March 17th, 2014
Über #0-10, by Kieron Gillen, Caanan White, Joseph Silver, Kurt Hathaway and Digicore Studios
Kieron Gillen let the mask slip a little at the start, when he positioned this comic as the anti-ASS, as a refutation of Superman’s central place in 20th Century history, in a spiel designed to mark Über out as being a comic free of the sort of self-commentary that defines so many modern superhero comics. “It’s probably the least ironic book I’ve ever written,” he said:
It has nothing to say about superhero comics. In fact, its utter negation of that genre-criticism may be the closest it comes to commentary. I’ve read many books which seem to labour under the delusion that the conception of Superman was the most important moment in the 1930s. This isn’t one of them. My only interest is in how I can use this genre’s conceit to create metaphors to explores aspects of WW2…
This comment, buried as it was in the mix of metatextual soul searching and historical gamesmanship of Über #0′s backmatter, provides the key to understanding the uncanny dynamics of this comic. In attempting to ward off irony and meta-commentary, Gillen negated any possibility of this comic escaping the superhero meta-conversation. Which, it turns out, is actually quite fitting in the end. Carefully researched as Über might be, with everything from troop movements to weather conditions having been taken into account, this WW2 with superheroes fantasy is still a superhero fantasy, and as such it manages the odd trick of destroying both history and genre conventions and reinforcing them at the same time.
In contrast to the carefully composed alternate reality of All Star Superman – with its suggestion of a world where greed, imperialism and mortal panic exist but are never the only options – Gillen and White present an alt-modernity in which the foundational horrors of the mid 20th Century era are all there but louder.
There’s a certain punitive/educational value in amplifying and expanding on the staggering brutality of our recent past, but the danger of reducing it to gory spectacle haunts every page of this comic. Somewhat typically, Joe McCulloch has already summed the book’s aesthetic more concisely than I ever could:
As McCulloch indicates, Caanan White’s art fits comfortably within the Avatar house style in the most uncomfortable of ways – this is a teenage boy’s world of endless masturbatory frustration and release, with gnarled flesh and spurting blood existing in constant flux. By re-imagining the painfully real landscapes of the second world war as a site of this sort of aesthetic play, Gillen and White risk making a travesty of tragedy:
All of which is to that alongside Multiple Warheads: Down Fall, Über is one of the very few comics I’ve felt embarrassed to read on the bus during the past couple of years of what you might laughably call my adulthood. Not because it’s bad, you understand, but because I was worried it might look like junior fashporn and give people the wrong idea (in contrast with the hip objectification and butt-plugging fun of Multiple Warheads, which I worried might give people the right idea. Life: it goes on regardless of whether anyone really understands anyone else, or so I’m told).
Issues #8 and #9 found just the right level of unease for me, with Gillen doing his best job to write about the war while writing away from it and White following suit, blending eye-popping viscera with scenes of real dread and basking in the discordant horror:
Some things should never be easy to deal with, so kudos to White and Gillen for staying mindful of this, even while their own fantasy RPG scenario starts to get complicated enough to require its own expansion packs…
Pretty Deadly #1-4, by Emma Rios, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles
A controversial comic, apparently, and one that makes that gravest of errors by asking for a bit of trust from its readers. The overlapping layers of plot and poetic narration combine to create a vision of violence that’s no less compelling for for its relative lack of immediate impact:
There’s a certain ornate quality to both the story and the panel layouts here, married to an explicitly written style of dialogue that has inevitably rubbed some people up the wrong way, but rather than minimising the physicality of the action scenes these flourishes serve to unsettle it – to place it in a context where its exact impact is hard to determine from the actions that occur on either side of it.
The characters and the readers are as one here: surprised and bloodied by events as they happen, for all the abundance of prophecy and dramatic irony provided.
Here’s Sarah Horrocks on why this violence is worth paying attention to, with specific focus on how it cuts in and around female flesh and how it differs from Blade of the Immortal:
Big Alice is a warrior. She has dealt paint, she has felt pain. What’s more pain is not a fear of hers. Her vanity is not based in her face, which she disregards. Her self-worth comes from the pain she can endure and the pain she can inflict upon others. This is juxtoposed against Makie’s self-harm in Blade of the Immortal, which is driven by her desolation at being the untouchable death doll. Her self-harm comes from the depression of the role she serves both for the reader, and the male viewers within the comic.
What is interesting in Pretty Deadly is that Ginny is positioned in a similar role as Makie. She is set up in the first issue as this untouchable spirit of death. She is Queen Badass. But the Porcelain doll of death archetype is immediately subverted in her very first fight in the second issue. She is most certainly Queen Badass–but she is not untouchable. She gets cut by Big Alice in the very first attacking exchange between the two. But she takes it and just keeps coming. Ginny continually sacrifices flesh and blood for tactical ground. And what’s more the perspective of the fight, and the character design employed for both characters doesn’t allow for any sexualization of this pain. This fight is never anything about two warriors brutally going at each other, doing whatever it takes to land the killing blow. There’s no perspectives, or contortions causing the characters to vogue for the camera. No orgasmic facial contortions. These are two animals at their most basest expression.
If I’m honest, you should probably read the whole thing before you proceed here – I wouldn’t want you to miss out on the real critical action, after all!
Pretty Deadly isn’t my favourite monthly comic right now but it’s the one I’m least certain of, and - not coincidentally - the one with the most scope to surprise. These surprises might not always please me – the shift into partial clarity in issue #2 established an ideal for my version of this comic that was not matched by the increasing clarity of what has followed – but the ever-shifting tapestry of consequences is still worth watching as it develops.
Three #1-4, by Ryan Kelly, Kieron Gillen, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles
If Über‘s relationship to it parent genre is founded on irresolvable ambiguity (“WE DESTROY ROCK’N'ROLL!” said the rock’n'roll band), Three exists in a state of straightforward hostility towards its most obvious daddy figure, Frank “The Tank” Miller, and more specifically, his mega-successful war porn comic turned widescreen advert for digitally enhanced torsos 300.
Unable to topple the monumental imagery of it predecessor (which is currently being touched up in front of an audience of unknown quantity in a cinema near you RIGHT NOW!), Three instead dedicates itself to taking routes previously left unexplored, and providing an excess detail along the way.
To this end, Ryan Kelly’s figures are less consciously iconic than Miller’s – knotted with muscle, they scowl from the shadows before lunging out blade first, trying to make the most out of the small bursts of violence they can afford, painfully conscious of the fact that getting involved in massive battle scenes only favours the enemy:
Kieron Gillen’s script mirrors Kelly’s’ approach at every step. He writes like a man aware that on the level of brute imagery, Miller chose the right side in this particular conflict and that to squander Kelly’s efforts trying to make their trio of ragged Helots look like a world-shaking force would therefore be pointless. Rather than squandering its resources on a head-on conflict, Three instead takes the reader on a tour that avoids the major battlegrounds and in doing so place its narrative (and at the end of the fourth issue, its characters) in an advantageous contexts:
This is a carefully considered strategy, and the moments where Kelly gets to show his stuff have a certain frantic energy to them – compare and contrast Three‘s scrappy, rapid-cutting intersections of flesh and metal with the gory panoramas of Über and you will see two different attempts to stretch the grammar of comic book violence, to imbue it with a sense of seriousness without giving up on excitement. Still, while the in-story tension has been carefully raised and maintained, there’s a comparative lack of textual tension at work here.
Three‘s aesthetic goals and its historical ones are closely aligned, and while that makes for a smoother, less troubling reading experience than you get from Über, this isn’t always as positive as it might sound. Three has made me wince less often than its artistic cousin, and I wouldn’t think twice about reading it on the bus, but even though it has provided me with new information in every issue, I’ve never quite been able to escape the feeling that it’s still fundamentally telling me something that I already know…
(PLEASE NOTE: I’ve not had a chance to read the final issue of this series yet – issue #5 was sold out of the local Comics Hut when I got there, and Comixology charged me for it without ever actually letting me read it, so… I’ll get there eventually, and I’m sure it’s a cracker, but I can’t comment on it now.)
Zero #1-5, by Ales Kot, Tom Muller, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles, Michael Walsh, Trad Moore, Mateus Santolouco, Morgan Jeske and Will Tempest
Don’t be fooled by the sheen of Hollywood realism, or by the seemingly conventional transitions from one panel to another: Zero is Ales Kot’s most expansive work yet. Wild Children was packed full of big talk and bigger ideas to the point where even the spaces between the panels were jammed full of quotes and links to other reading material, but all of that was subservient to a terrifyingly closed structure. Change was a comic where it felt like anything could happen during the transition from one page to another, and yet like its predecessor it was built around an apocalyptic plot that bound this wild invention into a novel conceit: the end of the world as a cosmic bowel movement.
Zero is a sci-fi spy comic that seems to operate under stricter narrative rules than either of those experiments in narrative, but its length is currently undetermined and its artist changes from issue to issue, so the details of the journey is harder to predict. To state it plainly: the sense of limitless possibility here is stored in the macro level, rather than in the micro.
Not that there’s anything wrong with what’s going on at the micro-level either. Zero combines the grasp of mechanical plotting that Kot has displayed in his creator-owned work with his fondness for emotionally ragged exposition and the artists in this book have have been universally excellent so far, from Michael Walsh’s clean-lined depiction of dirty violence in the middle east…
…to Change artist’s Morgan Jeske’s blown-out depictions clashing bodies, both of them ragged around the edges from a lifetime’s worth of exposure to violence:
The Zero team’s desire to explore and extrapolate the politics of places like Northern Ireland and Palestine is every bit as risky as Über’s commitment to recreating World War 2 in its own image – after all, if it’s to remain an exciting action comic, it has to turn real bloodshed into pure spectacle on a monthly basis. Thankfully Kot and crew remain committed to showing the impact of every kick or brick or gunshot, and when the art and story align like they do in the fourth issue (Jeske’s) the results promise to stretch their form into new shapes.
Whether these shapes end up providing us with a useful way of processing our action-based narratives or an just an unusually sensitive variation on the same remains to be seem, but as with Pretty Deadly the sense of possibility provides its own exhilaration here.
(Shout outs to Clayton Cowles and Jordie Ballaire, who letter and colour three out of the four books discussed in this post and give them all a distinct identity – this is especially impressive when you consider that they hold Zero together from issue to issue alongside cover designer Tom Muller, so if you want my suggestions for the comic book Oscars, consider this particular team tipped!)