9.24.2010

THE BRIAN WOOD PROJECT (Part 6)


In case you missed it;


TRACING IDENTITY THROUGH THE CHRONOLOGY OF WORKS: THE MODERN PERIOD (Part 2)

THE TOURIST (2006, Image Comics): Superficially, THE TOURIST is masquerading as a Greg Rucka style action/thriller/drama, full of Special Forces soldiers and contraband smuggling operations, but main character Moss endures the same type of identity choices we’ve come to expect from Brian Wood. THE TOURIST involves Moss attempting to reconcile multiple identities, essentially choosing between material monetary gain and true happiness. He balances various aspects of self, including his Special Forces past, drug smuggler temptation, faux identity as an American tourist backpacking through Europe, and eventual love interest for a woman named Julie that he meets in town.

Moss, like Cedric in FIGHT FOR TOMORROW, is an enigmatic loner character with dark secrets, but the largest struggle is the quest to define their identities. THE TOURIST is a particularly clever ruse of a title for this book, because not only is Moss an ostensible tourist in this Scottish village, but to some degree he’s a tourist in his own life. In order to finally “go home” psychologically, Moss needs to pick from his available personas and select what actually matters to him, which comments on his values, which informs his true identity.

I’ll say in a moment of ill-mannered blasphemy that THE TOURIST is probably my least favorite Brian Wood work, but it’s still an interesting diversion because it introduces another way for Wood to examine the idea of identity and begs the question if you can consciously create a new identity or if the traits are inborn. It touches on the nature vs. nurture debate, asking if we’re truly products of our surroundings or of our breeding. Perhaps with enough conscious effort we can cease being tourists in our own lives, discover, and consciously inhabit our true identities.

SUPERMARKET (2006, IDW Publishing): I really like SUPERMARKET. I remember buying the single issues and then upgrading to the trade, turning at least three other people onto it when it was coming out. Kristian Donaldson’s art has a cinematic quality to it that reminded me of the manic film RUN LOLA RUN! While Wood does lace the story with many fun ideas that are great to chew on, things like futuristic paranoia, commentary about youth culture, rampant consumerism, Japanese car culture, organized crime, and the sheer frenetic pace of the story, there’s no denying that the star of the show is the witty and entertaining Pella Suzuki.

She’s half Japanese and half Swedish, and as it turns out, rightful inheritor to the criminal empires of the local Yakuza and Swedish Porno Mobs. All she has to do is choose. She’s caught between the two, and her choice is symbolic of her overall search for identity. Which inherent qualities does she shun, which does she embrace, her navigation of this character minefield is the defiance of expectation and formulation of her own values and relationships, independent of those utilized by her parents a generation prior. So, here we are again. We see a primary theme of identity, followed by a set of secondary characteristic about an extremely well written female lead, and a sense of generational succession taking place, adding dramatic tension in the process.

Having read so many books back to back and having them fresh in my gray matter, I was struck by how similar the broad brushstrokes of SUPERMARKET and THE NEW YORK FOUR are. They both revolve around the identity of a young woman, they’re both sheltered young people who are suddenly thrust into Life In The City, their parents have kept from both of them a sort of “secret history” that has defined their upbringing, a boy emerges who seems to offer help, setbacks ensue, and they ultimately find their place in the world.

NORTHLANDERS (2007, DC/Vertigo): Advocates of the comic book medium always tell civilians “don’t confuse medium with genre.” Comic books have so much more to offer than their perceived limitation to the superhero game. For NORTHLANDERS, I usually modify that so say “don’t confuse genre with setting.” NORTHLANDERS is not just about Vikings, though it happens to be set in various time periods within the Viking Age. The settings are only backdrops that allow Wood to explore the same generational conflicts and ideological culture clashes that he’s always done. If someone dismisses NORTHLANDERS with a casual glance as some sort of “Conan knock-off,” they’re just not paying attention and probably haven’t actually read the book. Wood has used a pull quote from me that summarizes this idea, “NORTHLANDERS is poised to redefine the genre.” In an act of sublimating the identity of the very genre, he’s changing the rules of the game here from the inside, demonstrating how a good writer can operate within any genre and tell the types of stories they want to tell. The window dressing isn’t the point of the story, only a visually striking platform to launch from. If you confuse the genre with the medium, and then still think that the medium is the message, you’re going to get thrown way off and sucked down that silly “Conan knock-off” line of thought. Remember what we learned in CHANNEL ZERO… the medium is not the message, nor is the medium the same as the genre, nor is the genre mirroring the setting necessarily. So, take your Vikings and your Conan criticisms and reconsider. This isn’t about Sword & Sorcery style Fantasy with a capital “F.” This is about people’s identity and broad paradigm shift as the world radically changes around them.

NORTHLANDERS is reasonably successful from what I can tell, simply by using a lay observation with no comparative statistics. It’s survived that precarious window for Vertigo books of about issue 12 to 16, where an alarming number of critically praised series have seemed to fail. While solid books like YOUNG LIARS, MADAME XANADU, AIR, THE UNWRITTEN, and THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER have faltered, NORTHLANDERS seems to have broken through and proved in trade sales that it has a life beyond single issues. Perhaps people are catching on to the fact that this is not a simplistic piece of genre fiction. It’s not about cashing in on the CG rendered “guys with swords running at each other” slew of movies that Hollywood seemed to systemically belch out in the wake of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS imprint. It is a more complex, thoughtful, and intricate work.

I’ll fall on the sword here and admit that I didn’t “get it” until issue five. It was then that first arc protagonist Sven spoke to me, because it wasn’t just a mindless action book, he was struggling with his identity. His rightful inheritance, his love life, his religion, his different values, his generational rift, his place in the world he saw stretched out before him. Once I realized it was a theme I recognized, it gave me a foothold to enjoy the book. I knew how this worked. I knew I could trust Brian Wood. That’s not to say it never surprises me. The arcs jump around wildly in time, place, cast, length, and (brilliantly for late adopters) even cover design. Yet there is always that constant thread of identity acting as an anchor.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Sven, or The Shield Maidens, or two warriors who we’ve never met before facing off in “The Viking Art of Single Combat,” the theme always circles back to a search, a longing even, a universal human desire to define oneself, for a discernible identity, a sense of personal stability at a time in which people questioned their existential purpose in the world. These characters desperately need a strong sense of personal identity when all they’re being given from the external world is a sense that times are changing and the adaptability of the human spirit can only get you so far with “some fucker slipping his hunting knife in under the shields and unzipping your thigh.”

THE NEW YORK FOUR (2008, DC/MINX): THE NEW YORK FOUR was part of DC’s failed Young Adult (YA) line MINX. I read most of the first wave of MINX books and can safely say that NY4 was one of the best, if not the best. The main character, Riley Wilder, is basically a prototypical Wood creation for my stated purposes here. Her identity quest comes in the form of moving from a sheltered Brooklyn Brownstone into the city to attend college at NYU. There’s dramatic tension with her parents that touches strongly on one of Wood’s secondary story traits, generational conflict, as she tries to forge her own identity. She’s developing her own set of values, trying to escape from her parents’ and sister’s shadow, and is confronted by influences from her archetypal friends (wild attention-seeking Merissa, studious quiet Lona, and hippie skater Ren). She needs to find her own voice and in a critical scene, she fights with her parents to stick up for herself and defend her own individuality.

Reading the book a second time, it was crystal clear that NY4 is like an intensely distilled blend of Brian Wood’s primary theme and a couple of his more popular secondary traits. Perhaps the intensity came from Wood knowing his audience would be a YA demographic so the characteristics shouldn’t play subtle, but be a bit more in-your-face to ensure maximum understanding and retention. There is a well-written strong female front and center, surrounded by an eclectic cast of females. There is the inclusion of a palpable love for New York City. It’s there in the text; notice the quick tutorial on how to pronounce Houston Street (“House-tin” as opposed to “Houston,” Texas). And it’s right frickin’ there on the very trade dress of the back cover, as Riley confesses: “New York City. It awes me into silence sometimes.” These secondary traits, along with the primary identity quest Riley is on, play like a prime piece of ideological Brian Wood real estate.

As I understand it, a follow up to NY4 was planned prior to the MINX line being aborted, which may now be coming out as a mini-series or OGN from the Vertigo imprint. At the time of this writing, Wood recently made a few subtle updates to brianwood.com, which suggest the follow up will be entitled THE NEW YORK FIVE. With Wood leaving the end of the first volume fairly open-ended, it will be interesting to see if a future story about Riley sustains these themes.

DEMO: VOLUME TWO (2010, DC/Vertigo): If the original DEMO series began as the subversion of a popular genre/property, then here Brian Wood seems to subvert his own subversion. The characters and the happenings of DEMO: VOLUME TWO are less like modernized indie versions of UNCANNY X-MEN, and a little more ethereal, a little creepier, and a little more influenced by the classic horror genre. Most of the “powers” that have manifested (and notice we come into this series en media res, we don’t see any of these powers actually manifest initially as we did in DEMO: VOLUME ONE, we see them having already happened, the characters already contending with them in their daily life) are actually a curse that needs to be navigated.

All of the characters portrayed in DEMO: VOLUME TWO are found seeking a way to reconcile their strange abilities with their identity and assimilate the powers into their daily lifestyle. It doesn’t matter if the power itself is dream clairvoyance like we see in the first issue, an almost endearing clinical psychosis like Marlo has in issue three, or something more disturbing like cannibalism; the characters are struggling deeply with who they are, and how they fit into a world that their very essence makes it hard to navigate and find a sense of belonging.

Wood doesn’t offer much in the way of exposition, trusting long-time collaborator Becky Cloonan immensely, but readers can still detect an energy that’s prime Brian Wood. Over the course of just six issues, we see a couple of well written females, troubled relationships and realistic social tension, but first and foremost every main character is questioning and seeking to define the composition of their personal identity.

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