According to TIME magazine, of the 100 greatest novels ever written, only one of them has pictures. And it’s not by Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein. You probably already know that book is Alan Moore’s opus, Watchmen. TIME describes the comic as “…a graphic novel — a book-length comic book with ambitions above its station—starring a ragbag of bizarre, damaged, retired superheroes,” but the more comic book studious of you know that Watchmen was actually released in twelve-issues before being collected into the highly esteemed graphic novel that TIME magazine freely associates with other novelly novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lolita. The even more studious Alan Moore fans will know that Moore does not like the term “graphic novel” (nor does he like anything really), calling it “a marketing term.”
By the basest definition, “graphic novel” just means “long comic book,” but TIME goes one step further and claims that definition includes “ambitions above its station,” a means of separating the silly superheroes with the more serious art, the equivalent of calling your garbage man a sanitation expert.
I’m not here to argue with TIME’s list and say that The Sandman ought to have a place on their list instead of On the Road (although it totally should). No, I’m here to talk to you about one particular graphic novel, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, but as Carl Sagan once stated that “in order to make a pie from scratch one must first create the universe,” I have decided to create the graphic novel universe for you before launching into my review (because, like TIME magazine, I am pretentious enough to use the term “graphic novel” and pretentious enough to quote Carl Sagan without a hint of irony).
Will Eisner popularized the term with his book, A Contract with God, though he even admits that he wasn’t the first to coin the phrase. George Metzger, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as a few others, all wrote “graphic novels” prior to Eisner’s book, but A Contract with God is a good starting point nonetheless. It deals with bleak themes, grounded in auto-biographical stories, and higher-browed subject matters. The stories in the comic all revolve around a tenement in Brooklyn in the 1930s, which is the 1930s equivalent of living in the projects but without the hope that one day you may break into hip-hop. It paved the way for comic books to tell stories like Maus and Persepolis, which both handle lofty subjects (the holocaust and the Islamic revolution in Iran, respectively), something that seemed reserved for just book books previously.
And it’s that brand of comic book storytelling that leads us into Essex County. The historical context of Lemire’s book isn’t nearly as lofty as The Holocaust, and few things are, but like Maus it takes a deeply personal and somber story and takes it into a medium that still carries the stigma of catering to children and man-children.
Essex County is three graphic novels that all take place in the titular rural county in Canada. The first book follows a young farm boy named Lester who strikes up a friendship with a local gas station cashier, Jimmy LeBeuf. Jimmy was a professional hockey player for one game until he suffered a career-ending injury that renders him “a little slow.” The second tells the story of Lou LeBeuf, another former hockey player who now spends his days in a nursing home, unable to hear, and reminiscing about his past. Finally, Lemire tells the story ofAnnie Guenneville in the third book and ties all of the different threads together. While the third novel loses much of its steam in trying to wrap everything up in a bow, the first two are beautifully melancholic looks into this unassuming county and present us with an interesting insight into the fleeting promise of athletic success.
And those first two novels do everything so well that the somewhat haphazard handling of the conclusion drifts out of your memory. Instead, you find yourself lingering in Essex County, maybe you even cried if you’re kind of a wuss. Lemire’s deft handling of his characters, his subtle but definite characterizations, his loose but honed in art style, draw us into this quiet town and allows us to see the noise rustling just beneath the surface. The scenes with Lou LeBeuf in the second novel illustrate this the best. Lemire’s almost sketch-like art gives life to an otherwise sad, old, deaf man who seems to have given up on life.
These are the kind of tales that come to mind when we think “graphic novel.” These comic books that solicit emotion from us, emotions aside from the excitement one feels when Superman punches someone’s head into space. Yes, Batman has had tales told in the form of the “graphic novel,” some very good and notable ones at that, as have many other superheroes and super villains, but it’s a rather nebulous signifier, “graphic novel,” one that tries to distinguish things that don’t need distinguishing. These are the supposed “art house” films of the comic book medium, and Watchmen is their Citizen Kane. Or perhaps, Watchmen is more like The Godfather and A Contract with God is the Citizen Kane. And that would make The Dark Knight Returns Goodfellas or something, so … of course … Ghost World would be the film adaptation of Ghost World and … this metaphor got away from me pretty quickly. You see! You see what happens when you create vague and unnecessary genres! Just ask whoever came up with “indie rock.”
~ The Black Ness Monster ~
Yanick Paquette’s Swamp Thing looks badass. Despite a life dedicated to writing, that is the only description I have been able to muster for the art in this book. And it’s quite possibly the most fitting if I may excuse my own lackluster writing abilities for a moment.
Part of the fun of Snyder and Paquette’s Swamp Thing, thus far, has been to see just how much more badass this character can get in their hands. From Alec Holland’s reluctance to accept his role as the avatar of the Green to the revelation that the Swamp Thing sure can fly and shape shift, the constant evolution of the character has provided a constant source of entertainment among the dread and drudgery of the rising rotting enemy. And part of the success of the recent “Rotworld” arc has come from weakening this ever-evolving badass.
Much like Animal Man, Swamp Thing’s “Rotworld” story divides itself into the future and past, putting Holland’s lover, Abigail Arcane, in the past and Holland in the future. Abigail functions similarly to how Maxine functions in the Animal Man story arc. She is someone for whom the hero can strive to save, and someone Snyder can use to show us how the world turned into the Rotworld.
It’s the classic hero story, and Snyder and Paquette handle it as well as anyone can. We have a protagonist out of his element, an antagonist who has the hero’s love interest captive, and a setting that is constantly working against our hero. Really, we have a Super Mario game, and what’s more riveting than that?
The art here is fantastic. We have the luscious green panels before Holland embarks to take on Anton Arcane. Those early pages teem with life, just pouring out of the panels and out of Swamp Thing himself, and all that life vanishes as Holland pushes further into the Rot. Those greens and yellows become browns and blacks. The panels become looser and their borders seem to be disintegrating. And of course, we have a badass-looking Swamp Thing (who looks sort of like a cross between a Wookie and an Ent from Lord of the Rings … which is the nerdiest analogy I’ve made in the past hour).
What else does a good comic book need?
~ The Black Ness Monster ~
A hero is only interesting if we can see him sweat. This is the idea behind the recently concluded Batman film series reboot spearheaded by Christopher Nolan, and one that has been showing up in comic books as far back as Alan Moore’s famous superhero deconstruction, The Watchmen. It is also part of the idea behind DC’s New 52. In the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, we had smarmy, super dickery Superman and Batman who were protected from evil by sheer unexplained awesomeness, and as various writers took on the characters, infinite dimensions were established underneath the DC moniker, until they decided to just say, “screw it all,” and start over.
Now, we have new, modern incarnations of classic DC superheroes, and they seem to inspiring Marvel to pursue a similar route with its titles.
Among DC’s new incarnations is Animal Man, and of course, Jeff Lemire is willing to let good ol’ Buddy Baker sweat and sweat and sweat some more. Lemire and artist, Travel Foreman, give Animal Man an almost horror-film dynamic. Foreman’s art particularly ratchets up the creepy, especially as we enter the realm of “The Red” which he draws in a surrealist and distorted manner. There are all sorts of mutated forms, peculiar facial designs, dark, ominous shades of red surrounding our protagonist, and he is certainly not above distorting our perception of Buddy Baker. Throughout the series, Baker undergoes a variety of shapes, a fair amount of which are rather unappealing to the eye. In one panel, we see him as the caring father, movie star type that he is, illustrated as a handsome, tall, blonde man, and in the next, he is the mutated, mutilated-looking protector of The Red.
The story itself does not really beckon to horror film fair. At first, as Lemire introduces to the concept of The Rot, a force of death and an adversary of The Green and Red (the forces of plant and animal life, respectively), the story takes it cues from the disturbing notes one might find in a monster film, but the story expands from there, progresses and pans out on its universe, revealing the Baker family’s role in the this whole convoluted balance of natural life forces. Eventually, we learn that it’s Baker’s daughter, Maxine or Little Wing as he calls her at her request, is the true avatar of The Red, effectively regulating the title hero to secondary status, as we will soon also see that she has already has a staggering amount of power compared to her father. It’s an interesting dynamic, one that has only begun to be explored. On one hand, we have an elementary school student who could whoop her superhero father’s ass if so inclined, and on the other, we have the same elementary school (who happens to have chosen her alias from the best Jimi Hendrix song) student who still needs her father’s protection … because she is an elementary school student.
And it’s this dynamic that makes the “Rotworld,” the current story arch for both Swamp Thing and Animal Man, work.
To catch you up in the vaguest manner possible, Baker and his family have met up with Alec Holland and his lady friend, Abigail Arcane, whose father, Anton Arcane, is the recently resurrected avatar of The Rot, which wants to destroy the world. Baker and Holland, being bold masculine types, decide to take the fight to Arcane, himself, and enter The Rot together. This was, of course, the bad guy’s plan all along because it always is. You see, time does not function in The Rot as it does on Earth, so while Animal Man and Swamp Thing are toiling away in The Rot, Anton Arcane escapes and wrecks everything back on the surface. By the time the two heroes get out of The Rot, having accomplished nothing, everything sucks and everyone they love is dead, but we, the readers, have yet to see the apocalypse.
Instead, we see the horrific aftermath, which has various Red and Green powered heroes fighting against the prevailing forces of The Rot, getting flashbacks periodically to the time leading up to the Rotworld.
So yeah, there’s all that …
And all of that is to say that this splits Animal Man and Little Wing up. We have Buddy in the future, believing that his family has perished, that he has failed, and that his daughter has been captured by evil, and we have Maxine in the past, trying to survive without the protection of her father. We have a nebulous idea of what becomes of Maxine in the future but none of the specifics. We know also that she has the strength to overcome the task at hand but lacks the guidance that comes from a good father figure. Thus returns the horror film analogy made earlier. There’s a sense of unease in these issue. Lemire cuts back and forth between Buddy’s struggles in the post-apocalyptic future and Maxine’s struggle in the pre-apocalypse past, examining what both are missing from one another. We know the outcome on one end while the end of the other still eludes us, yet both manage to frighten.
Rest assured, the heroes will continue sweating. The question is, will they ever stop?
~ The Black Ness Monster ~
Subtitle: Who knew a puppy killing contest can go horribly wrong?
Sub-Subtitle: No one is safe in indie comics … not even Fluffy.
This review has been a long time coming. It all started when our editor took a throwaway line in an earlier review of mine and directed my attention to a comic that just so happened to steal my idea … before it was my idea but stolen, nonetheless. Anyway, the line I’m referring to was in my excellent (in my humble opinion, of course) write up of Red Skull: Incarnate. “An evil-off, by the way, is where two evil people do evil things in a competitive setting, such as competitive puppy killing—most puppy kills wins, obviously,” said I, and all of America laughed hysterically and moved onward.
But wait! It turns out a 2010 graphic novel written by then first time graphic novelists, Joe Pimienta and Lindsay Hornsbys, puts two boys in that exact setting—though not in the limelight like I had imagined (think: the Thunderdome but cuter and far more unsettling). This story takes place in a quiet, suburban town instead. The game starts off small, of course, as all good psychological trauma should. First, the boys, Todd and Kevin, kill a rat which launches them into a contest of escalation, constantly one-upping each other with their next kill until eventually Kevin presents Todd with a puppy. Naturally, Kevin cannot kill the puppy and a rift comes between the two friends. In a good world, the game should end here. Who could harm a puppy?
According to Wikipedia, four years have passed since The Dark Knight premiered, continuing Nolan’s gritty Batman resurgence in the movie realm set in motion three years before with Batman Begins. Seven years have been building to this—the last of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. My life, and the lives of countless other Batman fans, have fundamentally changed since the first film came out. Is it any wonder that the release of this film feels like an event? At the premiere that I alluded to earlier, my showing was marked by the seizing of a stranger in the theater next to mine. Half the movie had gone by when AMC was forced to temporarily stop all screenings of the film due to a man who had begun to experience a seizure. It was a moment plagued by confusion and chaos, a moment that might have made the Joker crack a smile, and in that chaos, a voice of reason jokingly shouted into the abyss in order to give us baffled fans some clarity in those trying times. This savant, this genius, he said … nay… screamed, “Somebody couldn’t handle the Batman,” with the confidence of the high-school-class-clown. I knew right then that this was one of those literary moments invading the space of reality. Was it a coincidence that this “Bro,” as I will now dub him, shouted what ended up being the concluding thesis of that particular blockbuster half way through its run time?
And just why can’t we handle the Batman? Why is he the hero Gotham needs but not the one it deserves? I don’t feel self-important discussing the Batman in this philosophical light because it’s clear that Nolan wants this sort of discourse, at least on a surface level. Bruce Wayne, himself, wonders what exactly the symbol of Batman means over the course of this third installment and the two prior films. Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox, newcomer John Blake, Selina Kyle, all ponder the importance and meaning behind the vigilante known as Batman. Is his purpose simply to prove how cool Oliver Twist could have been if he had added bad-assery and Richie Rich money to his orphanage? Or does he represent something far grander?
I have read reviews that claim that Nolan has taken a political stance with his comic book trilogy, that Batman is meant to be seen as a metaphorical George W. Bush, sacrificing his stature and doing what is necessary in order to best help the American people. As someone who’s knowledge of politics is just deep enough so that I can make pseudo-intellectual fart jokes in my political science class, I refuse to further examine that theory, but I do accept that this is a film that might make you think such thoughts if you are so inclined. I accept that this is a film that allows you to think. No, it does not have the depths of a great American novel, but it doesn’t pander to the audience either, excluding Nolan’s apparent love for the stereotypical cop and their hilarious quips in the midst of car chases. Think of the last big summer action film you saw that allowed you to have even a superficial philosophical thought pertaining to it. Unless the Transformer movies really resonated with you on a theological level (more on the divinity of Optimus Prime later), it’s probably been awhile. Even the Avengers, a film I loved, does little more than provide some stellar entertainment for two hours.
And The Dark Knight Rises does the same. Bane and Catwoman provide excellent antagonists to our now reclusive Wayne. Of course, Thomas Hardy had some impressive shoes to fill, following the much heralded Ledger performance of the Joker, and he doesn’t really attempt to fill them. Bane is his own thing, a villain on a different spectrum. He is a tyrant, strong and intelligent, and a domineering force for the Dark Knight to rise above; whereas, the Joker was an agent of anarchy. Hardy portrays Bane excellently, and if you’re willing to accept its deranged rhythm, the Bane voice does not annoy as many have worried after seeing the trailers. The film is rather bleak throughout its duration, far different from the rather light-hearted Avengers juggernaut that kicked off the summer blockbuster season, but its cynicism isn’t what makes Rises the more contemplative film. It’s the triumph, the constant prodding and questioning of its hero until he is catapulted into success.
The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting conclusion for Nolan’s tale and an admirable send off for Bale’s Bruce Wayne. Yes, the film is rather predictable and rather heavy-handed in its thematic content (if you hit a child for any use of the word “rise” or any image that may reflect the action/idea of “rising,” you would be arrested for child abuse because hitting children is wrong even if prompted by a joke in a comic book blog). Sure, the film is somewhat of an ideological mess; in fact, I’m not sure Nolan knows what the Batman represents or if he’s just uncomfortable providing a definitive answer, but at least, it asks the question. That’s more than I can say for Madea’s Witness Protection, which kicked me in the testicles and stared blankly into my soul.
~ The Black Ness Monster ~
Pak also wrote “Magneto: Testament,” which, of course, examines the back story of Max Eisenhardt—who will eventually become Magneto several years after spending surviving a concentration camp. It’s interesting to see how to sides of the same system results in two different villains. In Max, we have a sympathetic bad guy, one you want to hug almost as much as you want to see the heroes beat the crap out of him; whereas, Johann … well, that’s one messed up dude that’s deserving of a Captain America ass-whoopin’ … to phrase it as articulately as possible.
Historical fiction can be a tricky genre. Too often, it falls into the habit of pointing out just how historical it is (Look! It’s Goebbels! So historical!), but for the most part Pak is able to avoid such pitfalls in order to create an interesting story about someone who, if real, could beat Hitler in an evil-off. An evil-off, by the way, is where two evil people do evil things in a competitive setting, such as competitive puppy killing—most puppy kills wins, obviously.
Only someone as dark and mysterious as myself could conjure a game as twisted as that. Ladies…
~ The Black Ness Monster ~
When Scott first contacted the Blok about a comic so bad that it gave him pause, his statements gave me pause. For those of you who read the blog regularly, you know that our fearless leader, Deaux, does not often hate comics. He is someone who manages to find good in most everything he reads, so I knew right away that I was in for a deliciously awful treat with Secret Avengers 13. As someone who has seen The Room more times than I care to admit publically, I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of bad media, which is why I feel qualified to address you today, gentle reader.
|Note: Actual Cover, not a Playstation One game|
|Must … avoid … obvious … vampire hunter joke …|