Sweet Love, Suicidal Depression, and Racism

Mighty Love
DC Comics – Howard Chaykin (w/a)Howard Chaykin seems to be one of those rare, completely polarizing figures in the comics industry. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was familiar with his work that didn’t have a pretty definite opinion of him. That is to say, you either love him or you hate him. His sex-and-violence-laden sequential art is spot-on for some people; others (I call them the Easily Offended) find it over-the-top and excessive. I don’t feel, personally, that I’ve read quite enough of Chaykin’s work to have formed a set-in-stone position, having really only read American Century (which I have the entire run of) and some random mini-series here and there. Most importantly, I have not, as yet, read any of American Flagg! (generally acknowledged as Chaykin’s standout work), though I’ve always wanted to. But what I’ve read from him, I’ve rather enjoyed.

So it was with much regret that I didn’t order Mighty Love. $24.95 for a 96-page hardcover graphic novel is hardly a bargain. If it had been a $14.95 softcover, I’d have jumped on it. But as it stood, I thought I’d just wait and see how the reviews for it panned out. Fortunately for me though, DC saw fit to sling an advance copy my way and I sat down with it this past weekend.

And, as per usual with Chaykin, I rather enjoyed it.

Lincoln Reinhardt is an attorney, the kind that Middle America loves to hate. His days are spent dissecting the minutiae of police procedure, searching for slip-ups in an effort to exonerate his clients, men who without his efforts would shortly be called convicted felons. By night, however, he dispenses justice with his fists, fighting crime as the swathed-in-black Iron Angel, putting the guilty in the hands of the city’s law enforcement (after a summary ass-kicking, of course).

Delaney Pope is a cop, the kind that Middle America loves to… well… love. Her days are spent working a beat with her partner, a rare pair of honest police officers in a corrupt administration, making the streets safe for John and Jane Q. Public. By night, however, she is the costumed bleeding heart, Skylark, punishing those who abuse the power that the justice system has endowed them with.

Naturally, Reinhardt and Pope butt heads on a regular basis in their daily lives. She brings the criminals in to be put away and he makes sure they waltz back out off police headquarters with nary a slap on their wrists. However, it’s when their alter egos clash that things begin to get interesting.

Both Pope and Reinhardt are members of a program called YES (which stands for Yeager Empowerment Seminars) and in attendance when the program’s founder presents the city with a check for $1,000,000 earmarked for the purchase of Kevlar vests for the city’s police force. So when a two-man team stages a heist of the actual funds themselves during the press conference, and Pope and Reinhardt’s civilian identities cannot reach the thieves in time, their alter egos make an appearance and give chase to the getaway vehicle, swinging down from nearby buildings in an attempt to land on the roof of the speeding truck… where they promptly collide, losing track of the fleeing criminals. Matters are complicated the following day when Pope implicates Reinhardt’s current love interest in the gutsy daylight robbery.

That night, when the sun sets, the Iron Angel and Skylark again take to the city’s rooftops, searching for the evidence that will lead them to the purloined charity money. And, again, they encounter one another in the process and, again, things go awry. This time, however, they decide to talk things out afterwards, wherein they find that they aren’t so different from one another and agree to team up to solve the crime.

The rest of the book is a pretty standard whodunit affair, where each suspect leads to another suspect, with Skylark and Iron Angel working together by night and Pope and Reinhardt butting heads by day. The romance angle of the book is really quite similar to the Meg Ryan / Tom Hanks flick You’ve Got Mail (uh, not that I’ve seen the movie or anything…), where neither character knowing precisely who the other is allows genuine feelings to blossom, albeit under false pretenses. At the same time, however, the addition of the super-heroics actually works out a lot better than one might expect, as it serves to make a fairly recognizable plot unique. That is to say, the addition of outlandish costumes doesn’t interfere with one’s enjoyment of the romantic comedy elements; rather, it seems to enhance them (not, uh, that I enjoy romantic comedies…).

If there are any complaints to be made about the book, it’s that Chaykin’s rendition of some of the male characters is occasionally too similar. That is, it’s periodically hard to tell one from another and the reader is forced determine who exactly is talking based on the context of the dialogue. As well, I’m sure some would find offense that Chaykin, in classic form, draws every female character as leggy and big-chested, but I’m not one of them. It’s just expected from a book by this creator, really, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise. The panel layouts, on the other hand, are quite nice. There’s a pattern throughout the book to do one splash page, with a few panels imposed over that image showing headshots and reactions of the characters on the splash, then a standard nine-panel grid on the opposite page. It’s a nice effect, in that the splash pages keep a cinematic feel flowing along, while the grid pages keep the story grounded in classic comic book storytelling.

In the end, however, Mighty Love surprisingly has a mighty big heart. Howard Chaykin books are oftentimes rather cynical affairs, weighed down by the overload of meaningless sex and violence; this book is not one of them. There are only two “sex scenes” (both of which are one panel scenes of post-coital conversation, where very, very little actual nudity is shown) and only one panel that could be considered graphically violent, in my opinion. I can’t imagine how anyone could find fault with the content of the book, as the sexuality portrayed within is essentially normal, healthy adult sexual activity (it’s a damned sight more normal than the average super-heroine’s costume, that’s for sure) and violence is barely present. To be sure, you wouldn’t want to hand Mighty Love to a grade school student, but if it were a movie, it wouldn’t garner more than a PG-13.

I can’t say I ever thought I’d live to see the day that Howard Chaykin would produce something that might be considered “sweet.”


Kinetic #1
DC Comics / Focus – Kelley Puckett (w); Warren Pleece (a)

I’m a fan of Kelley Puckett’s work on Batgirl. In fact, I’d say the title hasn’t been even remotely the same since he left and that’s definitely a bad thing. His work on that rather quirky Bat-family book was one of the rare occasions where I thought decompressed storytelling really added something to the story.

Warren Pleece I know mostly from his work on Ed Brubaker’s criminally short-lived Vertigo title from several years back, Deadenders. Pleece has a real talent for rendering faces in general and expressions in particular. His characters’ faces are done in a style that can be most aptly described as efficient, with a minimal amount of linework, but at the same time, every character is immediately distinguishable from the others in the book. But a different way, I think he’s a damned fine artist and tragically underrated (also, he has the best name in comics since Ben Dunn).

So. That all having been said, I must say this:

Kinetic just isn’t very good.

Kinetic is the story of Tom Morell, a teenager living in an exceedingly unique situation. Tom is saddled with a variety of diseases and conditions, from the relatively common, like diabetes and hemophilia, to the rather rare, like monomyelic amyotrophy (a degenerative nerve disease that has left Tom without the use of his right arm for the past two years). As if being a high school senior with Hell’s own grab bag of debilitating diseases wasn’t enough, Tom is forced to face the prospect of spending every day at a school where he’s known simply as “Gimp” and every night with a mother who is practically smothering him with overprotective love. While leaving school after another typically depressing day, Tom runs into Angela Dirst, a new student who has just transferred in and is looking for directions. After walking her home, however, Tom’s body rebels against his good mood, as he loses control of his bladder, projectile vomits into the street, and passes out. He awakens in the hospital to the sound of his mother berating him for irresponsibility, then passes back out when she tells him that she called Angela and her parents to make them aware of Tom’s conditions. That night, pondering suicide on the shore of the lake near his home, Tom stumbles into the path of an oncoming truck.

And then the book ends.

And, God help me, the issue is titled “Superhero.”

OK, so what’s wrong with it? Well, I seem to recall that at some point, Tom is going to get superpowers of some kind. But there’s absolutely no evidence of that in this issue, aside from the issue’s out-of-place title. What Kinetic needed was the treatment DC gave The Monolith, a double-sized first issue that allows the creative team to spend a considerable amount of time establishing a mood through character-driven scenes, but still give the audience (all of whom are reading this book for the first time, mind you, so it’s not as though they’ve got any preconceived notions of what the title’s all about) a taste of what’s to come to try and keep them coming back next month. As it stands though, I can’t imagine why in God’s name I would want to inflict more of this book on myself.

Let’s put it another way: I have no problem with a story that’s somber in tone. However, to have what appears to be an entire imprint (the new Focus line) based solely around teenagers being mopey all the damned time just seems suicidal (no pun intended) in regards to sales figures.

I’m sorely tempted to continue picking up Kinetic solely because I like the creative team. But frankly, if I wanted to see how miserable life can be, I have newspapers for that. Thanks anyway though.


Runaways #13
Marvel Comics – Brian K. Vaughn (w); Adrian Alphona (p); Craig Yeung (i)

And the roller coaster ride of quality on this book continues.

I thought the first two arcs of Runaways were pretty promising. Nice, all-ages material, with teenage protagonists that are angst-ridden enough to be believable, but not so much that it grates on your nerves (like a normal teenager would). Both arcs felt like they could have been about an issue shorter (I mean, a book shouldn’t be called Runaways if it takes six issues before someone actually RUNS AWAY), but it wasn’t so bad that it brought my enjoyment down too much. However, the Cloak and Dagger arc just felt like padding and at this point, the whole “who is the mole” plot thread has gone on long enough.

So this issue provides a little bit of downtime for the Runaways (who don’t actually call themselves that, but I’ll refer to them as such anyway, for convenience sake), as well as an opportunity to fill in some background information (all of which is new to both the characters and the readers). And it’s hit-and-miss for me, honestly.

Alex Wilder, the group’s only non-powered member, has finally deciphered the Abstract, a text stolen from the Pride (the evil criminal organization comprised of the Runaways’ parents) that relates the group’s mystical origins. The kids gather around a lantern in the broken-down hotel that they’re squatting in to hear Alex recite the story, clearing evoking images of ghost stories around a campfire (which is a nice touch, in light of the role the supernatural plays in the story they’re about to hear).

At this point, we should pause for a spoiler alert. It’s not really possible to review the issue any further without covering some basic plot points, all of which can and will spoil your enjoyment of the issue if you haven’t read it yet. So if you’re on the fence about buying it, let’s say you could certainly do worse, but you could also do better and leave it at that, OK? Come back once you’ve read the issue, see if you agree with me.

Still with me? Great, let’s move on.

So it turns out that the Pride all receive their power from three pre-Old Testament giants, members of a six-fingered and -toed race of enormous humanoids that predates the rise of homo sapiens on this Earth called the gibborim.

Stop laughing.

They summon the Runaways’ parents to their “vivarium beneath the seas” to make them an offer. The gibborim seek to regain their control over Earth and the only way to do that is to annihilate all humanity. They offer the twelve young adults an incredible boost to their inborn abilities in return for twenty-five years of service, during which they will supply the gibborim with what they require to reclaim the planet. After that quarter-century is up, half of those serving them will be saved from the coming apocalypse, so there’s a built-in incentive for the entire group to work hard in an effort to gain the favor of the gibborim. The twist comes when Talkback’s parents announce that they’re going to have a child and an idea is born in the collective mind of the Pride: they will all have one child each, each child to take one of the six places at the gibborim’s sides.

All in all, it’s an interesting twist on what was initially just sort of a joke concept (that every teenager, at some point, feels their parents are evil). The Pride are definitely more than just one-dimensional, mustache-twisting super-villains now in light of the fact that all the despicable things they’ve done they did with the future well-being of their children in mind. Now, instead of being a teenager’s worst daydream come true (“Oh my God, my parents really ARE evil!”), they’re the realization of everything a high school student suspected was true about the real world: that sometimes, in the name of their children, people do some pretty horrible things.

So what are the problems? Well, for one, the gibborim look really stupid.

I like Adrian Alphona’s art on this book, I really do. I think he’s done a tremendous job so far, working equally well during the frequent talking heads portions of the story and in rendering super-heroics in action. However, I have to say that these magical giants have to be seen to be believed. The gibborim are a concept that’s kind of laughable to begin with, because there’s simply no way to describe them without coming off as a complete tool, but it doesn’t help that they look like something from Sesame Street. I mean, how seriously would you take a Muppet’s threat to wipe out humanity?

The other problem is something that I’m surprised no one else in the Internet review community has commented on: the story’s kind of racist.

Let me clarify that: I’m not suggesting that Brian Vaughn is a racist. Not in the least. I’ve met the guy, he’s a class act all around. I don’t believe for a minute that what I found offensive was caused by any hateful sentiment on Vaughn’s part, I’m sure he doesn’t have a bigoted bone in his body. However:

If you’re going to have six pairs of young adults, and they have to fill six roles, why is it that the one pair of characters that’s African-American is the criminals? Does it not bother anyone but me that the Pride is made up of The Thieves, The Travelers, The Magicians, The Outcasts, The Wise Men and The Colonists and yet the black folks had to be The Thieves? It just seems to me that somewhere in the editorial process, someone should have said, “Hey, make the black couple The Wise Men instead. Casting them as cop-killing criminals is more than a little stereotypical.” Or whatever, I’m not saying they had to be The Wise Men. Just anything but The Thieves.

For God’s sake, I’m a Republican. Aren’t we supposed to be the last to notice this sort of thing?

Anyway, all ranting aside, it’s a hit-and-miss issue. The concept is good and the execution is actually pretty entertaining, but artistic issues (and me being kind of offended) prevented me from really getting the most of out of the book. There’s a lot to like about Runaways, honestly; this issue is just not a particularly good example.


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