Number One in My Book

Before we all get into this week’s wave of comics, I wanted to do a round-up of five first issues from last week. I’m going to try to make this snappy because comics are starting to eat my life.

 

 

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TREES #1 (Image, written by Warren Ellis, art by Jason Howard)

Trees is my favorite of the bunch. It’s the sort of first issue that feels like it was created in a war-room by three-star generals. Well-orchestrated first issues feel like invasions. The occupation might get bloody and unpredictable later on, but the invasion itself is magnificent. And this story is actually about an invasion, too. It starts ten years after giant cylindrical sort-of living things came down to Earth and planted themselves.

What this book does best is zooming in and panning out, swiveling, switching gears, striking just the right tone, moving at just the right pace, letting in just the right amount of sky. It’s seamless. We feel the scale of the “trees” but rush into the ground level to meet some people. We don’t get too close, just close enough to get a taste. The book soon has to cut to the next shot, the next story. It never feels like too much. It’s always just the right amount of information. It is masterful!

This book looks like it’s gearing up to be incredibly political, and I don’t mind that. Mostly I’m just a sucker for the feeling that we are biting into something big. That, and the little visual details of life among the trees. I hope that in later issues we can get close enough to the characters to really care for them, even though it’s an ensemble cast that spans the globe.

 

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C.O.W.L. #1 (Image again, written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel, art by Rod Reis)

There was a beautiful fight on the first seven pages, marred by the use of Cyrillic letters scrambled into English words to denote a Russian accent. But the art was glorious, out on the night-time streets of Chicago.

When the story went inside, it got so grim and cramped and just… busily depressing… that I couldn’t get attached to the characters.  A second read-through helped a lot as far as understanding the storyline went, but I still couldn’t gain purchase emotionally.

The writers also seem to take a little too much pleasure in using the fact that it’s 1962 to have the seven men on the team be nasty toward the one woman. She’s supposed to be so hard-boiled she doesn’t give a rat’s ass, but it’s still depressing. She hardly even shows up in the book and when she does she’s sexually harassed. But hey! It’s just like Mad Men, so who cares! Fun times. Meanwhile, she just smokes and glowers and is as hard to like as everyone else in the story.

I wanted to like this book more than I did! There’s so much potential in the art and writing, so maybe future issues will be a pleasant surprise.

 

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Doctor Spektor: Master of the Occcult #1 (Dynamite, written by Mark Waid, art by Neil Edwards)

I’m just not that into Doctor Spektor. He’s really rich, mugs for reality TV while glibly killing things, has a too-small nose, and looks like a New Kid on the Block. He gets terribly depressed after a success, which seems like it is supposed to be humanizing but only deepens my annoyance. Good God, man. Pull yourself together and don’t be such a twat. The fact that a compassionate and organized female seems all set to trot along after him and “take care of him” just makes me feel like I can skip this book entirely and re-read my diary from the dumb years.

OK, there is a very definite chance that I just read that book with too much caffeine in my system. I will read #2 next month and try to be fair.

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Dejah of Mars #1 (Dynamite, written by Mark Rahner, art by Jethro Morales)

This is a first issue, but is picking up where the last series in the franchise left off. I haven’t read the earlier story arcs.

So, Dejah Thoris lives in a reality where it somehow makes sense for her to wear jewelry instead of clothing. For some readers this is a large part of her appeal and for other readers it will set off cognitive dissonance. Sometimes reading comic books about barely clothed women reminds me of being a little kid and reading about space exploration. I would get so obsessed with how astronauts go to the bathroom that I would never be able to focus on the actual information. And it is the same with Dejah of Mars. I had to sling one arm awkwardly over my breasts just this morning when I ran to the bus stop and wasn’t wearing a sports bra—and I’m pretty sure Dejah Thoris is both better endowed and up to more vigorous activity than I am.

But if you’re going to go beyond the first couple pages of this book, it’s best just to accept that she’s naked and get over it—I suggest pretending you’re in the women’s locker room if you’re a woman. Or, more inclusively, perhaps you could pretend to be at a nude beach where it’s rude to ogle or judge.

Dejah Thoris has been rescued bunches of times by her husband, John Carter, and now it is her turn to rescue him. From what I can gather, they are basically the Jay-Z and Beyonce of comic book couples (John Carter even rhymes with Shawn Carter. Coincidence???). And that’s the most striking thing about Dejah Thoris in this issue. How many central comic book characters sustain loving, long-term relationships? They don’t even bother to try. And how many times are you reading along in a story and then you realize that hardly anyone is acting out of love and loyalty? It’s all revenge, emptiness, power, jaded honor, or some reactionary craving. But Dejah Thoris wants to get her husband out of whatever trouble he’s in, and she has to be smart about it. She also has to deal with all these family dynamics with her grown son and her grandfather, who are both being hot heads. I am curious enough now to want to go back and read earlier story arcs about John Carter and Dejah Thoris.

Points for other-worldly scenery, shiny body and hair ornaments, and a wonderfully haunchy, flat-faced pet-type animal who would win ALL the so-ugly-he’s-cute contests.

 

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Clive Barker’s Nightbreed #1 (Boom! Studios, written by Marc Andreyko, art by Piotr Kowalski)

I’m choosing to hop onboard with the comic without having seen the movie or read the novel.

This first issue hints briefly at a whole pantheon of non-human people who live a parallel existence to ours. Then it cuts back and forth between two relatively simple stories, one in 1857 and one in 1945. I think this is smart, to dangle complexity before us but then limit the detail and information in the first issue. They just let us ease in and get the feel of this story. I really appreciate that!

But while the storytelling is simple, the themes are not. We’re in the swamp as a runaway slave woman gets turned into a monster AND lynched, and then we are in the city several decades later, as a U.S. Senator pays a visit to a prostitute. I think this story is supposed to be about alternate moralities and survival. The frightening, deadly monster guy from the swamp is given dignity, thought, feelings—so I think we are supposed to sympathize with him. He’s not actually behaving all that well, so we assume his morality and perspective are different from ours, and we are willing to wait it out.

What I really see here though are power dynamics that are being played with like kids playing with grenades. Maybe they know what they’re doing, and maybe they’re just going to blow themselves up. I can’t tell yet. Everything in this issue is about a shifting sense of who has power over whom.

A slave woman fleeing for her life is accosted by a monster who turns her into a monster, giving her more power than she had before, but then she gets lynched by human men anyway. Then the male monster “saves” her from where she’s hanging miserably from a tree, not dead. But now she’s “beholden” to him. So… not exactly empowering all in all.

Then someone powerful, a U.S. Senator, is going to visit a prostitute, who he would presumably have power over. But she’s a not-quite-human prostitute laid out in the nude like Manet’s Olympia and looking like she knows something we don’t know. So we can’t say for sure who has the power there.

I do know that so far only males get to go places and do things, and that this story might be playing fast and loose with a lot of racial and sexual dynamics. You don’t think it matters? Well, it does — because so far this is a story about power and survival, and characters’ race and sex are being EMPLOYED to further those themes.

Deceptively simple or woefully ham-fisted? WE SHALL SEE.

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