Mockingbird: I Can Explain (2015-2016)

Mockingbird: I Can Explain

Mockingbird: I Can Explain collects the first five issues of Chelsea Cain’s run as writer, along with a special, which was Cain’s first work on the character. That special comes at the end of the collection, introducing Cain’s approach to the character. It’s kind of like a dessert in the collection, however, since it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot line of I Can Explain. It’s good dessert and it does make sense to have it as addendum, as the rest of the collection is very intricately plotted. So much so, I can’t imagine how it’d read in separate sittings.

In other words, I’ll get to the special, which was published first, last.

The first issue is structured around Bobbi (aka Mockingbird) going to the doctor at S.H.I.E.L.D. Cain gets in a lot of good jokes regarding healthcare and has some fantastic cameos. There’s a lot of visual information in the backgrounds, usually for smiles, always for texture. Artist Kate Niemczyk does an excellent job with the various kinds of visual material. There’s even some “clues” for later reveals. And some direct sight gags. Bobbi goes to the doctor four times; Cain starts with a present-day prologue, jumps back into one flashback, jumps forward into another flashback, then another, then another. I think. There’s a lot of careful structuring in Mockingbird and the setup of the flashbacks in the first issue is the most obvious.

Superhero doldrums. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
Superhero doldrums. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

It’s a good first issue. It’s fun. It’s not great. It’s good. Cain writes Bobbi really well and establishes some excellent pacing with all the layers.

So, of course, the rest of the comic is nothing like that first issue. The second issue takes place right before the second flashback in the first issue. You know because of Bobbi’s outfit. The first issue has her going through five different outfits, usually Mockingbird standards of some kind–or, at least, female superhero standards–then it turns out Cain and Niemczyk are going to fill in the information about those outfits over the next three issues. Wait, I counted one flashback too many. It’s four outfits, because issue four directly feeds into issue one. Sorry. One flashback too many.

Obviously, Bobbi can explain. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
Obviously, Bobbi can explain. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

But the outfit thing–even the very subtle introduction of a subplot important in issues four and five–is just part of Mockingbird’s texture. It’s not even the content of the book, which is entirely different starting with the second issue. The second issue’s an all action comic, with Bobbi rescuing scantily clad partner Lance Hunter from the Hellfire Club. What’s strangest about the comic, which makes a lot of jokes at the Club’s expense, is how sex positive the whole thing gets. Lance’s a himbo, but a well-meaning one who Bobbi can’t resist. It’s downright fun and naughty without ever getting too naughty. Cain keeps everything–from the double entendres to the easy jokes–in line. It’s a completely different comic than the first issue implies.

And the third issue is even more different. It’s the standout of the collection, just because Cain gets kind of super dark while still trying to be sensitive to the issue. Not the issue issue, but the subject of the issue issue–a sixth grade girl who has developed superpowers. It’s a fantastic commentary on misogyny and sexist media, but Cain never lets that commentary get beyond Bobbi’s head and mouth or the situation itself. All hail the verisimilitude, because Cain is still doing an action comic after all. Frankly, the third issue reminds me of eighties mainstream DC Alan Moore. Nothing wrong with reminding of that.

True Romance with Clint and Bobbie. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
True Romance with Clint and Bobbie. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

The fourth issue brings in Hawkeye and Cain’s take on the character and he and Bobbi’s relationship. It’s kind of like dessert too. It’s similar in structure and scantily clad men to the second issue, but Niemczyk goes for it a lot more this time around with Clint’s little purple undies. She and Cain aren’t afraid of cheap, but very situational funny jokes. Of course, it all ties into the first issue–and the fifth–so there’s potential heaviness going on, but the flirting distracts.

Ibrahim Moustafa does the art on the fifth issue, which is somewhat disconcerting. Mockingbird is Niemczyk’s. At multiple times throughout the issue, even though Moustafa does a fine job, I wished I was getting to see Niemczyk handle the scenes. It’s more action, with Howard the Duck (a wonderful characterization from Cain on him too) and Miles Morales Spider-Man (did Cain mean to highlight the charge Ultimate Miles has the same personality as Ultimate Peter, because she does). There are also zombies. And a lot of laughs. It’s a good issue; Cain perfectly balances action, humor, and serious commentary.

Bobbi and Her Amazing Friends. Art: Ibrahim Moustafa.
Bobbi and Her Amazing Friends. Art: Ibrahim Moustafa.

Then there’s the special, the dessert. Fine Joëlle Jones art. It’s a mystery. Funny. Dessert.

Mockingbird: I Can Explain starts strong enough, then Cain and Niemczyk blast through expectations. It’s a fantastic comic book.

CREDITS

Writer, Chelsea Cain; pencillers, Kate Niemczyk, Ibrahim Moustafa, and Jöelle Jones; inkers, Niemczyk, Sean Parsons, Moustafa, and Jones; colorist, Rachelle Rosenberg; letterer, Joe Caramagna; editors, Alanna Smith, Christina Harrington, Jon Moisan, and Katie Kubert; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Weird Detective: The Stars Are Wrong (2016)

Weird Detective

A friend of mine describes Weird Detective as the best J’onn J’onzz story ever told. It’s entirely possible, though the protagonist in Weird isn’t an alien from Mars, he’s a different kind of visitor. Weird Detective is Cthulhu and Lovecraft, not little green men.

Though the protagonist is sort of a little green man in his home dimension.

Writer Fred Van Lente gives the protagonist a lot of back story and some great first person narration. He’s come to Earth on a mission, one with a somewhat mundane resolution–humorously mundane, however; Van Lente likes his wry jokes. I mean, the protagonist–Sebastian Green (great noir cop name)–telepathically communicates with his cat. Just a regular cat too. Not a special one. It’s often very funny, but it also goes a long way in giving the book some personality. Because without it, a lot of Weird Detective would otherwise just be a cop comic.

Tentacles vs. Sea Monsters.
Tentacles vs. Sea Monsters.

Albeit one with Lovecraftian sea witches and monsters and so on. The personality carries it through, whether it’s how Van Lente uses the first person narration to get across all these creepy extra-dimensional mind powers Greene has or how artist Guiu Villanova occasionally will play with composition to control the reading pace. It’s a thoughtfully executed book.

The detective gets a partner, who’s secretly investigating him, which he knows about because he’s from another dimension. They have decent but not great chemistry. Van Lente is using the partner as a narrative device to reveal not just Greene’s back story–as she investigates, he reveals to the reader–but she also serves as an expository tool to tie a couple of the plot lines together. She’s not even part of it, just there to voice the exposition. It’s too bad, but far from a dealbreaker for the comic.

Vilanova and the colorists–Maurício Wallace and Josan Gonzalez–do a fantastic job with the setting. It’s this sunburnt New York City, modern but kind of like a colorized film noir with the saturation turned up. Even when Van Lente gives the partner, Fayez, her origin–at the very end too, right before a weak and confusing reveal–and it’s ultra-modern terrorism and police corruption stuff, Vilanova still makes it look like that colorized noir. The book’s got a lot of personality–protagonist, voice, plot, and art. It all comes together quite well.

Bogie offers some advice.
Bogie offers some advice.

In the second half, Greene and Fayez are after the same big bad–sort of, Weird Detective is almost as confusing as The Big Sleep in terms of confusion (there’s a whole Mr. Big creep who’s apparently just around in case there’s a sequel series)–but they’re not working together. Keeping them apart in their investigations means a little bit more filler, but the book doesn’t get anything from it. It’s almost like Van Lente forgot about the bigger mystery until about halfway through. He was having too much fun with the concept before that point.

Van Lente tries hard to make the reader like certain characters. Some of it is just character development, some of it is plot development, some of it is manipulation. Van Lente’s greatest success is in delivering, with Vilanova, a supernatural cop story with a real Lovecraftian bent. Hopefully they’ll do a sequel someday.

CREDITS

Writer, Fred Van Lente; artist, Guiu Vilanova; colorists, Josan Gonzalez and Mauricio Wallace; letterer, Nate Piekos; editors, Kevin Burkhalter and Spencer Cushing; publisher, Dark Horse Comics.

Superman: American Alien (October 2016)

superamericanalienThe tagline on the back of this book is, “This is not a Superman comic.” Yes, but not because it’s a Clark Kent comic. No, it’s a Max Landis comic. Max Landis thinks he’s Clark Kent and this comic is an alternately banal and nauseating expression of his ego. Maybe it was inevitable he’d write a Superman graphic novel eventually, since his biggest fame has not come from his produced screenplays (including the found-footage superhero movie Chronicle) but from his viral YouTube videos about The Death of Superman and Clark Kent himself, which led to appearances on popular movie geek channels like Red Letter Media and Movie Fights, where he’s amusingly trashed Zack Snyder et all. A lot of people find his personality annoying but he’s at least earnestly articulate in his geek enthusiasms – especially for Superman, since Superman has been considered the uncool runner-up to Batman for about 30 years and needs the boost. But Max Landis’ version of Clark Kent is his own fantasy of being less self-aware, of wanting to be genuinely humble about possessing extraordinary talents, or at least privileges, that are his birthright – while maintaining the veneer of a happy-go-lucky geek.

Liking Superman better than Batman is arguably the Hipster’s preference. Landis actually wrote a Superman comic in 2014, a one issue imaginary first confrontation between Superman and The Joker where the punchline is that Joker can’t torment a superhero with a sense of humor and actual superpowers. Essentially, using the most popular Batman villain to argue that Superman is in another league. That and his YouTube videos have never given the impression he was affecting an ironic love of Superman. American Alien, collecting a limited series of seven issues with different artists for each story and backup one-page fill-ins, confirms Max Landis’ sincere appreciation for Superman – or at least just Clark Kent, in an unexpectedly disturbing reflection of the author’s own self-love. It’s not the kind of thing you’d notice if you weren’t familiar with Max Landis the Geek-Hollywood icon (that ignominious realm where people like Joss Whedon and Chris Hardwick dwell) but if people weren’t already familiar with Max Landis this book wouldn’t be on the New York Times bestseller list.

The first story, Dove, is about a very young Clark learning to fly. He also goes to see E.T. at the drive-in with Lana Lang, as Landis doesn’t know what life in Kansas is like but knows people go to movies. A John Deere trucker hat sees Clark riding on a pickup in cornrows and remarks, “Damn hippies.” What’s the matter with Kansas? “Maybe weird is better” says Jonathan Kent, reassuring his son who punched a mirror in fit of alien self-hate. Someday he’ll be in the big city where weird is normal and the exceptionally weird can flourish. Artist Nick Dragotta’s figures and backgrounds are fine enough but his manga-influenced facial expressions melt all over the character’s heads and their mouths are frequently just monochromatic ovals. Matthew Clark designs and illustrates a more compelling two page spread to ending the issue, with the Kent’s bulletin board collection of personal letters and photos telling the backstory of a prior miscarriage by Martha, their young professional lives as a veterinarian and lawyer, and most tellingly to Max’s unselfconscious elitism, a letter from Martha assuring John that the inheritance of his father’s farm does not mean he’s “‘trapped’ back in Smallville.”

The second story, Hawk, is Clark Kent’s first incident stopping some bad guys. They’re completely loco bad guys out of an exploitation movie, too, whose motivation is purely to kill innocent people. Clark stops them because darn it, that’s just the right thing to do. Passable teen banter between Clark and Pete Ross at the beginning, before the crushingly predictable proceedings. Tommy Lee Edwards does a good job with the art and color which has a gritty true crime feel. The inconsequential, one page Doomsday cameo at the end with art by Evan “Doc” Shaner feels like a reminder that Max’s Death and Return of Superman video is the only reason you’re wasting time reading yet another variation on the most cliched pivotal moment of every superhero’s origin story. Even Batman tried fighting crime without a costume first.

Parrot, the third story, finally finds Clark in an environment Landis knows how to write authentically: a party for stupid, fake rich people. The setup is still extremely contrived: Clark happens to win a Bahamas vacation trip where the plane just happens to crash next to a boat which just happens to be Bruce Wayne’s 21st birthday, who’s not there, so everyone just assumes Clark is Bruce. And it just so happens no one knows what Bruce Wayne looks like? He hooks up with pre-Cheetah Barbara Ann Minerva, whom he tells he wants to be a veterinarian because dumb animals don’t know how to ask for help. I think this is supposed to be touching and not condescending. Deathstroke cameos in a failed assassination attempt which, facetiously, Clark is unfazed by and immediately forgets. The closest the story comes to a meaningful moment is when Clark remarks on the decadence of rich people eating gold flakes on caviar, but the whole issue is like Max Landis doing a PG-rated Brett Easton Ellis where he uses an insider’s perspective to affirm his superior self-awareness towards the rich kids he grew up with. Really appealing art by Joëlle Jones and vibrant colors by Rico Renzi.

The one-pager at the end of this issue is a high point for the series’ creep factor. Mr. Mxyzptlk, a character whom I love, especially for his license to break the fourth wall, is turned into the hideously honest voice of Landis’ narcissism as he imparts to the reader that fame is life:

“Who’s more real, you or me?…How many people know your name?…I was created as a character in 1944…Millions of people have known my name…I don’t need a body…I’m living in your head right now…When you think of me later…I’ll be alive again…And yet, I can promise with absolute certainty that I will never once think of YOU.”

Mxyzptlk wasn’t half as frightening when Alan Moore revealed his true form and set him on Superman. This is Landis trying to do Grant Morrison, Animal-Man-can-see-you kind of philosophical comics, but it’s malicious. There’s a panel where Mxy goes monstrous looking, so maybe this kind of existentialism frightens him, too – but if he’s frightened by the fact he’ll never be as famous as Mr. Mxyyzptlk, he’s also comforted by the fact he gets to be his voice for a moment in time. If you’ve ever met the children of famous people, or even heard them speak publicly, you start to notice this equation of obscurity and oblivion.

Owl, the fourth story, introduces Lex Luthor, and as great heroes are defined by their villains, so too do neurotic writers define themselves by their hero’s villains. Telegraphed as a follower of “Ayn Rand bull” by Lois Lane, Luthor gives a monologue to budding reporter Clark Kent about his philosophy of life, which is basically that geniuses who can work hard are rare, and they don’t tend to be people who’ve had things handed to them, and he doesn’t need people to like him in order to carry on what he thinks is his important work. Sounds like an okay guy, right? Is this what Landis thinks sounds sinister? Sure he’s arrogant about it, but this is the ethos of people who actually exist in real life and want to advance the human race, not a fantasy figure of Christlike selflessness. Christ didn’t need to be liked, either. Apparently Landis just has genuine contempt for the self-made Lex Luthors of the world. Clark then runs into the young Robin, who tells him that Batman needs a counterpart because darkness needs light, and fear needs hope, and I’m so tired of superhero dialogue where they talk about their own marketing strategies.

Jae Lee does great art, even though she draws everyone Asian. Lois Lane looks like Lois Long. Colorist June Chung does really beautiful impressionist style backgrounds.

Steve Dillon illustrates a slick 12 panel silent origin for the Parasite. This was one of the last pages he ever drew. RIP.

The fifth story, Eagle, is a routine as hackneyed as Hawk – Superman’s first encounter with a monster of Luthor’s creation, he shows up at Luthor’s office, Luthor has plausible deniability, yadda yadda yadda. The only interesting detail is how Clark’s inspiration to put an “S” on his chest came from an off-hand sarcastic remark from Luthor in the previous issue (about how special people don’t just put an “S” on their chests) and in this issue he decides that the “S” stands for “Super” based on another sarcastic remark from Luthor. Superman’s whole shtick is a troll on Luthor! Earlier in the issue, Clark says “I’m sincere a lot. It’s my thing” which is a good encapsulation of Landis’ faux-humility he projects onto Clark.

The one-pager closer is a real toss-off: a letter from Jimmy Olsen quitting The Daily Planet for not running a story exposing how Two-Face is really Harvey Dent. If Max Landis is so smart why does he think The Dark Knight is a good movie worth referencing?

Speaking of Jimmy Olsen, in the following story Angel he’s revealed as a gay black man, so maybe Max also thought Superman Lives was worth referencing. Or he’s simply into forced revisionist diversity. Just kidding, I read his Twitter feed; it’s the latter. Pete Ross visits from Smallville to mention that the “S” was also on the side of baby Kal-El’s pod, like Landis realized his mistake in the previous issues about its origin and decided to hedge bets that Luthor’s remarks were a coincidence. Almost the entire issue is Pete Ross telling Clark he needs to take being Superman more seriously. It’s very boring, but with nice art & color by Jonathan Case.

Valkyrie, the final story, is Superman meeting Lobo, whom Landis absolutely has no clue how to write. They fight and it’s kind of a rewrite of the Zod fight from Man of Steel, all over and done with pretty quickly, though artist Jock makes it look cool with his own unique style. A real anticlimax of a finish.

Superman: American Alien manages to be boring, pretentious and derivative all at once. It’s sheer mediocrity propped up by good-to-great artists who deserved better material. Landis likes Superman and has absolutely nothing to say with the character, only about him, without the conciseness of a ten minute YouTube diatribe. The book is a bestseller because its author is Internet famous for talking about Superman, wrestling, Star Wars and other clickbait, not because it’s good. Don’t even wait for the softcover edition. Track down his Joker-meets-Superman story with nice art by Jock – The Sound of One Hand Clapping, instead. It’s a lot better than anything in this waste of shelf space.

CREDITS

Writer, Max Landis; artists, Nick Dragotta, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock; colorists, Alex Guimares, Tommy Lee Edwards, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Lee Loughridge; lettering, John Workman; publisher, DC Comics.

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