THIS: World Rebuilding

By: Adam McGovern
July 11, 2016

The past isn’t what it used to be, and the future may not be there at all. More than ever, we have to start from a different point and make new shit up as we go along.

What changes more than stays the same has been a concern of speculative pop at least as far back as when Star Wars archly set itself a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. “Lost civilizations” go back farther than our memory, with writers like Robert E. Howard transfixed by the idea of empires that rose and fell before what we think of as prehistory, suggesting that greatness is always reclaimable and wisdom can always be lost.

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We didn’t talk about domestic violence more than a few years ago, though family schisms are the root of so many fairytales. Mark Millar and Stuart Immonen trace this taproot back behind Cain & Abel in the Marvel/Icon comic Empress, about a pre-human intergalactic empire based on the Earth of 65 million years ago. Immonen’s depictions of dinosaur chases and spaceship fights are among the most exhilarating in the history of pulp, but the core of the story’s tension lies in the brutal emperor’s wife and kids fleeing his violence and madness. They aren’t forced to live in hotel rooms and subsist on poverty income like the people I’ve known who actually have to do this, but forbidding planetary outposts are pretty bad too — and Queen Emporia, her three kids and rebellious bodyguard do have just as little recourse to their world’s justice system. Millar draws on the dark matter of sci-fi’s frequently-missing feminine point of view for a wealth of fresh storytelling, a movie-on-paper that plays fearsomely in our primal subconscious.

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The main aspect of Star Wars that wasn’t derivative, of course, was the prominence of a strong, story-driving heroine in Princess Leia. It takes a lot to peel me away from the franchise’s sources (Kirby’s Fourth World, Dune, Dr. Doom, Foundation, etc.) to actually read a Star Wars comic, but Marjorie Liu’s name on the cover works the Jedi mind-trick in the new Marvel Han Solo series. As masterfully as Liu handles the twists and perils of this story, with the space-smuggler entering a deadly interplanetary race as cover for a mission from the Rebellion, she has just as much insight into the workings of Han’s mind as he navigates a world of treachery and his own lack of trust — it doesn’t take explosive spectacle to immerse you in an adventure, just a window-seat from inside the head of someone placing themself in danger (though Mark Brooks & Sonia Oback’s lavish art is like Prince Valiant with an airbrush). Liu isn’t just revitalizing and deepening the movie mythos, but advancing a tradition of future-frontier drama that starts with C. L. Moore. Leia herself is a steely, nuanced character, and the new addition, Loo Re Anno, a stately ancient mariner of the stars, is a fascinating presence, said to be the greatest and oldest of racers, a reminder of the heroines who are unseen to our age but have always been there.

It’s no accident that each of these narratives is defined by transgression — mass or personal revolts against empire; underground commerce as a staple of survival. In Liu’s comic the class condescension of the aristocratic, career space-racers is what drives Han to compete (and even to carry out his mission); in Millar’s, Emporia is defying the ultimate patriarchy. She allies with any number of marginally-legal operatives to do it, and this I think is the tenor of our own times; lawlessness by figures of authority, from the imperial buffoon running for president to police forces summarily executing civilians on video, is de-legitimating their position and fostering a feeling among the common populace of underground camaraderie and justified infractions (to eat, to get healthcare, to not be attacked). This strain of human aspiration has its icons in folkloric rebels who so hold our imagination that they become historical forces even when not technically historical figures.

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One of the most enduring, of course, is Robin Hood, made even more real by being one of those types of heroes who have always been among us but either not acknowledged or later erased, in Merry Men from ONI Press. Writer Robert Rodi, long one of the most imaginative and empathetic of authors portraying history-based heroic figures, reconceives Robin’s band as persecuted LGBT Britons banished to the woods for who they are, making common cause with others suffering from King John’s pious tyranny. The frankness and delight and dimension with which the Merry Men’s intentional society is portrayed is something I didn’t know I’d live to see in pop culture, and which of course they missed by a millennium. Jackie Lewis’ art, like a shorthand, vernacular engraving, suits the period well and makes an impression I hope will expand through the medium.

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It’s clear that most of us envision the state of subsisting under the radar yet being totally boxed in by social strictures as one that will ripple out into the far future. The Sweetness from Z2 Comics depicts yet more sketchy space-adventurers inching along the smudged lines of the law. A kind of dystopian trucker/submarine comedy-drama, it follows a crew of warp-rig operators ferrying both colonists and prisoners to another solar system — a cast of characters who are not so much rebels who’ve turned their back on social standards as malcontents who are otherwise unemployable. They work for a bounty service set up like a bored, bureaucratic UPS (right down to its logo), and come from various other marginal occupations while being accompanied by a shock-collared parolee who can mediate with the rogues they may encounter; each in their way are chained to their job in a hell of Kafkaesque indifference. But we use the expression “funny as hell” for a reason, and writer Miss Lasko-Gross gets the sour humor and stoned hyperbole of the situation note-perfectly, though it’s a tune you’ve never quite heard before. Kevin Colden’s art, like vulgar graffiti drawn by a sophisticated engineer, has the ideal poker-faced precision and squalor for the subject — a satire suggesting that we’ll have to travel to space to find a way we can go even further down.

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Goldie Vance, from BOOM! Box, does for charm what The Sweetness does for sarcasm. It also escapes to the past to get some history-telling done right. Taking place at a fictional Florida resort in the early 1960s, it follows the misadventures of the smart young daughter of the hotel’s manager, whose job is to park guests’ cars but whose calling is to be a detective (though it seems the hotel’s easily flummoxed actual detective didn’t ever get that call). Goldie makes enterprising cross-use of her work and avocation, including temporary car-theft to chase down leads or retrieve lost property; the rebelliousness brewing in her time is reported like Archie never dreamed of, and the cast of characters is as varied as it would take Archie several more decades to evolve to. The book shows this with perhaps more harmony than even prevails in Florida in 2016, but the visibility of Goldie, her interracial (and cordially divorced) parents, and the hotel’s multi-ethnic staff and clientele, is an affirming historical corrective for people who were a significant part of American life all along, and the subtle tensions between the white hotel owners and Goldie’s family are vividly felt. Hope Larson, one of the best of graphic authors from the minute her career began, constructs the culture of the place and time-period with an epicurean eye, from hot-rod obsession to astronaut aspirations to live-mermaid entertainment; Brittney Williams (who is also doing C. C. Beck-level cartooning on Marvel’s Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!), brings the sun-soaked pastel parallelogram landscape and brash stylish population to glorious, good-humored life. Goldie and her friends are trying to find their way out of certain frames, and I hope their past has a long future.

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The title heroines of Kim & Kim, from Black Mask Studios, are already there. Not just because they drive a flying VW bus in pursuit of fugitives as dimension-crossing bounty hunters, but because they see the world from a point of view that’s racing back in time for ours to catch up to. Colliding the appeal of Josie and the Pussycats with the outlaw exuberance of a William Gibson antihero, Kim & Kim are kickass YAs who happen to have a job skirting the interstellar underworld as a way of scraping together independence from their parents. The sleek seediness of their world is conveyed with joyous jagged energy by artist Eva Cabrera, and the sass and substance of their defiant individuality and insistently confident identity — Kim is queer and Kim is trans, are you following? :-) — is expressed with endlessly inventive wordplay, wit, human perception and Tarrantino-worthy self-commentary by writer Mags Vissagio, a major talent making her big-imprint debut. Living in a universe I’ve always dreamed of and speaking from a cultural frame-of-reference I live every day but, in mass fiction, seldom have recognized, Kim & Kim breaks more than narrative walls.

That’s what opens space to build on. It’s no coincidence that most of the creators in this survey are women, LGBT or people of color (or all of the above), and cause for optimism that not all of them are; it takes experience to speak the truth of your own story, but listening is something that all artists are supposed to do, and that any audience can.

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MORE POSTS by ADAM McGOVERN: OFF-TOPIC (2019–2020 monthly) | textshow (2018 quarterly) | PANEL ZERO (comics-related Q&As, 2018 monthly) | THIS: (2016–2017 weekly) | PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HELL, a 5-part series about characters in McGovern’s and Paolo Leandri’s comic Nightworld | Two IDORU JONES comics by McGovern and Paolo Leandri | BOWIEOLOGY: Celebrating 50 years of Bowie | ODD ABSURDUM: How Felix invented the 21st century self | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: C.L. Moore’s JIREL OF JOIRY stories | KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Data 70 | HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM: “Freedom” | KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Captain Camelot | KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Full Fathom Five | A 5-part series on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos | Reviews of Annie Nocenti’s comics Katana, Catwoman, Klarion, and Green Arrow | The curated series FANCHILD | To see all of Adam’s posts, including HiLo Hero items on Lilli Carré, Judy Garland, Wally Wood, and others: CLICK HERE

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