Variant Coverage By Ryan Walsh For Comic Carnival
A little dose of metafiction can add depth and meaning to a story, but a little goes a long way. The line between playful self-awareness and masochistic impulse is blurry, but most readers can tell which category a book falls into. This week features three books that take a chance at analyzing themselves.
•Study in Emerald HC (Gaiman/ Albuquerque): Pale white skin, green blood, a finely pressed suit? Hold onto your butts, people! There’s only one thing this can be: a Batman reboot from the Star Trek universe where James Kirk’s the Dark Knight, and Mr. Spock falls into a vat of space chemicals to become homicidally overwhelmed by his own sense of humor. Ten slips of latinum says McCoy’s the jaded-yet-compassionate butler character. Tell me you wouldn’t buy this and I will call you a liar!
•Modern Fantasy 1 (Roberts/ Gudsnuk): Not even the ethereal energy of magic or the limitless power of friendship can make a job like tech support enjoyable. “And you say that the mana bolts only shot halfway to your target and froze? That sounds terrible, I’m sorry to hear that. Have you tried cutting off and reattuniting your runes? I understand, bear with me. When you align the seals together, would you say they glow green or purple? Green or purple? No, not the runes, the seals. You want to speak to my dungeon master? Very well I’ll switch you right over have a nice day.” [7/10]
Sage has a lot of the same problems you suffer through: her job’s lame, her friends make stupid decisions (and they don’t stop her when she makes them either), and she’s bored. Now this world is loaded with sentient races like lizardfolk and birdmen, criminal conspiracies pop up everywhere, there’s a floating castle in the sky that kills everyone who tries to approach, and everyone chooses classes like ranger or wizard as if they were college majors, so you’d think boredom would be a fictional concept. Nope, it’s as real as the variety of magical drugs to forget about it. One day, while Sage’s at work, everyone she knows gets violently interrogated, and this’ll be the story about how Sage learned the true value of “down time”.
Once you put aside all the tropes and exotic set pieces, the story boils down to an average worker bee getting exactly what they wished for and will probably regret it. Not a terribly innovative tale, but it’s almost always relevant. Everyone’s the hero of their own story, but does that mean anyone can be a hero? Sage likes to think she could be, and this story will tell if she’s got the right stuff or she just has a rich fantasy life and is satisfied just watching her friends court danger. For what it’s worth, their dialogue is snappy, the characters are charismatic and giddily flawed, and the situations they find themselves in are wacky enough to entertain yet plausible enough to connect with.
Readers may recognize Gudsnuk’s art from her self-created book Henchgirl, also about a working woman with job dissatisfaction in a supernatural market. This follows the same pattern: blocky and cartoony in a way similar to Bryan Lee O’Malley, surprisingly expressive faces and body language, and simple but consistent backgrounds. It feels like there’s more attention to detail in this book, but not so much that it overloads the page. The visuals may not impress anyone reading over your shoulder, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of.
Modern Fantasy reads like a glass of sun-brewed sweet tea – light and refreshing, with enough sugary stuff to keep a hummingbird fueled.
•Zombie Tramp 48 (Mendoza/ Maccagni): “Alright, Action Lab creative directors. We’ve got some hot properties right now but they could be hotter. Women are reading more comics than the industry’s realized, so we need to connect more with our audience, show them that what matters to them matters to us. We’ve got to brainstorm ways to target our audiences without falling backwards. YOU! Tell me what you’ve got. There’re no bad ideas.”
“We…could… publish a cover featuring a fake female body and a lifeless female body? And they’re wrestling? In skimpy outfits?”
“That’s amazing. Everything I thought I knew was wrong. There ARE bad ideas in brainstorming sessions.”
•Blastosaurus 0 (Fairgray & Eiding/ Fairguy): “Yes, well, the city is saved from that wave of pastel handkerchiefs. Thanks, I guess, outdated dinosaur in a tailored suit?”
“To my friends and all fine citizens, call me… the Bespoke Brontosaurus.” (SPOILERS: They don’t.)
•Multiple Man 1 (Rosenburg/ MacDonald): I have jokes about bathroom signs, annoying video game puzzles, digital clockworks in orange, the buddy system, all ready to go but I cannot look away from that manic smile on Multiple Man’s face. He just looks so ridiculously happy to be there. I don’t know why, but I want it to be because he’s been Joker-poisoned and this is the secret-subtle way that Marvel and DC are finally dropping their Hatfield-McCoy relationship and playing nice again.
•Sentry 1 (Lemire/ Jacinto): This dude can fly, is super strong, can’t be hurt, can observe any part of his environment to the molecular level, and shoot plasma out of his face. Even if he had a perfect memory and no need to eat or drink or sleep, are we to expect Sentry wouldn’t want to a way to hold small objects during travel? What if an awestruck child walked up and gave him a drawing of him saving the day? “This is a sweet gesture, little one, but I don’t have pockets, so *FRAZAKOW* I can’t take it with me (hands back the ashes) but I appreciate the effort.” Say what you want about what Rob Liefeld did to comics, but no one lacked for pockets on his watch. [6/10]
Say what you want about Rob Reynolds, but he is a man that lives with his choices. When he got dosed up with some wibbly wobbly science juice, he chose to pursue a life serving justice as Marvel’s answer to “Who’s Superman?”: the Sentry. When he learned that the science juice gave a similar boost to his darker impulses and manifested as the nihilist supervillain the Void, Rob sent himself into isolation and intense therapy. When that didn’t quite cut it, he got a macguffin from Dr. Strange that internalized both these identities, and dedicated himself to a mundane life and a robust American gut. It’s not glamorous in the slightest, and he’s got a team of armed guards on his case if he doesn’t check in every time he sneezes, but he also not fearing every waking moment that he’ll unleash the end of the world. Everything will be just fine so long as no one disturbs the shiny object Rob has to use every day or else he explodes. Yep, just fine.
This is most definitely not the male power fantasy, superior specimen curing society’s woes with amazing feats of daring-do kind of story. Bad enough there’s about five comics worth of exposition packed into this regular-sized issue, what makes it worse is most of this exposition’s delivered by characters sitting or standing still. As a video podcast about a Marvel character, it’d work fine, but as a comic featuring that character it flops. Rob wants to be seen as a victim or living martyr, but instead comes across as narcissistic. He’ll tell anyone slow enough to listen about how much he could do if only there weren’t this terrible burden, and consistently expects equal parts pity and praise. It’s a vivid example of entitlement, but I’m struggling to find who asked for it.
Anyone that misses Ryan Ottley’s illustration from Invincible can get their fix from Sentry. At rest, characters hold themselves in their own unique ways that communicate who they are when they’re not trying to perform for anyone. When fights start, the world turns into an energized, visceral battleground that would be NSFW gory if the ones getting torn apart weren’t alien shadow robots. It gets frustrating because there’s an obvious capacity for range, but the artist is too focused on a certain impression of the story to let that range run around and play.
Sentry reads like a prose book about poetry – it knows its subject well enough, but spends all its energy completely missing the point.
•Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer 1 (Spillane & Collins/ Salaza & Freire): It’s hardass noir enough to set your partner/ arm candy down on the table as a bet, but waving his gun around in the process should be a giant signal that the guy’s trying too hard. What, is he going to intimidate the roulette ball if it doesn’t land in his number? Obviously he’s from a different time, when the resident alpha would assert dominance among the villagers by taking a local girl scout hostage until the cookies she sold him show up.
•Charlie’s Angels 1 (Layman/ Eisma): There’s a whole subsection of art skills that go into a comic cover. There’s got to be energy, drama, an entire (yet tiny) narrative captured by a single image. Skinny ladies loitering near luggage doesn’t exactly grab me by the throat and demand my attention. It doesn’t even gently tug at my sleeve meekly asking for the time.
•Shadow Roads 1 (Bunn & Hurtt/ Zamudio): “Dang blast it, Earl, how is it we got two different teams of bounty hunters on our tail and we didn’t even do nothing?”
“I know! I mean, we were planning on robbing the stagecoach. And before that we were going to steal a bunch of horses so that we could rob the stagecoach. But we were just starting to plan how we’d steal the horses when they started shooting at us! Hey, you reckon it has anything to do with that sacred ritual dagger you’re holding?”
“‘Sacred ritual dagger’? I thought this was a cake knife. I was going to slice me up some pie from that windowsill we passed.”
“Using a cake knife on pie? I hope they hang you first!”
•Bedtime Games 1 (Keller/ Nolan): Unfortunately for little Timmy Gorath, who was so excited to bring his favorite book of campfire songs and games to the Crypt Scouts trip, he’d forgotten to charge it. Without freshly-tanned leather from the skin of a corrupt mortal, there was no way for them to open a portal to the forbidden frogurt realm, or play “Plant the Seed of Hatred into the Unwilling”. [6/10]
Some kids never hear about the unspoken policy that you need to act stupid and get into trouble while you can’t be tried as an adult. Avery, Jamie, and Owen most definitely got the memo, and they know exactly how they want to close their days as meddling delinquents: they want to explore an underground tunnel that’s been sealed for decades. The rumors around the tunnel outnumber the students at the academy it’s built under, these three have heard just about all of them, and they don’t care. One could say it’s because they’re young and think they’re invulnerable, but more likely it’s because each of them lived one horror story or another, and figure there’s nothing down there that could be worse. Their expedition proves their worst suspicions: it’s a rotted-out hole in the ground even more boring that the town they live in, and they can’t wait to leave it. Something down there’s waited decades for such like-minded individuals to show up.
What this book excels at is selling the pain and defense mechanisms of its main characters (except for the whiny and unexplored Owen). Their traumas and current home lives haunt them more than any ghost could dream of, but the masks they wear outside conceal the pain from everyone they don’t want to deal with. They’re some of the most genuine figures I’ve read in a long time. This would be great if that’s what the story what was about, but instead it’s about this dead student, or maybe a ghost, or a missing artifact, or something we haven’t seen yet. Like the basement from Cabin in the Woods, there are a dozen cheesy catalysts, but there’s no secret society to justify how they all arrived at this spot. With so many dangling threads, whatever pattern there was to the narrative loses its definition.
Like the gangly teenagers the script calls for, the visuals are awkward. To begin with, the characters do not look their age. They have the proportions of 10-year-olds, and their faces are hard to distinguish from those of their parents or guardians without color differences or facial hair to assist. It’s not a great sign when it takes bandages and Sadist-approved dental gear to designate the monster from its next victim.
Bedtime Games reads like panning for gold – a drudging, repetitive experience with an unreliable promise for reward.
Comic Carnival will be OPEN on July 4th until 5pm, so plan accordingly. I have something a little explosive in mind myself. (CC Note: It’s stuff like this that make us put 911 on speed dial.)
Looking for earlier blogs by Ryan Walsh for Comic Carnival? They’re here: Variant Coverage Blog Back Issues