Singles Going Steady 7/20/2016: Silhouettes and Shadows

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 25, 2016.

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She-Wolf #2 (Image Comics)
(W/A) Rich Tommaso

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Rich Tommaso has proven himself capable of mastering multiple genres without losing his unique perspective or style. She-Wolf #1 promised a dreamlike horror story devoted to aesthetic pleasure and exploration above all else. This promise is what leads to She-Wolf #2 deflating as it loses focus of what makes itself compelling.

Narrative is pushed to the forefront of this installment, and it is the weakest element of the comic. The plot is riddled with tropes, including a rivalrous relationship between vampires and werewolves and the inclusion of family conspiracies. While these sorts of elements were already present, they were background. Here the explanation of what is occurring is emphasized in long stretches of expository dialogue. While this serves to explain the whys and wherefores of She-Wolf, those aren’t questions that ever needed to be answered. Focusing so much on characters and their relationships reveals these elements of She-Wolf to be hollow, as characters barely summon motives or history. Long stretches of word balloons slow the pacing of She-Wolf #2 considerably and cover the real charm of the book.

That charm is Tomasso’s artwork and ethereal pages. The stranger She-Wolf gets the better it is. Even in sequences where two characters stand in a room or waterpark and talk, there is plenty to enjoy. Tomasso’s soft watercolors are exceedingly pleasant to the eye and encourage readers to soak in each moment. He never wastes an opportunity to add ideas, and backgrounds to exposition still provide plenty to enjoy. Violence is something that Tomasso really excels at. An action sequence between vampire and werewolf is wordless and breathless. There is no holding back and the use of red, spattered inks to indicate blood play beautifully against the soft tones on the page.

The issue is at its absolute best though when things become truly trippy. Stretching forms, non sequitur sequencing and settings, and symbol-laden panels are what will make you think about this comic long after you’ve set it down. These images capture the look and feel of a werewolf story beautifully, and need no explanation; they are a primal thing. It’s simply too bad that there’s so much focus on connecting the dots when She-Wolf is at its best drifting through the stars.

— Chase Magnett

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On “Batman: Zero Year” Part 2 – Dark City

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 25, 2016.

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In this discussion of “Dark City,” the second act of “Zero Year,” we’ll be discussing Batman #25-27 & #29. The juxtaposition of natural disasters and terror attacks along with purposeful replication of iconic imagery are discussed.

You can read our intro/overview here and out “Secret City” piece here.


Stack: “Dark City” more or less begins with the Rafael Albuquerque-drawn back-up in issue #24. The Riddler appears on screens all across Gotham City and delivers a threatening message before cutting their power and blowing up what appears to be multiple floors on several buildings. It recalled my memories as a 6-year-old watching the latest tape from Osama bin Laden on the news. Something about him being projected into my home, the one place I was supposed to be safe, felt uniquely threatening. He’s dead now, but I was still unsettled by the memory as the Riddler made his declaration in the pages of this comic.

We’re starting to see how Batman is impacting the citizens of Gotham in the wake of the Riddler’s attack and blackout. He saves a mother and daughter from looters, leaving them with supplies that includes a flashlight the young girl draws a bat on. It’s the first proper bat-signal and it’s coming from someone who needed saving that now finds some measure of strength or comfort in the symbol. But Batman, as presented in “Dark City,” is not something that can not be a true symbol of positive change as it currently exists.

He’s brash and violent, rejecting the offers of help from potentially allies such as Lt. James Gordon. Alfred is again the voice of truth to Bruce, chastising for using Batman to exact vengeance on the police “by making [them] bear witness” as he performs their duties better than they can. He’s undermining every institution that is vital to a city the size of Gotham instead of working to repair them, leaving the average citizen ultimately no better off than they were before all the madness started.

Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder riff on several iconic images from The Dark Knight Returns in this arc for more reason than simply borrowing a cool pose. These visual references are juxtaposed with narration describing Batman as a “demon of vengeance… [that] will not last” and moments where he pushes himself to a dangerous degree that he is barely capable of surviving. The point is clear: if he continues down this path then he comes closer to a future that leaves him as the violent fascist of Frank Miller’s masterpiece. That’s a character who was forced into retirement, compromised some of his long-held ideals, and ultimately was forced to abandon his life as he knew it. That’s not a version of the character you can publish forever, Snyder acknowledges that and begins the process of building a better Batman after acknowledging the Ghost of Christmas Future that hangs over him.

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Batman’s fury is righteous, he pursues his enemies viciously, and – in the case of Dr. Death – he mutilates them. I had ideas about what America was. I thought we were more of “who” and that who we were was righteous. Going to war, bombing countries I had never heard of, and doing it all in the name of revenge against the people who hurt us. I had to learn that this wasn’t the case and that our country did a lot of horrible, criminal things out of anger and greed that we never should have been able to justify. Has America changed? Has America truly learned that this is not the way to carry on? My instincts say no. If there was a point where we’d bottom out like Batman does and realize that we’ve had it wrong the whole time, it probably would have happened by now.

“Dark City” puts the lie to all the warm fuzzies we felt about our “unity” and “strength” after 9/11 and demands that we try to do better.

Chase Magnett: This discussion reminds me of a line Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.” Throughout “Dark City”, Snyder and Capullo explore the lives of men who have suffered terrible traumas and look at how they respond to these moments that broke them. I perceive Batman, James Gordon, and Doctor Death as a trinity in this regard. Each of them suffered a terrible moment that broke who they were, and each of them responded in an entirely different manner.

Batman is the vengeful force seeking to wreak havoc on those that broke him. He mutilates one villain, while continuing to ignore the aid and wisdom of allies who would slow his chosen course. His is a righteous fury, but its projection into the world does not resemble justice and it does not improve things. Only when it is too late does Bruce learn the meaning of the words “Tokyo Moon”, the phrase that haunts all of “Dark City”, and recognize his own part in what is happening. Even though it was unintentional, his selfish response to the death of his parents led to the creation of Doctor Death. He is the wrathful response that creates more terror in the world.

Doctor Death does not seek revenge because he cannot. Instead he attempts to create order in a world filled with misguided decisions and terrible violence. When he speaks to Bruce aboard the weather balloon he speaks of saving millions and willfully ignores the thousands that will die or whether he can even be successful. His focus on creating a just world has turned him into a fanatic and shows both in his speech and appearance. Death’s motives are as twisted as his face and body, deformed and unrecognizable as human, eventually killing him. He is the zealot who destroys the world and himself by seeking to improve it all.

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Gordon presents a place that reflects neither of these extremes. His origin story interspersed into “Dark City” reveals the moment where he recognized Gotham as being a corrupt and terrible place. He was attacked by dogs while other police bet against his survival, and then his children were threatened if he came forward about corruption. Gordon could not do the moral thing he wanted in order to save his daughter and son, but he continued to fight for other victories. The trench coat he wears is a constant reminder of his failure and shame, but he wakes up and wears it each day. This is why he helps Batman and is able to fight for Gotham, even as a terrorist plunges it into a terrible storm. He is the good man who was broken by the world, but is now stronger in the place where he is broken.

The importance in understanding how these men respond to the world is to see how these responses can make the world a better or worse place. Doctor Death is a terrorist that will destroy himself and others, Batman is a vengeful force that sows his own destruction, and Gordon is simply trying to do the right thing. We can understand why each of them acts as they do, but that does not make them righteous and it does not mean they are all stronger at the broken places.

Mark Stack: The Riddler and Doctor Death’s use of an oncoming hurricane to more or less destroy Gotham City does a few things. It recalls the superstorm Sandy that hit the Eastern seaboard the year before the first issue of “Zero Year” would see publication. That hurricane did a lot of damage to New York City, flooding streets and knocking out the power. Readers know from the opening of the first installment of “Secret City” what Gotham looks like after the storm hits: flooded subway tunnels and crumbling infrastructure. It’s Sandy but more.

Putting that hurricane into the planning of a supervillain’s terrorist attack makes a point about the nature of modern terrorism. It’s almost an unavoidable force of nature. If someone wants to do something bad, there’s almost no stopping them. All you can do is plan and batten down the hatches. But isn’t there a case to be made that we as people and our governments have contributed to the growth of such storms due to climate change? Our inability to properly regulate our effects on the environment creates one that’s increasingly hostile to us. Do you see how that can be translated to the state of global terrorism?

Bruce didn’t think about others when he went off to travel the world to train. People were sent to look for him and that’s how Doctor Death’s son went into a desert with his military unit and never came back. And that’s where the final chapter of “Dark City” ends; with Bruce finally realizing his own culpability in the realization of this event he is attempting to prevent. Gordon fails to capture the Riddler. The GCPD plays right into the Riddler’s hand, granting him complete power to destroy the city.

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Every person, every institution, absolutely fails in what I found to be the most powerful sequence in the series. Batman overcome with rage at his failure, smashing his fists against metal, in the present as his parents are murdered in flashback. All of his rage made impotent as the muscles he built and the skills he developed prove worthless in the face of the tragedy that inspired him. He can do nothing to change the past that he is fixated on and it leaves him unable to affect the present like a government that fails to realize the role it’s played in the development of current threats.

We end with a boy covered in his mother’s blood, crying for help from anybody who might possibly hear.

Chase Magnett: The final sequence of “Dark City” is the climax of the entire “Zero Year” story. It is the moment that juxtaposes the murder of two beloved individuals with a citywide catastrophe resulting in the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. There is a statement being made here that trauma is not differentiated by levels or degrees to the individuals it affects. The loss of your parents to gun violence can be just as life-changing as a storm that takes a city from the heights of technological advancement to the mid-1800s.

“Zero Year” hits on a lot of different subjects; while “Secret City” was primarily focused on gun violence, that focus is greatly expanded in “Dark City”. Terrorism may be the primary analog, but it is the lead actor in a cast of modern terrors. Guns, biological weapons, and global warming all have roles in this play of 21st Century horrors. What unites them all is their impact upon the people who survive and combat them.

Consider the array of images shown at the end of “Dark City.” There is a blimp crashing into a tower in a dazzling display of fire. There are people running through the streets in water up to their waists. There are parents shot down simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This silent array of panels evokes all of our worst shared nightmares as Americans: 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and too many shootings to name. It is overwhelming, crushing. You look at the horror occurring on both a macro and micro scale, and can’t help but think of one word: Help.

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That leads us to the final page of Bruce Wayne as a child screaming that word. It’s the moment of impact and it begs the question, “What next?” For those who are killed there is nothing more to come, but there will always be survivors. They are the ones who experience trauma and must decide how to respond.

We’ve seen how many characters have chosen to respond to past traumas. Doctor Death became a terrorist, believing he could save the world through terrible means. Bruce Wayne made himself a solitary actor seeking vengeance above all else. James Gordon accepted his place in the world and found little victories. And now we’ve seen the end result of those choices. While bad things are unavoidable, that does not remove the specter of culpability. Doctor Death and The Riddler are the ones who set this plan in motion, but Batman, Gordon, and so many others in Gotham made a world where they could succeed. And so it seems that there is more to trauma than simply surviving it.

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Leading Questions: To SDCC or Not To SDCC, That Is The Question

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 21, 2016.

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Pictured Above: (Back Row) Chase Magnett, Justin Giampaoli, Daniel Elkin (Front Row) Paul Brian McCoy,  Jason Sacks, Ryan Claytor

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 am I going to SDCC?

It’s strange that the most attended convention in all of comics also seems to be the most bemoaned. This is a question you hear every year from creators, journalists, and other pros right before they descend onto the city of San Diego. I’m pretty sure the only person in comics who approaches San Diego Comic Con each year with unrestrained enthusiasm is our Publisher Emeritus, Jason Sacks. SDCC plays like some sort of Sisyphean joke where everyone knows what to expect, but they keep making the trip anyway.

There’s a lot of truth to the complaints and frustrations that surround the convention too.

SDCC is overcrowded. The convention center is not well designed for this sort of event. It’s a series of long halls all connected by a single hallway and outside strip. Traffic (of both the human and automobile variety) is jammed together in a lurching mass. Getting anywhere quickly is impossible, especially once Friday arrives. San Diego is a small city and the convention crowd absolutely consumes it. The entire downtown area is effectively part of the convention; you have to travel miles to escape it. That leads me to my next point…

SDCC is a nightmare to plan. Have you heard about this hotel lottery? I’ve heard jokes comparing it to the Hunger Games, but they aren’t really jokes. I’ve been stuck with a 45 minutes commute and a room at triple its capacity with a sizeable bill both times. Making sure you’ve got your passes and airfare pinned down is no fun either. Top that off with everyone in the comics industry being their absolute busiest all at once, and organizing events, interviews, and parties is a hellish experience. That business is a little bit ironic too, considering that…

SDCC isn’t very concerned with comic books. Artists alley is an afterthought with industry legends like Mike Mignola and new stars like Chip Zdarsky jammed at the end of the hall with not half of the space or audience they deserve. Crowds are focused on Hall H, even as its former glory is diminished each year. It’s a massive pop culture extravaganza that just so happens to feature a decent number of comics-related things.

So why in the hell are you going to SDCC?

Don’t worry. I’ve got an answer.

I’ve been to SDCC twice. This will be the first time I’ve missed it since joining up with the Comics Bulletin crew, and I can honestly tell you I’ll be pretty down for the next few days here in Omaha. That’s because SDCC is one of the most unique and rewarding experiences I’ve been lucky enough to be part of. I’ll miss it like crazy in 2016 (even though I have very good reasons to stay at home) and am incredibly excited to hear all about your first time in attendance.

The number one reason you’re going to SDCC, and probably the only reason you need, is the people. Every downside I mentioned about this convention – the crowds, the planning, the lack of comics focus – is a forgivable downside of this singular benefit. So many people attending leads to a clusterfuck of logistics and (over-) diversification of topics, but it also means that there will be a lot of people there.

Despite there being an overemphasis on television, movie, and video game fare, there is still an enormous comics presence. Publishers and creators both recognize this as the biggest convention of the year and make a concerted effort to attend. The presence of the Eisner Awards certainly doesn’t hurt this interest either. You will be able to find an incredible array of people working in comics who you’d like to meet. Whether it’s for a signing or sketch, or meeting up at the bars after hours, the comics industry permeates San Diego for five days.

The lack of focus on comics also means that many of these people have a surprising availability throughout the con. Sure, they’re busy, but not nearly as much as you might expect. The fact that Mignola only occasionally has a line is a benefit for those of us who really care about his work. Last year I was able to chat him up about his Kirby-influences on Cosmic Odyssey and how that comic helped define his style moving forward. You can really take advantage of having so many great people with so much time on their hands.

It’s not just about creators either. Meeting with publicists and other PR folks is a joy. Working in journalism and criticism, we get used to the incredible kindness and helpfulness offered by these folks on a daily basis. SDCC is a great opportunity to put faces with names, and thank them for everything they do throughout the year and this weekend in particular. I don’t want to go through an Academy Awards style list of thank yous, although I definitely could, but definitely want to point out the Dark Horse and Image booths as two places to hang nearby. They do a great job of assisting with interviews and have been nothing but kind to me for the past couple of years.

Meeting all of those comics folks, the ones we cover or who assist us in our coverage, is great. However, that’s not who I really mean to refer to when I say you go to SDCC for the people. The people I’m talking about are the ones you already know, your friends here at Comics Bulletin and fellow sites like Women Write About Comics and Loser City.

We become friends and acquaintances with creators and other pros, but these are the people that we chat with everyday, collaborate on projects with, and share work experiences with. This is our community, whatever you want to call it. We know one another and understand the passion and problems that come from pouring so much of yourself into comics with little or no reward. As sappy as it may sound, the relationships we forge are the best rewards we can expect to receive.

Each and every dinner at SDCC is a treasure. There’s a special spark that comes from eating with friends. The sharing of ideas is accompanied by an experience involving all of your senses. The food, the atmosphere, even simply seeing someone’s face respond builds memories that will stick with you and carry you to next year. The CBLDF party is an absolute blast and the Eisners are a unique experience best accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol (I recommend the drink with the shark).

Wherever you go though, you will have people you care about and who care about you by your side. They will turn an evening at Joe’s Crab Shack into one of your favorite meals of the entire year. Finding a group of actors behaving like a cult in a pizza joint will become a cherished memory instead of something deeply uncomfortable. Simply sitting on the floor because you can’t stand any longer will be all the better with someone to lean against. Speaking of which, remember to wear comfortable, supportive shoes and always stay hydrated.

Looking ahead at this weekend, I’m not sad about missing the meals or the interviews or the madness. I love those things, but I can find those elsewhere or live without them. What I’m truly sad about is missing you and all of our other friends.

I’m going to miss the look of childlike joy on Jason Sacks face, the same one that first greeted me in San Diego two years ago and encourages me to keep going.

I’m going to miss the cynicism-coated love of comics from Daniel Elkin who serves as both a beloved mentor and friend.

I’m going to miss seeing David Fairbanks attend for the first time and watching him take in all of these things, the good and the bad.

I’m going to miss meeting Megan Purdy in person, someone who has inspired all of us at Comics Bulletin with her own hard work at Women Write About Comics.

I’m going to miss Justin Giampaoli, both his local knowledge and astute wisdom, as he guides me from bar to bar.

I’m going to miss Julia Walchuk and her unrestrained optimism about the medium, the kind of mettle that dares someone to even try putting her down.

I’m going to miss catching up with Joe Schmidt, who I was lucky enough to meet at SDCC two years ago and has proven to be an incredibly loyal and supportive friend.

I’m going to miss Rafael Gaitan who gave me a shoulder and wisdom when I needed it most last year, because he’s simply the best.

I’m going to miss all of these people and more, but most of all I’m going to miss seeing you at SDCC this year. Because this is your year, buddy.

This is something that I hope won’t sound too sappy or self-indulgent, because it’s sincere, about as sincere as I know I can be. A few months back when we began to reposition Comics Bulletin and chart a new course forward for the site, there was a question of who should be the next Publisher. Who had the time, the energy, the ethics, and the love for comics necessary to not only carry the site forward, but make it a leader in critical thinking and coverage.

Speaking with a few others there was pretty much only one answer and I can’t tell you how happy I was that you accepted the offer.

Now you’ll be on a panel at SDCC Thursday night alongside industry peers like Heidi MacDonald of The Beat and Megan Purdy of Women Write About Comics discussing the future of comics journalism. You’ll be meeting many of our editors and contributors at the annual Comics Bulletin dinner. You’ll be speaking with publishers and creators as the new Publisher of Comics Bulletin.

To all of these people you will be the face of Comics Bulletin and one of the faces representing the future of comics. You’ve been working hard at this since before you even graduated high school, churning out reviews, working with peers at a variety of sites, and now publishing many of your own comics (some of which you’ll have printed for SDCC!). You may be young, but you’ve worked incredibly hard and earned everything you have now. This weekend is a chance for people to meet Mark Stack and get excited about where this medium is going. For as much as people bag on comics for being stuck in its ways, there is a bright future waiting out there. That’s something I’m reminded of working with you everyday.

That’s why you’re going to SDCC.

You’re not going to SDCC for SDCC. The convention is fine, at times it’s great and at times it’s terrible. What you’re really going for is the people. You’re going to see the wonderful, inspirational, amazing people we have surrounded ourselves with in comics. Spending five-days with those people is the best sort of vacation and work that I can imagine. It’s going to remind you of why you’re doing everything you’re doing. It’s going to show you why comics is worth all of the sweat and tears. It’s going to help clarify the future and add lessons to the past. This is the show that brings us all together and we’re better for it.

You’re going to SDCC for us, and you’re going to blow us all away.

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Betty & Veronica #1 is Dead on Arrival

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 20, 2016.

Betty & Veronica #1

The first page of Betty and Veronica #1 is not very promising. It features the two women six weeks in the future, screaming curse words and ready to tear one another’s hair out by the roots. A dog rambles on describing the scene as a catfight in so many words, so many words plucked from an hour long trip to a thesaurus. This one page features the most overused of comics tropes (e.g. a flash-forward to build tension, gratuitous exposition from an outside party) and painful of stereotypes (e.g. young women as catty rivals); it’s a poor start.  But could this be the set up for something greater? Is it possible that writer and artist Adam Hughes intends to subvert the banal tropes and lack of craftsmanship on display here.

The answer is no. Betty and Veronica #1 is every bit the vapid, over-written, careless hackery the first page would lead you to believe it is.

Hughes style as an artist has defined his career and brought him well-earned success in comics. He does what he does exceedingly well. That’s what makes it so striking that the defining factor of this issue is the text. Hot Dog’s extended monologue in the very first splash page reads as sparse compared to what follows. Every page is coated in text as dialogue is only interrupted by the briefest of pauses to shout a single word or allow a punchline to drop. Glancing across the book a very noticeable area of space is covered in the white backgrounds of word balloons.

Not only does this cover and distract from the art of the page, but it makes the reading experience an absolute slog. The balloons swell and are noticeably large within many panels. They fill so many as to dominate the flow of the page. Each element is so large in comparison to the image it juxtaposes that it insists on its own importance. Parsing the text takes a considerably longer time than consuming the artwork, a majority of which only serves to show the slow action of characters walking or talking. It’s a testament to letterer Jack Morelli that the action in each panel is still clearly visible and most pages read naturally.

The process of reading is painful though. Characters say so much and have so little to say. They manage to banter about nothing at all for multiple pages without revealing any element of character or plot. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the banter were enjoyable in and of itself. It is not though. Hughes drops jokes like a nervous comedian doing his first standup gig in front of an unresponsive audience. They roll out fast with no consideration of how they might land or work together. Punchlines are trampled by set ups. They fly so fast that instead of allowing for the tension and release necessary in comedy, Betty and Veronica #1 keeps the volume cranked and it all becomes noise.

That’s too bad because there are a few enjoyable jokes scattered throughout the comic. One bit about clowns would be laugh out loud funny, if it were not buried mid-way through a comic unwilling to allow readers to even inhale. Pacing is non-existent as ideas are thrown at the wall so quickly, no one could be bothered to see if any of them might stick.

There is no better (or rather, worse) example of this than pages 19 and 20, which are left blank besides a small drawing of Hot Dog’s doghouse and Betty and Veronica in swimsuits. The rest of these two pages is left white and covered in vertical strips of word balloons that cover them from top to bottom. It is offered as a joke about how comics readers hate exposition and may have expected more cheesecake. Hughes is too clueless to recognize that he is pranking himself, as the “meta-commentary” lacks any real sense of self-awareness. The sins he seeks to mock on this page are those that dominate this issue and border upon making it unreadable. When Veronica ends the unknowingly self-flagellating sequence by saying “I hate comics like that”, you’re ready to shout, “So do I!”

Hughes art is hardly a mitigating factor in this debacle, as it fails to push his panels or character work in any interesting directions. The painterly aesthetic of these pages is still beautiful, but pales against Hughes massive catalog of much more lush and detailed covers and interiors. A few passing, detailed shots of rustic Riverdale cannot do enough to salvage an enjoyable reading experience. José Villarubia’s soft colors make what there is to see inviting, but also preserve the lackadaisical pacing of the issue ensuring it remains just as hard to muddle through.

Even if one were to remove the enormous failures of craft on display in Betty and Veronica #1, to tighten the scripting and expand the artwork, it would not do much to improve the comic. At the center of the first issue lies an unanswerable question: Who is this for?

The comic’s title is inspired by two women, but it is hardly a comic for women. Betty and Veronica are barely characterized within the course of issues. Attempting to describe their personalities with no previous knowledge of Archie Comics (and keep in mind this is being marketed to new readers) is impossible. Betty might earn the adjective “spirited”, while Veronica is simply categorized as “rich”. Hughes’ script spends more time with Archie and Jughead than this pair and gives supporting cast members like Moose and Midge more to say than Veronica. Yet the entire cast is a teenage wasteland of dialogue that does not distinguish and actions that do not define.

Although they are all young people, their mannerisms and actions read like caricature. Repeated use of “Double-you Tee Eff” and other slogans read as forced. Much of the banter is some odd combination of an imagined 50s soda shop and a modern chatroom. None of it has the feeling of being true to life as a teenager or even a facsimile of that. The disconnect between creator and the characters he aims to portray could not be more evident.

Betty and Veronica’s relationship is so ill-defined as to not even be apparent. They hardly speak to one another throughout the course of the issue, and are quickly made out to be enemies at the end. There is no sense of mixed feelings or conflict, but only opposition forced by plot. The complexities of female friendship and the “frenemy” concept are cast aside in order to reinforce the cat fight stereotypes seen on the opening page.

Betty and Veronica #1 is a comic about young women that has absolutely no idea how they act, speak, think, or look. The titular characters are idealized versions of a “girl next door” bombshell designed for older men. They are defined by the gaze and ideas of someone outside of their world, and who appears to have no interest in understanding their experiences. At best it is a terrible misunderstanding of the subject matter. At worst it is an insult to anyone who might have found a rare form of kinship in a comic supposedly about young women.

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On “Batman: Zero Year” Part 1 – Secret City

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

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In this discussion of “Secret City,” the first act of “Zero Year,” we’ll be discussing Batman #21-24. #24 is technically the first chapter of “Dark City” but we figured it makes much more sense to discuss it here as it serves as the finale to the plot started in the three issues of “Secret City” and allows us to divide these three arcs evenly into groups of four issues.

You can read our intro/overview here.


Chase Magnett: Many antagonists in Batman’s infamous rogues gallery are dedicated to a single aspect of human behavior or mental illness. Two-Face explores the duality of human nature as well as the extreme of something like Dissociative Identity Disorder. Scarecrow allows the character to examine fears and the debilitating arena of phobias. The Penguin stands in for human pride and pushes this to the level of true narcissism. So it should be no surprised how adeptly a classic villain is adapted to represent a societal ill in “Secret City”.

The Red Hood Gang, which first appeared in Detective Comics #168 and has since been tied to the origin of The Joker, is redefined as the first “super” problem Bruce Wayne must confront in Gotham City. They are a gang of masked Gothamites led by Red Hood One. Most of the people pulled into the gang are coerced into joining against their will by blackmail or threats against their families. Under the Red Hood’s leadership, anyone in Gotham can become a gun-wielding criminal prepared to steal and murder. Each of the three stories that compose “Zero Year” focus on a central antagonist meant to reflect a modern problem, but nowhere is the metaphor more clear than it is here.

That problem is, of course, gun violence. The malevolent plots of Red Hood One provide a vehicle for entertainment, but the truly frightening aspect of his work is that anyone can become a killer. Bruce addresses the problem of fighting or predicting the gang to Alfred saying, “Most… aren’t even hardened criminals. They’re middle and upper class… like a collection of sleeper agents.” This unpredictability alludes to the mass shootings that have plagued America in increasing numbers (referring to both the number of occurrences and victims). They are incidents of violence that do not meet the standard metrics based in recidivism, socioeconomic background, or any number of other factors.

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It’s that randomness of violence that makes these events terrifying. The Red Hood Gang strikes at spots around Gotham in order to create chaos, stealing ice cream powder and paint in addition to valuable chemicals. They target the most vulnerable in Gotham too. Bruce describes one attack, “a bomb goes off at a school for the deaf.” Children are attacked, albeit off panel, in a senseless manner that cannot help but recall Sandy Hook.

There is nothing super-powered about these attacks or even the man masterminding them, Red Hood One. They are simply men with guns attacking people with no greater cause than an obsession with chaos itself. It is no accident that the Red Hood Gang is comprised entirely of men either, as men are overwhelmingly more likely to perpetrate mass shootings. This is hardly enough to form a predictive model though. As Bruce points out to Alfred, “No one knows who to be afraid of anymore. The police are desperate and taxed, searching everyone they can.” All anyone in Gotham needs to become a member of the Red Hood Gang is a gun and a mask, both of which are amply available. That is how easily an ordinary citizen can transform themselves from a productive member of society to an agent of terror, chaos, and death.

“Secret City” is a story about gun violence and mass shootings. That cannot be held in doubt. The real question is what sort of statement are writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo making in regards to this societal problem and its possible solutions.

Mark Stack: The Red Hood Gang putting a face on gun violence is especially interesting and somewhat ironic given their faceless nature. Bruce Wayne in his attempts to thwart the gang is also somewhat faceless as he dons disguises and masks straight out of Mission: Impossible to appear as an average (or influential, when he impersonates Oswald Cobblepot) citizen ready to fight back.

“Ordinary” citizens reacting to violent criminals with the strength and skill of Batman is something ripped right out of the fantasies of some gun owners. It’s a line that gets pulled out every time a mass shooting or act of terror occurs: “What if there was a good guy with a gun to fight back?” Bruce Wayne doesn’t carry a gun but he’s the personification of that “good guy with a gun” myth. Yes, he saves lives but, even though he’s trained for 10 years to do nothing other than fight crime, he’s woefully ineffective at combatting the actual problem. The Red Hood Gang keeps expanding. They’re not afraid of running into the faceless “good guy” who breaks up their plans every now and then. For everything Bruce stops them doing, there’s 9 more he wasn’t there for.

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Alfred calls Bruce a coward for fighting the Red Hood Gang as a faceless spectre rather than publicly with the weight of his family name behind him. When someone argues for putting guns in more hands so that a “good guy with a gun” can shoot a terrorist, they’re arguing for a reactive rather a proactive position. Bruce doesn’t prevent violence from happening, he prevents more violence from happening after it’s already begun when he could be publicly campaigning with his celebrity status to stamp out the root cause.

It’s hard for me to argue with Alfred’s assessment as someone who has called politicians cowards for their refusal to push for more stern gun control after each successive mass shooting. Unlike our Senate that continually blocks gun control measures even after the murder of 20 children at a school and 49 people at a nightclub, Bruce learns his lesson eventually. The Red Hood Gang attacks him. Not because they figured that he’s been the thorn in their side; someone asked them to because they thought Bruce might take a public stand against them. And there was nothing this “good guy” could do in that moment but try to survive and push for greater change.

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As an assassination attempt designed to quell opposition and prevent more of it with the fear of death, this is an act of terrorism. And the way Bruce discovers to fight that terror is to publicly refuse to be moved by fear. He chooses to become a bat and to bring Bruce Wayne back from the (legally declared) dead.

Chase: Although “Secret City” spends a great deal of its time focused on a failed solution (i.e. the good guy with a gun), it also points to a root cause and solution to the problem of gun violence. In Batman #22 Bruce becomes aware that his uncle Philip Kane has been using Wayne Industries to produce lethal weapons and then providing some of these weapons to the Red Hood Gang. The gang’s ability to operate is largely based on its easy access to weaponry.

All of Kane’s best intentions, attempting to limit the damage caused by the Red Hood Gang and create non-lethal weaponry, come to nothing. The bad guys with guns do as they will with the weapons readily available to them and ultimately kill Kane himself for trying to fight back. Even a non-lethal sonic cannon is easily transformed into something capable of liquefying organs. This reflects the hypocrisy of a weapon designed for self-defense. Weapons are offensive by their very nature and their utilization will always rely on whose hand is on the trigger. This sonic cannon is just as destructive as a gun when made available to the public.

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This is the battle that Bruce must fight, not only against Red Hood One but the system that allows him to operate so easily. His own company is creating a world in which anyone can be a member of the Red Hood Gang and wreak havoc in the streets of Gotham. The solution doesn’t come from Bruce putting on a mask and fighting each member of the gang, but fighting the system that allows them to exist.

Bruce fails repeatedly when trying to be the lone good guy working in the shadows. When he stands up as Bruce Wayne, a public figure and leader in industry, in front of cameras he affects a much larger change. In this role he does three things that are impossible as a vigilante. First, he shuts down Wayne Industries production of weapons for sale, refusing a profit-driven motive for a moral one. Second, he points directly to the problem and reveals the plans of the Red Hood Gang to all of Gotham City. Finally, he offers himself as a leader for people to follow in ending the chaos and fear that have infected Gotham.

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All three of these points are very real solutions to gun violence outside of superhero fiction as well. The “good guy with a gun” myth has failed, but strong leadership and programs designed to reduce gun ownership and target gun-related crime can still work. That solution does not come from staying silent or waiting for the right moment. It comes from being vocal, targeting changes in companies and government, and studying the problem. Gun violence will not be solved as immediately as a showdown in ACE Chemicals, but these are valuable long-term strategic solutions that can be followed by Bruce Wayne the man, not Batman the superhero.

Mark: Yeah, let’s just get this out of the way real quick: the first issue of the next arc “Dark City” is actually the conclusion of “Secret City” with an epilogue illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque that leads into “Dark City.” It’s where Bruce Wayne makes his public call to action and where Batman disassembles the Red Hood Gang. We’re just going to treat that as the conclusion to this arc.

This is where we get into the fantasy after three issues of Bruce Wayne being crushed by the weight of (admittedly heightened) reality. This is where he fights back and we get to revel in it. Batman is the face, the symbol, of opposition that Bruce was missing when he was playing Mission: Impossible with his face masks. He becomes a public figure in his superhero and civilian identity meant to inspire change on multiple fronts.

Batman isn’t just a faceless “good guy” who fights back. He’s a brand that will eventually grow into an institution that the people of Gotham can trust in to keep them safe without sacrificing their liberty. This isn’t The Dark Knight, he’s not hacking cell phones and surveilling people. More important than facing the threats the GCPD can’t handle, Batman is giving the people of Gotham hope that they can overcome the fear that has beset them. When the government (local and federal) gives in to fear and the media becomes complicit in propagating it, Batman fights back.

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Singles Going Steady 7/13/2016 – Cosmic Conundrums

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

Rocket Raccoon & Groot #7

Rocket Raccoon & Groot #7

(W) Nick Kocher (A) Michael Walsh (C) Cris Peter (L) Jeff Eckleberry

Rocket Raccoon & Groot has been the standout title from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy lineup, and the new creative team of writer Nick Kocher and artist Michael Walsh are not here to slow its momentum. They capture the madcap sensibilities and playful tone of the series so far, while playing to their own strengths in this debut. It’s a one-shot that should please current readers and invite new ones to jump on board.

Walsh’s work is as on point as ever and the driving reason to read this issue. His sense of comedic timing is as on point as ever doling out jokes on every page with an almost clairvoyant sense of how to guide the reader’s eye and where to place a punchline. He is given a greater ability to experiment here, inventing a wide range of alien races and settings to simply occupy the backgrounds. The result is a colorful jaunt through space. Cris Peter’s colors are a better fit than those in Worst X-Men ever. They use flatted colors well and help define figures and depth. There is a lack of rendering in some pages, such as the very first, that leaves them feeling unfinished though.

Nick Kocher is a newcomer to comics and shows off a great sense of pacing, one that is greatly enhanced by Walsh’s layouts. The story of Rocket Raccoon & Groot #7 is done in 20 pages and doesn’t need one more panel than it receives. It’s a familiar comedic premise that allows for a variety of visual gags. Where Kocher stumbles is with that sense of familiarity and in written jokes. The repetition of a central twist is utilized to the point that the ending is clear at the story’s climax and Kocher has no plan to surprise readers killing the issue’s final punchline. His use of narrative captions is uneven and undermines jokes that ought to work based purely in dialogue.

Considering this is Kocher’s first work at Marvel and Walsh’s involvement, it’s fair to expect this series to only improve from this point. It is not off to a bad start though. Rocket Raccoon & Groot #7 is a merry jaunt with plenty of visual delights and funny moments, even if it rests on a premise that gets old before the comic is half over. It’s good fun and delivered well.

– Chase Magnett


Civil War II #3

Civil War II #3

(W) Brian Michael Bendis (A) David Marquez & Olivier Coipel (C) Justin Ponsor (L) Clayton Cowles

Civil War II #3 is a story that exists entirely to deliver a single twist and Marvel Comics announced that news the night before its release, which begs the question, “Why does this comic exist?” Despite being a summer event comic stuffed with all of Marvel’s most popular characters, not much happens in these pages and it results in one of the most surprisingly boring comics of 2016.

A court scene is used to frame the retelling of the central plot of Civil War II #3, but only adds panels and removes any nuance from characters who state their thoughts and feelings for the jury. The actual plot of the issue can be summarized in two bullet points, but is drug across pages leading to a moment that feels unsurprising (even without Marvel spoiling it). The dialogue and pacing feels more like a spin-off comic discussing the big moment than a story with a big moment within it. Top all of this off with some half-hearted evocations of police violence that the script is not truly interested in exploring, and you have a boring comic that would be offensive if it could only muster the energy.

Artists David Marquez and Olivier Coipel are confronted by the challenge of discovering how to make long, essentially non-confrontational sequences visually compelling. Marquez uses a variety of figures and positioning to change perspective during long shouting matches without confusing readers. Whenever there is an ounce of movement in the story, he seizes upon it. Coipel essentially repeats the same set of faces in a bar, which is what is asked for, but is no less lackluster for it. The effort in Marquez’s sequences only make the lack of story momentum more clear though. Each brief feeling of excitement is a reminder that very little is actually occurring on the page.

Civil War II #3 puts 5 pages of story in a 24 page comic, which leaves this “turning point” feeling just as weightless and inconsequential as you might expect. It’s fine to look at, presenting the standard “superhero style” of the day with plenty of character dramatically posing. However, start to ponder on what you’re actually looking at and you’ll find it’s a lot of refined filler covering a singular plot point. Try not to think about how much it cost after that realization.

– Chase Magnett

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Writer Brandon Thomas Discusses New Series HORIZON

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on July 15, 2016.

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This week sees the release of one highlight first announced at Emerald City Comic Con: HORIZON. Writer Brandon Thomas, artist Juan Gedeon, and colorist Frank Martin announced their collaboration on the new Image sci-fi series at the most recent Image Expo in Seattle. It is the story of Zhia Malen, an alien soldier who comes to Earth when she learns her home planet is targeted for colonization by humanity. It promises to be a tense, political thriller filled with moral questions and implications.

ComicBook.Com contributor Chase Magnett had the opprotunity to sit down with Thomas and discuss the first issue of the series (without any spoilers). Thomas is a passionate writer with lots of ideas ready to fill this promising new series. Check out the full conversation below.

ComicBook: I believe that every new comics project offers its creators a unique challenge or perspective. Looking at the creation of Horizon, what is the thing that you’ve found to be the most engaging or new?

Brandon Thomas: This book has definitely inspired more patience and calm in my sense of storytelling. A lot of my previous books like Miranda Mercury or Voltron: Year One were pretty packed with everything—characters, text, panels, etc. What I’d call “kitchen sink comics,” and while that’s definitely something I still love to do, and will do when the right scene calls for it, Horizon (and really Skybound in general) have shown me that it’s possible to slow things down a bit, and still tell a story in a satisfying way. That it’s not always necessary to shove two comics’ worth of material into one.

Perfect example of this is the lengthy “introduction” sequence at the beginning of #1, which has very little dialogue (past the grunting), where Zhia doesn’t even “speak” until page 11. Writing this was THE most challenging thing I’d ever done because I had to stamp down on those nervous instincts that I wasn’t doing “enough” to hold everyone’s attention. The way I’ve done that in the past is by frantically throwing words and panels and stuff at everyone, so it was difficult to just shut up and lean into that anxiety, but my editors and I loved how it turned out.

It’s a very different way to launch a series, but it really drills down how important the ability (or inability) to communicate effects people’s relationships with the world.

ComicBook: Along those same lines, every collaboration helps to flex new creative muscles, what have you found by working with Juan?

Thomas: So when Juan came onboard, I extended that kind of patience and brevity into the actual scripts, cutting down on overloaded panel descriptions, and giving him more room to breathe and contribute. You never want your artist to feel too “boxed in” by the script, and I’ve learned, especially when it comes to the action, less direction is always more.

Juan already excels at delivering epic action sequences, and I started to get out of his way and let him do that. An aspect of the book you’ll definitely feel going forward, and there’s a notable shift once you hit those scripts where we knew he was going to draw Horizon. Always want to maximize that greatness, and the action quickly becomes INSANE in the book, surpassing the incredible sense of design brought to the characters.

ComicBook: There’s an observational quality to Horizon as it presents a perspective of the United States that is truly alien. How much has your presentation and observations of culture been influenced by the current political atmosphere?

Thomas: Some of that can be chalked up to not-so happy accidents, because this particular issue was written near the end of 2014. This was way before this current election season really popped off, but the themes and issues we’ll be playing with feel right on time, unfortunately.

There was a discussion back in the beginning about where to set this book in time. For a while it was quite a ways into the future, but Sean Mackiewicz (Skybound Editorial Director) said that it should take place in the very near future, a world we can clearly recognize outside our windows. That was a real light bulb moment for me, and what you’ll find is that this version of Earth has accelerated levels of all the awful qualities/traits that are threatening to engulf us now. They were more wasteful and careless with their environment, a lot more intolerant as the complexion of the world changed, and they were often paralyzed by fear and easily led into the waiting arms of demagogues and misery pimps.

If anything, some of the stuff in the book doesn’t really seem that far-fetched anymore, and I have to say that every day it gets a little easier to write a book about someone looking down their nose at humanity, and wanting to stomp us into the ground once and for all. I mean, it’s really easy to get into the mind frame of Zhia and her crew when I’m hearing about George Zimmerman auctioning off the gun he used to murder Trayvon Martin, which happened the exact same week I was writing #12. Truth is always stranger.

ComicBook: There’s an emphasis on locations in the Midwest. As someone occupying one of those locations (Omaha), I’m interested in knowing what led you to target this section of the United States?

Thomas: I grew up in the suburbs outside of Chicago, and then spent some years living in the city before heading out to the west coast. So I have some familiarity with it, and strategically, there’s a reason why Chicago is the biggest city still standing. This is a mild spoiler for the end of #1, but the U.S. in Horizon is a little different and more contracted than ours right now. Climate change and other manmade disasters have made many of the coastal areas uninhabitable, and the transition page where Malen comes down from Canada through pieces of the country that are almost abandoned wastelands is an important one. Strength in numbers is a life or death consideration now, and only the lunatics are still hanging around less populated areas in the middle of the country. Definitely put a bookmark in that cause it’s something we’ll come back to very soon.

ComicBook: The Midwest presents a sense of normality, but Horizon is really focused on the extraordinary and the alien. How did you go about creating aspects of language and interpretation for the series?

Thomas: Language and communication are so important to what we want to express in this series. There’s an actual Language Key on the inside front cover, and even in the mostly silent opening, I wrote Zhia’s injured grunting a little differently, like her alien larynx is spitting out harsh, unpleasant otherworldly sounds.

Getting Rus Wooton onboard was the last important piece in really figuring all this out. His phenomenal SFX work on other books convinced me that Horizon needed sound effects to really shine, and we talked about how to indicate different languages in an easy, visual way that’ll allow us to quickly switch back and forth. The different shaped hand-drawn balloons are just beautiful, and I smile every time I see them.

I also want to give a shout-out to ace designer Andres Juarez, whose logo and design work has been top notch all the way. I’ve been fantasizing about that inside front cover for months, and he just rocked it. Know that’s a part of the book some people quickly blow past, but got some ideas on how to make it a living, breathing piece of the book that changes over time.

ComicBook: Moving ahead with Horizon, what do you perceive the goals for the series to be?

Thomas: Inevitability is something I’m striving for, that perfect feeling of delivering enough consistent twists and turns to be surprising, but done in such a way that when the reader steps back and looks at everything they’re like, “Oh, well of course that’s how that happened.” Something I’m paying special attention to is trying to ensure that the character growth makes sense and follows a pretty well defined line, so that I’m seldom put in situations where character has to be sacrificed for plot. That’s like my writer’s pet peeve, and I try to be very careful to always honor and respect my characters and their perspectives, even when they’re unpleasant and ugly.

The bigger idea involves questioning what happens when you encounter the worst possible example of something, and then you project that experience over an entire swath of people. Zhia Malen has had the absolute worst first encounter with human beings imaginable, and she comes here filled with hate and fear and self-righteousness, thinking the Earth is filled to the brim with stupid, violent, ignorant barbarians. People that deserve every terrible thing she’s going to do to them. What happens when that notion is really challenged, and the justifications start to lose their grip?

Everyone is this book (on both sides) feels incredibly justified in the horrible things they’re doing to survive, and I think that’s a great dichotomy to explore in a conspiracy thriller like this one. There’s plenty to get and keep people excited about in Horizon, hopefully for years to come, but past the fights, explosions, and subterfuge, there’s a real examination of how impossible it sometimes is to cooperate and to forgive, even if that’s the only way to win.

Thanks for giving it a read, and hope to see you back next month when we introduce the remainder of Malen’s squad and the conspiracy continues to unfold…

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Leading Questions: Let’s Talk About Ourselves

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 14, 2016.

Scenes-From-An-Impending-Marriage

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…

What’s the deal with autobio comics that makes some people dismiss them?

Well Mark, I think I can explain this with a funny anecdote. Last year at SPX I was hanging out with two other Comics Bulletin contributors Daniel Elkin and Keith Silva. We had gotten a late start to the day and really needed to get something to eat before hitting the floor. So we ran across the street to a McDonald’s to snag some coffee and breakfast burritos. Now the thing you have to understand about what happened next is that Silva is from Vermont and Bernie Sanders was just starting to blow up at the time…

Is anyone still with me?

If you are, then I think the point is pretty clear. My life, with very few exceptions, is not terribly exciting to anyone besides myself. No offense, but if you’re reading this column, I’ll put some money down that says the same thing applies to you.

Your job, romantic relationships, and hobbies are all terribly exciting to you because they create your life. The people who share that life, your friends and family, might find it interesting too because they are sharing in yourlife. However, to a stranger on the street or, more probably, in a bookstore, what are the odds of that funny story from a convention or a rough breakup being of particular interest?

This isn’t to say that autobiography and memoir aren’t genres worthy of exploration and interest. There are plenty of great autobio comics proving the opposite; Maus is regularly held up as the high point of the medium. The strip at the top of this column is from Adrian Tomine’s Scenes From An Impending Marriage; it’s a little book from a master cartoonist that I appreciate more every day this year. However, I think all of that goes a long way in explaining why there are so many bad autobio comics and how that leads to a general dismissal of the genre.

I believe that creation is often an act of ego. In order to make something and believe it should be shared with the world, you have to think what you make has value to strangers. We know that comics and all forms of art can possess this sort of value, but there’s a difference between recognizing potential and thinking you’ve achieved it.Calvin & Hobbes is a comic that changed how people view a medium and the world around them, but what makes you think your strip should elicit the time and money of others? That may sound discouraging, but it’s something to consider before asking others to pay for what you create: What are you doing that is special?

Something like Calvin & Hobbes has an easily expressed hook and a higher concept that really sings. Genre fiction and more vaguely defined literary works in comics typically come with both of these levels of understanding. They have a compelling narrative and a consequential theme. That’s painting in very broad strokes, but it applies across a wide swath of the canvas that is comics. However, I would say that most autobio comics fail on one, if not both of these levels.

We’ve already touched on the idea that most everyday lives are not incredibly fascinating by themselves. What we find to be incredibly funny or heartbreaking only works within the context of our lives that we occupy 24 hours everyday. In order to evoke those same sorts of compelling narratives in a comic, creators have to recontextualize their own existence and evaluate how and why it happens. Essentially, you have to remove yourself from your story in order to understand your story. That’s not an easy thing to do and relies upon the ability to remove some form of ego from the equation.

If you can do that much, then you have to discover what makes it matter and how readers should respond to the lessons of your own life. This is an even more brutal exercise as it involves recognizing one’s failures and faults in a very honest fashion. Anything short of that will be an attempt to paint a glamorized or romanticized portrait, which will fail simply for being false.

There are a lot of pitfalls in autobio comics, and I don’t want to get into the million ways they can go wrong. Let’s leave it at this: It’s a lot easier to be honest when writing fiction or reflecting on history that lies outside yourself. Assuming you even do have a story worth telling, finding the truth of that story is a brutal process with none of the benefits that come from other genres.

It’s hard to compose a concept for a good autobio comic, much less actually make it well.

But what is all of this really saying? Well, it’s that making art is hard. It’s really, incredibly, insanely difficult. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in autobio or high fantasy, comics or film, your bedroom or a massive corporation. Art is an arduous undertaking, and no matter how you pursue your craft you will encounter innumerable problems and struggles.

The choice to make art about your own life is no less brave than choosing to tell a story about men and women dressing up in tights to punch bank robbers. Scratch that. It’s 100% more brave than that other thing. Everything I’ve said so far about it being incredibly difficult to assess your own narrative and why it matters only makes that more true.

Whether or not the creator of an autobio comic fails in achieving their intended goals or creating something that strikes a chord with a wider audience is inconsequential to very act of what they are doing. That’s why I would say the dismissiveness towards autobio comics is somewhat unfair. There is nothing inherently flawed about the genre or the people working within it. They face a steeper climb than many others, but that doesn’t make the pursuit any less noble.

And the total amount of crap to be discovered within autobio isn’t exactly out of bounds for how we might dissect any genre or medium when looking for crap. It’s a perfect example of when to apply Sturgeon’s Law. This is the old adage, previously referenced in this column, that ninety percent of everything is crap. When we look at autobio comics, we find lots of examples of crap, but that doesn’t make it unique.

Pick up a stack of autobio comics, a stack of superhero comics, and a stack of horror comics, and I bet you’ll find pretty similar ranges of quality. Some will have noteworthy facets, some will be thoroughly enjoyable, a few may even move you, but most will be tossed back into the stack to be forgotten. There’s really nothing inherently less valuable about autobio comics, as they have all of the same potential as any other set of images placed on a page together and called comics.

The only thing that really distinguishes them and, perhaps, lessens them in the eyes of the comics audience is their universality. Like I said at the very start of this ramble, we all live lives that are mostly boring. When we see someone else telling us about their boring day, we are more inclined to think “I could do that” because we see our own boring days in their story. Throw some red underwear or a cape on that character and give them someone to punch and this connection is gone. Those things don’t make for a better comic though, they just make for one that is more distanced.

Thinking that we could do what the creator of an autobio comic is doing is no more true than that of the creator of any other comic. We can all pick up a pencil or brush and get to work. But the person trying to tell their story, whether it’s the tale of their day or the adventures of a masked man, is doing it. It may turn out to be terrible, but those are the breaks. That shouldn’t stop us from admiring the bravery it takes to simply stand up and offer that part of themselves to the world, hoping one of us might find value in it.

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Brian Level Talks Studio Space, Kirby, Tattooing, and a Whole Lot More

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

Brian-Level-Constantine

Brian Level is someone well worth keeping an eye on in comics. If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve almost certainly seen some of his work in the past few years. He has provided inks and pencils to comics like Lazarus andConstantine the Hellblazer, collaborating with esteemed artists Michael Lark and Riley Rossmo respectively. The Mantle, his Shadowline comic with writer Ed Brisson, showed just what he was capable of last year.

I was able to sit down with Brian at HeroesCon in Charlotte, North Carolina for a conversation last month. We discussed studio space, the daily grind of comics, staying interested in art, and a whole lot more.


Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: What are you doing for fun these days when you need to get away from comics?

Brian Level: It’s weird, I am not doing anything for fun. Well, I am renovating my studio and I have really enjoyed the woodworking part of it because I am building things in the studio. I am doing it out of necessity, but I enjoy it. The weird part is I am steering into comics deeper and harder, and sleeping less, to really push. I stepped away for a couple of months to recuperate from last year. Now I am diving in super hard, so it is going to get crazy soon.

CB: You’re an artist with a studio separate from home. Do you try to get all of your day job, making pages, done in that studio?

Level: Yeah, it is a separate building. I still have a day job that is not comics, so I do work there and I also have my studio there.

During the day, it needs to happen that way because I have two kids. Then at night, sometimes I like to be home in case they wake up or whatever. So I try to do all that stuff there during the day. Then at night I often will bring things home and work on them in front of the television or something like that.

CB: When you bring work home, are you actually trying to absorb things like TV while working? Or is it one hundred percent eyes on the page?

Level: I put things on for both. I have a list of things I want to see. Then I have a list of things that I want to see that I can’t be doing other stuff with while it is on. I watch a lot of movies and a lot of TV.

CB: So there’s a division between how you view entertainments and the things you really have your heart in?

Level: Yeah. For example,I already saw it in the theater, but if The Witch hit Blu-Ray, I am not going to be working while I put that on because it is something I really want to pour myself into. If I was going to watch the new Bourne movie, I would probably put it on while I worked.

CB: When you are seeking things out to watch like The Witch in theaters, is that for inspiration or is that more to experience a well-told story you don’t have to worry about telling?

Level: I think it is a little bit of both. I write and sometimes draw horror, but it is not crappy scary movie stuff. That is what attracted me to The Witch. This seems like real horror, not like “Oh, somebody’s head got chopped off. Wasn’t it so bloody?” It felt very legit. So I wanted to study it and see how is this movie making me afraid. I knew it would. I don’t know why, but I knew when I saw this, it was going to fuck me up.

CB: After seeing that first trailer I said, “I don’t want to know anything else. I just want to experience this horrifying thing.”

Level: There is something I just crave about visceral stories.

Brian-Level-The-Mantle

CB: Your work is surprisingly flexible considering your love of horror. Between The Mantle, Lazarus, and everything else, you do a wide range of work. Even Constantine the Hellblazer, has a pulpy noirness to it. You’ve been doing a lot of different styles and genres of work. Is that stressful or do you like flexing those different muscles?

Level: It used to be stressful because I felt like, “Okay, this has to be brighter and poppier because it is more this or that.” But as time has gone on and my style has developed, I realized that I am more interested in cramming things into my box than I am stretching myself to those boxes. I feel like it has worked. It is just how much more black do I put in. That’s really the biggest thing.  It’s like, “Oh, this is real moody, so I will put more black in it.” But it is still my thing, you know?

CB: You describe it as your box. How do you describe your box?

Level: It’s everything that I learn; it is the sum of my influences. Like Lee Weeks is hands down one of the biggest influences on my work, period. And John Romita, Jr. Those tend to be the two guys I look at a lot. And I like Duncan Fegredo. If you mash all of those people up, you might end up with me. So it is high volume, with more rendering than is probably necessary. I have been trying to cartoon a lot more. I am also a big John Romita, Jr, fan so what I am going for is like cartooning but with a lot of weight.

CB: I think that is a really good way to describe both your stuff and some of those influences like Weeks and Romita.

Level: Weeks had this fluidity to his work that I think nobody talks about in the right context. The guy is a working master and I feel like nobody even pays attention.

CB: So were those the guys you were reading before you decided to be a comics artist?

Level: Yeah. Growing up, I was a big Eric Larsen guy. I guess it is funny because what I have found is all of the people that I love to death that I still love to death and have always loved to death go back to Kirby. It all goes back to Kirby. I try to study Kirby, but don’t learn as much. It is just awe-inspiring for me when I look at Kirby. But John Romita, Jr, I am like, “Oh, I can pick up on that.” It is the same thing with Mignola. The reason I studied Fegredo is not because I think he is the best, but because I can learn from him in a way that I can’t from Mike Mignola. With Mike Mignola, I get trapped in awe. It is like someone just made it appear; it is like magic.

CB: Mignola is somebody who seems to be feeding into his own things. He made Hellboy in Hell, a book where he could just draw old world towns and fishing villages, and make it work.

Level: Yeah.

CB: Have you read Cosmic Odyssey?

Level: I have Cosmic Odyssey. I haven’t read it; I just go through it for the art.

CB: Looking at that art, you can see Mignola’s Kirby influence, which then becomes its own thing. I think you are right that Kirby is a sort of godfather figure in American comics. You can trace pretty much everything in the American tradition to him.

Level: It is crazy in Cosmic Odyssey because you can see almost just as much Kirby as you can Frank Frazetta in those figures. You look and say, “Holy shit!” When I saw that I was like, “Here is the Kirby influence, obviously.” I wasn’t expecting the Frazetta-ness. And the Frazetta-ness, if you don’t see it now, it is there. It is so there. That was a “Whoa!” moment to me.

CB: You have a sharp eye for style. Throughout your career, you have collaborated a lot on artwork. You’ll do layouts, somebody else does inks, or vice versa. You’ve worked with Michael Lark. You’ve worked with Riley Rossmo. How do you find that pushing you in developing your style?

Level: It’s funny because I feel like I am always made a better artist, even though I don’t usually like doing it. But when you see the way that someone else does something, you pick up flaws in your own work. When you see someone else’s construction, it can be like, “Oh, wow! I didn’t really think to do something like that.” It is weird; I did a whole arc of Harbinger where I did finishes over Barry Kitson. I draw nothing like Barry Kitson at all. But I learned a lot about expedited forms and how to get to a form quicker. I don’t know if I always retain that knowledge, but it sometimes comes to me. I am like, “Oh, that is how he did that.” It’s such a weird thing to even try to articulate. But it is something that I learned and I felt it was really interesting. It is like, “Oh, this is how you get to these forms faster.” Whereas with Riley, he was teaching me how to make graphic elements work on the page. I am so high volume and he is so graphic oriented, and it is so far apart. We made it work.

Brian-Level-Swamp-Thing

CB: It used to be a standard practice at Marvel and DC to have a penciler and an inker. That is becoming rarer and rarer. Is it something that you would recommend to other artists at least try at some point?

Level: I think you should just do it for fun, sure. I have learned so much more from having other professionals critique my portfolio (and not even editors, but professional artists) and working over people in varying degrees of finished stages. So if you are trying to ink yourself, ink other people. You are not really going to know where your flaws are until you work over somebody that is better… I did a test on Butch Weiss’ pencils and they are a nightmare. They are a beautiful, abstract thing that is almost possible to decipher, but it was an interesting and I think brilliant exercise for him to do that.

CB: Discussing inking can be difficult for readers because unless you have the pencils in front of you, it is hard to know what is happening. Once you start to notice it though, it is almost conversational in nature where the pencils and inks give to each other.

Level: I think they should. I just did a panel on inking. One of the questions was, “Do you feel pressure?” because they were talking to Jonathan Glapion (inker of Batman, vol. 2 #1-17). They asked him about searching out styles for different artists. He gave the professional and right answer. They got to me because I care more about being a penciler than I do an inker. They asked, “Do you feel stress about different styles?” I was like, “No.” I am busy trying to be better in general. So I am not going to sit there and worry. If I am sitting there trying to worry about how this person would do it, I don’t get any better myself.

CB: The inker shouldn’t be subservient to the penciler. You are the inker. You were chosen for that job.

Level: I think that is something that, unfortunately, publishers sometimes forget. They just need something in a pinch. They are like, “Well, we want to keep continuity.” I am like, “Then don’t hire me.” Valiant tried to hire me for Miguel Sepulveda. He is super high cross hatch, like super intense, one billion lines. I was like, “Guys, what are you doing? I am flattered, but I can’t do this. It’s not who I am. I can’t get in here with a billion lines and make it look good. I am doing gray tones instead or you are getting nothing.” They were like, “Okay, we will see if we can find somebody else.”

CB: They dealt with you honestly at least. There is still a certain mentality in comics that you should take every job. That sometimes results in books where people got paid, but nobody really wanted to do or was invested in. Being able to recognize those bad shots is really valuable.

Level: I was scared. That was a lot of it.

CB: I can’t imagine it is easy to say no.

Level: No, especially when you have kids at home. It is like, “Well, that job would have yielded money.” But at the end of the day, I don’t know if it would have yielded more work for me in the future. What if I would have really blew it?

CB: Speaking of artistry and definitely not wanting to blow it, you also are a tattoo artist. You were doing that before you broke into comics?

Level:  Yeah, I have been doing tattoos for the last twelve years.

CB: How did you get into tattoo as a form of artistry?

Level: There are a lot of different ways. I served a traditional apprenticeship, which I would always recommend. If you can dodge a lot of pitfalls, do it. You are not just fucking with your job; you are fucking with people’s health and their bodies. There is a lot on the line. I had some punk rock friends that let me do whatever I wanted. In the tattoo shop I worked in, the guy that I learned from was a really great guy, but he was absent a considerable amount of time. He would show up when I was working on one of my buddies and be like, “Why are you doing something that big?!” He’d freak out.

If you do it on your own, you don’t know methods of sterilization. It is better to serve a traditional apprenticeship, but people buy tattoo kits and they do all kinds of stuff. One of my favorite things that I saw was this supplier in California that serves only professionals. They have a tattoo kit section. When you click the tattoo kit section, it takes you to a link to clown school, which I thought was hilarious. We frown on it if you don’t serve an apprenticeship because you could really be making people sick. So it is always better to go to a shop, spend some money there, get some tattoos, get to know the people, present art, and say, “I want to do this.” Maybe the people will give you a shot.

CB: Have you found any crossover points where people seek you out as a tattoo artist because they know your work in comics?

Level: Yes. It has happened a couple of times. Oddly enough, you might be surprised that there is not crossover in subject matter. Any of the people that have sought me out for tattoos haven’t asked me about superhero stuff or comics at all. It is other random things, which is cool.

CB: We have talked about you being an inker, you being a penciler, you being a writer, you being a tattoo artist. Doing all of those different things professionally over the past decade, do you notice them all building on one another as your brain focuses on different ways to approach art?

Level: This is going to sound super pretentious. What I have learned through all of this stuff is how to be a better person and how to be a better man. I am not a good person. That is one thing it has revealed about me; I am not. But it also has helped me see how valuable people are. The intimacy that I spend with people in a tattoo chair, the time that I spend working with collaborators and seeing how much they pour into these things, the time that I spend writing and trying to get into character’s heads and their hearts, that is what… It is less about the art for me than it is about discovering being a person. I know it sounds super sentimental and sappy.

CB: No, that all sounds very honest.

Level: And kind of bullshit, but I really do mean it.

CB: There is so much talk in comics about artists being isolated. But you are always communicating with your audience, communicating with your subject in the case of being a tattoo artist or with someone else and affecting their work as a penciler or inker. It makes a lot of sense that as an artist, at the end of the day, it is about connecting to people.

Level: Absolutely. That is why comics are so great. It is a no bullshit way to actually connect heart to heart to people in a very real way, whether it is friends that you have known forever, artists you collaborate with, or your fans. Just getting in touch with people is valuable. That is what our stories try to do. It is craving fellowship. I think that is what a lot of this shit is.

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You Walk Into a Comic Store – Welcome to Legends Comics & Coffee

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

Legend-Comics-Coffee-Storefront

You walk into the squat brick building on Farnam Street. Cars rush by other small businesses outside, local staples like the German bakery Gerda’s and chic bistro J. Coco. It is consistently cool inside, especially during a humid Nebraska summer. The floors are wood and the walls are lined with custom crafted steel shelves and ornamentation. It is a minimalist design made to emphasize their products above all else.

The place you’ve come to is Omaha’s Legend Comics & Coffee. It is a proudly presented coffee shop. It is a place that gathers creators of all sorts to help one another with their skills. It is a supporter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It is an award-winning storefront. It is a beautiful, historic location in Nebraska’s largest city.

It is all of these things. But most importantly, to many Omahans, it is home.

There’s a choice to be made when you enter: right or left? The store is divided in two by a small set of stairs and a wall. An enormous opening in the partition allows patrons on both sides to enjoy everything on display.

If you go left you will find yourself surrounded by comics. The majority of all four walls are covered with them. New mainstream releases are to the left and creator-owned titles to the right. The back wall is a daunting library of collections with everything from Action Comics to Love & Rockets. The front presents a small selection of rare and unique issues, but more importantly it holds a counter behind which you can find help any time you’re there.

Legend-Comics

The staff can take you through the aisles of the shop, formed by racks of back issues that glide silently in and out of their stacked shelf space. While walking between the walls, they can recommend titles to new readers, help fill out a collection with rare issues, or make small talk about the most exciting twists and turns in popular series like Sagaor The Walking Dead.

Once you have something to read, or if you’ve brought something with you, it’s time to go right. This is the higher half of the store and its air is especially potent with the smell of freshly ground coffee. A barista can serve you indoors or at a drive-thru with a wide array of hand selected coffee blends and other treats. Mugs and recyclable cups are both available, as are a number of nerdy cups featuring characters from Star Wars and Marvel Comics.

Depending on what time of year they assist you, you might also hear about a raffle for a rare comic (like Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man) to help support the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

This particular annual act of charity is driven by Legend co-owner David DeMarco, whose niece had her own life changed by the foundation. That’s why he and co-owners Jason Dasenbrock and Wendy Pivonka donate so much each year in an effort to raise thousands of dollars. Having seen what a little hope can do for one child, they attempt to encourage a little more.

DeMarco is the most affable human being you’ll ever meet. You are likely to see him showing off a My Little Pony orLumberjanes comic to a young reader meeting his smile with one of their own. Ask him about what he wants to accomplish here and he’ll tell you he wanted to be sure that people were having as much fun reading comics as he was selling them. He’ll say, “Happiness is my main goal for myself and my customers.”

You might notice a plaque sitting on the shelves behind counter. In its center is a gold medallion with the words “Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award”. This prestigious award is presented on an annual basis during San-Diego Comic Con at an event that has been referred to as the Oscars of comic books. Just like the Oscars, it has a variety of special awards, and this one is presented to stores that present the industry’s best face to customers.

10 January 2013- David DeMarco and Jason Dasenbrock are photographed at Legends Comics and Coffee for B2B Magazine.

The open space in front of the counter is filled with tables and chairs for individuals or groups, free to help themselves to Wi-Fi or a few shelves of half-price comics. At any point during the day you’ll discover a mix of customers hard at work or enjoying one another’s company over a cup of coffee. If you come to this gathering space in the evening, it’s likely you’ll find yourself in the midst of an event. Perhaps nerdcore rapper Tribe One is putting on a show, or maybe it’s the store’s regular standup night.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the Creator’s Workshop hard at play. Writers and artists from across Omaha come together to help one another with their craft and stories. Former manager and current store regular Joe Patrick is most likely here cartooning and cracking jokes, continuing to foster a sense of community. Winning the Eisner may be a point of pride, but he’s more likely to recall local writer Carl publishing his first book as a favorite memory of managing the store. Patrick will say he’s “proud of Legend’s involvement with the community and in the lives of many of its individual patrons.”

This store wasn’t always here though. It used to sit in a much smaller location without room for coffee or such a wide array of events. Back then it was owned and run entirely by husband and wife Dasenbrock and Pivonka who put all of their time, money, and passion into the storefront, striving to achieve their dreams.

They will tell you they “reinvested every dollar of profit they made into the store and did not draw a paycheck for four years.”

Dasenbrock is a comics fiend, ready to provide recommendations and insight to you, no matter where your taste may lie. Pivonka provides a bartender’s style and manners, capable of providing conversation and a shoulder to lean on. When either of them is not busy keeping the store running, you’ll notice them intently listening and swapping stories with customers on a first name basis.

Their previous storefront was just as well kept, but it lacked the refined design and space that makes this one so inviting to new customers while offerings old ones opportunities to gather for work and play. It was no cheap feat to renovate the old Wohlner’s grocery store (Omaha’s oldest grocery store, in fact). Everything in the store now looks clean and new because it is. This is anything but the stereotypical comic book shop found on The Big Bang Theory.

The new space and its thoughtful presentation has turned Legend into a place where anyone can feel welcome.Here you will find people from all walks of life in Omaha. Every race, creed, gender, orientation, and age can be found amongst those visiting the store alongside you.

Some come to discover their favorite classic superhero stories, while others seek out a cutting edge art form. Many hang around to joke and exchange anecdotes, while a few seek solace from a familiar face. Anyone who has spent time here knows this is a place where they can find a story for them, a space in which to enjoy it, and people prepared to help them do just that.

You can find all of that and a good cup of joe.

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