Friday, March 20, 2015

"You see a Hulk, you run."

Overwhelmed by academic commitments and an overabundance of television (besides other distractions) I have had to put off reviewing the comics I have read over the past two weeks. I endeavour to correct this situation with this post. The following is a review of Soule, Pulido and Wimberly's She-Hulk (volume 1: Law and Disorder), Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals (volume 2: Two Worlds, One Cop) and Jonathan Hickman's Pax Romana. The title of this review is uttered by Herman Schultz (the Shocker) in She-Hulk #5

“Lady, all I know about you is that you're tough as hell. Guys like me, we got a list of people like you. Like a rating system. You got your Daredevils, your Iron Fists – those guys, you fight. Maybe you get lucky, or maybe you're actually good enough to beat 'em. Now, any Hulk – lady, dude, red, green, purple – you see a Hulk, you run."

Soule is exceedingly adept at weaving together character exposition and fast-paced narrative: consequently, the latest adventures of Jennifer Walters (aka She-Hulk) should prove enjoyable to just about any human-like creature with a functional heart and brain. Soule's plot is precipitated by an unfair performance review after which Walters leaves her law firm to fend off on her own. Serendipitously, Holly Harrow, the widow of a small-time supervillain, seeks compensation for use of her deceased husband's technology by a Stark Industries subsidiary. After using her Avengers connection to settle out of court, Walters uses her payment from the case to start her own practice. Strange cases have a way of finding her – strange cases and bizarre people, including the sardonic paralegal Angie Huang.

The first four issues of She-Hulk are illustrated in Pulido's vibrant pop-art style; Wimberly's art in issues 5 and 6 has a different, more psychedelic energy which suits the narrative direction, though the transition is indeed jarring.

♀♀♀♀: Soule's She-Hulk features a variety of different relationship styles. Walters' practice is located in DUMBO, in a building for superpowered professionals owned and managed by Xavier Institute alumna Sharon King. For a secondary character, Sharon King is singularly fleshed-out; her interactions with Walters, though warm, give some idea of the potentially fraught relationship between landlady and tenant. Walters' connection to Wildcat is similarly multi-faceted – simultaneously professional and amicable. Paralegal Angie Huang's quiet but zealous devotion to her employer is fascinating. 
0: This comic is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive
πππ: The mystery that is Angie Huang and Hei Hei the mystical monkey is one of the driving forces behind She-Hulk's plot. Idea Hive, Sharon King's building, is home to an extremely diverse group of tenants. Doctor Kevin Trench (Nightwatch) also makes an appearance.

Despite the critical and popular enthusiasm surrounding it, I was not... turned on... by Sex Criminals' first volume. Though I was certainly able to appreciate Fraction and Zdarsky's energetic style of graphic storytelling, the way in which the creators flout sexual taboo did nothing to impress me. Fortunately for mature readers everywhere, the plot thickens in Sex Criminals' second volume – the introduction of more complex themes (such as the ambiguous relationship between physical intimacy and emotional attachment or the partners' mutual responsibility for their mental health) makes for more substantial fare. Far from detracting from the book's humour, the added seriousness tends to complement it by contrast.
♀♀♀♀: Suzie Dickson makes up with a friend with whom she had something of a falling out during the first volume.
0: This particular volume of Sex Criminals is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive. The previous one made a passing allusion to youthful same-sex experiments.
ππ: Sex Criminals vol.2 features a secondary character of African descent and a vaguely middle-eastern villain; other than that, it is all very white. 

A conceptually-dense formalist experiment in Alternate History, Pax Romana's narrative is driven almost entirely by its heavy-handed prose. The book does not function at all like a customary graphic novel: it dispenses with sequential art altogether, unravelling the plot through a series of still-frames crowded by speech bubbles, excerpts from fictional history books, and conversation transcripts – most of it turgid, pseudo-Hegelian nonsense. The entire narrative rests on two assumptions: 1) that the highest echelons of church hierarchy are necessarily the most conservative, seeking the preservation of the institution at any cost, and 2) that the rulers of ancient Rome could find it in their episteme to embrace with eagerness the methods and values of a technologically-superior invader. Both assumptions are likely to strike the literate reader as misapprehensions, and whereas some might be willing to suspend disbelief in order to take part in Hickman's experiment, I personally could not derive much enjoyment from such a cynical view of human potential. Though Pax Romana's technologically-accelerated civilisational project has colonized both the moon and Mars by 1421, we are to regard the outcome of the whole process as a dystopia insofar as imperialist autocracy remains the dominant political and religious paradigm.

As the thought-experiment of a singular creator, Pax Romana is a work of considerable complexity. Complexity, unfortunately, does not mean nuance, and on the whole Hickman's revision of history is as mean-spirited as it is implausible.

♀♀: Though the series spans hundreds of years, it manages to feature only two female characters – only one of whom has any impact on the plot. 
0: This comic is not LGBTQA-inclusive.
πππ: One of the four artisans of the Pax Romana is of African descent; there are also vague references to a break-away African civilisation.

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