In which the blogger comes clean about his past week’s comics reading.
Writer Rick Remender and artist Bengal’s Death Or Glory is a western-rooted crime tale set in and around the badlands of 21st century Arizona. So far, it’s a handsome visual package wrapped around a laboured and woefully humourless cars-and-robbers caper. Its highpoints are Bengal’s nighttime establishing shots. A down-home farm at night awash with chickens. A neon-lit garage as seen from a rain-splattered drive. The interior of a late-night burger bar as closing time arrives and a mop sweeps up the day’s debris. All convince and captivate, like postcards home from a noirish edge-of-nowhere. But the story that plays out in these locations feels as tired as the tale’s settings feel fresh and fascinating. Nothing here comes across as original or surprising. Every character is an immediately recognisable stereotype, with dialogue so stiff and forced that it often feels as if it’s been awkwardly translated from another language. The bystander who tries to stand up for frightened fast food workers and declares, “This is an underserved community and jobs are scarce”? The hero who decries conformity as a choice to “suffer isolation in pursuit of green paper to pay for our own confinement”? Time and time again, characters express themselves in such a stiff, self-conscious way as to hurl the reader right out of the story. For a comic that appears to pride itself on its verisimilitude, the result is disastrous.
As the plot itself, it’s serviceable and even efficient, after its own fashion, but its every beat is utterly predictable. Desperate decisions are made. Disasters pile predictably up. Since all we’re shown is one damn bad thing after another, there’s no surprises to be had. The system is corrupt. The villains are fiendish. The persecuted community weeps tears of the purest saccharine. The hero has been driven into a corner. The vehicles are fast, the gun fights are fierce, and so it goes. And goes. And goes. In the complete absence of anything but misery, the ever-intensifying succession of calamities feel like nothing more or less than par for the course. By the time we arrive at the final twist, the weariness imposed by the preceding pages nullifies any response beyond a cold, academic recognition that a potentially interesting issue-closing enigma has been encountered. Sadly, by then, it’s way too late to care. In truth, Death Or Glory feels like a long succession of storyboards waiting for a film or TV production to bring them to life. This is not to suggest that the comic was designed as development-bait. In truth, it feels like a honest labour of absolute love. But the result, for all that ambition and enthusiasm, is a story that feels as if it desperately requires another medium to being it to life.
The first chapter of Simone and Baldeon’s Domino is a thing well made, as you would expect from the creators involved. In truth, the tale is so efficiently told that the comic speeds entertainingly by without any sense that the story has been so rigorously and successfully assembled. There still appear to be punkish romantics who regard craft as the enemy of inspiration, but the ability to hew together a story that’s this snaringly full of incident while still feeling fresh and immediate is the real creative deal. Decades of superhero landfill can leave the genre – on paper and between glossy covers at least – feeling quite played out. But Domino succeeds in delivering a mix of the necessarily familiar with a series of new twists on long-established traditions. Yes, this introductory issue features a progression of superpeople punch-ups, fan-pleasing guest stars and deftly layered catch-up backstory. Of course. It has to. Domino is a superpowered mercenary; her new series needs to play to her existing strengths even as it develops them further. But Simone and Baldeon also present us with some refeshingly ambitious and inventive twists too. The character work is deftly done. The tone beguilingly shifts from high-octane action set-pieces to sweetly intimate conversations and moments of convincingly unsettling terror. As a result, Simone and Baldeon establish Domino as a compelling lead who, Deadpool II or not, deserves to be carrying her own title. It wouldn’t have been a proposition that I’d have found particularly compelling before reading this debut issue.
Most enjoyably, the tale’s first extended sequence drops Domino and her colleague Outlaw into the forests of “The Pacific Northwest … Twenty Miles From The Oregon/Washington border”. The relief of encountering such an unfamiliar and convincingly specific backdrop is considerable.* So too is the pleasure of seeing such a setting embraced as an essential aspect of the story rather than a moody splash of local colour. (The action in Death or Glory feels strangely disconnected from the tale’s meticulous Arizona backdrops, as if its generic events could have been played out anywhere. By contrast, the opening throwdowns in Domino rely in large part upon the specific ways in which characters and landscape interact.) Captivatingly portrayed in all its rain-drenched immensity by Baldeon and colourist Jesus Aburtov, the forest helps ensure that the comic has its own particular character from the very off.
An attention to locale is hardly the sum of Domino’s virtues. Not at all. But the more we get superpeople out of their middle-everywheres and any-cities, the more interesting their adventures will be. Infusing the superhero tradition with aspects of life as it’s lived rather than genre as it’s long been consumed can only be a good thing. There is a counter-intuitive glamour and fascination in the use of the specifics of the everyday to frame and inform a rollicking action/adventure tale. The future of the superbook, I ardently hope, lies less in the stars and more in the likes of the huge dark forests of The Pacific Northwest.
*Well, it’s unfamiliar to me. I live in the windswept flatlands of England’s east. And it’s refreshingly rare and unfamiliar, if hardly unseen, within the pages of the superbook too
The first substantial volume – just the first volume! – of this comicbook adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods is an undeniably mighty undertaking. If success is to be measured by the immense scale of a task matched to sincere good intentions and decades of admirably honed craftmanship, then this would be a masterpiece in its own right. Sadly, the masterpiece is Gaiman’s original novel, while its adaption almost always feel like a pointless, if intermittently pretty, project. At times, it feels as if every single word and image that might possibly have been extracted from Gaiman’s novel have been crammed onto the comic’s many pages. Frames bow with the weight of text. Multiple word balloons jostle for the reader’s attention in painfully small panels. Action moves tortuously slowly. In truth, fealty and respect are the allies of neither storyteller or reader, and the best of intentions have left this first volume of American Gods feeling like a slog when it isn’t simply a bore. The structure and content of a novel can rarely be lifted out and plumped down into a comic with any degree of success. Surely this is a given? What’s thrilling in the one can be stultifying in another. And yet, the cliché clearly did need repeating, and either it wasn’t, or that repetition was ignored.
The problems caused with this crippling loyalty to the original text are only worsened by the mannered and even soporific choices made by artists P C Craig Russell and Scott Hampton. Emotions are represented with a disaffecting excess of restraint. Events drag. Panels and sequences of panels which are quite beautiful in themselves collapse into tedium when a number of pages is read. This over-polite, glacial approach only neuters the glee and wit and profound unease that drives Gaiman’s novel. (Nowhere is that more so than in several of the adaption’s sex scenes, which demand attention only because of their strange lack of eroticism.) The result is that American Gods is a heel-dragging progression of one potentially bright idea after another and rarely anything more. Even at those moments when Russell and Hampton’s art sparks into life, and that’s usually during the more fantastical sequences, Gaiman’s distinctive mix of joyousness and terror is only distinctly evoked.
Only with the arrival of a trio of guest artists does American Gods burst into life. In the short chapters entrusted to Colleen Doran, Walt Simonson and, in particular, Glenn Fabry, we’re given work that radiates feeling, place, colour, action and, best of all, energy. (Proving that pretty much any set of narrative constraints can be turned to good advantage, Fabry presents 4 pages of conversation set within the confines of a taxi cab that are astonishingly alive with dynamism and character.) It could feasibly be argued that Doran, Simonson and Fabry have some of the project’s most promising material to work with. Their chapters are short, finite and crowded with incident. But the zest and vigour of their work only underscores what the majority of the graphic novel’s other pages lack. Better that Russell and Hampton had gone entirely their own way with the text, producing as they did a strange and heretical offshoot of the novel, than they deferentially invested so much skill and effort and time into this ghost of Gaiman’s original.