Monday, 16 April 2012

Book: The Twelve


The Twelve
Vol 1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Chris Weston

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The Twelve
Vol 2
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Art by Chris Weston

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

I don't think I've ever actually been asked who my favorite comic book artist is - but whatever: if anyone did ever ask me - I reckon I'd say Chris "Spaceboy" Weston - with Frank Quitely I guess a very close second - or is that too much of an obvious choice? I dunno I dunno - but (whatever) the point is: if you were to rip my heart out of my chest - Chris Weston's name is what you would find scrawled across it (or well - you know: at least the part of my heart that's given over to comic book artists: so maybe it would only be a very small scrawl that you'd need a micro-scope to see - but whatever - it would still be there is the point).

The first 2000AD I ever remember deliberately buying was prog 987 which featured an utterly spectacular splash page as the hard-bitten anti-hero Priest Patrolman Cannon Fodder ("Cannon Fodder" - get it? No?) meets God and - well - I reckon that that was the moment I first fell in love with the brilliance of what Mr Weston can do with paper and ink[1]. Since then his (hell yes) divine art has appeared in places like The Invisibles and Lucifer, The Ministry of Space, Fantastic Four: First Family as well as one of my favourite books ever - The Filth (have you read it? Then you know what I'm talking about: or you know (if you haven't had the experience yet) - click the link where it says "Further reading" below and I'll try and explain it to you). What is it about him that does it for me so much? Well: I'm not really that hot on describing artwork (but then - who is?): but the something about his work that manages to be both futuristic and retro at the same time that just gives me such a kick. In fact - actually - no that's not quite right: scratch the "futuristic" bit - it's more that his art has that cool 1950s vision of the space-age kinda thing going on: the view of the distant tomorrow all the way back our yesterdays [2].

J. Michael Straczynski (or "JMS" as he's otherwises known as) on the other hand. Well. Him I'm not really so keen on. From the stuff I've read it would seem that in the comic book world he's a bit of a divisive figure. Best known perhaps for Babylon 5 [3] he's spent a lot of the 00s doing comics work including his long stewardship of The Amazing Spider-Man title as well as other such notable series like Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor as well as creating the Supreme Power which did the re-imagining superhero origins in a cool, dark and kinda-interesting way (so Superman beomes Hyperion, Batman becomes Nighthawk etc). However since then he's been the point-man for DC's Watchmen prequels (yes - Watchman prequels) and has been the author most vocal in saying "hey relax guys everything's fine"[4] which has only increased the suspicion that he's a bit of a corporate lackey - with the same level of humanity as Ian Holm slimy Ash from Alien [5].

So what happens when these two guys come together? Well - you get The Twelve - a 12 part mini-series that - due to various scheduling conflicts and shadowy infighting [6] has taken a very very long time to get finished (it began in 2008 and only wrapped up in - oh check the cosmic appropriateness ! - 2012). But - hey - is it any good?

Well - I'm bias - because as far I'm concerned Chris Weston could illustrate a phone book (Wait. Do they still do phone books?) and I'd read the thing from beginning to end. But - hey - in the same kind of way that people tend to overlook that big name actors get to choose the films they make - big shot artistic talent also gets a say in the projects that they choose to devote their time too: I'm pretty sure that it's not just a massive coincidence that Chris Weston also ends up drawing series with lots of druggy strange weirdness with a bittersweet nostalgic edge: he doesn't strike me as someone who just draws what he's told (hell - is any artist really?). And also - because life is never as black and white as we might hope - JMS may come across as a yes man for multinationals - but that doesn't mean that he doesn't know how to craft a story that gets the job done. Ok: he's not going to provide you with something transcendental like your Alan Moores and Grant Morrison's whatever [7]: but he will move you and shake you in all the right ways and won't leave you feeling at all cheated or ripped off (that bit towards the start? "Come The Darkness. I Still Believe." - Wow. Ok. Sorry. I think I've got something in my eye....)

Yes it's about superheroes. But what's nice is how their superheroes plucked from the context where they made the most sense (way back in the 1940s fighting the Ratzis) and then replanted in the modern day and left to pretty much fend for themselves. The characters are all brash and wild and clearly defined [8]: all of them knocking against each other in different ways pushing the plot forward in ways that require very little outside help. In fact - the one book that kept coming to mind as I read this was Watchmen. Not that it does any of the crazy experimental stuff - but rather how it exposes all the grotty undersides of the superhero fantasy: whilst still allowing for some of the pure intentions that have given it such staying power.

Yeah - it's a hell of a lot more earnest than Watchmen [10] ("The Twenty-First Century is a world of grays, of floating ethics. The country has come adrift from it's moorings in hope and optimism. It's become a place where manners are pass and politeness is for saps... where kindness is mistaken for weakness, and patriotism has become a badge to some, a smoke screen to others, and a curse world for all the rest.") but a major part of it's charm comes from the way it plays it all so completely straight: unafraid to shrink away from the genre's inherent naffness ("Dynamic Man? You're kidding. Who thinks of these names?") and playing ridiculous stories completely straight ("I'd been working with the police on a case involving tramps who were being kidnapped by zombies and made into zombies themselves"): yet still somehow managing to find just the right balance - so that you can believe in the goodness of people trying to make the world a better place while still sniggering at how ridiculous their hairy legs look thrusting out from the bottom of their skin-tight costumes. Which - hey - is a good trick to be able to pull off - irony and innocence mixed together into a smooth sweet blend. And then digging deeper to get at the good stuff - I mean ok at first glance maybe it seems like only comic book geeks would appreciate the idea thought that maybe the reason superheroes don't go in for relationships isn't because they're couldn't risk exposing their loved ones to danger and more because - well - they probably just suck at relationships (could you imagine how self-involved a real life superhero would be? Man) but then all that kind of stuff starts to slowly seep into more real world concerns and instead of just paying attention to the colourful clothes - you start to notice the flawed, damaged (and ever-so-slightly sick) folks who are wearing them.

There are a few bits that are a little too on point (that "what makes a hero?" blah) and there's one cheat that short-changes the reader's perspective in the same way as that old Guardian telly-vision advert [11]: in order to make a point about racism - which just made me wonder what it would worked like if we could have seen everything. But oh well.

And yeah - even tho it's a Marvel book (so it opens with a cocksure looking Captain America and there's a reference to the Civil War [12] event near the start) you don't need to know anything about any Marvel characters to get as much of the story as the biggest Marvel fanboy in the world: just as long as you can get your head around the idea that people might like to get dressed up and fight crime then you're golden.

But (having finally finished both books [13]) if I had to narrow it down to the thing that I like best about The Twelve then I guess I'd have to go with how it's got a really good grip on the telling it's story visually - you know? I mean: I know that sounds like a no brainer - all comics are visual right? That's what it's all about after all. Yeah yeah - but - there's a gradient in how good a story can be in communicating it's ideas. For me at least - it's not just enough to show stuff: but to make sure that the stuff you're showing is dynamic and strange and new enough that the reader feels like it's being - I dunno - nourished (or something). The best example I can think of in order to (try and) make sure of what I'm talking about is why The Terminator [14] is a better film than Avatar (bear with me a second). Ok yes: Avatar had a bajillion more dollar spent on it than the The Terminator: but The Terminator just in terms of basic storytellingness (whatever that means) is way more satisfying because it knows that if you want to leave a lasting impression you really have to hit the audience with a lasting, indelible image and there is nothing in Avatar that leaves as much of a mark as a skeletal robot rising slowly out a fire [15]: yeah - ok there's that bit where the big tree falls and there's all the fitting with the ships and dragons and stuff - but none of it comes close - you know? Because not only does it look cool and menacing and scary as hell (I'm guessing that there's a least a few people out there in the world who must have it as a tattoo on their arms or chest - right?): but (as everyone who's seen The Terminator knows [16]) it also gives you a massive hit of story information too (basically: oh yeah - this dude that's been chasing you all this time? Oh yeah - he's completely indestructible and you're never going to be able to stop him): and - well - even tho The Twelve doesn't quite have a skeletal robot rising slowly out a fire - it does manage to pummel the reader in the same sort of climatic way at just the right point - with a properly nightmarish panel. So yeah - that's all to the good. Yes.

[1]You may behold it's almighty glory for yourself here (yes - you're welcome). 

[2] Or: sorry - does that sound a little bit too wanky? But you know what I mean right? "Rocket packs. This is the future right? Whenever I saw movies about the future, everyone had their own rocket packs and jet cars. So where are they?" etc. 

[3] A show whose mere mention will (like every other Spaced fan) always always always make me think of this.

[4] See here for some of the grisly details. (Urg).

[5] Although in the interests of fair-and-balanced and whatever: I should point out that his (sadly unused) World War Z script sounded absolutely amazing: "JMS is after the human truth underneath the horror, and in a way, that makes it much, much harder to take. The world of the film reminds me of CHILDREN OF MEN on the page. Realistic but set in the near-future, in the aftermath of the zombie wars. We see a flashback to Gerry being given his assignment to write a report about “where the system worked, where it didn’t, how and in what ways the various organizational infrastructures failed.” It’s a politically shitty job because no one wants to know that they were responsible for anything that went wrong. Gerry’s hesitant because it’s going to take at least six months away from his family, just as the world is starting to right itself. He takes the job, and as he travels to his first interview, we see how hard travel has become. I hate going through airport security these days, but at least I don’t have to strip naked and subject myself to a blood test. Yet. JMS does a great job of etching the details of a world that has already faced its darkest moments and is now trying to put things back in order. His first stop is China, and right away, he can see that it’s not going to be an easy job. His first subject, Dr. Tsai, is supposed to be interviewed through a “translator,” despite the fact that he speaks flawless English. Tsai’s account of his first encounter with zombies at New Dachang is awful and horrific, and right away, it’s apparent that a combination of bureaucracy and military strategy is responsible for a sort of passive evil, and Tsai feels enormous guilt about it. He leads Gerry to his next interview, which leads him to his next, and one of the things that the script does so well is depict survivors who are starting to wonder if survival is a victory of any kind. There’s a story about black market organs that is just brutal, an off-the-record conversation with a CIA friend, and an insane beach sequence that I can’t wait to see on film. All in the first 50 pages."

[6] Which - if you're interested in that sort of thing is vaguely eluded to on Chris Weston's blog here ("This series suffered a huge numbers of delays to its publication, firstly because of its writer, Joe Michael Straczynski, who apparently fell out with with Marvel over something or the other.") Gotta say tho Mr Weston - slight minus points for the I think it "would make a damn good film" comment: I would have hoped that you'd realised by now that you're doing stuff that's way better than the lowest common-denominator stuff that Hollywood throws up - have some pride dude: it's a great comic and just having the pictures move and the characters played by actors wouldn't make it any better (although: having said all that - it would make a damn good film so - erm - yeah).

[7] I use those two as examples way way too much all over this blog I know I know. But what the hey: it's easy shorthand. Like a music blogger saying " well - you know: it's not The Beatles or whatever."

[8] I haven't actually done any research (maybe I should do some research? [9]) but I would not be at all surprised to find out that each member of The Twelve was actually a superhero that was published back in the 1940s - I mean - yeah: pretty much each one of them conforms to one archetype or another but there's something - I dunno - so accurate and resonant about each one of them that it seems more likely that they've been cut and pasted from primary sources rather than being freshly made.

[9] "Research" of course being the modern nom de plume for "googling things"

[10] But then hey (not to stereotype or anything) but Watchmen was written by an Englishman and The Twelve by an American: so it makes sense that one would be bitter and cynical whilst the other is slightly more gee-whiz and hopeful.

[11] You know the one I mean right? (We had to watch it a lot in media studies).

[12] Not the American Civil War - the Marvel Summer Comic Event Blah (but if you have idea what that even means - don't worry about it: it won't have any impact on your enjoyment of the story: it's literally just one line).

[13] Like it says above Vol 2 was delayed for like - ever. In fact - I'm pretty sure that I read Vol 1 in 2008 or 2009 (in hardback from another non-Islington library): so finally getting to have the whole story (having read Vol 1 about three or four times) is - well - it's nice. Like finally finishing a meal or a conversation or something (or - ha - like finally finishing a comic a few years after you started it).

[14] Sigh. I don't believe that I need to say this - (but just in case): I'm talking about the first (and best) Terminator film rather than any of the others. (You like T2 better? Whatever: read this and then report back to me after class).

[15] George Noory: "And tell us a little bit about the dream that led to Terminator, what happened?" James Cameron: "Yuh, that wasn't a precognitive dream, that was just a, and I don't get them that I'm aware of, but that was just a nightmare, seriously I was sick, I had the flu and a high fever, and so in that feverish dream state I had a dream about a, you know, a chrome skeleton and fire, emerging from the fire, you know and there was an image in of itself, and have a very strong feeling of dread associated with it in a dream almost unexplained by the image, and you know, we've all felt that, something freighted with a strong sense of dread so, I woke up from that and I felt it was a compelling image, and er I started to draw, started to write the story, to draw variations on that theme and it turned into this chrome skeletal figure, kind of death figure, er, pursuing a girl and I thought, okay, let's build a story around that and then it became a science fiction story and then this chrome death figure came from the future and was trying to kill her for some reason, what's the reason, well, her life will have some meaning that, that er is very significant in years hence and then the story kind of spun from that." (Coast To Coast AM, Monday August 23, 2010)

[16] And - at this point: everyone's seen The Terminator - right?

Links: Robot 6 Interview with Chris Weston, Page 45 Review.

Further reading: The ShadowFantastic Four: First Family, The Filth, Watchmen, Civil WarNo HeroMarvelsSupergodsTop 10: The Forty-Niners, Superior.

Profiles: Chris Weston

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

If you haven't heard it, check out this Mindless Ones' podcast interview with Chris Weston. He's a really funny and likeable bloke...

Islington Comic Forum said...

Thanks! Will try and check it out.