Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

May 25, 2015

Smashing dolls together

Filed under: books of 2015,geekery — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 3:46 pm

The big summer comics crossover events have been a bit odd this year. (Let’s ignore the fact that I’m in the southern hemisphere and so crawling into a deep freeze during these so-called summer events). The similarities are baffling, and they all seem to involve the publishing equivalent of an eight-year-old smashing together all of their super hero toys for eight to ten weeks straight and charging a couple of hundred bucks for it.

They all seem to be running on variations of the same premise: Universes collide. Epic hilarity ensues.

In the case of Marvel’s Secret Wars event, this is literally the premise: all of the various universes and timelines in the extended Marvel multiverse (where they keep their spinoff continuities, aborted timelines, alternate realities and so forth) have been colliding over the past few years like a Newton’s Cradles on the Beyonder’s office desk, until the two popular ones are all that’s left. So they fight.

At the same time, DC is two very similar events more or less in parallel. The first, of less relevance here, is Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, which in typical Morrison-esque batshit craziness attempts to pit every obscure character ever included in a DC comic, including multiple versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so on, into the same cross-reality showdown with a weird ontological conspiracy that threatens to infect all reality including the one occupied by the readers of Multiversity. The series is also a magic ritual designed to make itself  happen, or something. (Don’t ask – it’s metacommentary piled on top of metacommentary piled on top of all the drugs Morrison consumed in the nineties.) It’s cool, and so Morrison that you’ll either embrace it with all your heart or shy away like Dracula from crossed garlic presses.

DC’s second event is called Convergence, in which cackling-evil-genius Braniac conspires to bring back all the old DC continuities that they wiped out a few years ago in the just-awful Flashpoint event, in order to have them fight one another. First of all, it’s an odd sort of decision for DC to make to be running two more or less completely independent and incompatible cross-multiverse events at the same time, but at this point in the post-New 52 DC I just have to kind of shrug. I can’t pretend to understand what’s going on over there these days. The premise of Convergence is a thinly-disguised excuse to reunite some of DC’s greatest creative teams with the titles that made them famous (Greg Rucka writing Renee Montoya as the Question is exciting, though I haven’t seen much else that I care about) as all the old continuities crawl from the woodwork.

But something about it has left a bad taste in my mouth – or rather, nothing about it has removed the bad taste in my mouth that started with the New 52 and drove me firmly into the Marvel camp. So screw Braniac’s ridiculous plot involving bottle cities. Let’s talk Secret Wars.

Marvel’s original Secret Wars series in the 1980’s was one of the early examples of the big summer event. In it, a godlike being called the Beyonder summoned a bunch of heroes and villains to his arena-planet called Battleworld to fight. Everybody obligingly fought, except Doctor Doom who took the opportunity (correctly) to overthrow the Beyonder, steal all his power and rule as Doom Omniscient. Which was pretty awesome if you were a teenager when you read it, as I was.

That Secret Wars series was dumb but fun. (The less said about the sequel series Secret Wars II, in which the Beyonder comes to Earth to learn what it is to be human, the better. Except you should know that it was very fucking awful and don’t make the mistake of reading it because ugh).

Which brings us to this year’s Secret Wars, in which Marvel blows up all its toys.


(SPOILERS FOLLOW for a series of comics you are very likely not planning to read)


The backstory: Ever since crazed philosopher-architect Johnathan Hickman started writing the Avengers a couple of years ago, the writing has been on the wall for the Marvel universe(s). Due to some great cosmic misalignment, that probably has something to do with all the time travelling that the X-Men do all the time, universes have been bonking together in pendulous mutual annihilation. “Adjacent” Earth’s have been forced to occupy the same position, such that if one or the other is not destroyed inside an eight-hour window, both are destroyed. So far, so apocalyptic. The Avengers and the big brains like Reed Richards and Tony Stark and T’Challa have spent the last couple of years running around trying to find a cure, but so far no dice.

Now, only the official Marvel Universe (designated the “Earth-616” continuity) and the Ultimates Universe (“Earth-1610”, home of the post-millenial hard-edged reboot of Marvel’s most popular characters, which among other benefits originally gave us the Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury) remain. And as Secret Wars #1 begins, they merge.

Recsue plans are enacted. Evil schemes are initiated. Various heroes make “it’s us or them” calls and launch attacks to destroy one Earth or the other.



Everything dies (!)

…except that Secret Wars is an eight-issue mini-series with about forty or fifty related titles, so what’s going on?

So it turns out that Doctor Doom has once again stepped up to the plate. Through some insane sorcery-science machinations I don’t plan to investigate, which probably relates all the way back to the eighties when he briefly possessed the power of the Beyonder, Doom has created a new Battleworld, a cobbled-up eggshell of a reality held together by force of Doom’s will alone.

Doom is the All-Father now, bizzatches. Pay fealty or he’ll kick your arse into the zombie-zone. Doom’s will is enforced by an army of Thors (aw yeah). Doom’s laws are administered by Sherrif (formerly Doctor) Strange. Doom brooks no insurrection, scheming or likewise bullshit.

Battleworld is divided into conveniently isolated zones (like World-of-Hulks, or  fake-mythic Britain, or This-is-where-all-the-Spider-characters-are Island) and ruled over highly-recognisable Barons who pay fealty to Doom. Captain Britain is the boss of the Avalon area. Tony Stark runs Technopolis and a different version of Tony Stark runs The Warzone, where the Civil War event never ended. Mister Sinister runs a creepy zone full of clones of various Summers brothers and multiple Misters Sinister.

Yeah, maybe don’t visit those last couple of places.

Delightfully, She-Hulk is the Baron of Arcadia, which looks like Brooklyn by way of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island, where female super-heroes protect ordinary citizens from (apparently) horrible dinosaur-sharks. (That one comes from G. Willow Wilson’s A-Force mini-series, which I can honestly recommend as great fun).

Each of the zones in battleworld corresponds with some event from Marvel’s past continuity. For example there are various zones tied up with X-men events of the past, like Age of Apocalypse, House of M, Inferno, E is for Extinction etc). Without looking, I’m guessing there’ll be a version of Wolverine in each one, even though he was already dead by the time the main Earth-616 continuity ended.

At the edges of the world, Doom’s put up a big wall to keep out the denizens of various less-salubrious Marvel continuities, like the one full of zombies and another one full of Sentinels hunting mutants in the future.

On this Shield, exiles and insurgents are banished to stand as protectors for the rest of reality. No, no, it’s totally different from The Wall in Game of Thrones. Honestly I have no idea where you got that idea.

(My head canon for this is that Doom was a huge Westeros fan before everything went belly-up, which honestly is just one more reason for George R R Martin to hurry up and finish the series. You don’t want to keep the God-Messiah Doom hanging, do you?)

So, having blathered about it for some time, what’s the verdict?

Secret Wars Issue one is a big, continuity-dependent free-for-all with helicarriers smashing into buildings, heroes and villains you may or may not recognise being heroic and/or getting killed off, and various geniuses putting desperate schemes into last-minute action. Taken by itself, it’s a dog’s breakfast that is barely comprehensible. But of course it’s not meant to be, since it’s the culmination or four or five years worth of interwoven plots from across two separate publication lines. Frankly, understanding everything that’s going on without a doctorate in Marvel continuity is probably out of the question. That said, it’s easy enough to pick up the gist – the stakes are as high as stakes go, not everyone is going to make it, and shit is, like, super-real.

Issue Two, on the other hand, is a work of insane genius. The army of Thors. The court of Doomstadt. Mister Sinister vs Captain Britain. Some weird stuff where evidence of the previous universes, which contradicts the doctrine of Doom as absolute divine author, is discovered and covered up.

It’s all great. I’m on board for the rest of the run. Even though I think it’s very likely that the series will end with a disappointing just-one-universe reboot (as the great DC universe-consolidation event of the early 80’s, Crisis on Infinite Earths, did), the sheer weirdness of the way Marvel has completely upended 50+ years of continuous storytelling is quite breathtaking.

Convergence can go jump. Sorry DC.

I’m in for the glorious, delirious, smash-those-dolls-together insanity of Marvel’s Secret Wars.


November 12, 2013

TMoRP 16 – Hawkguy!

Today I will be gleeking the hell out of a comic. I’m going to be doing a lot of that for this year’s Month of Relentless Positivity, because this seems to be an especially propitious time for good comics. So take that how you will.

Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton, aka the guy with the bow and arrow in The Avengers movie. In the comics he’s not a super-cool government assassin working for Nick Fury (and/or Loki). No, in the comics he’s a two-bit criminal carnie with a bow and some trick arrows who FOR SOME REASON THOUGHT HE COULD TAKE ON THE AVENGERS. Give the guy some props for having brass cojones. Anyway, after he does a stretch in prison, he gets out, flies straight and eventually becomes a hero. And the leader of the Avengers. And the leader of the West Coast Avengers. And then he died for a few years until he came back as a mute ninja and – oh shit, I’m doing that thing where I overexplain comics continuity, aren’t I?

(Totally deliberate in that case. I could not possibly resist mentioning the bit about his being dead and then a ninja, because COMICS!)

So, Hawkeye (2012) by Matt Fraction and David Aja (with covers and colours by Matt Hollingsworth and letters by Chris Eliopolous) is a standard Marvel monthly title. [1] Except that it really isn’t like any other superhero book I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s still about Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton and his teenaged protege Kate ‘Hawkeye’ Bishop, who are both regular unpowered-but-hypercompetent hero-adventurers. Yes, the superheroics of the greater Marvel Universe do occasionally intrude at the edges.

But Hawkeye – affectionately known as Hawkguy, as pronounced by the writer’s young son – takes its tone cues not from the absurd power fantasies of the superhero genre but from grimy TV crime dramas from the seventies, in particular The Rockford Files. In this series, Clint Barton’s life as an Avenger occurs off-screen. Instead, the story focuses on his after-hours life in a worn-down New York apartment building, hanging with his working-class neighbours, wrangling with some menacing low-rent Russian mafia scumbags in sportswear (the always-fantastic “tracksuit Draculas”) and generally screwing up his love-life and other relationships.

The colours are muted just short of sepia. The covers are stunning works of pop-art design. The vibe is run-down, weathered weariness bordering on the fatalistic. Clint’s in a low place, and despite gangster shenanigans, sexy mayhem and the odd high-speed chase with turbo-charged muscle cars and exploding arrows, he’s getting more down with every passing issue. Kate is a rich girl with a snarky confidence and thrill-seeker’s joie de vivre who can see Clint’s mounting depression sapping the life out of her.

Despite Clint’s world-trammelled, downbeat optimism and Kate’s sometimes biting cynicism, this series is funny. Hilarious, even. Even in the grimmest situations – such as the issue set in the eye of Hurricane Sandy as it beats the hell out of coastal New Jersey – the sparkling sense of fun and glimmers of hope seep through the murk. Matt Fraction, one of my favourite writers at the moment (and rapidly ascending into the pantheons of my all-time favourites) is at his best here, showing a sincerity and humanity that bleeds through every panel.

Not being much of an art afficionado, my initial impression of David Aja’s art was to dislike the scratchy lines. I’m an idiot. Aja does more with the body language and facial expressions in a single panel than most artists manage in a two-page spread with forty superheroes punching each other. Moreover, the composition in this book is amazing. The pacing, from panel to panel, page to page and issue to issue, is so controlled it’s almost impossible to rush through it.

This is a book where you notice the panel layout, because it’s doing as much storytelling as the dialogue and the pictures. I couldn’t tell you the last time I noticed stuff like that while reading a funnybook. And you don’t see it because it’s obtrusive. You admire it because it’s teaching you a language that you probably never paid the slightest attention to before. It calls attention to the fact that it’s something that you can pay attention to. It doesn’t just teach you how to read this book. It skills you up for reading every other comic you will ever lay eyes on.

And hey, there is an issue shown from the point of view of Lucky, the one-eyed stray mutt that only hangs around with Clint because he offered him a slice of pizza, that is basically a one-issue revolution in graphic storytelling. I just don’t have the words for how good that single issue is, and yet it’s not even my favourite in the series. (That might be the one where loonie teenaged gang-boss Madame Masque secretly bankrupts and then befriends Kate Bishop so that she can exact a bitter revenge, or the one where Clint’s exes team up to stage an intervention on him only to decide he’s a shiftless bum who deserves everything he gets).

Look, there are two volumes out so far: “Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon” and “Hawkeye Volume 2: Little Hits”. If not for the fact that I will be recommending several other comics in the course of TMoRP, I would practically insist that anyone with an interest in superheroes, light noir or witty dialogue should immediately cease all delaying activities and get both books.

But also, that would be bullying. And that’s Not Okay.


[1] Actually, scratch that. Standard Marvel titles are coming out about once every three weeks these days – presumably so that the trade paperback collections can be assembled and released more frequently – but Hawkeye has a slightly slower turnaround. Let’s describe the release schedule as “at a leisurely pace”.


November 6, 2013

TMoRP Day 13 – Captain Marvel

There are a lot of Captain Marvels out there. Over the past eighty-ish years of superhero comics, it’s a name that gets trotted out with fairly routine regularity.

DC Comics have the Big Red Cheese version, the Captain Marvel who’s really a ten-year-old newsboy named Billy Batson who speaks a magic word given to him by an ancient wizard whose name is an acronym of six old gods who bestow their legendary virtues on a suitably heroic champion. Yeah, and he sometimes fights a super-genius bookworm who speaks through an old-fashioned wooden radio he wears around his body like an invertebrate Flavor Flav. That Captain Marvel – whose name recently got changed to Shazam, which is what everyone always calls the character anyway but seems like kind of a stupid name for him to call himself since that’s his secret word that he uses to transform between invulnerable superhero and slightly polio-afflicted juvenile, and I’m sure there’s a perfectly sound explanation for all that but I’ll never know because I’m fucked if I’m going to read more widely in the execrable DC New 52 universe – is dumb. Dumb costume, dumb Superman knockoff, dumb roster of villains.

I’m not talking about that Captain Marvel.

Nor am I talking about the first version of the character from Marvel Comics, the Kree space captain named Mar-Vell. His main claim to fame (at least to me, who came to comics in the late seventies and early eighties, after his heyday) was his death from cancer. It was the first major character death in the Marvel universe, and almost the only significant one (apart from maybe Gwen Stacey) that has actually stuck. Mar-Vell’s never come back, but his legacy – as a guy who flies around in a red and blue costume with yellow highlights, blasting this with his hand-beams, saving people from stuff – lives on the Marvel continuity.

There have been a few other Captains Marvel between then and now. Go skim the wikipedia entry, because honestly most of these characters, with the exception of Monica Rambeau (who took the name but otherwise doesn’t have much to do with the alien Kree) and Noh-Varr (who is a Kree exile and is currently starring in the Young Avengers, about which I will probably rave before too long), aren’t really that important or good.

The Captain Marvel I like – the current Captain Marvel – is Carol Danvers. Also known for most of her time as Ms Marvel but also as Binary, Warbird and probably half a dozen other names I don’t know about. Each eclectic identity came with a different implausible and borderline-porny costume, with the only unifying feature being her trademarked hip scarf (a distinct if impractical accoutrement for any superhero outfit).

Danvers, an Air Force officer who picked up her powers back in the 60’s in an encounter with the original Mar-Vell and some Kree bad guys, has about the most convoluted and horrible back story in comics. Over time she has lost her powers to the mutant Rogue, been experimented on by the Alien-knockoff aliens the Brood, been kidnapped and impregnated by an interdimensional sociopath (then later that somehow never happened), and she’s been an an Avenger and an agent of SHIELD and sometimes a Guardian of the Galaxy and –

oh, look, forget all that. It’s the usual comics bullshit. Some of her backstory is great, some is unbelievably awful, and much of it is banal and forgettable.

Carol Danvers is among my favourite Marvel characters, but I’ve only come to that conclusion relatively recently. She’s been on the periphery of my awareness, mainly as Ms Marvel – but c’mon, that’s a pretty terrible name, right? Anyway, I don’t think she really started clicking for me until I began reading Brian Bendis’ vast run on The Avengers. Danvers, as Ms Marvel, is a constant presence in that book – still off to one side and in the shadow of the bigger players like Iron Man and Captain America. And in fact it’s the Civil War event that brought her to the foreground in my mind. While I have very mixed feelings about the Civil War storyline’s ham-fisted, authoritarian triumphalism, it was at least interesting to the Marvel roster of characters decide which side they were on. As a a SHIELD-adjacent serving military officer, she unsurprisingly picked Iron Man’s government-registration side and was immediately put in charge of hunting down everyone who refused to sign on.

(I’ve just realised that I’m going on a bit. Hard habit to break when talking about comics. You always feel like you need to explain the context, which means delving into backstory. No. No no. That’s a rabbit hole, deep and full of poisoned baits! Long story short, she eventually learned to be a leader as well as an arse-kicker).

Anyway, finally after nearly four decades of playing second-row to a dead character, Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel, with her own title courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy. The first two collected volumes are available now, and I recommend them unreservedly. While the first volume combines a time-travelling, alien-bashing romp with serious themes about women in the military and relationships between women of different generations, the series really hits its stride with the second volume.

“Down” features Monica Rambeau, the first woman to take the name of Captain Marvel (though she also frequently abandons it for other generic superhero labels like Photon). I love their sassy, sarcastic interplay and the fact that their bantery rivalry does not paper over the fact that they are friends who will call each other on their shit. It’s a refreshing breath of fresh air from the trope of catty, spiteful female friendships that have plagued comics for a long time.

Check out Captain Marvel. She flies planes even though she can fly under her own power. She has a more messed up personal history than almost anyone in comics. She punches dinosaurs because they’re there to be punched.

And while her costume is now more practical and less swimsuity than ever before, they kept the sash. Because, hell yes.


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