Tea & Comics: No Heroes

“Tea & Comics” is a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which my girlfriend Dani and I talk about the week’s new comics over a cup of tea. 

This week, we discuss We Stand On Guard #3, Plutona #1, Midnighter #4, and The Omega Men #4.

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A: Neither of us are drinking tea this time . . .

D: But at least we’re not eating pizza! I mean, we just did eat pizza, but we aren’t currently eating it while we’re doing this, unlike the past two or three Tea & Comics.

A: Pizza & Comics just doesn’t sound as . . . cultured.

D: This is a much lighter week – we’ve only got four comics. Actually, only three are on the pull list, but you added a fourth one last minute.

A: It’s true. Plutona was not on the pull list.

D: But that’s not the first one we’re going to talk about. This is We Stand On Guard, and it’s one that we have mixed feelings about.

A: This is by Brian K. Vaughan, who’s a pretty tremendous name in comics – he writes Saga, he wrote Y: The Last Man. The art on this book is by Steve Skroce, who, fittingly, is a Canadian gentleman. Though he’s done lots of comics work in the past, more recently he’s made a name for himself as a storyboard artist for the films of Lana and Andy Wachowski, who of course directed The Matrix and Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. So this book comes with pretty high pedigree, which raises the expectations a little.

D: And it’s got a great premise: almost 100 years into the future, the White House is bombed, and though no one ever took responsibility for the attack, the US government was quick to blame Canada, and retaliate with a full out invasion.

A: Brian K. Vaughan gets to make both a South Park reference, and a pretty clear 9/11 reference; I mean, to this day I’ve never heard any satisfactory explanation as to how 9/11 warranted an invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq given that neither nation was responsible for the attacks. He has the US making the same move here and, it’s not a subtle commentary, but I’ll let him have it.

D: He’s also making a not-very-subtle commentary on the appropriation of the resources, not oil in this case, but water.

A: This is the third issue, so we’ve been given most of the background at this point: our protagonist is a forgettable Canadian girl named Amber, whose parents were killed when the US bombed Ottawa.

D: Throughout, we get flashbacks of her and her older brother, making their way through war-torn of occupied Canada after their parents were killed, but the main plot is happening in 2124, when Amber is now 20-something, separated from her brother, and seeking refuge up in the Territories, which we’re told is the last unoccupied Canadian land. I do think that detail is pretty interesting, because we get to see the dynamic between wilderness and futuristic technology, and there’s even reference to how most of the US’s military technology was designed for desert combat, and doesn’t function as well in the snow and the woods. I thought that was clever.

A: It has it’s moments, sure. By this point, Amber has fallen in with some Canadian rebels, the fightin’ Two-Four. Who are a motley crew of post-apocalyptic sci-fi stereotypes.

D: On paper, the premise of this book sounds pretty great.

A: We’re probably selling it just by describing it.  There’s a lot of ways to take this idea; it’s a premise that you could play pretty straight, but you could just as easily go a more satirical way. Canadian freedom fighters versus giant US robots sounds like a very over-the-top and very fun comic.

Not as fun as it looks. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #3)

Not as fun as it looks. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #3)

D: I could imagine that in a Deadpool comic.

A: Exactly! Now, I’m okay with it being played straight, if it were played straight in a more interesting way. But instead it’s just being played straight in the way Brian K. Vaughan plays straight: with a healthy dose of cynicism. Speaking as someone who actually likes a fair amount of his work, I still describe Brian K. Vaughan as Joss Whedon having a very, very bad day. His characters don’t talk like ordinary people, they quip sarcastically. All his characters are jaded and cynical.

D: It’s like he’s never met an actual Canadian.

A: But he’s married to one! He just writes everyone like that.

How people talk in a Brian K. Vaughan comic. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #3)

How people talk in a Brian K. Vaughan comic. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #3)

D: He’s very interested in the technology in this book. In this issue, we get to see the future of torture, where the US actually has virtual reality technology which allows them to stimulate the brain to make someone think they’re in pain, but without hurting their body at all. Which is interesting and all, but I think he’s put this so far in the future that we don’t recognize these two countries as the same ones they are right now, which kind of dulls the impact of the premise.

A: And I think that really is his first mistake in this. As far as I can tell, he dated the US invasion of Canada in 2112 just to make a reference to Canadian prog-rock band Rush, and not for any narrative purpose.

D: And I didn’t even get that reference!

A: It’s maybe a slightly dated reference. Well, literally dated. Ha! But, like you said, he’s now removed his story too far from current events to be making any meaningful or insightful commentary. He just makes broad, sweeping, heavy-handed comments about war, torture, and the appropriation of resources.

D: He pushes some things so far forward into the future, like the techonology, but keeps some things the same, without extrapolating on present day politics to predict what condition the country would be in one-hundred-years from now. He’s assuming Canada won’t actually destroy our own environment in the same way he’s predicting the US will, even though Canada’s not doing too hot on it’s environmental efforts at the moment.

A: It’s an inconsistent science fiction, which is unfortunate. I’m willing to forgive an inconsistent science fiction if it’s for the sake of making an interesting commentary – I mean, I overlooked a lot of the leaps-of-logic in the film Snowpiercer for that reason – but he hasn’t given us that interesting commentary here that would make me willing to ignore the gaps.

D: This is the third issue, and as we mentioned back in our first week, we give new series a three-issue-test.

A: This is not a bad issue by any means, it’s just very much in keeping with the first two. I mean certainly if you like what you’ve read up until this point, you’ll probably like this issue, too. For a six issue miniseries though, I’m a little concerned that there is little-to-no plot development and I’m still not invested in these characters even a little bit. That’s a bad statistic for your halfway point.

D: We talked last week about We Are Robin, and we mentioned that it’s using a great premise as a bit of a crutch, but it’s a fun book.  This one, too, is using it’s premise as a crutch, but . . .

A: But it’s not a fun book. It reads like Brian K. Vaughan is writing a sci-fi Mad Lib: Pick a future year. Pick Country 1. Pick Country 2. It’s very much a fill-in-the-blank sort of premise. Sure, we’re told it’s the US, we’re told it’s Canada, but there is nothing really to drive it home. And speaking as a Canadian, I am saying that quite literally: this doesn’t feel like Canada to me, the characters don’t read as Canadian. And moreover, the US doesn’t read as the US; they’re just needlessly cruel, sadistic, cold and calculating Brian K. Vaughan villains.

D: And there’s so many missed opportunities! I wish he discussed indigenous peoples – I mean, if you want to talk about water rights and climate change, and set it in the North, it seems big gap to ignore a culture altogether. I mean, obviously he’d have to be very careful to avoid appropriation.

A: We did see one indigenous person in issue #2, who is shown being interrogated. He’s not relevant to the plot.

D: Sure, he’s drawn as having indigenous features and his name suggests indigenous heritage, but I feel it’s kind of a fluke.

A: That’s always Brian K. Vaughan’s approach to race: his comics always have very racially diverse casts, but he almost never actually addresses race in his comics. In most ways, it’s a pretty enlightened approach.

D: It’s like what Geena Davis says about how to write interesting roles for women: you write a character, but you just don’t assume it’s going to be a white man. And normally I’m all about that, but in this instance, it’s a little awkward, because this is the second time in as many weeks where we’ve read a comic with an indigenous character who is in custody for trying to blow up a dam.

Aboriginal men in comics: always trying to blow up a dam or a pipeline. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #2)

Aboriginal men in comics: always trying to blow up a dam or a pipeline. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #2)

A: Is that actually a racial stereotype?

D: I didn’t think so, but now I’m wondering! In any case, if that’s his only aboriginal character, it’s a missed opportunity. Rather than showing people who already know how to live in the Northwest Territories, he simply seems to claim that if you have a big enough gun, you can survive anywhere.

A: And then proceeds to not even talk about gun control, which I’d love to read, as it’s a hot topic in the US right now, because they have had so many tragic shootings with no change to gun regulation whatsoever. And while firearms are currently much more regulated in Canada, we see all these Canadian characters in this comic with a whole lot of guns.

Oh Canada, motherf*cker. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #2)

Oh Canada, motherf*cker. (Art by Steve Skroce, from We Stand On Guard #2)

D: Our next book is Canadian as well, or at least it is written by a Canadian.

A: Yes! This is Jeff Lemire’s new comic from Image. It’s called Plutona, and it’s drawn by newcomer Emi Lenox. And it’s an interesting cross between his superhero work, and his more literary work like Essex County. Most of this issue evokes Essex County’s coming-of-age in a small town, where there’s nothing to do.

D: And if you are living in a small town without a whole lot to do, and if you live in a world where superheroes exist, you can always take up capespotting.

In case you were wondering. (Art by Emi Lenox, from Plutona #1).

In case you were wondering. (Art by Emi Lenox, from Plutona #1).

A: For most of this comic, capespotting is as much superhero action as we get.

D: Most of this issue is introducing us to our non-superheroic protagonists, who are a mismatched group of kids. Each character is introduced in their respective households on an average morning before going to school. The kids are very recognizable archetypes.


A: It’s like an ‘80s movie. The Stand by Me reference is very clear – I feel Jeff Lemire is just embracing the comparison because he knows he is going to get compared to it regardless. This is a story about a group of kids finding a body in the woods, after all. The book is very effective at establishing a sense of familiarity, which is really benefited by Emi Lenox’s art. It’s really fantastic, and looks like a children’s comic. The characters are a bit more cartoonish, with big eyes – it’s very accessible. We’re being lured in with this art style and these very familiar child archetypes. In the hands of a different artist, it would be a much harder comic to palate.

D: It would, because these kids are shits.

A: Yeah, honestly, these children are terrible to each other.

Kids are the worst. (Art by Emi Lenox, from Plutona #1)

Kids are the worst. (Art by Emi Lenox, from Plutona #1)

D: As children tend to be. None are entirely unsympathetic – they’re written very realistically. Not only are they familiar archetype, but they’re also familiar because we all knew kids like this.

A: Despite the fact that the story is named Plutona, it is going to be the kids’ story. That being said, we do get a very short backup feature which is both written and drawn by Jeff Lemire, entitled “Plutona’s Last Adventure,” which we can assume will explain how her body got to be in those woods.

Plutona's Last Adventure (Art by Jeff Lemire, from Plutona #1)

Plutona’s Last Adventure (Art by Jeff Lemire, from Plutona #1)

D: I think this is an awesome comic.

A: Jeff Lemire is a great guy to do this story – he’s very good at quiet, reflective moments, and a great deal of this issue is quiet. There’s a great sequence that takes the kids through their entire school day which is done completely wordlessly. From having read recent interviews with Jeff Lemire, he probably has some superhero demons to work through, because he’s worked on superhero comics a lot the last several years, and he’s expressed that not all of that work was satisfactory, and has even voiced bit of regret in regard to some of his DC work that he doesn’t feel very proud of.

Art by Emi Lenox, from Plutona #1.

Art by Emi Lenox, from Plutona #1.

D: I wonder if finding Plutona’s body in the woods might be a metaphor for superheroes losing their wonder. Because these kids are at that awkward threshold, where they want to be treated like and want to behave like adults; they don’t want to show too much enthusiasm for something in case it’s not cool.

A: And now I’m going to show a lot of enthusiasm for something, and I don’t care if it’s cool or not, because we are now going to discuss Midnighter. This is a book that came entirely out of left-field with DC’s recent relaunch – Midnighter is a character who very much occupies the same corner of the DC Universe as Grayson – and Grayson, actually, makes a guest appearance in this issue. This comic is fun, brutal, stylized, and action-packed, with an engaging and unique, if not-always-likable protagonist. This is the fourth issue, and it’s definitely a very comfortable continuation of that style.

D: The series is a little episodic – in the first issue, we learn that Midnighter has no name and no past, but was enhanced by someone called the Gardener using extra-terrestrial technology. He is still human but he has been implanted with a computer so advanced that he is able to predict or rather anticipate actions before they happen. And now someone has stolen all of the Gardener’s technology and files. Now, Midnighter is on a mission to track down any bad guys who have purchased this stolen tech, hopefully tracking it back to the person who originally stole it.

A: Each issue kind of allows him to take on a different case, a different antagonist – there is a plot that moves forward as he gets closer and closer to tracking down whoever is selling this tech, but in each issue, we get a very entertaining and engaging action-oriented episodes of Midnighter taking on different people of ill repute, and generally having a great time doing it.

Midnighter enjoys his job. (Art by Aco, from Midnighter #4)

Midnighter enjoys his job. (Art by Aco, from Midnighter #4)

D: I almost find the art is a little at odds with the character – I read Midnighter with a rapier wit; he’s always several steps ahead. He’s a little like Deadpool. The art, however, is very detailed, the layouts are very elaborate. It almost slows the story down, when it seems it’s being written as very quickly paced.

A: Yeah, Aco puts a lot of details into his art – it very much reminds me of Andrea Sorrentino’s art on Green Arrow, straddling a lot of different styles, between very stylized, realistic, sketchy, but at times very clear. He’s very good at highlighting certain details, which I think is very effective for Midnighter’s particular skill set because he’s someone who can assess everything around him very quickly. This is kind of the graphical equivalent of those parts of the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films where the action slows while Holmes assesses his next move. I like it, but I can see how it can somewhat throw the pacing, I suppose. But in a book that tonally could be very similar to Deadpool, I like that Aco is doing something so decidedly different from the more animated-style we usually see in Deadpool. Because it would be very easy to try and push Midnighter as DC’s answer to Deadpool.

What Midnight sees when he sees the world. (Art by Aco, from Midnighter #3)

What Midnighter sees when he sees the world. (Art by Aco, from Midnighter #3)

D: It’s true. Ooh, I would love to see Aco’s art in a Guardians of the Galaxy comic.

A: I could definitely see that. I mean, I think in an ideal world Mikel Janin could draw Midnighter as well as Grayson . . . but, let’s be honest, in an ideal world, he would just be drawing everything because he’s great.

D: Except Guardians of the Galaxy – don’t worry Aco, we saved that one for you.

A: Mikel Janin’s art on Grayson, it’s very energetic and it’s very fluid and it would lend itself very well to Midnighter. But in this issue we nevertheless do see a lot of Grayson.

D: I would actually love it if Aco and Janin switched titles for an issue.

A: That would be fun! We are both pretty big Deadpool fans. We loved Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan’s run on it, and I think if you love Deadpool you are going to love Midnighter. But don’t be mistaken – Midnighter is not quite as funny.

D: But he does have a bit more soul.

A: There’s a lot more pathos here: this is a man who is trying very hard to have a life outside of being someone who’s pretty much built for killing.

D: But he doesn’t fool himself – he doesn’t have any illusions as to who he is or what he does.

A: And he doesn’t try to fool anyone else either. That’s kind of an impressive thing. We’ve seen in the past couple of issues him building a new romantic relationship, and you see a lot of vulnerability and a lot of honesty. He is very upfront that he doesn’t have a name or a secret identity. He is only the Midnighter. And that’s a very refreshing depiction of any sort of relationship in a superhero comic – we get so much of the dancing around secret identities in superhero comics when it comes to relationships. I really like the way it’s handled here. The fact that he’s gay and these are relationships with other men is almost downplayed – it’s more interesting for the depiction of relationships than for the fact that they are homosexual relationships.

D: And Midnighter does know how to show a guy a good time – he can take a date to Moscow through an alien secret door whenever he likes.

A: And much of this issue takes place in Moscow. He takes Grayson to Moscow through one of those secret alien door. After kidnapping him.

Date night. (Art by Aco, from Midnighter #4)

Date night. (Art by Aco, from Midnighter #4)

D: Wait, what?

A: Did you read anything about vampires?

D: No.

A: You have not read the current issue.

D: Oops. Well. I am very embarrassed.

A: I asked you specifically if you read the one guest-starring Grayson.

D: And I did! He was in it! For like two pages at the end. There was another issue?

A: Yeah! Issue four! That’s the issue we are talking about.

D: So I actually haven’t read this issue. Sorry again. That being said, I am very much looking forward to reading the fourth issue. It should be really good.

A: This is the one that actually guest stars Grayson, and its amazing. There are vampires.

D: Well, I guess we’re moving onto Omega Men, then. Speaking of a DC comic which came entirely out of nowhere.

A: This is by Tom King, who is a co-writer on Grayson. You can probably guess by now that we are big Grayson fans here. But this is very different in tone from Grayson, and from anything else DC is putting out right now. It’s very much a space opera, but it’s also very political, and the characters are largely religiously motivated, which is a fascinating spin on it. As of this point, it’s hard to know who here is the hero. Because we’ve pretty much seen everyone do terrible things.

D: But what makes the Omega Men so fascinating, is they’re not all of a particular race, they aren’t all from the same planet. They all come from different backgrounds but are united in this cause, very fiercely. They are religious extremists. And that’s something you don’t often see in comic books, let alone a title published by one of the Big Two.

A: Yeah, and in many ways this does remind me of Saga, but the tone is very different. I mentioned earlier in regards to We Stand on Guard that a Brian K. Vaughan comic always reads like a Brian K. Vaughan comic, and that is still true of Saga. This one definitely does not read like a Brian K. Vaughan comic, which is unsurprising, because it’s not. I think that Tom King has a much more sophisticated understanding of politics, which he’d better, given that he used to be a CIA analyst. And there’s just a greater subtlety here I think. This also means that we don’t get the fast talking and quips that we get in our other beloved space operas like Firefly and Saga. This is much more subdued in tone.

D: The whole series started with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, who was dispatched to this particular sector to maintain the peace and facilitate negotiations.

The Omega Men: an introduction. (Art by Barnaby Bagenda, from DC Comics Sneak Peek: The Omega Men.)

The Omega Men: an introduction. (Art by Barnaby Bagenda, from DC Comics Sneak Peek: The Omega Men.)

A: He was then kidnapped by the Omega Men and seemingly executed, though his execution was actually faked and he is still in the custody of the Omega Men. And that takes us to this issue. After three incredible intense issues –

D: Which were beautifully illustrated.

Ladies and gentlemen, Barnaby Bagenda. (From The Omega Men #3)

Ladies and gentlemen, Barnaby Bagenda. (From The Omega Men #3)

A: Yes, the regular artist is Barnaby Bagenda, who is just doing a tremendous job. This issue, issue #4, has a guest artist, Toby Cypress, and the change in art is a little jarring here. But I think what is more jarring to me is that the plot doesn’t move forward at all. Which is really unfortunate.

D: This issue is very much an info-dump. I didn’t mind it so much, because some of the info which is getting dumped tells us a bit about the various planets and a little bit of the history behind what’s going on, and it is really interesting.

A: I just found that it was so much exposition that the story could have done without. I feel like anyone who is here for Kyle Rayner will probably already know most of this background and I feel like anyone who isn’t, probably isn’t interested. I just can’t help but feel we could have learned this information in a much more effective and enjoyable way while moving the story forward.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Kyle Rayner, but were too uninterested to ask. (Art by Tony Cypress, from The Omega Men #4)

Everything you ever wanted to know about Kyle Rayner, but were too uninterested to ask. (Art by Tony Cypress, from The Omega Men #4)

D: But I think if the plot moved forward on an issue with a guest artist, it would seem disjointed and out of place.

A: And I’m sure that was why Tom King made the storytelling choices he made in this issue, but it makes it very much just a filler issue. I can only assume that because of the caliber of the art that we get from Barnaby Bagenda, it probably takes a bit longer to draw each issue, so we will have to tolerate fillers here and there.

D: If this keeps up, I might be inclined to just wait for the trade.

A: Which I don’t want to do, because I absolutely loved the first three issues. I was enormously impressed by them – I loved the art, I loved the writing. Now, as far as I know, Barnaby is back on the next issue, and I’m sure things will move forward effectively from there.

D: And on that hopeful note, we’re done for another week.