How I Learned to Love Cosmic Odyssey and Still Hate Superheroes
It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with the DEVIL.
Life must sometimes be played on that base level.
In her recent post “How a toxic history of harassment has damaged the comics industry”,
Heidi MacDonald reminded us that legendary cartoonist Will Eisner once said, “As long as young boys doubt their masculinity, there will be a need for superheroes.” This is a rather condemning statement on many different levels, but it points to certain important issues that continue to raise their ugly head in the world of comics, ones that are slowly and painfully finally starting to be addressed on a wider scale. That being said, it also points to a long held belief that the superhero genre is, fundamentally, a puerile entertainment that spurts from an unfettered masculine id which revels in explosions, punching, and subservient women, regardless of the heralding bells and whistles that try to obfuscate this. As I keep saying to anyone who will listen, “It’s the same embarrassing and tired story told over and over again.”
So when asked to participate in this series of reviews of Cosmic Odyssey, I agreed out of some sort of sense of obligation (and also because I was drunk and Chase Magnett is so darn cute when he gets excited about these things), rather than any actual interest. Because, really, sometimes it boils down to a simple question: When you already know how the story is going to end, how do you muster up the interest to care? This is the concern of every high-pitched marketing plan and is the fundamental problem I have with Corporate Owned Intellectual Property Superhero comics. These books are so suffused with the bright colored bombast of a simplistic and jingoistic morality wrapped snuggly around an underlying and frightening hypocrisy in which a single definition of “good” triumphs constantly and consistently over a single definition of “bad”. They can’t help but run the gamut from being predictable to being tiresome as they hamfistedly lurch through the trappings of the monomyth, stripping it of any universal truths or insights into the human condition.
And yet these stories persist, desperately so, as if their existence fulfills some sort of human need. They become the talk of the town under the illusion of the new, as PR chattel churn out promises of nothing will ever be the same again and you can’t possibly miss this, sadly ecstatic that their heroes are news.
But remember the first line of “5:15” by The Who? It echoed resoundly through my head as I picked up yet ANOTHER crossover series from DC Comics. I’ve been burned by this faint fire before. I still have blisters on my fingers.
Public Image Limited pretty much pulled this together in that song, the one about the albatross: “I know you very well, you are unbearable. I’ve seen you up far too close.”
Who’s the ancient mariner in this rime? I must be out of my brain.
I’ll ask it again: When you already know how the story is going to end, how do you muster up the interest to care? As Nick Lowe once wrote, “That’s the problem, now here’s the hook.”
Cosmic Odyssey answers this by subverting the trope, having the characters drive the story and having a story that stands in service to the larger proposition. Sure it’s explosions and punching and posturing and fucking ridiculous, but there’s something gigantic at work here.
Oh, and then, of course, having a young and hungry Mike Mignola provide the visual narrative doesn’t hurt either. I mean, did you read what Jason Sacks wrote about issue two?
Cosmic Odyssey pokes a thick thumb into the eye of Superhero bog monster in a way that doesn’t blind, but allows the construct to see anew. What Jim Starlin, Mike Mignola, Carlos Garzon, Steve Oliff, and John Workman put together in this 4 issue series is nothing short of prodigious, substantial, and singular. It gathers the enervated sui generis. It catapults, bombarding.
Issue three of this series continues the exploration of the binary aspects of perception that the creators are burrowing into, bringing them even more to the fore, providing commentary through silence, putting the dual in the duality. Through some sort of thaumaturgy or legerdemain, Cosmic Odyssey #3 becomes that drunk guy in front of you at FirstEnergy Stadium impossibly screaming for a long gone Bernie Kosar to take the field and, in doing so, makes you realize just how fucking beautifully ridiculous the whole game is in the first place. This moment of sagaciousness creates a high board from which you can plunge brain first into the crevasse of depth and truth.
Issue three transmutes the much abused good versus evil theme into a probe of Apollonian versus Dionysian. The binary pairings as well as the overarching two-fold struggle emphasize this. Our sense of control and command of existence is ultimately ignus fatuus. Entropy is the natural order, chaos can only be covered in a veneer of order for only so long. Every victory is evanescent. We diffuse this bomb only to have something else explode in the next moment. Whatever is carefully tailored only frays in the end. Starlin foists this in our face throughout this issue; Mignola and Garzon etch it onto the backs of our hands; Oliff works in its yellow and orange hues; Workman whispers in our ears “SHCAA-KOOOOSH” and there is nothing left to say.
Audacious, like an albino goat in the light of the full moon. Let’s break it all down to graze on the alfalfa therein, sodden in the evening’s dew.
In the first review in this series, Kyle Garret talks about how Jim Starlin was “addressing a system of binary opposites” in Cosmic Odyssey, but while Garret dismisses this concept as a failure, I take umbrage with his assertion and say that not only does it succeed, but it is one of the driving forces that makes Cosmic Odyssey a success. Issue #3 brings this to the forefront. Last issue, because of Jon Stewart’s hubris, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter had failed in their mission resulting in the annihilation of the whole Xanshi star system. We’ve seen the results of failure now, we understand that the trope’s expectation of the hero saving everyone is no longer operating in this book, the stakes are raised, uncertainty has finally entered the picture. Not only does this add to the tension that Starlin needs in order to keep the narrative thrusting forward, it also reflects the actuality of the world. Bad shit happens. Heroes fail. The triumph of the tumult. Chaos. Disorder.
And so too the rest of the narrative undulates with the binary distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Take, for example, the team of Superman and Orion who have been tasked to defuse the bomb on Thanagar. Superman is the clean model hero, all “Time to say goodnight, Gracie” and powered by the light of the sun. Orion, on the other hand, has a different approach to the heroic notion. As Superman goes to punch the giant robot and take out the device, Orion provides the distraction, slaughtering hundreds in the name of the greater good. Orion says to Superman, “there are no innocent victims in war, Kryptonian. Only survivors and the dead.” Truth tends to be ugly, and it tends to favor the forces of uncertainty. Superman tries to impose the order of the world as we want it to be when he says, “savage platitudes sprinkled over the slaughtered” but he knows the truth as well. His response is to punch Orion in the face.
Ah, Superman, you are the Nietzschean Ubermensch. Didn’t old Friedrich once write, “I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.”
Even our heroes fail. The abyss is stronger than the man of steel.
Then there is the “My powers are awesome” Lightray and “All in a day’s work” Starfire team on Rann. Lightray is the pompous face puncher, hubristic in his own smugness. Starfire offers another way, less certain, fueled by prior knowledge and inference. Both rely on what has come before to understand the present, but both acknowledge that really, it was just fucking good luck in the end that saved the day. Taking a guess is relying on there still being enough predictability in the world to hedge your bets, but the maw masticates in fickle ways. Hope is a powerful force inasmuch as it allows you to step into that mouth.
Each binary pairing of seemingly opposite forces in this issue reveals how ephemeral each side of the coin really is. It is pretense to think there is any form of control at all.
Starlin hammers this point over and over in this issue and in this series. There is a teetter on the edge between nihilism and cynicism that constantly threatens to fall into the pit. He acknowledges the lie of it all, promulgates the random, and keeps his reader pushing ever forward. As we do. We keep walking in a straight line even though the path constantly twists and turns and falls upon itself over and over again.
It’s hard work to create anything out of this nullity. Starlin is up to the task.
But it is really in the hands of Mignola and Garzon to keep the reader from despair. Their work is boundless and towering. Suffice to say that throughout this series there were countless moments when I turned a page and gasped. Out loud. In public. Causing strangers to eye me uneasily.
Issue #3 has some of those moments, all of which service Starlin’s abyss perfectly. The fight between Superman and the giant robot, for example, where our “hero” is masked in shadows throughout the entire battle, his face finally alit upon the smugness of victory, a thick self-satisfied smile there on his mug. The two page spread as Superman confronts Orion’s massacre of the “innocent” only punctuates what is really in charge of all these confrontations. A second two page spread upon Etrigan and Darkseid’s arrival into the Anti-life dimension, furthering the thematic impact. Swirls. Points of nothingness superimposed upon circles without purpose, something waiting, a beckoning light that is calling us to our own fears.
Steve Oliff’s color work also adds a layer of subtle complexity by separating each world into its own palette and within each world, separates each team member according to their placement in the binary. Oliff understands the possibilities of orange, as much as he understands the impacts of blues and greens, purples and blacks. When Starlin and Mignola need a particular force to the beat they playing, Oliff brings the orange at just the right heat, cooling and waning almost down to a taupe, or righteous and explosive as it stretches to the reds. The color shouts or swoons when it needs to, leaping off the page to bite you on the nose or kiss you on the cheek.
And then there is the lettering. From the SCREEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAATTTT!!! of Darkseid and Etrigan’s metamorphosis to the WHY and the WRONG of Superman’s admonitions, the voice is there. John Workman understands the difference between the KA-BRAK! of a robot’s fist into Superman’s jaw and the KA-PLOOSH of the petroleum squishy anti-life aspect ramming into the back of Lightray on Rann, and through his art, we know it too. Lettering is one of those art forms which you only really notice it when it goes awry. Workman does more in this series than his name would have you believe.
See, comics are built on the talents of everyone involved. If any artist is off, the work as a whole reverberates with that misstep. Cosmic Odyssey vibrates with success in every aspect, as if they all agreed beforehand exactly what they were trying to accomplish… you know, sort of like how these things are supposed to happen.
Why is this is the exception, rather than the rule?
Cosmic Odyssey is an outlier. A superhero crossover event comic that seems to have more of a purpose than just to make the corporation money. What place it holds in the larger continuity of the DC Universe is besides the point, because it doesn’t matter and I’m out of fucks to give in this regard. What is important is that Starlin and Mignola had a story to tell, one they believed in, and one they got to execute. It proved that superheroes can be a vehicle for something other than the tired old story told over and over again. Artists just need the keys and an open road.
Driving this metaphor even further, Cosmic Odyssey is the car you’ve always thought you should be driving. We are cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway, the windows are rolled down, the sky is blue, the radio is blasting. Oh God, I need a drink of cool, cool rain. We’re headed somewhere really, really spectacular.
I’ve learned to love Cosmic Odyssey and still hate superheroes.
What did I see? Where have I been? Nothing is planned, by the sea and the sand.