Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
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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