Read This/Burn This

Posted: June 18, 2009 in comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

Reading ComicsOr, comics reviews!

I’ve been looking around lately for the next “representative” comic series for some time. Now, this does tend to tie into how the story ends – a book could have a great first year, then veer wildly off-course, hurting its chances of long-term respectability – but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

By “representative,” I’m talking about longer books you can easily pass on to a casual comics reader without reservations. I’m thinking of series like Sandman, Preacher, or Transmetropolitan – all long-form stories with a clear beginning, middle and end – and all pretty firmly tied to the previous decade. So my interest has been in this decade’s contenders:

Most people focus on Brian Vaughan’s “Y: The Last Man” as a prime player for “Best of Decade” status, but something about it left me cold. It seemed lacking in some essential personality – or perhaps its apocalyptic premise of a world without men that slips into Mad Max territory was a little too far out for me to get behind.

Ex machinaBut far more to my tastes is Ex Machina, rounding into its final year and still featuring the lovely art of Tony Harris, who’s lightyears beyond his very good work on Starman (another series I consider a 90’s great – I’ll get into my love for that one some other time).

Ex Machina follows new mayor of New York Mitchell Hundred – formerly the world’s only superhero, who parlayed his local fame into a political career (and oh yeah, saved one of the twin towers on 9/11) – as he and his staff try to figure out new ways of contending with both the day-to-day bullshit (controversial public-funded art) and the actually important (a seeming serial killer targeting snow plow drivers).

Meanwhile there’s still the question of the somewhat mysterious Mitchell – including the real nature of his machine-telepathy powers.

The premise does read a lot like “What if ‘The West Wing’ had a super-powered character?”, but ultimately, it brings that show’s love of civic duty and interpersonal relations (this is very much a talking-heads book – leading me to wonder if the superhero flashbacks angle was concocted just to break up the routine a little) to a comics format.

And Vaughan’s a skillful storyteller, in subtle ways I can’t always put my finger on. He’s not as bombastic as an Ellis, as imagination-driven as a Morrison, or as obviously craft-oriented as a Brubaker. He’s just (and this sounds like it’s damning with faint praise, but I mean this in the highest regard) very, very competent. He knows how to tell a story, how to pace it, and he never seems to show off.

(The book is also frequently funny in its character interactions: when Mitch scolds a reporter for asking “retarded questions,” realizing about three seconds too late he’s going to get busted on his use of “retarded.”)

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days is recommended.


On the other end of the spectrum: Rex Mundi, a book that not only did I not like – but started to actively piss me off with its ineptitude.

The curious-enough concept – a search for the holy grail couched in a murder mystery, set in an alternate-history Europe where the Holy RomanRex Mundi Empire never lost footing – seemed like a solid start to set a series, and it did get some pretty good reviews, so I gave it a shot.

I’m just gonna run down the list of how completely this book fucked up:

– The alternate-history stuff doesn’t inform the plot at all, since the plot is, with minor alterations, The Maltese Falcon. All history-changing concepts are relegated to a mock-newspaper between chapters that fills in details the actual story can’t be bothered with. Within the story itself, there are other historical changes that are completely arbitrary (wow, the Confederacy won the civil war? Neat…but the action never sets foot in America, so who gives a damn?).

– All of that might have been forgivable if any of the characters were fleshed out AT ALL. But the protagonist, who is a doctor but also for some (unexplained) reason an investigator, has absolutely no personal characteristics, or even a consistent speech pattern (I can accept a lot of dialogue quirks, but a guy who refers to the police as “gendarmes” can’t also tersely answer a question with, “Yep”). His chief trait? He’s drawn to look like Johnny Depp.
This is the most pandering description I’ve read since “The DaVinci Code,” where the lead character was described as looking “like Harrison Ford in a tweed jacket.” (And yes, Depp’s been cast in the movie adaptation).

(Oh, and his priest-buddy is named “Father Marin.” This would be like me naming a detective character Marlowe and hoping nobody called me on it.)

– But let’s get to the writing itself. The first ten pages are exposition. Long, long, long exposition about vaguely-referenced, secret-type stuff we don’t have any context for, and so can’t possibly care about.
This is not nitpicking. This is pretty important to the introduction of a new world – all the alternate history and secret societies mean nothing if the audience doesn’t have some kind of emotional investment or at least physical grounding.

– The first-person narration offers no insight, but is rather that useless  “Here’s what I’m doing, which you can see by the panels you’re viewing but I’m going to narrate anyway” voiceover style.

– The writer sticks to the doctor’s (needless) POV narration for five issues, until he arbitrarily switches it over to the femme fatale’s for two pages, and then switches it back. He also switches his tenses pretty willy-nilly, too, to add drama to a chase scene.
Point of View is a pretty easy element to get right. If only one character has been telling a story for five issues, you can’t just have someone else interject from their point of view to fill in story elements the storyteller can’t possibly know, just to give some details directly to the reader.
That’s cheating.

Now, I may be cruelly denouncing the book before I’ve gotten to the meat of the story. It has run, so far, six books, after all. But the idea of asking someone to sit through more than six issues of this utter crap is baffling to me.

Because I try to find one bright spot in anything I’m reading, I’ll say this: the art was kind of nice, if a little busy. But I would never recommend something based on art alone.

Rex Mundi: Guardian of the Temple is not at all, in any way, shape, or form, recommended.

Sooo…what else should I be reading? If only to angry up my blood a little?

  1. braak says:

    Read that one that takes place inside the giant whale.

  2. V.I.P. Referee says:

    But you’re our pulp guru, Holland. If you ask us to suggest comics, it’ll only confuse the masses. We need direction…

    …and guess what? “Sandman” is being made INTO A MOVIE. I think Winona Ryder was a first choice for “death” (although, that info could’ve just resulted from an industry game of “Telephone” because I think she completed a title called “Sex and Death 101” a couple of years ago)…

    …so, I dig those storylines dealing with social establishments, when they include abnormal or, at least, extremely eccentric protagonists who rustle things up just by being themselves; characters who aren’t contrite and polished, but sociological oddities–nomatter how justifiable their person, considering life circumstances–that they’re bound to cause ripples just by existing (a characterisitic of off-kilter “mains”: they can rescue many a storyline just by being off-kilter). Historically, these are the “chosen ones”—people who, from all perspectives of study, could be considered to have a special “gift” for causing trouble. Characters like “John Constantine” of “Hellblazer” and “V” from “V for Vendetta” come to mind; most people are too caught up in their respective lives to care enough about some ancient secret cloistered in The Vatican; it might be fascinating enough to punch around but, like you said with “Neat…but the action never sets foot in America, so who gives a damn?” it’s a removed kind of observation. Protagonists that are charismatic obsessives (intense, yet vulnerable), involved in some quest for “truth” or absolution, will bring readers with them to the scene of the problem and make it seem relevant to everyone because they are everyone—someone to project upon, which is a main element of any great idol, god or savior.

    What was the question, again?

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Ok, I meant: “Rex Mundi” might’ve been bearable sans Mr. Johnny Depp-Hair.

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    effective idol, god or savior. I think being “great”, in any of the aformentioned positions, is an assumed deal.

  5. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I did mean “contrived” and not “contrite”, by the way. This is why I couldn’t blog—too neurotic…

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    Two things:

    1) After reading the second “Ex Machina” trade, I’ve decided that what Brian Vaughan does best is infuse his story/characters with a sense of humor that doesn’t distract from the narrative, and that makes you believe in the characters even more.

    He doesn’t have “the funny character.” He simply has characters that periodically display an intelligent sense of humor, or creates a scene that doesn’t necessarily have to be humorous, but still does – because sometimes things are funny.

    What I’m thinking of here is a moment when Mitchell Hundred takes a moment away from talking to someone to issue this command to his apartment: “Air Conditioner: Stop fucking rattling!”

    2) Not quite worth a separate review, but one of the other recent ongoing series I think people will be referring to for decades to come is Brian Wood’s “DMZ,” about a rookie reporter stranded in the war-torn Manhattan in the midst of a second civil war. When the first trade came out two years ago, I said this: “Brian Wood combines the high-octane action of his Couriers books with his stark, paranoid design sense and strong character work to create the best Vertigo series since Transmetropolitan ended.” And I stand by that today.

    “DMZ: On The Ground” is recommended:

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