comics, comics criticism, no context comics, writing

No Context Comics – A Look at 3 New Comics I Don’t Read – 8/31/22 NCBD

A nice mix of characters and ideas I am familiar with but not following and things completely new to me in this week’s picks. Any week where I get to read a book with Phil Noto art is a good week.

I am enjoying the big events at Marvel and DC right now, but it is nice to jump into these one-off issues and free myself from the compulsion to read every chapter to enjoy a comic book.

The Variants #3

Gail Simone, Phil Noto, Cory Petit

I appreciate that Marvel provides the summary pages for their comics. Even when I am reading a book month-to-month I often refer to the summary page as a quick refresher. I think it is a great practice that doesn’t really steal away anything from the issue in total. That said, the intro here doesn’t provide a full picture of just what is going on.

And I think that’s a good thing! Jessica Jones has just encountered alternate universe versions of herself and has reason to believe her mind control by the Purple Man is going to come back to haunt her and hurt her family. She is disoriented and confused. 

I think Jessica Jones is a great character that hasn’t had a lot of chances to shine within the Marvel Universe proper. Bendis had her as a pretty big supporting player in his Avengers run but after he left she didn’t get as much play as she deserved, despite a Netflix show whose first season was a critical darling. Gail Simone (who we really don’t see enough of anymore) channels what made the character special under Bendis’s pen, making Jess feel both gruff and compassionate. Her reaction to seeing a younger version of herself untouched by the Purple Man’s evil was a particularly powerful moment. 

I know we are going all-in on multiverse stuff in pop culture right now for some reason (existential dread of planetary collapse and a desire to imagine a different world maybe?) and it is occasionally groan-worthy when we get, particularly at Marvel, so many “What if this character had another character’s powers?” This book manages to make it work, however, because there is a real desire to explore how different choices color Jessica’s already complicated opinion of herself. How does seeing herself as the hopeful, optimistic hero she envisioned herself to be when she was younger impact her in the present? How does seeing herself as the leader of the Avengers make her feel about her choices to step away from superheroics? All of that is compelling, even if it is not fully dug into in this issue. The threads are there, though, and they work as a character study.

One thing that is often missing in modern superhero stories, particularly with the glut of them in various media, is how they can be used to powerfully grapple with real, personal issues on an exaggerated scale. Creators who do not really get superheroes often reduce them to action smashemups without much under the surface. Really, it’s the source of the “Superman isn’t an interesting character” argument. If you only view superhero stories in terms of power level and who is stronger, then you miss a key element of what made them so enduring and culturally powerful. 

And in particular we have missed out on a lot of grappling with and exploration of women’s issues in superhero comics just by the nature of its audience and focus on men for so long. The Variants reflects that tradition of expanding personal struggles into high concept adventure stories. Certainly with Jessica Jones, you don’t want to reduce her to her trauma but she provides an opportunity to grapple with big themes in meaningful and empowering ways. I am certainly not qualified to speak fully on where this story falls in terms of dealing with it in an empathetic or meaninful way. But it appears to me that Simone is being very careful and thoughtful in her approach. She understands the character and how to tell a superhero story that speaks to the humanity at the center of its lead. I enjoyed how Simone is using the multiverse conceit to literalize Jessica’s inner battles. 

Something that confused me tthroughout the book, is the image on the recap/credits page where Jessica sees four versions of herself, one of which is not present. They specifically say there are four variants, but the  fourth variant we meet here is someone entirely different, and I am not sure who the verson of Jess in the mask is? Maybe that’s answered in the previous issues. I found it distracting, though.

I also enjoy seeing She-Hulk in this issue and leaning into the personal relationships that Jessica has forged with other characters over the years (both in retcons and in “present day”). An important element of Jessica Jones are the close bonds she has forged among other female heroes and the way they support one another. I hope to see that get a lot more play particularly as She Hulk comes to prominence on-screen and the possibility of Jess returning to the screen raises all of their profiles.

This is a pretty quiet chapter, all things considered. But as a number 3 that is to be expected. The variants have all come together to compare notes and figure out what the heck is going on. The way they interact feels distinct from one another and gives us new sides of Jessica.

And this issue’s ending raises the personal stakes as Jessica’s family gets pulled into whatever is at the heart of these mysterious arrivals. Jess and Luke are maybe my favorite comics couple so having their relationship at the core of this story gives them both a chance to shine. They are a great example of how to make an interesting and compelling healthy relationship without limiting either one. A testament to the groundwork Bendis laid and the attention to their inner-character that Simone gives them here.

If I had any criticism here, it is that I wish that Noto had done a little bit more to differentiate the different versions of Jessica. Jewel is easy to pick out but the Captain America version and the “Omega” version, a former agent of S.W.O.R.D have very little to differentiate them from 616 Jessica. Omega in particular is wearing a near identical outfit, with only a different color shirt. Noto is masterful at subtle gestures and imbuing his characters with personality so a bit more differentiation in the way the different Jessicas carry themselves or their expressions would really up this story to another level.

But I can’t complain too much about Noto’s art. I love how he constructs the page and his overall style. I don’t know how he manages to pack so much information onto a page and keep it so clear. This is a visually compelling book that is a joy to read. I will definitely be returning to this series to read it all in one go–I am hooked enough on the mystery of what is going on and the personal exploration to want to find out more.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #297

Larry Hama, Andrew Lee Griffith and Netho Diaz, Maria Keane, J Brown, Neil Uyetake

It’s the final G.I. Joe story from IDW! Larry Hama is writing it. Surely this has to be over the top, right? 

You bet.

This is an issue full of nonsensical action, a naked, cloned Genghis Khan, and a Cobra Commander demanding to know why the G.I. Joes are in his casino. I don’t know that there is really much to say here. This is a big fight issue. It’s very weird. The art is messy but competent if a little stilted at times.

Hama does not care if you know what is going on or why Genghis Khan has been brought to life. He assumes you know, at nearly issue 300, who these various action figures are and doesn’t bother with any helpful captions or even using many names in his dialogue. This is a comic for the dudes with 17 shelves full of Snake Eye variants in their house. I am not one of those dudes so this was almost completely impenetrable to me.

I am hot and cold on Hama and his in-your-face no subtext style. When it works it works and when it doesn’t it completely falls apart. I recently read a bunch of Batman issues he wrote and about half of those were garbage and the other half were just extremely fun.  This feels more like Hama in the mode I like him in. 

This is maybe the clearest example so far of how insular longrunning comics can be. If you’re able to just push aside not knowing the characters you can let yourself be carried away on the fun.

I have to assume that Hama is at a point in writing G.I. Joe now where he is just trying to see what nonsense he can get away with and, frankly, good for him. I am sure people who are Hama-heads will love this. 

I am a bit baffled by it. It was fun though. Probably not going to dig into the G.I. Joe archives any time soon after reading this one, however..

Red Sonja #12

Mirka Andolfo & Luca Blengino, Giuseppe Cafaro,  Chiara di Francia, Jeff Eckleberry

I’ve got some preconceptions about Red Sonja and none of them are particularly charitable.  I can’t say this issue dissuaded all of them– but it did a few. Given how she is most traditionally presented and drawn on covers and in various commissions, I expected the issue to look like a Top Cow, Marc Silvestri production. I was surprised to see a far more cartoonish, animated approach. I was glad that Sonja seems to have developed beyond pure tittilation as had been my assumption of its primary purpose. 

But my assumptions about the quality of its stories or storytelling? This issue didn’t give me much to change my general conception of Dynamite’s output. There are moments and lines throughout the issue that are quite cool and designed as applause moments but they fall flat under an unclear conflict and difficult to follow art. 

After reading a few single issues now I feel confident in saying that an individual chapter owes readers at least some connective tissue and context. There is no clear beginning or end or stakes provided here. It starts unceremoniously at the tailend of a fight scene, Sonja runs off, and then fights a demon that possesses women and maybe one of them is her daughter?  Hama’s G.I. Joe is clearly a part of a larger story but he gives you enough information to follow the threads, even if they are weird threads.

I take it this is the last issue in a storyline, given that we get a villainous monologue explaining their plot. Unfortunately, that fails to clear anything up, in part because the art makes it difficult to follow who is speaking to who. The story the witch-demon-woman tells doesn’t really add up. She talks about human sacrifice to appease their demon but the daughter  lives. So if nobody gets hurt why is it a big deal what goes on? Couldn’ they have just explained to Red Sonja that they wanted to exorcise a demon from her daughter?  I dunno. The stakes are not clear.

I wish I had something positive to say about the art but it has an unfinished quality that seems to not quite understand some of the building blocks of the comics language. Panels are framed inconsistently and characters appear and disappear without a sign of where they popped up from. It is all very disorienting and difficult to follow logically. Caffaro’s lines are messy and lacking in detail. I don’t mind a minimalist style but the problem here is more that the imagery is barren and lifeless. A two-page spread where the demonic ritual is revealed is, I assume, meant to make the reader feel a sene of dread or terror. But it just looks like an empty cave with some squiggly lines and a couple of hooded people. There’s a lack of imagination and care in how the characters and environments are presented. Earlier, Sonja rides through a town completely barren of people or architecture, as if it was a low budget fantasy show that couldn’t afford extras or a set designer. The final battle takes place in an empty orange void.

Caffaro seems like a talented artist–there are a few static images and individual panels that are quite striking. But perhaps some more experience working on a deadline driven series will help overcome some of what seems like shortcuts or hasty storytelling decisions. 

I can’t say I feel drawn to read any more Red Sonja after dipping my toe in here. 

I think what’s interesting this week is that I read two books that both have no interest in catching you up to speed and while one was goofy fun the other was a slog. I think what it comes down to here is clarity of vision. Hama’s plot may be absurd but you know he has a point of view and an emotion he is trying to elicit (even if it is fairly shallow in this specific issue).  Unfortunately, Mirka Andolfo and Luca Blengino, the writers of Red Sonja seems less sure or less confident  of the point or emotion they wans readers to walk away with. The other factor is assuredly the art. I didn’t love the G.I Joe visuals but I could follow what was happening. I find it much easier to forgive bad writing than poor visuals.

Next week brings a look at a big-name, controversial, writer at the Big Two along with two very different creator owned projects. So stay tuned. And as always, I am open to suggestions on series worth checking out–No Context.

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