31 posts that I did on Age of Ultron #10 in January 2014 over at Comics Should Be Good. It contains a new introduction, footnotes, and a generally cleaned up version of the text.

It is available in paperback and in eBook formats at Amazon.



It can also be found at any regional Amazon you prefer to use.

It's a purposefully small book, both in page count and dimensions. I went for a size closest to the one used for the 33 1/3 series. Something compact for a quicker read. Partly because I wanted to begin small, partly to get a little practice at putting these together. I have plans for future volumes and am already hard at work on the next collection. It will be a larger one, but focused on a single topic/series. It will feature more new content, at least two new pieces of writing that I plan to add along with various bonus features. I'm not sure when it will be out, possibly by the end of the year, maybe very early 2019. Beyond that one, I have some ideas, but nothing specific planned out.

So, if you feel so inclined, please buy a copy in your preferred format. I hope you enjoy.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

No Quarter

You'd be hard pressed to name anyone who worked on Thor between Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson, I bet.

Thor #340 shares a cover date of February 1984 with Saga of the Swamp Thing #21.

It's difficult to thoroughly discuss the first four issues of Grant Morrison's Animal Man run without going back to the first four issues of Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing run.

"Worldengine" is an aberration rather than a beginning.




"Manhattan. I've always loved it best at night. Lit up like a million riverside campfires. Where I am, it's so dark it breaks my heart. A skyscraper, abandoned by its builders. I know how it feels. The heights of Manhattan are no place to die."

You'd be hard pressed to name anyone who worked on Thor between Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson, I bet. I can name some, like Stan Lee continuing to write the title after Kirby left, or Roy Thomas or Len Wein or one of the Buscemas... But, the chasm between Kirby and Simonson is both vast and nonexistent. The former because it was 158 issues and nearly 13 years between Kirby's last Thor issue and Simonson's first; the latter, because I imagine a lot of people go from issue 179 to issue 337 with few or no stops for the comics that make up that chasm. With Thor runs, there are twin giants: Kirby and Simonson. The creator and the improver (the reviser? the revitaliser?) with everyone working in their shadows since. For Kirby, that's nothing new exactly; as the (co-)creator of so many superhero comics, everyone involved since is working in his shadow (or one of his contemporaries') to one degree or another. To establish his own shadow, Simonson looked to Kirby, but not to his Thor, as he wrote in his introduction to The Ballad of Beta Ray Bill collection: "My model for such a beginning came from the work that Jack Kirby had done for DC Comics some thirteen years earlier. When Jack began his Fourth World tetralogy for DC, he took the comic, JIMMY OLSEN, and revamped it completely. His first issue of Superman's pal was as different from the preceding issues as chalk is from cheese! The issue was riveting. It exploded with new ideas, new characters, new situations. I didn't have as many ideas as Jack; no one does. But I definitely wanted to begin my run on Thor with as dramatic break from the preceding issues as I possibly could." And then, he went on to become the second giant of Thor and cast his own shadow. Now, there's two shadows to escape.

Thor #340 shares a cover date of February 1984 with Saga of the Swamp Thing #21. That's a coincidence that I rather like for my own purposes. Speaking of shadows, Alan Moore casts the only shadow worthwhile when it comes to Swamp Thing, eclipsing those that came before him, including the creators of the character. Their work, highly regarded by many, true, is mostly put into a box called 'pre-Moore' and left for those that are curious to see what came before or are big fans of Bernie Wrightson. But, let's not kid ourselves. I'm sure there are some hardcore Neal Adams fans that obsess over him following directly on Thor after Kirby left, but those issues are mostly left for the hardcore. Same with pre-Moore Swamp Thing. But, when all things are considered, Swamp Thing is a minor character, mostly still regarded in any way because of Moore's work on the character. It's still a DC character, so it would always continue to recur, but not nearly as much as it has were it not for the run began with Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 (yes, yes, yes, Moore wrote the previous issue, too, but I'm trusting you to have more sense than that). But, the shadow that Moore casts isn't really over Swamp Thing (though he does cast a shadow there, of course). Moore casts a shadow over British comic writer (you could argue over comic writing, but...). He was the one that made the '80s 'British Invasion' happen. Without him, there's no Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Jamie Delano, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis... (all huge talents who probably would have made it in one way or another, definitely in the UK, but hard to say in the US exactly). So, there's his shadow, lingering over all of the British/UK writers to follow. Many have escaped (the names I listed being the main ones), but it still lingers to a degree (though, fading every year).

It's difficult to thoroughly discuss the first four issues of Grant Morrison's Animal Man run without going back to the first four issues of Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing run. Or, as Morrison put it in the introduction to the first Animal Man collection: "In 1987, at the height of the critical acclaim for Alan Moore's work on SWAMP THING and WATCHMEN, DC Comics dispatched a band of troubleshooters on what is quaintly termed a 'headhunting mission' to the United Kingdom. The brief was to turn up the stones and see if there weren't any more cranky Brit authors who might be able to work wonder with some of the dusty old characters languishing in DC's back catalogue." The tension, both real world and creative, between Moore and Morrison is so notable and longstanding that Elizabeth Sandifer is still in the midst of a massive multi-book series called The Last War in Albion tracing the whole thing through (and beyond) both men's careers and bodies of work. So, if Morrison is willing to introduce their major US superhero comic breakthrough book by acknowledging that it was Moore's success that made it possible, then you know that it's true. But, beyond that fact, you can't read the first four issues of Animal Man without referencing Saga of the Swamp Thing #21-24, because Morrison's work is in response to and in debt to those four issues. Out of the green and into the red.

"Worldengine" is an aberration rather than a beginning. It could have been the beginning of the third giant Thor run. It was not. It could have been the beginning of Warren Ellis's Saga of the Swamp Thing. It was not. Per Ellis, from The Captured Ghosts Interviews: "When I was offered Thor, that was probably a mistake. I think I wrote it 'cause I was so shocked at having been offered it. I wasn't very pleased with it. I wasn't au fait enough with the particular genre. Mike Deodato, I thought, did a very strong job as the artist, but I wasn't happy with the way I wrote it. It was one of those things I took not because I was trying to make a mark at Marvel, but because I thought -- I mean, it was still early days for me. I thought, 'Shit, if I don't take this, they might not offer me anything else! And they've offered me this! I should take this!' No, it was a mistake. Errors of youth." "Worldengine" came about because Ellis was too afraid to say no and he stuck around just for four issues, but those four issues follow the path already walked by Simonson, breaking from what came before as dramatically as possible; it was a defiant change in tone and style akin to Moore. But, the break was so dramatic, so specific, so startling, that it would difficult for anyone else to follow through on. It was so different that it was basically scorching the earth. It wasn't the beginning of a run. It was a hit and run. Simonson stayed; Moore stayed; Morrison stayed; Ellis left.

Walt Simonson began his run by introducing a strange alien worthy enough to carry Mjolnir.

Alan Moore began his run by revealing Swamp Thing was never human, was never Alec Holland.

Grant Morrison began their run by making the human race the antagonist for its treatment of animals.

Warren Ellis wrote a Thor story where Thor becomes mortal, loses his shirt, and fucks the Enchantress.

While some of the characters created after Kirby left Thor have stuck, none have become a standard part of Thor's title (and the Marvel Universe) like Beta Ray Bill. A horse-like alien aboard a spaceship that seems to pose a threat to Earth, Thor engages him in battle. It's an evenly matched fight and, at one point, Thor loses Mjolnir, a minute passes, he turns back to Don Blake... and the alien picks up the cane, hits it against a wall without any intent, and is transformed. He wears a costume like Thor's (though modified) and is able to carry Mjolnir. He is worthy. Odin comes to call Thor home to Asgard to assist with a massive threat and he takes Beta Ray Bill, thinking it is his son, leaving Blake alone in the storm left by the All-Father's wake, screaming "FATHER!" That's how Walt Simonson introduced Beta Ray Bill and began his Thor run. Bad guys had been able to match Thor in combat before. The stories wouldn't have been interesting (or possible) otherwise. Thor getting knocked on his ass wasn't new. Someone else picking up that cane, striking it, and being given Thor's powers, being able to lift and carry and command Mjolnir... Someone else being worthy. Now, that was new. That was different. That was making a statement.

Maybe there had been an 'everything you knew was wrong' sort of reboot before (I guess Moore's own Marvelman a year and a half or so prior would count), but this was probably the most high profile one. Swamp Thing has been shot dead. Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, is hired to do the autopsy and figure out how Alec Holland was transformed into Swamp Thing. He discovers a plant composed of human-like organs that serve no purpose other than to look like human organs. He figures it out: Swamp Thing is not a mutated human. It's a plant. Alec Holland was never transformed, a plant was. And you can't kill a plant with a gun. So, Woodrue revives Swamp Thing, leaves out his report, and arranges it so his employee is killed by a very confused, very angry plant who has just learned that it's not a man after all. Swamp Thing was never Alec Holland, it just thought it was. Everything you -- and the star of the comic -- knew was wrong. That was new. That was different. That was making a statement.

In contrast, Grant Morrison did 'everything you knew was wrong' in a completely different way. You thought Animal Man was a superhero when really he's not. He has superpowers and a costume that he doesn't really wear, but he's not a proper superhero. He's a suburban layabout husband who thinks he'll give being a hero another go. And how does he go about it? By going on a late night talk show. So, he's the guy that STAR Labs calls when Superman is too busy and everyone thinks that he can turn into animals. You've seen superheroes with families and superheroes who aren't necessarily the best, but a name superhero who's one step above being a wannabe? Animal Man was never really a superhero, you just thought he was. That was new. That was different. That was making a statement.

Warren Ellis didn't introduce a new character to challenge our preconceptions about Thor. He didn't reveal a dark secret from Thor's past that changed everything (thank christ). He didn't use a reality-altering megaevent to rearrange the details of his life and present a different sort of hero. He just turned him mortal, had his dad be an asshole, and had him fight some cyborg zombie vikings. It's a variation on the approach that Morrison did for Animal Man, but altered from him as much as he altered it from Moore. A radical change in circumstances, albeit a new one that left everything before completely intact. Ellis's approach was rooted in the basic origin of Thor, similar to how Simonson went back to the origin as well. Where Simonson honed in on the inscription on Mjolnir, Ellis picked the idea of Thor being made mortal, banished to Earth by his father to be given a lesson in humility. No separate identity this time; no (supposedly) loving lesson from Odin. Just sickness and death, because someone is fucking with the World-Ash. Thor speaks and thinks like we do, he's withering away, he's dirty and greasy and dying, he fights through a host of zombies, he see what's being done to the thing that controls everything, and he's smacked on the head. He's probably dead. That was new. That was different. That was making a statement.

The key to Beta Ray Bill wasn't the initial shock that he could hold Mjolnir. If that was all there was to the character, he never would have lasted. That's a great moment of shock to kick off a run, get attention, and dare readers to not come back next month. That's a route for a quick one-and-done character, not someone who has become like a brother to Thor, a trusted ally of Asgard and some of Marvel's cosmic heroes. No, the key to Beta Ray Bill is the backstory. The member of an alien race who gave up his life to be altered into the perfect warrior and protector as his people fled their destroyed world, pursued by an unending supply of space demons. His only thoughts are of his people, but, when faced with Thor and Odin, he finds his own sense of honour -- his worthiness -- prevents him from taking Mjolnir, a weapon that could help him better save his people. He's so noble that he gave up everything for his people -- and is then so noble that he can't rob a man of his birthright to continue protecting them. He's been alone in the universe and, now, he's faced with a race of people who may not be his people, but are a match for who he's become. A warrior race of honour and nobility... One that sees his internal struggle and manages to give him both the weapon he needs and maintain his honour by not taking it from Thor. Beta Ray Bill is so worthy that Odin makes him his very own Mjolnir, a Stormbreaker. He's not just the first being we've seen lift Mjolnir aside from Thor and Odin, he's the first being we've seen welcomed into the inner circle of Odin's family like that. He's basically introduced, fights Thor twice, and is adopted as a member of the house of Odin. He's a shock, he's a tragic backstory, and he's a match for Thor...

At the end of "The Anatomy Lesson," (and, as a quick aside, you know how influential a single comic is when everyone knows its title like that... there aren't a lot of single issues in the history of American superhero comics where everyone knows its title; they're more likely to know the issue number than the story title) we've been given a piece of information that we didn't know: Swamp Thing was never Alec Holland, it just thought it was. However, that revelation wasn't the sort where everything falls into place and we all go "Of course! How was I so blind?" It just raises more questions. If Swamp Thing is a plant who thought he was human, was it a conscious being before the accident? Is it a mutated plant? Now that it's killed the old man, what will it do? Woodrue thinks it's going back to Louisiana. The next three issues don't necessarily answer these questions beyond what happens next. But, that works to Moore's advantage. Swamp Thing is supplanted by Woodrue who taps into the Green, amplifies his powers, and begins to slaughter people, threatening to kill all of the humans for what they've done to the vegetation of the world. All the while, Swamp Thing is rooted, deep in a barely conscious state as he slowly processes what he now knows. Woodrue's disruption is what shocks him awake and he confronts Woodrue, reminding him that plants need people to produce the carbon dioxide that they need. He confronts the man who wants to be a plant no longer the plant who thinks he's a man... We don't know yet exactly what Swamp Thing is, just that he is Swamp Thing and he is home and he is happy...

Morrison also gives Animal Man a double, a pre-existing character, B'wanna Beast. It's a similar idea to what Moore did with the vegetation, except it's people's treatment of animals at the core here. The experimentation on animals, the way that the scientist at STAR Labs lies to Animal Man about what they've been doing (no cure for AIDS here, just biological weapons), and the eventual confrontation between Animal Man and his twisted double, the Beast that ends with Animal Man healing him and punching out the scientist. A story that began with us seeing that Buddy Baker is not a superhero really ends with him doing a bunch of things that superheroes don't usually do: healing his enemy, hitting civilians, and generally switching sides to a degree. Swamp Thing protects the plants; Animal Man will protect animals. Like Swamp Thing, Animal Man protects by getting the 'bad guy' to back down. Except all the bad guy here wanted to do was rescue his primate friend from those that captured, experimented on tortured her, and was in the process of killing her in order to learn how to kill more. Animal Man learns that his perspective was wrong and that maybe he needs to learn a lot more. We don't know what he'll do next, just that he's home with his family and he doesn't seem exactly sure what he's going to do next...

What makes "Worldengine" so hard to follow for someone who isn't Ellis is exactly what would have made any of these other three hard to follow by anyone who wasn't the writer of those first four issues. He upends everything. (One of the notable changes, though, is that the last time we see Beta Ray Bill in the story, he's in a coma, possibly already dead.) Thor spends the second act of the story with the Enchantress, surrendering himself to her advances, and deciding that he needs to find out what is going on with the World-Ash, what's trying to kill him, and what he can do to help. They find a new character, a mad scientist so obsessed with the end of the world and what would come next that he has taken the World-Ash and used technology to advance it through Ragnarok in order to cause it to produce the new humans for that post-apocalyptic world. Except, the world hasn't died by fire and those new humans were designed for a much different environment and they all die. Thor forcibly repairs the damage to the World-Ash and he returns back with the Enchantress, seemingly his old self (at least with his powers). He decides that he'll remain on Earth, that he only managed to save everything today, because he thought things through. Where exactly he is at the end of "Worldengine" is ambiguous. He's with the Enchantress, he's still Thor, but he's quasi-mortal, he's Earthbound, and... "Worldengine" ends in a manner that is both a decided new break from what came before, but also ambiguous on where to go next with numerous unanswered questions.

When you read "The Ballad of Beta Ray Bill," it's not just the plot that stands out, it's the strong stylistic change. It's Simonson's bulky Thor, John Workman's lettering (the extra space in word balloons!), the way that Simonson gives little asides to other Asgardians, and the Surtur teases. These Thor comics don't read like previous Thor comics. They're nonstop, there's a mixing of new with hints of Norse legend... it feels like Simonson is pulling the book in two directions to an extent. And that dual pulling would be a trademark of his run; he teases Surtur, Loki, the Enchantress's sister, Balder in Hel... he gives us Beta Ray Bill, ends Donald Blake, has Thor working (briefly) for SHIELD... Odin takes Thor and Bill up to Hlidskialf to talk over their problem! He mixes it all together in a way you've never seen before. Even now, there's something alien and shocking about these pages -- they don't look like what I know Thor comics to look like, because they're so rooted in Simonson's specific style.

Alan Moore's prose in "The Anatomy Lesson" is what stands out and is what really fucked over those that followed him, eh? Purple prose -- but with the purpose of slowly unveiling his big reveal. Purpose prose to create a certain ambiance, a certain tone. It wasn't just that Swamp Thing was a superhero book, Moore was positioning it as a horror book, and that required a bit of a heavier mood to hover in those pages. His prose sucks you in more, makes you get a little bit more invested in what you're reading, because it takes a little longer, is a little more descriptive... Later, when the Justice League shows up, they're treated like something a little alien, a little... off. Like they don't fit. And they don't save the day at all, because superheroes aren't exactly effective in horror stories. The 'everything you thought you knew was wrong' approach wasn't just about Swamp Thing's character -- it was about the genre of the comic. Sure, it had horror roots (Bernie Wrightston co-created it!), but it was still a powerful hero figure from DC Comics... Swamp Thing was a superhero of the monster subsection. After "The Anatomy Lesson" and the three issues that followed it, it was clear that it was a horror comic and had always been a horror comic.

The tone is Animal Man's first four issues is... a little muddled, I find. But, that's good. It suits the book. It has a message and it's strong in presenting that message about humans being garbage about how they treat other humans and animals. It's a bit over the top and lacking nuance, but... it's a superhero comic. It's got a lot of Moore's purple prose for the Beast's parts, but he represents the horror side of the book. He makes horrible blends of animals/humans, and is waging a war not unlike Woodrue, except one that's a little more justified because it's a specific instance of some humans doing wrong -- not a broad "humans kill plants, so I kill all humans" sort of take. It's meant to be the inverse of Woodrue and Swamp Thing  where Swamp Thing stops Woodrue by pointing out that he's wrong; here, Animal Man learns that he's wrong. The tone and style of the book isn't exactly clear yet, because Animal Man himself isn't clear yet. He doesn't know who he is and what kind of superhero he's going to be yet. By the end, there's a sense of the message of the book and points to its eventual direction...

It's hard to miss the stylistic influences upon Ellis in "Worldengine." There's the Mooresean captions. There's the calling back to Norse myths (Odin arrives on 
Hlidskialf when he appears to Thor in the sky, very similarly to the way he appears at the end of issue 337) while pushing the new like Simonson did. Ellis's contribution as far as new characters go is Curzon, a British cop in New York. He's how we get a lot of the Norse myth stuff as he investigates a bunch of weird shit surrounding the World-Ash. He's a shouty British man who hates American coffee, likes to smoke, and is forced to do lots of reading about Thor for his job. While Ellis would deny that he's a stand-in for himself, all he really does is show up, be shouty Brit, smoke, read about Thor, and get disappeared at the end of the story, much like Ellis. With Mike Deodato and Marie Javins's art and Jonathan Babcock's letters, much like Simonson's issues, this doesn't look like any Thor before or after. Odin is bathed in Norse myth visual, his dialogue a quais-Rune script... Thor's narrative captions are casual, the opposite of Moore's purple prose, but that's only because Thor is known for that faux-Shakespearan speech pattern. So, Ellis uses the technique, but changes the actual style. Because Ellis doesn't stick around, his stylistic flourishes don't either. He wasn't there long enough to really make a mark. He seems poised to turn Thor into a urban superhero of sorts, shifting from one superhero subgenre to another, but...

Simonson teases the end of the world both with the demons and the slow build coming of Surtur (DOOM!).

Moore teases the end of the world both with Woodrue killing everyone and humanity ending it due to their killing too many plants.

Morrison teases the end of the world both with the biological weapon escaping from STAR Labs and humanity ending it due to killing too many animals.

Ellis shows what it will be like after the world has ended, because a human uses technology to trick the World-Ash into thinking it happened.




"I required a safe haven from which to decide my future -- our future. I have gotten close to death for the very first time, and it has chilled me. It has forced me to think, to reason through crises rather than hitting them. Inside, a woman I am perhaps coming to love waits for me: something I have never truly known. Above, my Family has rejected me in an ultimate way. The rain grows stronger. Dark stormfronts swirl above. There is a shout amid the thunder."

I have done a poor job of pulling these four works together the way that I wanted. But, I believe you can see what I was going for. Maybe Ellis was right and he wasn't a good fit for Thor. I still think that's wrong, but I don't know how much struggle or discomfort he had when writing "Worldengine." He wears his influences in an obvious fashion, standing firmly in the shadows of Simonson and Moore, never escaping either in these four issues. (That all four of these runs began as four-issue stories is fun, isn't it? Four issues is the easiest way to to hit that three-act structure with the second act twice as long as the first and third...) Instead, it wouldn't be for another three, four years that Ellis would stumble upon a four-issue story that would begin a run that would help him create his own shadow for others to toil in after him.

"They think there's no one left to save the world."