Category Archives: The Old Standbys

Marshal Law

marshallawcoverdc-with-logo

I’m a hero hunter.  I hunt heroes.  I haven’t found one yet.” –Marshal Law

[Content Advisory: Marshal Law deals with a lot of ugly subject matter including but not limited to rape and other gendered violence against women; this is discussed in a blunt and nongraphic way within.]

There’s not a lot to say about Marshal Law that the work doesn’t say itself.

Marshal Law, specifically the recent collected edition put out by DC (which sadly omits the Marshal Law/Hellraiser crossover as well as others), is subtle like a brick to the mouth, being less a reaction to the superhero genre and more Pat Mills getting some of his friends together to take on the genre (and its fans) with bottles, chains and heavy boots (these last being provided by veteran artist Kev O’Neill whose expressive, borderline unwholesome pencils perfectly channel the rage/disgust of Mills’ script).  Where other stories might try to deconstruct the genre or point out the silliness of its tropes or possibly toss a pedophilia joke at the whole idea of teenaged sidekicks, Marshal Law simply recasts the superhero as an extension of the military-industrial complex and the patriarchal systems which spawned it—with all the attendant disposability, self-righteous cruelty and automythologizing justification that implies.  The superhero is cast here explicitly a tool of American imperialism and arrogance, a bunch of nasty, self-obsessed monsters playing out absurd dramas in the wake of cataclysms they create with only the imperfect but ostensibly right-minded fascist Marshal Law on-hand to deliver the justice they so fervently seek to avoid.

Our protagonist, Joe Gilmore (aka Marshal Law), is a former superhero soldier so thoroughly disgusted by the American lionization of the atrocities he and other superpeople committed in a thinly-veiled Vietnam analog that he’s signed up with the police department to murder the everliving fuck out of any of the many superheroes in his city who act out of turn—which they inevitably do; usually in a way displaying the hypocrisy of both the hero in question and the ingrained social system which props them up; a system which the Marshal takes part and sometimes even supports, usually to the detriment of the handful of people he thinks are worth a damn.  Given this setup, it’s probably unsurprising for me to report that the series has a cynical bent, though seeming to ease up a little near the end when the Marshal admits that heroes do exist; though they’re rarely the sort of people who get the endorsement deals but, instead, people who do the right thing at the right time for the right reason.

So given all that, I’m left to ask myself if I like the work.

And the answer is a qualified “yes”.

The qualification comes from a lot of places both big and small throughout the work, the things which threw me out of my engagement that were really matters of personal taste and character aesthetics that I don’t quite hold in common with the creators; most specifically the treatment of women throughout.  After all, there are precious few named women characters throughout who don’t get raped or murdered in some (usually spectacular) way to show the badness of the bad guys, particularly in contrast to Joe, whose greatest crime against any woman, as far as the narrative is concerned, is primarily of being a liar to his girlfriend, Lynn, by keeping his alter ego  a secret; something she rakes him over the coals for when she finds out.

Of course, by that time she’d been raped, murdered and brought back to life by a nihilistic zombie superhero so it’s hard to say if that was her as an active agent saying it or merely her being used as a weapon of psychological warfare by the aforementioned zombie-hero, which took some of the bite out of it for me.

I’d call that a spoiler but it’s pretty plain that Lynn’s going to get refrigerator’d almost the moment she shows up, if only because her outspoken antifascist and pro-feminist activism mean she must die because if her peaceful, humanist ideology and methodology had any chance at succeeding in the violent and exceedingly patriarchal world she inhabits, we wouldn’t need Marshal Law to bring the guilty to his particular brand of stylized, one-liner-infused justice. Marshal Law’s world is a doomed one; damned by its own hubris to have Marshal Law inflicted on it.  And, the work seems to argue, we are likewise damned for supporting the system the work intends to parody; for supporting the idea of the superhero, the superpower, the flag or any other “unassailable” symbol you might want to name.  Indeed, writer Mills seems eager that we, the readers, should divest ourselves of any hero worship for Joe not only because he’s often spectacularly wrong but also by having Lynn act as the author’s voice in providing a scathing description of Marshal Law and his over-the-top macho-fascist bullshit.  All the “heroes” are shit, including ours; just that he’s gonna take out the bigger shits first.

And for all that I can certainly understand the argument that the work came from a different time and is intended to parody the artificial “grit” which had begun to afflict the superhero genre by taking it to an extreme while also straining against limits of what is tasteful or, to use the parlance of the time, “politically correct” (feel free to roll your eyes with me), it’s not as effective at pushing that envelope for me because what was shocking at the time has been repeated ad nauseam until Marshal Law’s comical violence and hypersexualized plasticine superheroines can only be understood as satire by the words spoken by Marshal Law and the transparent malice the narrative holds for the “heroes” and the society which enables them.  In recent years, the sex and violence Marshal Law satirizes have become the fodder of even the oldest, stuffiest and most saccharine stalwarts of the superhero genre (e.g. modern issues of Justice League).  And as with all satire, Poe’s Law applies: “Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing,” and I could easily see a fair few people taking Marshal Law as a story of a good superhero who fights bad superheroes By Any Means Necessary as opposed to the frothing condemnation of the entire genre that is my reading.

That said, the bits that don’t leave me feeling a bit sketchy are incredibly satisfying on a visceral level and show the core of what makes the Mills/O’Neill team work so well; that is to say cartoonishly exaggerated violence against strawman targets of ridicule.  To the credit of the pair, they seem largely concerned in this work with making a strawman out of people in power who direct, distort and otherwise defend an untenable status quo, one which allows superpowers to descend upon weaker populations or countries and commit heinous acts for the purpose of ego-stroking or just to prove that they can while covering everything in one of a dozen justifications ranging from patriotism to hard-to-credit claims of self-defense; Mills has used similar storytelling techniques with a variety of artists including O’Neill in Nemesis the Warlock, setting an anarchist wizard against a fascistic, xenophobic theocracy (similarly based on a very certain country of my birth) headed by the reincarnation of Torquemada, Hitler and other evil personages throughout history.

In this light, a more generous reader than I might take the aforementioned gendered violence—which, again, is not against a single person in a single one of the stories the collection contains but present in nearly every issue with a variety of victims—as a condemnation of a society which would create or defend (in one way or another) that kind of violence and for all I absolutely believe that was the intent, I’m not convinced it came off that way in the narrative; the death of a woman is too often used as an early springboard to propel a man to action and while some of Marshal Law’s male comrades fall in battle, they tend to receive a bit more agency, history or characterization than do any of the murdered women.

As you may have guessed, the whole thing is a rather large sticking point for me because it keeps the work from being what it really could be (in my head, anyway); if the male and female superpeople were shown to be the same sorts of threats, if the rueful shake of the head at the horrible things done to women didn’t clash with the spectacle of said horrible things’ presentation, if only I didn’t feel like the gender politics clash hard with the angry anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, anti-status quo message the work was trying to get across, it would be an amazing counterargument against the worst excesses not only of the superhero genre but of the culture which created the genre and the one which has perpetuated the genre since the ‘30s.  If only, if only, if only then I could give the thing an unambivalent thumbs-up.

Because the criticism Mills and O’Neill bring up is a worthy one: a child expressing a power fantasy is normal and, to a certain extent, healthy; but when adults—particularly adults in possession of tanks, bombs and nuclear ordinance—do so, we should be wary.  Similarly, when adults demand that possession of those armaments allows them the same unaccountable vigilante behaviour we forgive in the subjects of children’s power fantasies and build up massive, complex rationales as to why this should be so, we should not only be wary but derisive, unkind and, as Mills and O’Neill seem to do, frothing at the mouth with rage.

And for all my problems with the work and mixed feelings about the superhero genre, that’s a moral I can’t fault.

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Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade

Linda Lee is a pretty ordinary girl.  She’d rather not do her homework, she fights with her parents and when she comes to stay with her cousin in a new town, she has trouble fitting in; no one understands her habits from her hometown and she doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do to get in good with everyone; her only friend is a clever, antisocial outcast named Lena (who would hate Linda if she ever found out Linda’s secret) and her twin sister, Belinda, has left her in the lurch by running off to go and get popular and all this as she tries to deal with the weird changes that are hitting her body.  But something strange is going on at this new school, something only Linda, Lena and Belinda can uncover—provided Belinda doesn’t sell them out to the principal first.

You might not know the particular story, but you can probably make a few educated guesses as to how it goes.  But since this is a blog about superhero comics, you’ve probably figured that there’s something I’m not telling you and you’d be right.

Sorta.

On the one hand, this is exactly what the story is: an all-ages story about three young women trying to navigate the fiendishly related weirdnesses that are puberty and middle school while trying to solve a mystery.  Linda’s awkward, Lena’s angry and Belinda’s trying to find herself and differentiate herself from her twin sister.

On the other hand, this is a superhero story, so every plot element that can be exaggerated is.  Linda Lee isn’t just a new girl in town; she’s a new girl on the planet.  Heck, Linda Lee isn’t even Linda Lee, she’s Kara Zor-El of Krypton and the cousin she’s staying with is Clark Kent, aka Superman.  She’s not just going through puberty, she’s also trying to control the amazing super powers she gets under Earth’s yellow sun.  Her twin sister is, naturally, an inverted clone of Linda herself (Linda, version B: Belinda Zee!) and her best friend, Lena Thorul is actually the younger sister of supervillain and professional hater-of-Superman-and-all-his-friends Lex Luthor under an anagramed alias; and if Lena ever found out Linda’s true nature, Linda will lose her only friend.  The “something strange” going on at the school is far stranger than it might have been otherwise; instead of a crime or a cult or anything else, the school’s administration is under the thrall of Superman villain Mr. Mxyzptlk, an imp from the 5th dimension who plans to drain the 3rd (or is it 2nd if it’s on a page?) dimension dry so that he might be the master of the 5th.

Naturally, Linda/Kara/Supergirl steps up to save not only her friends but her school and, naturally, the whole of the 3rd dimension as well.

So, all that out of the way, the big question: does it work?

It’s nice, for once, to give an unambiguous “yes”.

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, in contrast to a lot of the other books reviewed so far, is not a book of Big Ideas, it’s not hilarious in its irreverence, it’s not trying to do new things with the conventions of the superhero genre.  Eric Jones’ easy, cartoony art is beautiful and fits the story perfectly but (sadly) you won’t see a lot of artists rushing to copy it and while Landry Q. Walker’s plotting might not be the kind of stuff to keep people talking and dissecting like, say, Watchmen or Final Crisis (for, let’s be clear, very different reasons – the former is dense, the latter obtuse) but the simple, beautiful story his script tells is polished to a mirror shine*.

Please don’t misunderstand, I don’t think it’s bad or even mediocre in the slightest.  There’s a lot—a lot—to be said for putting out a beautiful and relentlessly good book even if it doesn’t change the world.  Indeed, it’s actually rather heartening to see that it’s still possible to make a superhero comic which is exciting, engaging and fun while also poking fun at the worst parts of the genre (see: the special class in Issue 3) and lightly sidestepping them in its own narrative; part of this is certainly the book’s all-ages narrative (no blood, no tits and certainly no bloody tits) but the largest part is just that the humanity in the writing makes everyone—from sweet, lonely Linda to amoral mad-scientist-in-training Lena to duplicitous “mean girl” Belinda—more than just a parade of easy stereotypes, but people worthy of empathy and understanding.

The story embraces one of the great strengths of the superhero genre; making small conflicts into larger, symbolic ones expressed with the tremendous import everything has when you’re younger.  Linda’s not hiding, say, relation to a feuded-against person or a non-heteronormative sexual orientation, from her best friend (who hates all people who are like her cousin or like Linda herself), but being a literal alien.  Belinda’s need to differentiate herself from Linda takes the form of mystical manipulation and inverted super-powers instead of just a certain kind of viciousness.  Lena has a blind hatred of aliens from Krypton that inspires her to use an impressive battle-suit instead of a blind hatred of Lees, Kents or lesbians (or anything else that could stand in for it) that inspires her to just try to beat up her friend—and when she gets over it, it’s after she’s helped save the universe and her brother’s super-science forces a choice in her subconscious instead of just regular old-fashioned growing up.

And between Jones’ art and Walker’s script, it’s all so much more effective than it should be.  I knew, reading it, that this was all stuff I’d seen before; not only in teenaged superhero comics but in every third high school movie that’s come out as long as I’ve been alive.  But it’s never been necessary to reinvent the wheel, interesting as it always is to see it attempted.

Sometimes it’s enough to be a little strange and a little funny and a little kind in a genre that rarely tries for more than “explosions, laser eyes and laser eyes causing explosions”.

*I have heard Walker, in a podcast interview, lay out some of the future plans for the series, has it continued; had they the opportunity to follow those plans through, I would probably have reason to retract or amend this statement.

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DC’s 52

52

52 has, for a long time, been one of my favourite stories in superhero comics.  This is probably because it focuses on a lot of the B- and C-list characters who I’d always felt got shortchanged and also covers the gamut of the kinds of stories superheroes tell well: ruminations on the nature of power and responsibility, wild space epics, weird twisty soap operas and the like.  Add to that that it’s all ostensibly one story told through various narratives in a structure not entirely unlike a lot of major Epic Hourlong Television Series and if I were (as I originally planned) giving out ratings for ambition and execution, I know that at least the ambition side of things would get a solid 5 out of 5.

As for execution…

The short form, before the deep-cut babbling starts, is that this thing doesn’t read as being very welcoming to beginners.  You get enough information about each of the main principals that you could probably figure out what their deal is and if you picked up the trade, I think you could probably get invested by the end of it.  You’ll figure out who everyone is and that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman aren’t around for… reasons and that there are a lot of disasters that people are recovering from in the background.

It’s sadly very FAR in the background.

But that’s from a guy who already knew about or read most of the Big Events referenced in the book because I like a big, dumb superhero event comic quite a bit more than those big, dumb superhero event comics deserve.

The places where the story shines is when it’s not trying to tie into the larger superhero universe, when it’s not talking about what’s going on with Batman or press conferences for the JLA.  Those are the moments where I, in my suddenly-skeptical state of mind regarding the superhero, started getting uncomfortable.

Because for all this superheroic universe is built on the foundation of Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman, the levels to which the people in the universe act as if this is the case is sometimes distressing.  You won’t see a lot about police except as occasional roadblocks for one character, nor will you see much about members of government or the voting public in general except as a necessary footnote to a Green Arrow sideplot that takes up about five of the 1000-ish pages or as entities in league with various criminal or supervillainous organizations.

There’s also an entire arc about whether heroes are born or made or something else that waffles back and forth and for all it comes to a fairly satisfactory ending… it doesn’t quite work.  It’s “resolution” feels more like fiat than actually deciding anything more than that the superheroes we know and love are, indeed, heroic.

I think overall it succeeds more than it fails and as someone who’d always been aware of the complicated comings and goings of the DCU, it was a great way to get me engaged in those characters the first few times I read it…

Now…

Now I’m not so sure.

It’s still good but it’s not really at “very good”, though at times it does brush up against it.

Now, I’m about to go more in-depth so for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to try and break things down to the major arcs and just sorta go on about them a little.

Oh and while this thing’s a few years old now, I feel it only proper to warn that SPOILERS follow.

Continue reading

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Nextwave

nextwave

When is a parody not a parody?

The short answer is “when it’s Nextwave”.

The brainchild of comic writer and social media sensation Warren Ellis and artistic superstar (and if he’s not, he should be) Stuart Immonen, Nextwave was intended to be, by Ellis’ own words, a remix comic.  In this, personally think it succeeds quite handily.  And that success is why I’m always hesitant to just slap the “parody” label on it…

But between all the manic action, the callbacks not only to some of the sillier aspects of superhero comics (both generally and specifically) but some previous actively parodic takes on the genre, it’s hard not to admit that parody—or at least a piss-taking—is at the core of the story.

And no matter what high-concept stuff is tossed forward to obscure the fact, Nextwave does, indeed, have a story.

Also a peppy theme song.

Is the story deep?  No.  It’s not meant to be and that’s pretty obvious from the moment our motley band of superheroes from diffuse corners of the Marvel Universe (oh and also rock-stupid Superman-esque generic superhero The Captain) encounters and, in short order eviscerates, a much-beloved symbol of early Marvel continuity.  And if that didn’t tip you off, the fact that a lot of the humour comes from characters acting either in exaggerated versions of themselves or varied archetypes or in total opposition to previous characterization should probably help tip you off.

But what the story does have is a refreshing honesty about the bog-stupid id of the genre that’s rarely seen.

And let’s be clear:  that is a good thing.

Nextwave isn’t the id, necessarily, of its audience—which thankfully keeps it from becoming a T&A murderfest—and by focusing on the id of the genre (explosions! short bursts of drama! one-liners!  more explosions!  facekicks!  vague moralizing!), it frees itself up to laugh at itself and at the genre and to invite the audience to do the same.

Because Nextwave knows one thing that the big superhero comics seem to have forgotten in their race to emulate Watchmen’s tone and gritty contents (guh, I’m gonna have to talk about that’n, aren’t I?  It really is too big to ignore except that everyone’s already said everything about it so…) without also emulating its quality; superheroes are stupid.

Don’t get me wrong, I love superheroes.  They’re great as symbols, as adolescent wish fulfillment, as ways to understand ourselves and our worlds.  But the idea of a demigod putting on tights and giving speeches to bank robbers is as bananas as the idea of a demigod putting on tights to evaporate bank robbers with his laser eyes is frightful.

In Nextwave, superheroes are stupid.  They exist in a parallel reality where you can get attacked by a horde of broccoli robots who work for a dinosaur who wants to destroy the world but isn’t forward-thinking enough to imagine that in a world where giant space dragons wear purple underpants, there might be someone capable of doing him harm.  The superheroes bicker like children and no innocent people die on-screen.  Worlds are saved, people are beaten up and quips are exchanged and in the end there’s an impression that Everything Could Change for our heroes.

Except that it doesn’t.

Which is the real trick of the genre.  Nine times out of ten, everything changes but nothing does.  Costumes and names change, relations shift and in six months it’ll all reset unless it doesn’t and which point it might do so anyway.

And Nextwave, with its snark, crooked smiles and MODOK Elvises, gleefully gives not one single fuck.

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