There is plenty to write about the debut issue of James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martínez Bueno’s new DC Comics Black Label series The Nice House on the Lake. I could write an essay on the way the trauma of the Covid pandemic is reflected in the issue’s discussion of the end of the world, how the pandemic has laid bear that our society is woefully unprepared for a climate crisis that would require the kind of global cooperation that was outright rejected. Or the way the isolation of the group in the Nice House on the Lake as the world goes up in flames speaks to the existential torment of a year locked inside as millions die.
But all of those things could be true of any story in any medium. And after one issue it is not fair to the story itself to discuss its literary qualities in isolation. This is only the first chapter, after all, as excellent a debut as it may be. While all of these themes and motifs are apparent, what makes The Nice House on the Lake so successful at being an unnerving and visceral experience is its mastery of the art of comic books, leveraging the unique pacing and visual storytelling of the form, its foregrounding of symbols and signs in the narrative, and the exploitation of new cultural norms and experiences.. It is an exceptionally well crafted issue that relies on the reader’s ability to parse the various sign systems and coded imagery employed to create a truly emotionally and psychologically impactful ending.
Writing is hard, even when you’re writing about things you love for nothing but yourself. It’s hard because writing requires something of you, from you. It doesn’t matter what. The act of writing is the act of self expression and vulnerability and frustration.
Writing about things you love is not any easier because inevitably the things we love are busted and a mess and half- taped together. But you have to make it work. You gotta make your own stuff work out.
Comics are broken and busted and exploitive and a mess. One of the most highly regarded superhero comics of the 21st century (Shelfdust’s 100 Greatest Comics of All Time list has fourissues appearing), Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and his primary artistic partner David Aja, is, at last, being adapted into a new massive Disney+ series with Jeremy Renner’s version of the character. The show isn’t shy about the inspiration, wholesale lifting Aja’s cover design and major set pieces. And it’s no criticism, the source material is rich and exciting. It’s a testament to the defining work these creators did that they are inextricable from the character.
But comics and film, they’re busted. Fraction and Aja get little more than a thank you, no compensation for the work, no royalties on the tv show… it’s hard to love these things.
But we try, because to give up on it all,what do we close ourselves off from? We celebrate what is good in hopes that by so doing these works of art and commerce can enrich and enliven us and others.
Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is about a broken man who does his best but can’t put the pieces together to be the hero in his personal life that he presents to the world as an Avenger. A blond carnie with an Errol Flynn obsession, Clint Barton is a mere mortal among superpowered beings. Throughout the series he is beat up, bandaged or otherwise in over his head. The series’ sixth issue, “Six Days in the Life Of,” is perhaps Fraction and Aja’s most important issue thematically, a thesis statement for Clint’s journey of self destruction and listlessness. No matter what he tries to do, he can’t stop hurting himself or others. His life is splintered around him and the weight of the mess of all his baggage—all his stuff—contorts around him and the page itself.
At its most basic, the issue follows a week in Clint’s life between Avengers missions as he tries to make his normal life work in the apartment building he purchased at the start of the run, and tries to keep its residents safe from the Eastern European thugs that want to develop the land. The issue is presented nonlinearly, days flashing back and forth. Aja transitions the scenes expertly, finding points of visual similarity to connect disparate moments into a cohesive whole.
The issue opens with a collection of tiny square panels, of colored wires tangled together as Clint and Tony Stark tensely stare them down. Clint cuts a wire to avoid having to untangle them. We’re led to believe it’s a classic bomb disarmament scene, instead it’s a gag about Clint’s disastrous technology situation. He can’t face the mess of his VCR’s knotted up wires and cuts them away.
Aja’s layouts throughout the issue are a contrasting array of meticulously designed pages and details and a chaotic interconnecting patchwork of tiny square panels. The classic grid structure is mostly non-existent and instead Aja embraces the white space of the page, leaving tiny moments hanging in the air as the events of these six days in Clint Barton’s busted up life sweeps him away.
At the start of the week, the tracksuit mafia, as Clint calls the Eastern European thugs, threatens the building and get the better of Clint in a brawl. His first instinct to help the residents is to run away, feeling no one would miss him and their problems would vanish along with him. He places no value on his own life, beat up and lonesome as it is.
It’s only after sending his young protege Kate Bishop his bow as a farewell present that the selfishness of his decision is made clear to him. By running away and assuming his life leaves nothing for others to miss, he discounts those around him. When Kate confronts him he is forced to reckon with the harder truth of his own fear that has isolated him. Ultimately, he decides to confront the tracksuits in a dramatic full page splash that shows no action but conveys the full story.
The issue’s preceding pages are important to understand why this penultimate moment lands and is as dramatically effective as it is. As noted, up until this point the pages have been cobbled together by small disjointed moments. The complex and crowded panelling, the jumping around out of order, all inform us of Clint’s emotional state. There is something deeply wrong with him that leaves him unable to embrace those around him, to piece together his daily life or even recall it properly. It is a morass of moments and experience that he can’t quite bring into a cohesive whole until the issue’s end.
Writer Matt Fraction, when he was active online before smartly disappearing, has been remarkably open with his struggles with mental health, depression, and alcoholism and it is all but impossible to read Clint Barton’s passive self destruction as anything but a deeply personal catharsis. Even superheroes can be damaged. The trick is to keep fighting.
The time jumps and dizzying Tetris layouts are rarely confusing thanks to Aja’s meticulous design, but they reward a close reading and rereading. The shifts are not random, instead focused on events or items that overlap and relate. Clint’s neighbor’s busted tv is because of his first skirmish with the tracksuits. Kate’s lecture is a direct response to his wrapping up the bow and handing it off to a bike courier in his apartment. The opening scene where he is setting up his home theater is a direct result of both of these events.
Reading this issue, knowing how Clint gets to the point that he has asked Tony to help him set up the tv, having been challenged by Kate to stay and fight for the life he wants to have, in order to help his neighbors watch their Christmas specials, makes his brief speech to Tony about making due with what you’ve got even more powerful. On first blush it reads as a single outburst, a frustration with an out of touch billionaire.
But it’s something more–a man trying for the first time to make an effort to make his messed up little life and all the busted parts of it just work for once. Because you gotta make your own stuff work. It’s the only way through the damn week.
Which takes us back to the splash page at issue’s end. The only glimpse of that Sunday is him stepping out in front of the apartment building in the snow, an arrow nocked. The apartment rises above him, the windows of the building echoing the traditional comics grid structure, tenwindows and a door echoing a twelve panel grid, the bank of snow separating the page into three distinct horizontal moments in time.
It is a classic heroic moment. The dramatic catharsis of Clint’s nonlinear journey to stand up and put some effort into his life for once. It echoes a classic comic layout, but instead of big bombastic action, the apartment looms over Clint. It is the only thing that matters to him in that moment. The windows and their rectangular resemblance to comic panels guide our eyes across and down the page, forcing us to sit with the time and weight of Clint’s action. After a full issue of small panels representing rapid individual moments, the empty window panels expand the pause into different moments of dramatic tension.
But the emotional end is what follows, as he hosts his neighbors to watch Christmas specials. He’s decided to make this place with all its problems–all his problems– home. No more running.
I read “Hawkeye” for the first time when I was fresh out of college, in Los Angeles far from home and constantly feeling like I had made a monumental error, that I was in over my head and unqualified for what I was doing, and doing it poorly. I was in month four of a new relationship that was now long distance for a full year, none of my friends or family around to lean on. I didn’t know where I would be in a year or two years or five. At the time, Clint’s speech felt familiar because my life felt a shambles, a broken patchwork of things I couldn’t connect after four years in safety as a student.
Now life is much different, married to that woman whom I left behind for a year, a new father in a home of my own, but I feel the pain in Clint’s attempt to make his broken stuff work no less.
How often am I reminded that my body, with its inflamed intestines and scarred torso, is a broken thing itself? How often do the anxiety and depression that llurk within the confines of my mind threaten to overtake the things I have accomplished, whisper that I am worthless and i’d be better off hiding away forever where I could never bother anyone again?
No, I’ve gotta make my own stuff work out.
What Hawkeye reminds us, this issue particularly, remind us, is that life requires the courage to fight for the things we have that are important to us, even if they’re busted. Even if we have no idea how to do it, even if we can’t really see why they matter or why we matter to anyone else. We make the effort to reach out to a friend to help fix our TV set up, we help a neighbor with their Christmas decorations, or just sit with our dog for a moment at home.
It’s bittersweet to be a comics fan. Because like our own personal lives the business is a mess. I’m excited to watch the new show, to see how it spins the source material with a much different Clint Barton. But it is hard and disheartening to consume these books and shows, even deeply personal ones like Hawkeye issue 4, and know the unfair business practices behind it. But I guess that’s why I keep writing, to try and make these broken things mean something. Because comics, they’re ours, and we gotta make our stuff work.
For ComicsXF, I chatted with writer Kyle Higgins about the first arc of Radiant Black. We got into his philosophy of superheroes and the responsibility to take risks he feels in writing an independent comic. Read the interview here.
It is hard to imagine another pair of books that could elicit in me such diametrically opposed reactions than this week’s two Marvel headliners, Amazing Spider-Man #74 and Inferno #1.
Both issues represent, in their way, the culmination of longform serialized narratives, each abbreviated to some degree by what may or may not be a contract with a certain newsletter service. While at first blush it might seem unfair to compare a final issue with the first issue of a final act, I would argue that the narrative structure, the coherence of the issue as an individual work of serialized storytelling, and the promises Jonathan Hickman and Valerio Schiti’s Inferno delivers on for readers puts in stark contrast the sheer failure of Nick Spencer and his army of fill-in artists (16 credited, including the borrowed page from Sal Buscema!).
By way of introduction, Nick Spencer’s final issue of his 3-year long run on Amazing Spider-Man follows Peter Parker and Harry Osborn coming face-to-face with the demonic Kindred, revealed in the previous issue to actually be the twins once believed to be the children of Norman Osborn and Gwen Stacy. After a complex series of plot mechanics explained in issue #73, these twins were revealed to in fact be clones of Harry Osborn, perhaps activated by an AI back-up of his tortured mind from his stint as the Green Goblin, and maybe created to act as a vessel for Harry’s soul, which was sold to the devil by his father Norman, which led directly to him becoming the Green Goblin. All the while, Mephisto plays a game of fate with Dr. Strange, commenting that he has always been obsessed with Peter Parker because apparently, his daughter (stolen in the 90s, never mentioned even once by Spencer) will be directly responsible for his demise. The issue ends with Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson back together for the first time in more than a decade.
I don’t know a better way to explain all that, because I truly…I do not understand what is going on.
Inferno #1 is the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s final story on the X-Men. After reinventing the franchise after years in publishing limbo due to disputes over the movie licensing rights, Hickman brings together many of the threads he seeded in his grand debut, House of X/Powers of X (Two Series That Are One!). The issue presents Magneto and Professor X having failed in the mission Moira McTaggert, who Hickman revealed has lived nine lives and seen mutantdom decimated in all of them, set out for them: to prevent the creation of Nimrod. Nimrod is the harbinger of a machine revolution, the ultimate enemy of all life on Earth. Magneto and Professor X realize their way forward has failed, and now need Moira’s help. Moira instructs them to destroy any chance for the resurrection of Destiny, the mutant precognitive and wife of Mystique, who Moira has a personal grudge against for killing her in a previous life, and who she sees as a potential barrier to her plans. In the issue’s stunning final pages, Destiny is revealed to be alive, the first move in Mystique’s mission to bring down the nation of Krakoa for failing to bring back her wife.
I’ve lamented Spencer’s obsession with past Spider-Man stories before, and the hollow ways in which it revisits them while bringing nothing new. Since I wrote that article at about the halfway mark of the run it has only gotten worse. What Spencer’s Amazing Spider-Man lacks is anything at all to say about Peter Parker. It is built on references to old stories in absence of any vision of its own.
Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men also draws on the franchise’s past, but in ways that move the characters and their themes forward into the 21st century, recontextualizing the past to inform the present and providing a space for long-time fans to see those stories built on, while never alienating newcomers. The mission statement is clear throughout, and it walks readers through the most important elements of past stories in a way that 1: makes novel use of the comics format itself and 2: does not rely on overindulgent monologues and issue-length explanations of out of print stories from the 1980s.
Both Hickman’s X-Men and Spencer’s Spider-Man seem, at the most surface level, to share a similar method, building their story around the history of their franchise. Both have at the center of their narrative a retcon (retroactive continuity, for that less-versed in superhero nonsense) that recontextualizes most of the publishing history of the book.
In Spider-Man, the central retcon does not come until the end. This critical piece that could make the whole thing come together, is where the entire experiment collapses. The reveal of Kindred’s true identity hinges on not just one retcon, but a series of them so convoluted and rooted in obscure and critically reviled stories, that it took the Spider-Man experts at Amazing Spider-Talk nearly 45 minutes to explain.
It is an anticlimactic dud, drowning in exposition and devoid of pathos or resonance because most of these pieces did not factor into the story until the last issue.
Spencer ultimately fails to justify his use of Mephisto in these last issues or make any commentary in regard to what this supernatural threat represents in the context of Spider-Man’s core themes of power and responsibility. The brief appearance at the end provides only oblique references to his motive and never provides a satisfying emotional or thematic reason the demonic creature was rewritten to tie in so firmly to the character’s history and the creation of the Green Goblin. Spencer’s Mephisto has, apparently, always been obsessed with Peter Parker. But Mephisto’s absence from the entirety of the run and the character’s publishing history undercuts the whole thing. If Spencer wants readers to not only buy into this revelation but learn something about Spider-Man through it, he failed from the outset.
Spencer’s Amazing Spider-Man trades on the past, remixing stories and rewriting what Spencer saw as plot holes or missteps, all the while ignoring the development of Spider-Man himself. The endless teases of Kindred’s motivations and identity, with no genuine hints given to readers to lead them to the secrets of these last two issues, are robbed of any catharsis or impact because the truth was never alluded to and never intersected with Peter Parker’s journey. Both the fake revelations during the “Last Remains” story and the truth here at the end about Kindred are weightless because so much page real estate is devoted to the mechanics of the retcon and there is precious little space for Spider-Man to even acknowledge the truth.
What victory does Spider-Man achieve in the end? He is reunited with Mary Jane, but what personal struggle did he overcome to end up there? By failing to incorporate elements of his complicated revelations until the last two issues, Spencer could never provide a climactic payoff. Whatever the intent was behind Kindred and Mephisto and the complex machinations of the Green Goblin and how they all relate to one another, as told, Spider-Man confronts nothing and learns nothing.
This is from Amazing Spider-Man #73. I can’t credit the artist because there were several working on this issue and I don’t know who did what.
Contrast with Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men, which after the initial 6-week introduction in House of X/Powers of X, transitioned into a mostly episodic anthology series that explored the new status quo of the mutant sovereign nation of Krakoa. In doing so, Hickman introduces and strings throughout his year and a half on the title new ideas and plot points that first appear disjointed or unrelated. When he brings these things –Hordeculture, Dr. Devo, Nimrod, Orchis, the long-simmering tension between Moira, Magneto, and Xavier–together in the pages of Inferno #1, the conflagration is exciting. It is a harvesting of seeds planted, not an issue-length monologue explaining plot points that were never before present in the story. As readers, we have seen what each of these elements is and what they represent in isolation. So their convergence is ominous, a growing tension that explodes in the issue’s final moments.
Hickman introduced many of these elements early on, the most important perhaps being Destiny’s final warning to Moira in House of X #3. Hickman does not play coy and dangle future revelations in front of readers every issue. The House of X #3 confrontation between Destiny and Mystique and Moira in her third life is one of the series’ most memorable moments. Destiny’s dire warning that Moira would only have 10 chances and 11 lives to make things right for mutant-kind has been a loaded Chekhov’s gun waiting to be fired. It is instrumental to everything else.
House of X 3, art by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia
Hickman succeeds where Spencer fails by letting the audience in on the important facts up front. Moira MacTaggert, the X-Men’s closest human ally, is revealed to be a mutant almost immediately. Her involvement in the creation of Krakoa and the new mutant status quo is not a secret to the reader. She is not interminably teased to be holding more sinister dark secrets. We see her story throughout Powers of X and it plays directly into the themes that Hickman’s X-Men tackles most concretely: the inevitability of human hate, the endless pursuit of individual power at the expense of the greater society, and the way a dominant culture discards and dehumanizes the “other” both systematically and individually.
The final pages of Inferno #1 where the long-dead Destiny returns, are effective because he lays the groundwork for the character drama over the course of his entire story.Mystique’s growing frustration with Professor X and Magneto, her desire to have Destiny returned to her, has been simmering for two years. Moira and Mystique have been on a collision course since House of X #3.
But, again, Hickman has already made it clear what the outcome to these events will be. Mystique will burn this nation to the ground to get what she was promised. The cards have always been on the table. The tension exists in what we know that the characters do not. It is not enough to revive a dead character from a past story and reveal him or her just to remind fans of the old story where the character died. Without laying the foundation for the character conflict, without the intentional work to tie that history to the themes of the story you are telling, all that exists are the references in and of themselves.
Amazing Spider-Man and Inferno might both draw on the history of their franchises to tell their story but only one uses that history to move the franchise forward. Hickman’s X-Men is a culmination of decades of ongoing publishing history. It is a story of an oppressed people joining together to apply their combined voice and power against the systems that seek to beat them down. Inferno reveals the cracks in the foundation when egos and personal vendettas within those communities inevitably creep in. I cannot even guess what Spencer’s intended themes might have been.
Though I am spending most of this piece referring to the writers, it has to be said that comics are not the product of a single mind or vision–or at least they shouldn’t be. Jonathan Hickman has had an editorial team that supported his story with a consistent visual identity. House of X/Powers of X was defined by the art from Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, and Marte Gracia whose stunning, detailed, and action-packed artwork ushered in a bold new era that expanded and redefined the look and feel of the X-Men series. When the X-Men ongoing launched with Leinil Yu on pencils, the series took on a more visceral look that suited this new proactive era of mutantdom, a group of beautiful and tough super beings redefining the world. While several artists stepped in after Yu left the title around issue 8, the series’ other primary artist was Mahmud Asrar, who captured similar energy to Larraz and Silva, but with an angular and sharp line quality that suited those issues’ themes about the danger of runaway technology. Colorist Sunny Gho provided colors for the full run, giving the book a brightness and clarity that spoke to the newfound hope for the long-beleaguered heroes.The graphic design and integration of data pages from Tom Muller has also defined a specific look and feel
And while Inferno will have a rotating team of artists joining Hickman they are consistent with the visuals already established, including the return of Powers of X artist R.B. Silva. The series is not plugging holes with rotating artists every second page, but intentionally creating a coherent visual throughline that complements the rest of the series.
Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, has been a visual mess since the departure of Ryan Ottley, whose spellbinding, kinetic artwork and thick, cartoony lines evoked a playful Romita era joy that was familiar but with enough of a modern twist to be fresh. Spencer’s story largely fell off the rails after Ottley departed, perhaps in part because he elevated his material. For most of the rest of the time, the book was drawn by a rotating cast of artists, many inexperienced and not up to the task of headlining the premiere Marvel Comics character. In an attempt to grind out a single Spider-Man title on a near-weekly basis the book soon devolved into issues that had 2, 3, 4, or 16 artists working on a single issue.
The lack of visual consistency or attention to comics making as a craft is another way Amazing Spider-Man failed to create a satisfying experience. It takes for granted the artist, discounting what a consistent and skilled visual storyteller brings to a collaborative medium. With no one to join him for the long haul, Spencer becomes a singular architect. Even the rare strong visionary (Patrick Gleason for example, who appeared for one or two storylines to create stunning imagery of no dramatic importance) could not resuscitate an ultimately hollow narrative.
The differences between Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men and Nick Spencer’s Spider-Man, though similar in ambition, make clear that it is not enough to simply remix old stories without a strong and declarative statement on the characters you are writing. Lacking that point of view, all of the retcons and callbacks fall apart under the weight of their paper thin foundation.
There is a version of Nick Spencer’s Spider-Man that pulls off whatever he was trying to do, but it requires putting all the elements he held back until the final moments on the table much earlier and allowing the knowledge of those revelations to impact Peter in some way. It is clear that Spencer left before he intended to, and he dumps all of his plot points at once without doing the work to connect them to the three preceding years. But after all that time, that he still had not incorporated any of these revelations into the narrative is a stark and shocking failure.
Amazing Spider-Man #74. Again, 16 people worked on the art in this issue. I don’t know who drew this page.
Hickman has shown, in just the first issue of his 4 issue conclusion, that by intentionally working in the elements critical to your overarching story from the beginning, even if the resolution comes earlier than expected, those pieces can be put together satisfyingly, especially with a committed and consistent artistic identity to help navigate the story. These kinds of ambitious storytelling projects are unique to superhero comics, and Marvel in particular since it has never rebooted its stories, and these two eras stand as a testament to the potential for this kind of longform narrative to either have a triumphant payoff or torment readers with empty promises and hollow callbacks.