Monthly Archive: November 2015

Inhumans v. Mutants

Well I must admit that the directors, managers, and caretakers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) really have their act together.  I’m not speaking about their dominance in the movie theaters, as unprecedented and impressive as that may be.  Nor am I speaking about their ability to spin-off successful Netflix series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  I am speaking about the adroit way that they are weaving a compelling storyline into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. while simultaneously dealing with a business decision that had the potential to sour the whole fan-boy experience they’ve built.

The business decision that I am discussing is the licensing of the X-Men franchise to Twentieth Century Fox lo’ those many years ago.

At the dawn of the 21st century, Marvel had essentially ceded the title of king-of-comic-book-movies to DC comics.  The handful of made-for-TV films and unreleased projects served only to emphasize the inability of Marvel to bring its brand to the big screen.  Even the hottest commodity of the 1990s, all things X-Men, didn’t get more than a couple of animated series during that same time frame.

That was all to change with the release of X-Men in 2000.  Suddenly there was proof that the Marvel brand could make it big on the screen and the Twentieth Century Fox hold on the Children of the Atom was cemented.  This hold was reinforced was by the success of X-Men 2 (2003) and became so steadfast that it was able weather the disastrous storm that was X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).

Perhaps Fox would have given up on the X-Men, but the continuing success that they were having with the Fantastic Four and success of the Columbia Pictures Spider-Man and Ghost Rider movies most likely made them sit tight until the best way to mend the fence could be seen.

In the meantime, Marvel launched Iron Man in 2008 and the MCU was born.  Profits flowed in, legends were born, and grand plans evolved.  Suddenly Marvel had money and Fox had a commodity that would either earn money for them directly through film or indirectly if Marvel Studios would purchase the rights back.

Whether Fox decided to keep the X-Men franchise or Marvel refused to but is unknown to me.  What is clear is that Fox had another go everyone’s favorite mutants and has had good successes (X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011), The Wolverine (2013), and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)) with the fan-favorite Wolverine being an instrumental character in the recovery and reboot.

And so it looked like the MCU would just have to do without misunderstood, genetically modified, misfits in trendy and flashy costumes.  Where would the MCU go to reach out to the young adult audience?

And here is where my admiration for the MCU architects comes in.  They realized that the Inhumans could be repurposed to functionally fit the hole left by the absence of the X-Men.  How did they do this, you ask?  They’ve done it through a slow-and-steady retconning of the Inhumans within the structure of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Perhaps the single largest aspect of the Inhumans that had to be restructured was the whole concept of the isolated and insular nature of the original society as conceived by Lee and Kirby.  When the Human Torch first meets Crystal, he has no idea that she is part of the royal family and is cousin to Black Bolt, who is the king in exile.


As the Inhuman mythology evolved, their separateness from the human race became more pronounced.  They weren’t like us; they were aloof, and apart, and distinct.  Being genetically modified by the Kree, they weren’t alienated from mankind they were alien.  While gaudy in garb and awesome in power, the Inhumans just weren’t relatable as human beings – they were more like forces of nature.


Part of the appeal that the X-Men during the decades leading up to the first Fox movie, was this idea that mutants were born of human parents and either were gifted with their powers from the get go or had them thrust upon them at puberty.  They were easily identifiable with teenage rebellion and feelings of awkwardness.  Most of the stories centered around ‘normal’ kids coming to grips with their abnormal gifts and being mentored by like-gifted grown-ups who offered a safe ear for the secrets and changes that they were going through when their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t. Clearly the classics Inhumans didn’t fit this bill.

This is exactly where the MCU architects hit their master stroke.  What if anyone could be an Inhuman? Sure there could still be a hidden refuge or two and a ruling class, but the average Inhuman looks like us, fits in with us, even thinks that they are us until exposure to the Terrigen mists.  Then all manner of changes occur – changes with which they need help and guidance.   They live among us in plain sight but they hide their gifts when able.  They feel that marginalized and alienated and… suddenly the Inhuman dynamic looks and feels just like the mutant dynamic.  The only difference being the trigger not the response.

They also came up with an excellent way to push that trigger out to the entire world.  In the old Fantastic Four days, the Inhumans zealously guarded the Terrigen mists.  In this new regime, the Inhumans want to expose as many of us as possible to the mists.  Just like the randomness associated with the accident of birth so too is the exposure to the mists.

And so we see how adroit the MCU architects are.  They managed to circumvent a potentially harmful business decision by creating a compelling substitute for one of the most sought after franchises and all that was required was some modest retooling.

Inhuman versus Mutants?  Doesn’t seem like there is much difference now.

Whatever Happened to Exposition

I suppose that this week’s column can be easily interpreted as the rantings of an older reader wishing, nostalgically, for the good old days while simultaneously contemplating how to tell the youngsters of the neighborhood to get off my lawn.  But that is just a chance I’ll have to take.

In a nutshell, I long for the days when exposition was a lot clearer.  I don’t mean that it has to be pedantic or employ a captain obvious character.  But even in the good ole days where the art was high caliber and the visual layout very well done, sometime a few words was worth a hundred pictures.

For example, take this action shot from the Spider-Man newspaper column.

Spider-Man Thought Balloons

It would not be at all clear what Spider-Man was trying to do without the thought bubbles that shared his inner narrative with the audience.

I appreciate that thought bubbles are considered old school now but is the story really enhanced by eliminating them?  Also, I reject the contention that thought captions are actually new school as well.  Consider the following two panels from Marvel Chillers #6 (1976)

Tigra Thought Captions

These captions with a narration voice over are used consistently by Tony Isabella and John Byrne throughout the entire issue.  Not one thought bubble to be found.  While visually less jarring and cluttered – the captions being filled with color as opposed to bright white like the thought bubbles – the exposition is not significantly enhanced.  Compared to the Spider-Man two-panel excerpt above, the Marvel Chillers piece contains essentially the same amount of inner dialog.  Of course, the captions allow Byrne to zoom-in on the action but both sets are visually appealing and one might argue that which is used is a matter of taste.  Has anyone mixed thought bubbles and captions?  I don’t know.

Regardless of the answer, in both cases the writer had enough space to keep the reader comfortably current with the action.  Unfortunately, that is not consistent with the current trends in comics.  Too often, a minimalist approach is taken to the exposition which leaves me scratching my head as to how to interpret what I am seeing.

Consider the fairly recent attempts to knit together multiversal stories at Marvel. Certainly everyone is familiar with The Secret Wars event running through Marvel, but the original foray into that realm seems to have been the 12-issue run on The Defenders by Matt Fraction, Jamie McKelvie, and Mike Norton.  I know that the Defenders had been cut loose from their mooring lines and cast adrift into the multiverse and I know that the experience is supposed to be disorienting to them.  But it need not be disorienting to the reader.  In issue #10, the reader is dropped into a scene of utter devastation

Death Celestial


and left to fend for himself. Sure the art is striking and some bits of exposition are given later but it really ends up being too little to really shed light on what’s happening.  Okay, real life is like that but so what?  I don’t read comics to get real life – no one does.  This problem is amplified by the Jonathan Hickman run on The Avengers and The New Avengers which culminated with The Secret Wars event that recently ended.  I challenge anyone (even Hickman) to really make heads or tails of what Hickman was trying to say – to really make it make sense.  Builders, and Beyonders, and Black Swans, and Molecule Men, oh my!  To paraphrase Chesterton, the writer is under a contract to explain the events to the reader.  The reader takes delight not in the mystery but in the explanation that makes it clear.

Couple minimalist story with bad art and the situation gets even worse.  The art on Roche Limit was so minimalist that I often had a hard time telling one character from another.


All of them had distinguishing characteristics so that when viewed side-by-side they were distinguishable but none were memorable enough to jump off the page and stick in my thought until the next issue came out.  Could it have hurt the writer to remind me that this simple line drawing above represents Sonya’s sister Bekkah. There’s plenty of space in the speech balloon to both add that information and improve the exposition with dialog more like ‘Have you ever seen this girl?  Never?  Didn’t she ever stay here or visit?  Her name’s Bekkah… she’s my sister.’  Five extra words but a world’s worth of difference.  Without it I am stuck having to reread the series each time a new issue is added to the fold.

I miss the days when master artists made each character distinct.

Spider-Man Faces

Today, even in reasonably well-crafted books like The Sixth Gun, there are still scenes like

Guess Who Cowboys

where I wonder if I am reading a comic or playing the old children’s game Guess Who (does your cowboy have hair?  Does he have a hat?  Mustache of full beard?  Don’t tell me – they have the same nose!).

So if any creators actually stumble on this post, please do your readers a favor, do your sales figures a favor, and do yourself a favor, work on the exposition.

Nameless or Aimless

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Grant Morrison.  I generally like his trippy, out-there concepts and the way he links and connects symbolism from various sources.  I suppose I get this latter tendency from my interest in semiotics.  On the other hand, he tends to confuse profundity with complexity; his verisimilitude is disjointed and unreal; and he has an axe to grind politically and religiously that often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  My reaction to him is similar to my feelings towards Beavis and Butthead; I like to watch their antics and listen to them babble but I but don’t heed a word they say.

So it was with some trepidation that I signed onto another Morrison (perhaps he thinks he’s Jim Morrison – hmmm) excursion into the unknown called Nameless.

Nameless is both the series title and the ‘name’ of the lead character in this ongoing series Illustrated by Chris Burnham and published by Image Comics.  To call Morrison’s storytelling non-linear doesn’t do justice to the dream-within-a-dream method by which he stiches a large array of Jungian archetypes together.  I suppose I could warn of spoilers to follow but I doubt it.  His basic method is to lay it all out there and let suspense be the guiding principle rather than surprise.

The basic motifs employed are ones of horror, ancient ruins and elder gods, philosophical revulsion, and the kind of righteous indignation only an alienated, existentialist can exhibit.  I get the notion that Morrison sees himself in the role of the nameless protagonist.

Issue #1 open with a connection of world-wide violence to sinister other-worldly forces reminiscent of Lovecraft’s mass hysteria episode in The Call of Cthulhu.  Particularly graphic is the scene with the father who has brutally slain his family before ending his own life just after he posted to Facebook.

The Family that Dies Together

The phrase ‘Zirom Triam Ipam Ipamis’ is one of these common motifs that links the visual story telling together – much like a hidden object game.  The language in which this phrase is expressed is Enochian, the language of angels.  The source of the otherworldly and sinister influence is Xibalba, the Mayan home of fear wherein exists there underworld.  In Morrison’s telling, Xibalba is a large asteroid heading for a collision course that will wipe out all life on Earth.


Of course, the asteroid bears a sigil warning of the evil inside.

Nameless finds all this out (maybe) as he finishes a job retrieving a Dream Key from the Veiled Lady.

Veiled Lady

What exactly is a Dream Key and why the Veiled Lady has it is not very clear at this point.  What is clear is that the theft commissioned by a billionaire by the name of Paul Darius, who then offers a position in his save-the-world mission to Nameless since the latter has now proved his ‘cred’ to the former.

Nameless is soon whisked off to Darius’s moon base, which will serve as a staging area before they journey to intercept and divert Xibalba.  Upon his arrival, Nameless learns why he was summoned –his predecessor has been murder at the hands of another uber-genius in the employ of Darius.

First Moon Murder

Again the Enochian phrase ‘Zirom Triam Ipam Ipamis’ is present at a scene of horrific violence (Cthulhu F’htagn).  During some subsequent briefing, all is revealed

Marduk explained

and we find that the Dream Key opens a box that contains a splinter from our solar system’s lost 5th world of Marduk, which was destroyed in an epic conflict between angels and demons dating back into time immemorial.

Undaunted by all these revelations that team readies their plan (some absolute nonsense in the way of science fiction here) to use a conventional bomb to slow the asteroid and then their anti-gravity tractors to move it away from Earth.  So they have anti-gravity tractors, implying that they’ve harnessed quantum gravity, but they can’t obliterate the asteroid outright.

As the team gathers for their journey to Xibalba.  Each, horronaut (my phrasing) is outfitted with occult protection in the way of symbols and signs on their suits

Space-borne Knights

and off to the asteroid they go.  Here the story slows down and the pacing becomes overbearing.  We are treated to frame after frame of ominous warnings with nothing more than ‘happy drugs’ administered by the suit to explain how the crew continues to stay calm and ignore their senses.  How they can’t get the clear warning from the asteroid’s landscape is beyond me.

Approaching Xibalba

Even when they figure out that Xibalba is a prison where the angels bound the worst demons and that the Threescore Stone they possess is a key to open the locks and let the evil out they continue their mission.

Lots of gruesome corruption of mind, body, and soul ensues and then the really trippy part begins.  Nameless begins dreaming dreams, within dreams, within dreams, and so on.  He’s suddenly in a doctor’s office being treated for some type of post-traumatic stress.


Note the Sephiroth in the background compose of organs (perhaps hearts) – yet more visual semiotics in play.  The stress that Nameless is trying to forget is a botched séance years before in which he and twelve others tried to make contact with the entity found within Xibalba using the Threescore Stone.

Crazy Seance

It is during this long-winded diatribe that Nameless realizes, with complete philosophical revulsion, that the lifeform that the head researcher is taking is God.  And here Morrison jumps the tracks and let’s his hostility to religion get the better of him.  God in the Western Tradition is too large to fit within the Universe as a whole let alone be imprisoned on an asteroid.  Each of the séance participants is from the Western tradition and yet none objects or points out Aquinas’s statement that God is not in a genus. This doesn’t require that any of the participants believe in God but simply that they actually showed up in college when they taught college.

Anyway, shots of the doctor dream and the séance dream are interspersed with Nameless’s suffering within Xibalba (whether this is also a dream is unknown)

Is this Disney

Sure looks like Mickey Mouse as the top of that torture pillar with a grinning Donald Duck below.  Perhaps Morrison was scared by the Matterhorn or Space Mountain on a visit to Disney Land as a kid, perhaps he hates Disney Corporation for its success, who knows or cares.

As Issue #5 closes, we once more see the Veiled Lady playing a role in Nameless’s physical, mental, and psychological suffering.

Veiled Lady Again

Where the story goes from here I’m sure I don’t know.  All I do know is that a set of interesting premises, intriguing symbols, and inspired visuals are aimlessly flopping around under the creative direction of Grant Morrison.

Sixth Gun Review

The Sixth Gun is an ongoing series from the creative team of Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt which is published mostly monthly by Oni Press.


The Sixth Gun falls firmly into the Wild, Weird West genre that I’ve spoken about it the past with my reviews of The Deadlands, East of West, and the ‘weird’ offerings in the Jonah Hex limited series from Vertigo.

Somehow, this series escaped my notice for quite a while until I stumbled across an entry in Previews and the light bulb finally went off.  I’ve spent some time getting caught up on the initial set of issues which are conveniently collected in nicely produced and affordable trade paperbacks.

Having sampled about 20 issues, I can say that I am definitely puzzled by my reaction to the series – in short I am conflicted.  There are many things that the series does right; the art is fine, the narrative is reasonably well-paced and intelligent, and the characters are interesting albeit they are presented a bit more like caricatures rather than real persons.  If I had to put a finger on it, I would say that the series is neither cozy & creepy enough nor is it epic enough.

In a nutshell, The Sixth Gun is formed around the premise of 6 weapons from perdition whose influence on man has existed since time immemorial.


Their introduction into the old West is affected through the workings of a Confederacy general by the name of


General Hume apparently has made a deal with the incarnation of the evil behind these weapons –


which appeared to him in the form of the demonic ‘Goat’ bearing the 6 guns about its neck.  What the general got was incredible power but why the Goat was willing to grant this power to him remains unclear to me.

In any event, once the 6 guns were in his possession, General Hume forms a merry little band of psychopaths as his core team, each member wielding one of the guns.  Each gun grants its possessor physical toughness and a unique special ability at the cost of their bodies, minds and souls.


Of course, the general reserved the sixth gun, perhaps the Devil’s own, as his.

The story starts well after the defeat and subsequent death of the general at the hands of a group of men who ambushed him and managed to separate him from the infernal firearm.  One of those men, Drake Sinclair, becomes a leading protagonist in the series, although it is perhaps better to view him as an anti-hero who begrudgingly does what is right – while he is far more handsome that Jonah Hex in looks (who isn’t) his morals and personal conduct are similar.  Opposite to Drake is Beck Moncrief.  A daughter of one of Drake’s fellow conspirators, Becky accidentally takes possession of the sixth gun when her father is killed by agents sent by the general’s widow to find and restore the revolver from hell to her husband who, despite the fact that he was ‘murdered’, looks pretty spry for a corpse


And so the mayhem begins.  Along the way, the reader is treated a variety of spooky images, including: a gallows tree, where the ghosts of hanging victims can be consulted as an oracle; Louisiana voodoo monsters and shape changers; a vault holding riches or perhaps a portal to hell; and so on.

The mechanics are good, the production value high and yet the series lacks something.  One on hand, it seems to want to be character-driven with stories of revenge, love, lust, and hate being the central lynch pin.  On the other, it seems to want to be a grand epic about the coming apocalypse brought about by these six guns.

A very skilled writer can make the immense questions about life and death quite cozy and creepy.  The best example of this is The Waiting Room, a short film from the old Night Gallery television show in which a gun-fighter finds out the ultimate cost of his violent ways (and his ultimate fate) during a brief visit to a saloon.  Shot entirely within this ‘cozy’ waiting room, the dialog and mood do more to deal with the grand questions of heaven, hell, redemption, and damnation than many stories set in larger landscapes.  Likewise, a very skilled writer can marry character to immenseness within the context of an epic.  The small personal scene’s found scattered throughout The Lord of the Rings (book only) are masterpieces that bridge the gap between the large and universal and the small and personal.

The Sixth Gun, at least the portions I’ve read so far, seems to be unsure where it belongs and so suffers in its presentation.  Nonetheless, I’m going to continue to read the series hopefully expectant that Bunn and Hurtt will manage to produce memorable stories in one of the best genres out there.