Monthly Archive: January 2016

Unfollowing Unfollow

It begins mysterious enough.  A well-dressed man, wielding a semi-automatic weapon, and wearing an Oni mask has just tracked down and murdered one of his fellow beings.  The dead body having fallen over a cliff, our assassin confirms the kill by glancing down onto the rocks below.  Satisfied that his job is done, he utters:

Reubenstein_unfollow

And so begins Unfollow, the new, ongoing Vertigo series by Williams, Dowling, and Winter.

Of course, the phrase ‘one hundred forty characters’, immediately conjures images of Twitter but one suspects that there is more.  After all, there is no evidence that the launch of Twitter was any more harmful than to cause mild damage to the diets, eyes, and familial relationships of the many programmers that made it possible.

Playing on two different meanings of ‘character’, Unfollow is really a Lord-of-the-Flies look at what happens when a rich entrepreneur, by the name of Farrell, leaves his 18-billion-dollar fortune to 140 random persons.

The Golden Ticket_unfollow

Rubinstein, our Japanese-faced enforcer, works for Farrell but seems to be a loose cannon.  His function is the clean up around the edges so that Farrell’s morality play can develop as planned.

The rest of the action so far (issues #1-3 are out as of this writing), is devoted to the identification of the key winners, the gathering of them to Farrell’s island (what else) and the setting of the stage.

The story focuses on five key characters:

  • Dave, a stereotypical inner city kid;

Dave_unfollow

  • Courtney, a rich, disaffected young woman who is a perpetual thrill-seeker;

Courtney_unfollow

  • Deacon, tough, evangelical-survivalist hybrid;

Deacon_unfollow

  • Akira, a sexually ambiguous Japanese artist, with gentle delusions of godhood;

Akira_unfollow

  • and Ravan, an Iranian woman who, as BBC reporter, has just covered the public execution of a 10-year old girl and is now trying to go underground to avoid the authorities.

Ravan_unfollow

Some additional characters are also introduced, including an enormous Nigerian oil worker, with a propensity to violence.

Other Winners_unfollow

Early indications point to this latter winner as the villain of the piece, at least the catalyst for violence.

After summoning the winners to his Caribbean island, Farrell addresses each of them with provocative message.  Pointing out that only 139 of the original 140 winners remain alive, Farrell goes on to say that each of them has now increased his fortune to the tune of about a million dollars.

Ferrell Lights the Match_unfollow

He ends his speech by observing that should only one of them be left alive, that ‘last man standing’ would get the whole pile of cash – all he or she would have to do would be to kill the others.

Ferrell Goads_unfollow

On the surface, Unfollow has elements familiar to the western mind.  The creators make multiple allusions to the Golden Ticket of Willy Wonka fame.  And, no doubt, the theme of power pitting people against people reminds us of stories like The Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies.  All these elements are now blended into something new. So what’s not to love?

Well, Unfollow isn’t new.  It’s really patterned after is a fairly recent and unheralded anime called Eden of the East.  The plot is almost line-for-line the same, with Eden of the East having a good 4 or 5 years on the scene before Unfollow came out.   Now derivative isn’t a criterion for rejecting but content is.  While Unfollow has acceptable art, its characters are cookie cutter archetypes.  One can predict what each character will do, how each will behave, simply by knowing what each looks like of where each hails from.  In addition, these characters are unsympathetic (with the exception of Ravan) and the only entertainment is in seeing how the spectacle will unfold.  On this point, I doubt that Unfollow can match Eden of the East.  So with the aim of keeping my experience with Eden of the East alive and unsullied, I’ll be unfollowing Unfollow.

The Many Faces of Hydra

Well the season start of Agent Carter is underway with new adventures, new romances, and a new locale – the City of Angels.  The back-to-back one hour episodes that formed the Tuesday night’s opening showed that Marvel takes Agent Carter seriously as a tie-in to the MCU.

The action opens with a bank robbery in progress by a gang of thieves led by none other than Dottie Underwood, the demented trainee from the Black Widow program who locked horns with Peggy in Season 1.  The heist soon turns sour when Dottie discovers more than her sought-after loot when she opens the vault to find safe deposit box she was commissioned to pilfer.  Peggy was keeping the loot company and, after big knock-down, hair-pulling fight, she manages to take Dottie into custody.  And what was so important to Dottie in that box?  Why a simple label pin with a symbol similar to the re-imagined Hydra logo that has dominated the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. storyline of late (Comic Book Resources has a nice article on the link between Hydra, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and the Inhumans).

faces_of_hydra

The lapel pin, which resembles the image in the upper right, decorates a variety of secret-society types later in the episode, including a senatorial wannbe with a wife worthy of Lady Macbeth, and a lab that possesses a material called ‘zero matter’ that looks like the portal material that Fitz and Simmons have been learning about.

Certainly Hydra has come a long way from the shadow of James Bond inspired, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. clone that existed in the early days of Lee, Kirby, and Steranko  – and thankfully so.  That Hydra was boring and unmotivated.  The new Hydra resembles a deliciously creepy cult with really epic ambitions (and petty evils) and this change amounts to more fun.  The big question now is whether the minds behind the MCU can smoothly mesh these new faces of Hydra with the face originally presented by the Red Skull in the first Captain America movie.  Only time will tell.

The Wicked and The Divine

The Wicked and The Divine is an ongoing series from the creative team of Gillen McKelvie (writer) and Wilson Cowles (main artist), published by Image Comics.  The basic theme of the comic is to examine the question ‘what price fame’ and the basic mechanism for performing this evaluation is that the most visible pop icons are literally gods – 12 paranormal beings with names plucked from every belief system on the planet (although not all 12 need be present at the same time – their emergence being staggered).

However, there are rules and a catch.  The rules are few but important.  These twelve gods are part of The Pantheon which promotes them as pop stars, affords them access and privilege, handles their fan interactions, and cleans up after their ‘miracles’, all at the expense of subjecting them to the oversight of a mysterious, masked old woman.  The catch is based on the old saw that says that a candle that burns brightest burns for the shortest time.  Two years is all you get as a god before you die.

At the time of this writing, the creative team has completed 3 major story arcs and, truth to tell, I am still unsure as to how I feel about the effort.  In order to understand my ambivalence, I need to sketch not only the events that have been revealed in the text but my own inferences based on them.

The method of storytelling is predominantly sequential with flashbacks thrown in at various junctures to fill in a bit of characterization or to answer an open question.  There are at least twenty important characters but most of them seem to be of the same essential temperament – greedy, petty, and generally unsympathetic.  The major distinction between them is how they approach the fame associated with being super-powered gods/pop stars.  These characters fall into three groups: the famous, the wannabes, and the enablers.  There seems to be no considerations of other types like, say, a character who shuns fame because he truly knows the difference between the good life versus the high life.

The plot is actually quite simple at its core, although the creative team does a nice job of decorating the events with enough flesh that the skeleton doesn’t peek out much.  The events of the story start tantalizingly enough about 90 years earlier with a previous recurrence (such is the name given to the cyclic return of the gods).  While twelve gods comprise a recurrence, at the opening scene we see only four of them at their gathering table.  The remaining spots are manned with the skulls of their deceased comrades.

1920 Pantheon

The older woman, dressed something like a middle-aged flapper sporting a mask,

Ananke

addresses them with some final words before stepping outside the house which then proceeds to explode.  So much for the gods of the 1920s!

The scene moves forward nearly a century to the next recurrence and our attention is now focused on perhaps The Pantheon’s biggest fangirl, Laura Wilson, who skips classes at her local university in order to be caught up in the excitement that is The Pantheon.

Laura Wilson

Laura distinguishes herself in the eyes of The Pantheon by being the last person to pass out due to excessive ecstasy during a concert performance by Amaterasu (Japanese sun god).  Waking up after her swoon, she becomes acquainted with Lucifer and, in typical Faustian fashion, promises to ‘do anything’ for a chance at meeting with other members of The Pantheon.

I will do anything

Whether this little slip amounts to anything remains to be seen but why have a Lucifer in the story to begin with if rebellion, soul-selling, and quibbling about terms isn’t needed.  In any event, the L’s go off to a Pantheon post-performance party.  The fun barely gets going, when two gunmen, shooting from a rooftop across the street, open fire on the intimate little gathering, provoking Lucifer’s ire.  In due course, the assailants collect what they have coming when Lucifer steps out onto the balcony, snaps her fingers, and proceeds to vaporize their heads.

A short time later, the jurisprudence system has convened in a court room to decide whether the blond-haired hellion is guilty of murder.  In a characteristic act of defiance, Lucifer taunts the judge, asking how anyone could kill another by simply by snapping his fingers like so.  Unfortunately, Lucifer’s snarky speech is cut short when, at the moment she snaps her fingers, the judge’s head also explodes.  Lucifer, as shocked as anyone, realizes she’s in real trouble now and, as she is being led out of the courtroom past Amaterasu, she whispers a request for Amaterasu to get Ananke to help.

Despite her protestations that she didn’t kill the judge, the public at large concludes Lucifer is guilty. And off she goes to prison.  Sitting in a cell and sporting finger cuffs that prevent more snaps, Lucifer remarks dourly on the fact that her only visitor is Laura.  Still beggars can’t be choosers, and Laura manages to get the Lord of Lies to open up to her.  Plucking up her courage, Laura asks about the whispered name of Ananke that she had overheard in the courtroom.  Lucifer curtly responds with an answer that would find more a home in Harry Potter.

Who is Ananke

Not to be deterred and intrigued by a member of The Pantheon who is outside of the limelight, Laura turns to her phone and to Wikipedia to find out all.

Wikipedia Ananke

Meanwhile, back Valhalla the headquarters of The Pantheon (yes that means there is an Odin), the reader is treated to just what Ananke’s position is as she expresses herself to the other members of the Pantheon.

Ananke on Lucifer

While her last words about the recurrence and human inspiration are cryptic at this point in the story, their meaning becomes clear much later on when Ananke explains that the reason for the god’s return every 90 years is so that they can combat the darkness and secure a better future for humanity.  I suppose this is the writer’s way of explaining the various golden ages that have cropped up in human history and then collapsed and disappeared.  Ananke also explains her role.  As goddess of necessity, she is tasked with sheepherding the new incarnations of the gods, who emerge from the general population at the appointed time but with no awareness of their previous incarnations.  She is the only one who persists from recurrence to recurrence.

The public clearly have bought into the beneficial aspect of the recurrence, with some members even asking

Do we deserve a pantheon

This recurrence myth may be a reasonable explanation for the characters in the story, but the reader is purposefully left with a sense that much of this ‘truth’ is simply Ananke’s propaganda, which she uses to cover more sinister machinations.

This last point is further emphasized by the single central event of the story.  Lucifer, left to rot in prison with no attention from Ananke, predictably breaks free and spreads chaos everywhere.  Claiming she has no choice, Ananke ends Lucifer exactly the way the gunmen and the judge do; by vaporizing Lucifer’s head.

And so begins the second arc, a motive-driven, whodunit investigation instigated by Laura, who is aided by an investigative journalist named Cassandra.  Their aim is to discover who really killed the judge, framed Lucifer for the death, and thus brought about her end.

At first their investigation is productive.  They quickly find evidence that points towards the notion that the gunmen’s motive was the Prometheus gambit, which is a way for a mortal to steal a god’s power by assassinating the god.  They also witness the arrival of a new Pantheon member – Dionysus.  Unfortunately, they are not privy (unlike the reader) to the Ananke’s manipulation of the death god Baphomet,

Ananke manipulates Baphomet

which sets the death god at odds with the rest of The Pantheon.  All hope of Laura and Cassandra discovering this ploy is dashed when Ananke declares Cassandra (and her two assistants) to the be the last member of the recurrence – the Norns.

Laura can’t help feel disappointed that she wasn’t chosen/revealed.  However, soon afterwards, Ananke declares Laura to be Persephone.

Now we both know better

Immediately after, Ananke kills Persephone and her parents.  Heavy is the price of fame, of finding you are special.

At this point, it becomes clear that Ananke is manipulating the Pantheon to kill each other to fulfill her own ends.  These haven’t been revealed but no doubt her motive is either jealousy (she’s forced to live perpetually in the shadows as an old crone while the rest cavort in the public eye) or gain (she’s stealing their life force to gather power or perpetuate her own existence – it’s not clear whether there have been repeating gods in the recurrence).

The third story arc supports this conclusion as it is definitively revealed that Ananke is the party responsible for the judge’s untimely death and that Odin is an accessory after the fact.  It is also a reasonably supported conclusion that we haven’t seen the last of Laura.  After all, in the classic Greek myths, Persephone returns from the underworld.  Foreshadowing of this outcome is found at the end of the current issue (#17) where a Pantheon act is booked for performance and the headliner is

Persephone is back

I suspect that the coming issues will feature Laura/Persephone’s return from the dead, the revelation of Ananke’s manipulations and schemes, a dramatic confrontation between the two, and a final resolution in which the gods are either able to exercise free will or where the recurrence is permanently broken and the gods are no more.  And therein sits the problem.  I’m pretty sure I can see what’s coming, and it’s all so predictable and tedious.  In the end I fear that the story will be neither wicked nor divine but simply banal.  Oh, well; time will tell and, hopefully, sooner than 90 years from now.

Added bonus:  The complete 12-god wheel from the series is:

The Pantheon

 

This composite image is not available in the series itself.  The gods in the modern recurrence are (starting at the top and going clockwise):  Amaterasu, Lucifer, Sakmet, Baphomet, Minerva, Odin, The Morrigan, Dionysus, Inanna, Tara, Baal, and the Norns.

Giving Shooter His Due

There aren’t many people as controversial (or for that matter maligned) in the comics world as Jim Shooter.  And for years I’ve heard about the issues associated with his run as Editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics.  But looking at the current state of creator-owned comics are in, I think that it is high time that the Shooter’s legacy was revisited and some points clarified.

For those who don’t know much about Jim Shooter some relevant facts are worth discussing to set the stage for why I think his influence on comics should be re-examined and revised.  Shooter, in his own words, was interested in comics as a child but lost interest around the time he was eight.  Roughly four years later, he picked up comics again and studied how Marvel told its stories.  Using these as a guide, he wrote and drew a story featuring the Legion of Superheroes for DC Comics with the idea that DC needed his help to start competing with Marvel.  This unsolicited approach worked for him and at the age of 14 he was working for DC.  His tenure at DC was marked with the creation of a lot of enduring characters and ideas that continue to this day.

After some 10 years spent kicking around the comics industry, advertising, and graphics design, Shooter was offered a job at Marvel comics as an editor.  About two years later, he became Editor-in-chief.  During his time in this position (1978-1987) Marvel prospered, most notably in two areas.

First, Shooter ushered in some of the new ideas in the business end of comics.  Recognizing the growing specialty shop presence, he took the chance of distributing several Marvel titles strictly through direct sales to comic book stores, bypassing the usual newsstand approach.  He also setup royalties for creator-owned material in Epic Illustrated, which help address the long-term feud between management and labor about how profits were distributed.  And finally, he championed the large-scale, imprint-wide, crossover event with the first Secret Wars.

Second, Shooter provided a consistent editorial voice and approach in the creation what is and should be the main product of any comic book line – good, compelling stories.  To this end, he emphasized two points above all others: the exposition needed to be clear and deadlines needed to be met. Unfortunately, imposition of structure on creative types is often ill-received and this aspect of Shooter’s reign is often mocked (e.g. by Peter David) and cited as the reason for his firing in 1987.  Of course, I don’t have any clear picture of what it was to work for Jim Shooter.  Rather, I would like to talk about the editorial points from the point-of-view of a longtime reader and collector.

I started collecting comics in late 1973.  At that point, Marvel had already 12 years of publication history under its belt.  Getting onboard with the story lines was one of those difficult enterprises akin to merging onto a superhighway on your first outing with a car.  There was a daunting ‘history’ to deal with and often I couldn’t tell who was who and just took in on faith that it was going somewhere.  I suppose Marvel counted on having a loyal following, that they were the ‘in thing’, and that young kids would just have to ‘pay their dues’.  I can’t speak for all of my peers, but I was often too stupid to understand that the exposition was lacking.  However, I wasn’t too stupid to realize that I had only a fixed sum of money and I often avoided those books which required too much background.   Note that this was in the age before the internet, when the acquisition of back issues was a laborious thing, and the idea of reprint series like Marvel Masterworks or Essentials had yet to occur to anyone.

There was another complication that needed to be addressed.  Even when I had the money I couldn’t always get the issue that I wanted.  The news stand approach was always hit-or-miss as to what titles were going to be carried and how many of them would there be on the rack but Marvel overly complicated an already thorny situation with erratic publication schedules.  For example, the figure below shows the publication cadence for Doctor Strange (1974).

Doctor Strange Publication History

The series started in June; skipped the month of July; had five issues in a row from August to December, one of which was a reprint; then took 3 months off; settled into a bi-monthly schedule; flirted with a monthly output; before settling finally into a bi-monthly pace.  Whew!  How does a reader know when to show up and how to budget.

Things on this front got better once Shooter took the helm.  By all accounts, he enforced meeting deadlines, even at the expense of a reprint issue now and then.  He insisted on stockpiling work product to help when things got tight.

An excellent example of this approach is found in Avengers #169, which falls in the middle of the famous Korvac saga (Avengers #167-8, #170-77).  This one-shot issue, open with an explicit statement that this story is interrupting the current arc and gives a plausible reason for doing so.

Avengers 169 Opening Page

The creative team was not the regular crew but rather a guest team, who may have created this ‘filler’ issue months before with the sole purpose to relieve a looming deadline that couldn’t be met.  By ensuring the regular publication schedule, Shooter demonstrated an acumen for business whereby the reader base gets something on a consistent basis – even if that something is not exactly what was envisioned.

In addition, the tone of stories issued under his direction changed quite a bit.  There were more flashbacks and explanatory dialog/captions than ever before.  Most of it was done artfully without being too intrusive but it was a welcome change to me, even in those cases where I knew what had happened before (by this point I had paid most of my dues).

Although I don’t know for sure, I also believe he was behind the man ‘album’ issues that came out during this time.  These served as mini-summaries of the key historical points in the series (and to whet the appetite for back issues).  Two primary examples of these are Fantastic Four #190 and Spider-Man #181 (both from 1978)

Album Issues

The basic premise of both issues is a reflection on the past by a lead character.  In the case of the Fantastic Four, the Thing reminisces about the past while thumbing through his diary with Alicia Masters.  In the case of Spider-Man, the cause of his look back to the past is the anniversary of the death of Uncle Ben.

Amazing Spider-Man 181 Opening Page

Note the lower-right caption in particular reads

Dedicated to our older fans who lived these events with us – and to our new fans discovering the Spider-Man legend for the first time!

A quick skim through the Avengers run with Shooter at the helm as writer also shows that he knows how to ‘eat his own dog food’.  His stories are tightly constructed and have a good balance in exposition, neither getting pedantic nor obscure.

Considering the number of creators who fail to construct compelling stories and the absence of clear exposition in many of todays, modern titles, I think it may be high time to revisit the legacy of Jim Shooter.