A (Mostly) Strict Separation of Comics and State

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One thing I have noticed a lot lately is the flood of political comics that have been hitting the market. While I am a politics wonk like nobody’s business, and even write about politics regularly, I can’t say I’m behind this trend or, more accurately, this upswing in a fairly common cycle.

Before I get into what I mean, let’s discuss what I don’t mean.

First, I am not talking about political cartoons. These are usually one or two panel satirizations of political events using common and well understood images in order to make visually explicit the absurdity of a particular political situation. For example:

by John Darkow, via.

by John Darkow, via.

Notice the pop culture imagery, the use of labels to make that imagery abundantly clear (i.e. the “GOP” button in case you didn’t know their symbol was an elephant), and how they use visual shortcuts to say as much as possible in as little space (e.g. the fat, bloated stature of Super PAC with an expression of rage). These are important to our political dialogues and have been around consistently forever. Romans would graffiti their walls in political cartoons. The first known depiction of Jesus was one of these, mocking his followers. Dr. Seuss got his start there, and names like Thomas Nast continue to live on for good reason.

I am also not talking about comic strips that generally have political messages like Doonesbury.

The very controversial March 15, 2012 strip. Not to be confused with all the other very controversial Doonesbury strips.

The very controversial March 15, 2012 strip. Not to be confused with all the other very controversial Doonesbury strips.

What I’m talking about are comics that are created to lionize, boost, and otherwise create an impossible image of a current political figure. These are not new, per se, but we’re seeing a lot more of them lately and for people who normally wouldn’t get that much attention.

You expect that presidents are going to get comic books, often put out by the Big Two, but not always. For example, an offering from the awful Solson Publishing, you had Reagan’s Raiders. This 1987 offering lasted only three issues and was about how Dr. Cashchaser invented a machine that would make old men young. So he uses it on President Reagan and several members of his staff so they can travel around the world shooting people from other cultures. I bring this up not as an average example, but to show you how awful these sorts of things can be. Slightly better was The Great Society Comic Book, which was at least satire from the start, though also ridiculous.

During the 2008 elections, you had comics for both President Obama and Senator McCain published by IDW.

Barack Obama and John McCain biographies from IDW publishing

Barack Obamaand John McCain
biographies from IDW publishing

BlueWater Productions rushed to do something similar, but they’re willing to throw damn near anybody into a biography comic if they think it’ll sell. And it’s that very impulse that has lead BlueWater to start publishing a Herman Cain biography comic.Ted Cruz has one as well, but it’s really a coloring and activity book. That wasn’t snark, it actually is.

The problem with these types of books is not that they exist, and it’s not that they’re generally poorly written (though they are in most cases), it’s that they are trying to put into a historical context things that aren’t yet history. Let me explain.

The IDW book above for President Obama was actually the first of a series of them. If Senator McCain had won the election, they would have presumably been about him instead. But on top of that, President Obama started appearing all over the place, from Savage Dragon to The Amazing Spider-man to fucking Youngblood. Sometimes he’s the hero, sometimes he needs to be rescued, and sometimes he just shows up. But in all of these cases, they’re taking a real person and attributing to them a sense of character that they haven’t yet earned.

We don’t know what Herman Cain is going to do with his career. We don’t know how the presidency of Barack Obama is going to turn out. And ultimately, even with the biography comics, we don’t really know anything about them because biographies are usually written in the context of what this person was. Cruz to the Future for example is nothing more than a handjob to the junior Senator from Texas, a man who has no legislative accomplishment to his name but has proved an able fundraiser.

And that’s where these comics fail at the most basic level: comics like this are not designed to reflect a person, they are designed to define that person without any effort on the subject’s part.

The Complete Persepolis. This is how political comics ought to be done.

The Complete Persepolis. This is how political comics ought to be done.

They are also attempting to cash in on the name recognition of people to adults, but aren’t written in such a way that they can appeal to adults. I wouldn’t say they appeal to children either, but the usual tone, structure, and narrative makes it more suited to a younger audience. So what you end up with is a mess that is written for nobody except for those ideologically committed to current political strife on one side or the other, devoid of plot, characters, or context, and providing an alternative view to something that is not yet clear.

That is not to say that all comics about politics are bad. My copy of The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation is still one of the best Christmas presents I ever got. It is clever, well designed, has great art and wonderful repeated visual metaphors. I can’t more highly recommend it. Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was an amazing comic that was publish in 1957 in order to teach people how to effectively use nonviolence as a method of political change. Congressman John Lewis reports that it inspired him to take part in the Civil Rights struggle, and he became an icon of that movement.

Speaking of which, though it is technically a biography of a current political figure, Lewis’s collaboration with Nate Powell and Andrew Aydin, March, is brilliant because it is a retrospective on events that have long been settled and how they relate to our current, unsettled situation. It is not a 20 page summary of John Lewis, it uses his life as a vehicle to talk about the Civil Rights movement.

A page from March, posted as an image on the Amazon page for the book.

A page from March, posted as an image on the Amazon page for the book.

The thing is, March is a rather significant exception. For the most part, the political comic is nothing but an attempt to draw attention by taking a big name and trying to make them seem more important than they are. It’s cheap, it’s meaningless, and unless they’re going to do something worthwhile, publishers need to get out of the business of scatter-shot throwing political figures in comic books. The shallow takes on political figures and events we most often see don’t make comics look sophisticated, they make them look more childish, and for an industry that is again skirting the edge of respectability as an art form, we need to do better than embracing the newest passing trend political figures and instead try to actually say something.

Reluctantly Liking Avengers Arena

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First, welcome to the new blog. This is the place where I can ramble about comic books, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, without having to clutter up my other blog, or the place I contribute to. Still, you should read those, too, mostly for the other contributors who are amazing.

That being said, let’s jump right in. I honestly thought I was going to hate Avengers Arena when it started last year. It’s a dumb premise with a horrible idea behind it. Regular readers of my Facebook will know I ranted endlessly for the firstReluctantly Liking Avengers Arena couple of issues. But now that the run is over, I have to give credit where credit is due and say that Denis Hopeless really did take an old idea and make it worthy.

There be spoilers from this point forward, so beware.

Avengers Arena started just after the ending of Avengers Academy, and actually involved a number of the kids from Hank Pym’s little school. I should mention that I loved everything about Academy, from the teen drama to the action. I especially loved that there was such a diverse cast, with characters of many races, religions (or none), sexual orientations, and genders. It was a refreshing change from the standard “white guy super hero” that we’re used to seeing in damn near every book in existence. The plots were intriguing, but up beat. So imagine my surprise when I reach issue 40 and realize it was canceled before I even started reading it.

However, in reading the letters page, I realized that several of the same characters would be traveling to a new book: Avengers Arena. Whatever it was, I wanted to read it. Then I found out what it was about and wished so much that many of my favorite super teens weren’t involved.

Arena has often been described as a Battle Royale rip off or, for a more timely reference, Avengers Hunger Games. Third rate X-men villain Arcade has been known for years to create elaborate death traps that he puts heroes in, usually called “murderworlds.” He’s what Marvel really wanted to make into their own Riddler before DC knew they wanted the Riddler to do stuff like that, and the character just never really took off. Part of the problem is that he was always drastically outclassed. The solution was obvious: kidnap a bunch of children to play his games instead.

The X-Men in giant, transparent pin balls

From Uncanny X-men #123. This guy thought this would be a good idea. Just saying.

Arcade sets up the most detailed Murder World he has ever created, going to great lengths not only to account for the various power sets of the kids he chose, but actually going out of his way to find ways to make sure that they wouldn’t be missed by the adults outside for the next month. He gives them 30 days to kill one another for his amusement, and the last one standing gets to walk out alive.

I admit, this is a really terrible premise for a comic, especially one that we’re assured is supposed to be ongoing for a while. Denis

Arcade looking like a real villain

Arcade’s appearance in Avengers Arena Murder World #1
 I admit, this is menacing.

Hopeless, the writer, said that he originally wanted to do a book a lot more like Academy, focusing largely on teen drama and the like. In the end, the editors took two lines from the end of his pitch about the kids eventually getting involved in an inter-school competition that turns deadly when a villain takes it over, and was told “this is your story.”

After 10 years of larping, one of the things that I discovered was that plots that are designed to do nothing besides kill characters suck. They tend to be overwrought and I hate anything that bloodthirsty. Death should have a purpose in narrative, and when it becomes the purpose, you usually end up with meaningless bloodshed. That being said, Hopeless and his crew handle this really well.

Let’s take a moment to look at the difference in Arcade from previous incarnations. One thing you can see immediately is that the elimination of the ridiculous bow tie (they’re not cool on him) and the darkening of the color of his shirt and vest really do make this character look more serious. He’s still a third stringer at best, but I can at least buy that he’s a legitimate threat and a psychopath. Seriously, compare the old version to the new version for a moment.

Old version of Arcade from the Marvel Database

Old version of Arcade from the Marvel Database

arcadenew

New version of Arcade from Avengers Arena #5

I feel as if Hopeless and his creative team were really trying to rehabilitate this character, and it makes sense in the comic world to do that occasionally. Understand that part of the reason why so many comic book super heroes don’t kill isn’t an ideological opposition to killing, but rather because coming up with interesting theme villains is hard work, and killing them off every issue leads to monotonous writing.

That being said, another aspect of monotonous writing is using the same bad guys over and over again, so it’s nice to see underused and rather silly villains coming back and actually doing something. I especially like that Arena plays Arcade off as being as much of a joke among the villains as he is to long time readers. He’s the uncool kid trying to do something so awesome everyone else had to pay attention to him and come to his birthday party. While he certainly does let his obsession get in the way of his continuing the run the operation, I can at least respect how the creative team made this foppish, ridiculous looking guy into a scary motherfucker by letting him do his old schtick over an extended period of time with children instead of adults.

Speaking of children, that’s where this book shines. Remember, Hopeless wanted to do a largely teen drama, so he manages to work those aspects into the story itself. Of the characters in the Arena, several of them are brand new, but they’re written in such a way that you could see them as being part of a long continuity. Mostly, I’m referring to the kids from Braddock Academy, which is a new idea as a school for super kids run by Brian Braddock, aka Captain Britain. Of them we have Apex, who can control electronics with her mind, Nara, an Atlantean, Cullin Bloodstone, who comes from a family of inter-dimensional monster hunters, Anarchronism, a geek who was possessed by the spirit of a Celtic warrior and now has his body and occasional blood lust, and finally Kid Briton, a younger version of Captain Britain from another dimension.

The dynamics between these five characters are very realistic. I especially liked how they dealt with Kid Briton’s power and behaviors. You see, his powers are based on his confidence. The better he feels about himself, the stronger he is. Put that into the context of a good looking sixteen year old kid, and you end up with a bully who treats the male students terribly and pressures the female ones into fawning over him because “you don’t want me to not be strong enough to fight something, do you?” I’m not saying I like this person, but the character is believable as a kid who is naturally assumed to be the leader and feels untouchable because of who he is. It makes sense for him to be a complete douchebag, and while I don’t think that merits what eventually happens to him, I can see how the story leads to that point.

Of the rest of them, I love Cullin most of all, especially when we get to see his backstory. The idea of a family of Northern Irish big game hunters in the pith-helmet tradition that go after monsters is fascinating and a wonder to see. Anachronism plays his innate shyness very well, and you can tell how uncomfortable he is being tall and muscular. About my only complaint with this group is that the girls, Apex and Nara, and largely interchangeable. One becomes a villain very quickly, but if the power sets were switched I could see the other just as quickly doing the same.  They manage to pass Bechdel together, but privileged, catty young girls can’t be the only thing they have in the UK.

Beyond them, we have a really good lineup. Death Locket, a 9-year-old Deathlock, was a new creation that worked by the end, though she is mostly Macguffin through the rest of the book until the last three issues. From Academy we have Reptil, X-23, Hazmat, Juston, and technically Mettle, though he dies in the first issue in the most disappointing and pointless character death I have ever seen (see? I told you I didn’t want to like this). From the Runaways we have Nico and Chase. Chris Powell is there as Darkhawk, which is kind of strange and even he thinks so, but he is removed from play pretty early and Chase gains the Darkhawk powers. Red Raven, who I don’t know at all and dies by running into the ceiling of Murder World, another dumb and pointless early death. Finally, we have Cammi who may be the most developed and clear headed character of the bunch.

Cammi in Murder World

Cammi beginning to realize that people are disappearing from camp from Avengers Arena #3

Cammille Benally is pretty obscure, but she first appeared in Drax the Destroyer #1 and served as a sidekick to Drax for a while. She’s a “teenaged astrogirl” and actually doing some great stuff around the whole “space adventurer” concept. It took me most of the story to realize that she was the only one who remained in control basically the whole time. She’s also the one who came up with the plan at the end to pretend to be traumatized by what happened so they don’t have to worry about anyone on the outside finding out what they did to one another inside Murder World.

Ultimately, Arcade is foiled and while only one kid was supposed to survive, several of them do make it out alive. I admit, I didn’t like that basically the only reason they managed to survive was an accident, but also I didn’t like the “I’ve thought of everything” nature of Arcade, and since I can’t have it both ways I would prefer he made a mistake than that they did something awesome and incredibly super heroic to overcome his perfect plan.

One of my favorite books was actually not written by Denis Hopeless, but rather by Christos Gage, who did Avengers Academy. Issue #13 covers what’s been going on in the outside world and why people didn’t notice they weren’t gone. We see Hank Pym even being fooled despite not being very comfortable with everything. We see Molly from the Runaways quite rightly doubting that Chase and Nico run off together. It’s a well written book that brings back my favorite couple from Academy and gives me lots of Pym being the nice guy that he wasn’t allowed to be before the Secret Invasion retconned decades of acting like an asshole of epic proportions.

In fact, as much as I like the kids, I think I like the two books that don’t take place in Murder World the best. The other one, issue #7, gives backstory on Arcade and goes into his motivations for this particular Murder World and a little backstory on him, which is famously complex and usually false. In this issue, we get to see what a loser he is, the joke other villains consider him to be, and how it effects him. While not making me sympathize with his decision to kidnap children and pit them against one another in a death match, it does make the character more interesting.

Now that Arena is over with after one year and eighteen issues, several of the characters will be reappearing in Avengers Undercover in March. From what I can tell, they are going to still be playing up their trauma to allow them to infiltrate the Masters of Evil and start taking it down from the inside. Much like Arena, this sounds like a really limited concept, but at least now I can say that I was happy with how Hopeless (who will be writing this one, too) handled this last job, so I find myself much more interested in this one. Ultimately, we shall see, but either way I recommend taking a look at this if you can see past the ridiculous concept and villain choice.