Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Phonogram: the Immaterial Girl #1 - Review

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Colourist: Matthew Wilson
Letterer: Clayton Cowles

After a five year gap since the previous mini-series, Phonogram has finally returned with The Immaterial Girl and - if this first issue is any indication - it continues to get better with each new volume. If the original arc, Rue Britannia, showcased the raw cleverness of Gillen's writing and stylishness of McKelvie's art in the early stages of their collaboration and comic book careers, then the next chapter, The Singles Club, brought with it a new focus and sense of discipline. It was tighter, easier to follow and never felt convoluted or got metatextual to the extent that it alienated the reader.

But whilst The Singles Club was more fun to read and far easier to follow, it was a little less ambitious than the story that had come before - essentially being a collection of one-shots, each focussing on a different character with the entire series taking place over the same club night out. The Immaterial Girl seems like both an obvious progression and combination of everything that came before. It's slick, disciplined and accessible like the second volume, with the ambition and world-building scope of its predecessor.

As a Brighton lad myself, the perfect attention to detail here is appreciated.
This time the story takes previous supporting regular Emily Aster and thrusts her into the spotlight, exploring her backstory. In doing so it jumps between different times of her life and, with them, naturally transports us to different musical 'scenes' with their own affectionately rendered fashions and obsessions - a set-up which plays right into Gillen and McKelvie's interests as they geek out over clothing, music, places, and fictionalised versions of people they knew. [To emphasise the amount of love and care that goes into detail: an offhand reference to the White Stripes having played "across town a few days ago" in the Brighton of November 2001 is completely accurate, according to a quick Google search.]

It could easily be read as smug or self-indulgent but what makes Phonogram (and with it the entire Gillen/McKelvie oeuvre) so great is that it's completely anti-cynical. It's fundamentally a celebration of loving whatever it is you love and doing it with total commitment - and though we see that via a tour through what moves and inspires the creators, you never get the feeling they're looking down on anything else (even if the characters themselves may be on occasion). The best example of this comes when a phonomancer* asks a random guy about his take on pop trio the Sugarbabes only to throw a punch he responds "my real take or ironic?" The guy isn't being punched for not liking the Sugarbabes (well, mostly) but for being pretentious and insincere. He's embarrassed about what he taps his feet to and that is why he must bare the brunt of Seth Bingo's pugilistic fury. Such is the verdict of Phonogram.

So good.
I don't usually care a great deal about spoilers as a rule, but I genuinely don't want to write too much about what happens over the second half of the issue because it's really inventive and surprising (even if it is skillfully foreshadowed earlier in the issue). So go and read the comic because it's great stuff by brilliant creators - including regular colourist Matthew Wilson and letterer Clayton Cowles. I'll just conclude by writing that volume three is shaping up to be something really special and potentially more emotionally satisfying than the previous ones which have largely traded on being clever and funny. The first issue here has it all and is a really good indication of where Gillen and McKelvie are now as creators. Viewing it alongside those other two (still very good) arcs gives a strong indication of how their collaborative voice has matured.

As far as new readers go, I'd tend to echo the creators themselves in saying that The Singles Club is a perfect introduction to the style and humour of the thing, but I'd add those who know them from Wicked + Divine (another current Image title) or their run on Young Avengers at Marvel will have no problem jumping on here. You can probably come in completely cold too, but you'd probably get a bit more from it if you're plugged into their particular sensibilities beforehand.

*In Phonogram the idea that music is magic is made literal, with phonomancers those who can manipulate this power. Incidentally, the idea that songs are spells is best encapsulated in a small backup story in this issue, written by Gillen and drawn by Sarah Gordon, called Everything is Nothing, in which a Taylor Swift song that reminds a guy of a recent breakup is referred to as a "curse song". The man is question is compelled to play it seventeen times back to back and it summons his ex's ghost... because metaphor. It's a really good backup story.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Beames on Comics?

Since moving to Barcelona at the end of 2014 I haven't updated this blog at all - as a result of settling in a new country, a lack of access to new film releases, and (mostly) apathy. Sad to say, but I haven't been keeping up with movies in 2015 and therefore there's been no real reason to continue this blog in its original form. However, thanks to the wonders of digital publishing, I am still able to buy new comics each Wednesday - something I've been doing now for about four years - and so I'm in a rather better position to write about those than I am about movies as things stand. Maybe that'll change but that's the reality right now.

I've actually been thinking about writing comic book related articles and reviews for the best part of two years but I've allowed silly things to stop me up to this point. Laziness is certainly one of them ("I'll start blogging again next week") but mostly, stupid as it will sound, every time I've sat and the keyboard and felt like writing about a comic book I've been put off by the fact of having to actually think of a name for a new blog (Beames on Film was always intended as a placeholder to just get me started actually writing) added to the minor hassle of setting it up.

So I've basically decided to cut the crap and just start writing again on this existing blog, which started last night when I posted a comic book review. For all I know it might be pointless: even a consistently popular monthly comic book has very low circulation in 2015, so comic books (despite their over representation in broader popular culture in recent years) remain an extremely niche bit of 'popular' entertainment.

To put some figures on that, every month Batman sells around or just over 100,000 copies. And that's Batman - most comics sell far fewer copies than that. Admittedly this doesn't account for digital sales, which the industry doesn't publish, but the number of sales is likely still low even given our wildest estimations of what digital sales might be. Do digital sales double readership of Batman? Do they quadruple physical sales? Even then we are talking about a niche unit of entertainment, smaller than any TV show or movie or pop song or vaguely popular YouTube video you can think of.

Happier times.
Compare that with the latest movie adaptation of the Fantastic Four which bombed last weekend at the American box office, earning around half of its already low projections following terrible reviews and general negativity surrounding the movie. By all accounts that film is a financial disaster and a big blow to its backer, 20th Century Fox. An embarrassment. I'm a massive nerd and I love the Fantastic Four and I have no interest in seeing it at all... that's how badly it's doing. But if that film has so far grossed around $65 million then - even allowing for insane ticket prices - at least three million people have seen it so far. Incidentally the comic book itself was cancelled earlier this year due to low sales (about 30,000 copies a month, globally).

And that's not even accounting for the fact that popular culture and the mass media report on and engage in dialogue around even those movies people don't flock to see. So even a film that absolutely "fails" there's still a good chance the average person on the street has heard of it. So, to come back round to my point, it could be that talking about single issues of new comic book releases is so impossibly niche that nobody even reads this blog - which used to do ok numbers on movie reviews. Because even small movies are huge things.

So I'm obviously not doing this for the hits. Why am I doing this? Basically it comes down to the fact that over the last few years I've really gotten into comics after years of being interested but having zero idea where to start, so for starters I'd like to review comics with an eye on new reader friendliness and accessibility, which isn't really an angle I've seen covered much.

From what I've seen and experienced, conventional wisdom amongst comic book readers is that it's pretty easy to become a comic book reader: you go into a shop, pick up something you like the look of and buy it. And bang, you're buying comic books. But the reality is that comic books (at least the mainstream superhero kind) are intimidating to the uninitiated - and in some cases that can go for the stores they are sold in and the gatekeepers who work there as much as the books themselves.

Honestly, I've read this comic and I'll be damned if I know, Cap.
Let's stick with the books though. In terms of the big, mainstream superhero comics, many of the best known ones have been running in an ongoing, continuity intensive way for at least fifty years and in some case a good deal longer. Now I've heard the point made, and it's a good point, that audiences jump into ongoing stories all the time when they watch a soap opera or join a TV show half way through whilst flicking channels. This is true, but whilst your average episode of Eastenders might reference that somebody you've never heard of is having a baby, or has died or is going through a divorce, these are all fairly familiar scenarios. However, comic books are often full of strange concepts and governed by an internal logic which doesn't tally with everyday experience.

I first started reading monthly, single issue comics in around 2011 and, for the first two years, I barely read anything without Wikipedia on hand. Understanding much of what was going on in, say, Avengers vs. X-Men required more work and research than I think a sane person would ordinarily invest in entertainment media.

So there're complicated backstories and convoluted, decade-spanning plotlines to try and understand. Then there's the peculiar publishing model which means, without research, it's often difficult to look at a shelf and understand which books come in what order. Trying to piece together, for instance, the correct reading order for Ed Brubaker's (completely brilliant) run on Captain America can be a confusing process even for the initiated.
Kamala Kahn as Ms. Marvel is a great example of a step in the right direction. And it helps that the comic is also excellent.
And this is all before we even come to the huge inclusivity/accessibility issue that is the ongoing question of representation, with the overwhelming majority of books written by (and largely for) straight, white men.

Anyway, I've rambled on writing this post for a lot longer than I originally intended. Basically, I'm going to give this a go and see if it's fun writing about comic books for a while. If it goes well and people do seem interested then maybe I'll try and write for other people or start a dedicated blog. Maybe I'll talk about film now and then but, for the most part, I'm going to be talking about comics, likely with an emphasis on flagging up things that could serve as good jumping on points for new readers.

Watch this space for reviews and features in the coming months. I hope they're of interest to somebody!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Action Comics #43 - Review

Words: Greg Pak
Art: Aaron Kuder
Colours: Tomeu Morey
Letters: Steve Wands


It’s fitting that my blogging about comics should begin with a piece about the latest issue of a title that (for better or worse) changed the medium as we know it, especially as the story within is so 'of the moment'. With Action Comics #43, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder present the third issue in an arc that has been really compelling up till now, as Superman squares off against a group of wholly unsympathetic riot cops looking to beat down a group of assembled ordinary Joes, who’ve peacefully gathered for a pro-Superman rally in Clark Kent’s neighbourhood.

It’s an interesting hook, bearing in mind contemporary US news events, which puts the Man of Steel in his element as an optimistic and inspirational figure and defender of the downtrodden. He may be shorn of his immense power (more on that in a bit) and decked out in jeans and an S-logo t-shirt following his identity having been leaked (more on that in a bit), but this is Superman at his purest: as a form of wish fulfilment and embodiment of ‘goodness’. And it’s been a really fun couple of issues so far.

To briefly recap, issue #42 ended with a genuinely suspenseful cliffhanger moment as, after taking a lot of punches with stoic, good grace befitting the last son of Krypton, Superman finally relented, punching the officer in charge. Of course, this is exactly what the bad guy was hoping for and set up some interesting questions, namely: how is Superman going to deal with the fallout of having assaulted a cop? Especially having provided an excuse for a squad of riot police to beat the crap out of his assembled friends and neighbours. How on earth was he (being Superman the character and Pak as writer) going to resolve this one?

Somewhat anti-climatically this is all resolved by page two of the issue. It begins with a great opening splash, in which Superman realises exactly what he’s done (“Me... punching a cop? In anger? This isn’t what Superman’s all about. This is bad...” ) which further raises tension for the reader, only for Pak and Kuder to reveal that the officer in question – Sergeant Binghamton – is a more literal monster. He's in fact one of the Shadows, a mysterious new enemy currently being established over in the pages of Gene Luen  Lang and John Romita, Jr’s Superman. This has the effect of instantly letting Superman off the hook and also saves the assembled innocents as the riot cops turn their capacity for violence upon their unmasked sergeant.

In a great little character moment, Superman's answer to the cop's "how'd you know. Superman?" is a straightforward and completely honest "I didn't".

This is potentially a problem, for the issue and potentially the whole arc, because the stakes were raised somewhere higher than “will Superman beat the monster?” to somewhere infinitely more interesting. Perhaps there was internal (and quite understandable) reluctance at DC comics to have Clark Kent punch a cop, so it makes sense that Pak and Kuder would go the route of revealing Binghamton as an even less ambiguous monster, eligible for guilt-free punching. Yet it might have been more interesting a problem for Superman if nobody else around had seen the officer’s true nature, with our hero still having to face the consequences of that act with all their teased implications.

Which isn't to say the situation blows over without any moral consequence. Pak is smart enough to have our hero wrestle with what he intended to do - which was to punch a cop in the face in anger - noting his sense of “shame and relief” after the fact. Still the story loses a lot of the momentum and sense of curiosity which had been built up so skilfully in the preceding chapters.

Yet even if it doesn't continue on the trajectory I'd have found most immediately rewarding, over the rest of the issue it becomes clear that Pak wasn't necessarily interested in telling “Superman vs. Police Brutality” so much as a more optimistic and constructive tale about people overcoming their differences and banding together for a common good. It's about a community healing rather than the easy thrills one might derive from Clark punching back – even if the characters are bound by genre convention to do this by fighting somebody else (monsters!). (Sidenote: a superhero title called Action Comics would make an unlikely forum for a tale of peace and anti-violence after all.)

I love Greg 'The Incredible Hercules' Pak's writing as a rule, but this attempt at making Jimmy Olsen seem cool/relevant made me laugh and it's a perfect encapsulation of the 'hip' DC YOU branding. #auto-uploading
In the end the comic is smarter for taking this approach than I had initially given credit on reading that second page reveal. As the police and protesters aligning against Shadow-possessed government officials it suggests a conflict between Superman and the institutional causes of systemic inequality rather than just the foot soldiers themselves. As the "to be continued" text sums up nicely, with a playful hokeyness that's visible throughout the book, "Does Superman Know You Can't Beat City Hall?"

But putting current affairs and specific story beats to one side, where this story arc has really shone so far is in its deceptive simplicity and accessibility.

This brings me back round to Superman’s vague, undefined loss of a portion of his power and the aforementioned detail that his secret identity has been leaked to the public, apparently putting him out of favour with elements of the population and government*. That all sounds like business that would intimidate or alienate a new reader, yet happily this isn't the case at all.

There's no convincing some people, apparently.
I jumped onto this series with #41, at the start of this arc (which more broadly forms part of a nominal crossover event called “Truth” taking place over all the Superman books), and it’s written in such a way that makes it very easy to just roll with this status quo. It’s quite amazing in the modern era, but this is genuinely an arc you could hand to somebody completely new to superhero comics and they'd get what’s going on. Better still I think #43 pulls the same feat even as it comes in the middle of an arc. Everything you need to know to enjoy this comic is presented in the pages of this comic and is supported by coherent storytelling. That shouldn’t be such a big deal but it’s far from the norm in comics.

If you'll indulge a little anecdotal case study to support this point: my wife is reading and enjoying this arc, with no prior Superman knowledge (save the general pop culture kind) and zero investment in the broader DC universe whatsoever. This is something even the very best writers at “the big two” find extremely difficult to do and it’s something more comics need to do if they're ever going to attract significant numbers of new readers instead of just selling comics to nerds who already like comics (like this writer). Which I don’t mention as a business problem (although it is) so much as an inclusivity issue. Ultimately, a wider range of people reading comics will translate into a wider range of people writing comics.

So if you know somebody who’s into the movies or TV shows (or the cosplay or the t-shirts or the video games or the action figures) but doesn't know where and how to jump into the books themselves (which was me circa 2011), this issue and this story form a brilliant jumping on point.

It’s smartly written and purely enjoyable - easily one of the best superhero books coming out at the moment.

*There's potentially something about the current immigration debate here but I won't go into it for fear of using up all my SJW tokens in my first comic review.