We Need to Stay Focus–Look, An Eagle!

Hawkeye Annual #1
Art by Javier Pulido
Writing by Matt Fraction
Published by Marvel

Amongst Hawkeye‘s recent string of distractions, this one might be the better of them. This time, Matt Fraction’s self-indulgence switches the story to heiress Kate Bishop, the protege to Hawkeye, leaving New York, her mid-life crisis suffering father, and Hawkeye himself. It also serves as a sequel to the two-parter Javier Pulido drew in the fourth and fifth issues, where the villain Madame Masque seeks revenge on Kate for slighting her in that story.

It’s boilerplate character piece. Kate’s identity search is defined by her need for self-worth, but Fraction keeps her in pure vanity mode (when Masque’s scheme leaves her in need of a job, she gives practiced, identical speeches about hard work), which works fine in an ensemble piece like Young Avengers, where Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are playing her against different types of Millenials, but here the artifice creaks and groans. Likewise, Pulido’s art choices–characters in silhouette for many panels, illustrated captions showing Kate’s mindset as she narrates–are as arbitrary as those of the Pizza Dog issue’s diagrams and limited vocabulary (especially when the illustrated captions are still paired with Fraction’s prose explaining exactly what she’s thinking, such as when she fakes drinking a spiked wine). Rather than informing the narrative, it’s all stylistic tics to keep Hawkeye as one of Marvel’s mild eccentrics.

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Even in the comic’s best scene, the break up between Hawkeye and Kate which opens it, the artwork fails to rise above middling interest. In this instant, what is noteworthy is the quasi-romantic dynamic between the two. Fraction has insisted this is a platonic, mentor/student relationship (reinforced by Hawkeye yelling “You’re not my girlfriend” as Kate takes the dog with her), but the evidence has certainly been there: Hawkeye’s inclusion of Kate in the same group as Black Widow, Mockingbird, and Spider-Woman (all previous love interests) in a Valentine’s themed story, the anger she has over discovering he slept with a woman, and the revelation this issue a number of the items in Hawkeye’s apartment are, in fact, hers. There’s undeniable intimacy to this relationship (not necessarily sexual), which is just transgressive enough to get across how both characters fare poorly with romance. His blue collar attitude, her upper class upbringing, both are seen as hindrances to their development, a sabotage Kate has had enough of (hence the split). This was the through-line of the series, how class and gender intersect, before Fraction started obsessing over continuity and idle fancy, which shows how far (and how fast) this series has fallen.

Rachel Rising #18
Art and Writing by Terry Moore
Published by Abstract Studios

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Impressively, Terry Moore makes no effort towards accessibility. There’s no recapping of previous issues or characters explaining who they are and their goals. It’s all or nothing with Rachel Rising, either figure this shit out or go away. Since a lot of modern serial fiction is about hand-holding, that takes guts. It also allows Moore to work on character moments: the way little girl Zoe, being trained by a priest on how to kill “bad people,” draws her hood over her head before stabbing someone; the mass of “Ding Dong” sound effects to indicate a guy’s impatience while ringing a doorbell; even the hopeful grin immortal, suicidal witch Lilith gives when she sees the Angel of Death gives readers insight into the disturbed nature of these characters and their world. It’s done in Moore’s usual black & white, with the white becoming oppressive in the snowy outdoor scenes, reflecting Lilith’s despair and alienation.

There’s more economical storytelling in Locke and Key–a number of Rachel Rising 18‘s pages exceed six panels–but not as much happening. Like Moore’s bona fide classic Strangers in Paradise, each scene seems to begin midway through itself. Lilith comes back from death in a field of snow, naked and flanked by two allies while wolves devour corpses around them, lacking in indicators of what led to this (at least, without reading the previous issue). It’s a move that’s antagonistic enough to keep readers unsettled. Moore then circles around to each of his characters, narrow snapshots of what’s going on which form the barest glimmer of a larger picture. A less confident artist, like the kind who deliver their failed movie pitches to Image, would’ve conceded all this for easy money. Moore? He demands a more engaged audience.

Older Comic Time:

Master of Kung Fu #89
Art by Mike Zeck
Writing by Doug Moench
Published by Marvel

Here’s a rarity in mainstream superhero comics: an ending. No setup for the next arc, no fakeouts to keep the wheel spinning, no question mark following “The end.” Just a story about a son fighting his father that has reached its inevitable conclusion. Sure, Fu Manchu’s death is left with enough wiggle room to bring him back to life (in fact, Doug Moench would revive the character twice: once within this series, and in the 2002 Master of Kung Fu mini-series for Marvel’s MAX imprint), but there’s a sense of finality all the same, the kind only gotten away with in the fringe of 70’s Marvel and DC. The only regrettable part of this issue is that it wasn’t drawn by Paul Gulacy, Moench’s artistic partner who helped make the comic such a cult favorite. Mike Zeck is a workman, giving exactly the information needed from panel to panel to move the story along, while Moench’s narration and dialogue does the real work.

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The key difference is how Zeck shows fight scenes: a punch here, a kick there, a throw, it all happens in service to the plot. Gulacy is always fascinated by the movement of a fight, an approach he would bring to Batman when he and Moench re-teamed for the Prey arc in Legends of the Dark Knight. Every block, parry, and attack is given a panel to breathe, like freeze frames for a martial arts flick. Zeck gets it all out of the way in one panel, making the fights lopsided affairs.

Beyond being stylistically preferable, Gulacy’s approach is better equipped for the series’ philosophy. Shang-Chi, a Bruce Lee-inspired martial artist, straddles that line between archetype and stereotype, while father Manchu (from Sax Rohmer’s series of detective novels) is one of the more famous examples of “Yellow Peril” in fiction. Both being the creations of white men co-opting Asian (specifically Chinese) culture is problematic, but Master of Kung Fu‘s solution is elegant: Shang-Chi rebels against his father, ironically, because of the Chinese-centric values instilled in him by Manchu. The title page blurb states “Shang-Chi” means “The Rising and Advancing of the Spirit”, a summation of kung fu’s idealizing of discipline and virtue, and that to honor his father “would bring nothing but dishonor to the spirit of my name.” Manchu is not the symbol of China, and the world must be freed from the corrosive influence of this racist caricature, and it must be done with a positive example of Chinese culture (drawn from movies made by actual Chinese, no less, as opposed to Rohmer’s pure fantasy). Gulacy, with his emphasis on every movement, understood this. He would’ve made this climax grander than it already is.

Finishing with a new(er) comics:

Batman ’66 #1
Art by Jonathan Case
Writing by Jeff Parker
Published by DC

Almost a response to the Mark Waid/Paolo Rivera Daredevil comics, in trying to bring lighthearted quirk back to a character that’s been darkened over the last few decades. It actually goes a bit further, with Jeff Parker, Jonathan Case, and company by lifting as many elements from the campy Batman TV show it’s based on as possible, even if it doesn’t make much sense for a comic book (a caption after an explosion asking “Did we just see the Caped Crusaders and Catwoman…cremated?”). Like those Season 8 and 9 Buffy comics that gave rise to it, this isn’t commentary or parody, just pining for something long gone and no longer relevant. It’s harmless, and occasionally witty (Case directly references the DVD cover to Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins), but it exists solely as a nostalgia piece. And comic book fans are nostalgic enough.

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