Suicide Squad #4: The Return of William Hell and Racism as an Ongoing Force in American Politics

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 24, 2016.

William Hell Suicide Squad #4

A powerful businessman enters politics in order to promote his own agenda. He rallies lower-class white Americans around his demagoguery as a vibrant, crime fighting alter-ego armed with a crossbow. It is through his exuberant personality that he channels people towards racial hatred and provokes riots. A local team of superpowered individuals gets involved to undermine his dangerous antics and stop his rise to power.

This probably sounds like a comic riffing on the Trump campaign. It’s actually the plot of Suicide Squad #4,published almost 30 years ago. What was once an unremarkable one-shot (at least in comparison to the rest of this consistently remarkable series)  of this seminal series has found new meaning as modern allegory.

William Heller White Supremacist

The antagonist of this piece is W. James Heller, who has taken on the uninspired alter-ego of William Hell to recruit white criminals while capturing those that do not meet his Aryan ideals (ie, black people). His speech in front of police and news cameras does not directly acknowledge those racist ideals though. He applies a populist sensibility instead. Language is a code where “common man” stands in for “white man” and “those who would destroy… our way of life” replaces “minorities.”

This sort of coded language makes William Hell seem like a subtle beast in comparison to Donald Trump. Hell does not speak directly to his hatred of non-Aryan men and women, but instead crafts situations that make his case for him. Trump, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to find codewords for those he despises; Mexicans are accused as an entire group of being “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.”

As James Heller, the curtain between his language and meaning is somewhat dropped. He uses the same coded jargon as William Hell at what is essentially a white power rally, referring to his allies as the “common man.” However, he also uses more direct and insulting terms in obvious reference to non-Aryan Americans. There is a direct connection between the highlights of his speech and the arguments made by Americans even at the time of this comic’s publication against the advance of Civil Rights.

William Heller Speech

Heller specifically points to the construction of a welfare state as being a pervasive problem, along with the spread of drugs and inclusion of “the uneducable” in universities. Each of these topics unfairly targets minorities while cloaked in language that claims to be about fairness and ability. The closest Heller comes to drawing the “us vs. them” line based on race is to speak to “our society” in front of only white supporters and black protestors.

Deadshot dresses as William Hell and arrives to stop Heller’s speech with one written by Rick Flag. This speech does not appeal to brotherhood or equality, but instead redirects the hate. Deadshot shouts at the gathered supremacists that they are being used by Heller and driven by irrational animosity. Rather than attempt to persuade them with peace, he redirects their hate towards the wealthy man using them to prop up his own career.

William Hell Deadshot Speech

Deadshot’s speech is cynical in nature, but it’s not wrong. Parallels can be drawn between the manner in which Heller has manipulated working-class white Americans (his “common man”) to how the GOP promotes values voting while pushing economic policy that harms poor members of its own voting base. By utilizing fear and hate, Heller prompts these people to work against their best self-interest. Deadshot appeals to self-interest with a speech every bit as callous as his own personality.

After the rally ends and Heller has been discredited by a plan that can best be described as “time travel shenanigans,” Flag discusses his intent in writing the speech. Challenged by Nightshade for not appealing to a higher ideal, he points out that what he spoke to was a sense of democracy, a higher ideal in and of itself. The common enemy and pursuit of “enlightened self-interest” are not too different than what drove many revolutionaries to found the United States. It is not romantic, but it exposes a belief that a democratic system is bound to eliminate men like William Heller eventually.

What is most striking about this issue is not how much resemblance it bears to the political reality of America in 2016, but that it treats these issues with so little seriousness.

William Hell Punk

The William Hell alter-ego is a parody. The very fact that a man named William James Heller chooses William Hell as an alter-ego is enough to expose that this character is not to be taken too seriously. His speech patterns also highlight Ostrander’s take on ultra-conservative America. He adds the word “punk” to the end of almost every sentence addressing a set of robbers in a poor imitation of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan.

This treatment of Heller is revelatory. The greatest threat he poses to the team is when Deadshot encourages him to shoot Boomerang. Heller is a one-and-done villain designed to highlight a successful caper story more than anything else. He is made into an even greater joke later in the series when he hires Deadshot to assassinate Amanda Waller in a revenge plot, only to have The Wall tell Deadshot to kill Heller instead for $1 more.

This may be partially due to the makeup of the Suicide Squad creative team, at this point entirely composed of white men. While they acknowledge racism as a threat to the peace, it is relatively minor compared to other realistic threats like the crumbling USSR and American involvement in the Middle East. While they address racial tensions in America throughout the series, most notably in the form of Amanda Waller’s origin, they appear confident that the problem was one in the process of being resolved by the forces of time.

William Heller is not a Presidential candidate or even a statewide force in Louisiana. He is involved with local New Orleans politics in Suicide Squad #4; that is where his career ends. While he may have the potential, due to his wealth and personality, to one day target higher office, Heller is exposed and ended before that ever occurs.

Captain Boomerang Racist

Racism in Suicide Squad #4 is not limited to the antagonist of the issue. In a briefing for the mission Captain Boomerang reminds reader that he is an open racist. He refers to African Americans with an Australian slur for the country’s native population of Aborigines (previously seen in Suicide Squad #1-3 as well). What is even more disconcerting is his reference to an argument still made today: that higher arrest rates among minorities reflect a greater inclination toward criminal activity, rather than improper or biased policing. Boomerang, a thief and murderer himself, even excuses the fact that every criminal on the Suicide Squad is white by claiming that what he and Chronos do is more like art.

All of this highlights a belief that in 1988, 23 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, an open racist could not successfully seek national office. Heller is a nuisance through and through. It is this mindset that may explain why instead of becoming a relic, Suicide Squad #4 has only become more relevant. Ignoring the divisions within the American populace and the dangers presented by hate groups has allowed these wounds to fester and grow. A personality useful for a gag in a superhero comic has become one of two souls prepared to assume the Presidency in January 2017.

Suicide Squad #4 remains an entertaining comic and highlight of the storytelling compression found in this series. But, the passage of time has elevated its status. It is now an artifact of optimism in American history and how that perspective might have led us to folly.

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Saying Goodbye to Childhood in Goodnight Punpun

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 22, 2016.

Punpun and Aiko

The first collection of Goodnight Punpun by Inio Asano is a tale of growing up that is equal parts humorous and tragic, dense and simple, sincere and exaggerated. When writing children, adults often create characters and voices that read like playacting. While we were all once children, our memories and understanding of that period are warped through the veil of time. Goodnight Punpun ignores the negative connotations of this genre in a medium and presents a thoughtful story that still embraces youthful affectations. Asano makes a study of the changes that end childhood and reveals them through a series of dualities in his own work.

The first volume of Goodnight Punpun follows Punpun Punyama, a grade school student represented as a simple, two-dimensional bird in a photo-realistic setting. As he approaches middle school, Punpun is confronted with a variety of common challenges: his parents’ crumbling marriage, budding sexuality, the existence of death, and young love. Many of these center on his relationship with Aiko, a girl from an equally troubled family.

What is most striking about Asano’s artwork in Punpun is not his attention to detail or sense of realism, but when he chooses to discard both. Punpun and his immediate family are all rendered as childish birds, floating like sheet-wrapped ghosts with stick limbs, two dots for eyes and a beak. Only height and one or two additional features (e.g. glasses) distinguish Punpun from his uncle or mother. This is never remarked upon within the story; they are simply designed differently and rest upon the page like a doodle in a Renaissance painting.

This choice is purposeful and effective. Punpun has the appearance of a blank slate upon which readers may project themselves. He is a specific character though, introverted and warm-hearted; he is as lovable and odd as any child. Unlike his friends and teachers, Punpun lacks in visual specificity. This removes a large barrier and encourages us to see ourselves as Punpun while reading. It also reveals the plasticity of childhood, wherein Punpun can be shaped to become almost anything or anyone. Punpun can be made cruel with a bent eyebrow or cowardly with a simple shiver, but is still reverts to his base form just as quickly as he changes. While his family of similarly-drawn birds are sometimes shown with some intensely-detailed aspect (e.g. his uncle’s bloodshot eyes), Punpun is pure. Phallic imagery and Punpun’s erections provide one of the only challenges to this process as Asano emphasizes Punpun’s gender and sexuality. It is in this aspect that Punpun begins to lose both the visual and thematic purity of childhood.

Goodnight Punpun Friends

The rest of Asano’s characters are sharp and filled with detail. The supporting cast of children and adults alike are easily-recognizable without ever becoming caricatures. Slight changes in age feel as natural as watching a cousin grow, with small adjustments around a very clear center. The comic’s backgrounds are particularly engrossing, often based on photographs to expose the history-rich landscape of Japanese cities and rendered by Yuki Toribuchi and Satsuki Sato, Asano’s background assistants on the comic. Vine-covered walls show every leaf and every building, even in a city-wide spread, is distinct. It is a delight to immerse yourself in these settings and consistency of characters. The contrast between Punpun and this world exposes that while children may become many things, their impact on the world is negligible. Punpun does not affect his surroundings, sturdily constructed in dense line work, as they affect him.

Asano’s dialogue also manages to walk the line between two distinct tones brilliantly—another of the many dichotomies found in the work. On the one hand, he captures the naivete and pure romanticism of childhood love. At the end of chapter three when Punpun says, “ I may not be able to save everyone from extinction. But no matter what happens I want to protect you, Aiko.” This statement reveals Punpun’s commitment to the sentimental, even as he accepts his lack of power in the world. He is sincere and dedicated.However, a few chapters later, Asano provides a madcap approach to Punpun’s first wet dream. His thoughts fill two panels and an entire page in bold letters: “My brain! My brain squirted out of my wiener!” No matter how romantic Punpun is capable of being at time, he is still a child and given to flights of fancy. His understanding of the world is bizarre when viewed through adult eyes and his emotions spike in unexpected direction. It’s both funny and honest. That sincerity is the constant in Punpun’s speech.

Meanwhile, the gulf between Punpun and adulthood is further emphasized by the actual content of his conversations. Punpun’s conversations with his uncle often veer to the very serious matters of his father’s abusive behavior, mother’s attempted suicide, and human sexuality. The subtext of what his uncle fails to tell him speaks volumes that could not be contained in a single word balloon. He deflects some questions by teaching Punpun a prayer (e.g. Dear God, dead god, tinkle tinkle hoy) and handing him a book on human anatomy when asked about a wet dream. Answers of science and religion are presented on a superficial level, but they are clearly disingenuous in not answering questions Punpun does not know how to phrase. Then as Punpun and his friends discuss porn and adventures, like when they march down the street chanting “PWC” (Porn Watchers Club), the story reassumes the innocence and unfettered joy of childhood.

Goodnight Punpun Kiss

Asano’s structuring of these two distinct tones—both in art and in dialogue—alongside one another is not without reason. They are a reflection of the fraught existence of childhood. Long days of wandering your hometown and obsessing over silly games quickly give way to revelations of how the world works. A pleasant afternoon spent with a crush can become deathly serious with only a few sentences. The whiplash of moving from the farcical to the life-changing is not just effective entertainment, it is an effective reproduction of the learning process of childhood. When we are given so much new information as if fed by a firehose, it only makes sense that so many conflicting moments would exist side-by-side.

The combination of plainly spoken narration and earnest dialogue construct apt metaphors and descriptions for feelings that can only be felt at a certain time. Punpun states his emotions bluntly and each of them seems enormous, untempered by experience and cynicism. All of this work recreating the experience of childhood serves to make its transitory nature more clear. The duality of childhood is formed by the strain between what was and what will be. When Punpun loses the idealized image of his father or has his first wet dream, it is a unique moment. They pull at the seams of his life and the story itself as it fluctuates in artistic and written styles.

Asano emphasizes a child’s fear of these changes with adults depicted as horrifying monsters. Besides Punpun’s immediate family, every fully grown character possesses a face constantly tilted and fixed in a state of rictus. This presents adults as a separate entity and one to be feared and studied like carnival grotesqueries; they are an incomprehensible other. Punpun only finds understanding and solace in his cohorts, who fail him or he fails. The most central example of this comes in the broken promises made to Aiko. The construction of these promises is natural and comes from a place of goodwill, but they are impossible things to keep. That dilution of purity is the path to adulthood in Asano’s work where all good things become corrupted eventually. Reading Punpun’s thoughts on the nature of honesty and promise-keeping, and seeing the emotional impact of these pure ideals being lessened is intensely painful. It is in these moments that the ideal is drawn to the real and Punpun moves further from childhood.

Asano’s craft is impeccable. The images and words on the page are those of an artist in complete control of his craft. What makes Goodnight Punpun transition from being technically accomplished to a truly great work of art is the honesty with which it portrays the world. Adult readers look on this comic and see the dualities that compose childhood – the battle between the silly and deathly serious, between romance and realism. We carry these conflicts into adulthood, but we can never retain the innocence or optimism of what once was.

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Crocked Critics: Suicide Squad #1

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 19, 2016.

Suicide-Squad-1-Rebirth

In “Crocked Critics” two comics critics are joined by their favorite companions: booze and sequential art. With minimal editing and maximal drinking, a pair of typically insightful writers take a serious look at a new comic while putting back drinks. For this particular journey we are joined by Alison Baker accompanied by Hell-Cat Maggie Irish Whiskey (which traces its roots to the same lore as Gangs of New York) and Chase Magnett sipping on Mt. Defiance Amber Rum (aged in whiskey barrels for a unique Virginian flavor). They are taking a look at Suicide Squad #1 from writer Rob Williams, artist Jim Lee with inker Scott Williams, and colorist Alex Sinclair to see how this fares in comparison to the critically-panned film from earlier this month.

Chase Magnett: Where do we start? There’s a million things I have to say, but there’s too much hate.

Alison Baker: 1. The cover is a mystery. Who is that black lady in the glasses? Is Enchantress not white? Where is Floyd’s facial hair? 2. Amanda’s narration is a mess. It’s not consistent, and the elevation of these C-list idiots to “Evil” is completely counter to the Suicide Squad idea. Either they’re a bunch of expendable losers, OR they are ultra badass. Not both. 3. I cannot believe there are 4+ pages devoted to diarrhea and barf. WHY.

Magnett: I’m glad we have an itinerary for this particular journey into darkness. Let’s start at the beginning and tackle the cover. In spite of it being created by the interior artist, it is wildly inconsistent from the story being told inside. June Moone is of a different race. One character is not present in the story, while team leader Rick Flag is absent from the cover. You’re right that Deadshot doesn’t look the same as he does inside and neither does Boomerang with those lovely locks no longer curling on his shoulder.

One of my biggest beefs is Killer Croc. He is set apart from the team as if he is an alien presence, a more animalistic force than his comrades. Inside he’s the most reasonable person of the lot. The worst part for me though is his lower jaw which hangs about a full head length below his upper teeth. Even if he can unhinge his jaw, these proportions are a stretch. That purposeless lack of consideration to consistency or anatomy is not just present on the cover. It’s the defining characteristic of his work in Suicide Squad #1. But what did you think of the interior artwork on this issue?

Baker: Well, Jim Lee brought enough hash lines for everyone, so that was nice of him. There’s a lot of inconsistency in the main story – June Moone’s look changes panel to panel, along with Harley’s breast size and the details of Deadshot’s hideous outfit – and I’m going to be upfront, I have hated the Deadshot redesign since day one.

Suicide-Squad-1-Introductions

Honestly, the biggest flaw for me is a lack of any sort of emotional acting. Lee doesn’t do well with faces; they all feel static. Combine his static art with Rob Williams erratic voices, and it’s hard to feel a real connection to the characters. Beyond their initial introductions (which feel DEAD ON and WONDERFUL), they’re all over the place. Maybe because we spend the last half of the main story falling from space in a sea of bodily fluids.

Fabok does a better job on the back up, but the layouts and the writing make the story clunky and thin. We can dive more into that later.

Magnett: I want to go back-and-forth with you on Deadshot’s costume, but that’s honestly an essay unto itself. Let’s leave it at this: It’s an absolute, incoherent mess that makes him look like he’s wearing a parka from Hot Topic the one moment his face is shown in Lee’s section of the comic. These problems run throughout the issue though and visual coherency is generally absent. Lee seems to have resumed some of the worst tendencies from his work at Marvel in the 90s (e.g. waistlines that cannot contain organs) while losing the refined lines that made his work in “Hush” work so well as posters. It’s difficult to discern how much of this may be down to inker Scott Williams who tends to blur any facial expressions not focused in a close up.

I’m reluctant to throw too much of this at Lee’s footsteps though. The man has a style and, while he’s not at his best, this is what he does. My biggest problems with Suicide Squad lie with the plotting of the story. I look at this comic and wonder exactly what this version of Suicide Squad is supposed to be about. You mentioned earlier that there are two divergent visions of what this team is: expendable losers or incredible black ops. It goes for both and that mix seems to ruin any success with either. Do you think the first issue manages to succeed going one way or another?

Baker: No. Most Suicide Squad stories come together around one key point: Amanda Waller. Amanda is just as incoherent as everyone else in this comic. Not only that, she’s unlikeable. The characterization is so uneven that it completely obscures the point of the book – hard ass lady leads misfit team on suicide missions. It seems more like “horrid bitch drops sick folks from space, maybe they die, oh well.”

Suicide-Squad-1-Deadshot-Shoot-a-Snake

Even the Deadshot backup lacks any kind of focus, which is disappointing given it’s a smaller playing field, so to speak. Lawton’s motivations are paper thin, and his voice drowns in a flood of plot-driven bat-punching. Oh, and he straight up murders a snake. Do you know what sound that makes? BANG – apparently.

Magnett: Amanda Waller’s characterization is upsetting. She is a brutally incompetent sociopath in this comic, and both of those descriptors deserve to be broken out. It’s clear that she has an insane number of resources. Belle Reve is a masterpiece of technology with incredible cells that can be swapped out like those super cool new garages. The Suicide Squad has a spaceship in this comic. What does Waller do with this? Ask for five randos who almost all of whom would be less effective than a well-trained black ops soldier, throws them in space when she is aware more than one will be dangerously ill, and drops them down with orders to find a thing whatever it is, sure, whatever. The American government isn’t well-respected for budgeting, but this is beyond the pale.

Suicide-Squad-1-Space-Vomit

In the meanwhile, we are exposed to her internal monologue where she continually refers to this group of thieves and mentally ill individuals as “evil”. She is obsessed with how evil they are, but she is the one dropping Killer Croc from outer space and allowing him to drown in his own spacesuit. Not only does this speech make no sense in the context of the story being told, but it makes Waller out to be sadistic. While she feels compelled to use these men and women to achieve good ends, every action she takes makes them more likely to die. It’s a borderline ruinous turn for someone who has typically been a nuanced, morally grey character.

My question at this point is: Where is this coming from? Why would you make the Squad seem like the most hyper-vigilant and well-funded military organization in existence, then fill the team with horrifically incompetent characters who regularly make mistakes that could have been avoided by asking one pertinent question or using Goggle?

Baker:  Honestly, I think this comic was written about 3 weeks ago. Between the Pokemon Go reference and the close hew to the Suicide Squad film (at least as far as roster and aesthetic), I don’t get the sense that this was a long term plan. Parts of the comics feel like they were taped to other parts – which, based on my viewing of the movie, is appropriate. The cinematic Suicide Squad also felt like a bunch of disparate scenes stapled together.

It’s a shameful waste all around. Suicide Squad has one of the most impressive critical pedigrees in DC Comics history, and with the new movie, there is an opportunity to hook an entirely new audience. Plus, DC already rebooted the the title twice since 2011, so you’d think they’d have had ample time to work out the kinks. AND YET. We have barely ⅔ of a main story, and during most of it we’re falling from space. The characterization sporadically matches up with what we saw from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but most of the dialogue is explaining what we’re looking at.

Also: a lot of the layouts look like straight rips from the storyboards of the animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham. Specifically, the drop scene. Assault on Arkham has an entire sequence where Waller drops the Squad out of a plane, and they scream and panic and beg for mercy. Also, Killer Croc has a panic attack re: heights.

No one poops themselves though.

Magnett: Captain Boomerang pooping himself was funny when it was first published in Suicide Squad #15. At least there it was based on characterization and relationships that make the humor more natural than a one-off, gross-out line of dialogue. You’re comparisons to the film and animated movie seem apt though. A lot of this reads like it was based on instructions from a higher source. It doesn’t matter whether or not that is true because that is exactly how it reads.

Suicide-Squad-1-Belle-Reve

Characters are rough sketches based on this sort of external media. Setting and plot feel like a bizarre mashup ofCall of Duty mission intro scenes and things that seem cool only as a sketch of an idea. Nothing really coheres here and it’s impossible to pinpoint why that is. Deadshot illustrates this in an interesting way. At one point he comments “about time” on the team’s impending death. It’s shorthand for characterization mimicking a deathwish. Then in the backup we get the same sob story of Deadshot wanting to be a hero and loving his daughter conjoined with him being a serial killer and no acknowledgement of the cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a nice word for a lot of what happens in this issue. There’s a lot there, but none of it works together and it ultimately induces madness in us, the readers. I fear for what may happen if we keep discussing this comic.

Baker:  Yeah, I don’t really want to expend more energy on this garbage fire of a relaunch. It’s truly unfortunate, because DC has the spotlight and the means to do a proper revamp of the Suicide Squad as a brand. It’s so damn lazy. Like, we nitpicked George Harkness’s poop and Harley Quinn’s boobs, but the entire comic is an incomplete vignette, with no thematic anchor and a very “we’ll sort this out next issue” vibe. I don’t particularly like that – a Rebirth issue should nail down its premise and its tone, at least in a perfunctory way. Instead they’re literally making readers wait until next time to figure out if this was worth it. If we’re judging the book on its single-issue merits….I hope the direct market kills it. Preferably in a Rancor pit.

Magnett: I’m in complete agreement. While there are technically a few ways this could have been worse that’s like comparing the quality of life between North Korean fishing villages. No one is a winner here and I don’t perceive any genuine redeeming qualities.

I give this comic a rating of drowning in your own vomit while falling to Earth. How about you?

Baker: I’ll get back to you when I recover from the runny shit smell. Which is apparently a fun narrative device now!

SUICIDE SQUAD! Super fun adventures in space! BUT ALSO WITH POOP!

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Leading Questions: The Killer Inside Batman

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 18, 2016.

Batman-Murderer

Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why is it in fact totally okay for Batman to kill people?

Some Marks just want to watch the comics internet burn. I suppose it’s time to light a fire then.

To understand this question and its answer, I think it’s important to start with why people would believe Batman absolutely should not kill under any circumstance. It’s more difficult to prove something should never occur, then to allow for its existence, but among superhero fans the idea of Batman killing is absolutely verboten.

The prohibition on superhero murder is far from unique to Batman though. It’s a view shared about many characters, especially the most popular ones, the paragons. Superheroes like Spider-Man, The Flash, and Martian Manhunter should preserve life at any cost to themselves. That’s accepted like a fact in many circles, but why?

If we’re going to discuss paragons, then we should go to the root of that word and the genre: Superman. There’s no one character more revered or iconic in superhero comics than Superman. Honestly, it’s that status that seems to be the character’s real greatest weakness at this point as the pressure of writing him overwhelms many creators and results in milquetoast narratives. If the film Man of Steel taught us anything, it’s that fans place a tremendous amount of importance on this character and many of them absolutely, definitively believe he should never kill.

I am not going to get into that discussion; it’s really not worth having for the millionth time and anyone who still cares about it should probably attend a class or something. What’s interesting isn’t the two sides of that argument, but what inspires people to believe that Superman should never kill in such an intense manner. What is it about Superman that makes this belief absolute and inspires such passion about it?

Batman-Superman

A lot of that passion comes from the fact that Superman means a lot to a lot of people. He’s a figure that men and women get tattooed on their bodies with some regularity and whose emblem covers untold numbers of t-shirts, baseball caps, and other paraphernalia. Superman is a character many of us grew up with and who features prominently in how we look at concepts like heroism, self-sacrifice, and decency. As one young man from Kansas, I can attest that Superman means a whole heckuva lot to me.

The ferocity with which many fans reject the notion of Superman ever killing suggests that the act of killing runs contrary to some intrinsic component of the character. While lots of things about a character can be adjusted, especially in something like superhero comics, there are always pieces that remain constant in telling us who a particular hero is. “Not killing” is not a core characteristic, but it does point to one that can be traced all the way to Superman’s roots in Action Comics #1.

Superman is a utopian ideal. He is not only the “Man of Steel”, he’s also the “Man of Tomorrow”. For many readers, myself included, Superman’s story is not meant to remind us of the moral and social compromises we must make in order to survive. He is both an inspirational and aspirational figure who offers the vision of a world where these compromises may not be necessary. It’s a dream, a fantasy, an imaginary story, but aren’t they all? What’s valuable is that these fantasies encourage us to keep dreaming and striving to find the better world Superman offers.

Killing is a rejection of that ideal. Homicide is to many people the original sin and still widely considered to be the greatest. While there are circumstances where taking another life is inevitable and even contributes to the greater good, that does not make the act itself any less regrettable. In an ideal society there is always a way to avoid taking any human life. Superman represents that path forward. He is the hero who always finds the better way and encourages us to seek the same. While we may be forced to live in a world where taking human life is necessitated by circumstances of crime and war, Superman gives us hope that tomorrow may be better.

Spider-Man-Kills-Charlie

This is true of many other superheroes as well. Both Spider-Man and The Flash are heroes who aspire to make the world better and realize their better selves. Spider-Man’s declaration of “No one dies” in Amazing Spider-Man #656 is both incredibly naive and brave. He commits himself to the notion that nobody, even an irredeemable mass murderer, needs to die under any circumstance. It’s this commitment that ultimately leads to him losing his own life and Doctor Octopus’ heroic transformation in Superior Spider-Man. Even Spider-Man has committed murder, or at least manslaughter, before. In the pages of Spider-Man Vs. Wolverine he accidentally kills Wolverine’s girlfriend Charlie. Spider-Man’s journey is about him becoming better and that is clearly illustrated in stories like this.

Among the paragons of superhero fiction, there are two very notable exceptions to this “no killing” rule: Wonder Woman and Captain America. The reason for this exception is pretty obvious too. Both of these characters are soldiers (or at least of a martial background for Wonder Woman) tracing their roots to World War II and the battle against fascism. When we talk about the unfortunate necessity of killing, no heroes better expose this than these two. They are the brave soldiers who take this incredible burden upon themselves in order to protect innocents and battle unimaginable terrors. It is through superheroes like these that we can see our military reflected and avoid the absolute demonization of any killing in the superhero genre.

Other heroes like Green Lantern and Aquaman may be led to kill as well. This can be justified by looking at what it reflects about their roles as an officer of the peace or a monarch. It can make sense in their stories. There is no real hard and fast “no killing” rule in superhero stories. It’s always a question of what makes sense for the characters and story being told. While some characters like Superman and Spider-Man can be perceived as being ruined by an action like premeditated homicide, others like Wonder Woman and Captain America fit perfectly with that concept in a well-told and carefully considered narrative.

So what about Batman?

Batman is not a utopian figure like Superman. His origin and continued existence is predicated on the world being an unjust place. At the same time he is not a soldier like Captain America or Wonder Woman. He is not tasked by necessity to fight global conflicts, but is focused on local and very personal issues. This has not stopped writers from following in the footsteps of Frank Miller referring to Batman’s fight against crime as a “war” and Robin’s like Jason Todd as being a “good soldier”. Altering rhetoric does not change what is actually occurring on the page though.

Batman-Good-Soldier

When I look at Batman and question what the immutable core of his character is, I think it has to do with the dystopian state of reality. He acknowledges the world as an imperfect place and does his best to impose order and justice upon it. The task is gargantuan, but he is able to have an impact.

This is rooted in Batman’s origin when as a child he is irrevocably altered by the worst possible event a child could endure. The death of the Waynes reveals the world to be a cold, cruel place. That this family has immense wealth, power, and status but can still be shattered further shows that there is no real protection from factors like crime and violence.

Everything he does, in every iteration of his story, follows an attempt to rectify this imbalance. He seeks to punish the wicked and protect the innocent. Batman is not guided by a legal sense of justice either, as he is regularly pursued by the police and labeled a vigilante. His actions only operate alongside the law when his own internal sense of right aligns with that of legal actors. This quest is often expanded to the point of him creating his own forces to create order, whether they are in the form of the Bat Family, the Justice League, the Outsiders, or some other group. Every iteration sees him as a leader and he grooms his protégés and molds his peers to pursue his goal.

Batman is a force for order in a chaotic world. He seeks to return power to the powerless. He aims to create justice where there is none. He reveals the potential of one human being to make the world just a little bit better.

There’s no part of this character that is inherently at odds with the act of killing.

Consider each of the core themes found within the character of Batman and how they have been expressed in other media. Related characters, those that fill roles like vigilante, police officer, and detective, are often forced to kill in their pursuit of the truth and what is right. Tangential genres to Batman’s breed of superhero story like noir and crime fiction do not shy away from the necessity of taking a life as the least bad option. Even Batman’s own genre does not disallow killing. While the concept that superheroes do not kill is occasionally expressed, it is far from a truism of the entire genre in an idealized or practiced form.

Superheroes do kill. What makes this action stand out is that when it occurs it is almost always treated with a great deal of gravitas. Murder stands contrary to many ideals which is why even when a soldier like Wonder Woman has to kill a foe, it has a cost. But there is a difference between saying that an action should be taken seriously and that an action should never be taken. What really matters isn’t whether Batman kills or not, but that if it does so it should be a carefully considered part of the story that aligns with the presentation of both character and themes.

Batman-Zero-Year

In some Batman stories, the act of killing would run contrary to both that specific presentation of the character and the aims of the story. We’ve been discussing Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Zero Year”, their magnum opus on Batman, recently. It’s a story the specifically confronts the greatest fears for the future confronting post-9/11 America and offers Batman as a hopeful alternative. Like much of Snyder’s work on Batman and Detective Comics, it transforms the character into an aspirational figure with a striking thematic resemblance to Superman. This is a Batman haunted by demons, but one that is able to regularly overcome them to find the best possible solution. He is a character that discovers a third way and his arc in “Zero Year” follows him on a quest that is as much about becoming an inspiration for Gotham City as it is about him saving the city.

For Batman to kill The Riddler or another foe in a story like this would run contrary to what is on the page. It would represent a catastrophic failure in the effort to become something greater than Bruce Wayne. In this case I would argue that Batman committing murder would not be okay, but this is only one case, not a universal truth.

The Christopher Nolan films were criticized by some fans for having Batman kill his villains or at least be complicit in their deaths. At the end of Batman Begins he allows Ra’s al Ghul to die by abandoning him on a doomed train. In The Dark Knight he tackles Harvey Dent from a height that causes his death. In The Dark Knight Rises he watches Catwoman murder Bane without so much as a reprisal.

The-Dark-Knight-Two-Face-Dead

None of these actions are at odds with the Batman shown in these films though. Nolan’s Batman still adheres to the core origins and characteristics of Bruce Wayne, but his quest for justice is not limited by an arbitrary line between intense, physical violence, and murder. In each of these films he accepts the death of a foe as a necessary component of creating the most good outcome. Whether it allows him to save the life of Jim Gordon’s son or end an ongoing terrorist threat to Gotham City, Batman takes the course of action that saves the most lives and creates the best possible world in his eyes.

There is an importance to these actions too. The abandonment of Ra’s is the climax of the film and clearly taxing for Batman. The death of Harvey Dent effectively ruins his life and the public image of Batman. There are consequences to what is done that makes sense within the morality of these stories.

Hes-Young-Hell-Walk-Again

Furthermore, it is hypocritical to place many Batman stories as being opposed to murder. The actions Batman takes in many comics, cartoons, and movies are incredibly brutal. While he does not claim to kill anyone in some of these stories, he often permanently cripples individuals and causes lifelong medical issues. Moments in which The Dark Knight Returns in which Batman says of a brutalized criminal, “He’s young. He’ll probably walk again.” have become a trope in Batman comics. The line between savage physical violence and actual murder becomes increasingly blurred as more instances show off just how destructive Batman’s actions are.

While drawing this line in comics targeted at a younger audience makes sense, it seems fewer Batman comics are actually intended for a young audience than ever before. The current Batman series features suicide bombers and horrifying imagery of gore. Death and destruction are the order of the day in this series and Batman is a contributor. To claim that his unwillingness to purposefully take human life gives him a moral high ground is tenuous at best. I would go so far as to say that in some instances it is not only okay for Batman to kill, it’s farcical to pretend that he does not.

Batman is a hero. Batman is a superhero. But Batman is also a man. His is the story of one man tasked with taming a chaotic universe to save others from the cruelty and violence that shaped his own life. Violence is one of his key tools in this battle against the entropy of the universe and violence inevitably leads to death. While it is not to be praised or admired, heroes sometimes have to kill given the constraints of a dystopian world and the restrictions of confronting real-world violence. These are all key components of who Batman is.

Like it or not, Batman is an inherently flawed hero fighting for a tomorrow in which he is not necessary, because where Batman is needed death cannot be far behind.

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Wizard World Allows Gun Dealer on Show Floor

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 16, 2016.

Wizard World Gun Dealer

DS Arms, a firearm manufacturer and retailer, will exhibit at Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago, taking place this weekend, August 18 through 21.

Yesterday comics reporter Tom Spurgeon reported the exhibitor had been dis-invited from the event after fans and other exhibitors raised concerns. Wizard spokesperson Jerry Milani said, “we have elected to not retain them as an exhibitor at the event.” Since then it appears that Wizard has reversed their position as uncovered by Bleeding Cool writer Rich Johnston. Milani told Johnston, “this exhibitor will not be displaying or selling any real guns at the show.”

DS Arms’ inclusion in the pop culture expo comes after numerous attendees objected to the inclusion of this exhibitor based on concerns for safety, a family-friendly atmosphere, and Chicago’s ongoing issue with gun violence. The inclusion of DS Arms on the show floor by Wizard represents a dangerous precedent that is both disrespectful and potentially harmful to the families and children attending an event focused on entertainment and pop culture.

Wizard did not follow up with Spurgeon after their original statement claiming DS Arms would not be allowed to attend.

DS Arms will attend in their original space alongside comics vendors and toy sellers. The company will only display and sell replicas of real firearms, but will still advertise for firearms that may be purchased off of the show floor.  DS Arms was selected as a vendor for the convention through the use of a third-party service. They registered with this service as a “Fan Car” exhibitor, a factually untrue categorization usually reserved for replica vehicles. The company also plans to sell at other conventions including Dragon Con in Atlanta, according to posts on their Facebook page.

Both Wizard and DS Arms are creating a dangerous situation in what is generally considered a safe and fun environment. Even if DS Arms is not allowed to bring actual firearms onto a show floor, their inclusion still represents a dangerous precedent in the growing business of pop culture conventions. Show floors present themselves as places to discover and explore entertainment merchandise. Placing a gun vendor on that floor presents guns as entertainment. Setting them alongside toy vendors creates an additonal awful association. Some conventions, such as this weekend’s Flame Con in New York City, have banned the presence of firearms outright.

Even in the hands of trained professionals or used in a recreational manner like hunting, guns are never an entertainment or toy. They are dangerous weapons at all times and should be treated with respect.

Wizard’s response to this situation has been almost as troubling as their choice to include DS Arms. The original statement to Spurgeon was misleading and poorly informed, at best. Milani did not follow up with those previously given misinformation when it became clear DS Arms would attend the show. This decision expresses disrespect for the press and a willingness to mislead and bury a story that directly affects attendees of their events. It is dishonest and disrespectful behavior.

Some attendees have already responded to Wizard’s decision to go back on their previous statement and host DS Arms. Comicosity Senior Editor Matt Santori-Griffith, a Chicagoan and press invitee to Wizard World Comic Con e-mailed the company. After registering his disagreement with the decision and choice not to attend the event this year, Santori-Griffith was promptly told his name had been removed the company’s press list.

View image on Twitter

Neither Wizard nor DS Arms looks good for their behavior in creating this story. Both companies have exhibited untrustworthy conduct, and have neglected the purposes and audience of a pop culture convention. Now guns will be sold, albeit indirectly, side-by-side with issues of Captain America and figurines of Star Wars characters. In a city struggling with gun violence, replicas of weapons ready to be sold will be propped up alongside toys. The only motives for these actions are mercenary in nature. Both companies stand to make a quick buck this weekend, even if it comes at the cost of their integrity and the safety of those paying to attend. Simply put, their choices are disgraceful.

There are no winners in this story. But there is plenty of shame to go around.

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Singles Going Steady 8/10/2016: Up, Up, and Thud

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 13, 2016.

Superwoman #1

Superwoman #1 (DC Comics)

(W) Phil Jiminez (A) Phil Jiminez and Matt Santorelli (C) Stephen Downer (L) Rob Leigh

Earlier this week I wrote about how All-Star Batman #1 managed to both embrace the superhero genre without stumbling over too-familiar tropes, managing to somehow feel fresh and familiar. It is a best case scenario for a DC Rebirth comic in many ways. Superwoman #1 is an example of the worst. While technically proficient, Superwoman #1 manages to offer nothing of note or interest and sells itself entirely on its title.

That is not to say Superwoman is without potential. The characters, plot machinations, and action set pieces all have the faint whiff of being new, but read like a million other Superman comics. Writer Jiminez relies on tropes that are not only familiar but already being hammered in other comics across the Rebirth Superman line. Distrust of Lex Luthor, mixed feelings on a new superhero, and what Superman means are all there in the most expectable fashion. The big twist of a cliffhanger in Superwoman #1 may provide fodder for rumors sites, but it’s hardly notable in presentation or meaning. It’s a cheap spin to give readers any reason to return for #2.

All of this story is packed into dense pages, but the layouts do not support that density in a visually pleasing manner. While every page is readable with clear work from letterer Rob Leigh, action is rarely exciting. Much ofSuperwoman #1 is dedicated to large swaths of expository dialogue that packs in pages with nine or ten panels. When planes begin to fall and the story speeds up, these same small, disjointed panel provide plenty of moments that fail to land.

The one moment where Superwoman #1 really soars comes in a heroic teamup to rescue a ship. Rather than homaging Superman, it discovers a moment that feels unique and makes the heroes of the comic soar. But it is an exception to a field of mediocrity. While dialogue, layouts, and plotting may all be deemed proficient, that may be a worse curse than inadequacy. As it stands Superwoman #1 is just another superhero comic in a field filled with more interesting work that is only memorable so long as it is directly in front of you.

–Chase Magnett


Detective Comics Some Big Number

Detective Comics #938 (DC Comics)

(W) James Tynion IV (A) Alvaro Martinez, Raul Fernandez, and Al Barrionuevo (C) Brad Anderson and Adriano Lucas (L) Marilyn Patrizio

The Batman line under editor Mark Doyle is setting the bar for DC Comics under the Rebirth initiative and Detective Comics is its premiere team book. The story so far has been building to a final showdown between a militarized group of Batmen and Batman’s own team of aspiring heroes. In Detective Comics #938 that build reaches a climax and it is one that reveals the promise of this title as an ongoing series.

There are plenty of climaxes in this issue that pay off well, but the action itself serves as the weak link. It’s regularly difficult to understand how actions connect between panels with bodies moving so far in space as to suggest five or more seconds have elapsed in what should be quick beat-to-beat moments. Not much attention is paid to setting or antagonists as the Bat-army rolls across panels like the ocean with no continuity. There is a much greater focus on individual moments that look cool, but never add up to a real sense of momentum. Even the details in these moments take away from the joy of speeding ahead in a comic like this as bullet holes magically disappear around Orphan rather than just barely missing her.

Most of the moments themselves do function though. Each character on the team is given a triumph that fits with their personality. The payoff for Orphan going “upstairs” is a great splash panel and Clayface is able to let loose in a really delightful series of images. This team is diverse enough that each character could be someone’s favorite (while Batman remains a stick in the mud) and Detective Comics #938 gives them all their due. It also continues a strong trend of building stakes and tensions. The final moments turn a victory into an entirely new battle that could be far worse; it provides a reason to keep reading without robbing this issue of its own import.

There is nothing being done in Detective Comics that has not been done before or better, but it is delivering an entertaining combination of elements. The mix of characters, regular delivery of exciting moments, and inclusion of sympathetic villains provides plenty to chew on. This isn’t a comic that soars, but it does fulfill its promise as a Batman-team-up comic.

–Chase Magnett

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The Nightshade Odyssey: Magical Madness is Just Another Day at Belle Reve

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 12, 2016.

suicide-squad---nightshade-odyssey-189150

Black magic. Long lost siblings. Ancient gods. Incest. Possession. Alternate dimensions.

These are not the plot points most readers expect to focus on when picking up Suicide Squad, but they are the defining element of “The Nightshade Odyssey” in Suicide Squad #14-16. The story itself is not a highlight of the series’ first volume. If anything, it is most notable for the characters it introduces and removes from the team’s roster. However, the arc’s existence and anomaly status speak volumes about the strengths of Suicide Squad.

A brief recap of “The Nightshade Odyssey”: Eve Eden (a.k.a. Nightshade) is granted permission by Amanda Waller to lead the team on a private mission. They enter the mysterious dimension which grants Eve her powers in order to discover what happened to her brother Larry after he was left there as a child. Larry finds the team first and imprisons them, having been corrupted by a force called Incubus. Incubus seeks to be reunited with its sister force, Succubus, which just happens to be the power source of another Squad member, The Enchantress. Incubus removes Enchantress’ powers, gives them to Eve, and plans to breed with her. The Squad breaks free from their restraints, Eve escapes Incubus’ influence, Deadshot kills Incubus, and they are all rescued from the now crumbling Nightshade Lands by Shade, the Changing Man.

It’s really a bizarre story.

What’s most remarkable about the meat of this story is that it does not read as an outlier when moving through the series. It is preceded and proceeded by stories tied to the real world, one in which the Squad invades a South American country and another where they battle a terrorist cell, respectively. What happens in the Nightshade Lands are not tied to Waller’s goals or the security of the United States. It is based on a favor from “The Wall” to one of the only team members who isn’t tied to the team based on a prison sentence.

Amanda-Waller-Ronald-Reagan

It remains a cohesive part of the story because it is built on the greatest strength of Suicide Squad: character. The reasons for the mission are based in Nightshade’s origins; the reason each Squad member goes along makes sense given their portrayal. Deadshot and Duchess are always looking for action (an excuse to die or kill something). Bronze Tiger and Vixen are loyal teammates who respect Nightshade. Captain Boomerang has to be drugged in order to go, only awakening after the mission is FUBAR.

Writer John Ostrander bases the mission in a deep understanding of Nightshade’s history reaching back to her origins when created by Steve Ditko and Joe Gill at Charlton Comics in 1966, with editor Bob Greenberger constantly referring readers to Secret Origins #28. This is standard procedure for the series. It rarely created characters from scratch, Waller and her support staff providing the major exception. Instead, Suicide Squad took the many elements from a character’s continuity and wove them into a cohesive and compelling whole. As strange as Nightshade’s origin is, it provides her with an origin that explains her private and protective nature, while adding layers of darkness explored in future stories.

Everyone’s response to what happens in the Nightshade Lands follows what readers would have come to expect. Deadshot treats every problem the same and ultimately saves the day by shooting a demi-god with the same casual demeanor he would dispatch a random thug. Captain Boomerang remains an opportunist, coward, and complete loser. Even in an unexplainable plane of existence, his first reaction is to bargain with whoever is in power; he STILL manages to offend that person in the process. This reliable set of characterizations is a key element of the charm of Suicide Squad. In a universe filled with magic and monsters, they remain relatively down-to-earth with low-key humor and deeply human reactions.

Even the introduction of Shade the Changing Man, a super cop on the run from another dimension, becomes a bit of rigamarole for the Suicide Squad. When Amanda Waller meets the man, she sees an opportunity and strikes a deal. In exchange for aiding Shade on a mission to attack some corrupt officials from his home dimension, he joins the Squad (giving them a significant power boost after losing the Enchantress). Remove elements of science fiction and mysticism from this plotting and it’s easy to see how it would become a more “standard” Suicide Squad story. It’s all about compromise, forced allies, and the long game. Every decision is character-driven and serves a broader purpose (while still providing plenty of action in the present).

Suicide-Squad-The-Enchantress

The biggest surprise of “The Nightshade Odyssey” may be that Enchantress and June Moone are the least defined characters in this arc. Besides some internal thoughts of fear regarding the relationship between these two personalities when traveling between dimensions, Enchantress is as much of a prop to the plot as Incubus. While the shifting of power affects both June Moone and Eve Eden in future issues, here it is a matter of moving things along.

While the characters and their responses are in line with previous issues of Suicide Squad, “The Nightshade Odyssey” provided artist Luke McDonnell with an opportunity to experiment in ways not seen in the series before or after. He makes use of techniques that blur backgrounds with color and abstract shapes. These are primarily used in splash panels giving readers a sense of the Nightshade Lands before focusing on individual characters. The artists also alter how they shape forms, removing outlines and relying on clear, bold inks to express an exploding face.

Suicide-Squad-Ditko

These elements overlay McDonnell’s pencils and Bob Lewis’ inks, so as not to separate these panels from the rest of the page, but add a new element. In a time when colorists did not receive much attention from readers, Carl Gafford was working hard to provide clarity with limited tools in a complex arrangement. He utilizes red for rain and monstrous shadows, effectively painting over the page and adding another layer. Other effects utilized inSuicide Squad #16 when Shade enters the picture reveal a Ditko influence in McDonnell’s designs. Not only did Ditko create Shade, but the bizarre forms and boundless setting of the page evoke his work with characters like Doctor Strange. The effect is disconcerting, but perfectly readable.

McDonnell also provides the most compelling elements to the Incubus sections of the story. His illustrations of angels being cast down from Heaven and Larry’s aunt crumbling to dust in the middle of an incestuous kiss are evocative pieces that maintain a consistent tone  with the much more down-to-earth elements of the comic. Backgrounds transform, becoming as important of a character as Incubus and an even more compelling foe. His draftsmanship allowed the issue to combine so many disparate elements, provoking a wide range of responses while still reading as a united whole.

Enter-Shade-The-Changing-Man

Although “The Nightshade Odyssey” carries a banner on all three of the issues being discussed here, and is even the title of the third collection in DC Comics most recent series of Suicide Squad reprints, it’s hardly the focus of all three issues. At best it occupies the second half of Suicide Squad #14 and introduces the plot of Suicide Squad #16.

The other half of these issues are filled with Amanda Waller politicking in D.C., various Squad member sub-plots, and an entirely different mission to bring Shade into the Suicide Squad fold. It’s not organized in standard layers of plotting, either. Once the “Odyssey” begins, it is the sole focus of the comic. Everything else comes before or after this story. In terms of plotting, Suicide Squad has far more in common with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Fourthan current superhero comic trends. Much like “The Galactus Trilogy”, “The Nightshade Odyssey” takes as much space as it requires before moving onto the next thing. Ostrander and McDonnell find excellent cliffhangers in each issue, but do not extend their story to fill the entirety of available pages.

While “The Nightshade Odyssey” is unlikely to make anyone’s list of top five Suicide Squad stories, and is not a definitive take on the series by any means, it might express the series’ core strengths better than any other story arc. Rather than resting in what would be considered comfortable territory like a Jihad or Personal Files story, it stretches the concept to its furthest. What you discover is that the Suicide Squad can work in almost any genre: horror, fantasy, and science fiction are all present. It is that potent of an idea.

What makes the Suicide Squad work are the characters at its core, men and women like Amanda Waller, Eve Eden, Deadshot, and yes, even Captain Boomerang, along with creators like Ostrander and McDonnell approached each story with that knowledge. The Suicide Squad won’t always come back in one piece, but no matter where they go, they are capable of telling a thrilling story.

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DC Reneges on Promise to Publish Volume 2 of Prez

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 11, 2016.

Prez

Prez writer Mark Russell has confirmed on Twitter that the series will be ending with a 12 page “Election Special” this fall. This is the first new information on the series fate since “Corndog-in-Chief”, a collection of its first six issues, was released earlier this year. Prez was launched as part of DC Comics’ Divergence initiative alongside comics like Starfire and Black Canary. It was announced as a twelve-issue series to be published in two parts. The second part, already plotted by Russell, will not be published now.

Prez was written by Russell with pencils by Ben Caldwell, inks by John Lucas and Mark Morales, and colors by Jeremy Lawson. It is the story of Beth Ross, a young woman elected to the presidency after becoming an internet celebrity known as “Corndog Girl” in a farcical future landscape. The series provided commentary on modern issues like drone warfare, healthcare, and financial influence in politics. Both its comedy and political observations were praised by critics and garnered a dedicated base of fans.

Its critical merits did not translate into sales for individual issues. Prez #1 sold 28,309 copies to physical outlets according to Comichron and Prez #6, the series final issue, sold 7,716 copies. Copies of the first issue were also eligible to be returned to DC Comics, but there is no record of how many may have been returned. This lack of sales likely led DC Comics to decide not to continue publishing the series and instead publish the 12-page special tied into the United States’ Presidential election this fall.

This situation resembles that of The Omega Men, another Divergence launch also promised as a 12-issue series. DC Comics announced that the series would conclude at issue 8 instead, in spite of promises to the creative team and fans for a complete story. However, after an uproar caused by the announcement DC Comics relented and promised the series would be completed. The Omega Men reached its 12th issue and a collection of the entire series will be released later this month.

Both series suffered from low sales. The key difference in publication strategy is that Prez was initially announced to have a hiatus, while The Omega Men led with a full cancellation. This may have “softened the blow” for readers expecting more from Prez. When delays to the series were first announced DC Comics co-publisher Dan Didio reassured fans it would return saying, “still twelve issues. Now two 6 part miniseries.”

The other significant difference rests in the creative teams of the two books. The Omega Men writer Tom King has become a star at the publisher, signing an exclusive agreement, writing the flagship series Batman, and receiving numerous accolades for his work on Sheriff of Baghdad. Russell is still employed by DC Comics writing comics likeThe Flintstones.

Whatever the reason for DC Comics’ choice to cease publication of Prez, it is sure to be a disappointment to both the series’ creative team as well as its dedicated fanbase. The first volume of Prez will likely be fondly remembered, but the question of what the second half of this comic would have been will remain.

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Leading Questions: The Big Two Sins

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 11, 2016.

Jack-Kirby

Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Is it truly possible to ethically consume Marvel and DC Comics?

There’s a short answer to this question: No.

But I worry that answer alone holds some very negative connotations. It might sound snobbish or holier-than-thou, and that is genuinely not how it’s intended. This question raises a big mess simply in regards to the two publishers you mentioned. Then it evokes problems across the entire comics industry, including some that readers typically believe to occupy the moral high ground. And that all leads to the real question here and it’s a philosophical whopper: Is is possible to ethically consume anything in capitalism?

I’m not going to try and answer that last question here. I’m not a philosopher (although I am actually an economist, surprise!). Far smarter, more accomplished, and thoughtful individuals than me have put a lot more work into answering that quandary than I will in a weekly column on a comic book website. However, I will be brushing past it a lot. Because if nothing else, the ethics of purchasing comic books addresses some of the strongest cases for why capitalism is an inherently amoral, ethics-free system.

Let’s start with some specifics before going broad though, specifically the creators who built Marvel and DC Comics.There’s a temptation to start listing artists who designed characters now worth hundreds of millions of dollars each. People like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Finger, Joe Simon, Don Heck, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, and, yes, even Stan Lee. Those are just some of the biggest ones. There’s no debating that these creators are behind some of the most recognizable and profitable brands in existence today. There is no Batman without Finger. There is no Superman without Shuster and Siegel. There is barely any Marvel Universe at all without Kirby. They are the originators for these properties.

The specifics of each case are unique. There’s a lot of contention regarding whether Kirby’s creation of characters at Marvel was truly work-for-hire. The case has always been shaky and recently the Kirby family were prepared to go before the Supreme Court to legitimize a copyright termination they filed. It’s complicated stuff and while the legally correct ownership status has never been terribly clear (and likely never will be after Marvel settled with the Kirby estate), it’s hard to defend how the owners of Marvel Comics continued to make billions of dollars while Kirby was allowed to live out the rest of his life with relatively little to no compensation. Rob Liefeld has bragged before that the biggest payday Kirby ever saw was at Image Comics for a book not many people even read. Considering the mountains of money built on concepts like the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, and so many others, that’s a very sad statement.

If you really want to put in the time to researching each of these cases and all of the associated lawsuits, legal deals, interviews, and other details, it becomes clear that there is something generally rotten. You can get hung up in the details, but there are simply too many instances of foul play being called and massive corporations fighting families in court to truly believe everything is hunky dory. The people who built the universes that make Marvel and DC all of their money were never treated fairly in life. This question isn’t about specifically how badly they were treated and it would require a lot more time and space than we have here, but you cannot deny that both publishers are built on the backs of artists whose work was not dealt with or paid for fairly.

This isn’t a problem relegated to the past either. For as much as Image Comics likes to tout its creator-owned bonafides, they’ve been at the center of some of the most interesting cases over the past few decades. Issues of ownership over characters created in Todd McFarlane’s Spawn by guest writer Neil Gaiman (not to mention ownership of Dave Sim’s contributions as well) have drug out in courts for years. Hearsay and broken promises litter the initial promise from Image founders like McFarlane.

Consider the current golden boy at Image Comics: Robert Kirkman. His series The Walking Dead has taken off to be an entertainment juggernaut. Yet co-creator Tony Moore is no longer an owner of the property after a legal battle. He continues to create new series and not share ownership with artists and other collaborators. His newest upcoming series Demonic lists Kirkman as creator although he is neither writing nor drawing the title.

Combine this with Kirkman’s Skybound imprint at Image Comics, where series creators do not own their titles. Those rights are shared by Kirkman and other partners, most likely in the hope of making them successful comics that can be spun into new, successful television shows. It was less than a decade ago that Kirkman made hiscreator owned manifesto denouncing the business practices at Marvel and DC. Now he functions like a smaller version of them.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

That isn’t to suggest that what Kirkman is doing is illegal. He’s clearly a smart businessman (hell, he’s a business, man) and no one except him, his partners, and the creators involved can be sure of what is going on in the room where it happens. Most creators at Skybound appear to be satisfied with their deals.

This example reflects more than just how Kirkman and Skybound work, or how Marvel and DC built the model that they now follow. It shows how comics functions in America and why it’s so easily corrupted. Like any other business in a capitalist system, power is dictated largely by money and there isn’t a whole lot of that to go around in comics. It stretches the difference between big guys and little guys ever further. It’s what allows for publishers to set the rules and a major success story like Kirkman to quickly join their numbers. When everyone is fighting for a few cents, it allows the people with full billfolds to do what they will.

I imagine other entertainment industries like publication houses and Hollywood wish they functioned more like comics, with studios and publishers owning the bulk of the work and many stars reliant on them to ensure they have work in a year. However, the size of these industries and the larger scale of money helps prevent them from reaching the same lows as comics.

Guilds and unions help to protect sectors of talent, setting rules that studios must follow. There seems to be a greater willingness amongst stars (whether they are writers, actors, directors, or some other sort) to speak out against abuses, at least when it comes to their pay and rights. Individual ethical concerns like those surrounding Roman Polanski and Woody Allen appears more easily ignored. That greater willingness may come from a higher profile and public more willing to listen and respond. All of these factors and more have helped to create a better, but still far from perfect, working scenario. These factors don’t really exist in comics. Very few creators seem to be willing to out themselves and fight publicly against injustices, and far fewer people outside of the industry even care. And so comics remains a place ready for rampant abuse of the creators who actually make what is being consumed.

And that’s not to say there aren’t some good exception. As much as some folks may dislike his work, Mark Millar goes out of his way to share ownership with his creative teams and has helped industry legends like Dave Gibbons and John Romita, Jr. reap a healthy paycheck. There are lots of teams working at Image Comics proper, not the imprints, who are doing creator-owned comics with equitable splits in ownership. There are good things happening, ethical deals, and sales of comics. But they are the exception, not the rule.

It really looks like the comics industry and the people working within it have accepted the status quo as it stands. The most significant struggles of the past decade that have raised awareness on ethical standards have largely been focused on creators who are no longer alive. Legal battles waged by the Kirby, Siegel, and Shuster estates, along with a campaign by Mark Tyler Nobleman to remember Bill Finger have all focused on issues that are at least decades old. This, along with their size, is probably why the discussion of these problems is so focused on Marvel and DC Comics. They set the low bar for everyone else in comics and have built the largest empires on the sorts of broken promises and poor treatment we’re talking about.

Marvel and DC are not unique in their mistreatment of creators; they’ve just committed to it on a scale to which other publishers can only aspire.

The onus for fixing this status quo rests on the comics industry itself too. Creators, employees, and publishers will have to stand up and speak out in order to motivate change. That sounds far easier than it actually is, but change comes from within. The effect we as consumers have on these systems is miniscule compared to what the right creator or editor can accomplish. For both past and current misdeeds, it is publishers that will have to change how they function. They will have to make reparations and alter contracts to right their wrongs.

How we respond is relatively unimportant to the direction of the comics industry. Short of an enormous, organized boycott with a clear and unignorable impact on sales coupled with a well-publicized marketing campaign, nothing we can do will change the system. If someone wants to start a boycott of all Watchmen-related material outside of the original text tomorrow, they can sign me up; I’m already not buying that schlock. But I doubt it will happen in an effective enough manner to alter DC Comics’ current plan to plunder Alan Moore’s psyche until he finally nails himself shut inside of his own home forever.

So how do we respond? Is the only answer to throw up our hands and walk away from comics forever?

I don’t think so, but I also don’t think there’s any one right answer. You can’t look at Marvel or DC or just about any other major American publisher and not understand how their product is built on exploitation or bad behavior to some degree. The real question is what you are okay with supporting.

It’s not a new question either. If you pay attention to where anything you consume comes from, then you are already aware of the enormous number of ethical compromises being a consumer requires. It’s the name of the game really. Drawing the line between what you can and cannot support is up to you. That’s something based on your own ethical code and how you choose to engage with the world.

I’m pretty disgusted by both past and present behavior at DC Comics. Their treatment of the co-creators of Superman has been regularly abhorrent, and I find their approach to the works of Alan Moore absolutely despicable. But here’s the thing, I still picked up All-Star Batman #1 yesterday and loved it. The truth is I probably would have picked it up whether or not Bill Finger’s name was in the credits, but I was certainly happy to see it there. I may choose to pay for some products the company makes while refusing to buy a Watchmen toaster.

Where you choose to draw your line is up to you. It can be a great topic for conversation too, especially between industry nerds like us who genuinely enjoy discussing ethics in regards to comics production. It’s a thing to carefully consider and reconsider, like any other conundrum. But I don’t think you should ever go so far as to prescribe your own purchasing ethics to others. All of us are compromised to some degree and to pass moral judgment on someone for picking up a Batman comic is probably not the best way to start a conversation or affect any form of change. If anyone needs to be judged, it’s the people making all of the money on specious moral foundation.

If there’s one thing I’d like to add to all of this, it’s that the key to understanding and staying in touch with all of this isn’t as simple as boycotting Marvel, DC, or anyone else (although that action is entirely understandable and defensible). I think the key, and the thing we all have to remember, is that these publishers are not pure in any sense of the word. Marvel and DC both have broken far too many promises and fundamentals of ethical business to be purchased ethically. That doesn’t mean we can’t buy their books, but it certainly means we shouldn’t try to paint them as anything greater than what they really are.

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All-Star Batman #1 is a Perfect Fix of Superhero Comics

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 10, 2016.

Optimized-All-Star Batman Cover

Superhero comics might be my favorite drug. They’re an expensive habit I picked up in my teens that led me to try harder, more experimental stuff later, and as time has passed it has been harder to obtain the initial thrill I found with them. That’s why the primary emotion I felt reading All-Star Batman #1 was relief. At its core, this is simply a damn fine superhero comic.

This success is structured in the right combination of creators and ideas, all of which evoke and enhance one another’s best qualities in this first issue. Nowhere is that more clear than in the work of John Romita, Jr., who has never looked better over the past decade. While it is possible to point elements of Romita’s biggest inspirations in this work, it is clear why he is considered a significant influence by so many younger comics artists.

Romita’s layouts are explosive. Characters regularly push against the fourth wall of panels as if filled with too much momentum for a two-dimensional surface to contain. There’s a constant sense of motion with characters getting throw into or pulled out of scenes in most pages. This constant forward grind is established right at the start when Batman is flown through the windows of a diner, shattering a restful scene. It is perfectly setup by a the idyllic introduction of said diner in a repeating panel that transitions from black and white. This is the introduction to something relentless, establishing a status quo (complete with milage counter) that will not be restored. From that point on there are always losers and winners on each page, and peace is a constant presence in the loser column.

Optimized-All-Star Batman Killer Moth and Firefly

Even when given a moment of rest, characters pop with Romita’s new designs. Killer Moth and Firefly make for a well matched pair, resembling a fusion of sentai warriors and space marines. They are raw mechanical power and effusive detail in suits designed to kill. While these power suits offer plenty of seems and parts, there is no element that feels over-designed or gratuitous. Lines serve a purpose and balance with large canvases of color. The only character this sense of design is really lacking from is Batman himself, still wearing the costume designed by Greg Capullo at the conclusion of “Superheavy”. Whereas there is never a question about why his villains are dressed as they are, his costume seems to raise only questions. Romita still poses Batman in ways that distract from this inelegant design. One moment in which he is seen far below, his face cloaked in shadow and a chainsaw in his hand, is particularly effective summoning fear and joy in equal parts – just as Batman ought to.

Danny Miki’s inks on Romita’s pencils bring out a level of finesse that has not been apparent in recent work onSuperman and Dark Knight III. He sharpens Romita’s lines in a way others have not, finding the key elements of each form and bringing them out without losing any sense of energy. The big moments and explosive actions are just as impactful, if not more so. More importantly, the smaller moments in Romita’s storytelling are enhanced. A single panel close up on Two-Face’s eye behind a bag reveals layers of burned tissue and Batman’s reflection. It’s a stunning, quiet image enhanced by a blend of sharp, streaking lines and thick curvatures.

Optimized-All-Star Batman Danny Miki

Dean White adds additional depth and texture with his colors. Blended lines upon bodies reflect Romita’s use of overlapping, smaller lines to create coherent overall forms and patterns. He also reduces any messiness to the work with strongly contrasting palettes and a great ability to focus the eye on darkness. The overall result of Romita, Miki, and White in collaboration are some of the boldest superhero action sequences and surprising moments (even when seen a mile away) coming from any publisher. Each of their tools sharpens another for a striking overall effect.

Even if these talents had been utilized on an uninspired script they would make it well worth reading, but that is not the case. Scott Snyder, freed from the pressures of writing Batman proper, is more focused on character and less on spectacle here. All-Star Batman #1 seizes on the ability to do things like incorporate lots of minor villains, run away from Gotham City, and dive deeper into the psyche of a rogue while letting Batman just be Batman. There’s a clear sense of fun here and while thoughtful the issue appears to be freed from many of the demons that fueled previous Batman stories in Snyder’s career.

The issue presents a natural evolution for Snyder’s exploration of the Batman character and mythos, moving ever further from the darkest roots of Gotham in Detective Comics and character defining epics of Batman and into a story that combines superhero fun with an exploration of unexpected material. That exploration is focused on Two-Face here in a manner that makes perfect sense and opens the character in previously unexplored ways. Harvey Dent’s obsession with duality and dark sides is turned into a parable on the power of information and secrets. It touches on the thematic core of a comic like The Private Eye while using the bombastic strengths of its own genre. Snyder’s take on Two-Face is already the most interesting the character has been since he appeared inBatman: The Animated Series, and it fuels the rest of the story well.

This plot mechanics of this story resemble an engine being assembled. All-Star Batman #1 is surprisingly heavy on ideas even with its relentless pacing. The merged concept of a road trip, discoveries from the past, and a chase by bounty hunters all become a clear narrative in the final pages, but it takes some doing to get there. Snyder smartly scatters the exposition throughout the issue in various flashbacks so that no stint of dialogue requires too much space.

Optimized-All-Star Batman Shalvey

Balancing the fun and colorful adventures of the lead story is a backup tale drawn by Declan Shalvey and colored by Jordie Bellaire that is simply horrifying. It reads like a Silver Age story through the eyes of Thomas Harris as a villain with a schtick leaves vague clues in a mystery about material importers. A sadistic form of torture twists this and is brilliantly deployed by Shalvey in the final panel. Bellaire’s subtle colors do more to suggest what is happening than reveal it, leaving the pain where it is most effective in the reader’s imagination.

In this backup, Snyder also works through some of the thematic material from his lead story. Concepts of grooming are raised, and it is suggested that Harvey Dent was Batman’s true, first protege. A color wheel is used to great effect and the first concept of who Duke is within the Batman mythos is welcome. However, the most effective elements of the story all center on the horror-mystery surrounding the villain’s actions. The rest feels associated for convenience rather than an integral part of the plot.

Plenty can be said about the thematic hooks and character pieces set up in All-Star Batman #1, but it is a comic that is at its best and most interested in its genre. Even the exploration of secret histories, redemption, and mentoring all are core themes to the genre itself. This is a comic filled with great costumes, thunderous fights and chases, and plenty of bigger-than-life concepts. It is a comic that even at its darkest revelation is still fun (at least in the lead story). It is a comic that looks every bit as cool as you want a Batman book to look. In that regard, it has the potential to be the best Batman comic any of these creators have ever worked on as it possesses a clear understanding of both the character and the world he operates in. It is far too early to make that sort of declaration, but it is exactly the right time to check out All-Star Batman.

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