Category Archives: The New Blood

Colossus: God’s Country

God's Country

“I see the homeless in the streets, the unemployed.  Aren’t those human rights violations as bad as religious persecution?”
-Piotr Rasputin/Colossus

It’s the late 80s, the last days of the Cold War.  Reagan’s still in power and the US has been discussing for the past, oh, 45 years or so what Communism and Capitalism are and what they’re for in between wagging their respective dicks at one another and generally making existential threats to most of the human race.

Into that mix, we drop one of the best writer/editors Marvel Comics ever had, Ann Nocenti.  Ann Nocenti is a writer whose work I’ve read in bits and pieces over the years and who edited one of my favourite X-Men stories ever, Fantastic Four vs. X-Men (which I need to write something up on) and had a really strange, bubbly, weird run on Daredevil which was very much about how scary, pitiful and pitiable people are when they’ve been driven to violence and because I, sadly, don’t have hard copies of that run or I’d love to do a retrospective of it here.

Quick aside?  The only big reason I don’t have it is because if Marvel has that run collected anywhere, I’ve not seen those collections in print.  Seriously, I’d really love to see a “Daredevil Visionaries: Ann Nocenti” to sit next to that crap Kevin Smith run which had that “Visionaries” title slapped onto it.  Anyway…

So I first picked bits and pieces of the comic we are talking about piecemeal in loose issues of Marvel Comics Presents, an anthology series Marvel ran for a goodly while when I was picking up all my comics from the back issue bins (because you got a lot more comics for your money that way) and helped support and cement my love for the character Colossus.  Because my ability to finish the thing was hampered by the fact that my comic shop didn’t have all the issues I’d needed to complete the story, I’d not read it before I moved out here to Sweden where I found the collected edition in the local equivalent of a quarter bin and snatched that thing right up.

And I was so pleased when it was still good.

Now because I’m a more writer-centric guy and I’m often guilty of the sin of not giving enough credit to the artists who make the writer(s) sing, I wanna say up front that this story made me fall in love with Rick Leonardi’s work.  He’s got (or at least had, his most recent work, Watson and Holmes doesn’t seem very much like the work of his that I knew and loved though is still quite good) a really nice, deceptively simple cartoonish style which lends itself well to the “acting” the characters do throughout and which never descends into the crosshatchy, overdetailed mess a lot of more cartoony styles tend toward.  His Piotr Rasputin/Colossus looks appropriately massive and bulky and the action is both easy-to-follow and holds a certain sense of weight to it; I seriously cannot imagine this story being done by anyone else, which is, I should think, the sort of effect any artist should be all about.

Speaking of course of the story itself, we get to Ann Nocenti whose greatest strength is similarly that no comic she writes feels as if it could have been written by anyone else, largely because she has a perspective about the world and interrogates it with her subjects and vice-versa, giving each run of hers a feeling of a conversation between Mz. Nocenti and the reader.  In that vein, God’s Country is about Nocenti interrogating American paranoia in what would turn out to be the last days of the Cold War.  It’s a really simple story which is by this point old hat: while journeying across America (as you do when you’re a superhero), X-Men stalwart Colossus crosses paths with a family who have accidentally run afoul of the Cold Warriors (cyborgs tasked with “keeping America pure”) and the story goes back and forth between Colossus and the father of the family, a patriotic and ill-used Vietnam veteran, having explicit discussions of the exploitable freedoms offered by Communist Russia (free access to health care and higher education with restricted freedom of speech or religion and no access to guns) and those offered by the US (freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to bear arms with limited access to health care or higher education) and the ways in which both societies have failed to live up to those proffered freedoms in between bouts of fighting off the Cold Warriors and putting a stop to their puppetmaster who may or may not be a super-rich, super-paranoid old fascist or the head of a super-secret arm of the US government.

It’s a nakedly political story interested in deconstructing the myths which prop up the worst excesses of American culture, the right-wing paranoia of The Other and the weird obsession a freedom-obsessed country can have with restricting the freedoms of its citizens and the reasons why that may or may not be a good thing; indeed, it’s actually kind of a subversive story in its way because it questions just how right America’s got things and how well its people could thrive if they took a page or two out of someone else’s book.

And for all comics are, to my thinking, at their best when they’re talking about normal situations in a symbolic or superheroic manner (which is to say cranking shit up to 11.5 and tossing in a lot of explosions while representations of ideas duke it out), you rarely get a discussion of anything that’s even close to that level of nuance; at best, political stories tend to come down either as “America good; not-America scary or bad” or “freedom good, mind-control bad”.  Honestly, looking back on the story, it seems like the sort of thing they could only put out in the anthology and then as a “graphic novel” later on because putting that sort of thing in the main book feels like it might ruffle a few too many feathers.

Now, for all the praise I put onto it, I have to admit that it also suffers from some of the weaknesses in Nocenti’s work, which are largely that the dialogue between a lot of her characters feels a bit like the same voice and that one can often tell which side she comes down on even if she gives the “other” side (she’s often less interested in playing between a dualistic two sides but instead investigating the ground between them, which makes the idea of “sides” feel a bit strange in this context) what feels like a fair-ish representation and, if nothing else, only occasionally makes the people who disagree with her point seem unsympathetic—though I suppose that’s just one of the things that happens when you’re trying to Say Something with your work.  Even if that sometimes puts me a bit on edge, though, it’s something I can’t really fault her for because it’s so rare that superhero comics really have anything to say that’s not “yay our team; boo their team, let’s all enjoy the bad guy getting beat up”.  No matter how in-the-moment schadenfreude-tastic it might be to see the bad guy get his due, in the long run it’s just more people getting hurt because they don’t know better; and knowing that Ann Nocenti finds that as sad and worrying a solution as I do really restores my faith in the genre to this day.

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Secret Identity

Secret Identity

Secret Identity is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never quite got to.

It was sold to me in a variety of ways: a Superman book that’s not a Superman book, a metatextual examination of the legacy of the Big Blue Boy Scout and otherwise a fun comic.  It had a lovely pedigree and all but…

Well, I fixed that, anyway.

First off?  It’s guh-guh-guh-gorgeous.  But, then, it’s a Stuart Immonen joint and that’s par for the course; here he’s leaning a bit more realistic compared to the clean, angular stylization he used in Ultimate Spider-Man and refined in Nextwave.  It’s kind of odd to see the sharpness I’ve always admired in his style dialed back and for his figures to be rounder and less cartooned, but it works well, particularly with the relatively muted colour palate Immonen uses; the whole affair seeming to signal that, no, this is not a “real” Superman story but, instead, something a bit more related to our own normal world.

A bit, anyway.

Immonen’s art, always a high point in any book, really well compliments the writing duties by veteran superhero scribe Kurt Busiek, who’s worked on the big titles like Avengers but become best known for his work as the writer of Astro City, which has been the gold standard for humanizing the superhero genre.

And here he goes to humanize Superman.

So, taken as a whole, does Secret Identity work?

Almost.

Not really, but al­-bloody-most.

So, the story is about a poor, introverted schmuck in a world largely like our own who’s saddled with the name Clark Kent.  His family makes a bunch of bad Superman jokes at him and the other kids at his rural Kansas school make Superman references the cornerstone of their bullying campaign.

And then he wakes up with Superman’s powers.

What follows is a series of vignettes over the course of the four 48-page issues wherein our Clark comes to terms with his powers, debates becoming a public figure like his comic book namesake and while he doesn’t exactly do battle with the government, he absolutely has to come to terms with it and…

Well, the problem with Secret Identity is that for all it’s a good-hearted and on the short-list for “the only Superman story you really need” award, for all the super-feats and kindly perspectives about people even when they’re not on the side of Our Hero and for all the gorgeous moments of humanity throughout, it’s not a story about anything more than its high concept: “what if Superman was just a dude in a world like ours?”

And that’s all it is, start to finish.

And maybe that’s enough, you know?  Maybe it’s enough to be sweet with the superhero genre instead of violent, to have smiles over teeth-gritting grimaces and healthy relationships over dramatic ones.  Maybe it’s enough to follow Clark Kent through his journey from frightened kid to secret superhero to super-patriarch.

But by the end, for all I felt good that I’d read it and for all that I wish I could read another dozen things with that same heart, it wasn’t much of a superhero story.  No giant robots, no evil geniuses, no master plans, no space aliens; there’s only one guy in spandex and no one dies unnaturally.  No one makes speeches or clearly espouses their defining characteristics with tons of exclamation points.  There are no tears or big, loud betrayals.

That said, it’s one of the best super-man (as opposed to Superman) stories I’ve read and one of the few stories with superpowers (and, by the end, superhumans) in it that doesn’t at some point devolve into a lot of punches, kicks and explosions.  There are a couple, sure.  And a few super-feats to boot.  There are a few moments where our Clark is allowed to be frightening, sure, but true to the spirit of the work, he’s never the bully he could be.

It’s just this rambling story of a young man named Clark who meets a young woman named Lois who does all the good he can before retiring to a good life with his kids as the world passes him by.

As I’ve come to think of a superhero story, it’s a total failure.

Which speaks either to the limitations of the genre or the flaws in my understanding of it because there isn’t much I’ve ever read, aside from a couple issues of the new Astro City (also by Busiek, sadly without Immonen), that spoke so well to the human drama part of superhuman drama.

And, honestly, with the lack of massive character arc, it might not even be that great a drama.  But it’s one of the better ones to come out of the superhero genre.  That might be damning with faint praise, but it’s also a sign of hope that the genre can be more than the latest attempt of a crew of well-meaning and talented individuals to turn Disney or Warner Brothers’ marketing plans into worthwhile stories.

In the meanwhile, I’m gonna have to see about picking up some Astro City.

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The Captain Britain Omnibus

Captain Britain Omnibus

Woo!  First entry from the “New Blood” section of the reading list!

Now, I preface this by saying that I can’t think about Captain Britain without thinking about the title’s sequel title, Excalibur.

Growing up, one of my favourite series was Excalibur, a title which had a large-ish cast of weird characters including Nightcrawler (my fave X-Man who wasn’t Colossus), Meggan, Phoenix, Kitty Pryde and Captain Britain.

Excalibur is, in my mind, one of the best parts of the superhero genre being in turns funny and heavy and generally being X-Men writer Chris Claremont at his best.  That he often (not always, sadly, but very often) had the ever-amazing Alan Davis doing the art was just icing on the cake.

But I’d never read the stuff that came before it.

This was the heady days before the internet and because very few of the Captain Britain stories made it stateside at the time, I just didn’t know where a lot of the stuff getting mentioned was coming from or where I’d find it.  Who was Saturnyne?  What’s up with the multiple universes?  Who is this Captain Britain guy, anyway?

But they’re also questions I got used to not knowing the answer to.  My local stores didn’t have an extensive collection of Excalibur and I didn’t want to pay the markup and shipping for places like Mile High so I largely just got used to having big chunks of things never quite filled in.  But then my fiancee picked up the Captain Britain Omnibus and I set about to going through it.

So; does it work?

Yes and no.

Continue reading

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