The benefit curse of the One Comic Podcast is that now I'm back into comic book shops on a regular basis, with all the incidental shopping that entails. A few recent encounters of the graphic kind... The Twelve, This One Summer, Lazarus and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong.
The Twelve (2008) by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston begins in a simpler time - World War 2, where up was up and white was white. A dozen of America's finest superheroes, from mechanical men to reporters-with-nerves-of-steel, stumble into a Nazi deathtrap and wind up frozen in stasis. Years later, they wake up: only to face our chaotic modern world.
The series is roughly structured around each of the twelve heroes - following their attempts (successful or not) to blend in to the oh-so-morally-gray contemporary era. Set in the Marvel Universe, The Twelve is cleverly woven as a counterpoint to the drama of Marvel's 'main' storyline. In a world of Civil Wars and distrust and awkwardness, here are a dozen superheroes with a certain purity - superheroes that can be trusted again. Except, of course, they can't.
Part murder mystery, part moral lesson, The Twelve is unfortunate in that it sits squarely in the shadow of two vastly better comics: The Ultimates and, of course, Watchmen. The former already addresses the awkwardness of generational collide with its reinterpretation of Captain America - 'old-fashioned' values in a new world, with all the hypocrisy and difficulty that come with. And the latter is an infinitely more nuanced and compelling approach to both superheroic murder mysteries and, again, the changing of the generations. Neither of these are, of course, The Twelve's fault - it is a perfectly serviceable comic that, to be blunt - has nothing new to add.
The Twelve is also let down by a weirdly goofy 1990's-style ending, complete with hideous costumes: the one thing the comic did have going for it was Chris Weston's gorgeous revisitation of a timeless classic style; seeing it modernised in the final pages is a heartbreaking misstep. There's also a strangely problematic romantic subplot: only one of the twelve is a woman (but she's hawt, so that's ok), who is defined by both her lack of agency and magic succubus powers. Also, despite the inference that she's a lesbian, she's swiftly straightened out by our protagonist - a graduate of the Anakin Skywalker "Pester Power" School of Romance.
This One Summer (2014) by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is - well, exactly like it says - a close examination of one summer, through the eyes of Rose, a young girl. Every year she and her family go to Awago Beach, rent a cottage and enjoy the lazy days of summer. Rose reunites with her summer friend Windy (a girl a couple years younger) and the two of them swim, camp, dig, watch movies and eat too much candy. This year is - theme alert - about change, as Rose is on the cusp of both physical and mental adulthood. The simple pleasures are no longer enough, and Rose struggles with her dawning awareness that there's something deeply... if not wrong... disturbing.
This One Summer is two things: beautiful and difficult. The former is easy to see - every page is simply stunning, and the art manages captures both the ephemeral beauty of summer and the deep passion of every page. Being a teenager is about turmoil and feeling - the sense that every moment is meaningful, every second is a lifetime. And that's captured in every panel; a graphic novel that's a scrapbook of emotions.
Yet this book is also a tough read - not only because it is infused with Rose's frustration, but because there is, ultimately, no 'big lesson'. There's no timeless romance, no great revelation. Nothing life-changing happens here - except, I suppose, the realisation that life changes. There are important narratives in the background, with secondary characters, but for Rose, this is a weirdly uneventful summer, with no Great Life Lessons Taught. The closest comparison might be something like Dandelion Wine; a snapshot taken at a moment of flux. We don't ever know what Rose becomes, or if she'll even remember this summer. This One Summer's deliberate absence of Greater Meaning is, in and of itself, incredibly ambitious - also, I hasten to add, real.
Lazarus: Volume 1 (2014) by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark is a - rather hideous - neo-feudal future where 'Families' run regions and the rest of humanity is classified as 'Serf' or 'Waste'. This pyramid is cleverly reinforced at the start of every new scene, with the demographic details popping up in a little box in the corner of the page. Each Family seems to have a Lazarus - basically their own pet cyborg/superhero/posthuman thing. The one we're following: Eve (short for Forever, which is basically a theme inside a theme inside a GET IT?).
There are, of course, Machiavellian feuds between Families and within then, a lot of generally creepy people, all sorts of technological gimmickry and a central character that's both oh-so-powerful and oh-so-vulnerable. It isn't a huge departure from Rucka's previous work with Queen & Country, just with more lavish (and rather gorgeous, honestly) art and a dystopian setting. On one hand, it makes me a little uncomfortable: we are in firmly in the camp of Whedonian feminism here, with an ass-kicking female combat machine that's secretly-vulnerable-and-needs-a-hug. (In fairness, despite a few dialogue points about how beautiful Eve is, the art doesn't fawn over her - femme fatale Johanna, however, makes up for it [spoiler: she has breasts and uses sex for teh evilz]). The Dollhouses/River Tams of this world made me squeamish, and Eve is no exception. The juxtaposition of Eve (fake human but 'real woman') and Johanna (real human but 'fake woman') makes for an interesting theme, although potentially a giant whopping landmine if handled badly. And, honestly, the jury is still out on that one. Certainly a third female character might help ease my concerns.
On the other, the setting is quite cool, the plot is pleasantly twisty-fun, the art is gorgeous, and, as much as I don't want to infer authorial intent, I do think Lazarus means well. Certainly of all the Mad Maxian resource-strapped futures in SF, this is one of the most interesting, and there's a quiet confidence to the way that the plot is unfolding that indicates quality writing. (Conversely: avoid the four page preview at the end, as it spells everything out in a way that's great for trailers but poor for, I dunno, overall appreciation of subtle reveals.) Despite my qualms, I'll be sticking with this for at least one more volume.
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong (2013) by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks is a good ol' fashioned high school drama. Charlie, basketball star, and Nate, geek, are neighbours and - although they might not admit it - friends. When Nate hears that the funding for the national robotics competition might go to new cheerleading uniforms, he goes on the warpath. The decision will ultimately be made by the new student body president, so Nate - despite the concerns of his buddies from Robotics Club - decides to run. The cheerleaders, too busy to run themselves, appoint Charlie as their proxy. Things turn predictably and comedically nasty.
Superficially, this is a typical high school rom-com (bromance, really), but Nothing has hidden depths. It isn't so much about reinforcing geek/jock and nerd/cheerleader divides as quietly breaking them down. Initially, Nate - who is more passionate about social structure than anyone else in the book - refers to the cheerleaders as 'Nazis'. They terrify him, and through his eyes, we seem them in terrifying lockstep - psychic monsters that know everything, see everything and are 'out to get him'. But by the end of the book, that's gone: they're people too, with their own problems, personalities, joys and ambitions.
We see the same evolution of empathy through Charlie's eyes as well. The reader knows that he's a nice guy with his own problems (he cares a lot more about his family issues than this ridiculous election, for one). But we learn that - in the eyes of the Robotics Club - he's Just Another Jock. A faceless monster; the enemy. Charlie's as surprised as the reader is to learn this.
In fact, if there is a villian of the piece, it is Nate - arguably the reader's ostensible proxy. The charismatic geek, the focus of the story. But Nate is the one with the most defined (and most incorrect) view of his high school's social structure; the one most committed to an antagonistic, adversarial narrative. His missteps threaten to alienate his friends and hurt everyone. After a closely-fought basketball game, for example, Nate programs the scoreboard to mock his own team (including Charlie). He's caught up in a crusade of his own devising; passionately fighting for an unnecessary ideal at the expense of real friendships. Rather ironically, the result (spoiler - sorry!) is that the two creepiest people in school wind up winning the election: actual sex predators. While our adrenalin-fueled idealist was fighting a war that doesn't exist against an opponent that didn't care, the jerks took over. (See also: GamerGate)
Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong is a success because, while maintaining the form of the John Hughes movie or the stereotypical teen comedy, it questions the necessity of it all. Certainly it is a rather utopian vision of high school, but it is no less accurate than any of its forbears. There's a good lesson in here - that we're all real people, not roles - and should be treated accordingly. As much as a 'Nerds win!' narrative is always fun to read, a 'Why are we even fighting?!' story is even better.