Monday, January 15, 2018

Random Reviews

I Hate Fairyland is about a ten year old girl named Gertrude who gets sent to a magical fantasy land for an adventure that should take about a day. But she can't figure it out, and has been stuck there for 27 years. So now she's a 37 year old in a 10 year old's body on a bitter quest to escape Fairyland.

For context, she blows the brains out of the narrator-moon and murders all the stars in the sky who witnessed it in the first 5 pages. She gets drunk, robs casinos, talks to decapitated heads, etc etc.

It's a REALLY bitter quest.

Gert's main flaw is she is a terrible listener. She frequently does not actually pay attention to the directions she's given, and her propensity for getting obliterated and murdering people means she's her own worst enemy and the only reason she hasn't succeeded already in her quest to get home. She is unabashedly human in an inhuman world, and somehow she's still the biggest monster in it, which I think is what makes her so goddamn likable.

Despite this being a hilarious comic that can totally be enjoyed as just that, I've come to believe that I Hate Fairyland is a story about the growing frustration that comes with getting older. The aspects of your life that started out as colorful and fun become absolutely grating as you struggle to interpret the litany of confusing messages around you. The world(and your perception of it) becomes warped and distorted, and your inability to get where you want to go can seem like an insurmountable nightmare. What was once a fun progression has become a terrifying slog through a world you no longer recognize.
The lesson I've taken away from I Hate Fairyland is while the logical solution to your problems is to listen to the world around you more carefully and act with more consideration, sometimes it feels way better to say "Fuck that, Fuck this, and Fuck you," and raise as much hell as humanly possible. But if you do, realize that there is a cost that comes with the satisfaction of lashing out.


Kyle Starks is a writer who exemplifies the "less is more" approach to story-telling. The description given on the inside Kill Them All's front cover is exactly what you get. This is not a comic that wastes the character's time, and by extension it does not waste your time. Blend this with the punchy humor found throughout, and you have the same amazing formula we saw in his previous comic, Sexcastle.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about how Kyle Starks can take these bombastic situations and goofy action heroes and use them to rip your heart right out of your goddamn chest. Out of context, these moments wouldn't account for very much in terms of emotional impact. But with a story like this, you can't help but have some of these scenes cut through you, mostly due to how they catch you by surprise. It seems strange that these characters can be made to be relatable at all. I genuinely felt for our main protagonists at several points, because Starks wasn't afraid to put his characters where we've all been at least once before. But it was all so understated, without the over-the-top drama I've come to expect from "serious" stories, that it made the impact uniquely meaningful.

If you wanted to acquaint yourself with Kyle Starks' work, I think Sexcastle is a better introduction, but the real magic of Kill Them All was the fact that it built on the strengths of Sexcastle and took them a little further.If you like one, you'll like both. I promise.

You have not read anything quite like Plastic.

This is dark humor at its finest, with maybe my favorite comic book protagonist of 2017...which feels weird to say about a retired serial killer who stuffs people's heads into plastic bags, but it's true.

Visually, this is an absolute pleasure to look at. I want to specifically mention Laura Martin's use of color throughout, I found the whole read that much more enjoyable because of her work and it showed how well she understood the material. For example, all the characters and environments are given a sandy texture to dirty them up, and the only exception is with Virginia, Edwyn's love interest. Laura does this to emphasize that Edwyn sees Virginia as perfect, and it's just a fucking masterstroke. Fantastic job.This is a wonderful one-shot, if you are someone that borrows from me, I highly recommend that you pick this up, or maybe buy your own goddamn copy.


Stories revolving around what societies are or what they can become always make me...uncomfortably sad. There's a particular pain I feel reading about situations where the deck is stacked against people on an institutional level. However, it is a painful truth that the deck is always being stacked against some individual or some group. Or multiple groups all at once.

Which is why comics like Bitch Planet are among my favorite types of stories to read; they allow the writer to be brazenly honest in their attempts to translate this feeling to an audience.

This is a world where "non-compliant" women are sent to a prison on different planet(the title is very on the nose by the way). You can be sent away for anything from actual crimes like assault and murder to things like "seduction and disappointment" or "disrespect." Or you can just straight up pay to have an inconvenient woman in your life sent away to a hellish planet to live out the rest of their days.

Now, I was stoked to read this story as soon as I heard about it based on the promise of a prison planet, because that's always fun as hell. But what ultimately hooked me was the fact that Bitch Planet really has a lot to say.

When a society is institutionally and fundamentally flawed, the damage it causes bleeds into every facet of it's world. The flaws become part of the advertisements we see, the conversations we have, even what we think we want becomes skewed. And Kelly Sue Deconnick has written a story that translates this idea very well.

One more thing I wanted to touch on was the men. Men in this story are protected and empowered in this world, but by being complicit with the inequality of its structure, they too have allowed themselves to become victimized by more powerful men. I thought it was a nice touch for Deconnick to point out that exploitation only begets more exploitation, no matter how high up the ladder you climb.

How much of the comic is a direct allegory for women/society today seems open to interpretation, as evidenced by the Discussion Guide provided on the last page. Not only does it pose some very interesting questions about the role of movements and intersectional feminism, a Discussion Guide is just something I've never seen a comic book do before, so I thought that was pretty cool.

Ultimately, this isn't a book asking you to believe this or think that, it doesn't beat you over the head with any one viewpoint. Instead, it exposes you to a series of experiences and it begs you to critically think about what it all means to you.

Final Note: Huge props to Valentine De Landro and the rest of the creative team responsible for the artwork, because goddamn there's a lot of character in these covers and pages.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Marvel's 2018 Comic Book Cancellations

Recently, Marvel has announced their upcoming March 2018 schedule of publications, and in doing so simultaneously confirmed several cancellations. The most notable titles on the list so far are:

The Unbelievable Gwenpool
Guardians of the Galaxy
America(centered around the character America Chavez, if you are unfamiliar)
Jean Grey
Hawkeye(with Kate Bishop as the lead instead of Clint Barton)
Luke Cage

  Not a particularly outstanding list, right? And yet it’s making massive waves in the news, with the comic book community responding in it’s very typical fashion. Currently these cancellations are being lauded as some sort of victory over the “SJW Comic Book Agenda,” which is a thing that doesn’t actually exist. Comic book fans believe that adding diversity to comic books is the reason comic books just don’t sell the way they used to. It’s the boogeyman that some people will shoehorn into any discussion and try to make it sound like the right answer, not unlike the stepsisters in Cinderella who cut off their fucking toes and heels to fit their feet into a glass slipper. Sometimes low sales are just low sales, especially in such a heavily competitive market. Marvel's March will also feature a big comic book event in order to build up hype for the Infinity War movie, so the cancellation of lower selling comics to make room for the all the tie-ins was inevitable. And to treat these cancellations as though this is Marvel “learning their lesson” is a committed attempt to unhinge yourself from reality entirely.
  The most obvious response to all of this is the fact that we still have Captain Marvel, Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Thor(starring Jane Foster), and the confusingly named “Iron Man” with Riri Williams as Ironheart still at the forefront of Marvel’s releases. Dropping a few low-selling comics featuring diverse leads doesn’t really prove anything when Marvel is still doing just fine with some of their other big names. Maybe some of these low selling comics just…happen to feature diverse leads? The listing above certainly seems to indicate as much, given that even GoTG, Luke Cage, and Jean Grey got cut. Is that unreasonable for you? Instead of Marvel being scared of displeasing a shrinking market of straight white dudes in their late twenties who still get emotional about comic books(…fuck), maybe they just made a sound business decision based on the sales of individual titles? That would mean you’re making false connections because it fits this point you want to make, even if the reality of the situation proves you wrong. I don’t think Marvel has a problem with diversity, and I don’t think this minor series of cancellations is the culling you’re celebrating it as. I don’t see Marvel abandoning their push for inclusiveness any time soon.

It’s strange how many outcasts got into comic books, and yet they fight so hard to exclude other people from the experience.

I wanted to explore the cancellation of Gwenpool, because this was arguably the most popular cancellation on the list. And while I was reading up on it, I had an interesting thought that just didn’t fit with the end rest of this post, but I wanted to include it anyway: 

One possible explanation for Gwenpool getting the chop could be Disney buying Fox and acquiring the rights to Deadpool. If they want to turn around and make more Deadpool movies in the future, they’ll want to clear the board of anyone who can detract from their ability to build hype for Deadpool. Disney CEO Bob Iger has already mentioned the potential for a Marvel-R brand as a platform for continued R-rated Deadpool movies in the future, so I’m speculating that Marvel is thinking ahead and planning to publish more Deadpool comics accordingly.

The other, more grounded explanation is Spider-Gwen is the more popular of the two characters featuring Gwen Stacey, so maybe we don’t need her wise-cracking ad nauseum in two separate publications. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

This Is A Post About Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure

   Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of the few movies that can actually illicit a strong emotional response to me. And you might not feel this movie is capable of doing so when you look at It at face value: it’s a zany time travel adventure with two dim-witted protagonists trying to pass history class. However, it’s always held a much deeper meaning to me, one I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about(this is actually my third attempt to put this into words). And I think the most powerful and dominant theme present in this story is the idea of positive versus negative reinforcement. Essentially, this movie takes our two characters and exposes them to a variety of stimuli, and we get to see how they react, and how they grow. Are all of their flaws rounded out by the end of their presentation? Absolutely not, but they are changed by the positive relationships they are able to build, revealing a much larger potential than we’re led to believe they have at the very beginning. I’ll start by breaking down the negative influences on Bill and Ted’s lives, and from there we’ll explore how positive reinforcement becomes the foundation for their meaningful change.

Character: Bill. S. Preston, Esq.   
     Bill is more of a lead in my eyes, in the sense that he drives a lot of the actions both characters take. He keeps Ted focused and on track, he calls the shots, he takes the first steps forward. In a lot of ways, he’s brave and passionate…even if he’s not much smarter than Ted. But he has this wide-eyed enthusiasm and confidence that is time and time again crushed by the general indifference of the world around him. This is exemplified in his relationship with his father, Mr. Preston. And I understand that this is not outright negative reinforcement, but anyone whose experienced indifference knows, this is a very cold, very debilitating feeling.
     Bill’s father is completely detached from the troubles that(quite literally) will dramatically alter the trajectory of Bill and Ted’s lives forever. I mean really, your son tells you he’s about to fail one of his classes, and your response is to kick him out of his room to have sex with your new wife(who was Ted’s old crush by the way)? This is a man who is unconcerned with how his selfishness is impacting his child’s development. And you can see this impact in the way Bill avoids his home life, in the way he lacks any real focus and drive until the circumstances become extreme. I would even go so far as to say that Bill’s lack of skill with his guitar and his under-performance in school stems from the lack of positive reinforcement from his father. He is unable to grasp the rewards of achievement because his father has essentially undermined his urge for real development.

Character: Ted “Theodore” Logan
     I just have to say, Keanu Reeves is a complete sweetheart in this movie, and the experiences he deals with fill me with an even greater feeling of dread because of it. He’s bouncy, he’s always two seconds away from a smile, and he’s always ready to put himself out there and embrace a new journey or idea. Which makes his relationship with his father, Police Captain John Logan, the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen. When Ted and his father are in the same room, this weighty, sinking feeling fills the room with them. It’s in these scenes that we see Ted lose all of the unbridled joy and energy we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, and we watch him become muted, almost timid in a desperate attempt not to further rouse his father’s anger. When Bill gets sent outside by John Logan so he call yell at his son, it takes me right back to that feeling I would get as a child when similar situations occurred in my own life.
     Unlike the negative reinforcement formed by indifference that Bill experiences, Ted deals with very direct negative reinforcement. His father outwardly belittles Ted for his inability to achieve, overloads his son with threats, and maintains this general malevolence towards his own blood throughout the entire movie. What makes this particularly sad for me is that we can suddenly see why Ted flows from one distraction to the next, why he’s constantly trying to get a laugh or a smile out of the people around him. I feel as though he needs this type of outlet because his home life is so overbearing and constricting that Ted is filled with a constant need to act out. This negative reinforcement is is the true source of Ted’s inability to actively focus on situations early on throughout the movie; because in the back of his mind, Police Chief John Logan is seething, waiting for Ted no matter where he goes or what he does. The fact that Chief Logan is the real catalyst for the events of the movie only reinforces just how unhealthy his relationship with Ted is.
Also since I forgot to include it, fuck the idea of sending your teenage son to Oates Military Academy in goddamn Alaska because he’s getting poor grades. That’s just unnecessarily cruel.

Characters: Rufus and the historical figures
     I decided it would be best to group all of these positive figures in Bill and Ted’s lives together, as they are all an extension of the same idea; that Bill and Ted are not the hopeless, insignificant slackers that they are regarded to be in their lives back in their own time. To Rufus and these historical figures, Bill and Ted are larger than life, they are capable of dramatic change, keen insight, and they are functional problem solvers. The entire context through which we experience these characters takes a dramatic shift. And what I really love about this movie is that Bill and Ted absolutely THRIVE in this new context. To some extent or another, all of these characters represent the idea of positive reinforcement. Rufus gives them the tools they need to change their lives because he knows they are capable of it. The historical figures follow Bill and Ted’s lead(albeit some are less willing than others at first) because they trust their insight and judgement, and they believe these two teenagers are well intentioned. This is unlike anything these two characters have experienced before, and they respond to this newfound faith and support by rising to meet the challenges set before them completely. This to me is so rewarding, that by the time the two of them receive the resounding applause and recognition at the end of their history presentation, I swear it takes everything in me to not get misty-eyed.
      And of course, this can just be interpreted as rote storywriting to reach the obvious conclusion, but typically this requires a dramatic change in the characters involved; they make sweeping life changes and become the type of people they were always meant to be, bringing their dramatic improvements back into their lives. In Bill and Ted’s case…not so much. They’re more or less the same exact characters they were at the beginning of the movie, but each one of them has a more accurate self-image. It’s no longer being unfairly distorted by the idea of negative reinforcement, and the positive reinforcement they have received helps them realize that maybe if they want to be great musicians, they should practice and actually learn to play. It’s this acute level of self-awareness that they were unable to face at the beginning of the movie, because negative reinforcement demands you become new at the flip of a switch, and positive reinforcement encourages you to explore the things you want from yourself at your own pace. Rufus and his many gifts are metaphorically a way to supply Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan with the means to create their own version of meaningful change within themselves. These ideas are the heart and soul of this movie, and that’s why it will be a classic in my life until the end of my days.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Relationships in Comics: What Works Vs. What Doesn’t

I suppose I should start this off by saying I’m not writing this piece to condemn the connections of any two characters, and by extension any two human beings, experience. I wanted to strictly focus on how relationship dynamics in storytelling can make or break the overall stakes being presented to us, and what makes both characters involved feel like living, breathing people trying to make sense of their emotional feelings and boundaries…as opposed to what makes me feel like we’re being given a situation to add artificial depth. 

What Works: Superman and Lois Lane
  I understand that this is an unusual starting place as we are not talking about two super-powered beings involved with one another. However, I feel as though over the years, their relationship has both stood the test of time and is a formula that is largely followed by other power couples to follow. 
”Superman always saves Lois Lane.” That’s the quintessential phrase most closely associated with their relationship to one another, but I’ve always believed that only tells us a fraction of what’s really going on. Because Lois Lane is not written as a weak and helpless character(unless you count the Golden Age where female characters were frequently under-written, which for the purposes of this post I’m not). Lois Lane is confident, fearless, and she embraces her time with Superman in a way that emphasizes that she saves Superman just as often as he saves her, albeit in a different way. These are two characters that appropriately compliment each other, while maintaining their individuality in addition to living their own lives. In other words, they function much as you would imagine a successful real life couple would function. Despite not having powers, she has power as a human being. She is a well respected figure at the Daily Planet and does not need Superman to give her an identity and form. Conversely, Clark Kent does not need Lois Lane to make him human. The whole appeal of Superman is he’s a demi-god born on Krypton and raised in Kansas. No matter what, he is a human before he is Superman. These are well fleshed out characters who can have mature interactions, and you feel the stakes present whenever their closeness is put in jeopardy. And nobody ever needs to outright tell you that you HAVE to feel that way. We know. It leaves both characters feeling grounded, and we truly want to root for them. There is an understanding the two characters share that extends beyond what we have come to expect in how relationships are written. 

In short, Clark Kent and Lois Lane work because they both maintain their independence while fully embracing their genuine love for one another. Their connections across alternate universes, multiple storylines, and in quiet, intimate moments all reflect a positive and healthy relationship that doesn’t require a writer to spoon-feed that feeling of love to us. And whenever that relationship is cut short, through tragic circumstances or death, the weight of their pain can follow you right down to the pit of your stomach. 

Other examples of couples I think work well for some of the same reasons stated above: Green Arrow and Black Canary, Storm and Black Panther, Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer, Alana and Marko in Saga(A relationship that challenges every aspect of relationships in story-telling, easily deserving of it’s own post, which I might do at a later date). 

What Doesn’t Work: Batman and Catwoman
  Leather costumes and rooftop encounters aside, the relationship between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne has always done almost nothing for me. Unlike Superman and Lois Lane, time has not matured these characters to the point where there is any weight to their relationship. It is constantly this nebulous thing that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. And again, this post was never in exercise in comparing unhealthy vs healthy relationships, so while this on-again, off-again relationship dynamic is fairly true to life, it’s a story that is told in the most ham-fisted and lazy way possible, which is my actual problem with this relationship. Catwoman unfortunately is relegated to this endless struggle to try and pull the emotion out of Bruce Wayne, despite the much more interesting storylines that could built around her. Selina is absolutely fierce, she’s grounded, and she’s self-assured about the life she has chosen for herself. When she’s on her own, she’ll rob people but leave them their credit cards and licenses because she believes nobody deserves that kind of hassle. And she’s open about how she feels about Batman. She’s a terrific, well-defined character who is consistently wasted in attempt to shape Batman’s character.  
And when we shift the focus over the Batman, this is when their relationship truly starts to show it’s weaknesses. Bruce will outright reject the idea of an emotional bond with Selina unless he is in a position of total weakness or frustration, and inevitability he will reject this very same bond shortly after. The goal the writers are trying to achieve here is both give Batman depth while maintaining his status as a brooding, lone-wolf power fantasy and ultimately...this push and pull accomplishes neither. And so, when something threatens their connection in any given comic, you’re left feeling like it’s inconsequential. It doesn’t really matter if one of them dies or the relationship falters, because of the laziness of the writing that goes into their emotional encounters. And even worse, their relationship will stop a story in it’s tracks whenever it becomes relevant. Instead of being interwoven into the story organically, we get some five-page internal monologue from Batman about how he just can’t come to grips with his feelings. The end result is, not only do these characters not enhance each other in a meaningful way, it also does nothing to drive up the stakes of a given story, when at the bare minimum it should seek to do one of the two. 

Other examples of couples I think don’t work well for some of the same reasons stated above: I don’t have any real specifics here so much as characters similar to Batman, where the romantic interest is treated a set-piece to shape the character as opposed to creating a real relationship to sink our teeth into. So Wolverine with anybody, and Spider-Man in most circumstances kind of fit the bill here. 

  Having said all of that, Superman and Batman are some of the longest running comic book characters in existence, so finding examples that fly in the face of everything I’ve said isn’t unreasonable or impossible. They’ve been handled by many writers of various skill levels, so it’s not automatically always done right or always done wrong. However, when considering the overall dynamics that have stood the test of time, the formulas I’ve put forward here are ones I’ve come to see with a large amount of consistency across the board. And I truly feel as though relationship writing is at it’s strongest when both characters are written as two individuals who don’t lose their identity in order to create emotional definition, but at the same time can maturely embrace the things they do feel for one another, because that’s what works in actual relationships. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Hate Versus Creation In Comics

   I wanted to pose the question as to whether or not diversity in comics is a good thing, but I think the more reasonable question to ask would be, why wouldn’t it be a good thing? With breakout successes like Saga, the new Ms. Marvel series, Gene Luen Yang’s New Superman series, Raising Dion's recent Netflix deal, and the unprecedented response to Love is Love, it’s hard to argue that giving more artists heightened levels of exposure to promote diversity and equal representation is a bad thing. As an artistic medium, comics on some level have always promoted these ideals, even if we’re only just now moving into a period in time where the platform is giving new writers/artists these chances. There will always be naysayers that would convince you this “Liberal SJW Agenda” is tearing at the very fabric of the industry, but that’s not necessarily the case. The things that hurt big publishers are the same things that have always hurt big publishers: overloading the market with meaningless spin offs and never-ending storylines that go nowhere, low-quality writing/artwork, scores of overpriced variant covers that only serve to benefit collectors instead of readers, etc. Gimmicks will exist as long as comics exist in the format that they currently do. Large companies like Marvel and DC experience problems because they attempt to cash in on loyal readers, not because they embrace diversity.

  Are there comics that shoehorn in diversity in an unsatisfying way trying to appeal to everyone and instead appeal to no one in particular? Yes. But that in no way implies that inclusive comics are inherently poorly written, just like it doesn’t imply they’re inherently good. They’re just…more comics. I can’t imagine myself as a fan of this medium if it didn’t explore as many ideas/people/groups as it possibly could, because that means the odds increase that I will read something unlike anything I’ve ever read before. And I love that. Breaking away from the conventions is always a breathe of fresh air. Which is why I always find outrage at the idea of diversity in comics disappointing, the only saving grace is that all of the sanctimonious bitching in the world doesn’t actually impact the sale of comic books.

  I think nothing says this better than the nerd rage that spilled over in the wake of Jane Foster taking up the mantle of Thor. You would not believe(actually, maybe you would) how many people rose up to the defend the sanctity of Thor, how this was a complete slap in the face to the character to now have a woman becoming the God of Thunder. When I was at my local comic shop, I brought this up to the owner, who had my favorite response to the controversy:
”Well, it’s not like Thor comics were ever flying off of my shelves.”
And that’s precisely my problem when I read any sort of push back against diversity. The people complaining don’t actually give a fuck about the characters they’re defending. They just want another reason to put other people down, to inhibit any sort of actual progression in comic books, and limit the ideas on what is socially acceptable in the world of storytelling. And if they’re not buying the comics of the characters their so zealously defending, then these hateful fans are doing this for no reason at all.

  No artistic medium maintains it’s strength by sticking to one viewpoint and expanding on it infinitely to appeal to the same audience as they grow increasingly apathetic as time goes on. If a medium such as this wants to continue, exploring new avenues and audiences is their best possible chance for continued growth. Incorporating more talent from more sources to produce a wider variety of content is the best possible avenue for publishers at this time. And while the meaningless outrage boils over, more people will be drawn to comic books when they otherwise wouldn’t have been before. And the industry will eventually outgrow the narrow-minded hate that fuels so many message boards and Facebook threads. Hate has never successfully drowned out art…at least, not in the long term.

Work that is mediocre will be forgotten and works of substance will stand out, but tearing down the stigma of diversity in comics is what will truly level the playing field. So this is a subject I will continue to harp on, something I will continuously talk about, because there is something terribly wrong with the way conventional audiences respond to new ideas. And I think immediately discrediting artistic works because you don’t like the color/gender/orientation of it’s characters is cheap. You cheat yourself out of some really good comics in the process too.