Not Just More Grist For The Mill

I didn't even have a chance to get to the comics to figure out that Mudman was just a little bit different. On the inside cover, just to the right of the indicia (you know, the information about the comic and the publisher, that little bit of a periodical that no one but Jon reads) is a little column written by the comicsmith, like the kind you find just before an old letters page. It's got the same sort of pop-philosophizing that those columns have, the same sort of short, terse, joyful sentences that remind you that rarely does anyone do comics just for the paycheck, that everyone who is in the medium is in the medium because they love comics.

It's pretty clear, from reading that little column, that Paul Grist loves the medium, and not only the medium, but the traditional understanding of the medium, and the medium's traditional delivery system: the comic book, "not," he writes, just to be sure that we understand, "floppies of pamphlets or any of those other slightly derogatory terms that people use to belittle the format." He's not talking, either, about "'sequential art' or any of those other terms folks use when they're trying to be clever about comics," nor is he "Writing for the Trade" or "planning on cramming the collections full of 'DVD extras' like deleted scenes, sketches, and 'directors commentaries.'"

Mudman, then, starts out with a little bit of a manifesto, with an explicit declaration of what it is and what it isn't, with a clear warning: what you have in your hands, says Paul Grist, is nothing or more less complicated or clever than a comic book. It's a pretty bold statement, when you think about, and it's one that's entirely unnecessary: Mudman is a hell of a comic book, the kind that is, actually and despite what Grist might like to claim, quite smart in what it has to say about comics, simply because it does well what comics do well, that is, it tells a story through only the essential parts of that story; everything else is left to the reader to fill in.

All comics, of course, operate in that way; the gutter is what makes comics comics. But Grist uses it particularly well, in part because the story he's beginning to tell, of a young Englishman, Owen Craig, who wakes up one morning and finds that he has the capability to become mud, is as much about the gaps in what happens as it is about what we (and he) know to have happened. The plot comes to us in bits and pieces and, in this way, reflects the way that the medium works. Grist is saying something about comics, and he really is being quite clever about it.

It helps that Grist gives the gutters such an important role on his page: rather than force them towards the edges with too many busy panels, the lines that surrond the action are thick and, although he isn't afraid to draw into them every once in a while, more often they invade the space normally occupied by action than the other way around. What's really impressive about it is he doesn't give a centimeter on this particular principle: the gaps are pretty uniformly twice or three times the size they are in most comics. When he does do something funky, it's a good clue that you're supposed to be paying attention: something outside of the normative boundaries of the universe has happened, or is about to happen. The panels, they really are the world that Grist is building, but there's something intriguingly ephemeral and metaphysical about what surronds it.

And that's all before you get to the art. I've wondered for a long time about Chris Samnee's influences and, if Grist's stuff on Jack Staff looks anything like this stuff here, he has got to be one of them. Mudman's got this great look, blocky and stylized and flat, and the characters move without seeming too loose or slippery. Sometimes it gets hard to tell his characters apart, particularly when they're wearing school uniforms, but that very well may be the point. Another side effect of the gutter-width, perhaps intended and perhaps not, is that the art has room, the characters don't feel cramped even though his art is relatively detailed. What's so amazing about that detail is that there is this preponderance of random seeming lines, but even those add to the art, and, upon closer examination, they make the figures complete.

If there's one thing that seems a little off it's how, on initial reading, the plot seems to barely hang together; there are a few things that just seem to be missing. What's sort of goofy about that, though, is that those holes, rather than being frustrating, draw you back into the book, make it seem really interesting and subtle. Whether or not it all fits together, I suspect everything is going to become clear in the next few issues but, whether or not it does, Paul Grist, by not trying to be clever, by embracing the medium as it was, has put together what may very well be the most interesting and important mainstream comic of 2011.

Variations on a Theme

Variant covers. What the fuck, right?

Different covers. But the only difference is... the covers?

So you can choose which one you like. Like the comic inside but hate the cover? Oh, a variant with something less horrible on it. My lucky day!

Or you could do what the publisher, printer, and retailer really want and buy both.

Nobody who steps into my store can make head nor tails of them the first time...

Some people buy almost exclusively variants.

Variant covers. A cultural force all their own? What the fuck, right?

~ @JonGorga

All-New, All-Different

I've been reading X-Men comics for a long time. Not as long as some people, of course: I'm barely as old as that massive selling #1 written by Claremont and drawn by Lee, but I've been reading X-Men comics a long time. Long enough that, when I started almost a decade ago, a mediocre writer given to melodrama, Chuck Austen, was writing Uncanny, a certain mad Scot named Morrison was writing New X-Men, and Chris Claremont, a man whose name is probably more closely tied to the group than any other, was writing a book titled (horrifically) X-Treme X-Men. It was, for sure, an odd time for Xavier's merry mutants: the three mainline books were vastly different from one another in not only tone and style, but also in quality. Although I've learned to love Morrison's take above all others from the period, in the moment I loved Austen's Uncanny the best: it had my favorite characters. Now I understand the book to be basically incomprehensible but, when I was thirteen, Austen had me. I loved the melodrama; I loved Angel's angst, I loved that Juggernaut was on the team, I even loved that storyline where Nightcrawler joins the priesthood, only to discover that he was ordained by a bunch of anti-mutant psychos.

All of this is to say, basically, that I'm pretty invested in the X-Men. Except for a two year period during high school, I've been buying and reading X comics pretty consistently for the last nine years; certainly, behind Captain America, they are the major superhero franchise I care about the most and, although I've come close a few times, I've never quite managed to quit them, although I did narrow my purchases from three books to just Uncanny. The last few years have been trying, to say the least, because the writing (from the two writers I hold above all others as the paragons of quality in mainstream superhero comics, Brubaker and Fraction) has been uneven at best and because I was forced to endure the art of Greg Land for a full half of the issues (of course, that the Dodsons did the other half was one of the reasons I hung on for as long as I did). Then, Kieron Gillen took over the book from Fraction and things started to change a little bit. There wasn't a major uptick in quality, at least not immediately, but the books certainly felt different.

And then Schism, a mini with two brilliant ideas and an editorially mandated ending that went on two issues too long, hit.

All the sudden Jason Aaron, he of one of the great crime comics of all time, Scalped, and a Ghost Rider series that is supposed to be very good, despite have been read been read by precisely no one, was writing a book called Wolverine and the X-Men and Gillen was writing a renumbered Uncanny. Despite my distaste for the renumbering, and my ultimate dismissal of the status quo setting mini as utter crap, I have never been more excited to be reading the X-Men.

Let me be very clear about why: both books are hilobrow pop art at their best. This is most obviously true of Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men: Chris Bachalo's art is, of course, the key here. Bachalo's art is highly stylized, and there's no one in the industry who draws anything like it. The figures are reduced to their necessary components; there are no lines out of place, no extraneous muscles. Visually, the book is to the point, yet, it is, because it uses only those distractions (like the occasional benday dots) that add to the books overall style, incredibly detailed. In terms of story telling, Bachalo uses what we might call functional form; when things are calm, so are the layouts. When things get a little more madcap, the panels go a little crazy. He gets points, too, for his colors, which are understated without being drab; it would have been an easy out to go garish, but instead the book has a dreamy, almost water colored look. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his designs are fantastic. Although no one receives a serious overhaul, everybody looks just a little bit different, and brilliantly so. In particular, what he's done with Quentin Quire and Beast stands out: the choice to go full throttle on Quire's punk streak is welcome, as is the t-shirt with the red exclamation point, the one he wears underneath his school uniform. As for Beast, well, I don't think I've ever seen such a compact vision of the character, bristling with kinetic energy.

If it sounds like there's a lot going on, there is: in contrast to the slow, melodramatic pacing he's employing on Incredible Hulk, Aaron just sort of throws everything out on the table here and, somewhat miraculously, everything works. There are a hundred ideas going a thousand miles an hour inside Wolverine and the X-Men, and each one is better than the last. The characterizations of Quire and Beast stand out here, too, and I suspect that they're the two to watch the most closely. The additions of an arrogant Shi'ar prince, a mutant born of the Brood and some miniature Nightcrawler-looking things to the cast add just the right amount of mysterious and intriguing to make the whole thing feel worth the energy it takes to read. This is a mad book, which takes its cues from Grant Morrison's time with the extended mutant family; it is, in this way, the inheritor of the best X-Men run of the last twenty years, and maybe of all time. If Aaron can sustain both the energy and the coherence of his first issue over his whole run, he might give Morrison his only proper challenge.

That said, Uncanny is the most exciting its been in a really long time. Kieron Gillen really kicks it into gear with the title's first #1 since the sixties: where Aaron's book is wild, though, this one is reigned in. Although some writers would take the opportunity, when writing a team book with a team that's half ex-supervillains, to do something utterly incomprehensible or suffocatingly moralistic, Gillen makes Cyclops' vision for his team just Machiavellian enough for the enterprise to make sense; it helps that his characterization of Cyclops as the military leader of a sovereign state, inherited from Fraction but perfected since then, is spot on. The rest of the team feels right, too: Magneto, Namor and Emma are, perhaps rightfully, arrogant; Storm's humble power is striking; Colossus and Magik are convincingly tortured. Dr. Nemesis and Danger, two characters who sometimes get short-shrift because they have gone relatively undeveloped except as plot devices, get some of the book's best moments. This is a team book at its best, controlled, except the one place it shouldn't be, that is, the villain, and Mr. Sinister here is a perfect counterpoint to Cyclops and his Extinction team.

Although I've been really impressed with Carlos Pacheco's art in the past, here, despite its few flaws, there's something stopping it from transcending from mere high-quality into a kind of brilliance. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but I do sense that Pacheco is holding back a little bit, perhaps mirroring the control of the writer. I wish he would let loose a little bit; it's a good time to be reading the X-Men, in part because there's nothing conservative about either of the line's new books. If Pacheco begins to take the same chances that Gillen, Aaron and Bachalo have, we could have another brilliant new book on our hands.

Quote for the Week 11/20/11

"Thing is, I really like comics. Now, when I say comics, I'm not talking about 'sequential art' or any of those other fancy terms folks use when they're trying to be clever about comics. I'm talking about 32 pages of folded paper together with a couple of staples. Comics. Not floppies or pamphlets or any of those other slightly derogatory terms that people use to belittle the format. Comics."
-Paul Grist, on the first page of the first issue of his Image comic Mudman, convincing me to put it on my pull-list even before I've read the damn thing.