As we saw in the first chapter of our great Cosmic Odyssey reread, by our fantastically insightful editor-in-chief Kyle Garret (suck-up!), Cosmic Odyssey is a different kind of super-hero comic. With little or no concern for continuity, nor any real concern for character consistency, it sits in an odd place: a punk rock sci-fi super-hero epic of sorts, devoted to smashing the rules as much as it is to making love to the rules. That makes this work transcendent and quite odd: in a medium where creators are rewarded for creating “the same thing, only different,” Starlin delivers “a different thing” dressed in familiar clothes.
In contrast with Starlin’s all-out middle finger to continuity in this series, artist Mike Mignola’s artwork shows a deep respect for comics tradition. He uses a beautiful clean line science fiction style that feels like Alex Raymond more than Hellboy (a character still half a decade in Mignola’s future at the time of this work). More than that, though, Mignola’s art shows a respect for the classic rules of quality comic book art. For one thing, the cartoonist uses establishing shots to give the reader a grounding in the scene that is depicted. As well, Mignola delivers characters who have consistent attributes and abilities. Maybe most essentially, Mignola harkens back to masters like Krazy Kat‘s George Herriman and EC master Harvey Kurtzman by using the page as an organic, two-dimensional unit. Mignola takes a humanistic approach that emphasizes consequence over power; because of that approach, he’s adept at conveying the way that people react to the events as well as the events themselves. Actions are vitally important in this book. Mignola can ground those cosmic events through smart storytelling. Thus, he’s a splendidly talented artist who uses his art to add depth and richness to an already deep and complex story.
The first page of issue two shows this ability to splendid effect. Notice the relentless arrival of the hawk creatures, first hovering on the horizon like a flock of birds searching for prey, then progressing closer to the reader with an ever-increasing sense of menace. You can almost hear the pulse-pounding music swelling in the background as this threat materializes slowly. This slow approach of menace is an effect that could work in film, but it would work very differently in film, with the director showing movement rather than implying movement. In Mignola’s hands, this is a quiet moment, the approaching clouds before the storm, with the large panel two beginning to show the complexity of the threat and give readers a sense of impending horrors to come.
Notice how large Superman’s cape is in panel two and how the color of his cape overlaps with Orion’s suit, almost blending in. We can see Superman’s fists clenched and his posture of preparation, in contrast with Orion crouching, hands hidden. Superman is the leader of these two men. He’s ready for the fight, already calculating the odds in his mind. By the fourth panel on the page, though, Orion is ready for the battle as well. He’s now risen above Superman, with Orion’s helmet butting against the edge of the panel, and his back seems to be straightening. Mignola tells readers in a subtle way that Orion is a warrior just as brave and adept as Superman, and this will be a fierce battle.
This sense of impending war is reinforced by an element that at first looks like a visual continuity error: in panels two and three, Orion is posed looking over Superman’s left shoulder, but in panel four he’s looking over Superman’s right shoulder. As we’ll see, Mignola is diligent about making sure that characters are correctly posed in relation to each other, so why is this moment different from others? The answer seems obvious after some thought: on his hover chair, Orion has shifted above Superman’s left shoulder to prepare for battle. There may be a subtle reinforcement to that attitude by having Orion at a different angle compared with Superman in panels three and four. Maybe Orion, the great warrior, has noticed that Superman is right-handed and thus needs an ally to protect his left flank. It’s thus no surprise when these incredible warriors lay waste to the Thanagarian hawks.
We see this visual continuity in the set of panels above as well. First, we get the gorgeously rendered, almost classical image of a weeping mother. Someone smarter than me might be able to point out what painting or sculpture Mignola is emulating here (Pietà?), but it’s powerfully rendered. The difference between our proud heroes and this devastated mother is conveyed by the large distance between woman and heroes. They’re almost in different panels, with Martian Manhunter’s word balloon emphasizing the space between them.
As the woman fades into the background of the story, so too does she fade into the background of this sequence in panel two, soon to be camouflaged behind the man begging for help, with the hope pushing the man to the front of panel four, showing his prayers may come to fruition and also showing the primacy of our heroes’ attempts to save them. In a lovely bit of foreshadowing, we see that John Stewart is first concerned and then arrogant by panel four, confidently declaring that his ring will save these people. That hubris will end up devastating everybody, and Mignola does a subtle job of setting that up here. Stewart’s smirk speaks volumes about his state of mind.
One of my favorite motifs of Mignola’s art here is the repeated background image. This idea has been around for as long as comics have been a medium — there are some delightful Krazy Kat strips that play with this idea, and Harvey Kurtzman used this motif to great effect in his war comics. Notice how Mignola uses two thin panels to show the man jumping and Lightray rushing up to save the man. In those first two panels we get told everything we need to know to set up this scene: We see the man start to fall on the very top of the panel, then in panel two see how quickly he’s fallen from the tower, as well as the way that a hovering Lightray rushes to save him. Nevermind the idea that Lightray would have broken the man’s ribs; the importance is in the saving. Notice, too, the small bit of business as the man at the bottom is saved.
Panels three and four are slightly wider than panels one and two, emphasizing the importance of the moments depicted in them and emphasizing the energy of the man’s punch — so shocking that the sound effect literally pops out of the panel, overlapping panel four, which continues the visual continuity of the first two panels by showing the man break his neck. It also shows Lightray reacting to the event as if suffering from shock, and also brings in his ally Starfire, who looks equally shocked. This is a battle that will be much more brutal than either of them expected, and at that instant they need to marshall their resources to prepare for it. That adds an element of humanity to the story. We’re so used to superheroes bouncing back from shocking incidents that we’re surprised when they react to events like this with pure horror.
Mignola returns to this approach again and again, using the size and passage of panels against a static background to convey the passage of time. This cute three-panel progression starring Adam Strange reinforces that motif. Adam Strange’s body is set unusually low in panel one, which subtly implies the magnitude of the menace he’s about to face, and panel two, showing Adam in the shadow, foot trailing behind him as his body disappears into the darkness, shows that events these events truly risk Strange’s life. The overlap of the scream in page three connects wonderfully to the place that Adam should be, while the color of the screen, delivered in a slight abstraction of Adam’s color scheme, tells readers in a subtle way that it is Adam who screams.
Starlin uses this effect to its greatest power in the scenes between Martian Manhunter and John Stewart. Mignola does gorgeous work here showing the distance between the two men. Their physical distance also implies an emotional distance between them, and that emotional distance is conveyed in the sequence above. It’s implied in how both characters’ faces are hidden in shadow — and by the fact that Manhunter is almost completely in silhouette. The silhouette can be seen as showing the contrast that the light of the volcanic eruption provide. But it also implies that Manhunter is marginalized, shunted off to the distance, and stuck inside a glowing green bubble over which he has no control. His life is in the hands of his new and arrogant ally.
There’s also real power in watching how the men’s’ body language shows their attitudes. Stewart sees himself as the leader between him and the Manunter. Unlike Superman as shown before, John’s not ready to join with a peer ally. Instead, as this sequence begins, John Stewart’s back is turned to Martian Manhunter. He has disdain for his partner, emphasized by his condescending language: “You may be hot stuff back on Earth, J’onn. But we’re playing an intergalactic game now, and you’re way out of your league, pal.” John then walks into the reader’s foreground, like an actor moving towards the audience on a stage, and we as readers look over Stewart’s shoulder as Manhunter floats away. (Note too the language that Starlin uses here, having Stewart spout an obvious analogy that shows a lack of imagination on his part.)
Are we being shown that we as readers are complicit with Stewart’s actions by having us peer over his shoulder? Or are we just being shown that we’re about to get an emotional gut-punch? This argument takes place in the roiling chasm of an erupting volcano, surely one of the most dramatic settings imaginable, but events are about to become far, far worse than a simple argument.
Rapidly Stewart comes to the moment that will become the turning point of this issue. It is the scene that will provide the emotional center of the mini-series. But before I discuss this scene, I’d like to show you an interesting contrast from earlier in this issue. In the panel above, John Stewart, blinded by his hubris, single-handedly tries to defuse an enormous bomb. The depiction of the scene below is identical to the scene above, but the feeling is completely different. Steve Oliff delivers a warm and placid color for the bomb in the scene below and a dynamic and dissonant color above, implying the eventual success of the heroes’ mission. Above, Mignola shows Stewart facing the bomb alone in order to save the world, because he cast away his ally. Below, Mignola shows allies Lightray and Starfire together with a new ally they’ve gained in order to save his planet.
Though the heroes below are physically weaker than Stewart, we’re subtly told they are emotionally stronger. Their combined resources and power will save the world while his individual resources are insufficient. This provides a well-delivered contrast, with the power of it emphasized by the identical scene construction. The light from each of the heroes strikes across the floor the same, outlining John as a solitary figure, but merging the shadows of the other three together almost as if they were arm in arm. We see Mignola play with shadows elsewhere in this issue, and this scene reinforces that approach.
One question’s been bugging all of us who agreed to write this series for Comics Bulletin: who the fuck is the guy who paints the bomb yellow? He’s not alluded to anywhere else in this series, has no real explanation for his presence there, and comes out of nowhere.
That guy doesn’t look like Jim Starlin. Though this is a recent picture, Starlin was never fat (as far as I know) nor did he wear his hair shaggy in any of the vintage pictures I’ve found. Starlin frequently talked in interviews about how he took pride in doing martial arts and kept himself in good shape. It’s also not Mike Mignola. Here’s a picture of Mignola from 1992, from an issue of Wizard magazine. The guy with the bomb doesn’t look this.
So the answer is: who is the man in the “bomb” panel? The answer, given everything around the comic, seems to have two explanations: first, he is literally a deus ex machina, a god from the machine, or a being that was created by the bomb in order to protect it. That’s the best explanation in context, and that also explains how the bomb knows about Stewart’s weakness for the color yellow.
The second explanation cascades from the first: if the man is created as a deus ex machina, then why does he take that shape? Is Starlin or Mignola making a comment of some sort? Is this their satirical look at a classic fanboy, overweight, poorly dressed and with bad grooming habits? Is this a commentary of some sort on the comics market? If so, what are we supposed to glean from him? There aren’t any real clues in context. My best guess in context is that he’s a creature created by the bomb, a god from the machine who is responsible for destroying a planet. Out of context, though, I love the theory that this is meta-commentary from Starlin about the nature of fans – “hey geeks,” he seems to be saying with this scene, “I know you don’t always need logic in your stories, so just take this and enjoy it.” Sometimes great moments don’t need context or foreshadowing; instead, a fat guy with a can of paint is enough.
UPDATE, CONFIRMED ON TWITTER:
— Michel Fiffe (@MichelFiffe) October 7, 2015
— Kyle Garret (@kylegarret) October 7, 2015
— Mike Mignola (@artofmmignola) October 7, 2015
And here’s a relatively recent picture of Mr. Helfer:
Whatever the context of the scene, it’s powerful. The bomb overwhelms Stewart, and it the holocaust engulfs him like a tidal wave (dig the mixed metaphor!)…
The use of negative space in this panel is phenomenal, emphasized by Oliff’s empathetic coloring. Rather than present a giant image to show the explosion, Mignola goes with a subtle approach, and that subtlety makes the scene more powerful.
Which leads to the astonishing few pages that gives this mini-series its strongest power. First we see Mignola use the same techniques with panel sequencing and time that he used earlier this issue. Just as we saw on page one, here we see distance shown by the size of a figure inside a panel, with the stunning progression above telling so much story silently, We watch Manhunter seem to swim through space, pulling his arms back while kicking his feet before landing angrily on a shard of rock. His cape is tattered, adding an element of pain and devastation, and his large brow and aggressive stance in the fourth panel show Manhunter’s fury greater than any words could ever convey. Again Oliff’s coloring accentuates the scene, deep blues showing sorrow and pain.
Adding more power to the moment is that John Stewart is out of sight of the panel. John is just a word balloon, hovering at the edge of the fourth panel. The rock in panel four resembles the edge of a cliff, and the word balloon looks like a claw clutching for the edge of the cliff, desperately fighting for a lifeline. “I… I never…” he mumbles, with the lettering weak and scrambled, with all Stewart’s broad-chested machismo shattered like the green bubble that Manhunter was encased in. We already know that Stewart is broken without having to know more. The next page emphasizes that brokenness with an astonishing artistic confidence.
Just as it was earlier, Manhunter’s face is hidden in shadow but now the positions of the two men are reversed. Stewart is the weak one and Manhunter the powerful one. Manhunter towers above Stewart, who is nearly balled up in a fetal position due to his terror of the destruction he has wrought.. In panel three, we see that everything has forever changed between the two heroes, as Manhunter seems to hover above Stewart, his back held straight in pride and anger. In contrast to the earlier scene when Superman’s cape seems to envelop Orion and promise him safety, here Manhunter holds onto his cape with his left hand. He’s refusing to help Stewart, refusing to blanket him from the pain that he has caused. Stewart will find no protection from his former ally. His sins have revealed the deeply flawed man behind the bluster, and the truth is shattering. The word balloons “Shut up. Just shut up.” seem to thrust towards Stewart, hovering above him like daggers.
Until, at last, Manhunter forces himself to move on, flying toward the edge of the panel while Stewart struggles to his feet. Stewart’s ring glows with power, but that power seems impotent, worthless. The most powerful weapon in the universe can’t save a man from his own hubris. This sequence has a sense of the tragic hero about it. Stewart is a man who reached for greatness but due to his own hubris finds himself destroyed. I’m not sure that Mignola and Starlin find the Shakespearean elements that they’re looking for, but these few pages give this story a depth that readers don’t usually find in cosmic crossover events.
Mignola’s art isn’t perfect in this comic. He’s a long way from being the genius cartoonist who would go on to present world-class work on Hellboy. For instance, Mignola seems to have no idea what to do with Starfire in the sequence above. She looks like she’s not really tuned into the scene that happens in front of her, instead playing with her remarkable head of hair.
This also brings me to the last thing I wanted to mention in this survey of this comic: the way Mignola draws people flying. It’s kind of awesome, really, how he draws everybody’s flying abilities differently:
In panel one, we see Superman thrusting with power, the hero pushing himself through the air. Orion is riding a hoverbike of some sort, simply gliding. John Stewart looks like he’s kind of floating through the air, like a starship monitoring from above. Manhunter looks like he’s swimming. Lightray seems to be allowing himself to glide free, using the power of the planet to pull him along. Starfire seem to have a turbo jet in her body pushing her ahead.
I can’t remember a comic where the artist went to such trouble to show how characters’ powers act differently, nor any other scenes that deliver it in such a subtle way. That’s remarkable, and a great insight into Mike Mignola’s attention to storytelling detail in this comic.
One of the favorite tropes of us critics is that we like to look for the roots of future greatness in an artist’s early works. It’s intriguing to track the evolution of ideas, language, presentation and attitude when studying a master creator’s early works. With that in mind, it’s easy to forget that Mike Mignola was essentially a journeyman artist in the late 1980s, migrating from project to project with little fanfare. Indeed, even as late as 1994 when he joined with such then-prominent cartoonists as John Byrne, Paul Chadwick and Frank Miller as part of the fledgling Legend Comics line, Mignola was seen as a weak link in that strong chain. When Byrne scripted the first Hellboy serial, it was seen as a magnanimous act from a talented creator to a protege. It was a long evolution from Mignola’s earliest work on Rocket Raccoon to his brilliant current work. In Cosmic Odyssey, we see signs of the artist that Mignola would become. In its gorgeously composed scenes, lovely character building, and deeply considered approach, this series acts as a signal for the creator that Mignola would become. Looking at Cosmic Odyssey, readers can begin to see signs that this is a man who can create Hellboy in Hell. His career would become a cosmic odyssey of its own.
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