Saturday, July 09, 2005

Superhero Prose Review #1: Wild Cards, Vol. 1

Wild Cards, Vol. 1
Various Authors
Edited By George R. R. Martin

The same year Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns rocked the comics industry, the mosaic novel Wild Cards was released, edited by sci-fi/fantasy author George R. R. Martin, beginning a series that has to date spawned fifteen other novels with the latest - Wild Cards: Deuces Down - released in 2002. The first novel attempts, like Watchmen, to lend a more realistic foundation to superheroes and their villainous counterparts, using the more volatile events from the end of World War II to the end of the 1970's with one sci-fi twist: an alien virus released over New York City that kills most it infects, deforms others, and grants a few the mythic powers comic books’ superheroes and supervillains enjoy. The random aspect of the virus is the source of the series’ title: the deformed are given the name “Jokers” by society while their more super counterparts are dubbed “Aces” (Jokers often have powers of their own, but they’re either useless or their deformities are deemed to outweigh whatever use their powers might have). Each of the novel’s stories is written by a different author, with brief interludes scribed by Martin himself, as well as an Appendices and a black-and-white gallery at the end of the novel illustrated by Mike Zeck.

The quality of the stories is regrettably inconsistent, and even more regrettably the very first story - “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!” by Howard Waldrop - is the least impressive of the book. Adding insult to injury, since all the stories share the same narrative universe and “Thirty Minutes . . .” chronicles, of all the events in the novel, the most essential facts necessary to understand the rest of the story, skipping over it just ain’t an option. Waldrop seems to spend most of his time impressing us with his knowledge of post-WW II history and aviation (the latter of which he never explains to us poor bastards who’ve never had a spot in an Iron Eagle flick), and much of his prose seems downright lazy. The final confrontation between Jetboy and Dr. Tod - the event that releases the aforementioned virus on unsuspecting New Yorkers - has the most boring language and pacing I’ve read in an action scene.

As mentioned earlier, the first story initially caused me to go no further into the novel and to shove it behind more well-loved volumes in my shelves, but luckily a few apartment moves knocked the book back into my view and my curiosity got the better of my skepticism. The second story - Roger Zelazny’s “The Sleeper” - more than made up for the preceding yawnfest.

“Thirty Minutes . . .” ends at the moment of the virus’ release, while “The Sleeper” begins with the horrific aftermath, seen through the eyes of young Croyd Crenson. Croyd endures perhaps the most unique transformation of Wild Cards's Aces and Jokers. He hibernates for weeks or months, each time awaking with a new body and new powers. Desperate to support his family and to find out the secrets of his affliction, Croyd’s actions are rarely heroic, much less superheroic. Still, with the “The Sleeper” Zelazny painfully captures a dichotomy integral to superhero icons such as Batman and Spider-Man: the isolation of the superhero and the simultaneous crushing sense of guilt, shame, and responsibility to those from whom the superhero is isolated. When Croyd pops up for cameos later in the novel, you can’t help but both lament the knowledge that the years haven’t managed to cure him, and simultaneously feel relief that he hasn’t yet met an unkind end.

One of the strengths of “The Sleeper” punctuates a weakness in the rest of the novel. Zelazny’s contribution is arguably the only story that stands on its own merits and perhaps could be read, appreciated, and enjoyed without ever reading another Wild Cards tale, whereas the rest of the stories stand or fall based, in part, on the rest of the text.

Wild Cards’s mosaic aspect is accomplished with the merging of Martin and Co.’s superhero mythos with real-world events. Unlike Watchmen, which among other things gave readers a look at what the real world might look like if costumed crimefighters existed, the authors of Wild Cards use real history to justify the Super. For example, the infamous McCarthy trials are one of the more pivotal moments in the history of the first novel and the events span two stories: “Witness” by Walter Jon Williams and “Degradation Rites” by Melinda M. Snodgrass. Rather than showing these events to have unfolded with any notable difference, the authors use it to justify the subsequent spread of Aces who wear costumes, masks, and harbor secret identities in fear of the same witch-hunts suspected communists suffered in the real world. Likewise in “Transfigurations” by Victor Milan, super powers explain the lure of the rock star Lizard King (yep, it’s pretty much who you’re thinking, though with a different name).

"Witness” and “Degradation Rites” are both, no surprise, quite tragic stories, “Witness” being the only story in the novel told from a first-person narrative. It follows the rise and fall of the first bonafide superhero team, The Four Aces, told from the perspective of Jack Braun, a.k.a. Golden Boy. “Degradation Rites” focuses instead on Blythe van Renssaeler, a.k.a. Brain Trust, her relationship with the alien Doctor Tachyon (whose arrival on Earth precipitates the release of the Wild Card virus) and her fate at the hands of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Both stories are well-written and compelling, but after “Witness” the following story seems unnecessary. As far as the overall narrative is concerned, “Degradation Rites” follows the same timeline and gives us the same events of “Witness”. The only difference is that “Degradation Rites” is the first of the stories to deal with any kind of romantic relationships between the principle characters.

Which brings me to one of the more regrettable things about Wild Cards. At the risk of seeming a little too P.C., it seems to me that one of the benefits of dealing with superheroes in prose rather than the traditional comic book format is that there’s more of an opportunity to handle female characters with a little more respect. After all, there are few pictures, and therefore no way for Power-Girl-sized boobs to show up on every other page.

Regardless, the women of Wild Cards are almost always sex objects, and secondary to the men. Brain Trust is perhaps the least mentioned of The Four Aces in “Witness” and her most memorable scene in the story involves her storming out of an apartment after an unwelcome advance by Golden Boy. She gets a bit more spotlight in “Degradation Rites” but most of the story is told from Doctor Tachyon’s point of view, focusing on their relationship. The main character of “The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato”, a glorified pimp, receives his powers from sex with his “Geisha.” The character Succubus from “Strings” absorbs the sexual attraction from men to unleash her powers, and her fate at the end of the story makes a certain infamous scene from Identity Crisis #2 pale in comparison. The only weighty female character to escape either sex object or secondary status is Bagabond from “Down Deep” and unfortunately it’s one of the least enjoyable stories in the book.

Feminist ideology aside, Wild Cards is, for the most part, a great read. “Shell Games” by George R. R. Martin was the story that convinced me how in love I’d become with the overall story, perhaps because it’s the first of the novel’s installments to end on an up-note. It also introduces readers to one of the first comic-book-correct heroes (i.e., a crimefighter with a secret identity): the perfectly named, Great and Powerful Turtle. Other highlights include “The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato” an absolutely disturbing story and one of the few to mix the more sci-fi elements with a bit of magic, and “Strings” that gives us to the villain Puppetman (a good story despite the fact that the surprise twist ain’t that much of a surprise). Unfortunately, the novel ends with “Comes A Hunter,” a kind of Rambo-meets-Batman-meets-Green-Arrow with a very generic vengeance-minded action move feel.

Overall, I was pleased with my first dive into the world of superhero prose, and I’m looking forward to sampling the rest of the Wild Cards series.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Overdue Books #3

True story, swear to Hulk.

The first time my girlfriend and I discussed the possibility of living in sin, I was living in a one-room studio basement apartment in downtown Albany. She had a somewhat more spacious pad in a building right next to Albany's F.B.I. office (she never caught me sneaking out for smokes in the middle of the night, but the guys with the guns gave me a few "you're being naughty" looks).

When the subject arose, I was swiveling back-and-forth in the leather office chair my mother had bought me for Christmas (probably the most expensive thing I owned in the place). Among other obvious enticements, she joked about how I would benefit from the company of her two lovely cats: Ralphy and Shelby. I've always been a cat-lover so we spent some time trading anecdotes about the various felines that had strutted through our lives, including the both annoying and undeniably cute tendency of cats to casually smack knick-knacks off shelves, subsequently responding to their owners' dirty looks with a stoic gaze that said nothing more than, "what the fuck you lookin' at?"

As we swapped stories, something made me stop swiveling my chair and look up.

There was a small shelf built into one corner of the apartment room, just big enough to store a few hardcovers. Atop the shelf I'd placed one of the few things I owned that might be equal or greater in monetary value than my silly chair: my limited edition Randy Bowen Hulk statue.

I thought about that Hulk statue perched on a new shelf in a new home, about all those comics from my teenage years torn to shreds by the four monsters my parents generously referred to as their "cats," about that statue teetering and tottering under the paw of a beast who would think no more of the impending disaster than the average butt-in-the-face it gave to every visitor to the apartment, about how ashamed Stan the Man would be, and I thought that maybe I wasn't ready for cohabitation.

Fortunately, I did not give in to my geek concerns. We did, and still do, live in sin. We quickly agreed that certain rooms holding certain statues would be off-limits to the cats, and despite the fact that this rule quickly proved impossible to enforce, thankfully, the Incredible One proved too heavy for the cats to topple and to this day it remains unmolested. Thankfully, I do not. Excelsior!

The letter C is responsible for the catastrophe that is this week's installment of Overdue Books. C is for cats, Chris Hunter, Calcutta and Captain Axis.

Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street
Script by Ed Brubaker, art by Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred
Published by DC; $14.95 US

After faking her own death, Selina Kyle returns to Gotham to rebuild her life and that of her feline alter-ego. Unsure, as always, of her place in the black-and-white world of heroes and villains, Kyle finds her answer as she learns of a super-powered killer preying on the sex workers of Gotham.

Catwoman has been one of the most pleasant surprises among my library finds. She's not a character I've ever followed on a regular basis. I've often considered her to be little more than T 'n' A for the pseudo-porn artists to utilize to maximum effect.

The Brubaker/Cooke/Allred Catwoman is certainly sexy, but her drawings and characterization are far from the super-Hooters you'll find in JSA Classified. She's as seductive as she's always been, but her more alluring qualities are conveyed with a subtlety lacking in most superhero comics. And for once, those qualities aren't the only ones that make her a riveting character. Her inner dialogue drives the story, just as Holden Carver's soliloquizing does in Sleeper. Like that other Brubaker title the hero must reject the universal morality of the Dark Knight and his ilk and embrace the relative morality she's drawn to, but without the guns-a-blazing and Tarantino-swiping amorality of your average comic book anti-hero.

Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street opens with back-up stories from Detective Comics in which we find private investigator Slam Bradley searching for info on Kyle. Apparently, Gotham big-wigs like the Mayor and the Mob have an idea that Selina Kyle isn't as dead as they thought. Slam is as much of a hardnosed tank-of-a-man as you'd think from the name and, in spite of the fact that I have no idea whether Slam is a recurring character in the Batman mythos, Cooke renders him immediately recognizable. Slam's brief adventure into the world of mafia men and super people is one of my favorites of the book. Brubaker and Cooke tell their story masterfully, using the same kind of time-shifting Sleeper readers would expect. A chapter that opens with Slam hung upside-down from a rooftop, drawn upside-down to give Slam the illusion of floating, is one of the most memorable in the trade. The short tale leads seamlessly into the stories from Catwoman, with a wonderful classic P.I. flick feel. You can practically hear the saxophone in the background.

One of Brubaker's wisest choices is his handling of the elephant in the closet: Batman. There's no getting around the fact that, no matter how impressive, Catwoman is a spin-off title and spin-off titles have a tough time handling the overhanging presence of a "father" title or character. Some opt to ignore the elephant, just as most of the various She-Hulk volumes have ignored the character's less bosomy cousin. Some pit their USAgent against the "father" Captain America, accentuating the differences and trying to prove their spin-off as somehow more right or just plain better. Others just whore the connection to a more popular Superman or Batman when the sales start flagging.

Brubaker, instead, deifies Batman. He becomes something like a dark god, always present even without a guest appearance. Catwoman feels his presence, is affected by his machinations, and there's even a sense that Catwoman is threatened by what he does or doesn't know. She's still dependent on him in fact, calling him to imprison those whom Gotham's finest couldn't hold, or trying to pry information from Oracle. Dark god or not, eventually Catwoman revels not in rebelling against Batman or placating him, but in finding a path that is wholly her own even though it could never be completely separate from his.

Don't know what more I can say. It's a wonderful book, I'm looking forward to subsequent volumes, and it's such a goddamn pleasure to see a female mainstay of the "super" world treated with more respect and depth than a pin-up in a stroke mag.

Script and art by Christine Norrie
Published by Oni Press; $5.95 US

Cheat is not a very new story. As simple as its title, it tells the straightforward tale of a woman (Janey) in a relatively young marriage who gives in to temptation and sleeps with her next door neighbor.

It's by no means a silent graphic novel, but its narrative is primarily in the body language of Norrie's subjects; a language in which Norrie is wonderfully fluent. More of Janey's inner dialogue can both be understood and carry powerful resonance in one silent panel than pages of exposition. We know even before Janey begins to feel temptation, how distant her marriage has become by the simple fact that her and her husband Marc barely touch each other both before and after the cheating. Despite the handful of times we see Marc leaving their apartment for long trips outside the country, we never see as much as one goodbye kiss.

What is wonderfully new about this story, considering the subject matter, is that there's no moralizing, no pretension, and no explanation. Certainly everything's open to interpretation on all fronts, but there is never any sum-up of "this is why this happened." Norrie simply presents the experience and allows it to sit within the reader.

This is particularly refreshing when you consider how most authors of similar stories - in any and every medium - only manage to win the audience's sympathy for the unfaithful character by demonizing his/her partner. Marc is no such one-dimensional demon, and in fact Norrie makes it clear Marc is trying harder than his wife to rejuvenate their relationship.

Cheat is a brief but powerful story, and at a mere $5.95 it's definitely worth the dough.

Coup D'etat
Various writers and artists
Published by DC/Wildstorm; $12.95 US

Fueled by a catastrophe engineered by the elusive mastermind Tao, the Authority makes its bid for world domination. In the meantime, groups like Wildcats and Stormwatch deal with the repercussions and dig in for the coming conflict.

Right out of the gate the biggest problem I had with this trade was the concept. I'm still something of a newbie to the Wildstorm universe. I learned early that it was a cooperative universe just like the DC proper. The Authority is mentioned every now and then in books like Sleeper and Planetary, for example, but I guess I was a little naive. I figured the connections were rarely referenced in order to preserve title autonomy, but referenced just enough to sustain the illusion for those to whom the continuity was important. I didn't imagine the kind of big crossover event that the Big Two apparently schedule every few months would show its face in the world of Holden Carver and Elijah Snow.

Regardless of whether or not I'll ever need to know the events of Coup D'etat to enjoy my future Wildstorm reads, one of the usual weaknesses of crossovers quickly makes itself known. The original story was told in a series of one-shots and the first, Coup D'etat: Sleeper, is the least impressive and hopefully forgettable chapter of the story of Holden Carver, in spite of an Ed Brubaker script. The absence of Sean Phillips is either a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it: bad because it divorces Sleeper from the events of Coup D'etat or good because, thankfully, it divorces Sleeper from the events of Coup D'etat. Considering Brubaker's otherwise masterful work on Sleeper, it seems like his attempt at opening the series was half-hearted at best, something that's not unusual when otherwise good series are folded into bad ones for the sake of a crossover.

The rest of the trade is a contest between the three respective teams as to who can act more badass than the rest. Overall, the series presents a wonderful chance for the assembled authors to have guys in costumes say "shit" a lot and kill people. No, I'm not queasy when it comes to anti-heroes, dark heroes, villains-as-protagonists, whatever you want to call them. I like my sex, violence and profanity just as much as anyone else, I just want it to be good. These stories are just so easy. Tarantino could crap out a Coup D'etat every morning before arguing with his business partners about the racial purity of the corpse storage in his garage. This is the low-rung of so-called "gritty" or "realistic" superhero storytelling. You don't have to write the kind of stuck-in-the-'90s morality play rigamarole like New Thunderbolts or Spider-Girl to produce something unremarkable and tired, and Coup D'etat proves it.