Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Voice in the Dark, Comic of the Year!

Whatever my vote for comic of the year might have been worth in past years, it's probably lessened by the lack of blogging I've done this year. This year was the one in which I largely lost interest in American comics, to the point where I couldn't even get angry at the myriad stupid things that inevitably happen within the Marvel and DC Universes. But this was also the year in which creator-owned comics truly became a force in the industry, with countless great titles coming from smaller publishers without a franchised character in sight. Most of the comics I enjoyed were from Image, who got behind such great series as Saga, Sex Criminals, Elephantmen, Black Science, Velvet, Fatale, and most importantly, Voice in the Dark.

My vote for Voice in the Dark is partially based on the fact that its writer/artist, Larime Taylor, is disabled. I've spent a lot of time talking about disability within comic characters, but not nearly enough talking about disability within the comics' creators, who are obviously* far more important to the process. Since Larime Taylor has arthogryposis, he does not have the passing privilege that other disabled characters might use, and has been admirably frank in his criticisms of his difficulties getting around comic conventions. Even from a creative perspective this impacts his work, as he does his drawing with his mouth.

I'm trying to be very careful talking about Taylor's disability, because A.) I can only imagine as to what his life is actually like, and B.) I want to avoid the patronizing "inspiration porn" often used in describing disabled peoples' achievements. Voice in the Dark isn't good because it's by an artist who doesn't have the luxury of drawing it with his hands, though I also don't want to diminish the personal strength of character Larime shows to draw a monthly comic with his impairments. It's an admirable achievement, but that in and of itself doesn't make a good comic, and to focus solely on the author's personal handicaps ultimately diminishes their individual achievements (e.g. the condescending statement "It's good comic for an artist with...insert disability here...") No, Larime Taylor's Voice in the Dark is good because it's an objectively well-crafted comic that shows a natural grasp of characterization and visual storytelling that most cartoonists would need an entire lifetime of work to achieve.

For those who haven't read Voice in the Dark (which you should), this series chronicles the life of Zoey Aarons, a college freshman with serial killer impulses. Though it's not entirely clear how many people she's killed and under one circumstances (so far we know she killed a popular girl who romantically manipulated her sister, but Zoey's also an inherently unreliable narrator), she fights against violent, homicidal impulses that don't have a clear pathological origin. Zoey keeps this to herself for obvious reasons (including the fact that her beloved Uncle Zeke is a homicide detective), and she tries to help other people by running an anonymous radio show, where she encourages them to confess their own forbidden thoughts and feelings (while offering herself a place for "Dark Zoey" to safely speak).

Zoey is an inherently compelling character because, unlike Dexter Morgan (the most obvious comparison people have made regarding the sympathetic serial killer protagonist concept), she doesn't indulge her compulsion with an elaborate vigilante persona. She's mostly just trying to live her life, get through school, and not kill any more people. Repressing urges that society considers forbidden is something that everybody deals with, be it the urge to murder someone in cold blood or the urge to shout "This movie sucks and you suck for liking it" when watching Iron Man 3 in a theatre**. Zoey isn't devoid of empathy; far from it, as seen in the events of issue 2, when her advice to a suicidal caller is taken in a far less constructive way than she intended. Her experiences with her mental illness have made Zoey extremely contemplative and introspective for her age, and this definitely makes it harder for her to suffer the unwitting shallowness of her peers (though as far as we know, all she's done is fantasize about stabbing her roommates and classmates).

Even from two issues in, the characters are strongly defined and visually distinct. Despite being a grayscale comic without any fantastical elements, virtually everyone is recognizable as a unique character. Characters come from a variety of different cultural backgrounds within the Seattle, WA setting, and while you can understand why Zoey wants to kill some of them just for the sake of shutting up, nobody comes across as a one-dimensional stereotype. I definitely recognized some of the personality types from my own undergraduate experience (where I was similarly withdrawn and resentful thanks to my own illnesses, albeit not in a way that involved wanting others to bleed out), and the dialogue was realistic enough to make it a smooth read. This is a book that's mostly talking heads, but the character designs, expressions, and movements feel accurate and emotionally resonant.

This is a comic that virtually came out of nowhere*** and offered me a better reading experience than anything else I'd picked up in comic stores this year, and I strongly look forward to successive issues. In the end, if there's one thing I can say about Larime Taylor's Voice in the Dark, it's that you should buy it. Now.

* (Christian Weston Chandler of Sonichu fame doesn't count, as all he's created is a reason for aliens to destroy our planet, Alderaan-style).
** Thankfully I have a blog for that. 
*** It didn't come out of nowhere in a literal sense, but it did come from a successful Kickstarter.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Forever Evil, The Most DC Comicsy DC Comic of The Year

Really, this says it all. An evil alternate universe Superman powering up by snorting Kryptonite as though it were crack cocaine. This was the most DC Comicsy moment of 2013. Make of that what you will.

Happy Holidays, and sorry if this is a far, far less adequate present than you all deserve.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Wolverine By Paul Cornell and Alan Davis, Superhero Comic of the Year

This is the year where I finally put my money where my mouth is and drifted away from mainstream superhero comics. It wasn't because the books were offensively bad, just that most of them weren't really going anywhere that wasn't permitted by the dual demands of movie licensing and comics continuity. One of the comics that got around those and remained consistently memorable, however, was the new Wolverine book by Paul Cornell and artist Alan Davis.

On the surface, one could say that this was another case of a comic being an adaptation of its own adaptation, since the big hook for Cornell's story is Logan losing his healing factor and becoming Killable-- the thing that happened in the Wolverine movie, which I still have yet to see. However, Cornell has done exemplary work showing us how Wolverine is adapting-- or not adapting, rather-- with his newfound mortality. Without a mutant regeneration ability that can cure him of every ailment conceivable, from being drunk to being hit with Little Boy *, the list of new problems that Logan must face are endless. In the very first issue after a sentient virus burns out his healing factor, Logan realizes that he has to be careful with EVERYTHING-- he even considers buying a practice shaving razor, as his previous shaving techniques were much rougher. Logan is unparalleled at ignoring pain, but that's because pain is the body's signal that something is wrong, and there used to be nothing that Logan's magic healing flesh couldn't fix. Now he has to worry about not only normal human injuries, ailments, intoxications, and all-around mortality, but he also has to deal with the added disabilities of his other powers.

 Immediately after Logan is diagnosed as "mortal" by Hank McCoy, he's prescribed a drug to counteract the heavy metal poisoning of his adamantium skeleton, which would otherwise kill him rather quickly. The metal skeleton may be unbreakable, but it also makes him vulnerable to electro-magnetic attacks, and early issues imply that Logan's torn up his own ligaments against his metal bones in past berserker rages (just that he didn't notice because he immediately healed up). He can't use his claws without bleeding a lot, making his primary weapon a double-edged sword. And his heightened senses also make him more vulnerable to sensory attacks-- as seen when he's drugged by some ninja enemies, and starts tripping even harder than an ordinary man.

This is why the book has become so intense, even if Logan gets his healing factor back-- we finally see the character as VULNERABLE. There have been other stories where Wolverine has lost his powers**, but they haven't been nearly as brutal in showing Logan's emotional responses. Even his legendary stoicism is challenged, as everything Logan used to rely on to do his job is compromised, and he has to live his life with caution. If that weren't enough, his enemies are aware of his newfound mortality, and are using it to toy with Logan's emotional weaknesses as well as his physical ones. Mystique slips into his bedroom unnoticed to steal an heirloom sword, making it clear that she could kill him any time she wanted, but is just toying with him. Sure, Wolverine can put on a brave face and fight back, but it's becoming increasingly clear that his ability to overcome weakness with a manly man attitude has its limits. A lot of his actions now seem motivated by a desire to compensate for this and prove to others that he's still got it, such as picking a fight with the Black Panther (ex-husband of Wolverine's friend-with-benefits Storm), or going off on a quest in search of his stolen sword despite knowing it's an obvious trap.

Marvel seems to have realized how good this book is, and has heavily promoted the series' relaunch, which implies that Wolverine will become a super-villain, retraining himself by working alongside the super-powered crooks he used to turn into sashimi. The new costume is inspired by samurai armor, not just to protect Logan's weakened body, but to reflect his new mood. In this series, Logan has made several references to samurai culture, but with a more cynical edge than before; though he admires the ideal of bushido, he's sickened by the reality of the samurai culture, as mercenary dogs of the aristocracy. But that's what Logan might have to do now, if he wants to get his edge back. He could only fight his arch-enemies like Sabretooth to a standstill even when he had his healing factor, and now that he's lost such an advantage, he's got to find another way to stand up to the most despicable mass-murderers on Marvel's Earth.

The Nietzche line of "he who fights monsters" has always been a theme in Wolverine comics, as his innate brutality proves necessary to protect the innocent, but keeps him on the edge of becoming as bad as his foes. Now that Logan's lost his X-Gene crutch, he's much less stable, and may well fall off that edge. And even if he gets his healing factor back at some point, he may never atone for what he'll have to do to reclaim the level of viciousness needed to defeat Sabretooth.

This has been an excellent comic, and everything I look for in a Marvel book. Paul Cornell is superb at making Wolverine a sympathetic character, and the story is gripping from issue to issue. The art by Alan Davis needs to introduction, as Davis is unquestionably one of comics' legends. But the fill-in issues by Mirco Pierfederici were surprisingly good, even under Davis' shadow; he did a great job selling Wolverine's newfound vulnerability, as he finally is able to get drunk and ends up in a disarmingly weepy state. And new artist Ryan Stegman looks like he'll do another great job, fresh off his "Superior"*** work on Superior Spider-Man. I actually look forward to where this book goes next. You should too.

* From the Marvel Knights Logan series, by Brian K. Vaughan and Eduardo Risso. Wolverine was apparently at ground zero when Hiroshima was bombed, fighting against Imperial Japan and getting laid for the first time. Logan explicitly mentions the parallels between losing his virginity and entering the atomic age. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.
** Most notably in Larry Hama's epic run on Wolverine, in which his healing factor is burnt out by the strain of Magneto tearing out all the adamantium. This is unfortunately undercut by the fact that, after a year of being vulnerable and having to rely on bone claws, Logan's healing factor overclocks and turns him into a feral brute whose noseless face is covered by a pirate mask and has huge wads of forearm hair. Again, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.
*** Too easy, I know

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Interview With Webcomic Underdogs On My Comics & My Disability

" Not only are my comics therapeutic for me, but my particular conditions (co-morbid depression and anxiety as well as autism) are essential to the creative process. At its core, underneath the convoluted narrative and superhero genre trappings, Ruby Nation is a story about how our physical and mental imperfections shape us, and how we are ultimately defined by our choices in response to such trauma and isolation. I’ve used the tag-line “Broken Heroes for a Broken World”, which could also describe many of the most enduring superhero characters. A key difference in my work, however, is that the characters have realistic handicaps to go with their fantastical ones; for example, Jiro himself is autistic in addition to having a largely cybernetic body and brain. I think it makes characters more complex and ultimately sympathetic to give them that kind of texture, as opposed to simply having fantastical angst-giving handicaps (for example, Cyclops of the X-Men has brain damage that prevents him from controlling his optic blasts, but that childhood head trauma manifests in no way other than forcing him to wear his visor and frequently whine about it) "

(Full article here)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

That Time The Beast Lost His Brains

I do strongly recommend this as an enjoyable superhero story, my kvetching about the disability representation notwithstanding.

Finding disability studies-themed readings of comics is difficult, so if I'm to keep this blog around (and I want to do so), that's what I'll focus on. So without further adieu;

It's a common plot in any series where the hero has a superhuman ability, to take away that superhuman ability and force the hero to cope with being brought down to a normal level. For the superhero themselves, that's a disability (as disability itself is a social construct; the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind, to use an old cliche), because their normal involves having that superhuman ability. Of course, the writers usually aren't aware that they're touching on any disability themes when they do these stories, even when they take the story to such extremes that it rings painfully true for some members of the audience with similar kinds of experience. Case in point: Hank "the Beast" McCoy's loss of intelligence in the late 80's X-Factor (original X-Men team) comics.

I'll keep the continuity mentions to the foot notes so that the meat of the essay will be as readily understandable as possible, even for non-comic readers. All you need to know about the story is a basic run-down of the Beast's history. He was born Hank McCoy, a mutant with superhuman strength, agility, and prehensile toes, as well as a super-genius intellect that contrasted his animalistic powers. In his adolescence Hank started his superhero career as an original X-Man, and later launched a solo career with a new, blue fur-covered look he acquired from foolishly testing a mutant extract potion on himself. After joining various superhero teams (including a few reunions with the X-Men), he eventually rejoined the original X-Men when they formed X-Factor*. In what appeared to be an effort to court original X-Men fans' nostalgia, Hank was kidnapped in the second issue by a mad scientist who tested an anti-mutant drug on him, which caused him to lose the fur (but not his strength).

Hank kept his passable-as-human look for a while, but encountered a cruel twist of fate when he was infected by a villain named Pestilence. Pestilence's plagues interacted with the earlier anti-mutant drugs to overactivate his immune system, causing his physical strength to increase exponentially with each exertion. However, every time Hank used his mighty muscles, he not only became stronger, but also stupider-- apparently his power was "drained from his mind", or some other such pseudo-scientific explanation, as though he were an RPG character who sacrificed the INT stat to boost the STR stat. Over the course of a single battle Hank went from a PHD bio-chemist with the strength of a gorilla to...effectively the Incredible Hulk, a brutish man-child with the strength to lift buildings but with a sub-normal level of cognition.
From a Fantastic Four tie-in issue, where Hank's brain damage was used to remind the deformed Sharon Ventura that she shouldn't complain because she still had her mind. The "Inspirationally Disadvantaged" trope, I suppose.

This kind of degenerative neurological condition would normally raise a lot of different questions. For example, what parts of Hank's brain were damaged by his over-active immune system? Was he losing basic cognitive processing power? Was he losing memories? Were his motor skills affected? Was the damage in terms of the "data" inscribed upon his grey matter, or was he actually causing physical injury to his head? And how far would Hank's intellectual deterioration progress? Would he end up in an animalistic state, or would he just become completely vegetative?

I had all these questions when I read these old issues for the first time. Unfortunately, none of them were answered. Instead, we got nearly a year's worth of comics where Hank was a bumbling dolt, while his teammates gave only token attempts to discourage him from further exerting himself. While the rest of the cast was in the midst of their own typical X-Drama, Bobby "Iceman" Drake made the only overt attempts to help Hank navigate the world, such as covering for him during TV interviews. Apparently nobody bothered to take Hank to a doctor, especially not a superhuman doctor like Reed Richards or Hank Pym (the kind of people who could actually do something).

Ultimately this strangely overlooked sub-plot was resolved in the most convenient way possible, when Hank was infected for a third time-- this time by a villainess named (appropriately) Infectia, who'd been dating Bobby so she could make him her super-powered love slave. When Bobby ignored Hank's warnings over Infectia's true agenda (thinking that Hank was too stupid to know anything about anything, even though anyone not thinking exclusively with their dick could've seen that a woman named INFECTIA was bad news), Hank jumped in and took a kiss from her meant for Bobby, which wreaked havoc with his physiology, but ultimately caused him to revert to his pre-X-Factor blue form, regain all his lost intelligence, and keep all the strength he'd gained**. (Somehow).

This story occurred during the critically acclaimed run of Louise Simonson and her husband Walt Simonson, on script and art respectively. Presumably the whole physiological rigamarole was a convoluted means to make the Beast blue and furry again. Unfortunately, it fell into the trope of the temporary disability-- the impairment that only lasts an episode/issue or two so the hero can learn a lesson. And even then, it's not clear that Hank really needed to learn anything. Was losing his intellect a punishment for the sin of pride in returning to his more attractive human form? Because other than appreciating the fact that he didn't look like the Cookie Monster with a Flock of Seagulls haircut anymore, Hank never showed any arrogance over his transformation-- largely because he was barely passable as human to begin with, forced to wear special footwear to suppress his huge, prehensile feet. Was this meant to show off his heroism, proving that Hank would sacrifice anything to do the right thing? I can buy that explanation, because it is a tremendous loss-- even though superheroes risk their lives on a daily basis, lives mean less to most people than their reputations and their legacies. Especially for one of the world's sharpest minds, and one of the few mutants to enjoy public celebrity not tied into international terrorism, to be reduced to Benjy from the Sound and the Fury.

Hank inelegantly blubbering to reporter Trish Tilby, who actually started to become romantically interested in Hank here-- to the point where she was alarmed when he returned to being a hyper-intellectual blue ape. They still dated for years, until Hank further mutated into a giant blue lion in Grant Morrison's run. Being a giant cat seems an arbitrary place for her to draw the line.

It's genuinely heart-wrenching to see how hard Hank has it with such limited brain power, especially in a scenario where the villain Apocalypse tricks Hank into sending a giant spaceship crashing into New York. And it's moving to hear Hank say that he'll do whatever he can to put things right, even if he loses what little mind he has remaining. But ultimately the story ignores the intellectual disability and all the loaded implications therein, because Hank's intellectual degradation is immediate, plateaus at the level of the Savage Green Hulk, and mostly just keeps him in the background of the main storylines. The Fall of the Mutants is considered a seminal work in the X-Canon, but how many people remember it for the master plans of Apocalypse and the rebirth of Angel as the brainwashed, metal-winged Archangel? And how many remember it for Poor Dumb Hank? Besides me, of course.

*(The original X-Factor consisted of the original X-Men pretending to be a human anti-mutant agency, promising to "control" the mutant threat while secretly rescuing and training young mutants. As many noted before me, this was the stupidest fucking premise ever for an X-Book, because the anti-mutant PR did so much harm that the few mutants X-Factor helped under their cover didn't begin to make up for it. Thankfully, the Simonsons gradually did away with this premise, and by the end of this particular storyline, X-Factor outed themselves to the public-- with surprising and well-deserved public adulation for saving the city from Apocalypse.)
** (Of course, it was soon forgotten that Hank still had that boosted strength, probably because he was really damned strong already).

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Comics, Cats, and 'Casts: Stuff I've been Up To

It's been a while since I've posted here, and I apologize for that. In addition to my regular job, I've had plenty of activities, such as the following comics from Ruby Nation;

As well as all of my cat comics at Poet Kitties, including this favorite of mine;

And best of all, my podcast with Up Up and Away's Siike Donnelly on the topic of Superman, where I discuss bullies, memes, Ruby, and Grant Morrison among other things;


Friday, May 17, 2013

And More Of Why I Hated Iron Man 3

(Reposted from my comic blog, which you should be reading. My feelings a week later have only gotten harsher.)

Some days I am very grateful for the fact that I do an independent webcomic, with no content beyond what I create, no editing beyond what I choose, and no readers beyond a small few devoted and cherished fans. Yesterday was one of those days, because it was the day I finally saw Iron Man 3.

Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black (replacing Jon Faverau), is not a bad movie. It has the same cast of the previous Iron Man movies (which I really enjoyed, albeit with reservations), and it had a few new characters who were played effectively. It even had some good ideas, such as Tony Stark's anxiety attacks following the events of the Avengers. However, none of those ideas got any space to breathe, and the Hollywood formula smothered the movie so that everything potentially interesting about it was diluted in a stream of explosions and one-liners.

If Iron Man 3 were played as a completely straightforward superhero movie, such as Captain America, it could've excelled at that. But the more thoughtful bits raise important questions and take them absolutely nowhere. Tony's anxiety attacks begin as a serious issue, showing a tortured mind whose view of a rational universe has been shattered in the wake of discovering gods and aliens, and who builds armor after armor in a compulsive attempt to regain his security. This is in the first act; in the second act, Tony's anxiety attacks are just reduced to comic relief as he flips out in front of a little kid, and by the third act, he's completely "overcome" them (as if you can just punch emotional problems into oblivion). 


The intriguing start and piss-poor payoff continues through the rest of the movie. For example, the Mandarin is brought in as a Bin Laden-style terrorist, releasing viral videos of his deeds with messages about America's sins (SUCH AS A REFERENCE TO THE SAND CREEK MASSACRE, as an allegory for the casualties of America's nation-building in Iraq). In the second act, we see that this new interpretation of the Mandarin is just a smokescreen, as he's really just an actor hired by the main villain to distract from his real activities. This is a clever twist that plays on Orientalist fears, but it's ruined by some painfully extended comic relief sequences with actor Mandarin, and then it's completely dropped when the real villain turns out to be just another monologuing jackass, whose speech about the power of anonymity is completely ruined by the fact that he's GIVING A FUCKING SPEECH. What's more, the present-day implications of the genocide against the indigenous Americans are completely dropped, even when there's plenty of appropriate subtext (such as Jim Rhodes/War Machine going on a wild goose chase for the Mandarin while in his new Iron Patriot suit, giving third-world citizens the sight of a red-white-and-blue death machine breaking into their homes and threatening them without warning).

Everything in the movie follows this pattern. The Extremis formula, used in the comics for an interesting exploration of transhumanism (as well as its inventor Maya Hansen, a great example of a once-idealistic scientist corrupted by the military-industrial complex), just serves to make flaming villains here. Tony's compulsive armor-building, a sign of emotional turmoil, turns out to be just the thing needed to save the day in the Obligatory Climax Explosion Orgy. Even the humor scenes fail, because of how scripted they feel. Where Jon Favreau made even the weaker parts of his Iron Man movies entertaining thanks to all the ad-libs, you can tell here that there's a heavier directorial hand, and the situations (such as all the time where Tony fixes his armor with the help of the little kid) show us just how tightly they're sticking to the script and telling us THIS IS FUNNY.

It's all smothered by cliches, robbing it the opportunity to be even an interesting failure. It's not a bad movie, and I don't hold anything against its cast and crew. It's just a mediocre movie clearly ruined by the process of executive meddling, and again, it makes me very grateful I don't have to deal with that shit.

Comic Book Iron Man Vs. Movie Iron Man in the Most One-Sided Fight Ever

(Having a blog devoted to my artist brand didn't work out, so I'm going back to what works; this blog, and writing about things bigger than me)

Overall, the comic version of Iron Man is one of the few superheroes who represents an adult morality, as opposed to an adolescent or even childish one. Tony is a complex man with enough power and influence that everything he does or doesn't do has massive ramifications, and he's fully aware of that fact. His goals are much greater than simply saving the world from villains, so his enemies tend to come across as petty characters despite their destructive capabilities, who are threatened by the fact that Tony can be fiscally successful without Ayn Rand-style opportunism. Even then he's often forced to make hard decisions and do morally ambiguous things, because he's responsible for so many people-- not just in the present, but in the future. Tony Stark's personal problems tend to similarly represent more complex emotional territory than most superheroes, since his fight to lead mankind away from their bad habits towards better choices is represented in his own struggles with addiction (be it alcohol, women, or even just the desire to control everything).

The movie version of Iron Man is less abstract because he's a much simpler and shallower character. He is an overgrown teenager whose activities all stem from what he wants, with the only cases of him actually doing anything altruistic are ultimately self-serving, such as the Stark Expo (which shows no actual inventions, just a vanity project with a lot of sound and fury), or the compulsive armor building (which is just a means of managing his own insecurities with just as much potential for ill as good). Note how all the times Tony actually goes into combat in the movie, it's either a matter of self-defense or vengeance (even in the first movie, he only goes after the terrorists in Yinsen's village). This might be interesting if he were not portrayed as the hero, but instead he's immediately forgiven for his sins because the films demand happy endings. 

If the comic is being rejected, it's being rejected in favor of a sugary Hollywood iteration who can easily overcome his problems to suit the three-act screenplay structure, so that they don't get in the way of the power fantasy that can't hold up to a world of abstractions.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Ruby Nation Manifesto: All My Blogging Goes Here Now

Content will be largely similar, albeit with a bit less bitching, but I wanted to do a daily blog and I wanted to tie it directly into my comic work, so I'm going to write many, many more posts of a shorter nature on there. Please follow me there.