Archive for art

Nerd’s Eye Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2012 by Brandon Melendez

 

It’s an easy read but not easily read.

 

I am constantly amazed at the power of the graphic novel.

 

Not all perfect endings are perfectly happy.

 
These are the immediate lines that spring into my mind when I roll over the experience of reading Craig Thompson’s Habibi. I haven’t even allowed myself a great deal of time to thoroughly digest the book and I literally put the book down only minutes ago—but I am moved to write about it right now. In truth, I’ve been writing this review all week as I’ve been stealing and squirreling bits of times to absorb this amazing work (as time to read is not a great luxury when raising two children, the eldest being 2). I’ve made several Facebook posts about it. This book is amazing without qualification.

 

The presentation of the book is eye capturing to begin with—it is a hardcover leather bound book with gold inlays and beautiful Arabic inlays and geometric designs with an amulet of the main characters Dodola and Zam in the middle. Thompson weaves a love story that transcends romance, redefines family, and actually makes you reconsider the entire concept in a story told in a mostly timeless setting with only occasional flairs of the modern world.

 

The devices used to tell this story involve story-within-a-story from (mostly) the protagonist, Dodola—who starts as a young girl sold into marriage to scribe and grows into a woman with a story that defies summary (and I won’t summarize it either because you should certainly go read this book in a spoiler free experience). In the course of her tumultuous life she comes to rescue a black baby who becomes known as Zam while both were enslaved. Through the course of the story Dodola, and later Zam, recount stories of Arabian mythology and of the Qu’ran as they relate to their current predicaments.

 

There is also a lot of time spent exploring Muslim and Arabian numerology and mysticism—which resonated deeply with me along with the Qu’ran stories as they are closely related to Kabalah and the biblical stories of my Jewish upbringing—explaining the divine nature of the letters and numbers and their power to protect and heal.

 

The characters in Habibi are complex and make difficult decisions in situations that often seem to have no positive outcome. There are moments in the story that are truly heart-wrenching and force you to take pause, consider the turns that are being made, the circumstances presented, and make you question your own morality and preconceptions; which brings us to my first postulate: Habibi is an easy read but is not easily read. Had I the luxury for unadulterated reading time I could have knocked this book out in a single sitting. It is an absorbing story that hooks you from the jump—which I know is trite to say but its 100% accurate. However, that is not to say that it is a 3 panel strip of Blondie—like any work of literary value this is a story of consequence which is best described as an experience; a voyeuristic intrusion into the lives of the characters that affects your mind forevermore.

 

The complexity of the story is told in black and white renderings that are at once artful and raw; realistic and fantastical; mesmerizing and thought-provoking. There are times when the scenes are immensily detailed and others where they are open, airy, sparse; the story is designed to accommodate varying levels of reality while remaining consistent stylistically. Interwoven with these images are intricate geometric “magic squares” and wonderful Arabic calligraphy that grounds the often-times maligned Arabic traditions as a true cousin to my own traditions—though even an outsider viewing these concepts as totally “foreign” could easily find the beauty and majesty in the concepts as presented.

 

This should not discount the emotion that Thompson masterfully captures panel after panel. The expressions on the faces of his character speaks volumes more than prose ever could and add life and dimension to even the casts most minor members (a short joke to the flatulent dwarf in the Sultan’s palace). The art itself, in combination with the words create for an emotional experience as well as an intellectual one in ways that I did not expect. I am constantly amazed at the power of the graphic novel.

 

The story is fantastically paced and finds its climax and draws its close in a way that is not at all predictable at the height of its turmoil—though it is not forced. In fact, Thompson has carefully crafted his work to make a surprising yet absolutely perfect ending that does not patronize its reader with magic wands and fairy godmothers. As the story winds down certain pieces of the ending become apparent and clear—revealed rather than predicted—it is thoroughly satisfying without pandering to the need for all to be right again in the universe. It spoils nothing to say that this story serves as a brilliant reminder that not all perfect endings are perfectly happy, the world doesn’t make everything alright just because you struggle, and love is powerful but not all-powerful.

 

I have always been a strong advocate for the literary importance of graphic novels and comic books/strips and Craig Thompson proves me right with Habibi. Furthermore, as this is his most recent work it has inspired me to look into what seems to be his landmark work, Blankets. I would be incredibly disappointed if this book does not receive its due recognition across as many awards ceremonies as possible—it is especially worthy of an Eisner and should be considered for all manner of literary recognition. The book is worth the time of any advocate of the medium, any bibliophile interested in thoroughly timeless and incredibly modern work, and anyone who likes to be challenged in their escapism.

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Three Villainous Superman Analogues

Posted in Comic Books, Entertainment with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2010 by Brandon Melendez

Superman is the most powerful being in all of comic books. You may argue that this is a debatable topic but the end result is simple- Superman always wins. You nay-sayers may want to quote the one time he lost—The Death of Superman—but remember not only did he simultaneously defeat Doomsday, he also returned from the dead. So the collateral damage of that loss is negligible.

Superman is the symbol of American morality combined with a power-set that is simply impossible to comprehend: flight, invulnerability, ice breath, several enhanced visions (x-ray, telescopic, and heat varieties being the most common), super strength, super intellect…the list goes on ad infinitum.

This has often posed a problem for writers. How can you possibly have such a powerful character and keep him challenged? What villain could possibly give Superman—a mortal more powerful than gods (see Superman slugging Darkseid above) a run for his money? Certainly, Lex Luthor has to be given a certain amount of credit in this respect; he is and always will be Superman’s opposite number—but what I am referring to here is blow-for-blow battle. It is very difficult to keep a character interesting when he can literally swat all opposition away like flies if he so chooses.

In rectifying this problem there are generally two solutions writers have come up with over the years:

1)    Invent a character with almost no back-story with a mysterious and amazing level of strength

Or

2)    Have Superman fight some analogue of Superman.

Neither of these approaches has developed any truly challenging or long lasting adversity for the Man of Steel. To avoid going into the depressingly endless list of Superman rouges that either don’t fit these two solutions or fit the bill for solution one lets just say the cream of the crop is Mr. Mxyzptlk and “kltpzyxm” that whole discussion. (I will discuss Mr. Mxyzptlk one day: how awesome he is, how poorly he has been used, and how sad it is that I didn’t have to look up how to spell his name…but not this time around.)

As far as analogues of Superman go there are three of worthy note: Bizarro, General Zod, and The Cyborg Superman.

In order to explain these characters one has to choose their history well—as it is with all things DC Universe these characters may have origins that have changed drastically over the years, without explanation, and occasionally without reason.

The first I’ll discuss is Bizarro. Bizarro first appeared in an issue of Superboy during the 1950’s in which a scientist used a “duplicating ray” on Superboy. As all advanced technology was composed of rays and tubes in the 50’s this isn’t surprising. The character was devised to be a strange cross breed of Superboy and Frankenstein. He was later packaged and repackaged again during the Silver Age as being an “imperfect copy of Superman” eventually being reduced to his imperfect “Me no am Bizarro” style of speech. Besides having negative-Yoda syntax Bizarro also has “opposite” Superman powers…sorta. He has “freeze vision” instead of “heat vision” and “flame breath” instead of “freeze breath” or “super breath”. This is where Bizarro really starts to lose anything remotely resembling continuity. If he were to have reverse Superman powers the opposite of “flight” is “walking”, the opposite of “super hearing” is “deaf”, and the opposite of “invulnerability” is “weak as a kitten”. Also for some reason the kryptonite that effects Bizarro is blue even though the opposite color of green is red. Maybe this is where “imperfect” comes into play? So as to have the weight of “opposite” removed? There have been really great uses of Bizarro, I’m sure of it. The late 1990’s Superman show is one triumph, where as the Superfriends version is an utter fail. The best use of Bizarro in my opinion has always and will always be in the “Emperor Joker” storyline. While I will hopefully, one day, get to talking about this story in full I have to say it is one of my favorite Superman stories ever; the Joker has gained omnipotence by duping Mr. Mxyzptlk and runs amok with the entire universe. In the end though, Bizarro is a cheap laugh at best. Him is the best villain never. Or, I guess…well you get the drift—his usage is limited, his character development is impossible, and his backward “S” logo is…well that’s about all he’s got.

Next, let’s talk about General Zod. If you’ve ever seen Superman: The Movie and Superman 2 you know all about Zod and to KNEEL BEFORE ZOD. KNEEL BEFORE ZODGeneral Zod is a much better anti-Superman than Bizarro for a great variety or reasons. His characterization varies from being a Kryptonian Hitler to being a military leader concerned primarily with the protection of his people. At the end of the day both Superman and Dru-Zod (that’s his name by the way) are both holding an olive branch but while Superman will try to extend it, General Zod will use it as a switch and beat you into pudding. Most fans become familiar with General Zod, as I said before, from the start of Superman: The Movie. “You will bow down before me, Jor-El. I swear it,” these lines are burned in my mind more clearly than the pledge of allegiance, “No matter that it takes an eternity! You will bow down before me! First you! And then one day…YOUR HEIRS!” For me these are the most important lines Mario Puzo ever wrote and could have only been made better if Al Pacino were maniacally shouting them at Brando’s Jor-El. But I could also say that of the pledge of allegiance, or even the Mourner’s Kaddish—everything is better with Pacino maniacally shouting it…but I digress.

General Zod has been portrayed across several media besides the Superman movies. He has appeared in the novel “Last Days of Krypton” and, in some form, on “Smallville”. First and foremost Dru-Zod is a character from the early 1960’s and fell in and out of use. He was released from the Phantom Zone prison by Superboy but was quickly returned after he tried to…y’know…make everyone kneel before him. After the movies and DC entered the “Post-Crisis” era, Zod and his cohorts Ursa and Non were depicted as being from a pocket universe and Superman had to execute them using kryptonite which led to his vow “never to kill again” (except when he does so inadvertently, to protect his own life, or when killing sentient robots).

Recently, Zod was given quite an overhaul in the maxi series “World of New Krypton” in which 100,000 or so Kryptonians were found to be alive in the bottled city of Kandor. After all sorts of goings-on that kept them from living peacefully on Earth these Kryptonians decided to live on a planet they generated or garnered or whatever in a complete opposite orbit to Earth (see Marvel’s Counter-Earth of “Heroes Reborn” for another use of this concept). On “New Krypton” the surviving Kryptonians set up their society as it once was. Superman is drafted into the military guild and is forced to serve under its leader…that’s right Dru-Zod.

In this storyline General Zod was developed from being a one-dimensional character with meaningless and banal megalomania to being a complex and intelligent tactician with a paternal need to protect his people. This was one of the better Superman stories of the past twenty years—but only if you can cope with the fact that there are literally one hundred thousand supermen in it. The central characters are Zod and Superman as well as Superman’s aunt Alura, his cousin Supergirl, among other Kryptonians. I won’t spoil the story here but it is far more interesting to see Superman and Zod have character conflicts and not just super powered ones. By the end of the story you have a sense that Zod is not just Hitler with heat vision but a character with motivations, reason, and room to grow for future stories; but of course at the end of the day he is just an evil Superman…as evidenced as by his “evil twin” beard.

Then of course, there is the ever awesome if not poorly named “CyborgSuperman”. The Cyborg Superman is a big reason for why this article was written…but more about that later. His story starts in the early 1990’s as astronaut Hank Henshaw. Henshaw, his wife, and two compatriots go into space in a rocket ship and are effected by some kind of space radiation and start developing all sorts of abnormal side effects to that energy. If this story sounds familiar it should—its a heavy handed nod to the Fantastic Four. Except in this story things to horribly wrong. Their version of the Human Torch turns radioactive, loses his mind, and commits suicide in the sun. Their version of The Thing discorporates entirely. Henshaw’s wife phases out of this realm of reality and disappears. Henshaw’s body deteriorates and dies…but his mind lives on IN MACHINES!!! Somehow, Henshaw manages to blame the whole ordeal on Superman and vows revenge.

Some years pass and the Hank Henshaw character disappears into the open ended plot galaxy when he escapes into outerspace in some appropraited kryptonian technology. Superman dies in battle with Doomsday and four mysterious replacements show up after the funeral. One of these replacements is The Cyborg Superman who, unbeknownst to all, is actually the now villianous Hank Henshaw. Because of the kryptonian technology he adapted into his physiology all tests show that he is kryptonian. This leads to him being the “offically accepted” Superman for the United States Government.

Henshaw then calls in his alien force from Warworld with his lieutenant, Mongul, to destory Coast City. The Cyborg’s game is then relayed. He wants to tarnish Superman’s name and symbol forever and will kill all of Earth, and turn it into another Warworld at the same time. With millions dead under the banner of the House of El the other three Superman replacements along with the recently ressurrected (yet depowered) true Superman go to war with the Cyborg.

You would think this would be a set up for an amazing Superman villian for years to come but I have neglected to mention one little fact: Coast City was Green Lantern’s town. As a matter of fact the actions of Cyborg Superman in the Reign of the Supermen storyline leads to the fall of Hal Jordan. The Fall of Hal Jordan leads to the destruction of the Green Lantern Corps at the Hands of Hal Jordan, Jordan becoming possessed by the entity Parallex, attempting to destory all of time and rewrite it in his image (see Zero Hour: Crisis in Time), and the eventual undoing of all those things. Without Cyborg Superman the last sixteen years of Green Lantern stories would have NEVER happened while Superman stories would have by-and-large gone off without a hitch. This is what prompted me to write this article.

Cyborg Superman is barley worth mentioning in the Superman mythos outside of the ressurection of Superman. It is, however, arguable that until very recently with The Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night that Cyborg Superman had the more impact on the course of Green Lantern comics than any other villian. Even including the Sinestro Corps War because Henshaw was a member of the Sinestro Corps.

The success of this analogue of Superman in the arena of another superhero makes one wonder about the success of lesser chracters in Superman’s rogues gallery. Could it be that Atomic Skull is a great villian going up against unfair odds? How would he fair against Blue Beetle or even Green Arrow? Would Mr. Z or Shockwave give Firestorm a run for his money? Maybe Superman has a great rogues gallery that is just not great in comparison to the Pi-times-infinity of awesome that is Superman.

I have no doubt that most of them are not indeed great. Riot, for example, is Madrox the Multiple Man with a bad case of insomnia-induced-mania. He is defeated by sleep. I don’t even know why this character was created. It does however make you think twice about at least some of his villians. Perhaps against other heroes they may have had an impact, or at least a chance to be a quirky c-list favorite like the Mad Hatter.

At the end of the day Batman and Spider-Man have the best rogues gallery hands down— from classics like The Joker to The Green Goblin and The Penguin to Doctor Octopus along with The Riddler, The Kingpin, Bane, Venom, Hush, Sandman, Clayface and undeniably the likes Doctor Doom and Ras Al Ghul. You just can’t top them. (I don’t mention the X-Men because their foes aren’t rogues, they are most often political adversaries…its really a whole different thing with them.) By contrast Superman arguably has the worst; barring those mentioned here plus Lex Luthor, Metallo on a really good day, and Darkseid all of whom are easily derailed if not dispached—easily that is for a mortal that could smack the piss out of Zeus. But maybe they should have just stayed the fuck out of Metropolis and they would have been far more successful.