There’s nothing more satisfying in comics than discovering a partnership between a writer and an artist which brings out the best in both of them. Where so many mainstream comics rely on a writer to complete a script, and send the script to an editor who sends it to an artist, who never has contact with the writer, a strong partnership can elevate the medium, and make for some of the best comics around. This month sees three such examples of collaborative relationships releasing some very interesting work.
The launch of DC’s New 52 brought with it a huge number of disappointments, and very few things to recommend; however, one bright spot in the pile of new #1’s was Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s stupendous reimagining of Wonder Woman. No longer was Diana a woman made from clay, now she was the illegitimate daughter of Zeus. No longer was Paradise Island the safe haven it always was, the men their women gave birth to were sold into slavery. No longer was Wonder Woman merely a superhero, she was the God of War. All of this found its way into the huge three year, 35 issue long narrative that Azzarello wove, eschewing the rest of the DC universe (there were cameos from Jack Kirby’s New Gods, but they were most definitely part of the story Azzarello wanted to tell) and telling a single story right up until the end. This month saw the release of their final issue and, to be honest, it’s enormously bittersweet.
“I am the daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus. I am the God of War. I am Wonder Woman. But I need only be myself,” says Wonder Woman towards the start of her final confrontation with the First Born, the bastard child who holds the throne of Olympus. It’s practically a statement of purpose from Azzarello who spent most of the past three years resolving conflicts in a decidedly un-superhero way. Diana is not the character to resort to violence simply because she has to, and it’s great to see a final ‘battle’ which doesn’t succumb to the usual fight-fest that most comics would wind up with. In fact, the villain of the issue is dispatched nearly three quarters of the way through the issue and the remaining pages are taken up with a small, two way conversation. It’s in this conversation though that the disappointment sets forth. Azzarello’s final pages are simply too rushed, introducing a few ideas which haven’t really had time to sink in, and leaving things very, very unresolved. It’s a shame, since the new creative team clearly have no intention of following up on any of the plot lines from the past three years (much more focussed are they with Wonder Woman teaming up with everyone and everything) leaving a tiny bitter taste in the mouth. That isn’t to say that the past three years of this comic haven’t been an absolute pleasure though – this will likely go down in history as one of the finest runs on the title anyone has achieved. Cliff Chiang too deserves all the plaudits going – not only has he delivered some of the finest art in comics month in and month out (save a few fill in issues), but he has completely set the tone for this title. His action scenes are packed with movement, and his punches hurt. Azzarello seems to know when to let Chiang fly and pairs the dialogue back during busier scenes. As a single issue, it’s another fine one, but as a swan song to one of the best female character led runs in comics history, it’s just that little bit of a disappointment.
Another title from DC was building itself up to disappoint me this month. Grant Morrison’s Multiversity reached its fourth issue this month with the long spoken of Watchmen spoof. Taking characters from Charlton Comics (the original characters Alan Moore wanted to use for Watchmen, but couldn’t due to copyright), Morrison filters the paranoia, violence and grit of the seminal 1980’s series through a modern political landscape. He’s accompanied on art by Frank Quitely, and coloured by Nathan Fairbairn (an extremely important part of this issue as this blogpost highlights), both of whom can stake a claim as being the finest talents in comics right now. In fact, it might as well be said up front – no single issue of a comic is going to match this for the rest of the year. Starting with the assassination of the US President, backwards; the bullet shooting back out of the President’s head, into the air and back into the gun held by a character called the Peacemaker; this issue plays with time and structure wonderfully, playing with the ideas that Moore and Dave Gibbons did back in the 80s. Quitely uses Gibbons’ nine panel structure to play around with the narrative (one of the best visual gags in the issue has the panels form a backwards S shape, the flow of the story reversing just as a character says ‘everything goes into reverse’).
The plot is convoluted, and the forty page issue is rammed full of flashbacks, and flash forwards; some pages loop infinitely, and the whole thing appears to be designed to be delved into at any point and read. It’s interesting too to see how Morrison takes the original Charlton creations and pitches them a little towards Moore’s analogues – Captain Atom is this universes’ Dr Manhattan, The Question is Rorschach, Blue Beetle is Nite Owl.
Of all of them, it’s Captain Atom who leaves the most lasting impression and that’s no surprise. We’ve seen him before, in Morrison’s opus, Final Crisis. Here he plays the metafictional role that Morrison so loves to twist into his stories, reading the final issue of Multiversity (to come to the real world in six months, and promised to be a cursed comic), looking up directly at the reader and saying, “The story’s linear, but I can flip through the pages in any order. Any direction. Forward in time to the conclusion. Back to the opening scene. The characters remain unaware of my scrutiny, but their thoughts are transparent, weightless in little clouds. This is how a 2-dimensional continuum looks to you. Imagine how your 3-D world appears to me.” As with Azzarello, this line of dialogue is a mission statement from Morrisson, and over the past four issues it has become clear that not only is Multiversity likely his finest work, but it is also his ultimate statement on comic books, packed full of fun, invention and ideas; filled with hope, and yet, so very, very dangerous.
Finally this month, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips bring us the third issue of The Fade Out, a Hollywood noir set just after World War II. The two comics above work, and work well because there’s a sense of collaboration between the writer and artist (and colourist for that matter) but with Brubaker and Phillips it goes beyond that. There are no attributions on the cover, or even in the comics credits for that matter – just their names. Brubaker and Phillips. Equal partners in this story, and quite rightly so. The Fade Out is off to a magnificent start right now. Three issues in and the cavas is growing ever wider, using the story of a murdered actress, a screenwriter and his blacklisted best friend as a starting point to tell a huge, sprawling story that even James Ellroy would be envious of.
This issue, titled The Replacement Blonde, focusses on Maya Silver, an actress whose dreams of stardom might be about to come true thanks to the demise of Valeria Sommers. It manages to deliver a brilliant snapshot of Hollywood at the time (Brubaker’s father was a screenwriter around the same era, and in interviews he discusses his determination in portraying the era accurately), introduces us to several key new characters, and brings us two extremely unsettling sequences (one such sequence, which features the head of a move studio walking into actresses dressing rooms through secret doors in their wardrobes is especially unnerving). The team of Brubaker and Phillips have never delivered anything that isn’t exceptional, and The Fade Out cements their partnership as one of the most valuable in comics since Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams.
Next month: The Pull List makes it through to Christmas and rounds up the year, recommending the books you should have read, and looking ahead to the possible highlights of 2015.