the zaucer of zilk

anonymous asked:

Why is Al Ewing's Avengers so great?

Real talk, to one and all who haven’t been following him: Al Ewing is one of the three best regular writers in comics right now. It’s him, Tom King, and some third person (Steve Orlando? Mark Russel? Kieron Gillen? Jonathan Hickman or Warren Ellis if we count them as ‘regular’ in terms of monthly publication?). And his work on Avengers is basically my platonic ideal of Good Superhero Comics.

It’s not just that he’s a remarkably skilled writer who’s excelled at just about every genre he’s tried his hand at, though he is definitely one of the most chameleonic creators out there at the moment* - I think part of why he hasn’t gotten as much attention as some up-and-comers is that there’s no one specific thing he excels at, he’s just great at everything, from comedy to horror to character moments to action scenes to long-term storytelling without sacrificing the single issue to tying his themes into the function of his plot to the kind of “fuck yes” moments Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis make their bread and butter on. It’s that he’s one of the handful of writers operating on that level who clearly dearly loves traditional superheroes and believes in their ability to tell meaningful stories without reinventing the wheel. It’s straight-up adventure stories with the Plunderer and Doctor Positron and the New Revengers, but with an intellect and sincerity that elevates them above just about everything else in the market.

For one, having a writer on that level determined to tell the best classic adventure stories he can means we end up with ideas like American Kaiju - as Ewing put it, “Godzilla exists, and he is American”; as David Uzumeri put it, “what if Frank Miller was TWICE as drunk when he came up with Nuke” - executed exactly as well as you’d hope. The kind of bizarre throwaway ideas Morrison deals in to add texture to a world that he doesn’t actually explore, both because he has a larger story to deal with and they’re often a little too quirky even for him? Mighty Avengers and New Avengers are basically built on those. It also doesn’t hurt continuity nerds like me that he’s building his own slice of the Marvel Universe to build his books around over time in service of something bigger down the line, same as Hickman, or Morrison across the aisle. Especially considering said slice largely revolves around Blue Marvel, who Ewing’s turned into the single best and most potentially enduring take on “how would Superman work in the Marvel universe?” we’ve ever had.** 

But what makes his work is that it has a heart. Not in the general sense of having emotional moments and well-developed characters (though it’s got those too), but in having a sense of conviction and meaningful idea of what the idea of the hero is supposed to stand for.

Most superhero books, frankly, don’t have a particularly well-developed sense of justice or ethics beyond the need to stop people from dying, and occasionally that you shouldn’t do it by killing because that would make you bad. Ewing on the other hand is clearly someone who’s thought a lot about what superheroes mean and what they can teach and how they can go wrong, and it’s something he’s conscious of in his work. It’s not just a matter of whether his heroes can win, it’s that they’re showing that civil liberties aren’t for pansies who don’t understand what it takes to get the job done, and that you have to give a shit about your fellow man even when you desperately don’t want to because the road to becoming the bad guy is in seeing others as fundamentally lesser, and that it doesn’t take powers to help your community. They’re unapologetically leftie books (Ewing’s Secret Wars tie-in Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders had the panel you may have seen floating around with a supervillain quoting David Cameron), and it’s in a thoroughly humane and community-minded sense of right and wrong that it rebukes the idea of superhero as fascist: they’re the ones who stand up to the fascists, who protect their neighbors and inspire them to do better, who grit their teeth and believe in their fellow man no matter how much their fellow man seems to want to flush the world down the drain. That Ewing has his characters fighting amazing stuff in fun ways is what makes his Avengers damn good books - whether as a traditional superhero team in Mighty Avengers, an international science strike-force in New Avengers, or defenders of the Omniverse against the impossible in Ultimates. But it’s that they’re just as concerned with how to be better people and see justice properly done that makes them great books.

EDIT: Since I was asked and realize it’s not exactly obvious, the reading order for his stuff goes:

Mighty Avengers Volumes 1-3 (starting with No Single Hero)

Captain America And the Mighty Avengers Volumes 1-2 (starting with Open For Business, which opens with an Axis tie-in. Ewing gets handed a ton of tie-in stuff, and while he’s great at turning that into narrative momentum, know it’s there in advance)

Ultimates/New Avengers up through the present, soon to be followed up by Ultimates ² and U.S.Avengers (also check out his Contest of Champions, which ties into the larger story he’s building up and is also really fun)

He also wrote Ultron Forever with art by Alan Davis, which has a team of cross-time Avengers uniting to battle a future Ultron in events spinning out of Hickman’s Avengers, and one of those characters appears in his New Avengers. He was also behind Loki: Agent of Asgard, which has three volumes (with Original Sin: Thor & Loki: The Tenth Realm slotted between volumes 1 and 2), which is also definitely something everyone should check out and sets up some themes that are playing out further in Ultimates.

* Try for instance Zombo and his novel I, Zombie, which take opposite tacks on my least favorite major genre and both end up absolutely phenomenal. Or his trippy, 70s-psychedelia mixed with 90s-Vertigo style Zaucer of Zilk. Or his great little Black Widow horror oneshot in Avengers 14AU. And for those who really enjoyed his Avengers, I’d especially recommend checking out his pulp novel trilogy of El Sombra, Gods of Manhattan and Pax Omega (they’re technically set in a larger steampunk universe set up by another writer, but they’re fully standalone and require no knowledge of the other series).

** Which I maintain he expanded into the premise of “how would the Justice League work in the Marvel Universe?” with Ultimates. Seriously though, while I know he’s happy to work with characters of every degree of popularity, I need - need - to see that guy write Superman at some point down the road.

The Horror of Being Forgotten: Brendan McCarthy and Dream Gang

I’ve often thought the merits of Brendan McCarthy’s work were self-evident, and that his work was one of those things I could just like show someone, and then just step back and watch their brain bleed out.  But the last few years, particularly in the wake of some of his comments raving about the evils of PC culture, and in general sounding a bit like an old punk whose anti-authoritarianism has been polluted by the disconnected paranoia of youth that comes for all of us.  Like when you hit that space where you are worried about the minds of the youth, and not the power structures of the elite, you’re on your way to being someone’s embarrassing old relative, and it’s worth taking a step back–but because of that, I feel like people have largely kind of stepped back from his work, to the extent that they ever were really on it.  Like McCarthy is a huge influence on my own work and I’ve found a lot of myself through looking at his comics which have helped me as an artist kind of find certain ways of doing things that I may not have otherwise discovered.

And so I’ve gotten into discussions at times with other artists about just how good he is as an artist, and whether his work is important or not.  Which causes me to say things like “well you all sure loved Jamie Hewlett and Grant Morrison okay–but you’ve got no time for Brendan McCarthy whose shoes they aren’t fit to shine”.  Which might be a bit hyperbolic.

For me McCarthy does two things that are worthwhile that not many other people in comics bother with.  For one, his character designs are some of the few that you look at and they could have only come from inside of his brain.  He’s the best character designer since Kirby.  His designs are these creepy slinky beings of masks and flamboyant coats and patterns that are tapped into the kind of backmatter ooze of our brains.  His designs aren’t really just about fashion, they’re about this occluded dream symbolism.  Dream Gang deals with this, because it’s all about these basic ideas of the exterior of the character mapping to the interior dreaming. 

The second thing he does is that he uses color in comics as a place to further work texture, put in further strokes, to further warp the reality of the image–half of the things I like with McCarthy are what’s behind his panels.  These lovely electricities of neon colors jittering behind the panels–and then within the work, in my favorite work of his, he draws in light on his characters, which in addition to the patterns of their design, adds this punk expressionism to his work, that I also enjoy in the halftones of Kyoko Okazaki’s work.  Like one of the downsides of the professional colorist, is just that.  That they are a “professional” colorist.  They come in and do a professional job quickly.  A job that fits within the constructs of what the accepted idea of what this pair of pants or that sweater should be colored.  There’s a certain amount of expression that they’re allowed in terms of palette, and some basic rendering latitudes, but it’s nothing like McCarthy’s work through his career.  In a McCarthy comic, coloring stands toe to toe with his lineart.

Dream Gang is something of a regression of his lineart compared to his earlier work.  There isn’t much that is drawn, besides the characters figures, and they aren’t as complex or heavy in their mark making as like Freakwave –nor are they as loose and thin as his wonderful sketches.  They are kind of in an awkward mini space–so with dream gang the two things that end up popping are the colors, textures, and the jargon-leadeded writing.  The thing reads like McCarthy trying to cram everything he’s ever thought or known about dreams into on slim book–which makes for some really psychedelic panels–but the core of the story is about the horror of being forgotten, and the grey colorlessness of depression which doesn’t really pop off as well as it did in the Zaucer of Zilk.  Additionally, I’m not a huge fan of the gradations that have bled work of some of it’s stridency since he’s gone digital.  I don’t think in this form, he’s as revolutionary as Varley in DKSA, but he’s still quite good.  Just that some of his strengths coloring wise are in the strength of his contrasts, and that’s tuned down ever so slightly in his digital work.  But because there is so much here in terms of ideas, it’s a book that grows as your time away from it does.  He captures so well the horror of being forgotten and how that is a fate worse than death.  And attendant to that, the gothic romantic idea of trying to remember–old friends in this case.  That Orpheus went to hell, not to retrieve his dead lover, but to remember her forever through the power of art.

The instructions are always never to look back, paradoxically.  To turn away from hell and forget it.  Because to remember hell is to lose yourself to it again. 

What’s interesting with Dream Gang versus Zaucer of Zilk though, and why I like it better, is because it’s a work where those background paintings that I love so much in McCarthy’s work, that identifies his work for me, this is a comic where those things are as close to the surface as they’ve ever been.  We’re so close to a comic that abandons these traditional symbols of form, for the impact of color.  I think with Dream Gang, McCarthy shows he still has things to give to the comics medium…some like…30+ years on.