Am I back in the country yet? Hopefully I have just touched down with a satchel full of manga, a head full of hazy sake memories and a bank balance wiped out due to terrible conversion rates. Writing from the past is a terrible curse, where things that should have come to pass may well not have, thanks, largely I presume, to Jetstar and the sanity of my AirBNB hosts. We shall see. If I am hacked up in a tiny Tokyo bathtub, tell my dog Beatrix that I love her.
There’s a lot of totally bonkers comics in the column this week (not sure how that happened, I’m guessing sleep deprivation and subconscious fear of freakish death). So let’s go!
COMIC OF THE WEEK : ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN
Frank Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz
I’m pretty sure I first bought a second printing of the collected Elektra: Assassin back in 1989. It was a time when trade paperbacks were largely undesirable objects, a sign that you’d somehow failed as a fan to pick the original, serialised, highly-fetishised issues. My, how comics culture has changed. I do remember that it felt somehow proper to teenage me, having this madness contained in a thick, single volume. It felt fitting somehow, grown up, and was, in many ways, an eye-opener for me in terms of not only accepting the TPB as somehow “legit” (which is weird on so many levels especially since my formative years were filled with European volumes) but also in terms of comics content. Anyway, enough about me.
Elektra: Assassin was and still is, I’m happy to report after re-reading it for the first time in probably fifteen years, one of my favourite Marvel comics ever. A bizarre, about-to-go-off-the-rails-at-any moment epic and an unashamedly loud (my edition has a bright pink back cover with no copy at all) piece of pure comics expressionism. It’s an early look at just how far you can nudge characters that are ostensibly superheroes into unknown territory when editorial bigwigs either trust their talent or simply can’t hold it back.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Elektra: Assassin’s talent was Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz and the editorial bigwigs were Archie Goodwin and Jo Duffy, who hung up her editorial pen after this particular gig as she felt it could never be topped.
Published by Marvel’s now sadly long-dead “mature readers” line, Epic Comics over eight issues in 1986, Elektra: Assassin still feels risky as of today when I closed its covers yet again. A campy ‘60s spy narrative soaked in equal quantities of bad trip visuals, cold war paranoia and pitch black satire, this comic is, even more than the rigid formalism (however ground-breaking) of Watchmen, perhaps the classic example of the mainstream comic being autopsied to reveal the insanity lying at the heart of your all favourite superheroes.
Like the plot from The Omen gone Marvel, The Beast (as in the devil, not the X-Man) stands poised to rise through politics and destroy the world. Daredevil’s long-time foes, the evil ninja clan, The Hand, seek to actively expedite annihilation. Having tussled with the mighty demonic powers of The Beast before, Elektra barely survived with her sanity but is determined to destroy The Beast once and for all even as he stands posed to attain the Presidency in the form of Senator Ken Wind.
Sienkiewicz is gleefully all over the shop, with wonky, angular perspectives and mixed media from pencil to water colour to God knows what to sticking literally doilies on his pages. He successfully pulls off more distinctive art styles in a single work than most comics artists manage in a career. His Elektra is a stringbean, a perfectly long-limbed and wiry death-dealer with rosy cheeks and piercing blue eyes. His villain, the demonic Ken Wind, has the same JFK-esque face copied and pasted onto his body over and over and over again – indicating the artifice of politics and demonstrating the blankness behind the manufactured charisma of those who work within it. He’s a shill, Ken Wind, a robot spouting party lines and pre-prepared speeches, a glorious caricature of a real politician who has become more and more prevalent over the years.
Miller has never been one for subtlety, for better or worse, and just bludgeons his readers with his cynicism here. But this is a Marvel Comic, remember? Since when does subtlety have much of a presence? The facile, straight-forward points he drives home make perfect sense here in this bombastic comic about Daredevil’s ex blowing things up and chopping off the heads of satanic dwarves.
Every character in Elektra: Assassin is awful, unlikable, disgusting, bigoted, evil and psychologically damaged. Its authority figures are cartoonish and cruel, plastic and brain-damaged, particularly its aforementioned politicians who are mercilessly lampooned versions of the fake electioneerers we are sadly all too desensitised to in 2015. Wind is the charismatic yet “faceless” Democratic Presidential Candidate, spouting hilariously pat, scripted soundbites. The Republican President is a visual cocktail of Reagan and Nixon by way of Hunter S Thompson’s artistic collaborator, Ralph Steadman; the embodiment of a power-hungry troll whose sense of being rests solely on the fact that he has not only the might to trigger Armageddon but also the madness to constantly hover his finger over that red button.
Elektra, the hero amongst this parade of psychopaths, killers and monsters enabled either by magic or technology, is a murdering, mind-controlling ninja who brainwashes Agent Garrett, an already repellent and criminally inclined agent of SHIELD with a hilarious toupee and cybernetic parts, into essentially being her sex slave. Again – this is not subtle, there’s a splash page evoking their relationship, as Garrett perceives it, with Elektra as dominatrix astride him, choking him as he yet begs for more. But this is all somehow done with such biting humour – a scene where Garrett tries to undo his brainwashing by trying not to think of Elektra bathing in the very next room but finding nothing but porn on the TV, the ridiculous “caper” feel to its assassination attempt, the hilarious yet still super-cool technology blasting the absurdity of comics yet looking pretty rad as it does so.
Groucho Marx masks are used as disguises, along with nun’s habits, clearly mocking the silliness of spy movie conventions. The mighty SHIELD, now a staple of American popular culture, is mocked for being a militaristic weapons factory, a nightmare of experimental weaponry. With Quasimodo-like dwarves acting as sanctioned torturers, it’s the military-industrial complex writ large and in watercolour. War hero Nick Fury at one point has an arrow pointing downwards to his genitals and tests guns of such massiveness that they somehow mock the work of Rob Liefeld a good five or six years before X-Force even existed.
To this very day, Elektra: Assassin remains a stunningly realised risk from Marvel. It’s massive in scope, madness, experimentation and density. It’s nasty, beautiful and oh so surreal and it certainly will not be fifteen years until I read it yet again.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : NEMESIS ENFORCER: BAD CITY
By Dennis Macheras & Casey Silver
Dennis Macheras and Casey Silver blaze through their character introductions, throwing onto the page a menagerie of combatants that look as though they’d fit quite at home in a Mortal Kombat game whipped up in a frenzy by Rob Liefeld. Clearly, these two care not a whit about anything other than making things look as crazed and kinetic and, frankly, ludicrous as humanly possible.
Characters named 8 Bit Assassin, Slater and Radika rub spiked shoulders and fists with all manner of unnamed warriors in a manner that doesn’t care whether you can follow along as it skips through time like an severely ADD kid with a TV remote or Grant Morrison at his most indulgent (Sorry, I still love you, Grant!).
All this sounds rather negative, I know, but the thing is these guys are totally aware of what they’re doing. I think. They have to be, right? The aesthetic of this comic is just way too cultivated to be some random act of accidental osmosis. See, Nemesis Enforcer: Bad City is actually awesome. “Awesome” is a word I hate being used in reviews as it’s the laziest, most indistinct of superlatives. But there it is, I just popped it in there proudly because Bad City is a bit like Prison Pit for ageing gamers who still have copies of Brigade locked away in Mylar bags. You try and find a more fitting word than “awesome” to describe that.
So what the hell is happening here? Who cares. Is there going to be more of this? Who knows.
All I know is that something called the Nexus Lens is collapsing and the future, with its character dissections, crumbling realities and... uh...pierced dimensional membranes (or whatever the hell that is happening in that last panel), is likely worse than even a place called Bad City can possibly bear.
Hopefully, having created this piece of action comics chaos, the creators just drop their pens and walk away high-fiving, the clap of their unclean hands unleashing a cloud of residual amphetamine from their clammy palms into the air. That’s how it plays out in my head, anyway...
COUNTDOWN TO MOZ METAL: HEAVY METAL DECEMBER 1977
Sixty pages of Phillipe Druillet are contained with HM 12/77, a tantalising prospect, making it the first time that a complete “epic” was told start to finish in this magazine. That’s not the only titbit of trivia you can arm yourselves with from his issue, however, as an except from the novelisation of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is also herein, written by some novice novelist named Steven Spielberg. Yes, Spielberg himself novelised his own film (well, allegedly) and I had no idea…did you? Oh, and Howard Chaykin is in this issue too. Based on that line up, you’d expect Christmas 1977 to be pretty merry indeed.
It was not. There are lumps of coal here, doled out in prettily patterned wrapping.
But before we move on, it’s worth noting that the editorial suggests that this particular issue was poised to reach 250,000 readers. If that’s a serious figure, just take a moment to contemplate it:
Compare that figure for this monthly magazine which featured some incredibly strange, incredibly sophisticated, mainly European material and compare it to the highest selling comics of today. The mind boggles more so than it does when faced with the cosmic existentialism found so frequently within Heavy Metal’s finest pages.
So, anyway, just how are the prose chops of Mr Spielberg? Well, judging from Chapter Eleven of his novelisation, the only chapter included here, he’s a functional and polished enough writer, if given to the sort of clipped, muscular, straight-ahead writing of much of mainstream contemporary fiction, which likely means this book sold in the boatloads. A sample for you, fine reader:
“The tropical twilight was now night. Damp blackness had descended upon them all. And, even though they could no longer see their sadhu, the many thousands continued their chant, forcing it to grow to an almost unbearable intensity.”
Yeah. Not bad.
Chaykin’s work comes in the form of illustrations to accompany an SF-pirate poem told in rhyming couplets by none other than Wolverine’s dad himself, Len Wein. Chaykin’s full colour murals depict exploding spaceships, floating aliens and a grimacing, militaristic man named Ezekial Nash. It’s excellent, purely ‘70s, artwork and does a good job of salvaging Wein’s frankly rather silly poem:
“Aye, pay heed and I’ll tell ye a story,
Of a prize worth more than a jewel,
Of Ezekial Nash, mourned in glory,
And his ship, the poor, doomed…Fortune’s Fool!”
Druillet’s “Vuzz” is told in his looser, scratchier style, which I pretty much unkindly ripped into a few weeks back. Look, even here at his laziest he draws far better than I ever could and I’m not disputing his genius, but you don’t see Moebius slacking with his irreverent material, do you?
Even Richard Corben’s “Den” going all kung-fu and roundhouse kicking fools does little to raise my spirits about this issue and although there are some other glimmers of good stuff within, December 1977 ends the first calendar year of Heavy Metal in largely disappointing fashion when held up to the standards it has set up to this point.
Ah, well. Roll on January 1978, which we shall visit next week and, cheekily peering ahead to next issue’s contents page, I’m confident this psychedelic warship shall be righted once more before the inevitable downslide of the ‘80s arrives to capsize Heavy Metal’s quality for some time to come. Here’s hoping for your sake and mostly mine that Moz Metal arrives well before that.
COMICS VIDEOS(& MUSIC!) OF THE WEEK : BAMBI AND HER PINK GUN, GABA KING SONG NO.2& SHOT THE PINK GUN
Truly, it is a crime against the comics nation state that the work of Atsushi Kaneko is not available in English outside of dodgy scanlations or whatever they’re called. Kaneko’s manga is widely available in French, so I’m a little unsure as to why an artist with such European leanings to his style has been ignored by American comics companies. His work is fast-paced, quirky, violent and highly-detailed. Sure, some other know-it-all will point out that the first two volumes of his first long-form work Bambi were published, in English, by DMP but the project was cancelled after just those first two, never to be reprinted. His subsequent works Soil, Wet Moon and Deathco, remain Englishless in an era where any and all American comics companies with a chequebook have snapped up all manner of manga of much inferior visual qualities and pacing.
It was a guy named Nikolai, a fellow conversational English teacher from Sydney, who turned me on to Kaneko’s work at a 2004 Yeah Yeah Yeahs gig in Osaka. Nikolai dug Paul Pope and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which shows pretty rad taste, so off I went on a book hunt. The seven volumes of Bambi were the first things I made sure I packed when I left the country in 2006.
Anyway, here’s a video some guy made of those first two DMP volumes of Bambi and Her Pink Gun all cut up and spliced back together. As an added treat, I’ve also included two more videos, the first a Kaneko-approved song allegedly sung by Gaba King, the story’s main villain; a corpulent vampiric Elvis who unleashes a parade of grotesque assassins after Bambi in order to retrieve the brattish toddler she’s travelling with. It really does sound like a fat vampiric Elvis singing evilly in Japanese.
Yes, it’s that good.
The third is “Shot The Pink Gun,” a selection of songs inspired by the manga. With bands like Analers (best band name ever), 54 Nude Honeys, Kenzi and The Trips, and Bullshit (second best band name ever), you surely must have 35 minutes to spare to check this out.
Raishu o aishi, anata no manga ga daisuke….Oops, I should be home: See you next week. Love your
Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you’ll likely never read. He’s the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.