Sunday, November 15, 2020

A Month of Wednesday: August 2020


The Harrowing of Hell (Iron Circus Comics) I've been fascinated by the story of the harrowing of Hell ever since I first heard of it. Cartoonist Evan Dahm mentions in his brief afterword that he grew up reciting a version of the story in church, in a few vague snippets of the Apostle's Creed: "[Jesus Christ] suffered under Pontius Pilate,/was crucified, died and was buried:/he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again..." 

Although it is a tenet of Christian faith, the story doesn't appear in any of the canonical books of the Bible; in the four gospels, the action never leaves the plane of Earth, and whatever happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection is left to the imagination of the reader. The apocrypha is another matter, and there are accounts of Jesus' descent into Hell in such writings as The Gospel of Nicodemus. In the Middle Ages, passion plays built up a whole tradition around Jesus time among the dead, in which he descended into Hell, freed the virtuous pagan dead and, in some tellings, defeated and chained Satan and the demonic jailers. 

I suppose that's why the stories have fascinated me; they are among the ultimate untold stories embedded within perhaps the best-known, oft-told story in human history, and they feel like secrets, or, perhaps, deleted scenes. Or, to use comic book terminology, they feel a little like Biblical Elseworlds or Imaginary Stories, you know? 

I first heard of Evan Dahm's graphic novel while writing about Jeff Loveness and Jakub Rebelka's Judas, which follows the most problematic disciple into the afterlife, and rather unexpectedly intersects with a version of the harrowing story (If you liked Judas, I'd recommend this book, and if you like this, I'd recommend Judas; they both cover some similar ground in terms of Christianity as story).   

Dahm's book opens with a pair of quotes that encapsulates the contradiction that it will spend its page count chronicling and wrestling with. The first is from Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You, regarding how Christianity abolishes the concept of government; the other is from Eusebius Pamphilus' The Life of The Blessed Emperor Constantine,  and notes what is ultimately the turning point in Christian history, when the emperor adopts Christianity, making it the official religion of the government that once tried to stamp it out, a government that ultimately shaped Western history:
He saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, Conquer By This. 
That spelled out, Dahm will shift from scenes on Earth and in Hell, those on the former plane each set in a particular city, its name spelled out over a two-page establishing shot. The first of these is Jerusalem, wherein we see Pontius Pilate's questioning of Jesus, followed immediately by the crucifixion and Jesus awakening in Hell.

Dahm's Christ is a small, unimposing man, less Samson than David from the Goliath story, with big, wide eyes, messy, curly hair, a beard and a round nose; he's drawn in quite sharp contrast to the smooth-faced, almost statuesque Pilate and the Roman soldiers that attend him. 

The art is all presented in black and white and red, with that last color used for emphasis; the robes of Roman soldiers, the cross, the round wounds on Jesus' wrists, the landscape of hell, Lucifer and, ultimately, the red on the banner of heaven a militant Jesus waves in a scene in which the devil explains how humanity will want to see Christ, these are all rendered in red; red, then, is the color of opposition to Jesus. 

After his death, on his way down toward the red hellmouth, Jesus sees a valley of churches and temples, each topped with a cross, a symbol of his death, and the world's rejection of him. His journey through Hell, facing the creatures that live there and freeing, or attempting to free, all those imprisoned there, is intercut with scenes from his ministry on Earth: Talking in parables about why he talks in parables to his disciples on the sea of Galilee, healing a faithful blind man in Bethsaida, clearing the moneychangers from the temple and then arguing with the Pharisees there. 

The crux of the conflict comes when Jesus stands before the devil figure, the one he calls "adversary" (and thus we'd call Satan), who looks like larger, redder, more abstracted Pilate. It is he who names Jesus "Christ," which Jesus doesn't want to be called, and through this Satan Dahm draws a connection between Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, when the devil takes Jesus to a mountain top, shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and tempts him, "All this I will give you, if you bow down and worship me." 

Jesus refused in the Bible, of course, but, as The Harrowing of Hell notes, through the events of history, Jesus received "all the kingdoms of the world" as his own anyway...or at least all of the Western world's  kingdoms for a time, and, indeed, much of the world still belongs to Jesus. 

Theology as comic book, I don't think Dahm necessarily comes to a conclusion regarding whether Jesus was wrong or Jesus had failed, certainly not so much as he comes to various observations, pointing out the ironies of history, and humanity's blockheadedness, something Jesus faced during his earthly ministryas we see during Thomas' questioning of him, or that of the Pharisees or Pilate in this bookand which his message continues to run up against today.

 Dahm's story, with all of its heady ideas, is beautifully, elegantly, simply told. The subject matter may be extremely weighty, but the book is a deceptively fleet read, and one that requires and rewards re-readings. I was quite struck by much of the imagery, and how it integrates element of the Bible and later Christian tradition (many of the demons of Hell resemble giants with clams for heads...although their heads echo Dahm's design of the hellmouth Jesus entered; they are, then, literal citizens of Hell and, it turns out, all mouth, no eyes or ears). 

Similarly, there's a great moment where Jesus rends a veil of fabric as he prepares to ascend back to Earth, awakening in a sort of large stone coffin as if it were a horizontal doorway to and from the land of the dead; this image is from the crucifixion narrative, as when Jesus dies the veil in the Temple, the one between most of mankind and the Holy of Holies, was torn in half. It's just a panel, but it's a great one. 

I'm curious how much resonance this will have with readers without Dahm's, or even my, background with Christianitythat is, people who didn't grow up reciting the Apostle's Creedand I'm equally curious about how certain Christians, the sort who might be distressed to hear that every twist and turn in history wasn't necessarily part of God's plan, and that we humans seem to fuck up a lot when it comes to making sense out of what Jesus was telling us, will receive the questions Dahm raises.

Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I think this was a very thoughtful, very well-made comic, and one of the better ones I've read this year. 

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of The King of Comics (Ten Speed Press) I had pitched a review of Tom Scioli's Jack Kirby biography to The Comics Journal, but it had already been assigned to someone else, a fact that I ended up being rather glad of. First, I think Matt Seneca is probably a better comics critic than I, and his piece ended up better than mine would have; secondly, it meant I could enjoy reading a review of the book; and, finally, it meant I could turn my critic's brain off (to the extent that doing so is ever entirely possible; perhaps turning it down is more accurate) and enjoy Scioli's loving biography as a comic book meant simply to be read and enjoyed, rather than a work that had to be analyzed and eventually critiqued. 

And I did enjoy it quite a bit. In fact, I suppose there's another reason to be glad I didn't get assigned a review of itmy review would likely have been embarrassingly gushing, I dug the book so much. Tom Scioli should need not introduction to readers of this blog, as if you've been reading EDILW for very long, you've seen me ranting and raving about each and every issue of Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe and The Go-Bots for IDW and his Super Powers back-up in the first few issues of DC's Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye book. Scioli's also responsible for American Barbarian (which was my introduction to his work), as well as the more straightforward Kirby riffs Godland and The Myth of 8-Opus

That last book was actually the first I had ever heard of Scioli, having seen him selling it at comic conventions, and it was his very earliest work. It is therefore pretty safe to say that Scioli has been a Kirby fan all his professional life and, beyond that, Kirby's work has informed his own in an even more direct fashion than Kirby's work has informed most American comics artists (It is nigh impossible to overstate Kirby's influence on the American comics industry, and I'm quite sure there are artists whos work owes great debts to Kirby's who aren't even aware of his influence on them, so much has he permeated the field at this point).

In short, it's hard to think of a better, or more interesting, choice for a cartoonist to tackle a Jack Kirby biography. Not only does Scioli's own particular style mean that there is a lot of Kirby style in the book about Kirby, but there are countless instances of Kirby's art appearing within the panels of the book, instances where Scioli's ability to work as a Kirby clone when necessary or desirable is perfect for the book. Sure, many talented artists can ape Kirby's style, but Scioli can inhabit it. 
In terms of tackling the subject matter, of which there is a lot, Scioli chooses the interesting route of having Kirby serve as narrator. The very first panel begins with narration, "My folks were from a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Galacia," and the entirety of the book is basically formatted around Kirby telling the reader his life story, hitting all of the more important bits, but without getting too deep into any particular rabbit holes.

So, for the most part, it reads like a string of anecdotes, reassembled into a narrative. Many of the stories were familiar to me, and will be to other readersscanning the bibliography, I recognize books I've read like David Hadju's The Ten-Cent Plague, for exampleand, indeed, may be stories you've heard second- and third-hand repeatedly, like how much Kirby's experiences with neighborhood kid gang battles influenced the big city-as-urban playground nature of the rooftop-running superhero, or of Nazi-sympathizers calling into the offices of Timely/Marvel and Kirby offering to meet them outside to fight them, the creations of characters and books and genres, the first meeting with Stan Lee, an annoying office boy who played a flute, the bitter struggles with Stan Lee and Marvel near the end of his career and so on.

There was also a great deal I had never heard, and I had never really read these stories in this sort of context or in the shape of a story before. It would be too easy to say that Kirby lived the sort of life that was every bit as dramatic as those of the heroes who he created, and it wouldn't be accurateso many of his characters were so over-the-top that of course Kirby's own life couldn't compare with their cosmic doings, but there are four or five different book's worth of life story in Kirby's life, and Scioli does a fine job of compressing them into a single, relatively short (at 190-pages) and fast-moving story.

The Kirby telling his life story directly to the reader conceit is only broken three times. Twice it was broken to allow for other narrators to tell their side of the story. The first is a page devoted to Rosalind Goldstein, who would become his wife Roz Kirby; the gets a six-panel page in which she tells of how they met one another, and how he invites her up to his room to see his etchings: "I was disappointed," she narrates. "I thought he wanted to fool around. It was the first time I saw Captain America. I'd never seen a comic book in my life." (She'll return later to tell another anecdote)

The other goes to Stan Lee, who gets four pages to tell the reader what had become of Timely after Kirby left and before he returned. "That's how Jack remembers it, but neither one of us has a good memory," the Lee section begins, and it's a rather poignant passage, showing Lee's side of things. Because we mostly see Lee through Kirby's eyes, and the two would have such conflicts over the years, it was nice to see Scioli, and thus Scioli's Kirby, giving Lee, or at least Scioli's Lee, space to tell some of the story, even though we don't check back in on Lee much throughout, at least, he doesn't regain command of the narration boxes. As much as their stories intertwine, after all, this is Kirby's story.

I laughed out loud twice during the book, both times during Lee scenes. The first is of the flute scene, which I vividly recalled from Hajdu's book. I just love the idea of Lee irritating co-workers like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at that early state, something that seems funnier when one realizes the antagonism that would follow.
The second scene I wouldn't share now, if this book hasn't already been out for months, for fear of spoiling it. When we see the adult Stan Lee, he looks like a balding, middle-aged, unremarkable man, completely unrecognizable as the guy who would go on to cameo in dozens of superhero movies over the course of the last few decades, looking infinitely more ordinary, and, oddly enough, older in the 1950s than he would look in the '00s (I had first learned who Stan Lee was in the early 1980s, so I had never known a mustache-less, bald Stan Lee).

Then there's this panel:
The final breaking of the format comes when Kirby dies, his death presented as an all-black panel with the date in the corner, after which the six-panel format changes to a 12-panel per-page one, and then Kirby returns for two more panels to speak an epilogue directly to the reader. 

Those 12-panel pages begin with a couple of immediate tributes to him, including a panel from Stan Lee and two of Frank Miller's euology, followed by images of the Dan Turpin-as-Kirby from Superman: The Animated Series, Stan Lee being a bastard/being Stan Lee, and then image after image of Kirby created or co-created heroes in films, demonstrating just how many goddam billions of dollars Hollywood had made off of Kirby characters in the past 20 years or so.

It's a really great book, and I think everyone should read it. 


(You know, as I am re-reading this post one last time before I hit the publish button, it occurs to me that I read three superhero comics in August, and all of them are based on Kirby's work. He co-created the Avengers, whose current line-up includes his co-creations Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Black Panther and a distaff version of The Hulk; their base is in a Kirby-created Celestial; in one of the volumes they encounter The Silver Surfer, in another the Deviants from The Eternals appear. The Unkillables doesn't feature any Kirby creations among its many characters, although the premise for the entire DCeased franchise is that Kirby's Anti-Life Equation lead to a zombie apocalypse on Earth when his Darkseid and Desaad tried to control it.)


Avengers By Jason Aaron Vol. 5: Challenge of the Ghost Riders (Marvel Entertainment) The focus shifts to Avenger Robbie Reyes, the newest Ghost Rider, in this volume of Jason Aaron's Avengers run, which is, for this collection at least, now mostly drawn by Stefano Caselli (Luciano Cecchio draws issue #24). I've mentioned before how it's kind of lame that the writer gets their name in the title of the collections, but the artists do not, right? It's kind of lame, but it's also kind of unavoidable, at least as long as Marvel never lets any books have a "regular" artist, instead switching them up every few issues.

After the events of the the third volume, The War of The Vampires, Robbie's not so sure about his Ghost Rider gig, and is ready to give it up for good after a strange, evil disembodied voice comes out of his hellchargernot that of his late, serial killer uncle Eli, but a new, different evil disembodied voicethreatening his little brother.

Turning to his super friends, Robbie hopes they can perform an exorcism on his car and free him of the his Ghost Rider curse, and they call in a specialist, The Son of Satan/Daimon Hellstrom, whom Caselli draws in a terrible new design that includes a bald head, pointy-ears and a long-red goatee sans mustache (To be fair, I don't know if this design is Caselli's, or that of a previous artist who drew Hellstrom in the recent past. Whatever the case, it's far from his original and best look).

The results of the ritual are to 1) Send Robbie and his car to Hell, where current king of hell and former Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze challenges Robbie to a race, and 2) Release the mysterious spirit from the car into the Avengers Mountain itself which, remember, is built within the body of a dead Celestial.

As the action in the mountain resolves itself, the identity of the mysteriously powerful spirit is revealed, and it won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who looked at the cover before reading the book: It's the so-called Cosmic Ghost Rider, writer Donny Cates and artist Geoff Shaw's surprisingly popular creation. I say "surprisingly" simply because CGR is just a blending of a couple of different characters. He's an alternate universe version of The Punisher, Frank Castle, who has bonded with the spirit of vengeance to become an alternate universe version of Ghost Rider, and he has The Silver Surfer's power cosmic. So "What if...The Punisher was also Ghost Rider, with Silver Surfer's powers...?", basically (Unfortunately, he's not as ridiculous looking as he sounds; he doesn't ride a flaming surfboard, for example, but a simple flying space motorcycle).

Having never read any previous appearances of the characterCosmic Ghost Rider, Cosmic Ghost Rider Destroys Marvel History, Revenge of The Cosmic Ghost RiderI was quite surprised to find that he's basically just a Marvel Universe answer to DC's Lobo, at least as Aaron writes him here. His personality is not anything at all like any Frank Castle I've ever read. Instead he's loud-mouthed, belligerent, flippant and incredibly chatty. I half-expected him to say "frag" at any moment (The fact that he can go toe-to-toe with the universe's strongest heroes, rides a flying space motorcycle that comes when he calls it and fights with a chain only solidifies the resemblance).

So while Robbie races against Johnny across the landscape of Hell, with Johnny cheating as much as possible and Robbie receiving aid from all the Ghost Riders past (many of whom, I have to assume, appeared in Aaron's earlier Ghost Rider run), until the Avengers come to a detente with CGR and descend to Hell in order to aid Robbie in his race.

It's as over-the-top crazy as one would expect, given the previous four volumes of Aaron's Avengers, and I liked Caselli's take on all of the characters (Hellstrom aside) quite a bit. Caselli doesn't seem to have hit any plateau, as his art generally looks better each time I see it.

The book ends with what looks like a preview of what's to come, featuring Iron Man stuck in the distant, prehistoric past (Iron Man was off on his own while the others all dealt with the Ghost Rider business), and then a reprinting of Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore's All-New Ghost Rider #1 from the short-lived monthly introducing the Reyes version of the character. It's a somewhat odd inclusion, given that this is the fifth volume of the Avengers comic in which Reyes is one of the main characters, and presumably curious fans would have sought out All-New Ghost Rider Vol. 1 some time ago, but hell, reprints save Marvel money by adding to the page count of the their trade paperback collections, so what are you going to do...?

Avengers By Jason Aaron Vol. 6: Starbrand Reborn (Marvel) This volume kicks off with a one-issue story introducing the prehistoric Avengers' Starbrand, who has previously been portrayed as their answer to The Hulk, one of the occasional origin stories of that team's members that, if the book had a regular artist, might give said regular artist some time off to catch up. That issue, the series' 26th, is mostly penciled by Dale Keown, well-known for his Hulk comics. I suspect he didn't get enough of a head start on it, though, as Andrea Sorrentino draws a two-page sequence, and there are three inkers credited in addition to Sorrentino.

In this story, there appears to be a male Neanderthal and a caveman who are in love, named Vnn and Brrkk (I woulda named them "Adm" and "Stv", because I'm an asshole). They have found a special garden and are happy there...until The Deviants from Jack Kirby's Eternals comics invade. One of the pair of of prehistoric men dies, the other becomes Earth's second Starbrand, following the heels of the first, who was a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

After that issue, Ed McGuinness returns to draw the collection's four remaining issues. It is about as pure a "fight comic" as you can get, with Aaron himself seemingly finding some of the set-up boring, and skipping past a few key scenes to go from Point A to Point C.

Gladiator's people detect a huge swathe of destruction ravaging planets throughout a prison galaxy and the mohawked, caped strongman goes to investigate, leaving instructions to call The Avengers if he doesn't return in a given amount of time. He doesn't, and so Captain America recruits Black Widow to join himself, Thor, Hulk, Captain Marvel, Ghost Rider, Blade and Boy-Thing for a space adventure (Black Panther stays behind on Earth, searching for the now-lost Iron Man).

The source of the destruction is, of course, the birth of the latest Starbrand. Gladiator wants to find and kill said Starbrand. So too do Silver Surfer, Terrax and Firelord, referred to collectively as "The Heralds"  The Avengers have to fight their way through the prison galaxy and then fight all those guys in order to get to and save the Starbrand, an Earthling whose reveal is unexpected in a couple of ways.
McGuinness and Aaron reveal new, if temporary, looks for many of the characters throughout. Hulk gets a new purple-and-black bikini that looks like something Jack Kirby might have designed for Big Barda, although it's supposedly has a new function: It helps her focus her gamma energy into blasts. Captain Marvel gets too close to a white hole, which somehow triggered her old Binary form (" head's on fire now"). Thor was infected by the Brood during the time-jump, and now looks like a particularly humanoid Brood in a Thor costume. Captain America's costume got wrecked in his fight with Thor, and so he wears some Starjammers hand-me-downs. Widow and Blade also get some new threads donned in moments of necessity, but they're kind of cool surprises, and not worth spoiling, nor is Ghost Rider's new, temporary ride (although it is something I was thinking about while reading the previous volume of this series). 

As is usually the case with Aaron and company's Avengers, there's not much to it, really, but what's there is a lot of fun. 

Komi Can't Communicate Vol. 8 (Viz Media) While the bulk of this volume is devoted to a class trip, and all of the hijinks that entailsincluding bathing together, the sleepover-like scene of the students in the hotels and Komi separated from Tadano for long periods of timethe opening pages reveal the aftermath of the rather romantic encounter in which Komi nurses a delirious-with-fever Tadano from the end of volume seven, and introduces a new character with a new quirk, narcissist Naruse (as a boy, his addition to the cast means there's finally enough weird boys that the scene in the boys' bath later in the volume is even funnier than that in the girls' bath). There's also a genuinely tender scene set on the train-ride home that swelled my heart a bit. 

This is still my favorite ongoing manga by far. 

DCeased: The Unkillables (DC Comics) I didn't much care for Tom Taylor, Trevor Hairsine and Stefano Guadiano's 2019 series DCeased, which was basically DC's answer to Marvel Zombies, an Elseworlds-like story which fused elements of Jack Kirby's New Gods comics with Stephen King's Cell for a story in which DC's heroes fought a losing battle against a zombie apocalypse. 

I therefore would have skipped this sequel series, were it not for the most fan-ish of reasons: It featured Batgirl Cassandra Cain, apparently the version from the 2000-2006 Batgirl series, as opposed to the "Orphan" iteration that replaced her in 2015 and hell, I like and miss that character. (As for her presence here, it points to one of the awkward elements of the book; unlike most good Elseworlds/Imaginary Story/What If...? sorts of comics, DCeased didn't start with a familiar status quo and depart from it, but was set in a sort of muddled version of the DCU that seemed to blend the pre- and post-Flashpoint continuity at random).

This, it turns out, is much better than the original series, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, pencil artist Karl Mostert's work is far superior to that of Hairsine. It's crystal clear yet incredibly detailed, and the action sings. Mostert inks some of his pencils himself, although there are three other inkers credited. Rex Lokus colors the book, and it is similarly clear and refreshingly bright; it's not as dark or murky as the original DCeased was, nor, indeed, the majority of DC's current line. 

While the plot isn't any more original than that of the first seriesin fact, in many ways it is even more familiar to the standard zombie survival plotI found it more compelling, perhaps because it slots more easily into the genre.

DCeased showed us how Superman, Batman, The Flash and the other Justice Leaguers dealt with the Anti-Life Equation's zombification of Earth, and how they ultimately fled the planet. Unkillables focuses on the villains, and a handful of other characters who didn't appear in the original series.

So we open with Deathstroke on a job when the plague hits, and he finds his healing factor saves him from zombificationor, at least, when he becomes infected, its temporary. He's recruited by Vandal Savage to join a cabal of villains (and The Creeper) who are essentially waiting things out on a secret island (These include Solomon Grundy, The Cheetah, Captain Cold, Lady Shiva, Bane, Deadshot and Mirror Master, whose powers are used for transportation). 

Meanwhile, Red Hood Jason Todd, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl Cassandra Cain and Ace the Bathound team-up in Gotham City and make their way to Bludhaven, where they find a boarded up school full of orphans they endeavor to protect from the zombie hordes.

When Savage betrays Deathstroke, and Zombie Wonder Woman attacks the island, the survivors of the two groups unite, train the orphans and make a last-ditch effort to escape the school and  head for sanctuary. 

Oh, and Mary Marvel is in it, too. Taylor does a pretty good job of finding little-used, fan-favorite characters and giving them a bit of spotlight in his books (Like, I honestly can't remember the last time I've seen The Creeper in a comic; this version felt way off from the version of the character I thought I knew, but it was still just kind of nice to know the guy still exists, you know?). 


Beetle & The Hollowbones (Atheneum Books) There are a lot of little things about Aliza Layne's debut graphic novel that I likeda limited shape-changing character who keeps a theme in each form, a character who "talks" in comics within the comic, a really cool skeleton cat design, a world full of neat monster background characters like some kind of scary Richard Scarrybut the whole thing is good, too. It was a surprise of a book, as I wasn't familiar with Layne and it wasn't on my radar until it was right in front of me, but it was a very pleasant surprise. 

The Contradictions (Drawn & Quarterly) Sophie Yanow's coming-of-age semi-autobiographical webcomic is now a graphic novel. I wrote about it at The Comics Journal. 

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer (Dial Books) Gillian Goerz's charming graphic novel about a pair of grade-schoolers who team-up to rescue one another from their respective summer camps is a fun little mystery comic, but beyond the case of the kidnapped gecko they embark on solving, there's also the mystery of what, exactly, is up with Shirley and her interest in Jamila. That is, why, exactly, is she so weird? And is she just using Jamila, or does she want to be...friends...?

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