Comics Reviews: Mind MGMT vol 1

September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I wrote this months ago when the book first came out, and never posted it for some reason. Just dug it up, and here it is:

God help me, I wanted to like Vol 1 of Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt more than I did. It has an appealing concept—psychic superspies rebelling against each other on the brink of an underground war. It has unique, attractive art: just pen and watercolors, leading to a dreamy, scrambled quality that fits the narrative perfectly. The book itself looks nice too! It’s a well made hardcover with good, heavy paper. For crying out loud, the whole comic is presented in a meta-textual framing device, where the panels are a visual representation of a field report from one of the psychic agents! And there’s a persistent commentary on the action within the marginalia that GETS INTERRUPTED BY A DIVERGENT COUNTER-NARRATIVE!! This is supposed to be everything in the world that I love and hold dear!!!

But, to my infinite despair, Mind MGMT vol 1 never quite pulls it off. Once the plot got moving, each new development left me thinking “Okay, and then what?” Or, more damningly, “So what?” By the time the full arc is finished, the status quo from the beginning of the first issue has been completely restored, leading the reader to wonder what the point of the whole thing was at all.

Then I realized that the guy who wrote the foreword was Damon Lindelof, and there’s an ongoing homage to Lost in Mind MGMT, and things started to come together. I shouldn’t talk too much shit; I’ve never actually watched an episode of Lost. But some of the criticisms I’ve heard of the show—an emphasis on mythology over story, less-than-enthralling characters, a pervasive feeling that the whole show is one swift tug of the curtains away from being revealed as a giant, self-serious load of crap—finds some common berth in Mind MGMT.

Perhaps I just feel let down from the promise of all the tasty elements that had me frothing at the mouth for this series—like I was promised a jigsaw puzzle and got a paint-by-numbers instead. I’ll probably stick with the series, but the expectations are pretty much shot.

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Comics reviews: Hawkeye, vol 1

May 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Hawkeye, vol 1 coverWhen the people who decide these sorts of things get around to splitting up the ridiculously-named “Modern Age” of superhero comics, Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja will certainly land squarely in the middle of the canon for whatever time period now ends up being.

The current historical moment of the superhero genre is a fascinating beast. In the 80’s, as we all know, Alan Moore and others began to thoroughly deconstruct the genre. Then the 90’s introduced superhero cartoons and movies largely aimed at children, inculcating the superhero myth into a new audience au naturale. Simultaneously, fiction writers like Michael Chabon and China Mieville have worked to reclaim and rehabilitate genre fiction, massaging the essential tropes of sci-fi, fantasy, and others to coexist with literary modernism. My twitter buddy Ben likes to call this genre puree Fantastical Materialism.

So when superheroes arrived again, such as in the 2001 Spider-Man movie, the very deconstruction that created genre-defying works like Watchmen and Miracleman now reinforced the genre entirely. What would you do if you, like Peter Parker, were by chance bitten by a radioactive spider, giving you unique and incredible powers? Why, you’d become a masked hero, fighting villains and saving lives, of course! Why? Because this superhero myth has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that that reaction has become a default expectation to the situation.

Now, when we see a superhero, we don’t ask “what kind of self-aggrandizing pervert puts on tights to beat up strangers?”—we simply say, “okay.” This is especially true in the Marvel universe (616 to fans), with superpowered beings seemingly on every New York streetcorner. In Joss Whedon’s 2004 Astonishing X-Men #1, Cyclops discusses the X-Men’s image problem and the need to emerge from Grant Morrison’s black leather to new costumes of brightly colored spandex. He states, “We need to present ourselves as a [superhero] team like any other. Avengers, Fantastic Four—they don’t get chased through the streets with torches.” For Whedon’s X-Men, gaining the acceptance of the public, both in their world and in ours, means fulfilling the expectations of the superhero genre. This acknowledgement of the construct of a superhero, and the tropes it entails, such as costumes, is an intrinsic part of the contemporary superhero story.

from Astonishing X-Men 1 by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, via Comixology

Hawkeye (2012) applies this context to the titular Clint Barton, a hero who previously was so vanilla that even Joss Whedon couldn’t come up with anything interesting for him to say in the Avengers movie. In four hyper-compressed short stories, stretching the first 5 issues of the comic, Fraction recasts Hawkeye as a superhero everyman. Without powers or technology, Hawkeye is your average Joe Superhero; he fights crime, has regrettable sex, and spends a lot of time in the hospital. His main villain thus far is a new invention—the “tracksuit mafia,” a cartel of Russian immigrants who profit from gentrification and should win Fraction the Pulitzer prize this and every year for “best comedic use of the word ‘bro.'” But make no mistake: Hawkeye is a superhero. Though he bumbles, and lacks superpowers or a flashy costume, something essential about the superhero DNA remains in his story—the “of course” part. In fact, absent those other elements, his heroism shines even brighter.

For example, Fraction even rehabilitates the genre kitsch of Hawkeye’s “trick arrows”—specialty arrows outfitted with ridiculous gimmicks like an acid-filled tip or a boomerang effect—in a frenetic car chase with the tracksuit mafia. These arrows are a staple of the Hawkeye character since his introduction in the 1960’s, yet have been increasingly toned down in recent years since the superhero deconstruction and the subsequent push to make superhero stories more plausible to the real world. Dealing with the trick arrows, Fraction begins with a deconstruction—Hawkeye decides to “finally” organize his trick arrows, much like your or I might rearrange our sock drawer. Of course, this earns him a merciless mocking from his more contemporary counterpart, Kate Bishop, Hawkeye of the Young Avengers. Yet by the end of the issue, even the stupidest arrows have proven unexpectedly useful. Yes, this deft deconstruction and reconstruction, a fully realized story, a fantastic chase scene, and an emotionally revealing sex scene, all happen within the space of a single issue—a compression of scale rare in contemporary comics.

Of course, Hawkeye’s super-compressed adventures wouldn’t be possible without the masterful work of David Aja and Javier Pulido—though most especially Aja. I spent several minutes on more than a few pages, reading and rereading, trying to figure out how Aja was able to convey so much on a single page, until I realized maybe I just enjoyed looking at it.

With the Avengers movies bringing millions of new eyeballs to the franchise, it’s nice to see their companion comics excelling at the same time—and Hawkeye absolutely fucking kills it. Read it for both a great story and a fantastic look at where and what superheroes are today.

Comics Reviews: The Massive, vol 1

April 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Take Whale Wars and get rid of the reality show, the whaling industry, the whales, and most of industrial civilization, and I think you’d end up with something very close to The Massive. Writer Brian Wood (DMZ, Northlanders, X-Men) teases the series as an exploration of what it means to be an environmentalist once said environment is completely and irrevocably fucked. But while the first volume features beautiful art and sets a strong tone, nobody ever really gets around to any environmentalism.

Volume 1 of The Massive is instead a series of character sketches, as we are introduced to the crew of the cheekily named Kapital and the new, post-apocalyptic world they inhabit. We meet Captain Callum Israel, an ex-mercenary who grew a conscience; his mysterious yet incredibly capable girlfriend Mary; first mate Mag, a no-fucks-given soldier of fortune and passion who has suffered the effects of globalization first-hand; obligatory tech dude Georg; and my early favorite, Ryan—a sweet Minnesotan punk forced to confront her privilege. It’s an intriguing enough enesemble, and they’re given plenty of opportunities to display excellence as they scour the far-flung corners of the Pacific Ocean gathering supplies, fighting off profiteers, and searching for their lost sister ship, the titular Massive.

The Massive unfolds at a pace reminiscent of the ocean; at times placid and meditative, then unexpectedly turbulent. Dave Stewart’s moody color palette matches the story perfectly, creating a fatastically moist, restless tone—dark without the implied overwrought grit. However, the main attraction in The Massive is the exploration of its uniquely built world.

The post-apocalypse of The Massive is important to me in the way it denigrates the apocalypse itself as just another thing that happened. When civilization collapses (or as the primitivists are fond of saying, “when the lights go out”), there will still be people with needs beyond finding food and killing zombies. There will even still be an environment to be studied, protected, hopefully even enjoyed.

Sure, the world of The Massive is a good bit more grim than the one I live in now, but it doesn’t trip over itself in the way that Mad Max, Waterworld, or any number of zombie stories might. When Hong Kong is flooded, its residents build a brand new city out of garbage and shipping containers, floating on top of the old one. Volume 1 of The Massive feels like it has accomplished in its exposition all that most post-apocalyptic stories ever attempt–securing supplies and ensuring short-term survival—to allow its broader mission of post-ecological environmentalism to unfold in the coming chapters.

Or, at least, I hope so. Despite the sweet and slowly churned worldbuilding going on, it seems like the best days for The Massive, and possibly the world it inhabits, are ahead of it.

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