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This Week's Haul

  • Batman and Robin #8, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart (DC)
  • Booster Gold #29, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Secret Six #18, by Gail Simone, John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #10, by Mike Carey, Peter Gross & Jimmy Broxton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. ultimate collection TPB, by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen & Wade Von Grawbadger (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Phonogram: The Singles Club #7 of 7, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (Image)
Grant Morrison does clear a few things up in the new Batman and Robin: Who the body left behind when Darkseid killed Batman in Final Crisis belongs to, and why Superman verified that it was Bruce Wayne’s (the explanation is fairly stupid, though), and how Batwoman ended up in England (though she’s basically superfluous to the story).

Either DC or Grant Morrison (maybe both) have really painted themselves into a corner here: Bruce Wayne is “dead”, but we know he’s not really dead. But Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne Al Ghul are now Batman and Robin – but we’re getting this story where Dick’s being a weenie and trying to resurrect Wayne using a Lazarus Pit. Which means the story can’t focus on Dick and Damian – plus Damian just had his spine replaced (!) so he’s been off the stage for a few issues anyway. The most promising part of Batman and Robin from the start was the relationship between Dick (a kinder, gentler Batman) and Damian (a nastier, crazier Robin), but that’s all fallen by the wayside in favor of plumbing the depths – yet again – of Batman’s convoluted mythos. And that’s just not as much fun as playing new games with new players. And Morrison’s writing style seems supremely unsuited to writing this series, inasmuch as characterization is his weak point.

At this point I’m basically assuming that Wayne will be back soon, and that this series will end with #12 or so. It’s shaping up to be completely forgettable, which is too bad, since there was some potential here.

From the beginning, The Unwritten felt like it was going to take a while to get going, and now it feels like it’s getting there: Our hero, Tom Taylor, has been confused for his fictional alter-ego written by his father in a series of Harry Potter-esque novels, and he’s been hunted by an assassin, whose victims’ murders Tom has been framed and imprisoned for. Now Tom has escaped prison with a reporter and a mysterious woman who sees to know more than she’s telling, and in this issue they end up in what seems like a giant hologram of late-1930s Germany. The only person they can talk to is Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who is making the film Jud Süß, and who provides a little insight (if obliquely) into the nature of fiction in the world writer Mike Carey is creating.

I’m willing to go along with the sometimes-frustrating pace of the story because I can identify with Tom’s own frustrating that many things don’t make any sense. He’s a sympathetic character who has gotten caught up – apparently through no fault of his own – in something much larger than he is. Of course, there’s the implication that he actually is the fictional character and that the story is building towards revealing that to him and showing what it means. My expectation is that these early chapters are largely sowing the ground for where the story is ultimately going, and that they’re not being oblique and obscure just for the sake of being so. The success of The Unwritten is going to depend heavily on there being clear explanations and resolutions of the major story elements at some point.

But so far I’m happy to go along for the ride. While I wish the pace would pick up a little bit, The Unwritten is still an intriguing read.

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E is all about superheroes blowing things up. It’s Warren Ellis writing about five heroes who barely achieve the level of has-been (Photon and Machine Man are the headliners), making smart remarks and blowing up everything that a terrorist organization that’s taken over their sponsor group can throw at the, with Stuart Immonen drawing in a cartoony style which completely submerges the lush realism he usually brings to the page.

It is, overall, a really, really bad idea, executed with a modicum of what I assume is supposed to be humor, and even less cleverness, never mind anything even resembling an understanding of the characters. ( I always wondered why Machine Man suddenly appeared in Ms. Marvel behaving completely unlike his past appearances, and apparently this piece of drek is the reason.) The one actual good idea is plundering Marvel’s 1960s humor comic, Not Brand Ecch, for a team to fight the Nextwave.

Apparently this series was something of a fan favorite when it first came out, and it’s completely beyond me why: It’s not funny, it’s not smart, it’s not exciting, it’s just a train wreck from beginning to end. In short, it is Brand Ecch. And that ain’t good.

Eight months ago, Phonogram was getting a fair amount of positive Internet press, so I picked up the collection of the first series, Rue Britannia. Although it had its rough edges – Jamie McKelvie’s art wasn’t very polished, and Kieron Gillen’s story’s structure was a fairly uninventive “hero’s journey” one – it won me over. The premise was that phonomancer David Kohl’s identity and power were bound up in an early-90s incarnation of the goddess Britannia, based around the music of Britpop, and that someone was trying to rewrite her role in history, which would completely change Kohl’s nature, so he sets out to save her, even though her obsolescence meant that no one was really willing to help him. No one really cared, except him. It worked as a story of identity and sense of self in the face of a changing world.

Gillen and McKelvie followed this up with the series – now in color – The Singles Club, which comes to a close this week. Greg Burgas loved this series, as he wrote about here and here, but the series has not done well commercially, and it sounds like there won’t be a third series. Unfortunately, I’m not very surprised, because The Singles Club had none of the strengths of Rue Britannia, and I found it very difficult to relate to.

The core problem is that The Singles Club is a collection of 7 vaguely-linked short stories, and none of them have the power of Rue Britannia. I guess they were emulating the Sandman model of a big story followed by some short stories, but that’s a terrible model for a struggling independent series, and none of the short stories here are anywhere near as good as Neil Gaiman’s typical short story in Sandman. Gillen tries awfully hard to evoke a sense of wonder through love of music, but the characters are mostly ciphers and there’s no deeper thematic underpinnings to the stories to give them force. The premise of the world of Phonograph is subtle and thus a difficult clay to work with anyway: Phonomancers are able to work magic through the focus of music, but the magic is very understated, which means the sense of the fantastic is subdued and rarely a selling point to the series. Rue Britannia did get to the payoff of big-effect magic in the climax, which is what it really needed. The Singles Club never reaches that level in any of its stories. There’s just not much oomph in these little character dramas – the characters were pretty thin anyway – and they needed some oomph to get readers to spread the word. While Rue Britannia is something I’d recommend to a certain set of readers, The Singles Club isn’t.

This is a real shame, because McKelvie’s artwork is leaps and bounds better than in the first series, and the colors are fantastic, making his art all the more vivid. Indeed, the best moments in The Singles Club are the visuals and panel-to-panel storytelling; this last issue has one of the most memorable scenes in which the main character taunts and is chased by gang of apparent street thugs.

Burgas has a response to one of the criticisms the series has received:

Some people here have said they don’t like Phonogram, and some have even said they don’t like it because of the music Gillen references. But the music is ultimately beside the point completely, because, as Kohl points out, any music will do. Gillen might be an elitist ass, Kohl might be an elitist ass, Seth Bingo might be an elitist ass, but who really cares about their taste in music? All that matters is how you make it magical.

But I think Burgas is not understanding the criticism, which is that Britpop is such an integral part of the setting of this series that the series has to bend over backwards to make it relevant to the readers. The story titles in The Singles Club come from a variety of songs, none of which I’m familiar with, and so they have no meaning for me. The music isn’t magical for me, and Rue Britannia went to great lengths to emphasize that music is very personal, very specific, from person to person (a sentiment I completely agree with), so using Britpop as a stand-in for “any music the reader finds magical” is a complete failure of approach, because it’s not that “music” is used to make magic, but that very specific music is used to make a very specific sort of magic. The magic of Pete Townshend‘s “Stardust in Action”, Yes‘ “Wonderous Stories” and Dream Theater‘s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” are all very different from one another – and probably different for someone else than for me. So I can completely sympathize with readers who found it difficult to relate to the series because of the musical references (and the “liner notes” at the end aren’t really adequate): I thought Rue Britannia did a good job of making the story work even though the musical references were outside my understanding, but The Singles Club didn’t succeed in doing so at all.

On the one hand it’s sad that Phonogram didn’t make it because Gillen and McKelvie were clearly trying to hard, and they’re both so talented. But on the other hand, The Singles Club was really not a good vehicle to try to build an audience for the series, so I’m not surprised at the outcome. If they try again in a few years, I hope they’ll return to something in the Rue Britannia mold.

1 comment to This Week’s Haul

  • Brad

    Got to say I’m completely in disagreement with you regarding Phonogram: The Singles Club – I’ll nail my colours to the wall and say it’s my favourite comic series ever. Better than Watchmen, better than Sandman, better than Blankets, better than Promethea, etc. etc. & I only know about 1/2 the music in it and would only be able to give you an in depth description of one of those songs (Pull Shapes). It does however work. God it works. For instance I had never heard ‘Wolf Like Me’ by TV On The Radio until after I read that issue, I got that he was feeling invincible because of that pure adrenaline rush KWK, due to McKelvie’s beautiful art – the song that came into my head was actually ‘Grip Like A Vice’ by the Go! Team as I’d been listening to it earlier and it had re-energized me. I’d argue that the only song that you could really do with knowing to go into the series is ‘Pull Shapes’ by The Pippettes.

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