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

Comics

love-in-vain-high-res

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.

planche-love-in-vain-blues-bd-robert-johnson-glenat

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: Strange Fruit #001 (2015)

Comics

Strange Fruit 1

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

Comic Review: Aliens: Salvation (1993) Premiere-Edition Hardcover (2015) Review

Comics

Aliens Salvation 1

Script: Dave Gibbons, Pencils: Mike Mignola, Inks: Kevin Nowlan, Colours: Matt Hollingsworth, Lettering: Clem Robins

I was fairly excited for the release of this graphic novel. I had previously read the first volume of Dark Horse ComicsAliens omnibus, which I thought was compelling material. It was easily better than Alien3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997), and came close to the quality of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). So I had the distinct impression that Dark Horse’s Aliens comics were of a higher quality than most tie-in comics. While that is true, Aliens: Salvation doesn’t reach the storytelling highs of the initial comics trilogy, published in the omnibus; but with Mike Mignola illustrating and the interesting theme of interpreting the Alien mythology through Christianity, Salvation is a fun read that should satisfy and entertain most comics readers.

Selkirk's Christianity makes him a unique, complex character within the Aliens mythos.

Selkirk’s Christianity makes him a unique, complex character within the Aliens mythos.

Dave Gibbons is on writing duty here, and his story, while rather conventional for the Alien franchise (lone hero versus waves and waves of aliens), does provide some interesting re-interpretation of said franchise. By framing everything with the main character’s search for religious salvation, and believing that he has been sent by god to destroy the aliens, Gibbons casts the Aliens franchise into the realm of the classic gothic. It’s an interesting way of viewing the franchise, and adds a lot of psychological complexity to the main character, Selkirk. Outside of this framing device, though, the story is rather standard for an Aliens comic.

Selkirk’s christianity recasts the science-fiction horror of Aliens into the classic gothic.

But Dave Gibbons isn’t why I bought this. Rather, it’s the idea of Mike Mignola illustrating Aliens. Those films are probably the closest that cinema has come to depicting Mignola’s inky black style, and whilst this is done in some scenes in the comic, the story deprives the opportunity of that claustrophobia that the films had by setting it almost entirely in a jungle. Still, it’s great to see Mignola illustrate these scenes, and he handles the look of the aliens better than any other comic artist I’ve seen. As always his figure work is wonderful, and his unique style of illustration is always a pleasure to see. Mignola’s work is the real reason to read Aliens: Salvation; no one draws like he does.

Seeing Mike Mignola render the iconic aliens is the main draw of the comic.

As for the graphic novel itself, I was very slightly disappointed with the production. For just under £9.00 new you can’t really complain, but I wish Dark Horse had spent time remastering the pages. On quite a few pages the colouring isn’t quite what it should be; it’s never terrible, but it lacks the definition that I’m sure the artists wanted. It looks a bit fuzzy, almost as if Dark Horse had used low-quality images to print. It’s only a small nitpick though; for the most part the printing is good, and having it printed on thick, high-quality paper is great. Likewise, the title design and the new cover, illustrated by Mignola, are wonderful. It’s a nice looking book, in hardcover, and under £9.00. You can’t really complain about that!

Aliens: Salvation is your standard man vs. alien story, although beautifully illustrated by Mike Mignola.

Aliens: Salvation is your standard man vs. alien story, although beautifully illustrated by Mike Mignola.

Aliens: Salvation is a great way to spend an hour or two on a lazy afternoon (it’s a short read!). Gibbon’s script is interesting and thoughtful but ultimately a standard Aliens outing; don’t come to this looking for anything outside of what the franchise traditionally offers. Mike Mignola’s artwork makes the graphic novel well worth your time though, with his signature style well-matched with the franchise. The hardcover is a nice copy, even if the printing isn’t amazing, Worth a read for fans of the franchise, and for those dedicated to reading everything Mignola, the book is an interesting minor work of his.

7/10

Film Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

Comics, Film

Fantastic Four Poster

After reports of ridiculous production woes and months of online ridicule by comic-book fans, I almost wanted Fantastic Four to blow everyone’s socks off. It wasn’t the Fantastic Four movie I wanted, and that was apparent from the earliest trailers and snapshots, but it looked like it had the potential to be an interesting, hard science-fiction reimagining of some classic superhero material. Something along the lines of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick with some Cronenbergian body horror thrown in for good effect.

Unfortunately the film that we’ve got lives up to the reviews. Fantastic Four starts out weak and only gets weaker. None of the characters have any development or arc, the special effects are astonishingly bad at some points, and the film relies on just about every modern grim ‘n’ gritty superhero cliché you can imagine. It’s a shame because the film showed promise. With a proven director on board (I was a big fan of Josh Trank’s earlier Chronicle) and a talented cast, this could have been really good, if not the movie I was hoping for. Boy, was I wrong.

The film’s most basic problems lie structurally – there is no character development, 40-50 minutes of build up, and then a bizarre time jump after the fateful incident that gives the titular heroes their powers, and then about 30 minutes of characters giving Reed Richards a hard-time for “abandoning” his teammates, concluded with a less than stellar final battle. There is no single scene until the very end of the film where all four of the Fantastic Four are together. Say what you will about 2005’s Fantastic Four and it’s sequel – at least those films got the family dynamic and camaraderie right. None of the characters at a script-level have any charisma nor chemistry with others. These characters are flat. The actors do the best they can, Miles Teller in lead – but ultimately none of them prove that interesting. My heart goes out to Jamie Bell, who could’ve made a heart-breaking and tragic performance as the Thing given the chance.

The film fails to combine the realism intended with the four-colour superhero romp of the comics.

The film fails to combine the realism intended with the four-colour superhero romp of the comics.

However, the most important problem the film has is a lack of any artistic vision. From the outset (well, the first 40 minutes at least), the film builds a supposed realism along the lines of Man of Steel. However, unlike Man of Steel, it doesn’t commit to this realism; the moment the super-powered element is introduced, the realism falls apart. Man of Steel may not have been totally realistic, but it had a committed artistic vision – this was a modern Superman, one grounded in semi-explained science, and one that could do just about all the things Superman can do, including epic battles in the sky. Fantastic Four shares no such commitment – it’s stuck halfway between the realism established in the earlier scenes and the fun superhero romps that Marvel has built it’s empire on. It’s not totally impossible to combine the two, as last summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past showed, but it simply doesn’t materialise here.

The most offensive thing about Fantastic Four remains that Fox has now filmed three separate interpretations of the franchise. While I haven’t seen the 1994 version, I’ve not heard great things. The 2005 reboot was a fun family film that managed to pin the family dynamic but ultimately proved to be a naïve film and not that terribly deep. This represents their third incarnation, made yet again to keep the film rights, and yet again Fox have shown they don’t exactly know what to do with the franchise. They insist that they are pushing ahead with a sequel at this point. I don’t even really see the point considering the abysmal reception and box office numbers. The sad thing is that a great Fantastic Four movie is entirely possible. There are years of great stories to draw upon, and the Fantastic Four has easily some of the best Marvel villains – Galactus, Doctor Doom, Annihilus, Namor – and yet all we’ve seen is two incredibly weak iterations of Doom that seem scared to carry over the political dimensions of his character.

Doctor Doom, the film's biggest disappointment.

Doctor Doom, the film’s biggest disappointment.

Doom in this most recent film is particularly a disappointment. He really looks completely silly, and exudes no menace even when people’s heads start exploding (a tad too much violence for a superhero film, perhaps?). He looks even sillier when he dons the classic green cape and hood. It’s a shame because Toby Kebbell is another talented actor. I think the reshoots based on negative fan reaction early on to the hacktavist interpretation can explain some of the missing character arc for Doom, but even then, you can’t help but not take him seriously at all, even in this different version of the character. I simply laughed out loud when he said in the finale, “there is no Victor, only Doom!” It’s a shame considering he is possibly Marvel’s greatest villain.

Perhaps Marvel Studios can make an adaptation that will live up to the original comics.

Perhaps Marvel Studios can make an adaptation that will live up to the original comics.

If Fox pursue a sequel or move to create another version of the franchise in 10-15 years time, then it is out of spite. The thing to do is to let the rights lapse and go back to Marvel, so that they can give the fans the version of Fantastic Four we’ve all been waiting for. Even if that should happen though, I think the reputation of the franchise has been too badly tarnished. I don’t think it’s really that possible at the moment to reboot the franchise successfully. I hope Marvel can prove me wrong. Fantastic Four is easily one of the best franchises Marvel has on offer, and it would be a shame if the characters never translate onto the big screen faithfully.

Josh Trank tweet

Josh Trank’s since deleted tweet came just days before the debut of the much-maligned film.

Josh Trank claims that his original vision was spectacular. I really don’t see that being the case. Josh Trank was obviously never that interested in making a Fantastic Four film, and the resulting muddle could have come from Fox trying to bring back his vision to the intended superhero film. The result is a mess, a film that structurally makes no sense, offers little excitement and flat, two-dimensional characters. Perhaps the greatest criticism that I can level at the film is that the only genuine emotion I felt seeing it was boredom.

2/10.