Friday, February 20, 2009

Comics: Ex Machina, Fables and Promethea....

I've been reading some comics lately. I have missed so many, and Lambeth Libraries has such a good selection - at Brixton, Streatham and West Norwood at the very least.

So, what's good?

Ex Machina, written by Brian K Vaughn, and drawn by Tony Harris, is very nice.

Like Paul Chadwick did with Concrete, Vaughn leaves the details of where Mitchell Hundred's powers come from a mystery. The main story is the politics, but the super-stuff is central to what happens.

"How would it be if you had that power?" it asks. The answer is, if this particular man could talk to machines, he'd be a rather average superhero, and then a much more interesting mayor of New York - one who says "Up and away" to lifts, and "Jam" to guns.

There is more than a nod to Paul Chadwick - Vaughn names Hundred's friend Bradbury after a science fiction writer, just as Chadwick's Concrete has a friend called Vonnegut. The drawings lose by comparison with Chadwick's style - Harris is determined to be real, making Hundred's outfit lame, and basing everyone on photos (the models get credits in volume 1). I'm three volumes into this, and want more.

Fables is a winning concept: Fairy tale beings live in exile in the Mundane world - mostly, as tends to be the way, in New York.

The good here is the way Bill Willingham plays with the characters. Prince Charming is (as we should have realised) a serial charmer, divorced from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but still working his charm. Beauty and the Beast live happily ever after - except he is only human when she loves him, and tends to revert when she's cross. That's not convenient after hundreds of years, when you are living in hiding...

There are at least 11 volumes of this saga apparently (and I only just heard of it!). The two I've read are pretty good.

Finally, Promethea is Alan Moore's take on myth. The other two series are comics for entertainment's sake. This one has ambitions and Moore's mighty writing mojo pulls it off.

Promethea is a story - she's from the realm of story, the Immateria. In our world, she is embodied by writers and artists. Literally embodied. Student Sophie Bangs "becomes" Promethea by writing a poem.

When people say comics are mythic, they are saying what they wish was true. In fact they are normally debased, broken myths. This one is the real thing. Moore plays the metaphors brilliantly, nodding to all the misguided pretension about images and ideas in comics, but doing the only thing that should be done: telling a story.

On one level, Promethea is as fatuously simple as Billy Batson shouting Shazam to invoke Captain Marvel, or Diana Prince turning into Wonder Woman. But in Moore's hands it's way better, with multiple threads of woven with the complexity of his Watchmen, and a contrast between reality and the unreal that owes something to Joss Whedon's Buffy. Characters dance in and out, from fairy tales and comics - to take one example, "celebrity omnipath" the Painted Doll is a better, scarier Joker.

And, magically, by taking this story so very seriously, Moore turns it into something far, far more. In volume two a goddess has sex with a magician. For a whole chapter (a whole issue of the original comic series). Before our very eyes. For me, that is a high point in comics - and fairly unusual in any sort of literature. What follows reminds me of the psychedelic comics Marvel tried to do for the whole of the 1970s (Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin, from memory), only done right.

Watchmen is a great comic from more than 20 years ago. It may also be a worthwhile movie (but Alan Moore doesn't want his name on it). Now's a good moment to see what else Alan Moore has done since. We're amphibious creatures, living in the worlds of mind and body, he says. In Promethea (up to ten years old), we're swimming in the deep end.