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Knight and Squire (Comic Review)

Knight and Squire

Knight and Squire

Though Knight and Squire were introduced in the 1950’s, for the past decade or so this British Batman and Robin has been solely the domain of DC’s mad genius writer Grant Morrison. I have to admit I was a bit worried when Paul Cornell began his Knight and Squire miniseries, as other writers’ followups to Morrison work have generally been embarrassing. I needn’t have worried.

For one thing, Morrison has left these two heroes surprisingly untouched. While they’ve been woven into his large DC epics, most notably the prelude to Seven Soldiers and throughout his exploration of Batman, they appeared and left without actually getting wrapped up in those convoluted plots. That leaves them with little more defining them beyond being a cheery, slightly silly British superhero team. Further, Cornell himself is British, and he’s used this miniseries as an opportunity to explore just what DC’s America-centric superhero universe is like across the pond.

Knight and Squire charactersCornell attacks this opportunity with Morrison-esque creativity, coming up with over 100 new characters for this six-issue series. While that’s partly a marketing gimmick, quite a few of them have become familiar, fleshed-out characters by the end of the story. Even the ones who just appear for a panel are still granted clever names and costumes, and help the result feels more like a bustling world than a simple gimmick. Jimmy Broxton’s art mostly fits the mold of competent, modern superhero work, but he has a playful inventiveness that fits well with Cornell’s vision. Designing multiple new characters every month is no easy task, but Broxton makes it look natural.

The world-building goes well beyond a lot of funny new characters, though. Cornell explores what it would really mean to be a British superhero, somehow mixing the gaudy costumes with a stiff upper lip and quiet reserve. In this world, most British heroes started as a self-aware reaction to the American scene, making it more a club than a frantic life-or-death battle between exaggerated personalities. The first issue sets the scene in a special pub with “truce magic”, allowing the heroes and villains to mix without fear of a fight breaking out. (It’s a relatively recent tradition by British standards, explains Squire. “It’s only been here since the Sixteenth Century.”)

The British nature permeates this, from silly jokes to serious villains (such as a cult whose vision of restoring England’s classic past highlights a dark, racist undertone to modern culture). From my American point of view, it rings very true. But then, Americans are used to thinking the world revolves around them. I suspect that a true Englishman might be surprised at how much time these people spend comparing themselves to the US.

Cornell’s real gift is for dialogue. It comes to the fore here, establishing both this new setting and the people within it. The superhero battles are actually the weak point of this series, the high points being when the action is incidental to the character-building. Of note, see Issue 1, with the pub and its truce magic, and issue 4, in which Squire has an awkward first date and we learn more about the history of both leads than Morrison ever provided.

The first four issues are lighthearted done-in-one stories, so it’s a bit of a surprise when the final two see the heroes collide with the more brutal American hero culture. Some fans have decried this turn to the “grim and gritty” clichés of modern superhero comics. It makes sense, though. “Grim and gritty” isn’t automatically bad, it’s just become the standard for lazy, uninspired writers. The England-meets-America confrontation makes perfect sense given the set-up of the first few issues, and it never sinks to violence for violence’s sake. Without giving too much away, there are some truly disappointing “grim” events, but the heroes’ ultimate goodness, and British-ness, sees them through. What makes most modern “dark” comics disappointing is that the writers forget that superhero stories should be about the good guys persevering due to their morality, not just suffering for it. Cornell gets this balance exactly right.

While Knight and Squire does suffer when it moves away from the characters to focus on plot, fortunately that’s not the focus of the series. Amazingly, this Batman spin-off managed to slip past the DC editors with its own feel, rather than the lazy “Batman in England” that I would have expected. What we got instead was unique and inventive worldbuilding. I expect to see many of Cornell’s creations appearing in other peoples’ stories in the near future. Even more importantly, I hope to see him back with these characters before long, introducing us all to this familiar yet surprising culture.

Grade: B

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Air (Comic Review)

Air

Air

G. Willow Wilson’s Air ran for 24 issues, a pretty standard length for a modern Vertigo title. However, it had more ambitious goals than the other comics it was published alongside: It focuses on airplanes while examining our post-9/11 world, with all the concerns of terrorism, security, national identity, and wars for oil brought to the forefront. I want to commend it for the issues it raises, but none of them are ever satisfactorily answered.

The main character, Blythe, is a flight attendant who’s afraid of heights. (Let that sink in for a minute.) When she finds herself in the middle of a fight to control new-found Aztec technology, she learns that she is a “hyperpract”, one of the rare people able to use the new devices. With it, she can access a reality where symbols matter more than physical objects. Most importantly, this gives her the power to move an airplane to another place without using fuel. Everyone, of course, wants control over this post-oil future.

Since hyperpract technology is still secret, the battle breaks down into two conspiratorial groups: On Blythe’s side is an alliance between a private airplane company, a group of carefree outlaws led by a still-living Amelia Earhart, and Interpol. (The ethical implications of this combination are rarely brought up.) The bad guys are a vigilante group named The Etisian Front, who are easily identified by the giant tattoo worn by each member of this secret society. Led by a Dick Cheney lookalike, they represent America’s desire to “make flight safe” at any cost. They are easy to hate, since they keep railing against Blythe’s love interest, Zayne, for looking like a terrorist.

Of course, they are somewhat right to mistrust Zayne. He admits to knowing people in Hezbollah in the first issue, and he constantly travels under suspicious aliases. Air’s strengths come from the way it doesn’t present a black-and-white world, and this is best represented in the thin line that separated Zayne’s choice to join Interpol from his other option of becoming a terrorist. (In one memorable sequence, Zayne’s brother ties religious extremists to the book’s theme of symbols defining the world, explaining that the symbols themselves are like a virus, getting into the heads of fundamentalists when their defenses are low.)

Symbolism as Technology

The comic’s weaknesses, though, are pretty strong. Just like the concept of a flight attendant who can’t handle heights, none of the people act in a remotely realistic manner. Blythe and her fellow flight attendants skip work to go off on strange adventures even before they’re introduced to the secret societies fighting over the future. The plan for starting the age of hyperpract flight is to keep sending Blythe off on missions, even though she almost kills herself (and loses the valuable Aztec device) each time. And Amelia Earhart’s secret society was founded two minutes after she met a drunken, boastful arms smuggler in a bar. She immediately decided that this dangerous man was a kindred spirit who shared her love of freedom, so she trusted him with her identity and her knowledge about hyperpract technology.

The characters’ behavior didn’t make any sense until I realized that this should be viewed as a romance novel rather than the action-adventure it appears to be on the surface. Blythe is a flighty, confused woman who can’t begin to reach her potential until she is centered by the love of a good man. Aside from a few moments of stubborn defiance, most of the plot is driven forward by the fact that she’ll passively do whatever anyone tells her: Going off on strange missions, handing over valuable objects to whichever stranger is currently claiming to be a good guy, and even sleeping with someone else simply because he tells her that Zayne is untrustworthy. Zayne seems suspicious, all right, but it was only their love at first sight that kept her from turning in an obvious con artist who kept flirting with her as he compromised airport security with a series of false identities. (Zayne, of course, did that and drew Blythe into his dangerous world because he felt the same way about her.)

Most of the series is a frustrating mix: hints of clever ideas and a meaningful worldview derailed by a ridiculous plot and characters. The last story arc goes off the rails, with a series of unbelievable adventures that are framed as Blythe’s “flight test”. It includes an unsophisticated time travel story that seems very pleased with its cleverness, and a book with secrets about the future that is never explained enough to feel like it fits into the rest of the story. Those final issues suggest that if the series hadn’t ended at that point, it still would have been out of ideas.

Take that, civilization!

I’ve made it to the end of a comic review without mentioning the art. That’s actually a credit to M. K. Perker, whose style fits this title so perfectly that it rarely registers consciously. His command over body language and expressions is excellent, and it makes the (many) conversations in this series feel as engaging as the action sequences. (In fact, he stumbles occasionally during the action. Perker’s people seem the most natural when they aren’t touching others.) I hope we see more of him in the future: To date, he has only worked on one title that wasn’t written by Wilson. And while I want to see more of Perker’s work, I’m not currently inclined to try more of Wilson’s. She has a lot of good ideas, but doesn’t seem very good at weaving them into a story.

Grade: C-

Thor: The Mighty Avenger (Comic Review)

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

In late 2010, to prepare for the upcoming Thor movie, Marvel released a barrage of new Thor-related comics. I’m not sure exactly how that was supposed to help with either publicity or sales: Marvel’s back catalog already had a confusing series of unrelated comics to sell if needed, so creating a bunch of new ones with different styles and from different continuities isn’t really changing anything.

But these days, the standard M.O. for superhero publishers seems to be to throw everything possible against the wall, and one or two good things will come out of the mess. That happened this time with Roger Langridge’s and Chris Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger. The second (and final) volume is released in paperback today.

The work that these two put out was unexpected. Langridge is best known for comedy work, with an unsympathetic edge. His writing here was surprisingly tender and human: Re-telling Thor’s “origin” story, this series starts just days after the god Thor is exiled to Earth. Langridge makes superhero tropes secondary so he can focus on the pain and anger of a proud man who has lost his home, and his growing relationship with Jane Foster as she helps him adjust to the human world.

Chris Samnee provides excellent art. I had not known of him beforehand, but between this title and the recently released Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, I’ll be keeping my eye on him. His work is soft and understated, with simple lines calling out emotions, and incredibly natural body language. Every character looks distinct and natural. While that may sound out of place in an action-heavy genre, where artists usually focus on adventure at the expense of portraying the people, Samnee makes it work: When every pose conveys Thor’s quiet, confident strength, the powerful action flows naturally.

Other superheroes guest star in almost every issue, but this aspect still seems muted. The impression is that we are witnessing the quiet beginning of a superhero age, and the people of this small town would normally never see them. Thor’s sudden presence naturally brings some others in, but the feeling that this is a world populated by ordinary people remains strong.

"Simple and good. I like simple and good very much."

Words you rarely see in a Thor comic

This should have become a classic work, but it was canceled way too early by Marvel when they began culling the overstretched Thor line. Not only did this rob us of future comics like this, but it actually managed to lessen the existing ones: The first six issues were obviously intended to go together as an introductory story arc, with Thor gaining some acceptance of his new role. Issue 6 closes with a relationship beginning between him and Jane, and issue 7 opens up some time later, after he has gotten to know the other people of the town.

That’s a good structure, and it was natural for Langridge to assume that Marvel would want six-issue story arcs. But when the series was suddenly canceled at issue 8, we were left with a long introduction followed by a short, two-part follow up. To make matters worse, Marvel released the collected editions in two volumes, with four issues each. The stopping point between these two volumes feels entirely unnatural, and breaks the flow of the story.

This could have been a great series, and it’s not at all the fault of Langridge or Samnee that it didn’t reach that level. But the first couple issues were still finding their footing, the last couple felt like a slightly rushed coda, and Marvel’s collection policy means that the few middle issues are drained of some of their power. This is still a very good work, and unique among comics today, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. But judging it by what it became, instead of what it should have been, I simply can’t give it an A.

Grade: B+

(Editorial note: Since I have a Twitter feed to comment on all the comics I read, I don’t normally plan on reviewing them here. But I’ll look back on entire series, or notable stretches of them, when appropriate. I can only review the ones I read, of course, so they will often be positive reviews if I’ve stuck through to the end. But fortunately for you, there are some pretty terrible series that I’ve stuck with because it didn’t become obvious right away. So you’ll get to hear me complain sometimes as well.)

Webcomics Roundup: The Great Return

Achewood is backI didn’t start reading any new webcomics in February. For me, the biggest news was the promise of a return from two established comics that haven’t updated in a while: Achewood and Mugwhump the Great.

Achewood, of course, needs no introduction. For nearly a decade now, it’s been one of the best (if not the best) webcomics out there. The clean lines, strong characters, and the unpredictable plot directions make this a consistent treat. So why am I not that excited that it’s updating again?

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Webcomics Roundup: January

I’ve decided the best way for me to cover webcomics will be with a monthly article. In contrast to my normal posts, I won’t be assigning grades here. The new comics are generally too incomplete for a fair review, and of the established ones, I’ll only have read through their archives if I really liked them. Therefore, most of the ones I talk about will already be cherry-picked as an A or B comic. I’ll reserve letter grades for things like books and movies, which (1) I’m likely to complete even if I don’ t like them, and (2) usually cost money, so it’s more fair to point out the ones that I don’t like.

I was undecided at first about whether to categorize webcomics with print comics or to keep them separate. They’re obviously related mediums, if not the same, but in practice, they have very different audiences. I did eventually decide to categorize them together, though. (Use the “webcomics” tag to find just those posts.) This month’s subject matter is what made the decision for me: The three most notable new webcomics in January were all created by established names from the world of print comics. The boundary between the print and web worlds has definitely become more fluid.

Below, I’ll discuss Gingerbread Girl, Ratfist, and Bucko.

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