Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Quitting the Nairobi Trio or: An Un-review of Divinity #2 (with Keith Silva)


KEITH SILVA: [Lead] I am a forty-one-years-old, by all accounts, a grown-ass man. When it comes to superheroes, my sell-by date has long passed, in other words, I’m not buying (much).

[Penitent lead] Elkin, I’m sorry. I fucked up. I don’t know what else to say. I thought I was ordering spaghetti with marinara. Instead, I got egg noodles and ketchup.

[Apostolic lead] Forgive me, Elkin, for I have sinned, it’s been … too long since my last confession.

Let’s start at the start: a month ago I said Divinity #1 is the best book of 2015 , so far (editor's note -- Keith waxes rhapsodic about Divinity on the Panel Culture podcast at the 17:30 mark). And then, as the kids say, this (the ‘this’ being Divinity #2) happened:

Pro tip: hyperbole is a bitch, kids, especially when it comes time to collect.

Apply whatever ‘trusty’ metaphor fits: the football gag from Peanuts, the folktale about scorpion and the frog/turtle or the thing about how resentment is, you know, like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Divinity #1 gave no indication it tied into the Valiant Universe except, I guess, that that’s a given nowadays. I don’t know why I thought Divinity was going to be … different, a standalone story, untethered to universality, un-shared with the rest of the Valiant Universe. Obviously, I was a fool. I’m clapping on the one and three (again) while everyone else is pounding their feet to the backbeat of shared universes and king continuity. Why couldn’t Divinity have been different?

I’ve sampled a couple of the Valiant Comics relaunch titles -- Shadowman (twice), X-O Manowar – and quickly gauged these were garden variety superhero fare with varying degrees of success. Why is Valiant doing what Marvel and DC already do so well and with names brands we’ve all known since we were whelps suckling at the teat of Stan Lee and that degenerate Bob Kane. Coincidentally, it’s like the Seinfeld episode titled “Bizarro Jerry,” when Elaine tells George, “I'm, I'm sorry … We've already got a George.” Nothing succeeds like success so why wouldn’t Valiant want to follow Marvel (Disney) and DC (Warner Bros.) into mainstream middle-brow multiplex mediocrity? Get while the getting’s good, I suppose.


I remember your end of the year essay for Loser City, Elkin, about your waning enthusiasm for Valiant. You wrote:
“I know the fault lies with me, not them. Perhaps it’s a hypersensitivity to whatever smacks of crass consumerism bred from having grown up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas where everything is plastic and everyone is trying to sell you something. Maybe I should lighten up and be more accepting? Oh, that’s right, John Lydon also said, “Turn the other cheek too often and you get a razor through it.
Your use of the Lydon quote, genius on all counts. So why are we here … Again?
Divinity #1 has the two things I need in a mainstream comic: an original premise and a crackerjack creative team. With comics like MIND MGMT and Red Handed: The Fine Art of Small Crimes, Matt Kindt dazzles readers with original and many-layered stories no other writer or cartoonist is telling. Divinity makes for a worthy addition. Kindt imagines a communist cosmonaut, Abram Adams, who returns to Earth after being sent to the farthest shores of outer space where he encounters (the solicit says with grave import) “something unknown. Something that … changed him.”

Kindt’s script is brought to life by Trevor Hairsine (penciler), Ryan Winn (inks) and David Baron (colors). Together these three artists bring warmth to the far frigid reaches of space. Hairsine is a realistic stylist (is that a thing?) a cartoonist who’s figures are artistically classical in the style of Frank Quietly. Winn and Baron act as twin sparks bringing Hairsine’s pencils to life with depth and humanity.

One more thing, Valiant has released Divinity in what they’re calling a ‘prestige format,’ basically the look and feel of how Dark Knight Returns read, in singles. Nostalgia achievement unlocked!

When Valiant’s “Avengers” showed up, my heart sank. I immediately became Hannibal Lecter chiding that young upstart Clarice Starling through the glass. (with apologies to Ted Tally) I thought, “No, no, no you were doing fine [Kindt et al.] you had been courteous and receptive to courtesy. You had established trust with the black soviet cosmonaut who turns people into butterflies and birds, and now this ham-handed segue into your ‘shared universe.’ Tut-tut-tut. It won’t do.”

This is so much pissing into the wind, but why does Valiant, a publisher without the yoke of a corporate overseer around its neck, have to copy what Marvel and DC are doing with (almost) every property? Why can’t they be different … with even one comic? You know, this shared universe thing … it’s gonna’ get old, it already is old. People will tire of it eventually, right? Why not create something new?


For me, Divinity went from high-concept Dickian sci-fi to (slightly) above average superhero saga with that one panel. Look, I know I’m coming off as the dick and, yeah, I know, if mainstream superhero comics aren’t for me then why’d I buy a mainstream superhero comic? Maybe because I thought this time it was different and this was the Valiant book for me, for the guy who doesn’t need a cohesive comic book universe (is that a thing?). Oh, and to seem even more out of step and old, watch The Nairobi Trio, it’s an old Ernie Kovacs skit (who?) about what conformity gets you (if only Valiant could ever be as creative). I bet someone like say … Matt Kindt could come up with something as creative, inventive and smart.

I like to style myself an optimist. I want to spend my time writing about comics I care about. Maybe, Elkin, it’s best for me to remember the actions and sentiment of a young Hopey Glass and be done.

DANIEL ELKIN: Preach, brother, preach.

I hated myself. I had created nothing, I belonged to nothingness, to the néant, and it seemed to me that my own death was the only thing left that I could create.
― J
ohn Fowles,The Magus

Oh Silva, I hear you. Perhaps the lines around our eyes are not so much a product of our getting older, but rather from our endless proclivity for grimacing. Disappointment, apparently, ain’t just a young man’s game.

See, yeah, you sold me, my friend. I eagerly bought in, too. When you waved Divinity in my face, I perked up like a puppy catching a whiff of somebody cooking a Monte Cristo sandwich. Here it was, something slick and something … well … not quite new, really … but something laying a clean, fresh shag carpet over what is, for all extents and purposes, a well-worn path through the living room of comics. It was something beautiful to behold. Thick. Full of the possible. I, too, followed your lead and got excited about this book.


Issue #1 was like a glitter bomb of promise. Kindt was racing around the house opening windows, letting all the smells of potential rush in; he compelled his reader to slow down and to detach from plot in order to revel in potentiality. Hairsine’s pencil work pulled me in at all angles and perspectives and emotional heft carved into faces. Winn’s inks accentuated and deepened Hairsine’s dynamism and both the grandeur and the solitude of moments. And don’t get me started on the subtlety of Baron’s coloring work; here is an artist who understands what color is in terms of narrative intent and whose deft palette brings cascades as much as it brings quiet.

It was exciting.

And then, yeah, issue #2, that thing that happened….

What started with such promise became stained and matted in a matter of moments when the green ink of the money chase spilled from its pages.

I quoted Lydon before. Now, I’ll step back even further. “Such are promises, all lies and jest.”

The whole experience smacks of getting back together with an ex and, after only twenty-four hours, remembering all the things that drove you apart. You can’t blame the other for whom they are, you can only rip into yourself for your infinite capacity for hope.

Which calls for a moment of self-reflection, doesn’t it? What is our relationship with our expectations? Who are we to demand a certain type of art from our artists? By constantly being teased back by hype, by hope, by Aaron Meyers to sample some corporate property only to be reminded over and over again of that Yeatsian admonition that “the falcon cannot hear the falconer,” what pathology does this indicate within us?

What need are we trying to fulfill?

Before moving forward, though, I have to wade tight through the past. See, I came back to comics after over a decade of abstinence. On the surface, the impetus of my return was the birth of my son. I was going to become somebody’s “Dad” and, like so many others, the enormity of that triggered all sorts of chemical reactions in my amygdalae.

Why did this synaptic explosion lead me back to the likes of Spider-Man, Thor, Wolverine, and their ilk though?

Was this return to Marvel properties a result of my desire to bring to my child something I knew gave me comfort and pleasure and dreams when I was young once too? Or was it like Lou Reed sang, “A little me or he or she to fill up with my dreams, a way of saying life is not a loss”? Or was it a desperate attempt to reclaim some selfish innocent moment or passion in the direct face of the fact that time had, yes, moved on, youth was gone, I had officially become a “man”?

You know as well as I do that there’s always someone out there who is happy to point a giggling finger at a middle-aged reader of superhero comic books and declare him or her as someone stunted in their development, a weak-kneed Peter Pan afraid of death or hiding from the onslaught of responsibility foisted upon us.

But that’s not it, really, is it? That doesn’t shove its thumb into the heart of the matter. At least I don’t think so…

Because ultimately, Silva, these sorts of books full of super-heroic shenanigans leave guys like you and me feeling hollow or bored or cheated out of something. It’s like we are flailing in a leaky rowboat, desperately scanning the horizon for some sight of land only to be tossed further and soaked through by an indifferent sea.

But is the onus of this on Valiant or Kindt et al?

No. The fault, dear Silva, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.


Which then begs the larger questions: What are we doing with these sorts of books and why do we keep doing it?

SILVA: “but in ourselves …” indeed, indeed. The irony that Divinity is about a character with the power to grant someone their deepest wishes and desire is not lost on me.

There’s no need for explanations, navel-gazing, or hand-wringing. It’s time to be a grown-ass man: I got duped. How I came up with the notion Divinity was going to be the Ronin of Valiant I don’t know, but I did and 1861 words later, here we are. I got suckered in by marketing and a pretty face, not the first time and sadly it won’t be the last.

Cassius was right, again.

I’m not bent-out-of-shape that Divinity became a superhero story, not really. What bothers me is it’s another example of the homogeneousness of mainstream comics. Abram is Valiant’s Galactus, right? As far as Valiant is concerned it’s still March 1966 (!).You can’t repeat the past, right Elkin? Has diversity in mainstream comics gone to ground ... is it all at Image Comics now?

I can’t come up with the right metaphor to convey my frustration with what I see as new lamps for old and add to my frustration why most of my peers are okay with this sameness. I embarrass myself with how much I sound like Annie Wilkes from Misery when she recalls the ‘chapter plays’ or ‘cliffhangers’ (I know that, MR. MAN!) from her days in Bakersfield; and that one time she stood up to excoriate her fellow fans of ‘Rocket Man’ for having amnesia, shouting, “he didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie-car!” I don’t want to be Annie Wilkes. First I think I'm Hannibal Lecter and now Annie Wilkes, wow.

While I higgledy-piggledy borrow one phrase and one You Tube link after another from pop culture I might as well not break precedent: “follow the money.” Valiant is doing what they need to do to rally their tiger teams as they leverage this best practice to align with their corporate values and marketing strategies to make hay in this very scalable marketplace. I look forward to when these paradigms shift and we see a sea change away from this model of shared fictional universes. But that’s me.


It’s time to quit the Nairobi Trio, Elkin, for good this time, I hope. I’m tired of getting knocked in the head. But absolutes are like hyperbole, you feel it the next morning. Superhero comics aren’t Comics and that’s the difference. Divinity serves as only the latest reminder the art form of Comics is more powerful, deeper and richer, than its puny superhero origin stories.

Elkin: Oh, Silva. I see you there high up on the mountain-top with your long, white beard dancing in the wind, your arms akimbo, your feet planted firmly in a shoulder-width wide stance, shouting down at the people populating the valley below, “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same; whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse!” And yeah, I know there is a certain irony to quoting Zarathustra given the context of this “review,” but I guess I just wanted people to know that there is still one type of Übermensch I can get behind.

My worry, of course, is that people will read all our words here and think the two of us sound either like petulant, slick-bearded hipsters or wrinkled, drool-spattered curmudgeons. But that's the risk you have to take to be true to your craft.

Still...

I'm with you 100%, my friend. Let us follow the words of 1 Corinthians 13:11 and “put away childish things.” Instead of questioning the whys of our disappointment or the wherefores of our apperceptions, instead let us use our tools to celebrate that which we enjoy.

Because there is so much out there that isn't disappointing.

Have your read Generous Bosom by Conor Stechschulte? Or Ann by the Bed by Emily Carroll (in Youth in Decline's Frontier #6)? Did you know that Elijah Brubaker recently put out issue #12 of his series Reich? Or that Sean Ford is working on issue #6 of his Shadow Hills series?

These are the type of comics we can get excited about because these are the kind of books for us. These are the capital-”C” Comics that you are talking about, the ones that use the tools of trade to tell a story, not massage a brand.

Let's not worry about the men we've become. Rather, let's celebrate the men that we are.

Let's smile and grin at the change all around and, hopefully, we won't get fooled again.

And of course there is certainly a place for comics like Divinity – ones that are trying their best to be interesting and original and beautiful and true, caged as they are in the confines of corporate dictums and IP shepherding. There's nothing inherently wrong with what Kindt and Hairsine are doing with this book. A matter of fact, given what it is (or, I guess in our sense, what it turned out to be), it's a gorgeous thing to behold. Top-notch. Top-shelf. Top-dog. Top-of-the-world, ma.

It's just not what we want.

So yeah, nearly 2,700 words later, here we are stepping off our soap box or dismounting from our high horse or climbing down the stairs of our ivory tower or whatever it is that we are doing here and coming back to the thought that we keep reiterating in so many different formats: Comics are an enormous Luby's Cafeteria where everyone can come and find something delicious to eat, from a slab of Chicken Fried Steak to a plate of Carrot and Raisin Salad to a slice of Chocolate Ice Box Pie. You can pick and choose what you like, then sit down and enjoy your meal.

Just don't put a plate of Blackened Tilapia in front of me and tell me it's Blackened Chicken. I'm not going to be happy when I put it in my mouth.

P.S. And yeah, full disclosure: Just so you know, I signed up over on Comics Bulletin to participate in this huge all-staff undertaking of examining DC's 1985 crossover/event money shot Crisis on Infinite Earths (Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again!) which represents pretty much everything we've been bemoaning here. And I know this makes me seem like every type of hypocrite there is and for which I have no explanation other then having a propensity to agree to things in the evening after drinking gin all afternoon....

It'll be great, though...

Right????

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Keith Silva is a writer, photographer, and producer for a long-running locally produced Vermont television extravaganza. Follow him on Twitter @keithpmsilva

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