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.

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The Thin Maginot Line

On a good day I can’t remember where I parked my car or where my sunglasses are, but on most days, I can’t remember the names of my characters or even what they look like.

“But, MK,” you say — and every time you do, I think of the cartoon Darkwing Duck and how I always wanted to be called Dee-Dubya when I was a kid, and have a friend like Lauchpad, but as it is, it just sort of sounds like you’re saying m’kay in order to shut up a pestering kid and none of my friends are that heart-rufflingly clueless — “you created them. Shouldn’t you take a little responsibility and at least remember their names?”

“No,” I respond — deciding to think of you like how my nerd-o-vision interprets Joss Whedon, that is to say, looking somewhat as a cross between Xander Season 2 and Cap’n Mal instead of his pasty, slightly balding creepophile actual self — “because it really doesn’t matter.”

And that isn’t a nihilistic or self-loathing existentialist “doesn’t matter,” but to me, I could care less how a character looks, or what they’re wearing, eating, doing, or even what everything around them looks like. Sure, it’s important to Gwennie if she’s in the forest or a town — symbolism and all that, what have you, indeed, yes, hmm, quite — but I don’t really care if that forest has pine trees or deciduous ones, or if that town has a population 2,500 or 250,000. It’s a there-are-more-things-in-heaven-and-earth-type of “doesn’t matter.” Relationships between people, how they act, why they act the way they do — oh, man, do I ever hate the word “why” — are what I believe drive a good, dramatic, page-turning, you-paid-for-the-whole-seat-but-you’ll-just-need-the-edge type of novel I want to read and therefore am writing.

This is another fine-balancing act — much like polyphony, or Mr. Eco’s dilemma — between being descriptive versus just racking* the pages up because I made a deal with my agent to be paid by the word. Here’s looking at you, Mr. Charles “The Year of Our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Three” Dickens. I don’t dislike authors for being really, really on point in trying to make their novels as realistic as possible, even going so far as to chart individual street names and research specific trade routes for countries in the 11th century so that a character can etch out a real-life route to work or have an incredibly detailed background in ship-mastery as possible, but it does annoy me because I don’t feel it to be necessary. It’s not my job as an author to spell everything out for you — well, literally yes, but I’m a figurative person….if you know what I mean — and I’d much rather have some buffer zones for people to imagine for themselves what Gwennie’s dark and dismal forest looks like. A kind of buffer zone not unlike the ones that heated up the Cold War.

I digress, however, in that in order to maintain at least a semblance of control over my characters and not allow them to run slip-shod throughout my brain like little Tinkerbells with ink on their feet, I needed to create a handy system of classification so Ann — resident goody-goody and all-around citadel of Gwennie’s humanity in the first half of my novel — doesn’t have brown hair in one scene and red hair in the next.

I started imagining my characters as famous people. This isn’t a “who would play so-and-so in a movie version” type of situation, but rather a “I think Doc looks kind of looks like Uncle Joey from Full House.”
Sometimes it just comes to be, unbidden, like a neighbor’s cat dragging a mouse to show it loves you. Sometimes, I have to make a stretch, like when I hadn’t read the assigned 250 pages of The Brothers Karamazov and had to extrapolate my knowledge of Dostoevsky and say that, of course Smerdyakov, as a bastard Karamazov, completely personifies the absurdish, carnivalesque feeling the best out of all three brothers because he’s the closest in disposition to Fyodor, and because his name means to smell icky. True story.

I also can’t say with any certainty why I get certain faces associated with characters — the whole Doc/Uncle Joey thing remains, to this day, a complete mystery to me — but it helps to keep the inconsistencies to a low.

As it is, Gwennie looks like me because she’s based off of the type of person I would want to be — a serial killer independent, snarky and sarcastic, completely bad-ass — and Ann looks like Amy Acker because I love Ms. Acker to bits. Andrew — main antagonist and favorite character — looks like Keanu Reeves for much the same logic as the Doc/Uncle Joey combo.

The only character that I purposefully modeled after a famous person is Nathaniel and he looks like Robert Pattinson. Why? Because my little pet name for Nathaniel is the Flying Douche-Canoe. He is my least favorite character. I have made a mental note to myself to kill him off in the most horribly disgusting and painful way possible.

And maybe one day, when my looks have faded, I’ll give little character bios so y’all can see how personalities match with how they look in my head. As it is, this post is already entirely too long.

*I wrote this as “wracking” before editing it. Freudian slip.