Sunday, December 28, 2008

Crucifixion in the work of Grant Morrison

Grant Morrison is a masterful storyteller. One of his signature techniques is the use of evocative religious symbols to lend his tales more power and gravitas. Given its centrality in Western art and culture it's no surprise that The Crucifixion is a motif he's employed. But it is striking how frequently he returns to it. Here's a quick tour through his body of work, beginning in 1989:

This is the cover of Animal Man number 5, from January 1989. The issue is entitled Coyote Gospel, and it remains one of Morrison's better-known stories. Animal Man himself is not crucified in this story; that fate symbolically befalls a thinly disguised Wile E. Coyote:

The coyote gave himself up to suffer at the hands of his cruel creator in exchange for the safety for his cartoon animal brethren. We eventually find out that this situation somewhat resembles Animal Man's own in relation to his creator, Grant Morrison. It's all very self-referential, but well worth reading.

Next comes the popular Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, also from 1989:

Batman spears the villain Killer Croc and is speared in return. "What wounds are these? I am Attis on the pine. Christ on the cedar. Odin on the world-ash." On the next page Killer Croc jumps out of a window, the spear still in his side:

Morrison's original storyboard notes: "Croc is framed in the shattering window as it explodes beneath his weight. His arms are thrown wide, in an attitude of crucifixion. The broken spear juts from his side and the shattering glass creates a jagged halo around his vast, deformed head. He becomes the image of the Serpent/Christ (and also evokes Moby Dick, with the harpoon in his side) a medieval allegory which Jung interpreted as being symbolic of "an overcoming of the unconscious and, at the same time, of the attitude of the son who unconsciously hangs on his mother.""

He added this commentary for the 15th anniversary edition: "In Qabalistic numerology, Christ = Satan = Messiah, which is why Croc appears here in crucifixion pose, taking the place of Christ on this blasphemous cross. In this scene, Batman reunites Christ and Serpent, then confronts and overcomes his own attachment to his Mother in a perverse nightmare of lizards, lace and bridal embroidery. Much of this subtextual material was lost on the casual reader but that didn't seem to stop us from shifting mega-amounts of copies. I do believe that people respond emotionally to deep mythical patterns whether or not they actually recognise or "understand" them as such, but the fact that our book launched at the time of the outrageously successful Batman film by Tim Burton probably helped more than anything else."

I tend to think Arkham Asylum lays on the pop psychology a bit too thick, but Morrison's use of "deep mythical patterns" continues throughout his career. Here's 1990's Doom Patrol:

(Doom Patrol no. 30, March 1990.) Cliff the robot-man takes a journey through his friend Jane's subconscious. Crazy Jane, aka Kay Challis, was sexually abused by her father, but managed to function by creating an alternate personality named Miranda and surpressing Kay's memories. After being raped and killing her attacker (in a church on Easter Sunday), Miranda was destroyed and 64 alternate personalities took her place, Jane being one of the most prominent. As the panel above explains, personalities like Stigmata exist to bear and absorb Kay/Jane's suffering. Cliff manages to help her somewhat, and later in the series, Jane seeks to heal and reunite her shattered psyche:

(From Doom Patrol no. 55 May 92.) The crucifix symbolizes both the rape which sparked the fragmentation, as well as the immense pain which a reunited Jane would have to take back from personalities like Stigmata.

Next up we have a series created from scratch by Morrison himself, The Invisibles (language warning for these next two):

This is The Invisibles, vol. 1, no. 21, from 1996. Young Dane encounters Barbelith, which is... complicated. Basically, Barbelith is trying to help humanity liberate itself from the crushing burden of suffering and evil it is trapped under. (Personally I find this page to be a stunning and unforgettable existential statement about what Terry Eagleton calls the "recalcitrance" of the human condition. As Eagleton writes: "The crucifixion proclaims that the truth of human history is a tortured political criminal.") Later in the same issue Dane experiences the pain of humanity himself:
Barbelith tells Dane that he must transform himself and the rest will follow - as above, so below. And, in fact, Dane will go on to be the saviour of humanity and the new Buddha. Morrison here mixes Christian, Gnostic, and Buddhist imagery (as he will later with Mister Miracle - see below.)

I don't have the image for it, but another crucifixion appears later on in The Invisibles (vol. 2, no. 20). A bug-eyed alien is nailed to a wall by the bad guys and forced to witness depravity, pain and death. The comic makes it clear that Morrison is expressing a Gnostic myth about the divine being trapped in its own creation. This is a major theme of The Invisibles.

Heady stuff! Back in the regular DC superhero universe...

Superman is crucified by Darkseid! From JLA Presents: Aztek, The Ultimate Man no. 10, May 1997, co-written with Mark Millar. Fortunately, this was just a simulation, meant to test Aztek's superhero skills and fitness for membership in the Justice League of America.

All of the above comics were for DC, but Morrison also wrote Marvel's flagship comic, The X-Men. Here the symbolism is a little more oblique, but have a look at these two images:

(From New X-Men no. 121, February 2002.) In a mostly-silent issue, Jean Grey enters Charles Xavier's psyche. Morrison's storyboard notes: "The second tier is filled with Xavier faces, screaming, laughing, howling, crying guardians - extreme emotional defence systems to ward off telepathic invaders. Pointing, accusing, hiding their eyes, pontificating. A smaller figure of Jean spins away from us, down into the center. Splashing into the one face which is calm, Christ-like in its quiet suffering expression." Further in, Jean sees this:

Morrison wrote: "Charles Xavier in grotesque pose, holding his vast swollen dripping brain, like an Atlas. Xavier struggling with the gross weight of his own imprisoned thoughts, sunk to the thighs in bubbling slime and tar like some monstrous Blakean figure. As a nod to Dali, there's an exploded wheelchair hovering in bits around Xavier. The components hang in strange splendor - Xavier's own version of the hypercubist cross." So, a bit more abstract, but not entirely unrelated.

Back in the DC Universe, a few years later, we're back to basics:

This is from the cover of Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle no. 1, 2005. Miracle is originally one of the New Gods from Jack Kirby's Fourth World pantheon. In Morrison's introduction to volume one of the Fourth World Omnibus, he refers to the original Mister Miracle comic as "the New Testament strand" of Kirby's mythology. Here Miracle is the evocatively named Shilo Norman, who descends into a black hole attached to the cross-shaped restraint pictured above. (In the original image the cross is upside down.) He eventually escapes but not before finding his way out of Darkseid's false reality of degradation and suffering, a storyline which incorporates Christian, Gnostic, Buddhist and Norse elements. Part of it involves being betrayed by everyone, beaten, burnt, castrated, and left humiliated, hopeless and crippled. (See also the Suffering Servant, etc.) Note the crucifix pose from this scene in a later issue:(Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle no. 3, 2006.) After escaping Darkseid's hell, Mr. Miracle returns to reality and, like Christ giving himself up in ransom for Adam, exchanges himself for Darkseid's prisoner Aurakles, the first super-hero. Darkseid tells him his victory was meaningless, takes him into a basement and shoots him in the head. The very last page of the entire Seven Soldiers of Victory series, however, shows a deified Miracle reaching out of the ground. In Morrison's Final Crisis, Miracle will go on to tell a friend: "Then three days later, I crawled out of my own grave. The whole world thought it was Mister Miracle's biggest ever stunt. But it was real. What I did was impossible."

Speaking of Final Crisis, Morrison's ongoing DC project:

This is from the cover of Final Crisis no. 2, August 2008. Ian described it to me as "Batman crucified on a piece of New Gods Kirbytech" and that's pretty much what it is. Early on in the heavily theological series Batman is captured by the evil minions of Darkseid. This page provides more details:

Is that syringe-studded helmet standing in for a crown of thorns? Anyways, Batman is not the only one to be crucified in that issue. Green Lantern John Stewart is nailed to a wooden crate by a mysterious assailant:

In Final Crisis the Justice League is faced with the doom foreshadowed in Aztek: defeat and torment at the hands of Darkseid. I'd heartily recommend following it, though it might be a bit confusing if you don't know the DC universe.

Whew. I'm sure there some examples I've missed, so this tour may not be exhaustive, but it has been kind of exhausting! Anyways, hopefully this helps shed some light on the recurring themes, and brain, of Grant Morrison.

[PS: for an image from 2000's Marvel Boy, which I discovered a few months after completing this post, click here.]

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Beast's God

A beautiful, elegaic moment from Mike Carey and Scot Eaton in X-Men: Divided We Stand #2. Hank McCoy, aka Beast, is standing in the ruins of Xavier's school, casting the ashes of his top secret files to the winds. Xavier's not dead, exactly, but after nearly dying has been remade into someone new who doesn't remember much about the past. Divided We Stand features ten short tales about the scattered X-Men, by a variety of writers and artists, and they're surprisingly good.
Newton and Einstein tended to mean very different things when they used the word "God," but it still works. We know Beast is a scientist, and he's expressing a scientist's spirituality.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why Grant Morrison is wrong about religion (and right about ontology)

How did I miss this one? At Newsarama, Grant Morrison talks about religion, spirituality, and God. It's a bit annoying, frankly, mostly because he starts out with this:

I think religion per se, is a ghastly blight on the progress of the human species towards the stars. At the same time, it, or something like it, has been an undeniable source of comfort, meaning and hope for the majority of poor bastards who have ever lived on Earth, so I’m not trying to write it off completely.

But it soon becomes clear that when Morrison says "religion" he means "church." Unsurprisingly, he doesn't like hierarchy, but he most certainly does believe in transcendence.

As I’ve said before, the solid world is just the part of heaven we’re privileged to touch and play with. You don’t need a priest or a holy man to talk to “god” on your behalf just close your eyes and say hello: "god” is no more, no less, than the sum total of all matter, all energy, all consciousness, as experienced or conceptualized from a timeless perspective where everything ever seems to present all at once. “God” is in everything, all the time and can be found there by looking carefully. The entire universe, including the scary, evil bits, is a thought “God” is thinking, right now.

Which is, in my mind,is pretty spot-on. It's an old idea called panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism), and it's been appearing in writing—religious writing—for centuries. What are process theology, Kabbalah, and Sufism if not religious? Morrison, it seems would call them "spirituality"—and he argues that "Religion is to spirituality what porn is to sex."

I've always found the distinction between "religion" and "spirituality" unsatisfying. It's like people who argue that they hate science fiction, but that they love Orwell (for instance), or Margaret Atwood. 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale aren't SF, and why? because people who aren't SF fans like them. Their picture of SF is a caricature, just as the picture of "religion" as a cruel hierarchy is a caricature (and a mostly outmoded one at that. The most politically conservative churches have no hierarchy.) 

To Grant Morrison, to all those who draw a line between religion and spirituality, I say: it's okay. "Religion" is bigger than you think. There's room in here for lots of ideas. Just as the universe, in a panentheistic system, is part of God, spirituality is part of religion.

He talks about All-Star Superman some, too, and whether or not Superman is a Christ figure. Read that segment of Newsarama's 10-part interview here.

This post previously appeared in an ever-so-slightly different form at SF Gospel.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Please forgive me, Kurt Busiek

I went to Manitoba Comic Con this weekend, and I had a good time.

The highlight, for me, was meeting the person who is fast becoming my favourite comic book writer--Kurt Busiek. I tried to think of intelligent things to ask him, but I fear most of my questions were more along the lines of: "Did you know that you're Kurt Busiek?" or "What's it like to be so awesome?"

I see Busiek in many ways as an anti-Stan Lee; where Lee is responsible for humanizing and psychologizing super heroes, Busiek seems to be always working with Ironic heroes, and writing about them mythologically and even theologically. When asked, he said that what he wanted to do with Superman was to "do Superman right". He didn't want to do a twist on Superman--Superman the journalist or Superman the alien. He felt that those twists only work if you have a strong center to draw your tangents from. If the center isn't strong enough--if people aren't familiar with the iconic Superman, then none of the twists work either.

And I couldn't agree more. I love Kurt Busiek's writing, and my secret hope going to Manitoba Comic Con was to persuade him to become my best friend.

And then I told him that he wrote my favourite Superman comic--Superman Redemption. Except for three little details. Kurt Busiek didn't write "Redemption", I haven't read it, and I believe Gabriel McKee's review here when he says that it wasn't good.

What I have read, and Kurt Busiek did write, and I did actually like is Superman "Angel", which Gabriel McKee reviewed here, and which review I completely agree with.

Now I'm sure that Busiek isn't sitting around all tortured that some random fan in Winnipeg thinks he wrote an issue that he didn't. It's even possible that he liked Fabian Nicieza's "Redemption" comic, and that he's flattered that someone thought he wrote it. But even so. I feel the need to apologize.

So, Kurt Busiek, if you happen to be googling yourself and you happen upon this blog, I'm sorry. I actually liked the comic you wrote, not the one you didn't. Sorry. Please forgive me.

And be my best friend?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Camassia on The Dark Knight

Check out these two posts:

The Dark Knight

The dream of completion

In which Camassia muses insightfully about idealism, superheroic transfiguration, and the sex appeal (or not) of the Joker.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Superman, Christ and Morrison

Superman’s job is to fight for and inspire those who cannot fight for themselves. His job is to make this world a better place and to help all men realize their potential as supermen. Further to this, it’s important to keep in mind the Superman/Christ parallels WITHOUT being obvious and heavy-handed about them. Superman has to think differently from us, and when we see into his head, we should be shocked by the clarity and simplicity of his brilliance and compassion. This is a god sent to Earth not to suffer and die but to live and inspire and change the face of the galaxy by his deeds and reputation.

More on what Timothy Callahan, writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years", calls "the essence of Morrison's Superman" and how the recently completed All-Star Superman fits in with Morrison's attempts to reboot Superman in 2000 at Comic Book Resources.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review: Mecha Manga Bible Heroes #1: David vs. Goliath

I don't get it.

Mecha Manga Bible Heroes #1: "David vs. Goliath," written by Tom Hall and Joey Endres. Illustrated by Thom Pratt and Daniel Bradford. Backup stories by Dean Rankine. JMG Comics (Flanders, New Jersey): Summer 2008. $2.25.

Some time ago, I posted the press release for this. Because I refuse to be a mere advertiser for anything simultaneously Christian and sf-related, I followed that up in private with some (negative) predictions about the series that somehow ended up getting posted at The Sci Fi Catholic. Now the first issue is out and its creators, in thanks for the earlier postings, have generously sent me a copy for review.

First of all, it's only fair to point out that the target audience for this is clearly very young, as indicated by the general tone. The series retells stories from the Old Testament with almost no alteration besides a dumbing-down of the dialogue and the addition of a few sf flourishes, especially walking robots and powered armor suits, apparently for the purpose of convincing young males to read the Bible.

Ten bucks say Goliath gets p0wned.

After reading this first issue, I'm still asking the same question I was asking when I first heard of this project: "Why?" This issue, "David vs. Goliath," follows 1 Samuel 17.1-58 faithfully except for the additions of the aforementioned sf flourishes, which as a result look like intrusions. Truth be told, I don't get it; it would make better sense to me to create a comic that not only tells the Bible stories faithfully but also attempts to faithfully depict the world in which those stories took place, or else to create sf stories that use the Bible as starting points but take greater liberties with the text.

Because the sf elements are decoration and and not an inherent part of the story, I find them jarring and confusing. For example, when young David relates how he has saved sheep from bears and lions, the illustrations depict him tending robot sheep and fighting robot bears and lions. While reading this, I find myself asking, "What is the purpose of a robotic sheep? Where do robotic lions come from?" In a fully developed sf world, I would expect these questions to be answered sooner or later, but in Mecha Manga Bible Heroes, I'm almost certain they never will be, which again leads me to ask what the point is of putting them in at all.

The only answer I can come up with is gimmick. It's a gimmick designed to coax youngsters to read their Bibles. While I'm certainly in favor of encouraging children and youths to read the Bible, I suspect most of them could detect the gimmick of this comic and would take it as an insult. I also suspect it would give them the wrong idea, suggesting as it unintentionally does that the Bible is too dull or unpalatable to read without a few artistic touch-ups.

The artwork, though not great, is good. The writing is competent enough, but the flow of the comic seems to be off; a few inserted jokes are poorly timed, and I found myself having to stare at some pages for quite a while in order to figure out what's going on. On the whole, the quality is good, but this first issue contains nothing memorable. The two backup features by Dean Rankine, "Bee-Attitudes" and "Green with Envy," are nuisances.

Although this first issue of Mecha Manga Bible Heroes is worth a few minutes' entertainment, it contains nothing compelling and nothing to make me want to continue reading the series. I'd rather go read my Bible instead.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Three funerals

My friends, on this mournful occasion, let us begin with a spoiler warning. This post contains spoilers regarding DC's Final Crisis (August 2008), Top Ten, JLA: American Dreams, and the film Stranger Than Fiction.

Still here? All right, Final Crisis: the Martian Manhunter is dead, and issue two gives us this glimpse of his funeral on Mars:
A solemn scene from Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones. Superman says: "J'onn J'onzz was my friend. Always there, always strong, always reliable... He was someone I could confide in. Someone who understood what it was like to lose a world and find another. We'll all miss him. And pray for a resurrection."

"Pray for a resurrection" is strikingly traditional (though Superman was raised by Methodists, after all), but there's a touch of humor about it. It acknowledges that we the readers know that superheroes, like soap opera characters, frequently die, but rarely stay dead for long - Superman being the most prominent example. The implication here is that the superheroes know it, too, adding an odd twist of realism and gravity to the proceedings.

In Top Ten, Alan Moore put a more openly humourous spin on the idea (art by Gene Ha):

The late superhero in this case is Girl One, an android. The Top Ten multiverse is one where pretty much everyone is a superhero and Moore gets a lot of mileage from subtle and not-too-subtle twists on the concept. (Like the exterminator who unwittingly provokes a cosmic continuity-altering Infinite Crisis crossover war between mice and cats... But I digress.) In this context the characters are even more aware of the superhero tropes they live by.

Grant Morrison's run on the Justice League of America predated both of these stories. Here's Superman (during his ill-advised electrical phase) at the funeral of Metamorpho the Element Man:

This is the most frank expression of the theme and includes an interesting twist at the end. Does Superman (and Morrison?) wish that fallen superheroes really could rest in peace? Do they always have to be recycled to drive up nostalgia-induced sales? Witness the current hype surrounding the return of Barry Allen, who's been mostly dead since 1985.

A less cynical interpretation of superhero resurections might go something like this. The eulogy for Girl One also included mention of her "giving of her life so that others might live." Superman says of Metamorpho, "In the end, he gave his life to save his friends." The film Stranger Than Fiction involves a doomed fictional character who gets a second chance at life. His creator muses: "But if the man does know he's going to die and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it, then, I mean, isn't that the type of man you want to keep alive?" Over at SF Gospel, Gabriel's commentary on the movie read, in part:

It's unsurprising for a movie about the ways in which authors manipulate their character's lives to compare the writer to God. What's more interesting here is the messianic tone that this approach then lends to the character in question. Here God, the third person omniscient narrator, can't see the point in needlessly killing his favorite character, so he gives him a second chance. It's an aesthetic theology of the resurrection—Jesus as the character who was too darned nice to have a sad ending. It's also a critique of Vonnegutian authorial cruelty in which the author toys with fictional lives simply because he can. The characters, fictional or otherwise, are in some way alive and worthy of respect—and of a happy ending.

The same might be said of most noble, self-sacrificing superheroes. Of course, maybe the world can do without Metamorpho the Element Man. But once an artist has put enough work into a character, and fans have grown sufficiently attached to him, death becomes just a temporary trauma.

And I do hope the Martian Manhunter returns to us someday.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review: Girl Genius

Gush warning.

Girl Genius, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio. Illustrated by Phil Foglio. Vol. 1 inked by Brian Snoddy. Vols. 2-3 colored by Mark McNabb. Vol. 4 colored by Laurie E. Smith. Vols. 5-7 colored by Cheyenne Wright. 7 vols. Studio Foglio: 2002-2008. Full color. Approx. 120 pages each.

Available online as a web comic.

Everybody knows negative reviews are the most entertaining to read. Positive reviews are much less so. Gushing reviews can be downright disgusting, so I must warn you, I'm about to gush. When it comes to reviewing comics, I've built my reputation, if I have one, on criticizing comic book creators for the way they dress their women: I have always shown disdain for scantily clad cartoon characters, but maybe that's just because I hadn't met the right scantily clad cartoon character. Today, I'm going to ruin my cred.

Click to enlarge.
The Girl Genius in all her glory.

We've all seen stories that imagine not just superheroes, but worlds positively overrun with superheroes. Shows like The Tick, or some episodes of Darkwing Duck, poke fun at DC and Marvel's overstuffed comic book universes. In Kingdom Come, Mark Waid and Alex Ross treat the idea of heroic overcrowding more seriously. Girl Genius works on a similar idea, but instead of imagining a world overrun with supermen, it imagines one overrun with mad scientists.

Girl Genius is set in a steampunkish nineteenth (?) century in which high-tech devices can only be created by a chosen few, those who have an innate quality known as the "Spark," which enables them, even compels them, to understand and construct death rays, airships, killer robots (called "clanks"), and Frankensteinian monsters (called "constructs"). In addition to making them geniuses, the Spark apparently grants charisma and fighting prowess, but it also drives them bonkers: they can only create in a fit of amoral madness, and sooner or later most go over the edge completely.

Twenty years or so before the story begins, the Industrial Revolution embroiled Europe (inconsistently called Europa in the comic) in a massive war between various mad scientists competing for power. Peace finally came, temporarily, when the two Heterodyne brothers--mad scientists themselves--trotted around Europa defeating evil overlords. It didn't last, however, as a new, mysterious, and especially powerful mad scientist, known simply as the Other, began transforming entire towns full of people into zombie-like Revenants. The Heterodynes set forth to stop the Other and disappeared in the process. But peace came again when yet another mad scientist, Baron Wulfenbach, built a massive fleet of airships, gained the allegiance of an army of humanoid creatures called Jägermonsters, and took over the continent. With his mobile fleet, superior firepower, and a policy of hostage-taking, he lives as a troubled overlord but keeps the mad scientists and royal families in check.

The first volume, appropriately labeled the "Prologue," opens in black-and-white, introducing eighteen-year-old Agatha Clay, a bumbling student at Transylvania Polygnostic University. Wearing gigantic glasses and built like an especially robust barmaid, Agatha spends most of her time tripping over things, getting yelled at, and building devices that don't work. But all of that changes (of course) when a couple of rowdy soldiers steal her locket, setting in motion a series of events that will prove Agatha to be not only a great mad scientist, but in some way connected to the Heterodyne legacy. After Agatha is abducted by Baron Wulfenbach, then, like Dorothy stepping into Oz, the comic moves into full-color and the plot really gets going. Agatha will have to maneuver through a lengthy series of harrowing adventures, make friends and enemies, and hone both her inventing and fighting skills in order to claim her birthright, uncover the identity of the Other, become a major player in European politics, and maybe save the world. She does it all, and she has a curious habit of doing a fair amount of it in her underwear (it is still a comic book). In sum, Girl Genius is probably the world's most elaborate and best-written indulgence of a meganekko fetish.

Click to enlarge.
Big girl with big gun.

Conventional though the story arc may sound at first, this is easily one of the best comics I have ever read, and depending on how it goes from here, it may very well be the best. It has a gigantic cast of intriguing characters, a complex plot, a fascinating backstory meted out at exactly the right pace, innumerable twists and turns, and exciting action sequences. It's also gut-bustingly funny. Some of the subplots are quite complex; in particular, volumes 5 and 6 together are easily the strongest part of the series so far, giving numerous revelations while Agatha tries to deal with separate sides in a mad science-enhanced political power play.

Drawing its inspiration from comic book villains, Victorian fiction, and B movies, Girl Genius subverts all the familiar tropes, usually by giving its characters unexpected qualities. For example, Baron Wulfenbach, expected to be a cackling evil overlord, is actually a thoughtful man with a number of redeeming traits, though he also has a bad habit of performing hideous experiments on people's brains. Wulfenbach's son Gilgamesh, a humorously genre-savvy character, knows that people expect him to be a sniveling weakling of a villain, but being compassionate, intelligent, and physically tough, he's consistently peeved at the fact. A minor character, Othar Tryggvassen, talks like an especially bombastic comic book hero and tries to stop Wulfenbach's nefarious schemes--but it soon turns out his own motives are less than pure. Then there's Lars, a typical rough-edged, lovable scallywag--who gets panic attacks. As for Agatha herself, she perhaps follows more conventional lines, transitioning smoothly from downtrodden loser to tough and independent heroine with a moral center, but as a mad scientist, she's also capable of totally flipping out, sometimes violently. All of this has served so far to give the comic a complex yet palatable moral universe.

Click to enlarge.
Agatha and Lars re-enact a steamy scene from a Heterodyne legend.

The artwork in this series is fantastic and keeps getting better. The black-and white first volume looks great, with the complex machines walking down the crowded streets as the big highlights. Things only improve when the series moves to color, and the work of the latest colorist, Cheyenne Wright, is especially good. Complementing the complex, outsized machinery that fills the backgrounds are the highly expressive characters. One of the greatest joys of reading Girl Genius is simply watching the various contortions that the protagonist's face can go through.

If the comic can be said to have a flaw, it would probably be a case of character glut. The cast is so huge, even major players can disappear for hundreds of pages. Although the story never really veers off target, the staccato disappearance and reappearance of a few characters can be confusing, and has done damage to the romantic subplot promised in the tagline. The romance itself is perhaps too conventional when compared to the innovations the story shows elsewhere, and too predictable.

Because the series is both complex and unfinished, it has innumerable loose plot threads. It's unclear when, if ever, it's all going to wrap up. Presumably, Agatha is eventually going to save the day and get the guy, but since she's clearly not going to save the day any time soon, the authors have probably played their hand too early in revealing which guy she's going to get, though it's possible that yet another plot twist or the reappearance of a rival may change that.

To our readers here, the most interesting aspect of the comic may be the messianic theme that's always lurking in the background. After the disappearance of the Heterodyne brothers, their exploits were quickly exaggerated and expanded into a cycle of adventure stories, many of which made it into penny dreadfuls, and many of which made it into cheap theatrical shows. Many in Europa, and especially in the Heterodynes' hometown of Mechanicsburg, are awaiting either their return or the appearance of their heir. This messianic furor builds through the comic until it takes on definite religious tones. To spice things up, it is eventually revealed that the Heterodyne brothers, heroes though they were, descended from a long line of brigands and murderers, a legacy the family has never completely escaped. At the present point in the story (the web comic is now in the midst of volume 8), it remains to be seen whether this messianism will ultimately prove a destructive force, a beneficial one, or as is likely considering what has happened in the story already, something in between.

In addition to the occasional underwear, the comic contains a sizable helping of risqué humor (including some joke about a tea cozy that I really don't get) and, to date, two implied premarital sexual relationships and one "naughty flashback scene." It also has some of the expected action violence and occasional torture, some of which is serious but a large amount of which is played for laughs, sort of like the violence in Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. As in Twain's novel, the humor works consistently well, but the effect is more uneven when things turn serious. There is some blood, but the imagery is never particularly graphic. The creators deserve credit for giving a content advisory on their FAQ page, which recommends Girl Genius for "teens and up" (a group equivalent to adults in my vocabulary).

So that's it. I recommend it. Now can someone explain the tea cozy?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

All-Star Superman #10: Kal-El so loved the world...

Superman has always been like a Greek god, and a big part of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman has been an exploration of his role as a deified hero. In the sixth issue (reviewed by me here), visitors from the future described Superman's "Legendary Twelve Labors"—an obvious analog of Hercules' 12 labors. That superhero comics are modern myths is a fast-aging cliché, but Morrison has done an excellent job of reminding us of its truth.

With All-Star Superman #10, he throws us for an interesting loop. We all know that Superman is a Greek god—but now it's beginning to look like he's the Judeo-Christian God, too. As one of his labors, Superman has created a microverse in which he does not exist—a "World Without Superman"—and it looks suspiciously like ours. In fact, it contains the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, an unnamed Greek philosopher (possibly Plato?), and Joe Shuster—all exemplars of the human drive for divinity. In a world without Superman, we aspire to become him—in other words, if Superman didn't exist, we would have to invent him (and we did).

Some reviewers have complained that Morrison is treading ground he's already covered (particularly in Animal Man), but I don't think that's the case. In that story, the real-world creator meets his invented creation; here, the fictional creation actually inhabits a higher level of reality than our supposed real universe. The game is played with the same pieces, but the configuration is different enough to be truly new. Until now I've been thinking of All-Star Superman as an amusing but ultimately scattered series of one-off stories; now it's beginning to look like a major work in Morrison's oeuvre. His run is set to last only two more issues—here's hoping it ends with a cosmic bang rather than a New X-Men-style fizzle.

Also posted at SF Gospel.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Four-color Theophanies: 10 comic characters who have met God

Over at SF Gospel, a list of 10 comic characters who have met God. Click here to read about the theophanies of Dr. Strange, Cerebus, Jesse Custer, and more.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mecha Manga Bible Heroes

Co-posted at The Sci Fi Catholic.

We just got a press kit from JMG Studio, which is producing a new comic that might interest our readers. Here's the press release with some illustrations:


New Comic Series Brings ‘New Twist’ to ‘Old Testament’

FLANDERS, NJ (February 5, 2008) – JMG Comics, a division of JMG Studios is pleased to announce the upcoming release of its first comic book series, MECHA MANGA BIBLE HEROES.

MECHA MANGA BIBLE HEROES brings classic bible heroes to life in a whole new way! Drawn in the popular manga style and featuring “mecha” (robots), a mainstay of manga, this new series is sure to satisfy fans of imaginative action and adventure. The characters, themes and stories remain the same, only the setting has changed – to a futuristic world of aliens, robots and advanced technology!

“Just like modernized versions of Shakespeare's plays, by taking a solid, meaningful story and translating its elements as faithfully as possible into a new setting, we hope to bring out some of the more amazing details that might get missed by today's readers,” said co-writer Tom Hall.

The first issue, shipping in May, re-imagines the legendary tale of David, the shepherd boy who took down the giant, Goliath. The 32-page, full-color comic book retails for $2.25 US.

“David is a young kid who has to go toe-to-toe with a giant super robot covered in every conceivable type of weapon,” said Hall. “Other than that, everything is what the Bible describes, down to the small details that most versions of the tale gloss over.”

“The series is designed to appeal to anyone, whether religious or not” said Managing Editor Paul Castiglia, a veteran comic book writer and editor who has worked for Archie Comics among other notable comic publishers. “Our aim was to create an all-ages series with broad appeal, so that even those who consider the bible ‘mythology’ on par with Greek and Roman legends may embrace it.”

“The stories of the Old Testament are universal – they can be found among several religions and cultures. Our creative team consists of Christians who approach the material with a Christian worldview and we’ve strived to make this the coolest comic book your Sunday School teacher ever confiscated!”

He added that the series is meant to appeal to anyone who enjoys manga (especially “mecha”), video game heroes like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man, Transformers and other robot toys, and the animated versions of DC and Marvel superheroes.

The creative team for MECHA MANGA BIBLE HEROES #1: DAVID VS. GOLIATH includes writers Tom Hall (King, Robot 13) & Joey Endres (Megazeen), with pencils and inks by Thom “Kneon Transitt” Pratt (Disney) and colors and letters by Daniel Bradford (King, Robot 13). Also included are bonus comic strips by popular Australian writer/artist Dean Rankine. Each issue features fully painted covers by fan-favorite Jeff Slemons, who has done covers for several comic book publishers and whose work has been featured in successful ad campaigns. The series is edited by Paul Castiglia (Archie, DC, Dark Horse, Antarctic Press). JMG Studios owner John-Marc Grob (Marvel, owner-producer of FriendFish and various animation projects) is editor-in-chief.

Future issues will present the the further adventures of David as well as classic tales of such bible heroes as Daniel, Joseph, Jonah and others. Other series are in development, including “Beyond,” a horror/sci-fi/fantasy anthology aimed at older teens and beyond.

ANCHOR DISTRIBUTION is the exclusive distributor for the initial launch of MECHA MANGA BIBLE HEROES. Anchor will handle distribution for comic shops, Christian bookstores, libraries, churches, schools and other retailers. JMG Studios will provide flyers and wall posters for free upon request, and a customized ashcan at a portion of cost to help promote the comic book. For ordering and promotional information email

While Anchor will also handle reorders, JMG Comics is currently exploring partnering with additional reorder distributors.

MECHA MANGA BIBLE HEROES can be found on the Internet at and

For press, licensing/merchandising, movie/TV rights and all other inquiries, please email

MECHA-MANGA BIBLE HEROES 1: DAVID VS. GOLIATH, ships May, 2008. 32-page, full-color comic, $2.25 US.

MECHA MANGA BIBLE HEROES Copyright © 2007, 2008 by Paul Castiglia, Tom Hall, Joey Endres, Jeff Slemons, Thom Pratt, Daniel Bradford. All rights reserved.

Okay, I can see this. Bible comics are nothing new, and Christian Amerimanga is nothing new, either (see Serenity if you don't believe me).

If I were to make a complaint, something I probably shouldn't do about a press release, it is that they are telling the stories as authentically as possible but giving them a sci-fi veneer. The introduction of mechs into the biblical world, however, would produce a number of complications; I would prefer a comic that elaborates the sparse biblical tales in order to explore the alien setting more fully. That being said, I am eagerly wondering how they will depict Deborah. I'm also thinking I should mention this to Old Testament Space Opera.