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In a couple of hours I am off to Armageddon in Sydney’s Olympic Park. Nerd nivana. Will I ask John Rhys Davies to say ‘bad dates‘? Will I convince Lance Henriksen to do the knife trick from Aliens? Will I manage to stop myself from geeking out when I meet Gail Simone for the first time?

All of these things are doubtful.

So for today’s review I have chosen a comic book – but given the day that is in it, with Armageddon no doubt featuring plenty of promotions of upcoming superhero comics, movies, toys, it occured to me that if I must review a ‘graphic novel’, I see no reason why I should restrict myself to the caped brigade. Comics are a medium just like any other, a method of story-telling that combines text and image.

Why on earth are there so many comics are people punching one another really hard?

While Gene Luen Yang does introduce several fantastical elements into this tale of growing up Asian American, at its heart it is a story about a kid not able to fit in, who chooses to reject and hide from his culture in order to become more ‘normal’.

However, to get back to magic and fantasy, our story begins with a summary of the traditional Chinese myth, Journey to the West. The minor god Monkey wants to join the other deities in Heaven at a lavish banquet, but is rejected because he is just a monkey. In a rage the little god attacks and defeats his social betters. Over the years he becomes even more capricious, inventing new titles for himself and daring to antagonise the Almighty, Tze-Yo-Tzuh. For his hubris, Monkey is punished and buried beneath a mountain.

Jin Wang’s mother told him the tale of Monkey. To him though it is just another story from China, another thing that sets him apart. Bullied by the other children at school, he is desperate to be accepted, even tolerating the ‘friendship’, of a boy who physically abuses him. One day another student, Wei Chen Sun, arrives from Taiwan. Jin seizes his chance to finally become the bullier, raise himself up through the social pyramid by belittling another student. Instead, he finds himself becoming Wei’s best friend. Now if only he could work up the confidence to ask the beautiful and blond Amelia Harris out on a date.

A third story thread mixes the realism of Jin’s adolescent angst and the fantastical excesses of Monkey’s tale, involving an all-American boy named Danny, who is embarrassed when his distant cousin, Chin-Kee, arrives to visit. Followed everywhere by his cousin, who spouts stereotypical racist dialogue, can grow in size and insists on drawing attention to Danny’s relationship with him in a humiliating fashion, any hope he has of being popular quickly vanishes.

Chin-Kee is a monstrous manifestation of the contempt Jin sees directed to him by the other children at his school. As the three stories continue we discover how they are inter-related, how Monkey, Jin and Danny are in fact all connected.

When I was a kid growing up in Co. Dublin, I was obsessed with the Japanese show Monkey Magic which shares the same mythological source material as this book. Emmet at age five just saw it as an entertaining program and used to swing from the bicycle railings outside of school singing the theme song. So I am familiar, albeit in a distant fashion, with some of the fantastical elements Yang employs in American Born Chinese. I also, however, grew up an outsider, bullied in school, not able to fit in and reading this book brought all of that back to me.

I love how Yang links these autobiographical elements of growing up in America with the more supernatural and religious aspects of the story, representing an overall metaphor for the cultural differences thrown up before a young Chinese boy. The story is also wickedly funny, quite sweet at times and well paced.

This is an excellent book, well told by a confident and imaginative story-teller. Fantastic.

Right, now I’m off to geek it up.

Hey kids. Do you remember this!? Ah. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I used to love that show. Now maybe you would think I wanted to take after Spider-Man. After all, he is the star. Or how about Iceman? But no, my favourite character was always Firestar. Not because I wanted to be a girl or anything…..let’s start again – fire powers are cool!

So I was always curious about her character. Imagine my surprise when I eventually started to read Marvel comics and discovered not only was she not ‘friends’, with Spider-Man – she did not even exist in comics before the show. Eventually she got shoved into the X-Men almost as an afterthought, but I don’t think my child self ever got over that disillusionment (cos…y’know…fire powers….cool!).

This book is not all about my girl Firestar. In fact it is a ‘non-team’, comic, focusing on several random young superheroes who have all been somewhat forgotten. First off there is Gravity, one of Sean McKeever‘s own creations, a nominally cheerful young hero, who has begun to question the legitimacy of arrested superpowered criminals, as they only just escape to wreck havoc again. Then there’s Araña, recently depowered and so unknown most people call her Spider-Girl. Nomad is a girl from an alternate world where she was a highly trained sidekick to the most famous superhero on her Earth – here she is no one. What’s worse she had a friend on this other Earth named Benito Serrano, who has his own counterpart in her new home. Though he takes the same superhero name, Toro, and has the same abilities, he has no idea who she is. What’s more only Araña is capable of speaking Spanish with him (at one point Gravity mutters regretfully that he took German in school).

What brings these heroes together is a violent gang of young villains, the aptly named Evil Bastards, who torture and kill New Yorkers for fun and then upload the footage online for their ‘fans’. Gravity in particular is horrified by the callousness of the gang and is pushed to the edge, in danger of himself becoming a killer in retaliation. In their first encounter with the Evil Bastards, one of the villains detonates a massive explosion on the site of Ground Zero itself.

McKeever has stated that the theme of this book “was that [the Young Allies are] fighting for the soul of their generation”. In a neat piece of meta-commentary it is made clear that what McKeever is referring to is the morals of comic books themselves. The Evil Bastards (sounds like a Warren Ellis rock band) claim to be the sons and daughters of supervillains themselves. Their contempt for the value of life, to my mind, reflects the persistence of shock tactics and ultraviolence in contemporary comics. As the older villain Electro comments, to violate the sanctity of Ground Zero itself would be unthinkable for him. It is a horrific moment in the book itself, but Gravity’s obsession with finding justice for the victims properly addresses the true horror of this event.

I found myself comparing McKeever’s use of an actual site of tragedy, with what has been revealed in the trailer for the  upcoming X-Men movie. The plot will involve the superheroes in an actual historical event – the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think ultimately McKeever is respectful in his use of 9/11 as a feature of the plot. The Evil Bastards are reminiscent of message board users making horrible jokes about actual tragedies. One of them even describes her crimes as being like playing an MMO. Marvel Comics frequently used nuclear radiation as a plot device and McKeever refers to this again throughout the book. Firestar, for one, suffers from her constant exposure to incredible temperatures and is in fact a cancer survivor. It is a neat reversal of the comic-book science that allowed for characters such as The Hulk, or Spider-Man gaining superpowers from radiation.

This flirting with realistic concerns and comic book absurdity is ably managed by McKeever, who has a great partner in crime in penciller David Baldeon. The art reflects the threatened innocence of the characters. I particularly like his designs for the Evil Bastards themselves, all quite creative in their callbacks to the absent parents they draw inspiration from.

So Young Allies is that rare thing – a quietly ambitious superhero comic with a lot of heart. Recommended for comic book fans looking something less cynical than certain popular titles out there.

It’s Valentine’s Day! So I have a few errands to run, a dinner to cook and a mission to make myself look presentable for when my breadwinning wife comes home from work. So a comic book review for today and I’ll return to some larger text for tomorrow’s review.

As it happens, this comic features my favourite supervillain – Harley Quinn. Poor Harley is quite demented, but also quite sweet in a strange kind of way. She does see herself as the Joker’s companion/number one fan, so a touch of madness is to be expected. I mention my interest in Harley, because when I first visited Stephanie, I saw that she had painted her own portrait of the former Arkham Asylum staff member (FYI, Harley is the one on the right lighting a bomb with a cigar). I took this to be a good omen, an indication of our suitability for one another as a couple.

I was not wrong.

Arkham Asylum: Madness is unusual in that it is set in one of the most famous landmarks in the Batman mythology, but does not feature the character at all. In fact he is barely even alluded to by the book’s cast. Instead, the story focuses on the ordinary staff at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, in particular a young nurse named Sabine, and their fraught interractions with the dangerous psychopaths locked up behind its walls.

Sabine works the day shift at Arkham despite its reputation, so that she can afford to pay off her family’s debts. The one thing that allows her to get through the day is the thought of returning home to her son Ozzie. She has few friends working with her, with an elderly janitor named Eddy and a fellow nurse Randy, managing to make her smile now and then, despite the oppressive atmosphere of Arkham itself.

As the day progresses tension continues to build, a tension that the inmates are far more receptive to. Small things like a hallway clock marking the time left for lunch slowing down, or Dr. Hurd’s unusual health issues, are ominous hints of some threat approaching.

The Joker, Arkham’s most feared patient, acts as a barometer for the rising anxieties within the building. The staff are terrified of him and he, in turn, enjoys nothing more than to increase their fear of what he may be capable of. His latest scheme is to follow to the letter a suggestion by one of the attending doctors to take on a hobby, like collectibles. Joker seems to have become obsessed with an innocuous collection of comedic props, but the true nature of the items is far less innocent.

Then disaster strikes for Sabine as she is ordered to stay on for the nightshift. Prevented from spending the evening with Ozzie, she falls into a depression, seemingly reflected by the asylum itself. The clock in the hallway begins to bleed, Joker springs his trap on Dr. Hurd and then in the ensuing choas the inmates make an escape attempt. The attendants and guards are the only thing between the psychopaths and freedom.

This book is a genuine treat for fans of Sam Kieth. I first discovered his art style through the MTV adaptation of his comic The Maxx, before tracking down his excellent miniseries Zero Girl. I love his punk/painterly aesthetic, the contorted bodies and smooth faces. Sabine is for all intents and purposes a traditional Kieth heroine, innocent in appearance, but possessing a hidden inner-strength, in this case the intensity of her love for her son. This book also features fantastic redesigns of Harley Quinn and a less-than-dapper Harvey Dent.

Arkham Asylum: Madness completes an unofficial triptych of stories set in this Lovecraftian Bedlam. The first, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, was a fantastic artistic showcase for the latter, with Batman’s righteous heroism eroded by the condensed madness of the asylum. The second, by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook, marginalised Batman in favour of a new inmate, the White Shark. Kieth disposes of the caped crusader entirely, creating a terrifying vacuum.

It is unfair for the likes of Sabine to be trapped in this hell with criminal psychopaths. The book shows how her spirit is crushed over the span of an exhausting twenty-four hours. The Batman series has always been party to a certain sadism and Kieth demonstrates the cost of the popularity of these villains on such ordinary people as Sabine.

Chilling and gripping, with wonderfully kinetic art.

It was like an Abadazad museum. There were copies of the first three books…Little Martha in Abadazad, Queen Ija of Abadazad and the Eight Oceans of Abadazad

…that looked as old as Mrs Vaughn. A tiara that looked just like the one the Two-Fold Witch wore (I’m sure the rubies were fake, but they sure seemed real to me. Of course I’ve never seen a real ruby in my life). And best of all, hand-painted figurines of Queen Ija, Professor Headstrong, Mary Annette, Mister Gloom, Master Wix, and a whole mess of other characters. And they weren’t like the plastic junk you see in the toy stores. They weren’t even like those ridiculously expensive “collectibles” they sell to super-nerd adults who never got a life. This stuff – I wish I could explain it – it was like they weren’t based on the characters, they WERE the characters. Like each of those little figures had…I dunno…a soul or something.

I remember the first time I heard about Abadazad. It was featured on the sadly defunct Ninth Art review site. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog‘s series received rave reviews, even talk of a Disney film adaptation shortly after the first issue, but that was not enough to protect the book from the implosion of publisher Crossgen. Fortunately Disney did acquire the rights to the series, but only three books out of a proposed eight were ever published. Here’s an interview with DeMatteis explaining what inspired the story in the first place.

What I am reviewing is in fact the second iteration of Abadazad, published by Disney in a format that mixes Ploog’s art with pages of text. DeMatteis introduces the clever premise that we are actually reading the diary of the main character, Kate, which has been enchanted. So the images that appear are in fact magical windows into the world of Abadazad itself, which Kate can look through – but sometimes the creatures she sees can see her as well. It’s an inventive wave of justifying the use of these colourful illustrations and text.

For most of her life, fourteen-year-old Kate raised her younger brother Matty. Her parents separated when the children were young and instead of having a typical childhood in Brooklyn, the two would read the novels of Franklin O. Davies together, describing the adventures of plucky young heroine Little Martha in a magical land called Abadazad. Their mother Frances was left a mess after the divorce, so retreating into this fantasy world afforded the children a welcome escape from the adult world of depression and misery they were trapped in.

Then one day at a summer fair, in front of Kate’s eyes, Matty simply vanishes. That was five years ago. Matty’s face has been on milk cartons and Kate has been seeing a therapist ever since. ‘Frantic Frances’, has retreated further into herself and her daughter has turned on her, in an attempt to alleviate her own guilt. “It’s been five years, Frances, he’s dead. Get over it.”

Kate meets an elderly neighbour, Mrs Vaughn, who owns an impressive collection of Abadazad memorabilia and even claims to have known Franklin O. Davies. At first Kate finds herself reminded of her own dead grandmother, but then Mrs Vaughn starts to say some strange things. Such as that Abadazad is real. She has been there and, what’s more, she was Little Martha. Kate argues that Little Martha was a white girl and Mrs Vaughn is an old black lady. She claims Franklin O. Davies made the character Little Martha white to sell more books, but the books are just adapted from her own magical adventures. Kate is halfway out the door when Mrs Vaughn says something even crazier. Her brother Matty is alive – and he is in Abadazad.

For the purposes of this review I read the first two volumes of the Abadazad series. While some might feel the pace somewhat slow, DeMatteis does  a great job of introducing the character of Kate and establishing this more modern setting, contrasting her upbringing with that of say Dorothy Gale, or Little Nemo. Abadazad itself is a hybrid of Dr. Seuss and Oz – and Mike Ploog’s illustrations reminded me of the Seussian wonderland featured in Tom Fowler‘s Mysterius the Unfathomable.

By the second volume the story really takes off. There are repeated allusions to the censoring of children’s fantasy, with Kate surprised at what Davies left out for commercial purposes.

Warm, funny and sweet – travel to Abadazad.

A year ago I reviewed Alasdair Gray‘s Lanark on my former blog. Instead of insisting on the post-modern content of that novel, or for that manner the religious themes, with references to Gnosticism and the inherent conservatism of the church as an institution – I compared the book to a comic by Grant Morrison named Animal Man.

Perhaps some might find that offensive? Personally the medium of a story has no categorical importance – it’s the content that interests me and I have no problem with raising this piece of popculture up on the same critical pedestal as Lanark.

Of course, and some of you may have realized, there was a small problem in my making the comparison – I had not actually read Animal Man. The page illustrated above was my sole reference. So to amend that little hiccup, I’m reviewing the final collection of Morrison’s run on the title today.

Animal Man is a minor superhero named Buddy Baker, who has been operating for just under a year. He has a wife, Ellen, and two children, Maxine and Cliff. An accident involving an alien spaceship has granted him the ability to borrow traits from animals, hence his superhero moniker. Unlike most other superhumans, Buddy’s heroics are more politically sensitive, such as environmental activism, agitating against animal testing and fighting against Apartheid in South Africa.

However, Buddy’s family has been under surveillance from a mysterious figure, seemingly able to appear at will. Unable to protect his wife and children from the ‘weirdness’, in his life, the everyman superhero has also recently undergone unusual experiences, hinting at some outside force manipulating his life for the purpose of entertainment.

Then tragedy strikes. Ellen and the children are assassinated.  The killer, no supervillain but an ordinary gunman , was hired by a group of businessmen affected by Animal Man’s actions. Buddy hunts them down and avenges his family, but is left broken by the experience. Desperate to save his family, he travels back through time – but finds himself sucked into a conflict with a number of other heroes who have been erased from the timeline. He is just a character in a comic book, and it is the writer who is responsible for all his suffering.

“Who are you? Who did you say you were?”

“Me? I’m the evil mastermind behind the scenes. I’m the wicked puppeteer who pulls the strings and makes you dance. I’m your writer.”

The final encounter between Animal Man and ‘Grant Morrison’, is thankfully not just an example of po-mo nonsense. The culmination of year’s worth of dangling plot-threads, it allows the writer to wrap up the storyline with a flourish, while also addressing the central concern of the book. As a comic that did not shy away from political themes, Animal Man was principally about the defence of the helpless – lab animals, slaughtered dolpins, South Africans suffering oppression.

In a neat inversion, Morrison proposes that the superhumans of DC Comics are themselves helpless victims – of us and our changing tastes in entertainment. The creations that were enjoyed by readers in their childhood have become tarnished, grim and violent vigilantes. Their suffering is the stuff of modern entertainment. Their moral values are irrelevent. The Morrison that Animal Man encounters is unapologetic about this. He is after all only one writer among many, who vented his frustrations with the world through the medium of this comic book, but in the end he is as powerless to change the world as Buddy is.

Confronted with this seemingly uncaring demiurge, we really begin to sympathize with Buddy’s plight and care about the lives of these characters – who are only, lest we forget, commercial products. At one point one of these ‘erased’, creations exclaims: I don’t care what I am. I don’t care if I’m just a minor character in a bad story…I’m not going to let this happen. You hear me? I’ve still got my dignity!

There is even a page where Morrison conjures up some random foes for Buddy to fight in the background, while he addresses the reader and says his thanks to the editors and artistic team that worked on the book. He apologises for the preachy tone of the book – while at the same time making one final attempt to sway the audience to the themes addressed in Animal Man. For this cynical Morrison is just as much a fictional creation as Buddy, whose defeatism is rejected on the very last page.

Emotionally personal and intimate. A classic.

I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.

I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.

This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.

Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.

Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.

Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.

The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.

Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.

When I was a teenager looking for weird and interesting facts to talk about during lunch at school, Richard Metzger‘s Disinfo show fit the bill perfectly. At times seeming like a more media-literate, cyberpunk version of Fortean Times, it delivered a mixture of social commentary and conspiracy theory. It also introduced me to Grant Morrison‘s The Invisibles.

In fact, as far as I can recall, the more buoyant and fun US-set issues of The Invisibles were supposedly inspired by a meeting between Morrison and Metzger himself. The other writer I first discovered through the show was Douglas Rushkoff. Still active as a media commentator (just have a gander at this piece on the ‘demise of Facebook‘) Rushkoff is notable for his ability to recognize the potential in open source projects and online culture.

In fact with this book he proposes that the Bible, and the Torah that preceded it, was one of the earliest open source works in our culture. It just so happens that he has chosen the medium of comics to elucidate his theories.

Rushkoff chooses to draw parallels between the Biblical accounts of Abraham and Lot, and near-future events in a technocratic fascist America. Jake Stern’s father is heavily involved in a military project designed to implant chips in American citizens, ostensibly to track the locations of soldiers during wartime. The draft has been reintroduced and the US  is involved in at least six wars simultaneously. Jake has friends involved in an underground movement that believes the chips can be used to control people’s minds, create instant perfect soldiers. Caught between his father and his political sympathies for his friends, he tries not to get involved in the rising tensions between activists and the government.

Jake’s father is trapped in the same test of loyalty to his ‘God’, or his family as was Abraham, with his employer urging him to ‘sacrifice’, his son by implanting a chip in him. Jake is equated with Lot, attempting to save his friends from the disaster he knows is coming, even as his Biblical counterpoint was singled out following the search of Sodom for innocent souls.

Just as these stories repeat themselves throughout history, the same forces who were involved in the events described by the Bible, the agents of Yahweh and the pagan gods arrayed against Him (identified here as Astarte and Moloch) are present in Jake’s time. In fact, from their point of view, these events are all occuring simultaneously. The Jewish god Yahweh is involved in constant battles with His rivals for the souls of the ‘chosen people’. Jake and his underground pals are merely acting out yet another iteration of this conflict against a monolithic evil force.

Rushkoff takes full advantage of the comic-book medium to present his argument, using split-panels to draw out the comparisons between his two chosen narratives, as well recurring associations of select phrases and images. At one point he even appears in the book as a college lecturer explaining the concept behind the comic-book, arguing that our contemporary stories are achetypal echoes of ancient myths. As he says this, a slide depicting the reincarnated Egyptian superhero Hawkman is presented in a neat piece of visual shorthand.

While I admire the audacity of the concept, the material is overly familiar, having quite a few points of similarity to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. In its favour though, Rushkoff’s take on the material is far less obscure. The Morrison comparison’s continue as Liam Sharp artwork resembles frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. However, I fear I am doing Testament a disservice by saying that, as Rushkoff’s intent is quite brilliant. Liberate the Biblical myths from the dry, neutered interpretations we have grown up with and forge them into an exciting conceptual thriller. Moloch and Astarte are personified as very literal forces of violence and sex, with Yahweh a god of revolutions, a liberator from these baser instincts.

This take on the meaning of the Bible proclaims it as stridently anti-authoritarian, the very opposite of Nietzsche‘s assessment of Christianity as a religion of slave-morality.

Testament excites in its scale of ambition and association of ideas. On that basis I would recommend it for those who like their comics to do something quite different.

 

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