BTB Awards: Best Comic

Winner – Secret Six

Most of the talk this year has been about books that started with the DC relaunch in September however it’s a book that ended with the relaunch that takes our award for best comic. Gail Simone’s comedy epic about six D-list villains, trying to get by in a world of heroes came to its inevitable, bloody conclusion this year and with it we saw the end of possibly the best comic book run that you’ve never heard of.

Secret Six started in 2008 and tells the tale of a group of misfits lead by Scandal Savage (daughter of Vandal) as they try to hold together their minor crime operation in the face of heroes who want to arrest them and rival villains who want to murder them. One of the most consistently high scoring books on the stands, Secret Six has earned Simone a loyal following which has gradually grown to the point that she is now one of DC top selling writers.

By focusing on the characters as people rather than bland archetypes, Simone manages to make them seem sympathetic and reprehensible all at once. When reading Secret Six you may find yourself cheering for the characters on one page and chastising yourself for it a few pages later. Through it all though it’s hard not to root for this bunch of morally reprehensible yet loveable losers.

 

Six has been a hell of a ride for the past three years but all good things must come to an end and when DC decided to hit the reset button, the book ended up amount the casualties. Luckily for us, before the hammer fell Simone was able to deliver a killer (pun intended) finale to the tale which has helped to cement the series as one of the all time greats.

Runner up – Batwoman

The DC reboot has provided some fantastic stories but for my money the book that stand atop them all is J.H. Williams III’s take on Gotham City’s flame haired protector. There are no words to describe how beautiful this book is. Williams uses his position as both co-writer and artist to fully explore the limits of what you can do with panel breakdowns creating layouts that are works of art in themselves. It’s a book that constantly reminds you of the possibilities of the comic book format and the fact that it does so from within the Batman universe makes it even cooler.

That’s not to say that the story is half-arsed either. Even with lesser art, Williams and (co-writer) W. Haden Blackman’s tale of drowning ghosts and secretive government organisations would still be one of the better crime stories on the stands. Issue 1 sets you up with everything you need to understand who Batwoman is and from then on you can just hold on and enjoy the ride.

Check back tomorrow for another BTB award!

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Practitioners 44: Andy Lanning

Andy Lanning is a British comic book writer and inker, known, most credibly for his work for Marvel Comics and DC comics and in particular as collaborator with Dan Abnett. For an inker to make the leap to writing one of the foremost titles currently being put out by Marvel, as part of their Cosmic run, is impressive. His association with Dan Abnett has gone from strength to strength for years.

Lanning wasn’t always an inker though, at the spark of his career with Marvel UK in it’s earliest days, he found a position as penciller on the short lived, Jake and Elwood Blues inspired, futuristic Sleeze Brothers was a comic book limited series published by Epic Comics, between August 1989 and January 1990 – a run of just six issues. Written by John Carnell, it followed the titular brothers through a futuristic earth filled with extra terrestrials, pollution, crime and corruption. It was neatly drawn with a warner brothers-esque style with a semi realistic twist. The art style was arguably on par with other artists – Bryan Hitch for instance – who went on to become much more prolific and well known artists – working with Abnett and Lanning much later on their 15 book run on Wildstorm’s The Authority.

Working consistently alongside Dan Abnett, no one has ever been more of a fix-it guy on so many varying projects. He drops seamlessly into whatever position is necessary on any given project, pencilling, inking, co-writing and writing – he’s either the most prolific hanger on or one of the nicest, most capable people in the industry. To be able to work alongside so many names of the industry, including Abnett who alone is responsible for the sales of more than 1.5 million novels and hundreds of thousands of comic books, he has to be a hell of a guy to work with. Bouncing ideas backwards and forwards past him must be akin to a Chinese / South Korean ping pong final at the Olympics.

Lanning’s partnership with Dan Abnett began early on, with a Judge Anderson: Exorcise Duty for the Judge Dredd Annual 1991, with art completed by Anthony Williams. Lanning found popular acclaim inking Liam Sharp’s pencils for the industry shaking Death’s Head 2. A title with more than 500,000 preorders DH 2 was a flagship example of success at a boom time for comic books that’ll never be seen again. His sublime work on Liam Sharp’s detailed and precise and exacting illustrative work shows an incredible attention to detail. With Marvel UK Lanning was involved in Digitek (with John Tomlinson and painted art by Dermot Power) and Codename: Genetix (with Graham Marks, Phil Gascoine and inks by Robin Riggs in 1993)as part of Marvel Uk’s second generation wave of titles.

Lanning graduated to Marvel mainstream with Punisher: Year One (with Abnett, Dale Eaglesham and Scott Koblish) and the Avengers West Coast replacement, Force Works (again with Dan Abnett), which featured Iron Man, USAgent, Scarlet Witch, Wonder man and a long disappeared alien warrior guru named Century. Force Works was elevated some time later into an animated series.

Moving over to DC shortly afterwards with a run on Resurretion Man (with Jackson Guice), The Else world One-shot Batman: Two Faces (with Anthony Williams), Abnett and Lanning (or DnA as they are otherwise known) found a home with DC’s resident spit curled former-resisdent of Krypton, Superman with Prime-Time, The Superman Monster, Return to Krypton and Strange Attractors (on which he worked with Gail Simone as well as Abnett). It was the title for which Olivier Coipel became famous that raised the status for both Lanning and his writing partner as they took on Legion Lost, a reimagining of the debunked Legion of Superheroes title, that later became the ongoing Legion. In many ways Lanning maintains his Mr Fixit role in almost every job he undertakes, working alongside the big names of the industry and putting out consistent and notable writing. Impossible as it is to discern where Lanning ends and Abnett begins, it clearly works – as Abnett has worked diligently beside Lanning on almost all major projects (excluding his 2000AD output) for the last 20 years. To maintain a working arrangement like that for so long is notable in that as the profile of the two writers became greater, one would have stood apart as the creative mind. However, in 20 years, no cracks appear to have shown in the partnership. If anything both have had increasing fun obliterating universes together.

Based on Abnett’s other work (with Warhammer 40k), Lanning appears to be the populist and more comic book orientated, perhaps the thing that brings Abnett’s writing into line with audiences with less of a need for heavy weaponry and enormous armies. However it braeks down, Lanning’s partnership with Abnett clearly spawns enthusiastic and impressive ideas and narratives including some of the best character zingers ever heard. The pair have improved and enhanced their reputation in comic books by simplifying and man handling their characters and allowing events to take hold that other titles fail to. Effectively an editor’s potential worst nightmare, when handed a sand box that they have creative control of the effects are absolutely brilliant.

Lanning and Abnett collaboarted on the ongoing Nova series for Marvel in 2007, following the cataclysmic Nova series from the previous years Marvel Cosmic crossover Annihalation. Lanning and Abnett were handed the scenario whereby the Xandarian Nova Corps would be destroyed completely within 12 pages by the incoming Annihalation wave. triggering an intergalactic war. Some might have balked at the idea but this was Lanning and Abnett’s Raise en dentre. Grabbing the Xandarian Nova Corps helmet by the polished brass, they didn’t destroy the Nova Corps, they really Annihalated it. Thousands of Starships pummel the Nova Corps unexpectedly during a Corps meeting and rather than holding back slightly and allowing certain survivors to pick themselves up from the rubble and try to carry on, Lanning and Abnett killed every single Corpsman but one, our very own Richard Rider in less time than it usually takes to have a two headed character discussion. Rider doesn’t simply get knocked aside, he survives because he’s effectively at the heart of it. He spends four or five panels flirting with a fellow Corpswoman only for her head to be smashed to pieces and is sent hurtling backwards down to the planet below, trapped in the flaming wreckage of the Corps hall he was just in and had tried to fly through in order to escape. Issue 2 sees a battered and injured Nova, trapped under rubble in a quiet tableau of post apocalyptic destruction, snow and ash falling from the grey sky. He spends the rest of the issue scrambling through the rubble, a beautifully rendered example of the pause after immense death, tempered with Nova’s obnoxious banter with the discovered Novacorps Artificial Intelligence. Lanning and Abnett are patient and confident writers, allowing the events to breath and never afraid of the possibility of tragedy, carnage, laughter or brevity to take place within a panel of each other.

In June 2008, Abnett and Lanning announced they had signed an exclusive deal with Marvel and they have served the populist hulk very well. They piloted the Annihalation: Conquest storyline, in which the Phalanx take advantage of the vulnerability of post Annihalation wave societies and block off Kree space. This became a more paired down sequel to Annihalation, focussing very deliberately on very, very specific figures. From these, the title Star Lord, a reimagining of the adapted character that appeared in the late ’90s spawned a new Guardian’s of the Galxy title.

In this Lanning and Abnett have hit their stride absolutely. With a play pen involving some of the most notable characters in the Marvel Universe, they decided to opt for a Green Nymphomaniac murderess, a smart mouthed hero of the Annihalation wars, a warrior built to kill gods, a fallen space mage with schizophrenic tendencies and a talking Raccoon. The inclusion of Rocket Raccoon alone is worth a pat on the back and a pint in the hand. Rocket Raccoon was last seen frequenting 1980s Marvel comic books, being chased by Keystone cops in an absurdist forest surrounded by oddball creations. It was hard to see how the character existed then, let alone could find a place in modern comic book teams. But Rocket Raccoon returned, found in a Kree holding cell, he befriended Groot, a walking tree king so he could use him as a platform for his heavy ordnance. As tactical leader of the team, Rocket is one of the finest examples of writing outrunning the lunacy of a plot. Rocket, along with all the other members of the team are written sublimely. Private progress reports give each character their own distinctive voice and has seen Guardians become one of the most talked about series in years for fans in the know.

Lanning and Abnett have a habit of taking crackpot ideas and breaking all the rules, to positive effect. Their run on War of Kings, described usually as the Cosmic aftermath of Secret Invasion dwarves the events that took place on Earth. With the apparent death’s of Cyclop’s new-found brother Vulcan you would think they were resolving an unfortunate creative choice from the X-men universe (Vulcan wasn’t well liked and leadened the X-men universe immeasurably) until you realise that the External’s King Black Bolt, an iconic and famous figure in books, often stood beside Reed Richards, Namor, Iron Man, Captain America as pillars of a character filled universe dies with him, blowing a massive hole in the side of creation from which nasty things pop out for the Guardians to deal with. The death of a long standing Shi’ar leader (and X-men regular) in Empress Neramani and the raising of Gladiator as new Emperor of the Shi’ar state is plotting that had been denied for nearly 20 years. These character’s were seemingly immovable on the chess board of Marvel’s tactical board. Lanning and Abnett set fire to the Chess board.

But more than that, the love story between Ronan the Accuser and the External’s Crystal is thought provoking and engaging as the clumsy Accuser finds himself out of his depth but slowly charms the warm and emotionally open Crystal to him with his honesty. Gladiator’s struggle with his obvious rise to power is touching as a picture of man who’s devotion is to the seat of power but comes to understand that his future is at the service of his people. It’s powerful stuff, more than acceptable for a historical, political play or romance but it is found in the pages of a comic book in which a Raccoon bounds about the panel shouting insults at his fellow team mates as they fight at the edge of space. They have brought back the multi layered space opera unexpectedly and I know that we at Beyond the Bunker will continue to read it for as long as Lanning and Abnett continue to put them out. Long may they write of Empire building in far distant galaxies. They could even show a certain bearded film maker a thing or two….

Is the DC Relaunch Sexist?

You’d have to have been hiding under a boob shaped rock to have missed the controversy swirling around two of the DC “new 52” books in recent weeks. It all kicked off with the release of Catwoman #1 which opened with a montage of shots of the title character’s breasts and finished with a slightly BDSM inflected sex scene between Selina and Batman. Not long after that a similar salvo was fired at Red Hood & The Outlaws #1 over its portrayal of Starfire as an emotionless, amnesiac, sex addict. The whole saga culminated with a post on Michele Lee’s blog entitled “A 7 Year Old Responds to DC Comics’ Sexed Up Reboot of Starfire.” In which the author’s young daughter explained how DC had spoiled her role model. The blog spread like Reboot Flavour Starfire’s legs throughout twitter and soon every site seemed to be talking about it. But how much of the criticism is justified?

Let’s start by taking a look at Catwoman as that’s where the troubles first appeared. There’s no denying that Catwoman #1 is about as cheesecakey as a mainstream comic gets. Artist Guillem March appears in many cases to have ignored the script in favour of simply cramming in as many butt and boob shots as humanly possible. The decision to not even show the main character’s face (but instead introduce her via an image of her breasts) is particularly troubling as it serves no narrative purpose whatsoever other than to reduce the character to a faceless sex doll.

This clearly isn’t a very good depiction of women in comics, but let’s not start pretending that this is somehow a huge departure for the character. One only has to take a look at Adam Hughes’ covers to see that Catwoman has been far from the Virgin Mary for many years now. While the script of Catwoman #1 does portray Selina as something of a fickle sex chaser, it’s not nearly as bad as the art makes it seem. Not every character has to be a perfect role model and we should be careful not to shy away from that all the time. After all, we want to be Gail Simone, not Mary Whitehouse.

Overall however I think the art here does still damn the book overall. It’s cynical, frankly kinda creepy. Catwoman #1 feels like it was drawn from the back of a shabby van via a pair of binoculars. The real crime here is that it’s not even particularly sexy. For all their cleavage, Hughes’ covers did have a touch of the genuinely erotic about them. Not so with this book. By half way through we’ve seen so much T&A that the image of Batman penetrating Catwoman on the final page feels like two souless porn stars going through the motions to pay their bills. In many ways to call it sexist and imply that it is somehow an assault on female self image is to give it too much credit.

So what about Starfire? Well, I think the issue is a little more hazy here, or at least I did for a while. The basic problem that a lot of people are having is that Starfire, a character who has existed since the 1980s and is supposed to draw her powers from pure emotion, is now portrayed as a mindless sex robot who will bang pretty much anything because you know…she’s an alien. This is made worse by the fact that her team mates, Jason Todd and Arsenal,  appear to be basically using her as a sex toy and high fiving about it behind her back.

I’ll start off by saying that I have almost no prior experience with Starfire as a character and so I went into Outlaws willing to take her as a totally new idea. To begin with I actually thought (shameless bikini scene aside) that we may be looking at quite an interesting idea. To my mind Jason Todd and Arsenal were meant to be seen as a pair of adolescent morons who were playing around with an alien they didn’t really understand. To me, Starfire’s advances weren’t meant to be sexy but rather to be creepy and alien. Here is this character who could fry both her team mates with a thought and who has almost no sense of empathy whatsoever. I liked the idea that this was all going to blow up horribly in the frat boy heroes faces when they realised that their orange bed buddy had the same attitude towards killing that she did towards sex. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (I am) but I was almost starting to see the whole thing as a cautionary tale about the dangers of careless sex.

Sadly, I have a feeling I’m pretty far off base with this analysis. In a direct response to the comments of their 7 year old critic, DC recently tweeted:

“We’ve heard what’s being said about Starfire today and we appreciate the dialogue on this topic.
We encourage people to pay attention to the ratings when picking out any books to read themselves or for their children.”

That’s the response. Not “wait and see, we’ve got plans!” But “well, don’t let your kids read it then.” To me, that’s not a great response. When it all comes down to it, Starfire IS a kids character. Her only mainstream exposure has been via the Teen Titans cartoon and so it’s a fair bet that the majority of her fans fall within the teen bracket. I’m not saying that Teenagers can’t cope with complex stories but DC’s response to the criticism doesn’t seem to imply that this is what we’re dealing with.

I’ll probably stick with Outlaws for another issue or two and see where it goes but at this stage I’m not confident. I hope that I’m proved wrong and the book turns into the interesting character analysis that it has the chance to be, but in all honesty, when you’re relaunching your books to appeal to younger readers and a 7 year old is picking legitimate holes in your handling of her favourite character, something’s gone badly wrong.

So is the DC relauch sexist? No, of course it isn’t. Two bad bananas are not enough to spoil the whole bunch. With books like Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Batwoman (to my mind the three best books of the relaunch) tearing up the shelves it’s unfair to say that DC doesn’t know how to handle female characters. Indeed, the very fact that Catwoman and Outlaws have drawn so much flack is partly because the other portrayals of woman characters have been so damn good.

Are Catwoman and Outlaws bad books? Probably. But in all honesty, when can you remember a time that bad female superhero books were in the minority and not simply the norm? DC has taken huge strides over the course of this relauch and we shouldn’t allow a couple of missteps to take away from that.

Go out, vote with your money and tell DC that they’ve almost got it right. Buy Batgirl, buy Batwoman, buy Wonder Woman and leave the cheesecake sitting on the shelf where it deserves to be. We’re in virgin territory here and it’s up to the fans to tell the publishers what we want. After all, we can’t let the 7 year olds fight all our battles can we?

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Comics Did A Good Thing

Those of you who are into both comics and twitter may well have seen the hashtag #comicsdidagoodthing floating around your feed as of late. This will especially be the case if you’re a follower of Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Secret Six) and frankly if you’re not then you need to stop reading and go follow @GailSimone right this second. Essentially this hashtag is a collection of stories from individuals for whom comics have had a profound and meaningful effect on their lives.

I’ve been utterly engrossed by this topic since it first appeared a few days ago. Both by the candour of the people writing and the range of emotions encapsulated in the stories themselves. As a writer, you’re always trying to find the shortest way of expressing something important and on that front some of these tweets are staggeringly powerful. Unique, deeply personal stories of hardship and hope, encapsulated in under 140 characters and laid bare for all to see.

From the inside of comics I think it can be incredibly easy to forget just how important these books can be to the people that read them, often far more so than to the people that make them. It’s for that reason that I wanted to share a few of these stories. After all, it’s for people like this that we write.

thewolverina Wolverina
Comics kept me sane & able to cope after a motorcycle crash left me injured & unable to hold a normal book open. #comicsdidagoodthing
As a child without a good male role model in my life, I am glad I had Clark Kent and Peter Parker. #comicsdidagoodthing
theisb Chris Sims
One of my favorite things I have to remember my father by are Kirby-inspired drawings of the Silver Surfer and Odin. #ComicsDidAGoodThing
BJLG Bryan J.L. Glass
Daredevil showed me that you get back up no matter how hard or how many times you’ve been knocked down. @GailSimone#comicsdidagoodthing
hangofwednesday Brian Williams
When I spent a lot of my early years of childhood in oxygen tents in hospitals comics gave me joy when my life had none #comicsdidagoodthing
David0Monroe David Monroe
I was 9 white, privileged & isolated. O’Neil/Adams’ GL/GA run opened my eyes & set me on my path as a Social Activist. #comicsdidagoodthing
eris404 Gaia Gardner
@GailSimone Comics, specifically Sandman issue 8, helped me deal with the death of my mother. #comicsdidagoodthing
IliasKyriazis IliasKyriazis
X-men is the ONLY reason I didn’t grew up a bigot #comicsdidagoodthing
Paul_Cornell Paul_Cornell
And let’s not forget Stan Lee’s effect on children’s reading ages. @GailSimone#comicsdidagoodthing
ryanoneil ryanoneil
Thinking about Wally West pushing beyond exhaustion as he ran has kept me going on more than one training run. #comicsdidagoodthing
emcgillivray Erica McGillivray
Comics got me to go to the first @GeekGirlCon meeting & now I’m running the org #comicsdidagoodthing
Highball2814 Buck Rowlette
RT @monksp@GailSimone A buddy used my Green Lantern trades to help bridge the gap between him and his stepson. #comicsdidagoodthing
777damm Steve Damm
Gambit showed me redemption is not free, the past is not permanent and mistakes are natural. #comicsdidagoodthing
gamoid Matt W.
@GailSimone Secret Six helped me distinguish sharks from not-sharks. #comicsdidagoodthing
loveandcapes Thomas Zahler
@GailSimone Comics helped me get the $32,000 question right when I was on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”.
pcvis Pat Vis
@GailSimone They made me happy. #comicsdidagoodthing
There are literally hundreds more examples that you can find by clicking on the hashtag. I hope that by recording a few of them here we’ve helped to retain some of this fascinating topic for the future. If nothing else, it’ll give me something to look back on any time somebody says “they’re just comics”.
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Lady in the Fridge

Morning chaps,

Got a bit of a find for you this week. One of our readers put me on to a couple of recent episodes of the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast in which the hosts were discussing the role of Women in comic books they’re both pretty interesting so I’d suggest having a listen before we carry on:

Female Superheroes part 1 – Girls in Refrigerators

Female Superheroes part 2 – Wonder Woman

(they’re also available on itunes if you, like me, are a slave to your ipod)

If you’re somebody who has a passing interest in comic book history then there probably won’t be a tonne of stuff in the second episode that surprises you, though I will admit that in my innocence I had, until now, remained unaware of the true extent of Wonder Woman’s BDSM roots. The first one however is a veritable treasure trove of interesting ideas.

Green Lantern #54 by Ron Marz - the genesis of WIR

Women in Refrigerators forms the central theme of the episode and is a website that I was previously unaware of and now am totally in love with. Essentially it is a site that was created by Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Secret Six) back in 1999 and refers (in name at least) to a particular Green Lantern story. It’s goal is to catalogue the various women in comics who have suffered horrible ends, usually for the sake of progressing the plot of a male character.

 

I must admit that as a longtime fan of the Kyle Rayner character, the idea of WIR appeals to me. Over the years Kyle has had so many female acquaintances butchered in so many unusual ways that it’s difficult to keep up. It feels like every time people run out of ideas of what to do with ol Torchbearer, they just off a lady in his life and have him get mad about it for a few issues. It’s lazy storytelling and I hate it.   But that’s missing the point of the site. There are literally scores of women that have been, cut up, raped, depowered etc over the years and the point of this site is to question whether this was necessary or not.

Now, there’s a point which should be raised here which is best summed up by Mark Millar:
“As regards the female characters thing, I’m afraid I think it’s giving male creators a bum deal. The list does read pretty shocking at first until you think of everything the male heroes have gone through, too, in terms of deaths/mutilations/etc.” – (source)

It’s a fair argument but the point is that the deaths of these male characters tend to occur as part of that character’s story, in the case of many of these dead women, they have been killed off in order to further the story of a male character. Finding enough examples of men who have died in order to further a female character to fill such a list would be quite a challenge.

Blue Beetle suffers something of an ignoble death at the hands of Maxwell Lord. Lord was later killed by Wonder Woman.

So what is the reason for this imbalance? Well to my mind it’s all down to marketing. The majority of super hero comic readers are male and as such the majority of superhero comics feature male protagonists. Because these heroes tend to be hetrosexual they will invariably at some point acquire a female love interest and when the story ideas run dry, guess who is the first on the dramatic chopping block? You guessed it. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon isn’t strictly limited to female acquaintances, you could just as easily draw up a list of side kicks, brothers, fathers, co-workers and anyone else. The law of superhero comics dictate that if you are buddies with a hero, you’re only one case of writers block away from a messy swan song.

Stephanie Brown sparked controversy over her violent death and Dan Didio's comments that she "was never a real Robin" but she has finally returned to the DCU as Batgirl. How long she lasts remains to be seen.

Now it should be said that in the ten years since WIR was launched, the scales have balanced out a little. We’ve seen a number of men suffer a number of unheroic deaths and a number of women assume mainstream roles. Even Stephanie Brown, the much debated “Robin that wasn’t”, has recently recovered from her grizzly, drill based death to star in her own series as the new Batgirl (and honestly, in a world where fucking Jason Todd has been brought back, it’s about time).  But the fact that such a list has emerged in such a time should be a cause for concern for comic book writers everywhere. In the cartoon world in which we operate, life is cheap and death buys you fans, but while we have every right to produce books that have commercial appeal we should always remain aware of the way our work may be perceived outside of the narrow demographic to which we are pitching. If we only ever write for teenage boys then how do we expect to appeal to anyone else? There’s plenty of women out there who want to read comics and it’s really hard to do that from inside of a fridge.

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