Monday, January 5, 2015

A) The Stylistic Simplicity of Grant Morrison’s ‘Thunderworld Adventures’; B) And That of ‘The Rocketeer’; and C) The Bleakness of ‘The Adventures of Luther Arkwright’

Comic book writer Grant Morrison has a reputation for fitting big ideas and manifestos into his stories. ‘Thunderworld Adventures’ – the latest instalment of his cross-title epic ‘The Multiversity’ is, as far as I can tell, not one of those stories. From my reading it is essentially a ‘simple’ 1940s-style tale of Captain Marvel and his Marvel family. And yet it does that really, really well. How does it work?

The plot: Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis, the mad scientist Dr. Sivana is trying to create a new day using time stolen from other universes: Sivanaday. Somehow introducing this day is meant to result in the defeat of Captain Marvel. Sivana employs a super-villain equivalent to the Marvel family, along with monsters and ‘time tornadoes’ to try and beat our heroes. On paper, it’s a relatively simple, better-than-average, traditional Captain Marvel plot.

How then can it work for a 30-something year-old reader in 2014? Though Morrison may use ‘Golden’ and ‘Silver’ Age tropes, he is extremely adept at doing so, being able to determine what attracted him to these comics as a child from the perspective of a middle-aged comic professional. Morrison writes good dialogue; it’s sharp, with few word balloons overstaying their welcome. For example, Dr. Sivana standing next to his captive victim saying ‘I thought so. The lightning-staff. Give.’ demonstrates the villain’s intelligence and ambition with more economy than many other writers would use.

All this is to say is that Morrison has a strong command of his style, and it is a style that can make even a relatively straightforward book like ‘Thunderworld Adventures’ feel like it has depth, meaning and craft (which it does). Morrison’s style has to, a large extent, made ‘The Multiversity’ books – really mostly just a series of one-shots – seem like a significant whole, as it did with his other one-off, multi-title epic, ‘Seven Soldiers of Victory’. Morrison has a more pop-oriented, more free-form (even if somewhat sharper) approach to writing than his chief comics writing rival Alan Moore. It will keep his books mostly out of the universities, and for some readers it may fail to convince, but if you can get into the rhythm of his stories they are an enjoyable ride.

For Christmas, my wife gave me the book ‘1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die’. Even for someone like me who has read more comic books than they should have I still found it full of interesting new suggestions. The editor and authors have tried to create a true international selection of the most significant comic books; hence not only are American comics well-represented, but so are those of Japan, France, Belgium, and the UK. It knocks out a lot of the ‘second-tier’ US comics (‘Young Avengers’? Chuck Dixon’s ‘Robin’? You won’t find them here …), although more surprisingly for me it also does not explicitly recommend some of the most well-received post-Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Marvel Comics runs such as Frank Miller’s first ‘Daredevil’ run, John Byrne’s ‘Fantastic Four’, and Walt Simonson’s ‘Thor’.

One series it recommends is the late Dave Stevens’ ‘The Rocketeer’, which given you can get it for a few bucks on Kindle I thought I should finally give a read. Stevens’ 1930-style stories, like Morrison’s modern-day ‘Thunderworld Adventures’, are relatively simple but enjoyable, though without even a hint of the high concepts that underlie Morrison’s series. The stories are well-crafted and serviceable, but they surely would have been mostly ignored if not for Dave Stevens’ beautiful art. The moments of cheesecake, with the Rocketeer’s girlfriend Betty (modelled on 1950s pin-up Bettie Page), probably helped it gain a following too.

Another thing that makes it special is that, in over two decades, only about 100 pages of ‘Rocketeer’ comics featuring Stevens’ art were produced. I read it all in one sitting, and it’s funny – the story was just OK, and even the art was pretty samey throughout – and yet I absolutely think it belongs on a list of the 1001 greatest comics (this reviewer looks to have had much the same view). Never underestimate the allure of cult status I guess.

Another series that was recommended, and which is not at all simple – and possibly not even all that enjoyable, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t good – is Bryan Talbot’s ‘The Adventures of Luther Arkwright’.  Seeing a full-page reproduction in the ‘1001 Comics’ book of the cover for issue #2, with the title character confidently striding forward and a massive hellicarrier in the sky behind him got me excited about this series. Then I saw that Warren Ellis called it ‘probably the single most influential graphic novel to have come out of Britain to date’ and that got me even more excited.

He may well be right. I don’t know enough about British comics to know how much of Arkwright was ‘new’, and how much of it reflects the British comics ‘scene’ or ‘tradition’, but in reading it I could see a lot of the work of other major British writers in it – Alan Moore especially, but also Warren Ellis, a bit of Neil Gaiman, and even Grant Morrison. There are alternate realities, spiritual mumbo-jumbo, filthy British streets full of citizens with rotten teeth, a fair chunk of graphic violence and along with this, wholesale massacre, both on- and off-panel. Why are British writers so keen on killing off scores of fictional citizens? – see Moore’s ‘Miracleman’, Ellis’ ‘The Authority’, Mark Millar’s ‘The Authority’, and John Wagner and Alan Grant’s ‘Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War’. The British writers have written some of the greatest comic book stories ever, but it is hard to think of a major one that was not primarily bleak and full of death (maybe James Robinson’s ‘Starman’, and even there Robinson set fire to Starman’s home city). It makes me think that Britain is a very dark and dismal place indeed.

Anyway, ‘Luther Arkwright’ is worth a look. The main plot involves Arkwright travelling to an Earth where the English Civil War has continued on for the past few hundred years due in part to a group of madmen called the Disruptors. Talbot eschews conventional word balloons, jumps from time period to time period, and has a ‘ticker tape’ running throughout the comic of disasters befalling alternate Earths. There are fair portions of it that made relatively little sense to me, and some readers may very well ‘rage quit’ it about a third of the way through. But it is another demonstration of how idiosyncratic comics – often the work of just a single, ‘visionary’ creator – can be. It belongs on the ‘1001 best comics’ list as well (I think).

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