Four! (And a flood)

4.) Fatale (Image) 2012 – present — by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

STORY TIME, KIDS. Everyone gather ’round.

Just this last September, in the town of Boulder where my coffee shop is located, there was a little ol’ something called the 100-year flood. This doesn’t mean that the flood happens every 100 years, but, rather, there is a 1/100 chance that any given year, such a deluge will fall and cause massive flooding.

It started raining, and raining, and then it rained some more. This is somewhat unusual for sunny Colorado in that, after one day of cloudy skies and rainy weather, people start to grumble that they haven’t seen the sun in 36 hours. It started on a Monday, nothing more than the beginning of an early fall shower and then by Wednesday afternoon, there were flood sirens going off so that I could hear them from my shop. We watched out of our window as the rain pounded down on every available surface, already seeing streams of water washing down the storm drains and carrying along sticks, plastic bags, debris from off the streets and rising at a fairly alarming rate. We heard reports from people who lived up the canyon that there was a seven-foot wall of water washing down the roads and that it was on its way.

The shop is only a few hundred yards from the Boulder Creek, which had risen to levels not seen in 70 years. Parking lots and apartment complexes next to it — like The Millennium Hotel, just a mere block away — already had several foot-deep puddles congregating in low areas from the overflow. The Creek — which, usually is what it is — had turned into a dingy brown raging river with rapids, white frothy waves that you could hear whooshing through underneath the bridges.

My shop is located in a floodplain; there are signs everywhere around it saying: “THIS AREA IS SUBJECT TO FREQUENT FLOODING.” I had flood insurance, it was something that was necessary for me to secure an SBA loan to buy the shop, but that still didn’t calm any fears that, when I left the store early on Wednesday, driven by the sirens and the texts from family members and the Flash Flood Warnings constantly popping up on my phone saying to evacuate immediately if I feared for my life, it wouldn’t be there whenever I would be able to get back.

I made sure all the girls who worked at the shop — and still lived in Boulder — were okay and sent everyone home while I made the twenty minute drive back to my house in Northglenn. It took forty-five minutes because the highway had started to flood. Other spots were already shutting down as the river raged past Boulder, into surrounding Louisville, Longmont, Lyons, washing away US 36 to Estes Park and cutting a swath miles wide in some areas. Lyons and Longmont were virtually cut in half by the water. People’s homes were damaged, basements were flooded, people started to die, and by midnight that Wednesday night, it felt like the entire state would soon be covered in water.

What does this have to do with comic books? Not much, other than the fact that when I woke up early Thursday morning, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I fervently checked my phone and found that US 36 was closed at Louisville, several offramps before Boulder because it had flooded. There was no way for me to get to work, so I didn’t go in and decided to shut down for the day. Unable to go to sleep at 5:30 AM, I picked up Fatale, thinking it would soothe me back out of the incredibly worried state I had been in for a day and a half.

It did and it didn’t.

It’s a fantastic comic, filled with disturbing Lovecraftian plotting and even worse nightmare-inducing imagery about Jo, a femme fatale, who makes any man who comes into too much contact with her fall irrevocably in love. So much so that they will do whatever she wants them to — and some things she doesn’t. This extends past torture, past murder, into strange cult happenings with flesh-eating cannibals and squid-headed demons. The heavy mood of dread only builds with every turn of the page as man after man falls in love and then is killed in gruesome ways because of the mysterious power surrounding the deadly Jo.

The plot weaves from the 1930s to the present, intermixing stories from different decades in-between. The main story that shapes the rest of the vignettes is about Nicolas Lash, the godson of a writer who became entranced with Jo in the 50s, and Lash’s pursual of Jo and the unfolding of events previously unknown in his godfather’s early life. The most confounding question — and one which has yet to be revealed — is why this woman seems not to have aged in the last 50 years and how she got the powers that seem more of a burden to her than a blessing.

Which is where the interesting emotion comes into play. It’s clear that Jo has had some run-ins with a particularly nasty cult that sacrifices people and seems to worship Lovecraftian horrors, but did she get her powers from them? Why are they still pursuing her? Instead of reveling in her power and beauty (as she did when she was younger), Jo, at one point, tries to cut herself off from all contact with men so as to spare herself yet another skeleton in her already-full closet.

It’s a tragic story. No happy endings or warm fuzzies from this one. The art is messy and brutal when it wants to be, and classy and wonderful at other times. It’s a stark contrast from a dismembered group of cultists to a rising, hazy sunset in the 1970s in California, but it just leads to the creeping defamiliarization of the world around us and the horrible lurking chaotic mess just underneath. I’ve never been so unnerved by a comic before — well, maybe not since The Walking Dead — and maybe that was partly due to my state of mind at the time and partly due to the excellent compounding dread, but Fatale is so compelling, I had to get the next volume immediately after reading the first, but yet, I felt a rising nausea in my stomach even thinking about continuing.

So, I was soothed by the intricate story-crafting and unnerved by the sheer creepiness of the comic. Told you I like to read horror novels in order to fall asleep.

Fatale is equal parts horror, detective story, and savage look at what happens when love becomes obsession and beauty becomes gnarled. I was worried about this raising my feminist hackles, but I find Jo a well-rounded character, if not always of the cleanest conscience. She is the most consistent character and develops interestingly throughout time, but never in a way that I think is disingenuous, given the context. She manages to walk the line of the Madonna/whore contrast without falling whole-heartedly into either category.

I’ve heard that Brubaker and Phillips’ other series Incognito, Criminal, and Sleeper are also good, but I have yet to read them. Fodder for the next emotionally disturbing nights, I guess.

To end my other story, once the roads opened back at 10 AM, I drove to Boulder, just to see if the shop was still around. Miraculously, it had survived. There was one drop of water from the ceiling and everything else was perfect. I realize that I was incredibly lucky. Just eight stores down, the Tokyo Joe’s next to us had their backroom flooded. A block away the Sprouts grocery store had water up to chest-level and all of their produce had been ruined. Another nearby business had their ceiling cave in from the weight of the water. I opened the store, thinking that no one would come in and I would leave in a few hours only to have a line out the door until I could call for backup. Everything had turned out.

Five! (And a brief intermission)

Now we come to the halfway point of my Comics! list. Adam surreptitiously got me to think about why THESE particular comics, making me rethink the reasoning behind this list. Simply put, it’s the comics I’m reading now, those I currently enjoy, those that may not necessarily get as much exposure as others (but, of course, neither Thor nor Hawkeye fit into this category), and those that are a good introduction into comics for those uninitiated (with the exception of Angel & Faith).

I first got into comics because of Guillermo del Toro’s magnificent Hellboy movie starring the incomparable Ron Perlman. (Who is in EVERYTHING.) Before that, I, classicist that I was, thought anything written before 1950 was not any good and that contemporary literature was passe and uninteresting, lacking any sort of relevance or power that novels before that had. Comics didn’t even enter into the equation, me thinking that they were just picture books for those too unaware of the greatness of Dostoevsky or Dickens. Then I saw Hellboy and realized that if a movie that awesome was based on a comic, well, then it was time for me to see what all these comics were about. Mike Mignola’s interesting blend of dark and stark panels, the magnificence of the statues and corpses he draws and the beauty therein in ruination and dilapidation made me realize that comics could be just as interesting and worthy as the dustiest piece of Russian Literature. I hope to inspire others to take the same chance, to read something new in a way they’ve never read anything else.

With the outpouring of superhero movies in the last twenty or so years — yes, twenty, as I count Blade to kind of be the start of a ‘serious’ comic movie instead of a very comic-y movie like Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman or the Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty — it’s easier than ever to pick up a comic and not be intimidated by the last 60 years of history behind it. These are stories that are just, simply put, good storytelling, just with pictures and speech bubbles.

So I guess I’m attracted to a certain type of story, which isn’t necessarily what most comic book lovers are looking for. I like the complete universe stories with definite endings. Though the DC and Marvel universes are escapist and so richly detailed, they’re not as alluring to me as something like Sweet Tooth or four out of the top five left on the list.

Number five is the last of the superhero comics. Remember when I said that JMS was one of two movie guys to make the list? The other is the exceptional Joss Whedon.

5.) Astonishing X-Men (Marvel) 2004-2007 — by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.

Now, before you start dissing on Whedon for his somewhat loud-mouthed fans, or for disliking his series, know that yes, I understand that Joss Whedon can be rather…difficult to work with and that his legions of rabid fans can be somewhat off-putting, but that doesn’t dissolve any of his talent or ability to make a good story. The dude is dang-talented and sometimes that lends itself to a big ego. Is that a bad thing? When interacting with people, maybe. When making fantastic TV shows and comics? Not necessarily.

This was my first (legit) superhero comic of the Marvel variety, not even to say of the X-Men variety. I was told that it would ruin other X-Men comics for me and while nothing can come close to its brilliance, I find myself still being able to read, say, Wolverine: Weapon X; Insane in the Brain and still enjoy it, even though it’s not nearly as well-thought out and detailed as Astonishing X-Men.

In case you haven’t gotten the memo, Buffy is just Joss Whedon’s take on Kitty Pryde, his favorite X-Men and she is featured prominently in this series and does she ever become much more than just the shadowy (ha!) figure. Sometimes writers don’t know how to handle superpowers well. Someone, like Kitty Pryde, may not necessarily seem useful, until given the right platform from which to evolve her powers and showcase just exactly how awesome they can be. Whedon does this perfectly, bringing a somewhat minor character to the shining forefront.

Like other Marvel stories, there is a whole lot of background for these characters and it can be daunting and somewhat difficult to jump in the middle. This being my first X-Men comic, I only had the knowledge base from the 1990s animated series to inform me who was who and sort of what had happened to them before this adventure. But, a few issues into the run, I found myself not caring whether or not I knew how Colossus had ‘died’ earlier, caring only that now he was back and that complicated things for Kitty Pryde. I didn’t mind that Professor X was off somewhere doing something with someone I didn’t know, only that his absence caused a disruption in Scott Summer’s leadership abilities. It was inconsequential how Emma Frost changed from being a member of the Hellfire Club to co-leader of the X-Men with Cyclops, only the ramifications that presented. Whedon’s story is so good that, even though I was missing huge chunks of X-Men history, I only became concerned with what was happening to these characters NOW.

It follows a few major story arcs, some being about the Danger Room becoming sentient and attacking the X-Men — as a friend of mine succinctly put it: “Was Star Trek mad?” — to everyone becoming victims of their own personal fears, leading to some of the most brilliant comedic scenes I’ve ever read in any comic, ever. Whedon has a biting sarcasm that mixes well with witty dialogue and truly heart-wrenching character development. To go from laughing to shock in a short time is one of his fortes in Buffy and, given how things change so quickly in comics anyway, Astonishing X-Men is no exception. Just like his other works, too, his X-Men run has a fairly complicated plot (for comics) and is best over a long-range, rather than issue-to-issue.

It was also very refreshing to have him take a step back from the (somewhat) ridiculous Wolverine obsession. I too, like a good short, hairy, clawed berserker, but, especially with the X-Men movies, Wolverine has become something more than he was ever intended to be. At his core, he’s a warrior, one who loses his temper, gets brain-washed entirely too much, and, at the end of the day, likes a cold beer more than he likes brooding about the things from his past he may or may not remember. The film version is a little bit more romanticized (not that there’s anything wrong with different interpretations of characters, especially from comics to the big screen) but I find I like the simplistic brawl-y, bub-talking Wolverine, than the Hugh Jackman version. Whedon utilizes Wolverine rather effectively, even parodying some of his toughness, while not alienating those who want a little more emotional depth.

Overall, this is a comic not to be missed. Yes, it’s hard to get into, especially at the beginning with so much background being needed for contextualization, but by the end of it, you won’t mind. There’s a big omnibus of Whedon’s run, which I recommend, because you won’t like the wait in-between trades if you start reading it.

Six

6.) Hawkeye (Marvel) 2012 – present — by Matt Fraction and David Aja with a few guest artists here and there. 

Now, I’m not going to let my infatuation with Jeremy Renner and his guest appearance in the episode “Somnambulist” of Angel and subsequent Hurt Locker and Avengers awesomness affect my disposition here…BUT I TOTALLY AM.

Like many people, I didn’t give the character Hawkeye much thought until he was played by the extremely charismatic Jeremy Renner in one of my favorite movies, which is probably why I picked up Hawekeye: My Life as a Weapon when I saw it at the comic store.

Boy, howdy, is this a fantastic comic. It’s part of the Marvel Now! series (sort of like the new 52 a la DC, but instead of revamping everyone’s plot, it’s more of just a modern take on some classic heroes with new artists and some reconning and what have you.) It follows the everyday life of Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, and his partner/sidekick/non-‘love’ interest Kate Bishop aka Hawkeye and Pizza Dog when Clint is not part of the Avengers and is just hanging out, fighin’ hurricanes, rescuing his neighbors and getting in trouble with the local Russian mob.

Hawkeye is at his normal-dude best as he struggles with his new-found popularity as an Avenger, like needing Tony’s Stark’s help to set up his DVD player. He’s not too bright, not too strong, is a dead-shot for archery sure, but is a highly relatable normal guy who wants to do the right thing, but sometimes does wrong and that’s okay too.

The artwork is probably one of my favorites, next to Mignola’s Hellboy. The color scheme is muted, very 60s mod (as are the fashions and feel of the entire series), and so minimalist, it’s amazing that such emotion can be conveyed through just a simple small frame of Barton’s unimpressed face.

The comic is self-aware, in that Barton is narrating and, instead of having someone speak Spanish in a speech bubble, it says, “Something Spanish?” Or, my favorite: when a naked Clint Barton (the stories always start with him saying how he didn’t mean to get himself into a bad situation, it just happens) flies out of a bed, it’s censored by the old-timey Hawkeye face that they would put on the front of the comics to let you know who was in them. This sort of brilliance and post-modernism is a rare treat in a medium that sometimes doesn’t realize its own ridiculousness. It’s refreshing to have a comic that understands what is it and what it isn’t. No, this isn’t highfalutin modern art, but that’s not what it’s trying to be. (But I would still pay money to see some of those panels in a museum, that’s how much I’m in love with this art.)

It’s alternatingly hilarious and heart-breaking. Very rarely does a comic have so much character building with so few words or panels, but did I ever get attached to Hawkeye’s neighbor “Grills.” Or, even, his dog, who has an entire issue from his perspective. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME A COMIC ALLOWED ITSELF TO BE NARRATED BY A DOG? And still have a dang good issue, in spite of (or perhaps because of) that?

Simply put: Hawkeye is masterful at storytelling in its many altering perspectives and is a great comic for those who know and love the archer well, and for those looking to break into comics.

Of course, there’s backstory between Barton and Bishop, but it isn’t necessary to have read any Hawkeye comics before this, since most of the past can be understood through their current interactions. And there aren’t any other Avengers, not really, though cameos do pop up (like Spider-man and Wolverine), and that could distance some, but this comic isn’t called Avengers, it’s called Hawkeye.