Hickman’s Infinity

Fair Warning: Spoilers are to follow.

Infinity.

It’s hard not to think the name was chosen to recall prior stories—inevitably those of Jim Starlin, ie, The Infinity Gauntlet, The Infinity War, The Infinity Crusade, [Adam Warlock and] the Infinity Watch, The Infinity Abyss, now The Infinity Revelation, and soon The Infinity Relativity. If nothing else, the man has had a virtual lock on Marvel comics with that word in their title, now most clearly and brazenly excepted here.

Of course, I originally intended to ignore the story—I knew the Thanos beats, and they rung so falsely that I decided it fell into the territory of the vast majority of non-Starlin Thanos stories: stuff I ain’t readin’.

But I found myself lured to Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers (and New Avengers and Avengers World)—and that meant that, unless I excised issues written by Hickman on the basis of what was written, I was going to go tromping off grudgingly into Infinity, like it or not. As both books tromped onward in their lead-up to the events in that miniseries—and, ostensibly, future ones still to come, whether simply unread in my case, or as yet unpublished—I found that, perhaps, it was an unintended coincidence. The concept of infinity (specifically through the infinities of a multiverse) was central to what was occurring.

I’m left to wonder, somewhat, if the inclusion of Thanos (and the title, or maybe as a result of the title, or maybe many things) was editorial mandate or in some way just as grudging for writer as me for reader.

Whether it was or not, the read was intensely frustrating. I’ve been asked by a few friends of late to recommend the works most apt to explain my love of the character, which has highlighted (though it’s largely instinctive) the problematic nature of every other writer’s approach to the character. This, though, was the most frustrating of all, because it was a glaring stain on what was otherwise an interesting and enjoyable story. I liked the Builders and where that went—I thought the concepts there were very well-realized, thoroughly engaging and interesting. To add insult to injury, the badly-written Thanos was in what felt like a shoe-horned plot—totally unnecessary distraction from what really mattered. The moment where they find the wearied, beaten worlds raising up the “A” in honour of the only ones who felt able to stand against the builders—and Hawkeye holding his bow with the Centaurians—was inspiring in the best of comic book hero ways.

I just took a few moments to re-read Starlin’s most recent work on the character, to confirm for myself whether he’s stumbling in that absence or not (the answer was “not”). This Thanos is so radically different from the one employed by Hickman (and everyone else, for that matter), that I’m left with the same impression I had on leaving the theater after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy: whatever good here is marred by the chasmic loss of what was to what is.

Retcons are a fact of comic book life—as are continuity errors, mistakes, and writers who just don’t give a toss. But fundamentally altering a character within the stream of continuity without expectation is nonsensical. It fits a pattern that many have stated, and I, too, have put forth: if you aren’t going to use the original material, why do you steal it’s visage?

In other words: this isn’t Thanos. So why do you call him that and make him look this way?

There’s a very clear manner to his speech, visible in every famous Thanos story up through the early to mid 90s (indeed, almost every story, with only two notable and unpleasant exceptions¹). Starlin’s stated explicitly that one quirk is the absolute absence of contractions: you will find that Thanos always “does not” and never “doesn’t”. There’s more to it—he reads like someone with a dictionary in his head. This isn’t to be confused with the kind of person who carries a thesaurus and intentionally trades out a word based on syllable count (with little understanding of the nuanced differences between the two words in question), as it’s rarely, if ever, uncomfortable.

Hickman somewhat manages the latter, but fails distinctly at the former. And this is indicative of exactly what the problem is with almost everyone who writes the character and isn’t Jim Starlin: Thanos is on a different plane. While he’s most definitely not devoid of petty emotions (his jealousy, rage, and otherwise un-characteristically vulnerability-hiding arrogance in The Infinity Gauntlet, for instance), his over-arching motivations are not so simplistic. Vengeance as long-term plan for shows of brute force is not his nature. Everything he does is planned and schemed—he’s not an invading tyrant, he’s a strategist in the extreme.

And so we now watch numerous plot elements fail:

  • He has children scattered throughout the galaxy. Oddly, this end goal (the fact of his having offspring) is completely out of keeping with the character’s obsessions with death and “chaos” (when chaos was added to this mix, I’ve no idea, as chaos is the antithesis of what he seeks). Most confusingly of all, this description is the one that everyone else relies on to describe the character (up to and including his cameo appearance at the end of the Avengers movie). Why a character obsessed with death would do anything that risks the creation of life is unfathomable.
  • The implication, which, on reading the book, is extraordinarily unpleasant, is that his conquering involved rape. It carries the implication of warlord-like brutality, shows of power for their own sake, and a different kind of moral unpleasantness than even a willingness to kill half of all life with the snap of his fingers. It’s also somewhat more chaotic; the response of a person to being killed is never in question (they die). The risks of childbirth, vengeance—anything, are not in keeping with his “actual” character. It simply doesn’t make sense (in addition to being disgusting²).
  • His motivation is to kill his children, and he does so by demanding “tribute” of all possible lives in a given society that fit the age group. This is, again, a sloppy, violent action, a show of brute force with little to do in the way of scheme, plan, or intelligence.
  • He employs a core set of generals, who are all sociopaths and psychopaths of immense power. This is not a set of instruments or tools he can control—except via, again, shows of force. Contrast this (down to the origin story of Proxima Midnight) to that of Gamora: from child rescued as last survivor of the Zen-Whoberi, raised as his own adoptive daughter with whatever facsimiles of love and affection he can manage (enough that even a pre-pubescent Gamora moves to defend her foster “father” from an attack) to “child who watched him murder the child next to her.” Gamora was loyal to him because, in all honesty, he earned her loyalty. She abandoned him as a result of his final goals and their ties to death. But he knew he could rely on her up to that end. After that, his associates were used without their knowledge (see: most of Earth’s heroes) or with careful examination and understanding to assure that their goals were mutual enough that he could rely upon them and trust their actions and motivations. Any risks after a goal was achieved were planned for.

There are points here and there that Hickman manages better than others—the way Thanos is finally defeated is reasonable, in a sense: there’s no way to have acquired advance knowledge of how to deal with his son’s powers, when he had not yet undergone terrigenesis. But that’s contrasted with the absurd sloppiness of marauading around with an invasion force and just going “screw it, give me all of ‘em.”

That character is most definitely a threat, but that character is not interesting. The coldly manipulative nature of Starlin’s Thanos, coupled with his varied motivations and glimmers of remorse: he’s an actual sentient being in that.

To everyone else, he’s just an incredibly powerful and threatening warlord. That’s not creative or interesting. It’s not even the same kind of threat—really, it suffers from “Venom” syndrome: “What if we took them up against someone who’s just more powerful in all ways and has a counter for their most valuable skills?”

It’s boring. It’s an idea, with no realization behind it. Some yammer on about how the gauntlet is a “lazy plot device” or how “stupid” it is that Thanos is his own worst enemy, but that’s because they’re grafting the “Venom” approach onto the Starlin character. The point isn’t who can beat who, or who’s stronger—those are brought up, because it would be absurd to think Thanos would do anything he does and everyone would shrug and go “Really? Oh well.” And if they can’t do that, and they could beat him, then the explorations of power and his character would never be achieved. The idea of a character who seeks and can, even has, gained omnipotence and found it and himself wanting is fascinating. Someone who gets omnipotence and is beaten by the skin of the heroes’ teeth could be exciting, but not really fascinating. More to the point, that character exists in a thousand colours, shapes, names, and forms.

Galactus is most interesting because he is a cosmic force, a necessity, an inevitability, and simply above and beyond the insectoid life-forms that the rest of us are to him. If he cackled madly and joyously relished destroying worlds for fun, or even did so with menacing stoicism, he would be boring.

But, unfortunately, that’s the character that everyone wants Thanos to be—they cheer for his appearance in the Avengers in the way that everyone clamoured for Venom in Spider-Man movies. It’s not insincere, but it’s about an idea, and not a character, because there isn’t one there: “Oh boy! Thanos is the biggest, coolest threat!” Venom didn’t work (and likely wouldn’t work) because the story there is so thin. The most you can hope is that he looks “cool” and comes off “badass”—because that’s all people actually want out of him. Mostly because there isn’t anything else. And so they want the same from Thanos—but this becomes frustrating because that end result necessitates abdication from any attempt to realize the character that he is. Thanos the roving, power-mad, philosophizing curiosity is lost to “Thanos the really powerful, and totally rad badass”.

And that’s a real shame. Use another character. Make a new one. Use Thanos for Thanos—not because “badass”.

¹Those would be his infamously hilarious story in Spidey Super Stories (where he robs a bank and also has a bright yellow “Thanos Copter”) and the occasionally praised—for reasons I’m not sure of—backup feature in an issue of Logan’s Run, which was pretty terrible.

²There is, of course, inevitable debate about how one can create a hierarchy of moral awfulness once one reaches murder, rape, or mass forms of either. However, this is fiction: in much of fiction, death does not have the gravity of death by necessity. Death is inescapable, even in isolation. Even violent death is not sufficiently preventable, as it can occur without machination or voluntary action. Beyond this, much of fiction is built on conflict, and essentially the entirety of super hero comic-dom is built on power and force—some form of violence—as means to stop things. Soldiers, war, martial arts—fiction in such realms would become ludicrous with an excision of death, when physical conflict is central. And we would not particularly want to play games or read stories or watch them in cases where we are always led to hate or feel disgusted with all acts of violence perpetrated by all characters (there are exceptions, notable because they are exceptions—if the norm, well, it simply wouldn’t ever be the norm).

The October Project, Day 13: The City of the Dead (1960)

I honestly don’t remember why exactly I picked this one up. Solid reviews, probably–that tends to drive the point between skipping and picking up. I don’t think I realized it was a Christopher Lee vehicle before I saw his name in the credits, though. It has the unique ability to have woven itself into a number of musical places (not always intentionally, I think) I’m familiar with: at a stretch, the Clash’s b-side to “Complete Control” shares its name with it, Rob Zombie sampled a line of Lee’s dialogue for the intro to “Dragula”, and, of course, the Misfits produced the track “Horror Hotel”–the American name for the movie (when they removed any and all lines pertaining to “Lucifer”, because people are stupid).

Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is sent to the town of Whitewood, MA on the advice of professor Alan Driscoll (Lee), an expert in the study of witchcraft, which Whitewood has a history of–predictably tied, in its 17th century history and containing state, to the burning of witches. She checks into the Raven Inn at his direction, which is run by one Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel, who bears a striking resemblance to the actress who portrays a witch burnt in flashback at the opening, mostly as she is the same actress). A peculiar stranger (Valentine Dyall), some research from a local descendant (Betta St. John), and the skeptical concerns of her brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend Tom (Tom Naylor) all come together in a story that is, well, about a town’s history of witchcraft.

There’s something frustrating or amusing about decades-old movies about witchcraft, depending on your viewpoint; in the modern age, most people with their wits about them roll their eyes at the idea of witchcraft and feel more guilt than fear when it comes to burnings. This is a bit of an obstacle, of course–insurmountable to the locked-down disbelief of some, and manageable, but tricky for those of us willing to set aside what seems to be leaning at least somewhat on the notion that this could happen.

Under John Moxey’s direction, George Baxt’s script does admirably with this territory. Movies of this age don’t come from a time when twists and “clever” plots, turns, and subtleties were expected norms, but this one does avoid being too obvious about these things. It feeds more than your average modern one does–it doesn’t have that history of clear horror expectation to massage to the effect of leading you on–but stops far short of explicitly stating or, especially, re-stating anything that is plot-relevant.

The score’s a bit weird–perhaps that’s a theme I’m unintentionally following?–as it includes the odd credit, “jazz by Ken Jones, which at the least includes the really weird choice to put some rather nice but largely upbeat jazz under a few driving scenes. Still, it leads to one of the most effective horror moments in the movie, so I can’t be too hard on it.

If your tolerance for older narrative conventions is low, I think it’s worth steeling yourself for this one, so long as you can also allow yourself to roll with a story about witchcraft–considering it primarily leans on the aspects that are entirely possible (rituals and sacrifice can happen, even if they don’t achieve anything, after all!).

The October Project, Day “12”: House of the Damned (1963)

I realized entirely too late that the movie runtimes of previous decades meant that my “Project” was not so completely off-set by my new job’s scheduling as I thought. House of the Damned happens to prove that most firmly: its runtime is a whopping 63 minutes. I squeaked it in before work yesterday, and have a few more I can hopefully wrangle in around a rather special alternate project (a “one-shot”, if you will, though this remains to be seen) this weekend is going to be largely consumed with.

Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) is called late at night by Joseph Schiller (Richard Crane) with news that the rather remote Rochester estate is to be opened up for lease or sale, as its prior tenant’s lease had expired. Schiller encourages Scott and his wife Nancy (Merry Anders) to spend the next day and night there due to the limited availability of hostelries in the area, saying that he and his new wife Loy (Erika Peters) will meet them there the day following. Scott’s architectural background means he’s there to survey before the home is listed, while the rumours about the estate’s origins (and original owner) lead to some questions–and a few rather unexpected events during their stay.

So, first off–I don’t know that I understand the title. Mrs. Rochester (who appears briefly, played by Georgia Schmidt)’s deep, dark history is that she once shot a man believed to be an intruder. The previous tenant was a bit off and disappeared. There’s nothing there to encourage us to think anyone is damned, or haunted. The events that occur are disarmingly peculiar (largely via the silent appearances of John Gilmore, Frieda Pushnik, and a relatively young Richard Kiel) but similarly avoid any such associations. I realize it’s all marketing, but it’s pretty weird all the same.

Now–the film itself, it’s a bit of a curiosity. I think it’s interesting that it does those things that make the title seem off: at no point is the story over-selling itself, and it remains reasonable. The eerie moments are eerie because they are unexplained when they happen, but not impossible despite that. The score…well, it’s not the (awful) score for The Legacy, but it does still over-step itself pretty strongly. It’s oppressive and a bit suffocating in its attempts to define tone and atmosphere, and sometimes seems to be doing so despite itself, and despite the movie–as if it realizes there’s not any greater nuance to tone to be had at the moment, but it simply must do something new! It’s like a non-atonal free jazz, in the worst possible sense, if you will–wandering off and seemingly improvisational, but staying within the expected bounds of the decade’s major film scores, and at least not weirdly juxtaposed.

In the end, it’s not a waste of an hour, but it’s not something I’d leap for, either. Its small cast and indications of budget restrictions are put to good use, and the script has a fine edge to it, as do the actors’ performances–even if sometimes they seem to be juggling the weight between the two, creating a peculiar effect of good performances that seem off, or good dialogue that seems off. It’s its own experience in that, if nothing else.

The October Project, Day 11: White Noise (2005)

Horror’s a difficult genre to deal with properly, in terms of sifting through the stuff to separate wheat from chaff and dross from gold. Of course, one of the more difficult things is dealing with the complete and total (absence of) shock that is the non-binary nature of this process. There are few (if any) critics or even trends (ie, Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, etc) that are meaningful to a horror fan, because too much of the score is affected by people who simply cannot accept some parts of the genre. As a result, short of a unanimously positive score, or very high-leaning one (even then, there are issues with trusting such a thing), it’s impossible to know what drove ratings downward. This means that sometimes I take gambles, despite reputations, and pick things up that are largely panned. White Noise (with an 8% at RT, 5.5 on IMDb, and 30 on Metacritic) is obviously an example of that.

Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) is a re-married father to his son Mike (Nicholas Elia), and lives rather comfortably on his income from an architecture firm with his new wife Anna (Chandra West), a best-selling writer. When Anna disappears, Jon understandably begins to fall to pieces. The socially clumsy appearance of Raymond Price (Ian McNeice) involves stated confirmation of his wife’s death, but he dismisses Price, who claims to have received posthumous contact. When Anna’s body is found, an unexpected moment leads Rivers back to Price as he begins to explore the investigations of electronic voice phenomena (EVP).

There are a fair number of striking things about this movie–mostly on the technical end. Geoffrey Sax and everyone involved in sound and visual deserves credit that the amalgamated scores most definitely don’t indicate. There’s a fascination with technology–whether relevant to the processes of exploring EVP or simply in general. Close-ups of traffic lights, or, particularly, the mechanisms in analogue, tape-based recording, are held in sharp focus at various moments. The palette is largely matched to the one implied through the thematic content–very monochrome, very sterile in some ways. Not Kubrick-sterile, but clean and white through much of it, fittingly, for a film that is often about grief and grieving, in its fashion.

Sound is mixed in unusual fashion–drawing attention without distracting. Dialogue is not always perfectly audible, when the scene is already conveyed cleanly by Keaton and the rest of the cast, as well as the events and setting around them. The score, by Claude Foisy, is the antithesis of the last one I heard, hitting all the right notes (ahem) to help to describe scenes when words are unspoken or unheard. The EVP itself is mixed well enough that it doesn’t become unnaturally clear, with some recitation from the in-movie listeners where it makes sense, just in case it’s not even naturally clear at points.

Niall Johnson’s story, too, makes interesting choices: the first good bit has nothing to do with the supernatural, and has everything to do with setting up the Rivers’ life, and Jonathan’s grief over Anna’s disappearance and eventually confirmed death. Price is jittery and clumsy about his attempts to assist via a means that Rivers finds absurd and ridiculous. When it begins to shift, it doesn’t turn into a simplistic ghost story, or a crusade against evil, or an attempt to “save” Anna’s soul or anything like that, and doesn’t lose sight of its creepier elements.

If there’s one thing that did really bother me, it was just leaning on EVP as anything real, though that comes down to something too personal to be meaningful as a film-making choice. For plenty of people, that will make things much scarier, more disturbing. When I was younger, I imagine it would have done the same to me.

In the end, this is definitely one where I am pretty well lost on what is so loathed about this one–certainly it’s not ground-breaking, or the seed of things to come or anything that was unfairly denied reward or award (beyond the financial, which it got). It was, so far as I can see, strangely maligned, as if it were expected to be something other than what it was. Which, in my experience, is one of the most common criticisms of horror movies, to my ever-lasting confusion. You don’t need to run out and see this one, but I don’t think doing so would be near so awful as you may have been led to believe.

The October Project, Day 10: The Legacy (1978)

I feel as though it says something when a movie’s trailer likes to linger–repeatedly, no less!–on the film’s poster. It’s kind of an odd thing to do, though in this case I can’t blame them too much–it’s a pretty great (if surreal and confusing) poster.

Maggie Walsh (Katharine Ross) and Pete Danner (Sam Elliott) are called to England to perform an interior decoration job with a $50,000 advance, but little to no explanation. Though Pete is suspicious, Maggie convinces him and off they go. An unexpected accident drops them at the lap and estate of Jason Mountolive (John Standing), who invites them to stay for tea and then the evening. Soon, they find more guests arriving: Clive (Roger Daltrey–yes, that Roger Daltrey), Karl (Charles Gray), Jacques (Lee Montague), Barbara (Hildegard Neil), and Maria (Marianne Broome), all of whom are there at the request of Mountolive, but who begin to die in fashions that cross the line from accident to, “there’s probably something supernatural happening here.”

Richard Marquand’s name as director was sticking in my brain somewhere and I couldn’t figure out why–oh, right. He directed Return of the Jedi! He also directed Eye of the Needle, which is one of those movies I owned, and “watched” and failed to pay attention to (Shame on me! It’s Donald Sutherland!). I’m not one of the haters of Jedi (insofar as I still have an opinion, it remains my favourite of the Star Wars movies). I know Ross best from Donnie Darko (I’m not kidding), but know her in something closer to contemporary context from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, of course. Elliott I know from…um, The Big Lebowski? He apparently did have a bit part in Butch, too, so that’s kind of fun. Daltrey at first seems shaky, but rapidly becomes quite admirable in his still rather small role.

And, with that: this is a rickety movie. It’s tonally out of its own mind, and shudderingly lurches between competent, beautiful, and mind-bogglingly stupid. Elliott and Ross come off oddly in the opener alone (especially Elliott), but later both have numerous scenes that really shine (Ross’s trailer-captured moment of madness, for instance). The guests other than the famous one are far more consistent, but they’re in the mostly-more-consistent portion of the movie, so I’m not sure what that says about any of the cast. The score is alternately pretty great and incredibly insipid, encouraging anyone to think very strongly before considering the hiring of Michael J. Lewis, who was responsible for it.

Some things are left weirdly unexplained–it’s hinted that this meeting is the actual reason they were called over to England, but no one seems to want to tell them that directly, letting both of them stew in confusion over why they are there and no one seems surprised. Your usual haunted/possession/creeping-up horror mystery stuff gets the more usual, “IN CASE YOU HAVE NOT CAUGHT ON, LET US OPENLY STATE THIS PART” explanations a few times, which seems weird, with what’s not mentioned. There’s some fun to the way they’re left to their own devices when attempting to escape–particularly in the sardonic smirks everyone gives them in the distance (at least one instance of which is exceptionally great, since it defies all expectations–even though that makes other scenes rather questionable).

But let’s go back to the score. Kiki Dee sings a flaccid singer/songwriter pile of dross (lyrics by Gary Osborne) that is so awful and wildly out of place that one wonders what possessed anyone to put it in there at all–but, apparently, John Coyne’s novelization of the film was pushed (via marketing) up the bestseller list, so the cynical explanation is, “Let’s put a song in here and push that up the charts!!” (instead, it was never released as far as I can see–so, I have no idea). This schmaltzy, saccharine nonsense is used as a thematic point in the score, too, drippy strings and even a bloody harp, and it’s almost funny how totally ridiculous it is–well, until the wah-based guitar escape track when they manage to do something interesting with their attempt to escape and accidentally fall into some kind of temporally confused escape scene from a cop movie.

I don’t know–it’s so weird, the movie seems to falter on direction and get carried by the good bits of the score and the script, then the script falters and the direction catches up, but then the music falls apart again..it’s an amazingly ramshackle beast, that somehow lumbers its way all to the end without completely collapsing, even if you are left kind of scratching your head when it pulls into the station–“This is the thing that we heard coming down the track…?”

Oh, and, final note: I spent a while getting this really confused with Prophecy from about the same year for some reason. Which shouldn’t be confused with The Prophecy.

“Yeah, I know my origins. God sent me here to destroy sadists who misquote the Bible.”

It’s Friday, which is not Saturday, so this is an improvement on last week, at least. Still, I’m writing movie reviews roughly daily, and I have to read these books, and I talk to people at comic shops whilst doing so, which takes up most of Wednesday, and I’m working on getting jobs (the paying kind) together, so, deal with it, I guess?

Anyway:

  • The Amazing Spider-Man #7
  • Avengers ● X-Men: Sixis¹ #1 (of 8, I think–I’m more entertained leaving this unknown to me for now)
  • Bloodshot #24
  • Captain Marvel #8
  • The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #3 (of 5)
  • Grendel vs. The Shadow #2 (of 3)
  • Miracleman #12
  • Nightcrawler #7
  • Wytches #1
  • #18
  • X-O: Manowar #0

The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #2 (of 5)

Shan Fong is back again–man, it feels like it’s been a while since #1–and is now wandering the other side, which we now have confirmed is not some tertiary plane, but in fact that already-known secondary Deadside from Shadowman (completing that tie between Roberto de la Torre’s art jobs for Valiant!). She’s asked to trade for information on where she might find her late husband, Hwen, and the trade requested is a story–so we begin to learn just how the two met, and how she came to understand the things that allow her to be capable of this in the first place. Her recent employer, March, is tied to a chair back in the world, and being tortured in an attempt to find her.

While the first issue was meaty enough, this one really lets both Jen Van Meter’s writing and de la Torre’s art find their place in the series. Jen really set up Shan’s personality in the first issue–to reduce, grief masked with abrasion–but here gets the plot really moving. In seeing the dealings of a younger Shan with Hwen, being dragged into learning from what was supposed to just resolve the plague of her “second sight”, de la Torre gets to sneak in some great work on the more demonic entities that occupy the other plains, both at that time and in the present as she begins a journey through the other side. This one really hones what was started last time.

Bloodshot #24

One day, I’ll remember to read captions first. Maybe it’s because I’m picking up modern books, or maybe it’s the general abandonment of the “keyed” yellow boxes. I’m not sure, but, regardless, I found myself very confused when I started reading this issue. We’ve not had ol’ Bloodshot in his own book for a fair bit now, leaving us mostly experiencing his time through the Armor Hunters: Bloodshot miniseries for the last few months.

B. Clay Moore eases into the role of writer on the book by telling a story over a decade in the past, from the time when Bloodshot was still the controlled agent (tool, really) of Project: Rising Spirit. He’s sent in to take down a growing conspiracy in Russia, one set to use sleeper agents to rebuild the Soviet Union.

It’s a bit odd to re-start this series after a hiatus with a flashback–maybe it was or should’ve been a #0, but the title’s already had two of those, so, like Harbinger, I think it’s gonna be stuck shouldering flashback issues with regular issue progression. Ah, well. Still, it’s a solid, if light, issue–again, I think it’s Moore finding feet for the character and the book, with Will Rosado being even less credited on books, and thus doing some of the same. Rosado and Moore do bring the cold lethality of (especially the controlled) Bloodshot forward, in contrast to the far more brutal (and thus unpleasant-in-a-different-way) violence of a book like (oh, hello again Duane!). It’s also a clear set-up for something to come, with an epilogue that makes sure we’re all aware of that.

Still, it’s a bit disappointing to return to the character only at a time where he wasn’t much of a character–even if Moore manages to work in some nice flashes of the always-encroaching independent thought PRS had to contend with.

X-O: Manowar #0

It’s a bit weird that modern-Valiant’s flagship, longest-running title is the one series that hadn’t had a #0 yet (assuming we discount the only-8-issues Eternal Warrior, anyway), but I guess that can be chalked up to the way the early issues of the series proper were telling a lot of the “Aric before the armour” stories to get us used to him before he was wearing it. This story does mean, though, a return of his childhood friend Gafti, and Venditti gets to delve a bit more into him while telling us something more of what made Aric who he is today. We’d seen hints, seeing him as a very young child witnessing his first battles as a Visigoth, but now we get to see the time that led to his first entry into them.

I’m really glad Venditti has had a stranglehold on writing Aric’s story, as it has kept him a very consistent character, and the tone of his world and interactions on a unified thread as time goes on. Clay Mann is a welcome choice for the book’s pencils, pulling a nice trick of some mirrored imaging of Aric as plain ol’ Aric finding his feet as a Visigoth warrior, and X-O Aric holding up the tradition centuries later. The poses aren’t exactly the same, so it’s a nice bit of symmetry that functions more as a choice of depiction by Mann than lazy copying or simple mirroring.

After Armor Hunters helped Aric find who he needed to be in the world he has found himself in, this issue is useful in showing how he found who he needed to be when his life was as it started.

Grendel vs The Shadow #2 (of 3)

There’ve been a lot of attempts to cross-pollinate franchises and characters over the years, but they often don’t have the love of both sides that makes them work for fans of both–you’re likely to alienate one at the cost of the other if you’re lazy in depicting your bias. And that is why Matt Wagner is just a stupidly good person to be putting this book together. Creating Grendel, but also writing a fair bit of The Shadow, and then acknowledging that, time periods notwithstanding, the crime-focused themes of both mean their pairing actually makes a lot more sense than some.

The prestige format approach is also really helping the book, which gets the space to roll out the red carpet for two characters and not sell either short, without being stuck trying to tie things off just enough to end an issue after a standard number of pages. We spent the first book watching the two circle each other’s plans, largely unwittingly, and finally meet at the last moment, and so we pick up there: Lamont facing Hunter down. They quickly discover that they’ve certainly met at least their matches, as neither is the ho-hum opponent the other is used to.

The writer/penciler-in-one approach usually works best when the person’s capacity for the latter is used more for the needs of the former, and Wagner is a prime example. Without resorting to boring or “basically acceptable” art, he keeps it from distracting from the story, which is very much the core of this particular crossover. And it shows that he knows that–no one gets short shrift, and somehow he makes a modern and a period character seem like they belong together. This was already the Shadow’s world, but it’s one that appeals distinctly to Grendel, and a wily and capable opponent is something both of them would like to sink their teeth into–even if Grendel is more delighted and the Shadow is more concerned.

X #18

I’m getting really curious about what Swierczynski is doing with X. He had him beaten into the ground, captured, and redeem himself, then had him beaten almost to a pulp by a superhuman who mistook him for a colleague. Now he’s been captured by a group of wackos who wear grotesque masks and skin people in “good-intentioned” (I guess…) but ultimately pretty Mengele experimentation.

Nguyen and Swierczynski are a pretty well-oiled machine at this point, keeping the brutality that has been the hallmark of the book from being lost or rendered intolerably “x-treme” or actually boring. This, as should not surprise many fiction readers (but especially of anything tangential or directly superhero related) is often orchestrated through shifting and peculiar villains who find new ways to deal with our masked psychopathic vigilante.

Dr. Heide is pursuing the ability to bring new techniques to skin grafts, ones that will allow for cosmetic reconstruction to skip the stigma that is likely to follow them as it stands–and he’s decided X is the prime candidate for exploring the technique. This is an excellent follow-up choice to the Archon story, as well as the little flickers of the same idea in the immediately preceding one. It’s still kind of fascinating how this book is starting to operate with a protagonist who isn’t quite as up to the tasks he intends as he thinks he is, but who does not become cowed or re-evaluate in light of it. I’m very pleased Duane is keeping this stuff fresh.

Wytches #1

I heard a few things, in advance and as I wandered around Wednesday, that finally convinced me to give this sucker a shot. Weirdly, it’s a bit in sync with my October Project selection for Thursday.

A brief intro begins our introduction to Scott Snyder and Jock’s world of wytches: a woman is bleeding, noseless (!), and crying for help from inside a tree (!!), in the past. Here in the present, we have the Rooks: Sailor, Charlie, and Lucy. Sail and her father work on an imaginative game to keep Sail grounded as she starts at a new school. A few spooked moments don’t completely de-rail her, but the blunt, callous question of a classmate sends her spinning back to the dark and bloody moment that moved them all out in the first place.

This is mostly a tonal set-up–an idea of the world this book takes place in, of the level of threat and darkness (the two coming out most clearly together in the vile, vile words of the girl Sail was bullied by). Jock’s work is, unsurprisingly, a good match for this tone, splotchy and splattery in just the right way to emphasize mood over linework. This one shows some promise, for sure.

The Amazing Spider-Man #7

For Ramos-related reasons, I’ve not touched this book of late, so I only know the cursory story–Otto found Peter somewhere in his brain and let him regain dominance, and so we have the original Peter Parker, Silk (who I’m even more vaguely aware of) and Otto’s love all holed up in an apartment when the issue opens. That love, Anna Maria Marconi, is discussing with Peter the responsibilities he now has as the operator of a company, and that he should acknowledge some of the methods Otto chose do serve a purpose. Peter is Peter, though, and finds himself acting on a police call which brings him into contact with the new Ms. Marvel–who, unsurprisingly, fangirls over teaming up with Spidey, much as she did with Wolverine over in her own book, as they face a Kree (of course!) wearing something like the second Ms. Marvel costume (but not really), which someone claims is the original costume (it isn’t).

It was mildly frustrating to avoid a Spider-Man book, especially one written by an appropriate writer like Slott, but them’s the breaks to avoid Ramos’s art (which unfortunately plagued the summary page–curses!). It’s a fun adventure in the Spidey team-up tradition, and does not quite wrap up at its end. Incidentally, Christos Gage scripted it, which I kind of feel in the way Kamala reacts to meeting Peter in its specific choices (in a good way!), and is definitely another excellent choice for writing words for Peter.

But, that means we have room for another Edge of Spider-Verse! Spider-UK (I can’t quite decide if I’m going to pronounce that “Spider-Uck” or not, as I’m still thinking, “Peter isn’t Spider-USA, so why the heck would you name yourself that?!”) is, unsurprisingly, Billy Braddock, because he’s a member of the Captain Britain Corps. He is by far the most equipped to directly observe the effects Morlun’s family is having on the omniverse in general, and attempts to take the issue up with Majestrix Saturnyne, who is too busy dealing with the even more massive omniverse issue of the breakdown of the space-time continuum.

Slott takes that story on alone, and it makes for a good character to back up that awesomely simple tweak of Spidey’s costume for Billy. Giuseppe Camuncoli takes on pencils for both stories and is very much what I want from a Spidey penciller–clean, clear, verging on realistic, but still loose and bright to keep the sense of fun, so that we can stress the horror of some of the worlds Billy peers into in the latter story, while not losing track of the fact that Peter should still be in a more triumphant mode of being.

Avengers ● X-Men: Sixis #1

Somewhat unheralded–at least, I’m told, in comparison to previous events like Infinity–Sixis (it’s really Axis, but tell me that ambigram isn’t a little fuzzy is a collision of X-Men and Avengers teams and villains somewhat prophesied by the advent of the Unity team (psst, hey Valiant, I’m siding with your Unity here) of Uncanny Avengers (ie, former X-Men). Magneto #10 saw the rise of the Red Onslaught–a merger of the deep darkness in Xavier with the deep but more all-encompassing darkness of Johann “Red Skull” Schmidt–whose appearance is ominous enough (and manages to keep shy of the overdone-ness of the original Onslaught, much as I was largely okay with that design).

This first issue is where the Red Onslaught makes himself known as a threat, using insidious telepathic whispers to bring out the hatred and small-mindedness of anyone and everyone, up to and including the Avengers, while his S-Men deal with the captives back in Genosha (Cyclops, Quenton Quire and Evan/Genesis). Tony helps the Avengers deal with the telepathic threat, while Rogue attempts to help Wanda find the strength to deal, in close proximity, with the taunts of this new menace.

But this is issue one of…some number in the eight-ish range, and my experience of Remender means that slow pacing isn’t ever his thing, but instead a constant forward momentum through roller coasters of action in both senses–explosions ‘n’ stuff as well as events of more meaningful impact. This isn’t really an exception to that, but avoids the “all the heroes are just instantly slaughtered because this new bad guy is just super-bad, guys.” It will be interesting to see where this takes us–and, certainly, while Charles losing out to a dark side so thoroughly is interesting, it’s more of an immediate nod to see someone like the Skull pursue that kind of power. Andy Kubert gives a major event pencils it deserves, because, honestly, it’d be pretty awful to match an event of this intended magnitude with “eh” penciling.

Nightcrawler #7

After a good run of adventurous issues, Claremont gets to let Kurt’s character breathe–and by character I mean the kind you build by camping in the woods with no awesome amenities, or anything else Calvin’s Dad subjected him to without apology.

While the Death of Wolverine book has ended up severely delayed, the fact that we all have no questions about it happening means it’s not quite the worst thing to see Kurt dealing with it already (on-schedule for Claremont). Margueritte Bennett plots the book quite well indeed, with Kurt spending most of the book in his head, revisiting the memories that made Logan his best friend in the first place, Claremont scripting in the internal monologue that befits that friendship and Wagner’s more religious mentality in his hands. Not that Kurt beleaguers this point at all–it’s just that his thought process is informed by it, even when it isn’t being brought up.

There are some very sweet moments, particularly when Kurt is forced to abandon his first attempt at grieving, realizing it doesn’t feel like the way Logan would’ve wanted to be remembered, and he runs into Rachel Summers, with whom Claremont has been linking Wagner pretty steadily in this new book, thanks to their Excalibur-based relationship, I imagine.

As ever, Nauck’s art is nothing short of just right for the book–even in mourning, Kurt is Kurt, and his new-found understanding of a second life keeps the mourning from being maudlin or dark, and Nauck’s art reflects the balance of that very well.

Captain Marvel #8

Well, last issue hinted at something ridiculous coming from the revelation that Rocket was right all along and Chewie was a flerken, having laid a huge pile of eggs. The cover, too, encourages this interpretation.

In the end, though? It’s a pretty hollow story, as this entire volume has been. That’s a better description of the problems I’ve been having since issue 1 of this reboot than I’ve had before–I feel like “nothing happens”, but things do. Plenty happens here, in fact. Yet it still had that sense that “nothing happens”, and that’s what it is–the beats are just hollow and meaningless. They seem paced like something that wants to explore character, and then scripted like something that just wants to be fun. It comes out feeling like all of the substance is just utterly absent. I don’t know “who” Carol is at all–I just feel like Kelly Sue DeConnick loves the heck out of this character. But she’s not showing me what it is she loves, exactly. At points, it feels almost orchestrated to try to tap into something I’m not quite grasping, some grand design of “things that the Carol Corps will like”, or something, and it feels empty because of this.

Marcio Takara is the saving grace of the issue–particularly Chewie’s strangely realistic depictions in contrast to the exceptionally cartoony Rocket. Self-satisfied, or utterly unfazed at various moments, she’s certainly the most entertaining character here. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the book–and I think I’ve heard Takara’s leaving anyway. I was giving the book until this issue, but I don’t think I can do it anymore. I’m going to be dropping this sucker, unfortunately.

Miracleman #12

Well, that’s a weird leap…from fluff to intensely dense.

I’m not sure I read this segment of Miracleman before at all. Maybe I didn’t even read the book–just encapsulations of most of it. I forget, it’s been something like a decade.

Anyway, Miracle Woman appeared at the end of the previous issue, but here explains her history at the hands of Gargunza, entirely apart from Moran, Dauntless, and Bates. Outside the government’s watchful eye, Gargunza’s egotistical nastiness is given full freedom (including distantly depicted sexual violence, fair warning). The Warpsmiths appear and most directly make their presence known to the Miracle-folk, and we get glimpses of a strange, Utopian (?) future in 1987.

Totleben’s second issue penciling and inking for Moore sees him starting to really take over the aesthetic of the book. As Avril (Miracle Woman) relays her story, there’s a brilliantly done overlay of her face in the now on top of stacks of her period comic books, which are all inked in clean, sharp lines, her face being inked in a pseudo-realistic pointilist fashion (as clarified by the bonus “behind the scenes” material, which mostly serves to show that Totleben really knows how to use inks to make the most of his pencils). As has been the trend with recent issues, original Marvelman stories are only a minor feature–the last six or eight pages, after a good 40 of Moore’s material and that “behind-the-scenes” stuff.

This continues to be an excellent re-issuing of one of my two favourite works of Moore’s (the other is Swamp Thing), and well worth reading to grasp some of what he could do, given the right working base.

Today’s title comes from X. It was a toss-up between this line and the ultimate X line (said to himself): “Don’t be a coward. It will heal. IT WILL HEAL!” The one I chose, I think, works better than the other as an out-of-context quote, though. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong about that.

¹Zzzzzzzz…I’ve explained this too many times by now. I know the real title, let’s leave it at that.

The October Project, Day 9: The Woods (2006)

I only know the name Lucky McKee from his episode of Masters of Horror, if I’m not mistaken. A horror-loving friend may (ahem) have mentioned May to me (or an issue of Fango or something), but nothing really settled. The Woods got iffy reviews, but I saw it was his, combined that with the vague ruminations on his reputation that I know I heard somewhere (but had no viewings from me to match up with), and picked this one up cheap forever ago. Which, to be fair, is the story of basically all of my “sight-unseen” purchases.

Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner) is taken by her parents (Emma and Bruce Campbell–no relation, though) to the Falburn Academy after a troubled (ie, arsonist) history. Taken in by Mrs. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson) and her staff, Heather finds herself bonding somewhat with the timid Marcy (Lauren Birkell), while constantly confronted with the bullying of Samantha (Rachel Nichols), while a school legend about the past and some increasingly peculiar events and dreams swirl around the lot of them.

I’ve not written movie reviews this constantly in a very long time (around five years or so), and this was the first time I found myself briefly perusing other comments on one–afterward, of course. While there’s a curious air of dismissive distaste–the kind that says the movie is absolute garbage, terrible, awful, etc–and this is fascinating in-and-of itself (in that I can’t really believe it as much more than hyperbole), it was far more interesting to see that my own flashes of Suspiria were seen by more people than I expected. Not that I imagine I’m unique in seeing Suspiria, obviously, but I thought it was a silly connection for my brain to make. Perhaps not, it seems!

The cast is really in top form here, with everyone selling the dimensions of their characters–Marcy’s timidity is not shed in a final burst of revenge against bullying, but in a more realistic place, for instance–and Bruckner definitely keeps a grip on her leading role without faltering. Bruce actually gets to be an actor, too, rather than Bruce Campbell™, which is nice, particularly because he doesn’t flop at it.

Really, though, it’s what comes out of David Ross’s script and McKee’s direction that makes the movie something interesting. For the first ten minutes, four characters are on-screen, but only two of them speak, even when the others are asked questions. Alice (Heather’s mother) and Mrs. Traverse let neither Joe (Bruce) nor Heather get in a word edgewise, and the two of them seem to largely accept this. It’s a nice way of establishing the poor nature of Heather’s relationship with her mother, and why it’s the one that dominates her home life. That kind of unstated short-hand informs a lot of the movie’s movement, with its aversion to explicitly laying out many things, particularly the more supernatural elements.

Shots are distinctive and thoughtful, with low angles, Dutch angles, and very methodical, ponderous camerawork building up a lot of it–but never in a distracting, disorienting sort of fashion. It comes out very naturalistic, and the choice of odd shots is used very clearly as a means of story-telling, to inform about the character or setting in-frame. This means that an early, rather unpleasant dream of Heather’s was really quite well-done, in a fashion that I can’t readily recall feeling so taken aback by in quite some time, if at all. It’s not some kind of masterwork moment from which everyone should learn, but its comfortable placement in non-dream story could be legitimately helpful all the same. It avoids drowning it in a soup of “DREAM” effects (wobbliness, blur, echoes–that sort of thing) and jump cuts, but doesn’t lose sight of the strange and illogical progressions from which dreams are made, either.

Some folks I saw were inclined to, somewhat justifiably, rate the style and atmosphere of the movie over its plot, but I felt like the way it was carried out sold the story, and kept itself just off-the-norm enough to not feel too incredibly tired. It’s still a supernatural movie about a boarding school and all that, so some very minor points are inevitable, and it certainly forms its normal elements from much of the expected conflict to be derived from that setting, but the way that it tells the story with the grace of plenty of dialogue deadspace, relying on visuals, and avoiding spelling out how the supernatural works (something to which I remain largely opposed), it ends up propping itself up quite nicely. It’s not, again, some kind of revelatory masterpiece, but neither is it a boring re-tread of any kind.