Normal Being a Relative Term, I Find You All Weird

Astro City #1
Art by Brent Eric Anderson
Writing by Kurt Busiek
Published by Vertigo

Amusing in the Bendis age of cape comics, where several pages may be devoted to superheroes sitting in a kitchen referencing popular TV shows, there’s actually been a marked disinterest in life’s more mundane aspects. Outside the slightly more oddball titles in Marvel’s current stable–FF and Daredevil, mostly–little attention is paid to characters with any sort of life outside those demanded of plot (Bendis’ Avengers, for example, may have sat around watching TV, but it was usually to provide color commentary to TV news exposition). Where old pros like Lee, Kirby, and Eisner showed active interest in their bystanders and a supporting cast which wasn’t wrapped up completely in the latest issue’s brawl, the so-called “architects” at the Big Two (Bendis, Hickman, Johns, and Jim Lee) are happy with the idea of civilians as cannon fodder.

From Astro City #1

This culture makes the return of Astro City more than welcome: announcing its mission statement with a fourth-wall breaking narrator demanding readers focus on a middle-aged programmer, Busiek (as he had done in Marvels and previous Astro City series) tells readers the small things matter. Small things like meeting family for lunch, where Busiek’s narrator stresses (almost to a fault) how average Ben Pullam and his daughters are. It’s old-fashioned populism, reflected in the 80s John Byrne shade of Brent Anderson’s artwork. Part of that is the way Anderson never lets any figure dominate a page, save a godlike, not superheroic being who gets his own splash page: even in the more grandiose superhero moments, such as the two-page spread showing a futile attack on an alien doorway, the emphasis is not on the mightier-than-thou or how awe-inspiring they are, but their place and movement in a scene; modern comics, especially Brian Bendis’ crossovers (Secret Invasion, Siege, Age of Ultron), tend towards crowded pages with fan-favorite characters that remove any sense of place in favor of poster-ready pose. Anderson’s holistic approach to storytelling reinforces Astro City not just as a title, but as an idea about community (and why the comic isn’t called Honor Guard or something). Instead of being hyperbolic and arrogant, it’s quiet and humble. In another decade, it could’ve even been normal.

Fashion Beast #10
Art by Facundo Percio
Writing by Antony Johnston
Adapted from a script by Alan Moore and Malcolm McLaren
Published by Avatar

Cover to Fashion Beast #10

Ten issues of stumbling around in the dark. Ten issues of tarot cards and talk about fashion showing little interest in fashion as social statement beyond psychobabble. Ten issues that don’t build to a conclusion so much as find themselves a twist to leave with, M. Night Shyamalan style. Ten issues of a cold war, dystopian backdrop which was only there because this is an 80’s Alan Moore script, but with none of the personality, horror, or truth of Watchmen or V for Vendetta. Ten issues of watching Moore and Antony Johnston pretend to say something subversive about sexuality and gender roles, only to settle with convention–the tomboy turning out to be an actual boy, and the transvestite being an actual woman–a lazy and uninspired love story (the former even carries the latter across the threshold while she wears a wedding gown).

I only emphasize the length of this series because I’m at a loss for what purpose it had. Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen shows a man who both knows what he’s writing about and what he wants to say about it. Fashion Beast‘s likening of clothing design to magic–deceased designer Celestine’s obsession with tarot–shows no appreciation for either, with boy Jon breezing into his new leadership role, while a side character (a fellow wage slave treated as running plot device) makes another joke cameo with a bunch of mannequins. Unlike the minor characters in Watchmen (the kid reading comics, the newsagent, Rorschach’s psychologist, etc.), she serves no role beyond peon, and even disappears from a scene that starts with her. It reflects a strange attitude towards LGBT, black, and women’s issues prevalent in Fashion Beast, which acknowledges these things in its first issue, only to subsequently disregard such concerns outside an occasional depiction of lower class freakshow. Similarly, and oddly for a comic about fashion, how clothes reflect characters or social attitudes seems to be a tertiary concern for Facundo Percio: set in ’80’s England, but sporadically evoking Dickens with two villainous crones, there’s little of the decade’s dramatic flair and coke-fueled opulence. Moore vaguely suggests nihilism and adolescent escape, but Percio depicts models in clothes that barely qualify as more than lingerie, yet stand noncommittal on the silhouette of a runway. An artist like David Mazzucchelli could’ve given this a grimy glamor, elevating Frank Miller’s prostitute figures from Batman: Year One to a place of worship (a real subversion to spark the riot which climaxes this issue). This? This is ten issues of teen rebellion as dress up.

Locke and Key: Omega #5
Art by Gabriel Rodriguez
Writing by Joe Hill
Published by IDW

From Locke and Key: Omega #5

These Locke and Key comics are about as straightforward as horror and fantasy get, but it ends up being their charm. Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill have an economy to their storytelling: in this issue’s 22 pages, only three have a panel count higher than four, and only one of those goes higher than five. There’s also no two-page spreads like in Scott Snyder comics Batman and The Wake, since the focus is less on spectacle and more on character dynamics. The little cruelties of adolescence–worries about losing your virginity, strained relationships with the parents, whether or not you can rely on friends–get blown up through the prism of cosmic horror. Which is not the same as the often silly metaphors of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even if there’s a similar self-awareness streak running through Hill’s writing when blonde Jordan acknowledges herself as “the slutty one” who “has to die.” But, this isn’t about teens facing these obstacles and overcoming, it’s the universe mocking them for how small they are; the realization those cruelties can and will expand once high school is left behind (in that case, prom is the perfect setting for finale of the series’ overarching narrative, leaving behind one world for another). When Jordan, final girl candidate Kinsey, and Kinsey’s boyfriend Jamal are confronted by their possessed friends, one goes straight for the hurt by asking Kinsey about the size of Jamal’s dick and whether she gags on it or not (an offhand reference to the derogatory way black men/white women relationships are often depicted in American culture). Two nerdy kids who decide to stand up to the demons terrorizing them, as if they were bullies, and are executed for doing so. It’s terror is more human, even if the threat is inhuman, giving Locke and Key an intimacy lacking in The Wake.

All the better horror stories–from Poe and Lovecraft to Hitchcock to Carpenter–are about people, their relationships and failings, which Hill and Rodriguez explore and Snyder does not. His characters are there to facilitate setpieces. It can make for arresting visuals (and with Sean Murphy on art, it does), but that sense of closeness, of people whose neuroses and personal problems ultimately become their failing, is never present like it is in Locke and Key.


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