Morrison/Quitely’s All-Star Superman

(A modified version of this was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2008.)

All Star Superman

It ‘s interesting (and a little surprising) to note that flagship characters like Superman or Mickey Mouse, both of whom have been around for the greater part of a century, have very little in terms of memorable stories starring them. More so in case of Superman, whose universal recognizance is equated with one-dimensionality, whose corporate image is so strong that just last month, a Superman comic whose cover showed Clark Kent sharing a beer with his father was pulped and reprinted, the label on the bottle on the new cover saying “soda pop” instead. There’s also the problem of the storytelling engine associated with the character – Spider-man has a low bank account and woman problems, just like the rest of us; Batman is dark and psychologically complex enough to appeal to the insecurities of the valium generation, but Superman – a god-like being whose sympathies lie with the human race, whose limitless powers are channeled for the betterment of mankind – pisses off our cynical selves. We just cannot wrap our minds around the concept. Superman is boring. Superman is a square.

Grant Morrison does not agree. A Scottish writer known for his 90s’ revamp of half-forgotten Silver Age DC characters like Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Morrison took up the reins of coming up with a distilled version of the Superman character. Morrison’s vision of Superman is one that is unencumbered by all these years of continuity baggage. He expects the reader to be onboard from the get-go – succinctly displayed by his recounting of the familiar origin in four phrases, on four panels, on one page. Morrison’s Superman was in no way removed from the iconic character we know. Nothing is different, yet everything is new. These twelve issues of All-Star Superman are, without doubt, the greatest Superman story ever written.

An origin in four panels.

Dying Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.

The first thing that hits you when you read All-Star Superman (and I recommend you do so in a single sitting, for optimal effect) is the chutzpah of the writer. The overall arc, made up of single and double-issue stories, revolves around the idea of Superman’s own mortality. In the first few pages, Superman discovers that he is dying, because of a trap laid down by his arch enemy Lex Luthor. Before his death, he has to conclude his earthly affairs and, according to a messenger from the future, must accomplish twelve feats that will save multiple universes. As the story progresses, we travel galaxies, dimensions and time-lines with the Man of Steel, as he battles his own fate and finally surrenders to it. The last few issues proceed at a break-neck pace (and yet, with moments of quiet calm) to an ending that reflects grief, awe and hope.

In an industry primarily known for recycling themes, Morrison spews out fresh, hallucinatory ideas in every other page. Throw-away lines speak of voluminous histories – characters like the Subterranausauri, led by Dino-Czar Tyrannko, the Ultra-Sphinx, Zibarro, Luthor’s assistant Nasthalthia ( “call me Nasty!”), super-scientist Leo Quintum could stand on their own and provide fodder for years and years of super-stories.  While these new additions to the Super-stable, along with the familiar members of the cast – Jimmy Olsen and his signal watch, Lois Lane, Perry White, the Kents, the Phantom Zone, the Bottle City of Kandor, Krypto the Super Dog – have integral parts to play in Morrison’s epic, the storyline is still about Superman. The coolest thing about the writer is the way he gets the Man of Steel like no one else before him has. (Consider a  line like this – “As she spoke, I watched 35000 dead skin cells scattering like confetti…like promises…like the dust of dead stars”.)

 It is to artist Frank Quitely’s credit that he takes all of Morrison’s ideas and brings them to life. Quitely, Morrison’s long-time collaborator weaves the writer’s threads into a shining tapestry of lines and colors; his Superman is lazy-eyed and self-assured, godly and yet human. His traditional panels – a far cry from his anti-geometric experiments evident in WE3 and Flex Mentallo, gives the story a quiet dignity, just as his full-page splashes punctuate its most unforgettable moments. A teenage Superman flying to save his father is just as hard to forget as the image of the Man of Steel kissing Lois on the moon. Jamie Grant’s colours over Quitely’s unique pencils permeate the book with a distinct glow, one that makes it stand out from the profusion of muddily-colored superhero books on sale nowadays.

“Not my pa”

A kiss on the moon

Not that the book does not have its share of negatives. For as good a writer Morrison is, he is also too clever sometimes, deliberately opting for confusing panel transitions and obfuscated storytelling to bombard us with his postmodern interpretation of the Bizarro world – where we encounter Zibarro, the Bizarro Bizarro. (2013 update: I have warmed to the Bizarro storyline since I read it last) I also have a problem with portraying Lex Luthor as a self-important, deluded buffoon; in seeking to inject his stories with the flaky trippiness of stories from the 50s, Morrison undoes the depth the character has been imbued with over the years. But that’s just my inner nerd whinery, never mind.

There have been some good Superman stories over the years, of course. But for one or two meaningful stories, the monthly comics are rife with hackery, wherein writers tried to come up with gimmicks to appeal to fans – Superman died, was resurrected, got a new hairstyle, got married, got a new costume with electrical powers, had multiple reboots of his origin. Of course, none of it really stuck. All-Star Superman, on the other hand, is everything the monthly Superman series is not, and should have been. It is a moving story of a hero that has withstood half a century of cultural ripples. A hero who is not one of us, but one we can aspire to be.

Comics, Manga, Reviews

Great Teacher Onizuka: A Review

This was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2009. Dusted and put up here because I plan to do a mega-reread of the series in the next few days.

Writer/Artist: Tohru Fujisawa
Publisher: Tokyopop
Rating: Four and a half stars

Meet Eikichi Onizuka, a bottom-rung university graduate (barely), whose primary interests are peering up girls’ skirts at local malls and getting into trouble – not mutually exclusive activities, those two. But fate has different plans in store for virginity-challenged young Eikichi – circumstance makes him leave his delinquence behind him and opt for a new career, that of an educator. Eikichi Onizuka, 22 years old, sets out to become Great Teacher Onizuka, the greatest sensei in Japan. His mission: to make school fun again. His secondary mission – getting to fourth base with someone. Anyone.

That is the premise behind this beloved shonen manga series, that traces Onizuka’s explosive – and often ludicrous – adventures in teaching. At first glance, it seems humanly impossible for a man of his calibre to really do much with his career choice. He cheated his way through his own academic career, seemingly has an IQ of 50, and the only legitimate qualification on his misspelled resume is that he has secured a second dan black belt in karate. He is perverted, being more than a little obsessed with young girls and their underwear. And he lets his fists do the talking most of the time. The first arc of the series establishes how Onizuka, beating all these odds, manages to get through a teacher training course at a public school and becomes a temporary teacher in the Holy Forest Academy, a prestigious private institute. He is put in charge of Class 3-4, whose students have terrorized the previous three home-room teachers into ending their careers – one committed suicide, another developed an eating disorder. It would take a very foolhardy, or a very determined educator to take up the responsibility of cleaning the school’s Augean stables.

But determination is what Onizuka has in spades. “You are a cockroach”, one of his students shrieks at him with disgust, right after the would-be teacher pops up where he wasn’t really supposed to. This analogy echoes throughout the series. Like a cockroach, Onizuka wiggles himself into his students’ lives even as they hurl expletives at him and threaten (and often perpetrate) violence against his self. Just as a cockroach skitters away from all attempts to stomp it out, our hero manages to best all the traps his devilish students cook up – from publishing morphed porno pictures of Onizuka to having him framed for embezzling money from student funds. And slowly, one by one, our hero wins them over using a combination of his perversely inappropriate world-view and his incredible physical prowess.

All long-running series by single creators run into similar teething issues – an initial rush of heady ideas that slowly slides into a predictable graph of highs and lows, where the creator struggles not only to find the voice, but to etch out a character’s life-story in a way that builds on its premise, instead of stagnating into repetitive cliche. Maintaining the momentum of a series, without over-stretching a story-line is a tough call. It would have been very easy for writer/artist Tohru Fujisawa to stumble. The second arc, that of the students being set straight by the teacher, resolutely avoids falling into the trap. Sure, it is long, but there are two aspects in which Fujisawa scores top of the manga-ka class (if you will pardon the school-based metaphor) – the delineation of the individual characters that make up the Onizukaverse. Every student in the class has a unique personality, a standalone voice which makes the reader identify with them. Partly because they are there in every classroom in any school in the world – the quiet, shy video-game-playing geek who is bullied at every turn; the computer whiz who knows more than he lets on; the headstrong yet confused loud-mouth who takes offence at minor quips; a girl whose parents are influential bureaucrats, a fact that she uses to her advantage; another with a dark secret involving a previous teacher. Sure, they are all genre archetypes, but it is Fujisawa’s genius that breathes new, fresh life into them.

The second thing that elevates the series to greatness is the sheer unpredictability of the central character. Eikichi Onizuka is a man of hidden surprises, whose heart of gold is matched only by his complete irreverence and lack of respect for authority. Early on in his career, Onizuka figures out that he really loves teaching, and he takes it on himself to be the kind of teacher that his generation did not have. At the crux of every decision Onizuka makes, however frivolous and played-for-laughs it seems to be, there is an important life-lesson that he imparts to his students. But Onizuka being the way he is, any attempt to take him seriously usually backfires, with hilarious results.

In addition to changing the way his students feel towards school, Onizuka also takes on the strict authoritarians that make up the faculty of Holy Forest Academy. His primary whipping-dog being the perennially grumpy Vice-Principal Uchiyamada – a running gag involves the Vice-Principal’s Toyota Cresta. The third arc of the series, in particular, involves a final stand against a new Principal who ousts the support of Chairman Sakurai, whose tacit approval had made a large part of Onizuka’s brushes with authority seem minor in the past.

Great Teacher Onizuka made me laugh, it had me gasping with incredulity, it made me come up with excuses to avoid work just so I could tear through the twenty-five volumes as soon as I could. It is not without its faults – a great deal of fan-service persists throughout the story, and let’s face it – if you have seen To Sir With Love and Munnabhai MBBS, you realize that the premise of GTO is hardly original. But even with all its over-the-top antics, it’s not just a fine comedy series, but also a drama that’s an indictment of the pettiness that afflicts today’s education system. It’s a scathing denouncement of self-serving, vainglorious modern-day teachers for whom teaching is nothing more than a way to make money, rather than the life-altering position it is meant to be. Hey, it made me want to go back to school, and that’s quite something!

Comics, Reviews

Adrian Tomine – Summer Blonde

(Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Rolling Stone India)

Summer Blonde

Adrian Tomine (pronounced Toh-mee-nay, not Toe-mine, as many people think) wears a lot of hats. Metaphorically speaking, of course. His current assignments include illustration gigs with the New Yorker and Esquire, designing indie DVD covers, and editing/overseeing arthouse manga for the publishing house Drawn and Quarterly. But Tomine is not known for these interesting career forks as much as he is revered for the series of mini-comics, called Optic Nerve, which he began at the age of 17.

Summer Blonde, the third collection of the creator’s Optic Nerve series, has four stories. ‘Alter Ego’ is about Martin Courtney, a moderately successful writer experiencing writer’s block under the pressure of meeting and surpassing his debut effort. As he puts it, “They say everyone has one great book in them. Maybe I had a mediocre one and that’s it.” Things take a strange turn when he gets a postcard from an old schoolmate he had a crush on, and begins dating her younger sister, who’s still in high school. ‘Summer Blonde,’ the second story has twenty-something Neil, single, obsessed with a girl who sits behind the counter at a greeting card shop who he buys a card from every other day but cannot muster up the courage to ask her out. When she begins dating his neighbor Carlo, a man who knows his way around women, Neil becomes an unwitting stalker of the girl he cares for. Hillary Chan, the protagonist of ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ calls random strangers passing by the phonebooth next to her apartment, desperate to strike up a conversation with anyone at all, after being fired from her job and abandoned by her roommate. ‘Bomb Scare’ is set in a high school, where a boy – a member of the geek clique in the class – strikes up a friendship with popular Cammie, who has just had a traumatic experience at a party.

All these synopses make it sound like the stories go somewhere, but they don’t – think of them more as stray reels of unfinished films. Every story ends, rather, is interrupted, at a point where, in a “normal” plot, there would be a major emotional turning point for the characters involved. Be warned, if you seek happy endings in your stories, or some form of closure for the protagonists, you won’t get that from Tomine’s work. Neil, the protagonist of the second story, meets the girl inadvertently in a crowded subway train, and as they’re pressed against each other, he stumbles to find the right words. “I am sure…you really hate me,” his voice trails off. Pause. “Yeah, but no more than anyone else,” she replies, still looking away from him. End of story.

A striking aspect of Tomine’s comics is the hallucinatory nature of what he writes and draws – the kind that leaves you slightly off-kilter once you’re done imbibing them. It’s the kind of buzz you get from a Michel Gondry film, or a Bjork video, or a Weezer song. All in all, these are more experiences than actual stories. His characters are real, flawed, everyday individuals, riddled with insecurities, bearing the weight of misguided intentions, the kind that one wouldn’t notice in a crowd. They are also fucking creepy, just so you know.

Part of what keeps you engaged throughout are the interesting and varied storytelling techniques. Flashback panels, narrative captions and thought balloons, often avoided by modern comic writers, are employed by Tomine to evoke a unique emotional effect. Observe the way he manipulates silence to optimum effect. Silent panels take the story forward, let us into the mental turmoil of the characters, mark the passing of time, even freeze a few moments into an eternity. This is a comic book auteur who knows the tricks of the trade, and uses them to splendid effect.

In many ways, Tomine’s work is a natural progression of the underground comix movement of the seventies, started by the likes of Robert Crumb, nurtured by stalwarts like Pulitzer winner Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, and given shape and form in the last part of the century by talents such as Dan Clowes, the Hernandez brothers, and Chris Ware. The creator has openly acknowledged the influence of Clowes and the Hernandez brothers in his work –the clean-lined style of his character drawings, in particular, and the deceptively simple backgrounds owe a lot to Clowes’ Ghost World and David Boring. Also, among the hardest things to do when you’re drawing comics is to create people whose faces, body structure and mannerisms do not meld into one or two oft-used templates with hair color or a costume being the only distinguishable way to identify a character. Tomine’s artwork leaves no doubt in your mind about his complete proficiency in this area – every single character is singularly drawn, each just as ugly or plain or pretty as the story demands.

Among the allegations made by his detractors is his inability to stray from his comfort zone, making all his work suspiciously similar. But there is no taking away the power in Tomine’s work to echo the human condition. The stories are about Americans, yet they resonate with every individual in any society who has ever felt alienated, lonely or loveless. Isn’t that what art is all about?


10 Notable Graphic Novels of the Last Decade

(Originally published in Rolling Stone India, January 2010)

I remember feeling panicky doing this list. Too many titles to consider, and 10 is too less a number. I asked my editor if she would let me make multiple lists, for superhero, romance, manga, sci-fi and so on, but space was a constraint. So I took a deep breath, and chopped down my choices to these 10. Sure, I excluded a lot, but I stand by this list. How many of them have you read?

1. Scott Pilgrim

Writer/Artist: Bryan Lee O’Malley
The hardest thing about praising Scott Pilgrim is this – instead of yapping on about how good it is and why one should read it, you could do nothing better than just thrust a copy of the series into someone’s hands. One of the breakaway successes of the decade, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series is about an everyday rock-band guitarist from Toronto, his dimension-hopping girlfriend and her seven evil ex-boyfriends, and a bunch of the awesomest supporting characters ever. A postmodern cartoon series featuring more pop-culture references than you can shake a stick at, Scott Pilgrim speaks perfect Twentyfirstcenturyese – a truly enduring series of this generation.




2. Y The Last Man

Writer: Brian K Vaughn; Artist: Pia Guerra

It sounds like the perfect male fantasy – a young man named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey are the only survivors of a planet-wide holocaust that kills every male creature on this planet. But being the last man on earth comes with its disadvantages, as Yorick, accompanied by a scientist and a secret agent, embarks on a journey across the world to find his estranged fiancée and finds himself the target of everyone from male-hating cultists to military strategists. Writer Brian Vaughn brings together a number of themes and plot-lines seamlessly towards a bittersweet ending, and this series remains a high-point of the mainstream sequential storytelling of the decade.




3. Ultimates

Writer: Mark Millar; Artist: Bryan Hitch

Simple recipe: Take a serving of Silver-age superheroes, remove the tint of nostalgia from the wrapping, add a dash of the current socio-political climate and serve with a healthy dose of cynicism. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Bush era reimagining of Marvel’s Avengers not only ramped up the action all the way to eleven, but also ended up making the comic a testament to the way the world went insane in the double-noughts.






4. Blankets

Writer/Artist: Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson’s graphic novel is not just a love story. It’s a memoir of a boy’s coming of age, of religion and family and the choices that we make on the way to adulthood. Set in Wisconsin, Blankets follows Thompson’s early life in a fundamentalist Christian family and society, the near-obliteration of his love for art by a din of scorn and piousness, and his first love, Raina, who changes his outlook towards life. In a way, the black-and-white art accentuates the timelessness of the themes addressed by Thompson, making this book one of those rare gateway volumes for casual readers.




5. The Goon

Writer/Artist: Eric Powell

It’s ironic – from winning awards for the best humour publication, The Goon has gone on to win accolades such as Best Continuing Series and Best Multimedia Artist, and even an International Horror Guild award. That’s because Eric Powell’s labour of love effortlessly straddles multiple worlds – at one moment, it features toilet humour and slapstick situations that cater to the lowest common denominator, and in the next it becomes an emotional saga of friendship, loyalty, love and revenge. Add to it the Powell’s completely unique painterly style which has evolved over the years to something that leaps off the printed page and you have a series that just gets better with every chapter.





6. All Star Superman

Writer: Grant Morrison; Artist: Frank Quitely

Before Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely began writing their twelve-chapter story of the world’s most familiar superhero, Superman, as a character, was at his nadir – fans complained of the lack of present-day relevance, writers bemoaned the lack of storytelling engines for the characters, others just did not care. But in course of those twelve issues, the writer-artist team not only made Superman resume his rightful place in the comic-book pantheon, but they also crafted a perfect saga of heroism that spanned time, dimensions and universes, with an epic, note-perfect ending. Never before has the Big Blue Guy epitomised truth, justice and humanity so effortlessly as in this Eisner Award winning series.





7. Fables

Writer: Bill Willingham; Artist: Mark Buckingham

What if fairy tales do not end happily-ever-after? Bill Willingham tries to address that notion in his ongoing series, one in which characters from folklore and fairy tales co-exist among normal people in the present-day, the bulk of them in exile in a neighbourhood in New York City. These characters exist in avatars you had never envisaged. Imagine Snow White as a hard-as-nails politician, Cinderella as an Emma Peele-esque super-spy, and the Big Bad Wolf a bad-ass sheriff. From murder mysteries to swashbuckling adventure to all-out war against a common enemy (who might be the last person you could imagine as a war-mongering Adversary), Fables makes a habit of turning genre conventions on their head.





8. Planetary

Writer: Warren Ellis; Artist: John Cassaday

In Planetary, Warren Ellis examines the very mechanisms of what makes genre fiction tick. He weaves archetypes from pulp fiction of the early 20th century – comics, schlocky horror movies, science fiction – into a series that parallels the works of Philip Jose Farmer; a shared universe seen through the eyes of three “archaeologists of the impossible”. While the later half of the series flagged a little because of erratic production schedules, Ellis’s writing and Cassaday’s magnificent artwork made fans across the world gasp when the last issue came out a few months ago, concluding a decade-long series.






9. The Walking Dead

Writer: Robert Kirkman; Artist: Charlie Adlard

Before zombies took over popular culture this decade, no one could have predicted that a black-and-white indie comic book series where would become the most perfect survival horror tale ever written. Walking Dead is like a George Romero film that does not end. What makes the series so groundbreaking is the way writer Robert Kirkman keeps his characters so vulnerable – there is no guarantee that a cast member would make it through the next chapter, and absolutely no warning about what lies ahead for the protagonists.







10. Promethea

Writer: Alan Moore; Artist: JH Williams III

Promethea, on one hand, has the heart-stoppingly beautiful art of JH Williams III, a man whose immaculate visual design makes every page-turn evoke gasps of wonder. On the other, it features the Grand Guru of the graphic novel, Alan Moore, at his psychedelic best, writing a treatise on magic, feminism and mythology. A complicated series that left many readers polarised about the creators’ intent, Promethea remains one of those rare examples of virtuoso artistic expression that stands the test of time.







Final thoughts:

1. Of course order does not matter. Are you kidding me?

2. Obviously, all series are to be considered in their entirety. With the exception of Fables, which is valid only from issues 1-75, and the two one-shots 1001 Nights of Snowfall and The Last Castle, and Ultimates, where I’ve considered Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s two-volume run as canon.

3. The list is very mainstream, glad you noticed. The keyword is “notable”.