Thursday, September 22, 2016

What the F#%k, Civil War II #5?!?!

** YES, there are spoilers for Civil War II #5 and previous issues ahead **

I tried to be optimistic; truly, I did. Because more often than not, I find myself forgiving egregious mistakes in my head if it means telling a better story. How can Batman have a nuanced, tactical conversation with his undead brother in on the wing of an airborne passenger plane next to an ear-splitting engine turbine? Because comic books, that’s how. Why did Wolverine show up in every freaking Marvel title every month until they had to kill him in The Death of Wolverine? I figured his healing factor might mean he doesn’t need to sleep, thus he gets bored and says why not?

But Brian Michael Bendis’ Civil War II #5 is just plain bad. I can’t sugar-coat it or find any silver lining – it’s simply a disjointed, unconvincing, deeply unaware issue of an already-conflicted series presented as a keystone issue yet failing to even come across as necessary. And while David Marquez has been carrying the series more than I wanted to admit, his artwork in this issue is similarly underwhelming to the point of frustration.

And as much as I try to separate the content of what I read from press and other outside aspects (e.g. – love me some Watchmen, but Moore is a crazy nutjob), knowing Civil War II was expanded to eight issues on top of further delays for the previously-scheduled issues is downright infuriating. The one concrete excuse is the birth of Marquez’s child which slowed down the art process. Life happens and I wish Marquez and his family the best, but beyond this one aspect, Bendis added another issue and Marvel expanded the publication timeframe so Civil War II will end after new #1 issues for ‘Marvel NOW!’ 2.0 have already started shipping. This whole situation is basically Secret Wars all over again except this time no one cares. An ‘extra’ issue with “The Final Vision”? Really? Get the eff outta here.

Which brings me back to Civil War II #5, an issue that simultaneously acts as the turning point of the series and the absolute worst chapter so far. Anticipation for this issue was high after the staring contest at the end of the Civil War II #4, and seeing all the various heroes siding with their Captain or Shell Head respectively was beautiful because it meant the actually fighting would start!

Marquez spent a lot of time on the initial fight splash at the beginning of this issue, and while that’s super cool, it belies the fact that Bendis decided to throw a ton of characters into the fray without giving them proper context. Why does Flash Thompson, a.k.a. Agent Venom side with Captain Marvel just because they’re friends? I’m not saying it’s not possible for Flash to agree with Carol, but to just pigeonhole him in the “Change the Future” camp without asking why becomes distracting. Similarly, the older X-Men seem to have just given up and decided the Inhumans will be their salvation. How this makes sense, I do not know – the T-mist clouds and the arrogance of the Inhumans when it comes to mutants cannot bode well for that inter-species relationship (see the upcoming Death of X which leads into Inhumans vs. X-Men then Inhumans/X-Men: ResurrXion…not even kidding about that last one), yet Storm and Magick are out there rearing to let Ulysses solve all their problems.

There are a ton of vignettes in Civil War II #5, a string of ‘moments’ that don’t really add up to anything of substance of consequence. This was one of the most poignant criticisms of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, that Zack Snyder cared more about epic, explosive, awe-inspiring snippets than he did plot or character development. Here, Bendis throws in a handful of hero-fighting-hero moments to drive home the fact that these are friends fighting one another…this time, it’s PERSONAL! Except it isn’t because again, there’s no context for why any of these heroes agree with Carol Danvers at all.

And yes, I’m ‘choosing a side’ because there’s only one that makes sense. Carol’s manipulation of Ulysses’ ability is astoundingly stupid, especially given the knowledge that the boy’s power is just a hyper-advanced form of biological algorithms based on ambient environmental awareness – how does Carol not see that her mission affects Ulysses’ visions? How can she be so obtuse as to not recognize that she is in his immediate environment and affects his powers quite literally every day!

Even with only basic knowledge of the heroes on Tony Stark’s team, it’s rather easy to understand why they fight against profiling and pre-crime jurisdiction. I mean seriously – Tony has both Captain Americas, heroes displaced from the past and the future (they’re not likely to want to mess with time, I assume), Luke-freaking-Cage, and even a sorcerer that interprets and understands the fabric of reality on a larger scale than anyone else there. Carol’s team is full of massive egos (Black Panther, Gamora, Angela, Star Lord, Magick) and people who work for her (Puck, Sasquatch, Aurora, Blue Marvel, Spectrum).

Let’s not forget how Bendis needed to seed his upcoming final Guardians of the Galaxy run by having Vision destroy the team’s ship and spend half a page doing so, or that he effectively turns Carol Danvers into a child when she screams “MINE” and attacks Tony Stark when he’s already down. This sequence shows how immature Carol is under Bendis’ hand, that she would rather beat Tony herself than see him taken in by Black Panther and the fighting de-escalated. She cares more about beating Tony than ethics or compassion, and that is a huge, giant, massive problem not only for the series as a whole, but also for Carol Danvers going forward.

Before Civil War II began and I still had some semblance of hope it could be interesting and provocative (in a good way), I actually defended Carol’s stance in this debate. Carol was military and has years of experience both good and bad to inform her decisions. It actually makes sense that she would use her power as a member of the Ultimates and the leader of Alpha Flight to protect humanity to the best of her ability with whatever tools she can. What doesn’t make sense is how dogmatic she’s become, how she gets completely defensive when the evidence shows how Ulysses’ power is flawed. Carol Danvers isn’t so petty as to ignite a full-on crisis between superheroes simply to win an argument she knows she can’t. Yet that seems to be exactly how Bendis positions her in Civil War II #5.

There’s truly no excuse for a filler issue this terrible in Marvel’s flagship event. It took a series called Civil WAR II nearly seven issues (counting #0 and the Free Comic Book Day 2016 issue that is so integral to the story it makes me furious when I think about it being a limited release that isn’t part of the main series) to get to the actual fighting, and when it did only felt dull and bloated. Yes, it’s fun to have an entire issue of heroes fighting heroes, but when the reason is stupid and the characters feel forced or out of place, the whole concept crumbles. And then there’s the final twist at the end.





I assume this is how Bendis reacted to the idea when he first had it. When Ulysses’ weird snake fingers start grabbing everyone for a new vision like a parasitic drumroll, it just so happens to be a character Brian Michael Bendis created standing triumphantly over a dead Steve Rogers. Oh how could it be?!?!? Perhaps because Bendis has been pushing for Miles Morales to have a larger profile for years and now he gets his chance. Or maybe because this is all inconsequential in the long run based on ‘Marvel NOW!’ solicitations. Because the vision will not come to pass, and when it doesn’t, this whole sequence will be devoid of narrative purpose; it’s retroactively made itself meaningless, which is a horribly astounding feat for chronological storytelling.

During Civil War, it was quite obvious Mark Millar wanted audiences to sympathize with Captain America and his rogue Secret Avengers fighting against the federal tyranny of Iron Man and the Superhero Registration Act (SRA). Sure, the conceit was “Choose Your Side”, and there were compelling arguments for Tony’s system of accountability in an increasingly paranoid world often informed by emotion over logic, but the fact remained that Cap represented freedom over Tony’s ‘big brother’ approach.

Civil War II demonstrates none of the socio-political nuance the original did, however flawed Millar and Steve McNiven’s narrative may have been. At least the Superhero Registration Act represented a concrete focal point – Ulysses is a character being treated like a prop brought in when Bendis feels things are lagging. Why did the Inhumans bring Ulysses to the Triskelion in the middle of a huge battle right after Medusa said he would stay in New Attilan? Because the story demanded it. Why does Venom give two craps about someone else wearing a spider-themed costume when there are at least three others running around doing the same thing? Because Bendis wanted to see Venom fight Miles Morales. Why does any of this fighting matter? It doesn’t because this isn’t a fight that can be fought with fists or steel or bullets or lasers.

Let’s say Carol does beat Tony into the ground at the end and ‘wins’ the war: so what? Is that going to change Tony’s mind about the ethics of arresting people for crimes they haven’t committed? Is one team beating up another going to make the losers rethink their values or amend their personal morality to fall in line with Carol’s own? Readers often forget that in the Marvel universe, the Superhero Registration Act was wildly popular and sped through the House and Senate to become law. From the reader's perspective, Steve Rogers and his Avengers are ‘rebels’, but in the eyes of ordinary American citizens on Earth-616, they’re domestic terrorists actively fighting against something the majority of people wanted.

Civil War II is about ideology, which helps drive a story but can’t necessarily be the focus. The Superhero Registration Act represented accountability for the superhero community, but it also carried with it lasting consequences when heroes became criminals for doing their jobs. In the Ulysses situation, Iron Man is no more a criminal or any less accountable because he disagrees with Carol Danvers’ security-first approach. Conversely, Captain Marvel has routinely and unabashedly arrested and imprisoned dozens of individuals based on one factor that flies in the face of “innocent until proven guilty.” There’s no way to cheat justice, yet Carol seems to believe her opinion matters more than anyone else because she can decide how to change the future because she knows the best path to take because she has the experience that she deems necessary.

Civil War II #5 is the worst issue of the series so far, one that reinforces every reason why this event is so frustrating. Brian Michael Bendis is completely out of sorts relying on a subjective narrative tool to drive an entire superhero conflict that routinely uses shock value as a crutch to actual story progression.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

We Are Gotham: Tom King's Batman, "I Am Gotham"

As Batman #6 hits stands today, I took a look at Tom King's first full arc on DC's Batman, a series that garnered huge critical and commercial success under Scott Snyder's hand over the past five years. Now, King has the opportunity to apply his unique brand of narrative aesthetic to the Dark Knight of Gotham City.

Tom King is a superstar and he’s only seriously been in the game for 26 months. Grayson, The Omega Men, The Vision, and Sheriff of Babylon all led to DC’s confidence in the man they gave Batman. King’s operatic style lends itself to the Dark Knight, ironically juxtaposed to Scott Snyder’s more visceral run during the ‘New 52’. King’s Batman and Batman both bear a subtler tone emphasizing ethical dilemma and conflicting morality. In this first arc, “I Am Gotham”, Batman wants so badly to believe new superhumans Gotham and Gotham Girl represent everything he can’t be, everything he wishes he could be that he missteps and makes crucial mistakes. These siblings are a symbol of what Bruce hopes the future can become, and he doesn’t really know what to do.

Batman’s perfectionism works as a mentoring tool when recipients already possesses confidence in themselves; Superman knows where he stands and thus applies Batman’s logic to his own circumstance without going full-on Dark Man of Steel of the Night. Similarly, Batman’s various allies survive Bruce’s nigh-impossible training regimen because they’ve dedicated themselves to the cause and have the drive to maintain their own selves through the process. Hank and Claire Clover are fledgling heroes still discovering themselves and their powers while trying to earn Batman’s trust and protect their city; cognitive dissonance is real and only exacerbated by the presence of superpowers and stranger-than-fiction happenstance. It’s no wonder Gotham goes insane.

And this is the entire conceit of “I Am Gotham”, insight on the relationship between good and evil and what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself. To Batman, that means sacrificing desire, emotion, and sympathy to become better. To Gotham Girl, that means following her big brother who she knows is benevolent and well-meaning because they made a pact. For Gotham, it means sacrificing his soul to fix what it broken because there’s no other way.

Batman #3 brings this theme to the forefront with the origin of Gotham that bears a striking resemblance to Batman’s own – and he knows it. As Matches Malone (a fantastic return of Bruce’s scummy alter-ego), Bruce interviews the Mr. and Mrs. Clover and learns about their children’s commitment to doing good and helping those less fortunate, and as much as they don’t know how, they do know their kids are superheroes now. Henry Clover’s description of Gotham City finds hope in the darkness and sees light between shadowy dealings, not unlike Bruce’s own father. It’s this sympathy that compels Batman to want to believe in Gotham and Gotham Girl because he sees in them what could have been and lets his emotions guide his actions.

In the first few chapters, David Finch’s hyper-detailed DC house style feels at-odds with King’s more elegant and nuanced script, but as the story continues it becomes clear that Finch was purposely chosen for his style to accentuate the corrosion of good. Hank’s purpose-driven life is to see Gotham City lifted up from the putrid darkness and rise to glory. When he discovers that even with seemingly unlimited power he cannot be the savior Gotham City needs, Hank’s world shatters and no one can pick up the pieces. Batman inspired a young Hank to be a better person, but he also inspired tunnel-vision dedication to an impossible task that breaks a young man’s mind. And a god proven wrong can be disastrous.

Claire wasn’t there when Hank and their parents were mugged, so her connection to the mission is tangential; she can see the cracks forming in her brother’s psyche, but she doesn’t really know any other way besides her faith in Hank. Trauma inspired Hank which inspired Claire, yet when Gotham’s existential dread becomes overwhelming, she can’t empathize, confused by her brother’s erratic actions. Hank’s own breakdown indirectly breaks his sister, and the whole thing falls apart.

Batman doesn’t really overwhelm or over-burden these young heroes; he simply presents them with the reality of their cause, the truth of their dedication to a city that will not be tamed or made calm. In recent years, Gotham City has been slowly molded into a sort-of tertiary character in the DC universe in the way the European countryside and ruined cityscapes becomes integral to World War II films. Hank and Claire spent so much time looking for the good in their city they failed to expose themselves to the bad, and when it becomes clear the darkness has no end, Hank loses his faith.

True evil is often committed by those who believe they are right and altruistic, by individuals jaded enough by the world to believe the ends justify their horrific means. “I Am Gotham” extrapolates this classic trope to give Hank Clover more clarity as a character: this isn’t just another looney, brightly-themed villain, but rather a set of distinct and unwavering ethics distilled into a relatable hero who falls from grace. Gotham is all of us because the weight of our own lives is sometimes too much, so how could we ever hope to carry an entire city? Even in a fantastical, mystical, hyper-advanced world of heroes and villains and aliens and monsters, nihilism is one hell of a drug.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Rise of Curated Albums

After years focusing my public efforts solely on the comic book industry, I found I missed writing about my first love: music. What follows is the second piece of a new series called “Hip-Hop Revue”, analyzing recent Hip-Hop/R&B topics, albums, and personalities.


In 2016, there have been four major Hip-Hop/R&B releases: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Drake’s Views, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. With Views being the exception, each of these releases was accompanied by outside elements ranging from fashion shows and visual albums to Twitter controversies and rumor mills working overtime. It feels like the biggest releases of the year are not JUST albums, but rather comprehensive experiences that pull listeners in based on external factors then offer a reward for diligent interest.

Beyoncé’s release of Lemonade sparked wide discussion about the level of truth behind such an unsubtle narrative about Jay-Z’s infidelity. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo came out under duress last February when even Ye himself didn’t seem to know how he wanted everything to go down – TLOP was updated four times since that initial release, keeping interest in West’s ambitious album up even into the beginning of the summer. Frank Ocean one-upped himself by releasing a visual album called Endless only to drop Blonde, a much better collection of tracks, just 24 hours later. And these are just the big ones – Drake’s Views changed names at the last minute, and Young Thug’s JEFFERY features Thugger in a skirt and parasol hat on the cover.

Each of these instances points to the rise of experimentation and, more notably, curated releases in the world of hip-hop and R&B, more effort put into making an album worth celebrating beyond just the music. And while this might sound nihilistic, remember that Kanye’s been doing this since day one – every Yeezy album is a motherf#cking event:

College Dropout was a hit before it dropped because Ye understood pop technique and how to draft a catchy tune before blowing us all away with his devastating lyrics.

Late Registration was about Kanye proving he wasn’t a fad, that he was going to be the greatest someday, and this album was simply another achievement of genre-bent hooks and catalyzed melodies.

Graduation found Ye reaching father outside hip-hop to influence his sound while maintaining his underdog persona even as he was showing signs of going full-on narcissist.

After the death of his mother, Kanye’s ‘blue period’ is marked by 808s & Heartbreak, a personal reflection he undergoes that would eventually lead to the ego-maniacal, celebrity-obsessed, culturally influential artist we know today.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (my personal favorite) is a maelstrom of innovation and pageantry for the sake of it, musings on hip-hop and himself that give credence to his own introspection on “Monster” yet feels energetic and genre-defining even six years later.

Yeezus is chaos – beautiful, awkward, eccentric chaos that everyone knew was going to be chaotic before it was released.

Which brings us back to The Life of Pablo and my entire conceit, that curated albums are nothing new, only that their prominence is growing and artists putting effort into developing a larger narrative around their work is becoming more acceptable and attractive, not only to the industry, but also to larger mainstream audiences. Kanye used his own brand recognition to push TLOP when it was only available via Tidal for the first few months of its release, a brand that is known for creating impulsive, erratic, controversial pieces of art – why wouldn’t you sign up for the free month and listen?

Similarly, Lemonade succeeded not only on the merit of its music (which is incredibly, of course), but also because of the rumors about Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s relationship which were exacerbated by the accompanying visual version of the album (think Lana Del Rey’s Tropico) and the distinct lack of comment from either Beyoncé or Jay-Z. In this case, I still believe that the Queen B simply wrote a concept album not unlike The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute, but I don’t discount the possibility that everything Beyoncé expresses on Lemonade could be true. That said, from both business and artistic standpoints, it makes sense for the album to be conceptual instead of a literal extension of the artist’s feelings.

Curated albums really only share this weird label I’ve made up for them because I don’t know how else to express the concept, and also the fact that they’ve all made headlines that have nothing to do with the actual music. And that’s exactly why each album has been so successful. Yes – Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean (to a lesser degree) are huge names in hip-hop and R&B spheres, but there’s a tension in 2016 that’s pushed these big names to try new things, to experiment and play around with the tired, traditional album release and turn it into something wholly unique.