January 26th, 2010
In the dying light of the comic week…
Starman #81 by James Robinson, Fernando Dagnino, Bill Sienkewicz & Matt Hollingsworth
First up, art sentence: the art looks fucking doss, because it’s drawn – inked, but whatever (no-one survives a Sink-ink, except John Paul Leon) – by Bill Sienkewicz and therefore looks like Bill Sienkewicz, which is fucking doss, and also Matt Hollingsworth colours it and he is the best colourist, especially at the murkier end of the palette.
(Seriously, if you want to say a Bill Sink comic, any one of them – if you want to say “hhm, not sure about the art” or, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, fact is: if you want to say something like that you are making a dick of yourself.)
Right! Comic-reviewing credentials, I think you’ll agree, well established this is a pretty interesting one; I pre-reviewed it as “James Robinson pisses his final chips, probably”. The chips being his credibility as a once-capable, fan-favourite writer. The chips being a casino metaphor. The chips being how I – in my opinion which is valueless (beyond or beneath, you the reader may interact and decide, it’s the new format) – how I feel about James Robinson. As a human being. What his worth. To me.
And actually, to my surprise, James Robinson did not piss his final chips but instead turned in a thoroughly decent comic for probably the first time since he last wrote an issue of Starman, eight-and-a-half years ago. I say probably, I’ve not read all of them – six or so, it felt like infinity, of the most time-dilatingly dull Superman comics of all time, which considering the average standard of dullness in Superman comic [fucking dull, broseph] is likely an achievement of some moment and an eight-issue run on Batman as a lead-in to Morrison taking over the title, something I hyped myself into believing was half-decent due to overexcitement, and then I quite reasonably stopped reading them, the James Robinson comics, but man o! Some people read them for me. Others showed me pictures. And I don’t want to, look – I’ll be out the door before we turn into scans_daily or you can put me in the crosshair, aim-for-the-heart - I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to take things out of context and rudely and roundly condemn, but I’m pretty certain nothing else in the latter Justice League issue could conceivably make up for murky-depthy chats with Zombie Doctor Rapelight. It would take a bit of doing, over several comics, to redress that little soulquake.
So, but this is okay, this comic? It’s pretty okay, I would give it three to three-and-a-half brains; yeah, call it a 3.5er for the art. It is, it transpires, a welcome return to Opal City, it got me to reread Starman #80 for research (Research! You must always do research if you wish to be a critic on the comics blogosphere) and that was… I totally loved doing that. That hit just about every right note that a DC superhero comic should or could upon closing, it has a touching tribute to Archie Goodwin in the back, it’s really quite an emotional experience, I got quite Mist-y. This ain’t colour-of-nostalgia speaking; I was quite bloody miserable in 2001, and understandably concerned the years might have taken a sheen off somewhat, but not excessively, treasured memories of Starman, the original series, sections of which had already proven trialsome to go back and reread. Batman/Hellboy/Starman – you’d be right to expect that to rule, how could it conceivably not, but it’s bollocks.
This issue (whose contents I am going to discuss not at all, except to say for a more authentic feel there should have been a lot more misplaced boldface stresses) proved that, to some degree, James Dale Robinson can still write a comic. So why isn’t he? I think he – and bear in mind, if it need be said, that this is wholly supposition, I know not how a sausage is made nor the sausagemakers - like Brian Azzarello writing Doctor Thirteen, was not really a fan of – not in love with – superhero comics, but rather of the past and of antiquities, and like Azz utilising obscure, pointless bands that he loved anyway to write obscure, pointless superheroes that someone presumably feels likewise about… basically that was what that was about, Starman. That was an actual asset, not to be in love. The past, its ochre, its eternally dissipating hue, and it worked for the most part; it was was informed by this, there was its foundation. With the other DC books, it’s like – there’s no ‘there’ there, as they say, nothing underlies them, and they read like editorial-driven shitfests, they really did. As if script-notes have come back saying “make more odious“/”not enough tedium“/”I didn’t feel ruined as a person by this experience, can you juice up the miasm of despair a bit?“, etc. It’s a confluence of knowing popular American comics are writer-driven at the top-end and a desperate drive to continually rebrand the subsidiary’s sole assets that’s led to this end; it isn’t working in this case, just as it never does with Peter Milligan, who can at least turn in a half-decent, no more, no less, Batman comic. James Robinson wrote Leave it to Chance. James Robinson wrote London’s Dark. I can only imagine he is doing a lot better out of comics these days, and this issue just about earned it for the first time in a long time. (BB)
Amazing Spider-Man #618 by Dan Slott, Marcos Martin & Javier Rodriguez
When does a comic stop dealing in long standing conventions and veer headlong into a brickwall made of pastiche? That’s the question I found myself pondering after reading Amazing Spider-Man #618.
I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve read of the new Spider-line, but I have to question whether it’s appeal is particularly healthy. The focus on new new villains and new old villains, the bubbly soap-operatics, the densely packed panels and incident filled issues. The spider-quips, love triangles, the Daily Bugle and Aunt May in peril. That right there is Spider-Man, and I’m absolutely certain that that’s what the line’s heavily editorially controlled creators want me to think.
In #618 we get a slew of baddies, multiple-returns from the dead including the return of two classic villains, evil Aunt May, yep that ever trusty love triangle (that includes the Black Cat), and more angst tha you could shake a stick at. Not only that but the art team treat us to Ditko-esque layouts, panel constructions, and line work, topped off with a sombre pastel colour scheme not entirely unreminiscent of the late sixties colour palette.
It’s true to say that none of this amounts to full-blown pastiche. A heavily diluted modern sensibility informs the book and provides much of the humour, but it does so at the expense of the verisimilitude. The book as a whole is just too knowing, too aware of the conventions on which it is built to be truly entertaining. There’s a fun of a sort to be had in recognising how the traditions of the spider-comic are being deployed and toyed with here, but it’s, if anything, a guilty kind of fun.
But despite these gripes they’re is something undeniably refreshing about this comic. Some of the cliched storytelling techniques on display couldn’t be more at odds with Marvel’s current focus on pseudo-realist psychology and emphasis on plot over incident. Soap opera and melodrama aren’t without their faults but they’re not without their pleasures either, and the sheer imaginative brio embodied by the line’s spider-foes is commendable in and of itself.
So while this line of books and the hoary cliches on which it is built could teach other Marvel titles a thing or two about entertainment ultimately its role certainly isn’t pedagogical, and it’s hard to imagine reading something this beholden to its past on a regular basis. (Z)