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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.
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.
[Edit @ 23/02/11 I was very sad to learn this morning of the death of Dwayne McDuffie. An immensely creative and inspirational figure within both the comic and general entertainment industries, his prolific output contained positive messages for his audience that eschewed cynicism. Often noted for his critical assessments of the comic industry in particular, as mentioned below, made for very entertaining and inspirational writing. I never had the opportunity to meet McDuffie at any conventions, but saw him frequently online, trading stories with fans on message boards and dispensing his insights on the importance of good storytelling. He will be much missed. My sincere condolences to both his family and loved ones.]
Milestone was a semi-independent comic book company back in the 90’s that offered a more interesting spin on superheroes than most. Its characters were drawn from a broader racial mix than offered by books from the mainstream comic companies. DC Comics helped publish the books, produced by African American writers and talent. The company has since been merged with the DC comic book line, which I feel is unfortunate, as Milestone had a distinctive voice all of its own. Most of the stories are set in a city called Dakota, rife with crime and corruption. Hardware was the first book to be published by the line, written by co-founder Dwayne McDuffie.
The book opens with young Curtis Metcalf relating a story from his childhood. He once owned a parakeet that would often escape its cage and then slam itself into a closed window. It could never understand that it was trapped by a bigger, invisible cage of glass. Then McDuffie brings us to the present day. Metcalf has become a techno-savvy superhero named Hardware, who fights not for any single ideal of justice, but revenge. He feels compelled to avenge himself on the man who trapped him in a glass cage all of his own. That man is his employer, mentor and surrogate father – Edwin Alva.
Metcalf’s technological genius earned Alva’s millions in patents and yet when he asked for a bigger role in the corporation he was told in no uncertain terms what his status really was:
“You are not respected, Curtis, you are merely useful. This was an interesting experience, Curtis. Rather like having one’s dog suddenly announce that he’s displeased with his living arrangements. You may go now.”
Alva is involved in multiple criminal conspiracies, laundering drug money and bribing law enforcement. As Hardware, Curtis has been targeting his illegal operations, eliminating any opposition he encounters.
Utterly consumed by his mission, Hardware begins to lose touch with his humanity, becoming as cold and calculating as the high-powered weaponry he uses. McDuffie introduces love interest Barraki who is very unimpressed with his campaign of terror against Alva. Her role in the book is to challenge the tendency of modern comics to indulge its audience’s vicarious enjoyment of violence.
“Let me see if I got this right…You built a secret underground lab and outfitted yourself for a high-tech war [...] You’ve destroyed millions of dollars in property [..] You’ve killed people. Ended their lives without any visible remorse [...] And you did all this because your boss wouldn’t give you a raise?”
It’s a great moment, one of many strewn throughout the issues collected in this volume that illustrates the critical sensibility of McDuffie’s writing. Issue eight focuses on a nightmarish vision where Hardware’s is interrogated by a doppelganger of himself that echoes Barraki’s critique. He is confronted by the phantoms of the men he has killed; witnesses his own development as a child (all the while wearing a cute toddler version of his armour); attends a lecture by Barraki on his resemblance to the mythical trope of the Trickster figure; and is interviewed by ‘Opra’ on his lovelife, a sequence which features my favourite quote in the book –
“Well, that just about does it for today. Be with us next time for a special show, live from the Houston Astrodome, where our audience will be made up entirely of white people who think that Curt has a chip on his shoulder.”
I laughed out loud after reading that. There is a fantastic metatextual undercurrent to the book. After all, the very first issue is titled ‘Angry Black Man’. In one issue McDuffie introduces a bloodthirsty vigilante named Death Wish. However, while his origin does involve rape and murder, McDuffie has Death Wish eschew the ‘Rape as Backstory’ trope by having him himself be a victim of an assault. His subsequent psychotic behaviour is therefore defined as a traumatic reaction and not the typical ‘vigilante empowerment’, so prevalent in the 90s.
Denys Cowan’s art works well with the material, although there are regrettable flashes of Rob Liefeld’s popular, at the time, style of oversized muscles and scratched lines over faces. Still the overall impression left by this collection is of a new, hungry series eager to make an impression. I am desperate to track down later issues.
DC Comics please reprint Hardware and/or put him front and centre in your books! An excellent collection for a very innovative superhero character.
I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.
Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.
The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.
Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.
In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.
Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!
Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).
This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.
Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.