LOW and BEHOLD

I like Low now (I objected to a few things about it here and then here). This is why you keep reading past the second issue, especially when there are sea creatures and mech suits involved.

Mammoth

The following review appeared over at Newsarama in the Best Shots column today:

Low #3
Written by Rick Remender
Art by Greg Tocchini
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini hit their stride with Low #3. Remender’s writing is expressive but not over-blown in this story of a woman and her adult son who have to work together to survive. Tocchini’s rich artwork takes us seamlessly from an indulgent, futuristic city to the terrifying depths of the ocean. Low #3 gives us a lush adventure story and is a good place for new readers to jump on.

For thousands of years, humans have lived deep underwater to escape dangerous levels of solar radiation. Time is up for the domed city, where the air and the culture have become equally toxic. Stel and her son Marik are on a last-ditch mission to find a probe that has returned to earth with information. The mission doubles as Stel’s intervention for Marik, who is a self-pitying, guilt-ridden junkie.

Tocchini’s art makes each of the issue’s four segments distinct but also lets the story flow from one to the other. He toggles between blue-green highlights in orange-dominated panels to orange accents on shadowy blues and greens. In the beginning scene, Stel interrupts a crowded orgy to ask a senator for a small submarine. Tocchini uses apricots, pinks and tans to create a blur of bodies melting into each other and into the draped cloth around them, and we register that the end is nigh for this city. By the end of the issue when the story opens back out to the ocean, Stel and Marik are small figures in orange suits moving through a dark blue expanse.

Remender’s writing is strong in this issue because he is manages the characters’ emotions well. In Low #3, he tugs on the readers’ heartstrings less violently but more effectively than he did in the first two issues. In the first issue, I thought he went overboard in showing us how happy the family was before tragedy struck. In the second issue, Marik’s dissolution felt jarring after the wholesomeness of the first issue. In the third issue, Marik’s problems make more sense against a backdrop of citywide hedonism — and we can see that he is just an ordinary self-centered addict. Stel’s mix of sadness and sweetness is tempered by her will to survive and her tough love for Marik. Their frustration with each other is on a level we can understand from real life, even though they are in an extraordinary situation. Now that they are confronting each other, they also balance each other. When they yell at each other we can understand why each one is frustrated, and there’s some catharsis that they are both getting yelled at.

The energy level of the issue keeps building until the visual release of Marik and Stel coming out of their small pod into the gorgeously painted ocean. Tocchini’s art really soars in this underwater world. As Stel watches Marik swim, she has a nuanced emotional moment that doesn’t feel sentimental or heavy-handed. Stel has been an emotional character from the start, but this issue let me feel things alongside her for the first time. With Low #3, Remender has proven that he can write about family dynamics. It feels like there is a long, satisfying adventure story ahead of us now, and new readers can jump on here and understand the gist of the story.

ART OF CARING: Soulumination

This article I wrote recently means a lot to me. It’s about volunteer photographers who do family portraiture when a child is very sick. Finding ways to show life and love, and not shying away from death– these people have my heart. The piece appeared in a trade publication for health care professionals who work in hospice and palliative care.

I don’t have a very high quality link, but here is an image of the article that I posted on one of my tumblrs:

Article in Fall 2014 Art of Caring feature

The Empty Man #4

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It’s the time of year when I remind people that I hate Halloween, fail to come up with a costume, make myself sick on candy corn (but just once), don’t get invited to any parties, hide in the dark from trick or treaters, and then eat the overflow candy that my co-workers bring into the office. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like creepiness. Cullen Bunn and Vanesa Del Rey’s The Empty Man has been quietly creeping me out for months now. If you’re getting in the Halloween mood, you might want to check out this series. If you can’t find the earlier issues, keep an eye out for a trade paperback later this year.

This panel sums up Del Rey’s art for this series:

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It’s very shadowy, all the time. It’s relentlessly ominous. The heavy line work and shading are just caked on. There are always dark corners and doorways where something could be lurking. Monica Jensen is half of an investigative team that is the more even-keeled, procedural part of a supernatural story Jensen and Langford are the good guys, the science-minded sane people. But Jensen can’t trust her mind or her sight, and she’s not sure she can trust her partner either. As Langford says, “We’re all a little sick.”

What is the empty man? A disease, contagious insanity, a god, an alien invasion? Nobody knows what it is or how it started. The empty man starts out as the empty space at the center of the story, defined by the mayhem it leaves behind as well as by what’s sprung up around it—the multi-agency government task force, a mega-church, and dozens of cults. The empty man starts as a psychological horror that makes you see and do terrible things.

The things Bunn comes up with are the sort of nightmare items that are hideous while you’re dreaming, but sound ridiculous once you’re awake. For instance, a woman who suffocates herself in a kitty litter box because she hears a voice talking to her from it. A hand reaching out of a woman’s purse as she walks to her car in a dark parking garage. Del Rey’s style works well for these surreal horrors, maybe because of the brushiness of her art. She partly obscures her own illustrations with shadows, and lets your imagination fill in the blanks. Bunn writes in a dry, reportorial style– when he wants you to know that a man died of malnutrition after becoming physically fused to his sofa, he tells it in the style of a police report. Just the facts, ma’am.

Over the course of the series, the empty man has somehow morphed from a sort of psychosis into a physical monster that could wind up on the hood of your car.

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IT IS SO SCARY!!!!

I don’t know why it is, but when things are dark and no one trusts each other, sometimes horror will keep you warm.

This is the fourth of six issues, so we are running out of time to find out what the empty man is, locate the sequestered patient zero, recover some missing children at the center of the case, and vanquish an evil preacher. Jensen and Langford already seem to be on their last legs, so things could get even uglier.

Leantro #2

Read the latest installment of Leantro at Orgo’s Books of Knowledge

Instead of being afraid, she was like a moon waxed to fullness and she ran her hand along the truck’s side to the door handle. She sat in the old driver’s seat like it was the cockpit of a craft that could take her to the stars. She let the steering wheel flow through her loose grip. Everything felt different to her fingertips. Everything had a crispness to it that was almost like feeling beautiful.

Leantro begins!

Leantro cover illustration by Melody Often:

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I’m writing a serialized adventure novel called Leantro, and it is nestled within a new web-comic anthology called Orgo’s Books of Knowledge. Ulises Farinas is the mastermind of this project, and he’s working with a bunch of different artists to make stories that all take place in the same world. It feels like we are all like little kids having so much fun with this project, so I hope you check it out as we get it off the ground.

Leantro Chapter 1

Meanwhile, back at the Just-O.K. Corral

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Image’s new series Copperhead was conceived as a sort of Deadwood in space, but Deadwood is pretty hard to live up to. I wanted to give Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski the benefit of the doubt, but now I feel like I pulled my punches too much. Re-match next month. The following Copperhead #1 review appeared in yesterday’s Best Shots column at Newsarama:

Copperhead #1
Written by Jay Faerber
Art by Scott Godlewski and Ron Riley
Lettering by Thomas Mauer
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The Western-in-space is almost as worn-in and familiar as the Western, and it has a similar durability. The genre makes sense not just because we imagine space to be a frontier, but because the American West really was like another planet to non-native settlers. Copperhead hasn’t separated itself from the pack yet, but it could develop into something interesting. In this first issue, the story doesn’t put on airs and lives to fight another day.

As the story opens, Sheriff Clara Bronson and her young son are on a train in dusty badlands. In the first scenes of this faded retro future, the people wear 19th-century dress and it’s still a hazard to be an unaccompanied woman on a train. When Clara arrives in the mining town of Copperhead, the anachronisms shift a century forward in time. The police hover-car has the late 1970s feeling of the first Star Wars movies, and the police station interior has a console like something from the control room of a long-decommissioned nuclear power plant. Around town, artist Scott Godlewski creates dusty, textured scenes that feel barren and utilitarian. Here and there, the townspeople are drawn in a brighter, more playful style. Ron Riley’s colors make the electric green or candy pink of some of the non-human inhabitants pop cartoonishly against the browns and tans of the background. This contrast reminded me of taking my toys outside to play in the dirt when I was a little kid, and is probably the most unique thing about Copperhead #1.

You can tell how much fun writer Jay Faerber and his team are having with the classic Western archetypes. Godlewski draws Clara as tough, pinched, put-upon, and not unduly pretty. Copperhead is a man’s world, but most of the new sheriff’s problems are the same ones she’d have if she were a man — getting respect from the locals, gaining her disgruntled deputy’s trust, and learning the power structure of her new surroundings. The deputy is the book’s most likable character, a large, cheeky capybara-looking creature named Budroxifinicus, who Clara calls Boo. Making the sheriff’s deputy a large rodent doesn’t make these tropes any less dusty, so execution will be everything for this team going forward.

Soon after meeting Boo, Clara learns that he was passed up for the sheriff job. He says, “You people talk about how we’re supposed to be fully assimilated, but I can’t help noticing my people are never in charge.” The insertion into the dialogue felt a bit unnatural, and signaled that there will be themes explored that go beyond Clara’s individual struggles in a strange land. It takes agility to maintain a light tone while also navigating broader themes of race (species?) and social injustice. If Faerber can manage it gracefully, he’ll make Copperhead into a richer story. So far, all the human characters in Copperhead are white and everyone else is a weird-looking alien, a large animal in clothes, or an artificial human with limited rights. The gray-skinned artificial humans seem indentured to the rich mine owner. On one page, Riley goofs up their skin tone and makes it a very human brown instead of gray. It’s back to gray on the next page, but the gaffe felt like a reminder of how dicey it can be to write about race and power dynamics, and that making characters green, pink or gray doesn’t keep a story safe from potential pitfalls.

Lovers of Westerns will want to check out Copperhead and give it a few issues to develop. I think the story is operating competently within this beloved genre, and time will tell if it really lifts off and differentiates itself. Clara and Budroxifinicus both have the potential to develop into strong characters, and the fun visual details, hints of mystery, and plot-thickening twists will make readers curious to find out what happens next.

She-Hulk #8: I Can’t Get Enough of this Silliness

My review from yesterday’s Best Shots column at Newsarama:

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My review in yesterday’s Best Shots column on Newsarama:

She-Hulk #8
Written by Charles Soule
Art by Javier Pulido and Muntsa Vicente
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Charles Soule’s writing on She-Hulk has always been smart and snappy on a panel-to-panel level, but it’s been hard to tell what kind of story he’s been trying to construct. It has often felt like Soule and the art team made some gorgeous fabric together, but Soule didn’t know how to turn it into a dress. Each storyline until now has seemed either too ambitious or too frivolous, and all of them seemed a bit fumbled in execution. In She-Hulk #8, which begins a new arc, nothing distracts from what this creative team can do together.

Captain America guest stars in this issue, as Jennifer’s team heads out to Los Angeles to take on a wrongful death suit against him. As always, Javier Pulido’s figures, Muntsa Vicente’s colors and Soule’s dialogue all say “we are here to have fun.” But in this new arc, Captain America’s gravitas and Jennifer’s earnest desire to help him both act as a counterbalance to the glitz of L.A. and the story’s trademark larkiness.

Behind Soule’s word balloons of banter and law office talk, Pulido’s lines and Vicente’s colors give the pages of She-Hulk a clean, stained-glass window effect. Pulido inks bold lines and strong shapes with few interior details and shading. Color is always important, but Vicente’s bright, solid color combinations for walls, clothing and the sky are especially, mysteriously important. The colors all seem to revolve around Jennifer’s vibrant green skin-tone, and the panels bloom off the page.

Pulido’s art is so deceptively simple that when I talk about him, I might sound like Paul Cezanne saying “Monet is only an eye, but my God what an eye!” But in She-Hulk #8, we also see how directly Pulido underwrites Soule’s clever dialogue and helps to make the characters real and funny. When Jennifer, Patsy and Angie are sitting in a bar having celebration drinks, there’s a panel that shows Jennifer getting bad news over the phone that makes the celebration seem premature. Jennifer looks chagrined as she hears the news. As you scan across the panel to the others at the table, Angie is completely expressionless and Patsy and Hei Hei the monkey have simultaneously and identically turned and gestured for the waitress to bring another round of drinks. It’s a small moment that is easy to sweep past but will make you laugh on a second or third reading.

Soule and Pulido get away with a lot of sincerity by down-playing the serious stuff and keeping the tone playful. Jennifer’s worries about failing Captain America come across without Soule having to harp on them. It makes us like Jennifer all the more for being a little over-confident, cracking jokes, and getting excited about little things like using the intercom in her office. On the morning of the trial, Jennifer says to Captain America “I’m not nervous at all. I slept like a baby last night,” when actually we saw her work all night in a mostly wordless (and still mostly light-hearted) montage.

This Captain America arc has room to run, with a surprise twist at the end of this issue, allusions to a secret mission for Patsy, and the details of the wrongful death suit still undisclosed. She-Hulk has been worth watching from the beginning, but this eighth issue gives me hope that the series is starting to live up to its potential.

 

Happy Family Postscript

Yesterday I called the portrayal of the Caines in Low #1 “Happy Family Porn.” I think Remender and Tocchini did convey the ominous feeling that a very long honeymoon was about to be over. But from Remender’s own writing about the story, it seemed like he was trying to get us to care a lot about the family. And his efforts to make me care repelled me instead. Even after they weren’t happy anymore, my first impression lingered on that they were really annoying people with an unbelievable family dynamic.

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Maybe there’s a general rustiness in depicting believable happy families of origin in comics. Comics, like children’s books, seem to exact a huge amount of orphaning. When families are still intact, they tend to be evil dynasties where no one can trust each other. The best family feeling comes from teams of adult misfits who have chosen to hang together. I think there are good storytelling reasons why it tends to be that way.

Being happy with a mom and a dad is just weird even in real life. A lot of us have families that DID bust up irreparably in real life, and you know what? It wasn’t all that hunky dory before the festival of estrangement and fragmentation.

So, I wanted to highlight a couple of families I really like in recent comics titles.

Laura’s family in The Wicked and the Divine:

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They’re all kind of ignoring each other, but they’re also choosing to be physically near each other. The parents look kind of zoned out watching TV, plus they’re self-medicating with wine. But they’re sitting close together. They look comfy. So, this seems like a happy family.

Later they fight:

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But it’s ok.

Ditto for the Khans in Ms. Marvel.

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Mrs. Khan has had it with this convo. Mr. Khan’s big meaty forearm is in the air like “OK, let’s just table this guys.” But you know, everyone is fine. Mr. and Mrs. Khan are going to stay married. They’re just being strict with Kamala because they care and they’re good parents.

In both these cases, real disagreements (not cutesy snarky disagreements) are ok because these families aren’t going to fall apart. There’s no fragility…because these are, essentially, happy families. It’s not sugary sweet, but it’s real.

I’m Allergic to the People in LOW

Writer Rick Remender and artist Greg Tocchini have similar strengths and weaknesses so that some aspects of their comic Low are run-away awesome, but the misses are also compounded. The book tries hard to be aggressively, intimately human. Yet so far, everything machine, piscine, infrastructural, or geological is far more enjoyable than the portrayal of humans in this story.

This story is about the Caine family, which lives in a large domed city on the ocean floor—because the sun is expanding, and the earth’s surface has long been uninhabitable. Before long, the ocean floor will be as well. There is still faint hope that probes will return with word of other planets where humans could live.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of some enticing world-building in the first two issues. Remender alludes to history, class issues, mythology, technology, and geography. Hints dropped include “hunting ancient rattle traps,” “no response from a probe,” “looking for the third city.”

Just as Remender gives us a sense of his story’s broad scope, Tocchini conveys the physical depth and scale of a city of two million people way down in the ocean. He shows the brightness of the city’s architecture and its grooved, rounded interiors—and then contrasts that with the starkness of the seafloor and trenches outside the dome. Tocchini makes us feel like we are deep underwater with dark reds and blues, but he stays away from the distortion of overt wateriness. The submarines and the deepwater fish resemble each other in their primordial spookiness. The Caines’ giant, flippered mech suit for hunting large prey is a total delight to look at. The suit is drawn in a boldly impressionistic style, like a biology student’s sketch of a crustacean. We don’t get a close visual lock on its pieces, but we get thefeeling of how it works, and how powerfully it could move through the water.

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When not in their wonderful mech suits, the people are weak and incomplete like hermit crabs. What’s meant to be pages spent building characters feels like fluttery noise to me, with nothing coalescing into a sense of real people. The heavy-handed use of themes, the flurry of dialogue, the stage-acting facial expressions loaded into sketchily drawn features—it doesn’t add up to people I can know and like. They are all the same apricot flesh-tone of the old Crayola crayon box. They lack eyebrows. Their faces are like dolls, or like the illustrations in a high school Spanish workbook, smudgily drawn in a way that makes them look cheerful but untrustworthy and unreal. Their faces look trapped in old newsprint advertisements for housewives.

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The story begins with cheesy Happy Family Porn. By the end of the second issue I had not yet forgiven anyone for it. At the beginning of the first issue, the Caines—husband and wife—are strolling and lolling about naked after sex, engaged in leisurely, loving disagreement, displaying enormous smugness. I was immediately grossed out. This scene is so thick with words, so syrupy with facial expressions, so overt and drippy and intensely irritating. When the children are added, in later (clothed) scenes, it just gets that much worse. Their dad gives the daughters special stones that will glow when they are being true to themselves. Their mom says “If we believe we will, then we will. Our outlook shapes reality.” Their dad says “Those who act bravest are often most frightened.” And it’s all interlaced with everyone being teasy and sarcastic with each other. JUST LIKE A REAL FAMILY!! Oh yay, good job Caines. You’re adorable. Gag me with a wooden spoon.

Then it turns out these moments of Happy Family Porn are the last this family will ever have. And this head-over-heels tumbling from the heights of earnestness to the lowest lows is bathetic. Into the depths this thing goes. Happy Family Porn is replaced by escapist, drug-fueled sex with prostitutes in alleyways. It’s ten years later. It’s grim. Two of the kids are still missing and the one that’s left is a corrupt cop. He was the gentle one as a child, and now he says “Hey Mom” into his phone as he shoves the prostitute away with his palm smashed into her face.

We’re only two issues in, so maybe the good stuff in Low has a shot at drowning out my aversion to the faces. It seems like Remender and Tocchini can get everything right about how a PLACE feels. But when it comes to the characters, Remender doesn’t seem to know when to hold back and let less be more. Tocchini’s style of drawing faces obviously just annoys me, and maybe no one else feels that way. When it comes to the themes, well—I’m not sure I can keep reading this thing if it keeps beating me about the head with them.