"Metal" Warms Slowly, But It Can Still Burn Hot.

"Northlanders" #30 from Vertigo (an imprint of DC Comics)

Riccardo Burchielli's art gets on my nerves.

Sometimes he has lumps in the wrong places and a good quarter of the time when a panel has a lot of the elements that should make for excellently dramatic imagery it either has something it shouldn't or doesn't have something it should. [See what I mean, from page 4, at right?] I wanted to get that out first. That's the main reason I haven't yet given a solid chance to Brian Wood's long-running project with Burchielli, "DMZ". It's far from bad, but it is frustrating. With all of that out of the way let's talk about the first part of the new "Northlanders" story-arc which Wood (@brianwood) wrote and Burchielli drew. I was looking forward to this and...

It's awesome. METAL awesome.

When I was a kid, my second favourite class was always history. I always thought about it as one big story with a whole lot of different characters and groups of characters who clashed and reconciled and clashed again and grew and changed and occasionally died out. Always-always-ALWAYS with something else taking their place. History was my second favourite class only because English class was about how stories themselves worked. Plus fiction always wins over non-fiction. It's more versatile. It's cooler.

I think history was Brian Wood's second favourite subject too because "METAL" Part 1: "The Old Ways" is as much about Vikings ramming people through with sharp weapons as it is about the friction of societal transition between different cultural belief systems. And it's cool.

First, we meet the blacksmith Erik. Erik Thorsson that is. Simultaneously, we meet Ulf. (Yes, U-L-F.) Then we meet the goddess Hulda. This is followed by a group of unnamed obnoxious monks and nuns. And finally, the beautiful Ingrid. The names, the ethnicities, the worship, the social status-- in short the History (the long, long STORY) of who these people are is far from incidental. [It's on display, in these simple two panels in which Ulf lets Erik go by slipping him the key to his shackles, also from page 4.]

The design of each of these characters is human and expressive. Who they are and what they feel is intelligently written on their faces and into their clothes by Burchielli. There's even some beautifully laid-out pages in here if the visual art is a bit off.

["This is the future... stay out of its way." This image of the cathedral under construction dominating the small village landscape is all kinds of excellent. Not a line out of place here on the splash-page facing the previous images!]

Societies twist and change, sometimes because of pressures from without and sometimes because of pressures from within, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Erik and Ulf live in a society of Vikings being coerced into destroying their own land to build a cathedral for the disrespectful, money-loving monks. Ulf is an unhappy but willing collaborator to their machinations because he sees the huge amount of money flowing into their village as a boon not to be passed on. Erik sees the influence of the Christians as an unacceptable outside control of his home. He chooses, at the behest of the mysterious and terrifying Hulda (goddess of death?), not to give in. To choose the destruction of his home over the destruction of his beliefs. Ingrid is the kidnapped Viking woman he liberates in his violent rampage.

Wood's pacing of this entire issue leading up to, and including, the attack sequence is nothing short of remarkable. The comic-book industry standard 22 pages somehow feel more like 15 because the trajectory is so breathless. The content is mostly set-up, but WHAT set-up! This set-up is so good it completely overcomes my dislike for the art.

Dear gods. Where can we go from here?
I don't know and I can't wait to find out. You shouldn't be able to either.

~ @JonGorga

Jon Gorga's Precious Little Time!

Last year's "Watchmen" film adaptation came out and there was a huge fan-fare and the trailer was magnificent, advertisements appeared everywhere, the world seemed to scramble to book stores and comic shops to read it and it sold like crazy for a few months, the action figures were gorgeous and, amazingly, in recognition that something was in the air, The New York Times finally created a 'graphic books' best-seller list (only online, however) and all us comics types were very happy.

Whew! Yeah! Awesome!

[Rorschach action figure image at right from DC Direct website.]

But then something happened. The film was a garish, occasionally unintentionally hilarious, extravaganza of superhero violence.

That was my initial reaction anyway. Can you tell I was disappointed? I've calmed down a lot since that day but I stand by my core reaction: in making a Hollywood motion picture out of Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' mini-series Zack Snyder took out all the quiet character moments and amped up the violent/sexual ones. The resulting film had a lot of the core spirit of the comics, but none of the beauty or honesty.

I said to everyone beforehand: 'Hey, if the movie is great more people will come out jazzed to read it than there are already. If it sucks, millions of regular, everyday people across the world will say 'It wasn't as good as the comic' and mean it." Still, the resulting film was so self-indulgent and violent I feared that there would be a backlash. That people would say: 'See? In reality all that superhero and comics stuff just comes to violence and sex. No more.' Generally, we didn't get that outside of a few cranks. (Despite the fact that we saw it big time when "Sin City"'s adaptation came out years earlier.) More importantly we didn't, thank god, move backward; but the movie's release slowed the progress we were making. Junot Diaz, awesome novelist and establishment geek, said something that amounted to: 'the Watchmen movie trailer was the best thing to happen to the comics industry in a long time.'

ENTER: Bryan Lee O'Malley's series of graphic novels that began with "Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life" and Edgar Wright's upcoming film adaptation "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" that opens tonight at midnight. The process that came before the release of "Watchmen" has happened again, but bigger because both the film and the last comic are summer releases! Let's hope the last part of the story doesn't repeat as well.

Clare has informed me that not only is the last comic "Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour" sold out in the comics store she works at, but that ONI Press itself has run out of copies of the book and has to go back to the printer and thus only the chain bookstores have copies.

That's pretty remarkable. Superhero comic-books sell out of stock. Indie graphic novels do not.

I think it shows that people really are willing to find comics shops (at least Graphic Novel sections) and try something if they've heard good things/they want to be informed about a big cultural phenomenon at the zeitgeist. That's the one solo difference between this moment in time and past big-scale adaption film releases or films based on non-superhero comics: The sixth book just came out. Everyone can be pretty nearly on the ground-floor together and enjoy the latest (and final) comic and the adaptation of the whole series together.

But if it's a bubble ready to burst (not jinxing it, not jinxing it, not jinxing it) I want to enjoy it too, and the window is closing fast. At time of writing I am 35 pages into "Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together", the fourth book in the series. That means just about three graphic novels to go. I am going to finish them by midnight tonight.

So help me god.

Oh and Twitter. So help me Twitter. Because that's where you'll see my updates on this adventure over the next... YIPES! less than twelve hours! I better get back to reading!

~ @JonGorga (<--See if I make it on my Twitter account! Not the LongandShortbox account.)

Today, We Are One...

Today is The Long and Shortbox of It's 366th day, and if you've liked what you've seen so far, then you should stick around: our 228 posts over the course of the last year are just the beginning.

We've had some growing pains since we introduced ourselves to the blogosphere a year ago, but Jon, Clare and myself have worked through them and we believe that we're better comics critics for it. We're a lot more experienced now, a lot better at figuring out exactly what it is we want to say about something and why what we have to say is important.

Those of you who have been around for awhile, thanks for sticking with us. Those of you who are new here, thanks for showing up and you should take the opportunity to check out the archives. Everyone should invite their friends, because The Long and Shortbox of It is one 'round the clock comics party that never ends, and we're just going to keep getting better.

Here's to another year full of comics, and thanks for reading.


Whatever Luthor Wants, Luthor Gets

I love villains. Is there anyone who doesn't love a good villain? The old fashioned-bright costume- henchmen-long-monologue-mustache twirling-NO-I-expect-you-to-die-Mister-Bond, kind- those villains are the best. We don't see much of them, not anymore- partially because our understanding of villainy has matured a little bit, but mostly because comics are a lot grayer than they used to be- our good guys aren't always good guys, our bad guys aren't always bad guys, and life just isn't as clear cut as it used to be.

No, when Captain America can be a war criminal, when Norman Osborn can be the most powerful man in the world, and when Jason Todd can be the Red Hood; who is a hero and who is a villain isn't always as obvious as we would like it to be. With this understanding comes a little bit of a vacuum or, to put another way, in order to understand villainy in this context we need a good case study. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's The Joker is a decent one, although if memory serves the main character is just a mid-level henchmen and not the big man himself. Marvel's currently ongoing Shadowland event could have been this kind of study, but it focuses too little on Daredevil himself and would suffer anyway because Matt Murdock is, ostensibly, a hero. A hero who is, right now, being seen as a villain, even if he doesn't see himself that way.

Like I said, things are blurry these days.

Into this discussion steps Paul Cornell, and he both provides that case study that we're looking for and muddies the waters a little bit with his Action Comics run- of which two issues have been released and which will continue at least until AC #900 in March- featuring Superman big bad Lex Luthor. Drawn by Pete Woods, Cornell's arc centers around Luthor's search for a Black Lantern ring, a ring that he believes will grant him the kind of great power that he's always desired. Power that he, of course, can't be allowed to have.

Now, isn't that just a killer set-up?

Unfortunately, it's also the kind of set-up that can be difficult to follow through on- making Luthor suitably heroic (or, at least, a suitable protagonist) can't be an easy task. Luckily for us, Paul Cornell is up to it, and issues #890 and #891 are both excellent. The former is mostly foundational but, as far as prologues go, it's pretty fantastic stuff. The Lex Luthor that we're given is very clearly a Superman analogue, and Cornell's vision for this villain-as-superman character is surprisingly complex and layered, from literally giving his main character his own Lois Lane all the way on up to establishing his will to power. Lex Luthor is, quite literally, steeped in the Superman mythos, a mythos he can't help but replicate. It's a brilliant conceit, and one that Cornell pulls of even more flawlessly in #891, which features a number of (surprisingly Inception-like) dream sequences which give us a hysterically telling, if not particularly surprising, view of Luthor's psyche and psychosis.

In this, Pete Woods is an excellent collaborator. Although his work is a little too thin and a little too shiny for my tastes, it has this classic Superman feel that just kind of works. His faces are lively and his imagination is sharp, which really gives him an edge in that second issue. Between an Old West dream featuring a villain sporting a red bandanna called Big Blue and a Godzilla style fight with Mr. Mind which begins with a classic Superman sequence, it's really clear that Woods is more than capable of delivering on the slightly wacky premises of Cornell's scripts, and to be sure these are issues I'm going to remember not least because of the art, even if the execution is sometimes nowhere near as solid as the imagination behind it.

All in all, if you haven't taken a look at this stuff yet, I say give it a try. Cornell's Lex Luthor is steeped in villainy, he's too self-centered to be a good hero in that term's most loaded sense, but he's a villain who wants nothing more than to be Superman, a villain who legitimately believes he's looking out for the interests of humanity- interestingly enough, this is the flip-side of the Shadowland coin, but it's a side I think we've seen far less often recently and, as long as it keeps living up to its potential, Lex Luthor's Action Comics is bound to be a wild ride.