Thursday, August 30, 2007

Leave It to Chance: The Lost Chapter

What's the secret to failure?

I, like many people, love Leave It to Chance, the critically acclaimed, award-winning comic from James Robinson and Paul Smith. The three collected volumes from Image (pictured here) left me hungry for more. It never occurred to me when I finished them that there might not be any more.

It probably never occurred to Robinson and Smith, either. After all, they had a solid high-concept idea, the talent to pull it off, and an ambition to get more women and children, a market the industry has struggled to attract, to read comics. They also had the acclaim of critics. What they apparently lacked was good sales.

Leave It to Chance is easy to grasp: it's a cross between Nancy Drew and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. In brief, the setting is the city of Devil's Echo where the paranormal is the norm. Defending the townsfolk against endless threats from demons, monsters, and other bogeymen is the Falconer family. Every generation has had one Falconer to be the town's paranormal investigator and protector, and the tradition has passed from father to son in an unbroken line.

But Lucas Falconer is the last male heir. His battle with occultist Miles Belloc left his wife dead and his face deformed, and he has had to raise his only daughter, Chance, alone. Now Chance is fourteen, the traditional coming-of-age when male Falconers become apprentices of their fathers. Chance wants to follow in Lucas Falconer's footsteps, but he has forbidden it. As you would expect, Chance decides to do some paranormal investigation on her own. Havoc ensues and Chance saves the city multiple times. Lucas is angry with her but secretly proud.

How awesome is that?

I thought I would never again have the joy of reading Leave It to Chance since its last two issues have not been collected in paperback and probably never will be. But then I visited that shady bookstore up the street--you know, the one with New Age books on the shelves and posters of naked anime characters on the walls--where I found a copy of the very last issue, Issue 13 (perhaps an unlucky number for a comic about the paranormal). It opens strong, swiftly informing us that Lucas is dead, murdered by a car bomb. Grieving, Chance has given up on paranormal investigating. But she won't have long to mope because a bumbling psychic trying to resurrect a famous jazz singer has accidentally created a city-wide zombie uprising while in the background a collection of villains with a grudge against Chance are forming a conspiracy.

And that, unfortunately, is where it ends. This last issue came out only after the comic had already been through trouble, and now the series is once again on a permanent hiatus. What went wrong? Why couldn't such an easily likable, fun, all-ages comic succeed?

Earlier this week on The Sci Fi Catholic, I argued that some stories we associate with women are actually intended for men. Although Leave It to Chance was created with a young, feminine audience in mind, I strongly suspect it holds a greater interest for male adults.

I will never forget Paul Smith's introduction to the first volume, Shaman's Rain. It's clear he has a bone to pick with the comics industry, calling modern comics "dark, misogynist, convoluted...mean." Leave It to Chance is clearly meant to be the opposite: bright, simple, and girl-powered. But readers aware of Chance's intent might be a little bemused to discover that everyone working on the comic from the writer to the inker to the letterer is a man. Certain "feminine" scenes in the series seem forced, such as in Issue 8 when Chance and her girlfriends have a slumber party during which they sit around and talk about their favorite comic book heroes. "Hellboy is way cool,"* Chance announces, almost more to the reader than to her friends, as if she's trying to nudge the audience to go pick up a Mike Mignola comic. To my eye, this moment--when the curtain is drawn back on a feminine scene and the reader discovers the girls are really fanboys--is likely to appeal more to a male readership than a female one.

And then there is Chance herself. She has a boyish haircut, thick eyebrows, and a decidedly androgynous body she usually covers with overalls and a bulky trench coat. Again, this appears to be a reaction against the stereotypes of comics in which crime-fighting women are typically voluptuous and underdressed. The reader may get the sense that Robinson and Smith have carefully and consciously de-sexualized their heroine. Even her extremely low-key, G-rated romantic tension with sixteen-year-old, scruffy-chinned criminal mastermind Archie Lightfoot is non-sexual in every sense of the term.

Through most of Leave It to Chance, Chance is generically spunky and able to handle anything, though a few issues end with suggestions that her brash actions may have serious repercussions later on. On one occasion, Chance accidentally kills a man, but never shows shock or remorse. In another instance, she intentionally tosses a "trogg" off the top of a building and again seems unfazed (though the trogg may have survived). When it's over, she's always ready for the next big adventure. Her psyche receives no exploration.

This contrasts intriguingly with another male-authored teenage girl-centered comic, Paul Sizer's Little White Mouse. Its protagonist, Loo Th'eng, frequently dresses in a manner similar to Chance: her typical attire consists of overalls, a vest, and a backwards baseball cap. Loo, in contrast to Chance, is a fully developed character. Her personality is believable even if her abilities are exceptional. Loo, like Chance, engages in reckless behavior enjoyable to watch, but she sometimes feels guilty and frequently suffers consequences. Also in contrast to Chance, her femininity is never lost in spite of her behavior and dress, which might be considered "masculine" in many respects, although Sizer accomplishes this partly by depicting her in romantic or quasi-romantic relationships with much older men and by putting her in a number of skimpy outfits, all of which I considered unfortunate when I read the series.

The only character in Leave It to Chance who really exudes feminine sexuality in a typically comic book way is Ms. Longfellow, one of the villains, who packs a large handgun and wears black tights and cat-rimmed glasses. The issue in which she appears ends with her rendered powerless after a male villain abandons her. Similarly, in Issue 13, the bumbling psychic has a beautiful, air-headed woman on each arm. When the dead start rising from their graves, we see a shot of one of these women running away and shouting, "Don't ask me. Otway just hired me to look pretty!" The matronly-looking maid at the Falconer estate, Quince, is generally Chance's antagonist who tries to get her to be more lady-like and prevent her from pursuing her dream, whereas the butler Hobbs is Chance's enabler. Besides Chance herself, the strongest female character in the comic is Officer Margo, a policewoman who works in the Arcane Crimes Unit. Although presumably intended to champion womanhood, Leave It to Chance generally depicts femininity as powerless. Women succeed in the comic largely by imitating men and learning to move in a man's world. Women who are openly feminine are vulnerable and eventually become helpless.

Issue 13, however, adds some much-needed complexity. Chance struggles with her father's death and feels unable to live up to the Falconer family name. At the story's climax, Chance saves the day partly through a creative use of lip balm, a feminine item, and at the issue's end, even though Chance has succeeded as always, we find her in the arms of Quince the maid, who is consoling her over her trying experiences. Meanwhile, a couple of male characters are clueless and even insensitive.

When he complains about convolution, darkness, and misogyny in the modern comics industry, Smith yearns for a past when comics were fun. Leave It to Chance appears to have the goal (if not the success) of Star Wars: it is supposed to be innovative, yes, but more importantly it is supposed to bring fun back to an artform that has largely forgotten about it. I suspect the most avid readers of Leave It to Chance are probably not young girls but older fanboys nostalgic for the comics of yesteryear.

The cover of Issue 13 is an image of Chance surrounded by zombies and staring at her own grave, containing this epitaph:

Here Lies

An Ungrateful Whelp
Who Died this Night
A Coward and a Quitter

Any hope that Chance will be back? It's impossible to say. For now, we'll have to leave it to chance.

*On the off chance James Robinson or Mike Mignola ever read this blog, I would pay good, good money to see a Leave It to Chance/Hellboy crossover.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Scanner Darkly

Readers of Holy Heroes!! may be interested in the graphic novelization of PKD's A Scanner Darkly. The recent movie adaptation consisted of animation overlaying live action, and this graphic novel version works with images taken directly from the film.
And the religious connection? I've never read anything by PKD that didn't have religious symbolism! Scanner is sprinkled with quotations from St. Paul; the characters muse on good, evil, life and death. And one unfortunate soul attempts suicide, only to be confronted with a list of all his life's sins, read to him by an interdimensional alien.
(Hmm... some brave soul should produce a mash-up of Cordwainer Smith and PKD entitled "A Scanner Darkly Lives in Vain.")

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Spiritual Solicitations: Sensational Spider-Man #40

As a new feature for Holy Heroes!!, I will scour Previews for forthcoming books dealing with religion and give everybody a heads-up on books that may be of interest to readers of this blog. First up:
WRITER: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
LETTERED BY: Chris Eliopoulos

Above all else, Peter Parker is a decent man. With a good heart. Who has given his life over to the service of others. And in exchange…what has he gotten? Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy…His Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy, the list goes on and on…And why? In his darkest hour, Peter demands answers. And the only person who can give them to him is…God?

32 PGS./Rated A …$2.99

IN STORES: August 22, 2007

Peter Parker has definitely gone through some Job-like suffering (does he have any family members left that haven't died at least once?), so a spiritual showdown makes sense. I don't really like the dark direction the character has taken lately (and this from a guy who loves Kraven's Last Hunt!), but if this issue is good it may make up for it.
See preview pages here.

Spiritual Solicitations: Ex Machina #31

Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Tony Harris and Jim Clark
Cover by Harris

"Ex Cathedra," Part 2 of 4. Summoned to Vatican City by the Pope himself, superhero-turned-mayor Mitchell Hundred must cross the line between church and state in a thriller that will pit him against a terrifying new group of villains.

Wildstorm Universe | 32pg. | Color | $2.99 US | Mature Readers

On Sale October 17, 2007

DC was coy about a "major world leader" in the solicitation for #30 (part 1 of this story), but they showed their hand here. This is one of my favorite books right now, and I'm definitely curious to see how Vaughan writes the Pope.

Hellblazer #233

Hellblazer #233
by Andy Diggle (writer) and Leonardo Manco (artist)

Five issues in, Andy Diggle's run on Hellblazer is well on its way to becoming the stuff of legend. The opening two-parter proved that Diggle understands John Constantine's character, and the second story displays both knowledge and affection for his history. But the real strength of Hellblazer #233 for me is its development of a truly interesting metaphysics.

Diggle's goal with #232-233, set in the Ravenscar asylum where Constantine spent some time following his first experiments with magic, is to clean up the character's history. In his early appearances in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Constantine constantly referred to Newcastle, where soem mysterious, horrible event had happened years before. In Hellblazer #11, Jamie Delano revealed what had happened at Newcastle. It was a story that needed to be told, perhaps, but it symoblized the main difference between Constantine's Swamp Thing appearances and the required paradigm of a solo book: he lost much of his mystery.

In this story, Diggle metaphorically undoes some of the messy continuity that has built up in the 222 issues since the secrets of Newcastle were revealed. In the character's 20-plus year history, he has damned, indirectly killed, or otherwise screwed over everyone in his life. That's led to a lot of guilt—the accumlated sin of two decades as a bitter antihero. Diggle physicalizes that sin, making it manifest so that Constantine—and the book—can purge themeselves of the baggage. The catharsis is fascinating, and it shows more attention to metaphysics than Hellblazer has shown in a long, long time. Add the always-incredible art of Leonardo Manco, and this is easily the best Hellblazer has been since Warren Ellis' unjustly-truncated run.

Chronicles of Wormwood #4, 5, and 6

Chronicles of Wormwood #4, 5, and 6
By Garth Ennis (writer) and Jacen Burrows (artist)
Avatar Press

The second half of Garth Ennis' miniseries about the Antichrist starts strong. The "afterlife road trip" announced on the last page of #3 ends up being the best bit of the whole series. It culminates with a heartbreaking scene in which Jesus (who would be the true Second Coming if he weren't brain-damaged) expresses his sorrow at the world's pain. Of all the things I expected from this series, a moment of honest to goodness Christology wasn't on the list, and it's a pleasant surprise.

Elsewhere in the issue, there's a clever take on church history as Satan reveals that he was the inspiration behind the conversion of Constantine:
"By that point, you see, the Christians were obviously here to stay. Crucify them, boil them, throw them to the lions—for every one you did away with, a hundred signed up to take his place. People love the idea of martyrs. The idea of something grand, something spiritual inspiring sacrifice—which is the point I made to Constantine. Adapt and survive, I told him. If you can't beat them, join them. Or lead them. Declare Rome Christian. Take the whole empire over to Jesus. Re-brand: once the taxes are tithes and the wars are crusades, you'll get away with more than you ever did."

Add a hilarious scene involving the Beast of Revelation and you've got the makings of what I wish this series had been for all six issues: a clever critique of religion that doesn't descend into nastiness for its own sake.

A pity, then, that Ennis spoils it in the last pages of #5. When God finally shows up, he's an idiot who can neither speak nor keep his hand out of his robe. The thing that irritates me isn't the ugliness of the image (though it is more than a little ugly)—it's the unoriginality of it. Ennis is retreading old ground with this caricature, which is essentially the same thing as the inbred heir of Jesus that appeared in the pages of Preacher. It doesn't bother me overly much if Ennis wants to say nasty things about God—that's what I expected from page 1 of this series. But I hoped it would be much, much more clever than this. (Not to mention the fact that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, logically. If this is what God is like in this universe, how could he have devised any kind of plan for Wormwood to oppose? But I digress.)

Anyway, the conclusion mostly makes up for it, with Jesus and Wormwood refusing to give into their parents' plans. In spite of everything, Wormwood ends up delivering a message of hope. He gives an inspiring speech to Jesus that concludes:
"You have to hope things'll get better. D'you know why? Because it's eactly the kind of hope in the face of unimaginable despair that you've always asked of everybody.

Though Ennis paints a truly ugly picture of God, he obviously has a great deal of affection for Jesus. The dual defeat of God and Satan at the book's conclusion is presented as a victory for humankind. Despite its intention to blasphemy, Chronicles of Wormwood ends up delivering a moral message that's almost... well... Christian.

Exasperated, nitpicking note: Dear comics industry, Hollywood, etc. The Book of Revelation IS NOT PLURAL. Please leave out the final "s" from now on.