Batman Odyssey #1, by Neal Adams. DC.
I don't mind superhero books I can take seriously, but a decade of reading them has schooled me pretty hard in the fact that the really good ones come along at a rate of about one series every two or three years. I think most people probably get that on some level or another. The majority of those people, once figuring out this depressing law of the Wednesday-based life, choose to pretend that the entertaining serials are actually good comics and let their brains atrophy on shit like Ed Brubaker's Captain America or Geoff Johns' Green Lantern or books written by a man named Matt Fraction. There's another way to go, though, the way I like to do it, and that's called treat the entire mainstream like a quarter bin.
"EEEYAGH! 'S a demon... oh... oh... we're dead now. Look-it look-it 'sgot claws! A foul thing... from HELL! We're gonna DIE!"
-- Neal Adams, Batman Odyssey #1, 2010
It's damn easy to do if you try at all -- the current mainstream has a hell of a lot of incredible artists using their talent on wretched material, turning laughable action pulp into divinely elevated laughable action pulp, and most of them bounce from book to unimportant book with little method to their careers' madness. Once you admit to yourself that a competent superhero serial with rotating artistic teams is not that fun to read, there's a whole nother, crazier world to dive into. Richard Corben's MAX books, Howard Chaykin's random fill-ins and character revivals, Marco Rudy's JH Williamsy quest for a script that can be read without aggressively asking you to put it down and find something else, Cliff Chiang's job as the best journeyman in the industry, Brendan McCarthy's inscrutably placed eight-page killers... I mean, there's two or three books of this stuff out every week, and it's all so cool and so fun and so much more what corporate comics are about in our times than anything else.
"Too well-armed... damn, aim bad... add train jostling. They'll hit nothing. Something... focus."
-- Ezra Pou- I mean Neal Adams, Batman Odyssey #1, 2010
This week was like that with an exclamation point, with the release of straight-superhero pamphlets by two "old masters" of comics art who should probably know better. The first of these, Batman Odyssey's debut issue, was definitely the more, shall we say, enigmatic. Neal Adams has always been one of my very least favorite comics artists (anyone who's taken my "How Well Do You Know Me?" quiz on Facebook can attest to this, I'm not just a bandwagoneer for the soon-to-be-popular He Was Better On Brave And The Bold In 1969 meme), but damn if this book's cover didn't straightup snatch four dollars out of my pockets. The queasy computer coloring, the steroidal face and figure, the low-four-figure, Todd McFarlane number of lines used, the ever so post-Comics Code blood explosion as the bullet's impact bunches up the skin on Batman's wrist? Did Neal Adams see how the '90s turned out? And then there's the memory of those terrible Complete Adams Batman hardcovers from a few years ago, which still stand tall as a monumental warning of the atrocities computer coloring can wreak on superhero reprints.
"And now I was playing catch-up. I had no idea what the mystery was... that I hadn't solved. If you asked me, then, what the mystery was... I couldn't have told you."
-- Neal Adams, Batman Odyssey #1, 2010
I'm at the place in my superhero comics fandom where I enjoy a total trainwreck more than anything that isn't as good as, say, the average Jordi Bernet-drawn issue of Jonah Hex. And after missing Cry For Justice last year, there was no way I was going to pass Odyssey up. I have no idea how people who actually like Adams' art felt about this book's visuals, but oh man, it all looked like that cover and more so. This thing had me giddy with a Rob Liefeld level of hysterics. As much as digital comics-coloring technology's advancement in the years since those reprint hardcovers has helped cats like Frazer Irving, it's still smashing the shit out of Adams' already-questionable overdrawings. No actual humans are credited with the colors here, the byline going to Adams' own Continuity Studios instead, but whoever ran this bad boy through the Photoshop should take a kind of lunatic pride in their achievement. Multichromatic and disorienting as a scary mushroom high, so high-contrast "realistic" it makes actual reality seem like an impressionistic watercolor painting by comparison, this stuff is like a syringe full of urine in the eyes -- too intense and unforgettable an experience to do anything but laugh about when it's over. Look at this shit, I love how close to the look of the original Max Payne videogame it gets.
But hey, let's not forget about the drawing itself. Leaving aside the vertiginous level of clarity Adams brings to every single detail he can possibly fit into the panel, have you ever seen a dude with a body like that do that pose? That's because it's impossible, as a visit to my local Hollywood swimming pool will attest. Adams' overly limber, fluid figurework always bothered me, but until now I just figured it was because of his drawing style. Think about it, though -- people with that many muscles have trouble crossing their arms behind their backs, let alone reeling forward in a third-baseman's crouch with their fingernails dragging on the floor. I mean, I'm a Steranko fan. I don't care about anatomy. But it's obvious Adams does, and to see someone putting this much into it and getting it this wrong is kind of sad but mostly kind of funny, especially given that this stuff started a whole movement in superhero art that's still very much in vogue. When the mainstream's five minute hate against this comic begins (and it's coming, the emperor never had any clothes to begin with), will all the faux-photorealists and crosshatchers deny their heritage and start trying to draw like Alex Toth? Can we dream? And need I mention that the layouts are as obfuscated, the foreshortening as grotesque, the panel borders as absent as ever? Or that Bruce Wayne's face is drawn to resemble that of a 16-year-old Laotian girl in need of an eyebrow wax?
"We're going to the piers."
"What's at the piers?"
-- Neal Adams, Batman Odyssey #1, 2010
But hey, as many as the haters will be, most people are going to at least claim to enjoy this stuff -- it's Neel Addumz! -- and in an industry in which such a man as David Finch can command the launch of a new series featuring one of the world's most recognizable characters, this book hardly presents the most deserving target of all. Neal Adams is a bad comics artist; some people hold the mistaken belief that he's a good one. That's basically my whole point, and I'm forty years too young to keep him from influencing too many people with my indelible comics criticism. But stop right there, pal, we haven't even gotten to the writing on this thing yet! And while Neal Adams is too entrenched in people's minds as a dude who draws good comics for them to read him as anything but, his writing is on the next level of strangeness.
"I heard what seemed to be a very loud voice... like a handful of fries in hot oil."
-- Neal Adams, Batman Odyssey #1, 2010
Simultaneously drawing from the best traditions of Brian Michael Bendis won't-they-ever-shut-up dialogue, Steve Ditko inappropriate political shoutouts (hey second amendment, you may as well curl up and die now that Neal Adams has used his personal Batman comic book to enter the fray), and current-Marvel bad copy editing ("Turbos armed... bio diesel engaged come on... all systems on"), this thing's word balloons will have even the sourest puss rolling on the floor in hysterics as it repeats itself, philosophizes about brain's superiority to brawn, and gives Man-Bat some hilariously accurate drug-withdrawal dialogue. The plot, of course, is fairly strong because it's a Batman comic and your average seven-year-old can map out a solid Caped Crusader story, but hoooo boy, the execution of it is not to be missed. There's more raw information, more personality in Adams' scripting than in any other hero book on the stands, and it only adds to the fun that it's the personality of a gray-bearded wino wandering the streets at 3 AM unable to close his mouth for more than five seconds at a stretch.
Just to give you some idea, read the sequence below a few times. Until your sides hurt. Then go buy this comic, because I want the Absolute Edition and they'd love to make one if this sells enough.
X-Women #1, by Milo Manara and Chris Claremont. Marvel.
This week's other big name artist meets big name superhero franchise comic. X-Women is an exoticist slam-banger that not only features Chris Claremont's return to comics that real people read, but also what I believe is the first-ever superhero work by no less than hardcore Italian porno comics' greatest living artist, Milo Manara. Manara is just about the opposite of Adams as far as my opinions are concerned -- hardly taken seriously as a master of the form, but dammit, I think he is one. However, a tropical bikini adventure featuring Marvel's most bodacious mutant babes in what appears to be a constant state of panting if semi-clothed sexual friction (it isn't really, those pouted lips and tongue-heavy open mouths are just a natural reaction to the Indonesian heat) might not be the best way of making his case as a serious auteur of sophisticated comics to the wider American market.
Yep, this is another comic whose cover codes quite well for its insides. Is it cheesy and cheesecakey at the same time? Yes. Is it eroticized to a ridiculous extent? Yes. Does it read like Chris Claremont's worst girl-power impulses lashed together into a makeshift story? Oh yes. But underneath it's still got Milo Manara art in every panel, which means that it's never a chore to read if you spend your time on the pictures. Like the Batman Odyssey faithful, the reader coming to X-Women because it's a story written by the guy who wrote the Dark Phoenix Saga and illustrated by the guy who drew Indian Summer will be pretty disappointed. Guys this age and Neal Adams' age don't make good superhero comics; that ADD, adrenal, up-to-the minute tone and verve is the province of younger men, slicker, easier to bend and more conniving. But wait, we aren't here to read "good superhero comics", remember?
Though none of Claremont's embarrassing excesses are as awful or as eye-poppingly hilarious as Adams's, this comic's got some snickers in its too-large narrative captions too. From sentence one, you remember why Tom Orzechowski had the toughest lettering job in comics on those Uncanny X-Mens of yore. Dig this scintillating, full-force opening:
"Think of it as nature's roadblock at the bottom of the strait of Malacca that separates Singapore from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, part of a whole host of islands that form a natural barrier to the lowest points of the South China Sea."
-- Chris Claremont, X-Women #1, 2010
So yeah, purple as hell throughout, and full of Claremont's peculiar, sometimes just plain icky characterization. Storm sings "Proud Mary" like she was Tina Turner, Rogue monologues about how nice it is to "just be Anna" after losing her powers for the first time since last issue, and there are numerous female-bonding cliches dragged into the swelled word balloons, none of them resembling anything I can imagine actually happening in real life. And while Manara can block out a quick fight sequence as well as anyone who's spent a career drawing humans physically engaged with one another at close quarters, his presence gives this book a pretty weird cast, especially if you've got a prior knowledge of his catalogue. Shadowcat gets a shot-from-the-floor panel after kicking somebody' ass that's the exact same composition we see Shevah Black from Indian Summer in before she starts riding her preacher dad in the bathtub. Marvel Girl disappears behind a Greek villa's column with a handsome young buck in a leather jacket and we wait for a repeat of the anal fist-fuck the James Dean lookalike put on Claudia Cristiani in Click 2. I guess it might be kind of weird that they'd give the guy who drew that stuff the chance to draw this stuff, but then again maybe not. What's weird for sure is that he draws both in the exact same way, heroines' bodies limber, legs bare with toes pointed, eyes lidded, nipples stiff and breasts straining against the cloth of skimpy shirts that never actually come off.
So this comic is kind of a weird thing... I don't know, maybe the word is smutty? Though that's not quite it, not exactly. Claremont's heavy handed pseudo-feminist writing might grate at times, but it goes a ways against the casual misogyny that informs all these exercises to some extent. Familiarity with his history adds to the experience: with four hundred or so issues of these characters behind him you know that the X-Women are more to Claremont than blow-up dolls, though going from this comic alone it might be hard to tell. I'm really heading into speculation with this thought so don't quote me, but it kind of feels to me like this might have been as close as Claremont felt he could get to explicitly showing the erotic side of the characters he's spent so many years with. A Manara/Claremont comic book isn't something that the comic shop newbies Marvel is always telling us exist will be snatching off the racks, and this is the kind of read that's definitely helped by a little foreknowledge going in.
But beneath the questionable precepts and comics-insider backstory, I thought there was some kind of cool stuff going on in X-Women. Manara's art is always gorgeous, and though he isn't bringing any herculean effort or stunning formalism, there's not a bad drawing in this whole comic. The women aren't the only stunning thing to look at: Manara's line has evolved from the slick, pinpoint sharpness of his '80s prime into a thicker, more spontaneous, utterly fluid trail that has just as much a way with sheer silk dresses as the rusting hulks of crashed airplanes. And when he takes a second to stop posing the gals with their asses sticking out at you, he can blast out quite the impressive panel in a brashly physical style that never puts too much detail in or leaves too much out. This is undoubtedly a gorgeous comic book from a talent we could stand to see a lot more often on these shores.
Plus, when you get down to it, the idea of a superhero comic that titillates its readers with sex instead of violence seems pretty honest, maybe even wholesome. This isn't the kind of dark, lurking, repressed wankery that passes for "sexy" in the average lycra-adventure rag, it's an unabashed, full-scale revel in the obvious lust that Manara brings to his panels. Where most mainstream comics pretend to be about "important issues" like "Trust" or "Freedom" but really only do a lot of angst and fighting, this comic's content with showing a lot of gorgeous women, making an effort at some gorgeous men to be fair, and calling it a day with a great deal less pretense than usual. There are little bits of action at the beginning and the end, but this is mostly a comic about Storm & co. changing clothes and swimming. It's like an episode of "Charlie's Angels" directed by a somewhat dissipated Fellini on one of his more randy days or something -- not interesting in and of itself, but with that artist attached, sign me up. I'd say the same thing about "Fall of the Mutants" if it had Milo Manara drawing it. Gorgeous-looking comic, dumb script, somewhat skeezy -- that's the benchmark of quality for superhero comics, right? X-Women is no masterpiece, but it does depict a kind of minimum standard for the mainstream -- beautiful trash. That's what the great ones spend most of their time on, after all.