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by Mark London Williams

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Recent Books of Interest
Planet of the Apes #1: The Long War by Daryl Gregory (writer) and Carlos Magno (artist) (Boom Studios)
Planet of the Apes #1: The Long War Just in time for this summer's promising reboot (based on the trailer, replete with Andy Sirkis-embodied primates and apes leaping off bridges -- at helicopters!) of the cinematic Planet of the Apes, comes Boom! Studios doing the same thing in comic form. Except, this new arc takes place before the continuity of the original five ape films. Humans, in other words, have made their inexorable bollocks of the planet, and Apes have risen. Some of the "prehistory" of the Heston-era films seems reworked. Humans may be second-class citizens, but they're not voiceless slaves. Though given the story that's set up here, perhaps that's coming. We open with an assassination, and the odd utterance of a phrase more recently associated with right wing violence (John Wilkes Booth, Timothy McVeigh). How that plays into what is set up as a very solidly done mystery, with competing factions (simian and sapien alike) well delineated (both in Gregory's scripting and Magno's art) remains to be seen. It's a no-time-wasted opening: one hopes subsequent installments live up to the initial promise.

Magnus, Robot Fighter 4000 AD by Russ Manning (Dark Horse)
Magnus, Robot Fighter 4000 AD Now in mighty paperback! Dark Horse continues its dissemination of previously overlooked and/or uncollected works, here gathering up Russ "Tarzan" Manning's sci-fi opus (for indeed, it is "sci-fi" more than "sf," or "speculative") about a far future "robot fighter," who -- let's tie in the first two reviews here -- knows that formerly subservient robots will rise up and enslave mankind unless they are stopped. Happily, though, the once-orphaned Magnus was secretly trained by a disenchanted "elder" robot to become a freedom fighter, replete with a mysteriously effective karate chop that usually has flesh prevailing against metal jugulars. I'm not sure why there aren't more beam weapons instead of all the close-quartered fisticuffs, but there's a good burly pace to the action, and a lot of riffs in Manning's work -- chases through multi-layered cities à la Star Wars, human-looking robots, à la Battlestar Galactica, etc. -- that would be picked up a decade or three later in other works. Manning's art is terrific, forthright 60s stuff, and maybe his cry of not being satisfied "until I have smashed every evil robot that is hurting mankind in body and soul!," could be construed as part of the decade's zeitgeist of wanting, ultimately, to stick it to the man.

Empire State by Jason Shiga (Abrams)
Empire State What can I say? I asked for a copy of this graphic novel by Shiga since it was set in Oakland, and I'm an old East Bay boy myself. Shiga works in a cartoony style (think of an aesthetic opposite of Russ Manning, above) that normally isn't my favorite mode for self-reflective memoirs about love gone, well, not awry -- just not quite here. In the room, when you need it. But here, it all works, and I was surprised at how much I loved this. In part, that's because Shiga gets his Oakland right: There's Casper's Hot Dogs! There's Children's Fairyland! There are a bunch of old Victorians which could be right off Telegraph Avenue near MacArthur! Et cetera. But having a definitive sense of place (and given the book's title, you won't be surprised to learn the action switches to New York, after a fateful bus trip) doesn't make the story alone. It's Shiga's wry/gentle -- and ultimately kind -- way of writing about his overly-smart characters who can joke about Fermi estimations of vaginas and where the McSweeney's is placed on their bookshelves, but have a hard time -- like the rest of us -- of asking for what they really need. Or dream about. Speaking of which, the real Oakland is on the verge of shuttering its real libraries -- where, in this book, the Shiga character works -- due to the usual apocalyptic transfers of wealth from the public sector to the ultra-rich. It might be interesting to see if Shiga follows up this work on the politics of the heart with his characters facing the politics of politics. I'd certainly trust his eye for observation.

Action 900

As the comics cognescenti you are, you've already read about Action Comics 900, that double-zero'd milestone of Super-ness which has made the rounds of "mainstream" news because Supes his own self appears be renouncing "truth, justice, and the American way," in favor of a more global perspective.

Which, you know, might suit a guy who can make time move backwards and routinely flies to other galaxies. And dimensions. How you gonna keep 'em down the farm -- even (especially?) if it's Smallville -- once they've seen the Phantom Zone?

By smartly releasing images and a synopsis of the story in advance, DC/Warner Bros. generated a lot of publicity for the issue, and their founding icon. Of course, much of that publicity, as reported by the press -- and predictably reacted to by right wingers everywhere, who hunger for symbols over substance -- gets the set-up of most of the issue wrong.

To begin with, it's a 96-Page Spectacular! (which in my original comics-reading era meant it was going to cost 25 cents...!) The main story has nothing to do with Superman quitting America, but finishes up a lot of recent continuity (which I haven't been reading, so forgive me) with Lex Luthor.

Well, okay, I guess Luthor counts as "old continuity" in the Superman universe, too. In any case, Luthor has essentially become a God, and is about to realize a -- well, nearly 900-issue old -- desire to utterly destroy Superman at last. But Gods, as it turns out, have to be careful what they wish for.

To read the story by itself was confusing in the usual super hero overly-explained continuity kind of way (there are subplots, other Krypton-y super beings, etc.), but for regular Action readers it is doubtless a lively culmination of recent arcs. None of that, however, is the reason the comic is making the news.

Being a Spectacular!, there are other Superman short stories rounding out the issue, and one of these, by Dark Knight and Batman Begins co-screenwriter David Goyer, has our eponymous Red n' Blue guy returning from a recent visit to Iraq, where he hoped that street protests -- of the kind currently filling the Arab (and, in this case, Persian) world -- would lead to the toppling of the despotic regime there.

It brings up the question of why Superman just doesn't knock various dictators the hell out -- though he alludes to a policy of "non-interference" in human affairs. Yet, what about all those previous showdowns with the aforementioned Lex, to name just one? Or is there an exception for meta-humans? See -- those continuity backflips again.

In any case, Supes stands silently for 24 hours straight in the square, a stoic vigil, unmovable by the various security forces. A comment from one Robert Carnevali on the UK's Independent news site sums the rest up well: "In the story, he placed himself between the Iranian army and peaceful protesters and stood there for 24 hours as a sign of solidarity, but with no intention of actually intervening. When he was finished, the Iranian government lambasted America because they believed Supes was an American agent and was acting on behalf of our government. Superman regularly travels the world to help people in need and didn't want to be seen as a government agent anymore and have America come under flak for his actions. By renouncing his citizenship, he hopes to remove political intentions from his actions, which are to simply help and protect people who need it."

Right wingers, of course, have construed the story -- which they haven't read -- as the Super One somehow ditching America to go help a totalitarian Islamic regime. The Independent's article on the dust-up, written by Guy Adams, quotes another comment from a different paper, but despite the hall-of-mirrors effect of all these citations, it's a good summary of reactionary reaction:

  "Bernie Loverde (in the NY Post's comment section) suggested that the development was part of a plot to indoctrinate children with left-wing beliefs. 'Do progressives, with their one global life and political correctness, have no end to what they have to shit all over?' he asked. Such comments conveniently ignore the fact that, since he was never formally adopted, Superman is officially classified as an illegal alien. By the logic of most conservatives, he does not therefore have US citizenship to renounce."  

All of which is true enough. Many other ironies abound too. For example, the handy right wing plaint that a liberal "elite" somehow run "the media" (which conveniently distracts everyone from the more telling question of who owns the media), was never an issue when Superman seemed to be toting the party line.

In other words, this fictional character, devised by two Jewish creators (who may, legends say, been riffing off the Moses legend), distributed by a New York-based "media" company that is now owned by a Hollywood movie studio!

Sure, that smacks of bi-coastal self-satisfaction, but really, it's all okay if the guy seems to have the same agenda we do, right? It's not shitting all over everything until your own assumptions are challenged (by a comic book character, no less! How fragile must those assumptions actually be, if that's the case?)

I'm not a regular Superman reader, as columnistas here have gleaned -- more a Batman guy. Mr. Klaw has been trying to get me to read the Grant Morrison Superman stuff, and I suppose I should. But my favorite portrayal of the caped one -- aside from Wonder Woman calling him "Spaceman" in The New Frontier -- was in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, in the culminating fisticuffs between the World's Greatest Detective and Kal-El. Bats tells Supes he was always too willing to say "yes" to "anyone with a badge -- or a flag." It confirmed all my suspicions, growing up, about Superman.

There wasn't any internet then (or ten years earlier, when Captain America also quit the red/white/blue -- in an official capacity -- in order to roam as the disillusioned Nomad), so the self-appointed keepers of the Official Faith weren't able to whip themselves into high dudgeon, but the dudgeon will doubtless give way to the next splenetic outburst should a nipple be shown during a sports championship or Obama inadvertently try to keep a campaign promise and try to help the less fortunate -- a growing demographic -- avoid economic oblivion.

Meanwhile, DC itself may be a tad surprised at the level of umbrage, and issued a not-quite-disclaimer. Again, from The Independent: "Nonetheless, the publishers of DC Comics, Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, appear to be concerned at the level of hostility their new edition has generated. They released a statement yesterday arguing that, despite his commitment to an increasingly international outlook, Superman will continue to embody the best of America."

Of course, who gets to define "the best of America" is always up for grabs. Past a list that includes Mark Twain, baseball, jazz and wilderness, there are some pretty bleak entries on the tally. If the "best of America" also includes speaking truth to power - like say Tom Paine or a certain Dr. King -- well then, ol' Supes is about to become a much more interesting character.

He'd better hope the NSA isn't sitting on some Kryptonite.

Copyright © 2011 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series. Strong rumors abound about its simultaneously protracted-yet-imminent eBook return. He's currently heading out the door to the Festival of Books, and gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.


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