Martyrs or Not: Sean Lewis and Ben Mackey’s Saints

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Upon returning to America from travels in Italy, it seemed wholly appropriate to pick up Sean Lewis and Ben Mackey’s Saints. As much as Generoso and I have been adjusting our diets as we re-acclimate with America, I figured that I should also readjust to American culture in comics by reading something mildly related to the Catholic churches and the gargantuan paintings we encountered last week. Also, at one point, we stood by the altar that contained Saint Peter’s remains, so Saints feels like a reasonable selection to reacquaint myself with the secular and non-secular blending that is embedded in the identity of America.

Lewis’s first foray into comics, Saints explores the intersection of reincarnation, sainthood, and the battle against evil. The spirits and the powers of Saint Lucy, Sebastian, Blaise, and Stephen have emerged in today’s world as adults who not only need to adjust to life but also have a divine calling to join together to battle a surge of evil. In biblical times, the archangel Michael defeated the devil and the fallen angels in the battle in heaven, but in our contemporary world, a man who claims to be the incarnation of Michael leads a society of congregations who offer their children to battle against saints, who are believed to bring about the end of times when they reappear on earth. With Michael’s increasing power, Lucy, Sebastian, Blaise, and Stephen begin receiving messages from God that lead them to each other in order to face Michael’s new children’s crusade.

Favorite cover: Issue 5

Within a five issues, Saints packs in a ton. Lewis anchors the ensemble tale with the introspection and growth of Blaise, the saint with the least amount of confidence in his own identity much less his responsibilities to God and humanity. In secular reality, Blaise has attached himself to failed metal groups in order to relate to other people, but his connection to the metal groups feels all too thin and full of false idols. Consequently, when Blaise begins having recurring cryptic dreams set entirely in gold with strangers he feels some familiarity with, he does not dismiss them, but he also does not attempt to understand them. That is, until Sebastian, one of the people in the dream appears at a concert and explains that Blaise’s dreams signify a higher calling.

Once Sebastian and Blaise find Lucy and Stephen, the group attempts to decode why they have received messages to come together as well as their history in their previous lives. When the modern Michael’s army begins to attack them, the group goes into hiding and spend more time trying to understand each other, making Saints less of a superhero tale about the battle between good and evil and more of a road tale, where traveling forces characters to better understand their purpose.

Saints has a fascinating premise, and I must admit it kept me engaged even though the execution of the storytelling may not be the best. In an interview, Lewis described the writing process as one where he wrote a short story that he and Mackey then dissected to form the panels. This distillation from a longer story rather than the construction of a script or storyboard leads the first couple of issues of Saints to have a clumsiness and awkwardness in the progression of ideas and conversations from panel to panel and page to page, but by the fourth issue, the bumps begin to smooth out. Mackey’s shifts in color help ease the transitions from dream sequences to the saints’ reality to the building of Michael’s congregation and army, so even though the panel flow does not always work in the first three issues, you never get lost between the different branches of the story.

Given its non-secular focus, I cannot bypass a discussion of the adaptation of biblical concepts. I, in no way, am a scholar of Christianity, but I do understand some of the core tenants of the Bible. Lewis definitely loosely interprets the archangel Michael, but his modernization of the saints does not feel too distant from their original personas. While a secular fictional tale about the faith could use saints’ powers as superpowers, I appreciate that Lewis de-emphasizes the saints’ supernatural abilities and focuses the series on the saints understanding their divine calling; I hope Saints begins to focus more on the psychological aspect of the martyrdom of these saints, for those ruminations could make this series rise from just being entertaining to something daring and innovative. Additionally, the martyrdom aspect of the saints distinguishes these characters from any others out there in the comic book world that have some supernatural ability and some responsibility to other humans; by exploring this security or insecurity in faith and grace or hesitation toward martyrdom, Saints can emerge as a faith based series that intelligently and relatably discusses how to interpret and apply faith in a modern world.

Saints has solid footing in an excellent concept. I hope it digs further into the hearts and minds of its characters and their conflicts with their higher calling, but regardless, I’ll still follow along because Lewis and Mackey are aiming for a big idea and have yet to enter the pretentious territory, and that impresses me.

Saints is written by Sean Lewis and illustrated by Ben Mackey. Issues 1-5 are available via Image Comics.  

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Dimension Traveling at Its Finest: Warren Ellis & Tula Lotay’s Supreme: Blue Rose

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As I write this, I am in a post-4th of July haze induced by hot dogs, jazz, the sound of forbidden fireworks fired in the streets, and a long walk through what felt like an abandoned Los Angeles. In this state, I’m reading two works at the same time that lead me toward disorientation because I could not imagine two series more opposite in tone and content. The crazy two are Daniel Clowes’s The Complete Eightball and Warren Ellis’s Supreme: Blue Rose.

To heighten this sense of confusion, Supreme: Blue Rose may just be one of the most dream-like and ethereal comics for the masses I’ve seen in some time.

Cover for Volume One of Supreme: Blue Rose

Warren Ellis must never sleep. His sharp series, Trees, has progressed a few months after the first volume was released earlier this year, and simultaneously, another series, Injection, has begun this summer. And in addition to these two, he’s also managed to complete seven issues of Supreme: Blue Rose, which are collected into the first volume for the series that hit comic book stores this week on July 1st.

When Ellis actually sleeps between all of this work, his dreams must be filled with multiple dimensions and plenty of time travelling into places we will never see, but thankfully for us, he and Tula Lotay have materialized these forbidden foreign places in between the folds of the spectrum of time with Supreme: Blue Rose.

Diana Dane (yes, that’s probably the epitome of a superhero name) seems to have ties to some alternate universe. In her dreams, a man warns her about trusting a complete stranger named Darius Dax (and yes, that’s the epitome of a supervillian name), and a faceless man, cleverly named Enigma, stands on the shore staring into a bay where he claims a guardian of the future once descended and spoke to him as she surveyed the land one last time before it would change. And if things could not get any more ominous, the faceless man appears at a street corner as Diana travels to a meeting with Darius Dax at the National Praxinoscope Company for some reason undisclosed to her.

But let me warn you, despite the superhero names and some familiar archetypes seen in some superhero comics, Supreme: Blue Rose is far beyond a superhero tale. It is not really even an anti-superhero comic….

Diana has fallen from grace from her rising journalism career, and consequently, when Dax offers her a total of one million dollars to investigate the whereabouts of Ethan Crane, even under  far beyond ordinary, most likely supernatural circumstances, she has little reason to say no. One million dollars does not come without some level of grief, and Diana has quite a lot of it in store for her.

As it turns out, the universe resembles some giant, self releasing software development machine. It releases versions of reality and merges them into the time space continuum, creating multiple branches of reality that may or may not shift when a new version arrives. Unfortunately, a recent version has disrupted the separation of realities, and fragments of others are falling into the one Diana Dane and Darius Dax inhabit. The answer to the clashing of alternate realms lies with Ethan Crane, but he has seemingly vaporized, and his disappearance may be a sign of the end to come.

In parallel to Diana’s quest to find Ethan Crane, Ellis also presents the worlds of Professor Night, a television serial character, and Chelsea Henry, a professor turned dimension jumper. Professor Night battles his own enemy and lover in Evening Primrose in a decaying futuristic world, and Chelsea attempts to understand her own powers and the truth behind the universe. Both Professor Night and Chelsea wander through their worlds and also multiple dimensions in search of something, and as Supreme: Blue Rose unfolds, they both travel into Diana Dane’s world, all culminating into a final scene where the past, the present, and the future collide, shatter, and fold.

Supreme: Blue Rose feels like Ellis’s “fuck you, I can do it better” to the frequent use of alternate universes in superhero dynasties. Ellis expands that inherently human fascination with what ifs and regrets to create a whole series around alternate realities that constantly and cryptically twist and turn. With this series, in our post-modern world, Ellis proves that he shall remain as the king of futuristic, nihilistic concepts; every character in Supreme: Blue Rose has no control over his or her existence(s), and all of their perceived realities remain in a fragile state, ready to fall at any moment, rejecting any belief that we as humans can hold true power over our own reality.

Beyond the experiences of the characters, the instability of the worlds of Supreme: Blue Rose are most evident in the artwork by Tula Lotay. All of the illustrations have a looseness and haziness to them accomplished by pastel and watercolor techniques that blur the lines between dreams, pasts, presents, and futures, making us as the readers question what is real and what is not and if the concept of the real even matters. Lotay’s artwork paired with Ellis’s narrative makes Supreme: Blue Rose transcend above all other dimension shifting series.

By the end of Supreme: Blue Rose, Diana Dane may or may not have succeeded her mission, and Ethan Crane may or may not have helped change the universe, but alas, an exact answer may not exist because we have no idea which reality the events occurred in. A goal directed plot certainly exists, but the most fascinating parts of the series occur across dimensions with the reveal of different versions of a single character which can be pieced together to establish each character’s fundamental motivations and inclinations toward good or evil or nothing at all. With Supreme: Blue Rose, Ellis pushes the storytelling technique of fragmented character building into a new territory, all while reminding us not to get too swept up in our own fantasies of our own possible alternate realities, since after all, we have an essential character and spirit, and that will permeate all of the dimensions, whether you’re a desk clerk in one reality or a supermodel in another.

Supreme: Blue Rose by Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay is available now via Image Comics. 

A Misfit Among Misfits in the 1980s: Deadly Class

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Note: This post is going to be a little more of a traditional review. Please bear with me for the length of the narrative setup. Thank you! 

Marcus is a vagrant outsider.

Marcus is hell bent on avenging the premature deaths of his parents.

Marcus is a pupil in a school for assassins.

Cover of Deadly Class Vol. 1: Reagan Youth

Marcus Lopez is the primary protagonist in the Image Comics series, Deadly Class. At the opening of Deadly Class, we meet Marcus as he wanders the streets of San Francisco. Life has not been kind to him; his parents were accidentally and gruesomely killed when a former psychiatric patient jumped off of a bridge and landed on top of them in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s allowance for the de-institutionalization of state mental health facilities from the late 60s to the mid 70s during his terms as governor of California.

After the loss of his parents and his sinking into severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Marcus becomes a homeless vagrant whose constant, overwhelmingly nihilistic thoughts continue to prevent him from moving forward. Despite the intense pessimism of most of his thoughts, Marcus has a bizarre optimism at points that he ties back to the last words about life that his father told him and continues to wander about looking for some meaning in life with a small amount of faith that there may be some deity or being to help him. This optimism and faith in the midst of the Marcus’s dour, miserable world is the beginning of the strange contradictions in Deadly Class.

During a street parade, a mysterious Yakuza affiliated girl rescues Marcus after a series of detectives and police officers chase after him. She takes him to an underground world where a teacher appears who has the semblance of any old, wise master from a karate film. After explaining to a group of students that Marcus was chosen because he has the undying motivation of revenge, the teacher invites Marcus to become a student of the Kings Dominion of the School of the Deadly Arts, a school that marks the humble beginnings of the world’s best assassins. Marcus’s prayers for help to find a path in life may have been answered.

On Marcus’s first day of class, he quickly realizes that he is yet again an outcast, even though all of his classmates are the major outcasts of society, and we, as the readers, are quickly thrusted into an archetypal world of high school but with a little more thirst for bloodshed. For those who went to high school in a place where clique divisions were more dogmatic than the dress code as I did, we are quickly reminded of our experiences, for better and most likely for worst. In the School of the Deadly Arts, the students go through the same issues around perceived image that most teenagers experience, except that image at this school includes one’s propensity to harm others. Who is dating the popular girl is important in this world. Who is the child of who is important in this world, but most of all, who is (or seems) the toughest is important in this world. The first two issues of the series create an interesting setting for the narrative, but there are some peculiar decisions in the progression of Deadly Class.

Although the projects that the students have to complete are outrageous and sensationalistic and the characters that we encounter are handpicked from various arch criminal groups, Deadly Class is mostly a coming of age story, and being so, has some maudlin and, dare I say it, sanguine moments that destroy the dour tone that it worked so hard to set up at its beginning, which confuses me a bit. I’m not entirely sure about the author’s intent on this one. Is it supposed to trace the rise of the outcast from the bottom of the feeding pool to the top? Is it supposed to be a bildungsroman with an assassin training school wrapper? The first volume opens up with an introduction from David Lapham, the author of Stray Bullets, about how he was a nobody in high school in the 80s, and how he met his wife there, who was a member of the popular clique, giving a sense into the motivations of strange optimism embedded in the narrative of Deadly Class: the adolescent mindset of the 1980s instilled by John Hughes films.

As the series unfolds, it becomes a story almost too close to the Breakfast Club, which feels like a betrayal to the intricate and interesting concept of a school for assassins. Marcus tries to get the girl from one of the more popular cliques. He and representatives from some of the major cliques work together to execute Marcus’s revenge on Ronald Reagan, which is the same plot as a group of kids trying to take over a school from an oppressive principal at a larger scale. And in the the most betraying twist of all, Marcus, upon being accepted, has an excitement for life.

Personally, I never really identified with any John Hughes film, where a social pariah rises in ranks by adopting a set of expectations and suddenly loves life, and it seems like writer Rick Remender, identified with them just a little too much. Perhaps I’m a bit of a grim person myself, but I really would have preferred for Deadly Class to be an investigation into the psychology of Marcus. As I continued to read, I kept asking myself, “Why does Marcus, who has some questionably psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies, have such traditional teenage motivations?” I would have loved for the series to wallow in the darkness of Marcus’s internal world and the malice and disregard for societal standards in the school. The story could have explored some interesting frontiers in a sullen, macabre setting, but it sadly does not.

Nevertheless, I do not think that Deadly Class is a horrible graphic novel. I think it simply plays it too safe. I think it is trying to shock its readers with the setting of the School of the Deadly Arts and the consequent events of violence, but it’s core story is far too traditional and suffers from the same fantasy optimism of the films and culture of the 1980s that I think the author may have originally hated but secretly desired. It is still worth a read for at least the artwork; the colorist Lee Loughridge and the illustrator Wes Craig create beautiful sequences, including a fantastic neon, two-dimensional acid trip that Ken Kesey would be proud of. Take a look at Deadly Class, just do not expect a groundbreaking narrative behind its sensationalistic facade.

Deadly Class is published by Image Comics and is currently up to issue six with issue seven to be released in mid-September.