Welcome back to The Column Formerly and Presently Known as Ambidextrous.
It’s been approximately seven months since I ducked out for a brief sabbatical that quickly turned into something altogether more extensive. Before going further, I’d like to convey my appreciation to the kind folks at Silver Bullet for preserving my spot until I was ready to return with a full head of steam and a renewed sense of purpose. Craig Johnson, who’s edited every single one of these columns, was especially supportive and continues to ensure that I’m well taken care of in every facet of my work here. There’s no question that without his influence, encouragement, and guidance, doing this for over five years would’ve been impossible. Can’t thank him enough publicly or privately, and it would be in poor taste to proceed another step without saying all that.
It is from here that our saga continues, and Ambidextrous heads into its next arc, while maintaining the same format and mission statement that it’s had since its inception: chronicle and (hopefully) aid the efforts of a young writer attempting to break into comics as a professional. Technically, that goal has been accomplished, but as with most things, there is far more work to be done and past that, I’m just not finished with this forum quite yet. The precise details of what actually transpired during my extended hiatus will be revealed in a future piece, but for reasons that’ll be fairly obvious after reading it, the overall tone of it makes for a poor “return” article. It’s extremely personal, sufficiently depressing, and appropriately triumphant, sometimes all at once. But it’s too early for all that, so I prepped this edition instead which is more in line with ninety percent of my columns anyway.
Whenever I become somewhat disillusioned with my never-ending quest, the immediate response is to expose myself to work and creators that provide some considerable level of inspiration and/or adulation. An obvious reflex I know, but it’s served me pretty well for several years and this time was no different. From the month I announced the hiatus until now, I’ve tried to become even more discriminating, trying to weed out those comics, movies, and TV shows that it seems are followed not because of quality, but because of inertia. All wackness must cease, or something like that.
What survived, at least in regards to comics, is discussed below and should be something that folks can come back to at year’s end, as I believe the following developments will be the things that make 2007 worth reading comics for. Let’s get started with the man poised to be the next huge creator in the game…shouldn’t be that much of a surprise…
The Next Big Thing, starring Matt Fraction-
Okay, so here’s the thing…since I became fascinated (obsessed) with comics, there has existed that deep, pathological need to locate and nurture that which none other has yet identified as “the next big thing.” Though the compulsion does extend to new characters, it takes on a heightened intensity in regards to writers, especially in the last few years, as my own understanding of what actually goes into the making of a comic steadily increases. In my humble estimation, great writing is always worth an additional mention, and there’s nothing like watching it all develop from the very beginning of a career, before that growth and development is officially recognized by the masses.
Brian K. Vaughan is someone I latched onto almost instantly, primarily from his association with Jay Faerber and Devin Grayson (forgot what their little collective was called) and there was something immensely satisfying about following this guy from project to project, from the one-shots and fill-ins, to the first couple minis, to the first monthly series. Even back then, it didn’t take much to recognize the true talent right there on the surface, and now he’s one of the biggest creative heavyweights in comics, just joined the writing staff of LOST, and needs little introduction. But once upon a time, he was the young writer on Swamp Thing, trying to make his mark on characters re-defined by the legendary Alan Moore. And juvenile as it may seem, the fact I was along for the ride means something.
Which is why I’m lovin’ Matt Fraction recently, because he gives off a similar vibe, and there’s an individual perspective and passion in his work that indicates one very important thing above all else…this dude is hungry. That if comics are in some way refusing to do and say the things Matt Fraction wants them to, then Matt Fraction is gonna stop in personally and set it all straight. And hell, even if he can’t manage it all, it’s cool, because he showed up and just plain tried harder than ninety percent of the other cats out there. He wants to say something, could be that he needs to say something, and that’s been obvious since his first column on CBR, to anyone paying moderate attention.
In the last several months though, the issue has been forced to the surface by the launch of his first creator-owned series (the routinely brilliant Casanova), and three new Marvel titles. Given what we now know about him and his work, I think it’s fairly apparent that by the end of this year he’ll be considered one of the freshest voices in the game. And I’ve been there since the very beginning, from the days of The Annotated Mantooth and the Last of the Independents, trying to figure out what the hell everybody else was on. Justice, if there is such a thing.
Fraction truly emerged last summer with Casanova, which might’ve been my favorite new book to launch all year. With the tagline “Being bad gets good again,” comics were introduced to Casanova Quinn, in a title designed in the vein of Warren Ellis’ Fell.
Even with significantly less pages, this book managed to accomplish more than most comics, thereby solidifying a permanent slot on my must-read list. On paper, it’s a wonderfully illustrated spy book with some prerequisite twists and turns, incredibly outlandish villains that are almost as strange as the heroes, and the brash attitude that comes from endeavoring to tell incredibly compressed stories in 16 pages and change. Which it is of course, but only after some additional digging will another storytelling component ultimately reveal itself, usually through the “backmatter” that accompanies every issue.
The emotions and motivations behind the stories are nearly as interesting as the stories themselves, and for a process junkie like myself, it’s always a welcome addition and makes the whole experience somewhat deeper and worth investing in. Fraction talks about some highly personal shit in the supplements, and what you take from them strongly informs your second read, making Casanova an initially dense undertaking, but one that rewards with repeat visits. It’ll be back in August I believe, but until then, you’ll have to settle for the beautiful hardcover collecting the first seven issues. Be good to yourself, and pick it up.
When that’s taken care of, please be sure to stop by The Immortal Iron Fist, which is probably my favorite book to launch THIS year. Coincidentally, Matt Fraction is writing this one alongside Ed Brubaker, and it’s pretty fantastic, which is fairly improbable for a book starring Iron Fist. What I knew about Iron Fist and his history would fit very neatly into one sentence, so I don’t know if the legacy aspect was something that existed beforehand, but it turns the entire dynamic upside-down and makes Daniel Rand a much more fascinating character than advertised. Just the notion that the “iron fist” is something that’s passed from one bearer to another is quite genius, and imbues the series with a profound sense of mystery and excitement, as the stories remain anchored in the present day, while jumping back to reveal previous bearers. It’s a little Green Lantern Corps, with a splash of Jedi Knights, but without distancing itself from the martial arts flavor that remains the character’s staple. Clearly, hell must be freezing over when one of the coolest titles that Marvel is putting out is about Iron Fist. Either that or Marvel has employed a new writer of such obvious skill and commitment, that by sheer force of will, Iron Fist suddenly became cool while no one was looking. Obviously, it was one of those.
It’s very likely that The Immortal Iron Fist will remain my favorite new book of the year, at least until The Order hits, on the backs of a simply amazing premise by…wait for it…Matt Fraction. It’s not often that I can read an interview about an upcoming project and decide right there on the spot, THIS is going to be the book of the year, but when Fraction was laying out the groundwork for the book then called The Champions, that’s exactly what I thought. And with the absolute roll this man has been on, I’m probably right. And by the end of the year, the deadly vicious combo of Casanova, Immortal Iron Fist, Punisher War Journal, and The Order will make Matt Fraction one of the biggest writers in comics. I only ask that you welcome this development, as it appears that Matt Fraction is looking out for us, as only a true friend could. He only wants to write good comics for you, even if you’ve only just heard of him.
Once More With Feeling-
There was this moment a couple years back, where I was walking out a Best Buy, experiencing what can only be described as a slight epiphany, connected to Joss Whedon’s television masterwork Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.
The unconditional love is well documented, but this particular moment serves as pure, irrefutable confirmation that my interests and motivations will always set me somewhat apart. Any real fan of the series undoubtedly knows of the Chosen Collection, an immensely powerful, yet beautifully designed cardboard box, which contains every single episode of the show, along with exclusive extras and behind the scenes material. Any real fan either owns it, or lobbed curses at Fox Home Entertainment for releasing it, since they’d already bought the individual season sets, and would now have great difficulty in rationalizing the decision not to buy everything all over again.
So anyway, I’m picking up the set with some Christmas cash and gift cards, deciding along the way to grab a new CD. Something I’ve been meaning to get for a minute, but for one reason or another hadn’t gotten around to. Now by itself the item doesn’t hold much significance, but when taken together, the end result was probably one of the strangest CD/DVD combinations to leave a Best Buy that week. The cashier had this look on his face, placing my Buffy collection in the bag, beside the Roots’ live CD, the same kind of face I have when putting sex books and religious inspiration stuff into the same bag at B Noble. Not that there’s anything wrong with either situation, but it just feels slightly out of place, as if there’s no way both of these items are going to the same place. And on the off chance that they are, even ignoring how incredibly unlikely that would be, isn’t that just a little bit…weird? I mean, to me it’s not, obviously, but to this dude, one could not exist in the same space as the other. No passionate Roots fan could share an equal affinity for all things Buffy and Joss Whedon.
There was an intense level of fanboy pride gleaned from his obvious confusion, and from another opportunity to dismantle the kind of demographic typecasting that comes with being a (relatively) young black male, obsessed with comics and other related merchandise. It’s for this reason that it felt appropriate, and somehow necessary, to put some Roots on, while reading the long awaited first issues of “Season 8.” For the time being, these two elements will be inextricably linked, and it’s highly possible this becomes a ritual throughout the life of the series. The impossible pairing of Buffy and ?uestlove by fate and circumstance, the latter heading into uncharted territory as her adventures continue on, though in a slightly different form.
But leave it to Joss Whedon to figure out how to have it both ways, an incredibly successful television show that left the airwaves not when it had to, but when it should have, only to come back years later and revisit the universe and its characters in an entirely new medium. Four issues in, and the results are as fantastic as expected, delivering an overall expansion of the mythos, casting new roles for fan-favorite characters, all without losing the sharp sense of humor and dialogue patterns that make it feel like Buffy. First indication of that comes on page one, with the opening line “The thing about changing the world…Once you do it, the world’s all different,” that could’ve easily spilled right out of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s mouth. Every one of the favorites shows up in the first couple chapters, and you can hear just the voices of the actors that depicted them, even over a Roots’ album.
While the settings have changed, the core relationships clearly haven’t, whether it’s Xander still functioning as the heart and soul of the unit, Dawn’s natural ability to force her sister to emotionally regress, and the slayer still feeling crushed under the weight of responsibility, everything is as it should be. You emerge completely convinced this will be a grand storytelling success, as there are simply things that cannot be done on network TV that are now possible in comic form. The legion of slayers spread all over the world is one; Giant Dawn is another, a prophesized full-scale assault on the slayers from both human and demon worlds, etc. etc. Comics almost demand a more epic stance, and thus far Whedon is gladly playing along as the first arc establishes a brave new status quo, only to be slightly overturned by its conclusion.
And if you think experiencing this with The Roots in the background is strange, consider that when this starts being collected into those convenient little trade things…my own mother will probably start reading it. That’s just about the biggest endorsement I can think of really…
Black Star Keep Shining-
How many of you were absolutely thrilled to hear that Black Panther and Storm would be joining the Fantastic Four? Well, not more than me. First thought was that if Reggie Hudlin and Marvel can pull this one off…I just might stop comparing this run of Black Panther to the previous one, who all self-respecting readers know was written (and quite well) by Mr. Christopher Priest.
With Hudlin’s tenure now past the two-year mark, the character and title stand on the brink of the mainstream acceptance and marketability that has always eluded it. Black Panther has certainly endured something of an artistic carousel, and a couple questionable plot developments, but the bottom line is that in two years, no one has threatened to cancel the book, change its direction to avert a possible cancellation, or felt compelled to explain why more wasn’t being done to increase its spotlight.
In hindsight, it all looks fairly clever: a Year One type storyline to kick things off, which succeeded in placing both new and established fans of the character into the same narrative framework, even though it took a few liberties with the origin. Then, we got that excellent House of M tie-in issue, which bled into an X-Men crossover, designed to plant the seed for the relationship with Storm. The “Black Avengers” arc (my personal favorite) came next, which saw T’Challa team up with a variety of heroes, chief among them Luke Cage, who we’ll talk more about later. Past that, there was the much-hyped wedding story, which was remarkably well written, considering that the foundation for the entire relationship was something that essentially amounted to an off-panel “what if” tale, and needed an additional mini-series to justify. Civil War closed out year two, giving Panther and Storm an incredibly important role to play, and establishing a very interesting status quo for the super couple, bringing us here to the New Fantastic Four.
Even though the move is obviously temporary, injecting them into the FF should help elevate both characters into the upper echelons of the Marvel Universe. Which is highly appropriate and somewhat necessary, given what they now represent: a super-powered couple comprised of two characters with long and storied histories at Marvel. The fact that they just happen to be black, well, that’s really a happy accident, but is one that should be emphasized, particularly by a company like Marvel, which has always prided itself on being somewhat progressive in the themes and compositions of its stories.
This opportunity is one that I hope to see fully explored by not only Reggie Hudlin, but Dwayne McDuffie, who’s handling the writing chores on Fantastic Four. Hudlin has shown incredible growth as a comic writer over the last two years, his skills actually improving storyline by storyline. The level of sophistication and complexity in regards to his pacing and dialogue rhythm is noticeable to anyone that’s been following the title since its relaunch, making this the perfect time to properly fulfill what I’m sure his original mission statement was: turn the Black Panther into an integral and necessary presence in the Marvel stable. Everything appears to be converging to allow for this, and the fact that it’s a strong possibility, and not a passing hypothetical, is worth noting, celebrating, and most importantly, watching. Which I assume a great number of readers will continue doing for the rest of the year.
And speaking of Mr. McDuffie…his renewed assault on mainstream comics should reach critical with his upcoming stint on JLA. After several years working exclusively in animation the accomplished scribe has showed up in a big way on Fantastic Four, and inheriting the League from Meltzer is not only a natural fit but also an obvious one, given his résumé. Was sportin’ a big Kool-Aid grin when the news hit, which only grew broader when I learned his first arc was titled “Injustice League Unlimited.” Shouldn’t even have to explain why that is so cool, and I cannot wait for him to get started.
Another news bit emerging from that same con involved my man Sanford Greene finally getting the opportunity to introduce his artwork to the real DCU in the form of a Wonder Girl mini-series. You might remember him from the Artxilla collective that included him, Keron Grant, LeSean Thomas, and Ed McGuinness. He’s an incredibly nice dude, and an incredibly talented artist that always has one of the tightest sketchbooks available on the floor of every major con. He has been doing some stuff for the Johnny DC branch, but this is his first opportunity to play with the big toys and I wish him the best of luck and will be watching from the sidelines the entire way.
Then you add in Kevin Grevioux’s well received New Warriors revival and it starts looking like a movement: black creators doing big things for big companies with their biggest characters. Fantastic to witness and hopefully to be a part of as things truly escalate in the second half of the year and with any luck, months and months past that. More on this later I’m sure, but good to see so many guys positioned to succeed and distinguish themselves. Stay tuned, as I’ll be trying to snap most of these guys up for interviews in the next few months. Only seems right.
Return of the King-
For a good while, I was of the mind that there existed two types of writers in comics: Brian Michael Bendis and everyone else. His star-making run on Sam & Twitch marked my first encounter with his work and from the moment that first issue closed out, a very passionate relationship between creator and faithful fan was born. I sought out every single thing I could find with his name on it, defended him against any foolhardy enough to question his inherent and very obvious greatness, and spent several years both inspired and incredibly intimidated by him. How and exactly when he stopped being the only writer that mattered to me is a mystery, but a couple years ago, it seemed as though some of his books were losing that once standard platinum coating I’d become accustomed to.
Sure, things like the end of the Daredevil run and Powers continued to impress, as those are clearly titles he was born to write, but everything else seemed to be missing something. The Pulse was lacking the creative synergy from the previous partnership with Michael Gaydos, who was able to return for the final arc and settle things properly. House of M and Secret War were technically sound and featured some gorgeous artwork, but lacked that spark and frenetic pacing usually found in giant crossover events that result in large scale changes to the status quo. Ultimate Spider-Man went cliff-diving after Gwen Stacy was killed, and in a span of over twenty issues the only real bright spot was the Kitty Pryde relationship. New Avengers, despite having a dream team cast, has been threatening to take off for two years now, stumbling through artistic changeover and a general lack of focus that makes the book feel as if it’s generally underperforming.
Don’t know what happened in the last year, or if I’m the only person that feels this way, but Bendis has been showing the fuck up lately. The ball truly began rolling with Ultimate Spider-Man’s version of the Clone Saga, which had absolutely no reason to be even remotely readable, given its ill-regarded source material. Not only was it readable, but it sits as one of the most compelling, “important” stories that the book has ever told. This was the initial promise of the Ultimate line, that characters and stories would travel down completely divergent paths from what we’d seen before, and this arc delivered that with a succession of shocking reveals, cliffhanger endings, and character turns that should easily power this title throughout its next year. Things just never stopped happening at any point during the story, and as Mark Bagley worked his way through his final issues, proved once and for all that his name should be placed among the seminal Spidey artists of all time. Never has it been more apparent that the man can draw literally ANYTHING, which Bendis requires as Peter Parker swings and fights his way through his worst nightmare. Every aspect and character are exploited, from MJ and Aunt May, to the Fantastic Four and Nick Fury, to Doc Ock, etc. Everyone shows up, everyone does something significant, or has something significant happen to them, and it’s all hinged on an idea that once nearly decimated the Spider-Man line.
Along similar lines, a post-Civil War landscape has similarly invigorated New Avengers, which has never been as good or as unpredictable as it is now. This will come as no great shock, but I LOVE the fact Luke Cage has picked up the reins of the Avengers and is leading the team, and harboring a deep suspicion that what’s happened to the heroes in the MU is no mere coincidence, and that the SHIELD conspiracy they stumbled upon in the very first arc is still very much in effect. Making these guys underground superheroes places another level of tension onto the proceedings, as they’re as threatened by the Hand as they are by their fellow heroes, which we see almost instantly when they’re led into a trap baited by the promise of a surviving Captain America. This particular moment is when you learn just how far Tony Stark and company are willing to take this whole “initiative” thing and puts Cage’s bunch at an incredible disadvantage, even with Dr. Strange’s additional firepower.
There’s always something charming about rooting for the underdog, and this team definitely applies, surviving by sheer force of will and their unwillingness to tow the line, as many of their contemporaries have done. Most of them were assembled by Captain America, and that means an incredible deal and is enough to sustain them in the face of insurmountable odds. For the first time since the launch, every single element clicks and genuinely feels “new”; the mission statement, the personnel, the squad leader, the roles. And having Yu on art duties is no small thing either. And this was all before the reveal that the Marvel Universe has very likely been taken over by Skrulls. A train of thought that will entertain and engage the audience for several months to come, as the focus moves from the question of “Whose side are you on,” to “Who can you trust?” Since Civil War wrapped, Bendis has unconditionally realized the true potential and scope of New Avengers and hopefully, he and Yu will be at this for a long time.
Good as that book has been in recent months, it still comes second to the recently christened Mighty Avengers, featuring art by Frank Cho. Billed as the more “classic” version of the Avengers (for the cats who complained that the New Avengers weren’t actually Avengers) Mighty focuses on the sellouts that signed the Registration Act, and marks Bendis’ most successful team effort to date. New Avengers might have Luke Cage heading up the squad and an “us against the world” vibe, but in the very first issue of Mighty, Bendis accomplishes more than what he managed in the first three (possibly four) issues of New. It was suggested this title would be somewhat unique from every other thing the accomplished scribe has tackled, employing a personalized set of storytelling mechanics to craft the stories of this Initiative sponsored super-team. Leading the charge is the return of the fabled “thought bubble,” the idea of which Bendis expertly twists, turning it into a worthy complement to his rhythmic dialogue, and creating something almost new in the process. The technique is difficult to accurately describe, initially off-putting, but after the fantastic first issue has closed out, you realize that with a simple narrative trick, Mighty Avengers has its own distinct voice. The entire cast speaks (and now thinks) in distinguishing fashion, which is a complaint that Bendis detractors have often leveled at him.
The canvas everything is operating on is sufficiently epic, and will hopefully satisfy any folks that were/are disappointed with the smaller scale that the companion title features. While Spidey and his friends are battling Elektra and Hand ninjas, the Mighty crew is repelling a full fledged surface invasion by the Mole Man, before witnessing the return of Ultron, now in female form and covered in liquid metal. The popular villain’s return was sparked by the “death” of Iron Man, and worldwide weather anomalies that are threatening to tear the planet in half. This very sexed-up version of Ultron proceeds to then go toe-to-toe with The Sentry, right before dropping a Helicarrier on his head. Frank Cho handles the increased scale, turning in some of his most action-packed pencils on a story that looks as big as it’s supposed to feel. Even the line-up, which looks a bit suspicious at first glance, proves inspired and Bendis gives you enough background to immediately invest in the characters. Ares is extremely likable, Widow is extremely cool, and Ms. Marvel extremely capable as a field leader, even though they were all somewhat unknown to me before reading this book. The gap between the hardcore Avengers fan and the recently converted is effectively bridged in this series, giving more classic characters and set-ups a contemporary gloss that wouldn’t have been possible had superstars like Wolverine and Spider-Man kept the seats warm for a couple years.
And on top of all this, Powers continues to be consistently fantastic and is nothing like the book it began as years ago, and Bendis’ hot-streak even has me a bit excited about the Halo thing, and I’m probably the only person in the world that doesn’t care anything about Halo. Just really glad to be enjoying all of Bendis’ books this much again, and to be able to have that spark of excitement whenever I’m about to read one of his titles. Without question, the ruler’s back…
Last Certainly Not Least-
So…last week was certainly one of my better ones.
My issue of Robin appeared in DC’s latest solicits, The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury was announced from Archaia Studios Press, and this column went live again. Lot of things to be excited about which will naturally manifest itself in several columns down the road that I promise will be a great deal shorter than this one. Figure I had some words to make up is all.
In a few days, I’ll be off to San Diego and though I’m not sure if daily updates will be possible, expect to hear from me at least a couple times during the festivities. Some of the things that slid out of this piece will appear in the write-ups, including a really cool idea that is on permanent loan from Augie of Pipeline fame.
Just good to be home, and I’ll see you all very soon.