I ostensibly review the comic I’ve read while flying off on several tangents not necessarily related to the subject at hand.
Repeat every coupla weeks (the review part. I poop all the time).
THE TWELVE #7 (of, you guessed it…12)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski Art – Chris Weston Colors – Chris Chuckry
Did I ever tell you about the time J. Michael Straczynski had me fired?
No? Oh, never mind then.
Would it be an interesting topic to bring up about the how the modern comic medium is having a mid-life crisis? The comic book, as we in western culture know it, roughly started during world war two. Captain America punching out Hitler and such; pulpy tales that stretched the imagination as much as the criticism of artistic credibility. Using the development of a human as a metaphor for the evolution of the comic art form the comparison is obvious – A precocious toddler with a spellbinding imagination playing in a sandbox full of toys. Wild, untethered shambling stories with raw nutso plots and, loosely, a pretty black and white moral structure. Good guys and bad guys were obvious; the insane Nazi madman with a monocle, white lab coat, and a death machine vs. the star spangled hero, virtuous intent, and American ingenuity. Good times.
The teen years are a time of your world opening up and figuring out all the crazy things you’re capable of, and then doing them could be roughly compared to the Silver Age. A period of wild creation, figuring out who you are, maturing and exploring. Complexity seeps into the moral world you learned as a kid; Nazis are still Nazis but now you learn about the world economic situation that helped create Nazi Germany. Idealism still exists and you think you have all the answers but nothing happens in a vacuum.
Bronze Age could be early adulthood. Experience has tempered some of your judgments and various degrees of success or failure has affected your enthusiasm. You realize you can’t control everything and you’re not gonna get the results you want a lot of the time. There is still great work being done but borders seem a bit more defined but that helps with focus. Questions turn more towards how things work and not just cause they do. You’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t for the most part. Black and white gives way to grey and the heroes are just as fallible as the bad guys. It’s just not that simple anymore. Nazis? Yeah, they’re a good plot device but let’s see what else we can toy with. I’d rather have a villain angered by the system’s social injustice and a hero that has a drinking problem, like my roommate Ted.
What is the modern age then? Middle age? Speaking from the perspective of middle age (I just turned 45 three days before writing this) it kinda feels like it. The rules are in place but you’ve had enough experience to know when to use them and when to subvert them, and how to get away with it. You might not be stuck in rut but there are things that you’ll never get to do (fortunately I only regret not doing “The running of the bulls” in the vaguest sense of the term). The pull of mundane life gets in the way of adventure; imagine having to plan two weeks in advance going out for a few beers with your buddies. I don’t. You have a pretty good idea of who you are but the ground seems to shift under your very feet and you don’t want the same things you did as a teen. You have responsibilities that come from your successes, and being creative for the sheer unhinged fun of it seems to happen less and less. Finally, the older you get the more you realize that black and white is a fallacy; complexity rules. Yes, the Nazis were bad but without the ones like Werner Braun that the CIA brought to America we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon, have a space program, cell phones, or other technological advancements. Hell, if it wasn’t for a war that killed over a half a billion people we wouldn’t have Velcro. Complexity sucks but it’s unavoidable. Naturally our creative focus deals with complexity as its own end, and one of the more interesting ways to address that is pulling out old cherished things from our youth or a “simpler time” and subject them to our new perspective.
This is essentially the whole “Dark and gritty” re-imagining of a lot of comic characters. Sometimes it works; Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns brings the Batman out of retirement and into the modern era; a much more dangerous and complex world. The Joker doesn’t bother with trying to crush Batman with a giant coin, he passes out poisoned cotton candy at a state fair. Watchmen is even more on message drawing a direct line from the modern era to its Golden Age roots. A serious examination of where we, as a culture, are and how we got here.
Sometimes you just get Superman killing General Zod in “Man of Steel”. Which would be the equivalent of divorced dad buying a Jaguar and dating Bambi the stripper.
Regardless, putting the old in a new context generates a plethora of interesting questions and it’s up to the writer to decide which ones to ask.
JMS’ questions seem to be framed around “How can I make this a murder mystery and a procedural with overtones of culture shock?” Not a bad idea in and of its own. It doesn’t aspire to metatextual commentary on the medium of sequential art or re-imagining a classic character for a modern context. But that’s already been done anyway. The Twelve takes the leapfrog approach; twelve heroes from the Golden Age (Timely Comics specifically) are found in suspended animation and re-introduced into the world of 2008. Hilarity ensues. Ok, not so much hilarity as brutal murders. Granted I’m reading issue seven in a vacuum but nothing happens in a vacuum. It doesn’t take long to grok onto what JMS is up to here; the opening page outlines the history of a gay bar in New York from having its liquor license revoked for serving homosexuals back in 1940, to a wholesale slaughter by a mysterious force in modern times (2008 that is). The Phantom Reporter investigates! Looking like a purpler version of The Spirit with a mask, cape, and fedora, he dryly describes his get-up as a ‘lifestyle thing”. He has JMS-esque banter with the cops (see any episode of Babylon 5 for a taste with live voices) and heads down an investigative path that’s no doubt a red herring because there are five issues left to the story. The story comes back to the plot whenever it feels like it taking more interest in these fish out of water characters and how they are coping with life in the twenty first century. The most intriguing diversion being a visit from Captain Wonder’s old sidekick, Tim. Here comes that comparing old and new context in a pretty on the nose move – the sidekick is old, worn out, stripped of his powers and dying of cancer. Desperate to be “special” again he visits Captain Wonder to see if he’s worked out what made them special in the first place. Sadly the Captain hasn’t and Tim leaves cursing him. Maybe, if you want some sort of symbolism here, JMS is saying you can’t go back to those “good ‘ole days” and you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment if you try. Honestly the scene didn’t feel that deep and Tim’s eventual suicide functions more as another red herring to the plot than anything else.
As with a lot of Straczynski’s work this issue of the series is just a piece of the puzzle; what seems slight or undercooked at first glance fares much better when the story is viewed as a whole. JMS is the modern architect of serialized television after all and to expect the same from his comic work is understandable.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think this limited series would’ve grabbed me if I wasn’t sitting on the loo. I found the struggles of these characters moderately engaging; The Phantom Reporter acknowledging the gimmicky nature of the mask and cape, Captain Wonder’s helplessness in the face of his former sidekick’s despair, the Blue Blade’s manipulations to hold onto his new TV show (at least some things don’t change, but not enough, I think, to keep me coming back). Such was the case with JMS too; a quick look at the Wikipedia entry shows that The Twelve started in 2008 but didn’t reach its twelve issue conclusion until 2012 (it’s not like he had an academy nominated film he wrote or anything… Oh, wait, he did).
As interesting as the concept is at its heart “The Twelve” seems an exercise in form. Yeah, things are different than they were during World War two; innocence was an illusion as was stark black and white good and evil. Complexity and moral ambiguity hold sway in our understanding of the world and, more significantly, our imaginations. This is part of the trade-off of growing up (as a medium or as a person), but what ya gonna do? The conclusion of the whole story of “The Twelve” hinges on this culture clash only on the surface (I could pretty much figure out who did the murders or at least how the murders were committed with clues dropped here in issue seven. The Wikipedia entry flied in the blanks.) The old Golden Age heroes dealing with the modern world feels like a gimmick much like the Phantom reporter’s mask and cape; “a lifestyle thing”.
LITTLE TIDBITS THAT I DIDN’T WORK INTO THE MAIN REVIEW:
The gay bar went from “Gloria Bar and Grill” to “The Rail and Balls” Subtlety thy name is JMS.
The clue that gave the means for the murders away was the obvious dialogue about a robot’s feet having dirt and grass on it. Though in JMS’ defense I’m not entirely sure how else to pull that off. At least not with dialogue.
The Captain Wonder/Tim origin story is a ripe homage to golden age origin stories right down to the washed out look of the panels.
Chris Weston did a fistful of one of my all-time favorite comics “The Invisibles”, mostly Vol: 2, and I keep seeing bulging eyeballs while looking at the art on The Twelve. Weird, I know.
An in-house ad is for the start of Deadpool’s revival during the Secret Invasion. If there is a greater juxtaposition of old and new than Dynamic Man and Deadpool I don’t know it.
As for JMS having me fired; I worked on Babylon 5 as a set electrician. I also had a regular column in the Babylon 5 magazine called “Tales From the Down Below”. Following an assignment from my editor I wrote a bit on being crew for the show from the perspective of the two worker shlubs from the “A View From the Gallery”. It was a decent piece of work but JMS took umbrage and had me booted off the magazine. I was more hurt than angry at the time because I was a huge Babylon 5 fan. I thought of making this review a juicy platform to air my grievances but this is not Festivus. Chalk it up to miscommunication. Water under the bridge.
Sorry to be anticlimactic about it.
Next – The Torch from Dynamite comics. It’s next in the box.