Comic Review: Love in Vain, Robert Johnson, 1911-1938 (2016)

Comics

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Love in Vain tackles one of American pop-culture’s most enduring, mysterious, and interesting figures, bluesman Robert Johnson, and retells his life-story in a widescreen graphic novel format. Some might say that there is a certain redundancy in telling the life story of a musician, particularly one who’s sound was as unique and prophetic as Johnson’s, in a soundless medium; but J.M. Dupont’s non-fiction / prose-poetry writing style (newly translated into English from it’s original French by Ivanka Hahnenberger) and Mezzo’s scratchy, seedy, and filthy art style captures the existential darkness that was the center of Johnson’s best songs.

Love in Vain is quite a short comic, clocking in at 56 pages. It can easily be read in one sitting, and that’s how I did it and would recommend all readers to do it (It might also be advisory to have a copy of Peter Guralnick’s brilliant summation of Johnson’s life, Searching for Robert Johnson, by your tableside). The sparse, stripped down writing style, echoing the non-fiction that Dupont so fearlessly searched through, communicates Johnson’s life-story with the bare minimum of detail. This sparse prose is punctuated by haunting pieces of original poetry. Take for example, the opening rhymes of the comic:

Poor Robert, your life ended in tragedy – which the angels must consider well deserved…

But before judgement is served, they need to understand your choice – to be a sinner with a demonic voice…

And why you burned your life to hell.

This is the tale I’m here to tell.

Dupont’s prose / poetic style is simple and clean-cut, and suspiciously doesn’t try to invoke the lyrical simplicity of Johnson’s own writings. There’s a clue here in who the true narrator is of the comic – a revelation that comes in the final page’s glory of excess and debauchery.

However, as good as Dupont’s writing style may be, the true artist-supreme of the book is Mezzo, who’s scratchy, stark black and white illustrations illuminate each and every wide-screen vista. Where Dupont’s writing might skip on some of the psychological ramifications of Johnson’s costly lifestyle, in Mezzo’s artwork the costs are writ clear on Johnson’s tortured face. He might be portrayed as debauched and amoral, but Mezzo imbues his illustrations with the secret, silent suffering that Johnson endured through all his trials. No illustration communicates this more than a scene set just after Johnson has buried his wife and child. Mezzo’s illustration invokes Bertolt Brecht’s silent scream – a howl of pain that cannot be uttered for fear of revenge from a force beyond your comprehension. It’s a howl of pain that carries throughout all of Johnson’s bleakly nihilistic music. It’s a howl that his many imitators have crafted into the very bones of all contemporary music, from hip-hop to rock.

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Hahnenberger’s translation reads: Some would say that God made Robert suffer to test his faith. I’m not so sure – I think he knew that this lamb was a wrong ‘un, and so he struck him down and cast him out of the flock.

There are few faults that one can find in Dupont and Mezzo’s extraordinary exploration of the life of Robert Johnson. I can only say I finished this comic wanting to know more – it’s brevity is both it’s success and it’s failure. I suppose it corresponds to the general lack of information regarding Robert Johnson’s life and death; the mists of time have obscured him forever beyond our reach. To extend the page length, Mezzo provides an illustrated song book, setting a few of Johnson’s lyrics alongside some murky charcoal portraits. His illustrations evoke the lyrics brilliant way. Ultimately, this graphic novel ranks among the best artistic expeditions into the life of Robert Johnson. You’d be a sucker to miss it out.

10/10.

Comic Review: Wonder Woman: Earth One (2016)

Comics

Wonder Woman Earth One Cover

It’s very convenient that Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s long gestating Wonder Woman: Earth One should be released so soon after the character’s debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (read my review here). Many viewers of that film will want to jump into a Wonder Woman comic and test out the source-material. Earth One in many respects is a great jumping on point, but also isn’t. It’s an absolutely fantastic, well-written, beautifully illustrated origin story for Diana Prince; but it’s also veeery different from the Wonder Woman we see in the film, and will see in her future solo film. For new readers who want the classic Wonder Woman, I’d suggest George Pérez’s classic run or Greg Rucka’s newer stuff.

In many interviews, Grant Morrison has talked about how he had gone back to the original Marston issues of Wonder Woman and discovered a very different character; one swamped in the sexual kinks of it’s author, a purpose-built icon of feminism, and a champion for the queer. Whilst Marston’s original creation might not fly in today’s feminist world, Morrison has re-incorporated these elements into the character for his new origin story.

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Diana’s curiosity gets the better of her.

The result is a graphic novel that celebrates alternative sexuality, the queer, and feminism in the modern world. It’s an undercurrent that informs many of Diana’s interactions with people, from her first hilarious meeting with Steve Trevor (the first male she’s ever seen in a lifetime of thousands of years), to her understanding of consenting submission as an ultimate expression of compassion and care. The book never feels exploitative of it’s subject matter, something that the comics industry of today could easily have done, and it results in a book that manages to capture the essential characteristics of Wonder Woman in the same way that Grant Morrison captured Superman in his epic masterpiece, All Star Superman.

Earth One will especially appeal to readers who are bored by the standard brawling superhero narratives and want something a bit more introspective and thematically resonant with their own lives. I can’t recall a single fist being thrown by Diana. There is very little action in this comic, and some of the best moments in the narrative are seeing how Diana handles situations that male characters such as Superman or Batman would solve with their fists. Diana’s essential characteristic is that she sees the best in people and wants to take care of them, to protect them from harm. She is the definition of compassion, and her views on the modern world are extremely prescient in this day and age.

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Earth One isn’t without it’s minor flaws. Elizabeth Candy, a minor supporting character who teaches Wonder Woman a few things about the place of women in “man’s world,” isn’t a particularly deep character. She basically serves to teach Diana about the modern world and beyond that doesn’t have much of a relationship with her despite assertions that she and Diana are great friends. Another minor quip is that this volume feels very much like the first act of a three act origin story. That’s nothing to complain about, as Morrison and Paquette have said they’d love to do further volumes, but by the time I finished the book I just wanted the next one. One last criticism is one that I have for the rest of the Earth One books too. I don’t feel this is a very cohesive universe at the moment. None of the books have made any effort to integrate with each other. And whilst there hasn’t been much published just yet, the line started in 2010 and the books have yet to come together. In the upcoming volumes, I would like to see some references to previous events on this world peppered in for the eventual Justice League: Earth One.

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Paquette’s Paradise Island is an absolute marvel to behold.

Paquette’s artwork in this slim volume perfectly captures Morrison’s ideas and plot, with stunning panel layouts and beautifully composed panels. Paquette really is one of the best artists in the business, and his beautiful art is complemented by Nathan Fairbairn’s stunningly rich colours. Wonder Woman: Earth One might already be the best-looking graphic novel of 2016.

Wonder Woman: Earth One is the best of the Earth One books that have published, beating out even the much-loved Batman: Earth One volumes. Morrison handles the limited page count better than the other writers who have published books in the line, and successfully delivers a stunning superhero narrative that is fresh, compelling, utterly different from any other, and full of optimism, positivity, diversity, and celebratory depictions of non-heteronormative sexuality. It’s a must-read for anyone who loves Wonder Woman, the comics form, or has struggled with their own sexuality. Hell, give this to any bigots you might know, and they might change their mind. It’s that good.

9/10.

Comic Review: X-O Manowar Deluxe Edition HC Vol. 1 (2013)

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This graphic novel collects X-O Manowar issues 1-14.

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In many ways, X-O Manowar cannot be considered an original comic, either in concept or execution. The main character, Aric of Dacia, a 5th Century Visigoth, is a strange mix of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. His enemies, the Vine, are an alien species intent on killing him and all of Earth if it comes to that. None of it rings particularly original, does it?

But you don’t come to X-O Manowar for originality (or a great name for a comic, it appears). Rather, you come for great characters and great action. It’s been a while since I’ve read such a comic that manages to fuse both great action scenes and genuine character development. Across the 14 issues collected in this beautiful hardcover, you will be genuinely thrilled.

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The action is always intense and dynamic in X-O Manowar.

The first storyline, By the Sword, is an entertaining origin story of the lead character. Aric of Dacia is taken from his 5th Century world into the present day by the alien species the Vine. He is a slave on one of their many command ships. After a rebellion, he manages to break free, steal sacred armour, and return to Earth. It’s the definition of decompressed storytelling, and probably only has enough story to fill one, maybe two issues. But the action-sequences are so well executed by Cary Nord that it’s hard to complain.

Whilst the collection works as a standalone story, the appearance of Ninjak in the second storyline hints at a larger shared universe of characters.

Whilst the collection works as a standalone story, the appearance of Ninjak in the second storyline hints at a larger shared universe of characters.

The second storyline, Enter: Ninjak continues this origin story as Aric gets used to the modern world. The leaders of the Vine employ the assassin Ninjak and a Vine seedling called Alexander Dorian to eliminate Aric and steal back the armour. Things don’t go according to plan, and as the three warriors meet head-on sparks will fly. This is a genuinely good volume, filled with lots of characterization in between the major action set pieces. It also serves as the rebooted introduction to Valiant’s fan-favourite Ninjak. I’m not too familiar with the character, but I enjoyed his appearances in this volume and would like to see more of him.

Trevor Hairsine provides some incredible artwork in the prelude to Planet Death.

Trevor Hairsine provides some incredible artwork in the prelude to Planet Death.

The final storyline, Planet Death, is the volume’s piece de-résistance. The Vine prepares their invasion / extermination of Earth, and all that stands between them and annihilation is Aric. However, the volume takes a surprising twist by Aric defeating the invasion easily (though at a personal cost), and then taking the fight to the Vine home world of Loam. It’s a genuinely brilliant storyline and the best one in the volume. Not to be missed.

A large part of the series’ success is the stellar artwork on display. Cary Nord illustrates the larger half of the collection, with Lee Garbett (aided by inker Stefano Gaudiano) and Trevor Hairsine lending their talents as well. While their styles vary, and it can be a bit jarring switching between the illustrators, all are top talents and you can’t really complain when the artwork is just that strong. Cary Nord does some particularly strong artwork in the third arc, Planet Death, which is full of dark blacks and firm lines. In many ways, it’s a callback to an earlier style of illustrating comics, and it is refreshingly simple. The lack of detail is it’s strongest point, because the characters somehow feel heavier in appearance and thus more real.

X-O Manowar provides Conan artist Cary Nord with some rich material. His artwork is frequently beautiful and astonishing.

The action wouldn’t be as well executed as it is if it wasn’t for some great writing by Robert Venditti, who balances action with some good character development. None of the violence feels unnecessary and every time Aric charges into battle, it feels like he has purpose and isn’t just there to take names. Likewise, the supporting cast is also really interesting, particularly Alexander Dorian, Ninjak, and the High Priest of the Vine. This last character in particular is interesting, as the High Priest brings a lot of nuance to the villains of the book, fleshing out the history, culture, and motivations of the Vine.

My only complaint with the comic would probably be a notable lack of female representation. Whilst an argument could be made that Aric hasn’t stopped fighting since the events of the first issue, and thus he hasn’t had time to meet any female characters, any women present within the pages are in beds or insinuated to be there primarily to have sex with the male characters. This isn’t often, and it only happens in two instances. I hope to see this rectified within the future events of the series, as it does feel a bit off-kilter because the book is just populated with few women. I don’t think the book is outright sexist in its depiction of women, but some work could be done in this respect. For all I know, it already has been and I haven’t just read it yet, so really it is a minor concern. Valiant Comics (the publisher) is known for its diversity so I imagine it will occur sometime later in the series.

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All in all, X-O Manowar is an incredibly entertaining, action-packed science-fiction series that will please all readers. It’s also a great starting place for anyone interested in the recent Valiant Comics reboot. It does everything that you could want a mainstream superhero comic to do, but with the refreshing qualities of independent publishing. I cannot wait for the second volume.

8/10.

Comic Review: Strange Fruit #001 (2015)

Comics

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Storytellers: J. G. Jones & Mark Waid, Art: J. G. Jones, Lettering: Deron Bennett

After the massive controversy surrounding the first issue of Strange Fruit, I thought it time to read the issue myself and write something about it. I’ve been looking forward to the series since it was announced. Mark Waid is one of my favourite current writers of comics, and the fact that J. G. Jones was on art duties was another plus. The fact that he was painting the entire thing was incredible too. I’ve only read two other comics by Jones, Wanted (2003-2005) by Mark Millar and Final Crisis (2008-2009) by Grant Morrison, and whilst the artwork inside both books is pencilled the covers were all painted. And the covers were the best pieces of art in both books.

My first impression upon reading the comic is just how stellar the artwork is. I mean, it really is just absolutely incredible. It’s comparable to Alex Ross’ much acclaimed artwork on Kingdom Come (1996) and Marvels (1994), but with its own unique flavour. Furthermore, Jones heightens the intensity of the story with his highlights and beautiful, rich colours. The colours made me think of classic Technicolor films, like Gone With the Wind (1939).

J. G. Jones' use of colour in his beautiful paintings was reminiscent of classic Hollywood Technicolor films.

J. G. Jones’ use of colour in his beautiful paintings was reminiscent of classic Hollywood Technicolor films.

The story itself is problematic, but I don’t think it deserves the huge controversy that it has received. The concept of the book is basically re-imagining Superman as if he was black, and having crash-landed in the Mississippi delta in 1927, an era and place that was a hot-bed of racism and racial inequality.

The writing itself is good, but as with perhaps most first issues, I feel that Waid is only just getting started. We meet a few characters, but none get too sketched out psychologically – there’s too much ground to cover in this first issue, and I think because of that the characterisation is lacking. I’m sure these characters will get richer and more complex as the next few issues come out, but at the moment it does feel a bit like you’re watching cardboard cut outs talking.

The controversy over the story was first raised by J. A. Micheline in a review entitled “The White Privilege, White Audacity, and White Priorities of Strange Fruit #1.” Her argument centers itself around the fact that an entirely white creative team sought to write something about racism:

This comic never should have been made. Not because there were missteps, not because Waid and Jones didn’t mean well, and not because white people should never write about black people at all. This comic should never have been made because there is too long a history of white people writing stories about racism and blackness, too long a history of white people shaping these tales to their own purposes, too long a history of white people writing about what they genuinely cannot understand. And above all, too long a history of white people, particularly men, being able to do this.

Mark Waid and J. G. Jones have crafted a troubling but compelling read.

Mark Waid and J. G. Jones have crafted a troubling but compelling read.

First off, I have a problem with anybody saying that certain stories should not be written by certain people. That just seems a bit inane to me. I do however have to say, despite my love for Mark Waid’s writing, that Micheline does have point about Waid and Jones’ approach to the material.

Waid and Jones do seem to only be able to understand the racism of the era through racial violence and the Ku Klux Klan. That’s a bit problematic for me because it’s a massive oversimplification of the problems of the era. The racism extended way beyond the violence depicted in the book. Waid does show hints of that, but sparingly; racism in Strange Fruit is driven by violence. It does give the impression that outside of violence, life for African Americans people in Mississippi is not too bad. Sure, they live in poverty, but other than the occasional violence of white people life is ok. This is hugely problematic.

What really happened is that, despite the emancipation of slaves in America in 1865, the racists of the South sought to effectively continue the enslavement of African Americans. This meant hiring them at plantations and elsewhere for manual labour, but paying them at such a low rate that there is no social mobility. For all intents and purposes, it was slavery. This system was called sharecropping, and essentially black farmers would be able to work on plantation land, and have their own land rented on it, in exchange for giving up some of the crops they made.

Strange Fruit only occasionally deals with the racism of the era outside of the violence.

Strange Fruit only occasionally deals with the racism of the era outside of the violence.

The first issue of Strange Fruit isn’t conscious of this. It’s a big concern, especially when you’re writing a story so focused and conscious of racial inequality. Whereas the art captures the era, the writing leaves something to be desired.

My final issue with the book is the ending of issue 1. Our black hero, the nameless Superman of the book, finally appears. He’s stark naked, massively muscled and huge, and set against a sky filled with lightning. There is no sense of goodness about him, only a primal threat. It’s reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster in many ways. He then proceeds to disband and defeat a few KKK members who are trying to lynch Sonny, another significant black character in the book. He’s entirely naked whilst doing so, only covering up his appendage with a confederate flag. I liked this part of the ending, if only because here was a supposed black hero reclaiming his southern origins and making it his own and re-empowering the trodden upon. But the fact that the hero is so muscled and naked is a massive problem.

The history of whites speaking about a

The history of whites speaking about a “sexual primal threat” from black men makes the first, Frankenstein-like appearance of Strange Fruit’s hero problematic.

Basically, there is a history of whites sexualising the black body – in essence making the black man something of a sexual threat to the innocent white women of the South. We can see this in terms such as Mandingos. Basically, it rids the characters of any sense of character or self and replaces it with a primal, sexual threat. Think savages running around naked in the jungle and that’s basically the problem here.

The hero of the book is nothing but sexual threat when he first appears. I question if he really had to be naked. Sure, Superman was naked when he first arrived, but that’s not problematic considering there isn’t a history of racism against whites. Here it is, and having this cobbled together with the depiction of racism in the South leaves a troubling book.

I personally think these problems are unintentional. I don’t think Waid or Jones are racists. But I think having a black man or woman being part of the creative team would have stopped these problems from obscuring the generally interesting story that Waid and Jones have crafted. The artwork is stellar too. I just hope in future issues the problematic representation of the era can be dealt with. Waid is an intelligent and thought-provoking writer, so I think that’s entirely possible.

7/10