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Monday, Jan 4, 2010

Has the collaboration of writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca produced the best comics of the past decade?


Issue 20 of Invincible Iron Man marks the beginning of the five-part “Stark: Disassembled” storyarc and sees the reboot of Tony Stark’s Iron Man in the skilled hands of series regulars Fraction and Larroca. But this is not the continuity reboot of the character, nor is this a modernization of the Iron Man mythos as was performed by writer Warren Ellis in 2005. Following the traumatic events which took place in the closing stages of preceding storyarc “World’s Most Wanted”, “Stark: Disassembled” opens with Tony Stark in a ‘persistent’ vegetative state’ after a self-performed lobotomy.


But Tony Stark has a contingency plan for everything. “Stark: Disassembled” relates the story of how Tony rallies his friends and compatriots to participate in rebooting his consciousness. This includes downloading his memories from a massive file server, recreating recombinant DNA that will enable him to pilot the Iron Man system, and a massive neuroelectric recharge that will finally reconcile Tony with the God of Thunder.


At the story’s heart however, lies the story of a reconciliation. For nearly half a decade, since 2007’s “Civil War” crossover event, Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Captain America and Thor have found themselves on opposite sides of a feud not of their own making. The three iconic, and in many senses most powerful, characters of the Marvel superheroes now found themselves gathered together once again. Will Cap and Thor participate in the resurrection of their fallen comrade? “Stark: Disassembled” is very much the story of mending fences across the chasm of a shared history, not all of it pleasant. In this regard it is the measure of such great Russian novels of the nineteenth century, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.


What makes “Counting Up From Zero” (part one of “Stark: Disassembled”) at once so credible and so engaging is what Fraction and Larroca, along with series regular colorist Frank D’Armata, achieve over the course of six pages. With each page limited to an eight-panel grid (four vertically-stacked rows of two panels), readers view a recording of Tony’s final address as Director of intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. In it, Tony reiterates his planned reboot, but also confronts the gathered heroes with the ethics of this resurrection. The comics itself is rigorous and disciplined, and wholly demonstrative of the full skill of the creative team at sustaining drama while engaging the audience with nothing more than a single image.


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Sunday, Dec 6, 2009

In his recent book Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell investigates the phenomenon of the truly gifted who excel in their chosen fields and professions. What he finds is simply mind-boggling. Success it seems, is not so much rooted in talent, but relies on a vast and unseen network of lucky breaks that appears together with aptitude. The ‘self-made man’ is a myth, and ultimately one that proves dangerous to society.


In deference to this myth we fail to engineer opportunities that would allow for a proper meritocracy, Gladwell argues. We continue in the belief that hockey players are born rather than bred. Because of this we extend multiple opportunities to children born in the first three months of the year. These accumulated advantages create a vast ‘talent gap’ between children born in the first half of the year and their slightly younger counterparts. This is just one example, that when reengineered would prospectively double the pool of future hockey stars.


In 45 available this month from publisher Com.X, writer Andi Ewington treads a similar path to Gladwell. He makes use of long-form journalism as a tool for investigating the sociology of success. In a world populated by superheroes, a soon-to-be father attempts to structure his hopes and fears for his child by interviewing a series of super-powered humans. What could his child become in a world as wondrous as this one? Ewington’s fictional father undertakes a similar investigation to Gladwell in his preparation for Outliers.


But written during his wife’s pregnancy and by strange coincidence completed on the day of his son’s birth, 45 represents a very personal project for Ewington. With each ‘interview’ conducted in a unique graphic style, illustrated by a different artist, the book also represents a radical shift in comics storytelling.


The social realism of superheroes is a subgenre that stretches as far back as Denny o’ Neill and Neal Adams in the 1970s. It enters the popular imagination with Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen in the mid-80s. Ewington reinvigorates this subgenre by reinventing it. Conceptually, he transcends even Moore and Gibbons’ offering. By offering a tale linked to the personal, by coordinating multiple visual styles in a single storyline, by presenting a journalism of the sociology of success, Ewington secures his own place in comics history.


This week’s Iconographies offers an in-depth profile of Andi Ewington and insight into his genre-defining debut work, 45.


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Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009

I was working at a comic book store back when Dark Horse released the first of 28 volumes of a series I had never heard of called Lone Wolf and Cub. We had gotten in a larger number of copies of the book. Back then this was typical for our usual manga order. But, besides a cursory examination of the item I had no idea of its true significance.


Over the next few days several customers came in demanding to know where the book was, and ordering us to put the entire series down on their subscription list. It was explained by several excited people—who weren’t typically the ‘mangaka’ type—that this series had been released in the U.S. previously but had stopped before the final issues had come out. The relief that these customers felt at the knowledge that they would at last know what happened at the end was impressive. Furthermore, I had learned that our sister store in Sacramento had a competition to see who could sell the most copies of this title. By the time I heard of this, Sacramento had already been able to unload dozens of them. Between the excited fans at the store and the obvious potential for increased sales, I decided to redress this obvious oversight in my product knowledge and check it out.


I can only say now that I am thankful that I picked this book up. Lone Wolf and Cub, without exaggeration or hyperbole, is one of the finest stories I have ever read. It is powerful, exciting, and is emblematic of everything that makes me enjoying reading. For those of you who haven’t read, I envy you. You’re about to embark on one of the greatest reads in literature. And for those of you who have read it, read it again. I’m researching this series of features for the Iconographies I’ve had the joy of rereading Lone Wolf and Cub. And though I’ve reread it several times already, I am continually amazed and the subtle layers and brilliant nuance of the story.


My first essay will give a brief history of the story and analyze the way it has influenced other creators. The subsequent essays will examine the important characters, themes, and innovations that have all come together to create this masterpiece. I encourage any fans of the series to please comment on the articles and share your thoughts about Lone Wolf and Cub.


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Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
Where Kazuo Umezu is somewhat more traditional, Hideshi Hino strives to find beauty or at least to nuture a sort of awestruck fascination with horrific images and narrative elements.

Perpetually smiling and jokey, Kazuo Umezu seems to have cornered the market on “Where’s Waldo”-style red and white jerseys. He looks like a jovial dude, a little goofy, and more likely to tell a fart joke and giggle inapproprately than to plumb the macabre depths of emotions through haunting tales (unless fart jokes do that for you).


By contrast, Hideshi Hino looks like manga’s ichiban badass motherfucker.


Since the 1970s, these two mangaka have shaped the genre of horror in Japanese comics, and indirectly, Japanese and Western horror movies. Along with their love of terror, and degree of influence upon artists who followed them, Umezu and Hino also share a storytelling style that leans heavily on Japanese folklore, and an early grounding in comedic work.


With so much common ground between them, it’s their differences that make them compelling and fascinating subjects for comparison, even on a superficial level. For example, the two men could not appear more differently in public.


This Friday’s upcoming Iconographies feature will examine two seminal works by these artists, both of which were recently republished in the West: Umezu’s two-volume Cat-Eyed Boy, and Hino’s Lullabies From Hell.


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Thursday, Nov 12, 2009

The twin themes of identity and individuality have been persistent, domineering forces in storytelling, and, indeed, everyday life since the days of cave paintings in the cradle of civilization. For good or for ill, these twin aspects define humanity and don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.


The slave trade? Segregation? What ended up happening to the persons involved was entirely dependent on their skin color.


The Crusades? The Inquisition?  One’s personal religion either vilified or redeemed them.


McCarthyism? Rigged elections? Dependent on one’s perceived political proclivities.


One needs to do no more than research the Indian caste system, South African apartheid, American marriage laws and health care concerns and the various attempted genocides in the Middle East and Africa to know that identity-based persecution isn’t going to go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.


Though it takes place in 1994 and is loosely based on H.G. Wells’s 1897 classic The Invisible Man, Jeff Lemire’s insightful and touching new graphic novel The Nobody is both timely and timeless, its artwork and narrative lending a haunting air to a world on a slightly different vibrational frequency from our own. In this version of the tale, ostensibly occurring pre-9/11 but obviously created many years after the attacks that changed the world forever, a small town’s concern over a man garbed head-to-toe in bandages is palpable, but only serves as a potent reminder of the secrets that every resident of every small town on this planet has. This version of the transparent strange, here called “John Griffen” as opposed to “Doctor Griffin” (no doubt as an homage to “Jack Griffin”, as in the 1933 James Whale film of The Invisible Man) is feared not necessarily because he could have a terrible communicable disease, an upsetting, scarred visage or even a record of dire criminal activities; he is feared because his very physical essence is a reminder of humanity’s own deep, dark hearts and minds, and the secrets carried beneath every individual’s “bandages”.


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