Open Mike Night: Courtney Crumrin #10 & Age of Ultron #1

Courtney Crumrin #10 (2013)

Written by: Ted Naifeh
Art by: Ted Naifeh
Colored by: Warren Wucinich
Designed by: Keith Wood
Published by: Oni
Cover Price: $3.99

Weaver: This week, we’re going to talk about giant robot armageddon and teenage witches…but sadly not at the same time. If it’s all the same to you, I would love to start out with your first impressions of Courtney Crumrin. This is an Oni Press book that released a few miniseries in the past and now has an ongoing. I have the minis, but had no idea it had an ongoing until I saw it in Comixology and said, “I’m going to make Mike read this.” Before we talk about the issue itself, let me say that it’s an odd comic because it culminates a very long running plot and sets a new status quo for the characters…which makes it simultaneously a great place to start and a tough place to hit the ground running. Personally, it was odd seeing Courtney in color, but I’ll stop yapping and turn it over to you.

Maillaro: I actually thought it was a real enjoyable read, but it didn’t feel like an “issue ten” of an ongoing series to me. It either felt like the end of a mini series leading into an ongoing, or the end of a series entirely. Hell, in a lot of ways, it could have been a first issue. I had first seen Ted Naifeh’s work on Polly and the Pirates, which I loved!

He has a terrific way of writing young women in a way that makes them both strong and vulnerable at the same time, and that was on full display here as well. Courtney smoothly transitioned back and forth from badass to lonely sad schoolgirl on a few different occasions in this book.

I did think this issue was fairly easy to follow, but there were definitely some elements I felt lost on, like the timeline, especially when it came to her journal.

Weaver: Ted Naifeh also did work on the seminal Goth comic Gloomcookie, which has a pretty significant cult following.

I agree that this could have been a first issue, or the end of a mini…my feeling is that even though it is now an ongoing, Ted approaches it as if it were still a series of minis. I’m partially inferring because I haven’t read the ongoing previously, but a quick rundown would be that her parents stick her with her Uncle Aloysius for a while, which is where she learns magic. The Council that we see here are basically the yang to the Crumrin yin, and I will assume that as of issue 9 they had wiped her memory of learning magic and put her uncle in a coma. By reading her journal, she’s able to remember her magic lessons and kick much ass.

Interesting that you bring up the emotion that Naifeh shows in the writing. I’m very impressed personally how much emotion he shows in the art. In a way, this art is very simplistic, with Courtney looking kewpie-dollish facially. And yet, Naifeh is always able to convey emotion not just through her facial expressions but her body language, too. He really elevates this style to a point where you get all the relevant information without getting distracted.

Maillaro: Yeah, I should have said “in the writing and art” as he did both for both this and Polly and the Pirates. And you are right, art times the art does seem like it could be simple, but there is just a ton of emotion and energy in it. I am reminded of this column’s perennial favorite artist, Mike Allred, in a lot of ways. Also Jill Thompson in many ways. So many people see “cartoony” art and they expect it to just be childish or simplistic, but the true masters of it are able to do so much more with their “simple” cartoons than a photorealistic comic artist can ever hope to pull off.

It’s funny that you mentioned the fact this comic looked odd in color. I thought the palette used on this comic was a little too subdued. I almost felt at points like the artist would rather have done in black and white, but ended up doing it in color just to give it a more mainstream appeal. But that really didn’t take away from the art to me, I still thought it was a very well drawn comic.

Weaver: Oh, for sure that cartoony styles tend to allow more emotional expression. I’m not saying that an artist with a more realistic style couldn’t express as much, but as we’ll talk about later, it tends to take them more of the page to do so.

The palette is very oddly subdued, and I will guarantee you it was largely done to go more mainstream with the title. Naifeh’s been working in black and white for a long time, and has done great work with it. I think at this point it must be almost instinctual.

Maillaro: I actually hope this book starts to gain some more attention. Seems like there is a lot of great potential here for a really good animated series or TV show. Oni really needs to get this book some attention in some of the teen magazines and things like that. A few years back, Crossgen was able to get Meridian a strong audience by doing that. Put out some digest editions that bookstores can carry in the teen or manga section, and Courtney Crumrin could really go a long way to dispelling the myth that all comics are about muscle-bound men and anatomically awkward women. I know that is a lot to put on one book, but just from this one issue, I think Courtney Crumrin and Ted Naifeh are definitely up to the task.

A few years back, DC and Marvel both made tentative efforts to reach out to that market, but I never felt like they put enough muscle into it. DC’s Minx graphic novels had a lot of great original ideas, but I only knew about them because I was specifically looking for books like that. And Marvel seemed to sabotage their own efforts. I don’t think anything in comics will ever piss me off like the cheesecake covers they slapped on Emma Frost, which was one of the best teen female books I have ever read.

Weaver: It’s interesting that you say that, because you’d never guess where the first place I encountered Courtney Crumrin was. Hot Topic. For a period of time, they sold indy/goth related comic books on a few shelves at some stores, and my wife picked it up, loved it, and we ended up tracking down all the minis from there. It reminds me of a big hodge podge of Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and a side of any number of works of fiction where the parents are oblivious to everything…all of these great sellers in the young adult market.

As for Emma Frost…it’s like anything else. The company doesn’t want to cut out the people that already buy their comics, so they assume the cheesecake cover is going to retain fans of general Marvel comics and the more nuanced interior is going to get a new audience. However, it’s been shown that you can have a completely blank cover and if you write “X-MEN” on it, comics people are going to buy it. Meanwhile, the casual consumer is going to be attracted first and foremost to the cover image, and if it’s a barely clothed lotus position or whatever, they have already decided what the comic is and whether they’re interested. By trying to appease both groups, Marvel effectively destroyed any chance of someone casual gaining interest in it.

I suggested this to you because I thought this would be your reaction. We’ve talked lately about how there needs to be more entry level comics and there needs to be more than two options for comics. When I saw Courtney had an ongoing, I thought this would kill two birds with one stone. However, I don’t necessarily agree that an animated series would be a good idea…I forsee it potentially being forced to censor out any of the objectionable parts of it, such as some of the spellcasting (which is decidedly Golden Dawn inspired, great style for a comic, questionable style for knee jerk reactions on air) and the bullying.

Maillaro: Unfortunately, you have a good point on the fact they would have to water down a lot of it…and it’s not exactly all that challenging to start with. I remember they did an episode of Phineas and Ferb about bullying and there was a great line about “Okay, boys. Let’s have a fair and square fight, and in no way should this ensuing fight contain the image of a potentially harmful, hurtful, or psychologically disturbing act, that could be found imitatable by an impressionable child viewer.”

Weaver: If I may segue back to last week’s conversation with a side of this week’s, there’s two big problems with it. First, the stories that need to be told, and I would argue that stories about bullying need to be told as much today as stories about drug abuse needed to be told in the 70’s…those stories are much too shocking for the existing framework of distribution to embrace, even if they feel that it’s a story that they want told. That’s why Green Lantern/Green Arrow and the Spider-Man issues had to not have the CCA stamp on them, which was a pretty big deal back then.

Secondly, most people would try to package this in strange ways if they went to a cartoon or show. You don’t see it here, but sometimes, Courtney can be incredibly meanspirited when dealing with bullies. It borders on revenge fantasy at times. Through the course of the book, she learns why she shouldn’t do that and such, but I think that for a television show, they’d try to reduce the amount of invective Courtney throws back even though that’s more or less the most natural reaction. Although maybe not…I’ve noticed that occasionally in Ultimate Spider-Man Pete can get away with doing some horrible things to Flash or Nova as long as he admits to the camera that he probably shouldn’t be doing that.

Maillaro: I was actually thinking a lot of that, but didn’t want to get too preachy. I actually think that more TV shows NEED to be more willing to talk about the tough issues. People make jokes all the time about “after school specials” or Lifetime movies, and sure a lot of those can get borderline ridiculous, but at least they are making an effort which is more than most mainstream entertainment does. On the bright side, at least we get plenty of warning about how the machines are going to take over the world, but more on that in two paragraphs…

Weaver: Since Ted Naifeh did both the art and the writing, I feel comfortable tossing out scores for both at the same time. I’d say 4.5 on both. Usually when you have someone who is both writer and artist, one or the other tends to be the obvious forte. I think Naifeh is equally excellent at both here.

Maillaro: I would actually say 4.5’s are a little higher (only a little) than I was thinking, but I was going to give them both the same score too. 4/5. I did enjoy the series enough to go back and read some of the earlier books, and I definitely would recommend this book to anyone looking for something different from your typical comic fare, but at the same time, it never felt like it would be one of my absolute favorite comics month in and month out.

Age of Ultron #1 

Written by: Brian Michael Bendis
Pencilled by: Bryan Hitch
Inked by: Paul Neary
Colored by: Paul Mounts
Lettered by: VC’s Cory Petit
Published by: Marvel
Cover Price: $3.99

Maillaro: Speaking of something different, next on the docket is Age of Ultron. I think it’s safe to say that neither of us had a lot of high hopes for this book. I have been enjoying a lot of Marvel books lately, but their sweeping crossover events tend to be a hot mess. I don’t have the same negative feelings about Bendis that a lot of people do (I swear I have now said that in columns or reviews three weeks in a row now), but even that wasn’t enough to give me a strong sense of excitement about Age of Ultron. I will admit, I selected the book for the column mostly because I expected to be able to heckle it.

While there were definitely some things about this comic I didn’t like, it was much better than I was expecting it to be. The two things that really won me over about this book are:

– I had never read a comic where the heroes had basically given up entirely. No matter how bad things get in most stories, the heroes are always willing to fight to the last man, no matter how hopeless. Seeing them basically abandon their own because of how bad things got told me a lot about how bad this situation really got. That last page in particular really hit hard, with an overwhelmed Captain America, crouched hopelessly in a corner. In a lot of ways, that image could have been cliche, but it truly was the perfect way to tell me “this comic is going to be different from anything you’ve ever read before.”

– Seeing Hawkeye able to cut loose entirely. The problem with heroes like Arrow and Hawkeye is that they are armed with lethal weapons…but always operating in a way where it seems they never really cause any lasting harm. This leads to stupid compromises like sonic arrows and boxing glove arrows. My favorite Green Arrow stories were always Grell’s stories where Arrow was allowed to be a bit more of a bad ass, and seeing Hawkeye in that role really worked well here. In a lot of ways, Hawkeye was the last real hero left, and he was doing some crazy things just to survive.

Weaver: I’ll say it. I wasn’t aware enough of what was going on in comics lately to know that this was going to be an alternate reality. I feel a little foolish for that. But yeah, I had very low expectations here. I felt like everything that could be said about Ultron has already been said, and I say that as a huge fan of Ultron and…uh, associated characters. Speaking of which, damn, Bendis really called out Pym on the “previously in” page. Brutal.

As for your feelings on it…haven’t you read Watchmen? A lot of the “heroes” in that had given up, to be later rallied by Nite Owl and/or Rohrshach. This also seemed to borrow heavily from Uncanny X-Men #141-142, Days of Future Past. However, I will agree that I like seeing Hawkeye be a badass, with the caveat that it just makes it more disappointing when he returns to reality and has to go back to net arrows or whatever. I also like the last page of Captain America, who in specific never seems to give up. I also like that some people are relatively unchanged…Spider-Man, despite having been locked in a Maggia basement and being tortured for god knows how long seems to be his normal quippy self.

I think alternate reality vignettes are a great peace of comicdom that has been shied away from in recent years. I’m glad to see a big title of it with brand name creators. This allows the company to do the huge scope devastation that puts asses in seats without screwing up the main world irrevocably. But there’s many parts of the execution that I have issue with. Such as needing to do multiple splash pages.

Maillaro: I should have been more clear, I meant a story involving characters we know and love. Watchmen were original characters (or based on characters that most readers wouldn’t have had any real attachment to). It’s different to see Luke Cage and Iron Man abandoning a teammate than it would be to see one of the Watchmen characters do the same. Even Days of Future Past, Wolverine was still fighting pretty hard to rescue whoever he could (at least that is how I remember it, it’s been probably twenty years since I read it).

Marvel and Bendis have been very careful about not saying much about what is going on here. And this issue doesn’t help. It throws you in the deep end without any real help on what’s going on and why. There are definitely indications that this is not going on during “Marvel NOW!” like Spider-Man seems to definitely be Peter Parker, not Doc Ock. But in the Superior Spider-Man Age of Ultron issue he seems to be wearing the Doc Ock-altered costume:

I mean, it sure seems like an alternate reality, but I am not so sure about that. I actually think it might be more like the Animal Man/Swamp Thing crossover Rotworld, where the “main” DC universe has undergone something so drastic that the only way things can ever get back to status quo is through some kind of time or reality altering plot element.

Weaver: Yeah, actually, most people in Days of Future Past were trying to work out some kind of Hail Mary solution. I was going more for referencing that for the way the future was designed and executed.

That kind of touches on a point I was thinking of…She-Hulk and Luke Cage have always been pretty scrappy and not ones to just give up, so the use of them in specific seems to underscore the underlying drama. I mean, I can buy Tony Stark punking out at a certain point. But Cap, She-Hulk, and Luke Cage definitely were surprises. I wonder if Cap has really given up or if he’s the plot element like Kitty in Days of Future Past where he’s like…divided among timelines. I want to say there were moments during the careers of the old Earth-2 DC heroes where they had to be talked into going back into the game, but then again, that’s thematic given that they’re old.

I’m going to come out and say alternate reality. Because I hope it’s an alternate reality.

Maillaro: I am assuming that it is either alternate reality or something that will be reversed in some cosmicy way…and that actually leads into one of my two major concerns about this book. Because of the fact I was pretty certain this wouldn’t have any real lasting stakes, it really softened the impact for me. If Marvel did have the balls to build off this setting, it could be a huge game changer…though would make for some depressing ass comics. Who wants to read about a She-Hulk living with the guilt that she basically said “screw the world, it can’t be saved.”

My other main problem is I am so sick of rape and/or sexual slavery being shorthand for “the world has gone tits up.” It seems as soon as the world goes wrong, women get it worse than everyone else becoming a hot commodity. It’s such a cheap way of getting heat and making bad guys look even worse than they should be. If that is the only way to make Owl and Hammerhead into your story’s main threat, you probably should have picked someone else.

Weaver: That, in a nutshell, is the problem with how comics are right now. You want big status quo shaking events, but you also want casual people to be able to think, “Hey, Batman!” and not be disappointed.

Is it wrong that the sex trafficking part of it didn’t even really register to me? Maybe, but if so, it’s probably even more wrong that my reaction to the woman siding with the Maggia was very “Oh, whatever.” It might be a sad statement that these tropes are so overused that things which should be shocking aren’t even shocking.

Maillaro: I noticed it because it caused me to roll my eyes. I actually had stopped reading about five pages in (was at airport and had to change gates at that point) and was thinking “I am not going to like this comic at all.” I actually had texted Grey, “Age of Ultron is kind of eh so far.” Thankfully, when I got back to it, the rest of the comic ended up being a big improvement.

Another thing I hated was the “shaky panels” that were supposed to symbolize the Ultron attack on the building. It was actually kind of a cool concept, but digitally it just felt like an eye sore. At first I actually thought it was some kind of printing error.

But all that aside, I really did think this was a good start to a crossover event with a lot of promise. And I am also glad that it’s not a sweeping investment to keep up with. Ten main issues, ten side issues, many of which are already in series I read (Superior Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Uncanny Avengers, Fearless Defenders). For the writing I would go 3.5/5, but that is an average of a slow start and a real strong rest of the comic.

Weaver: I’m not going to be as forgiving. After all, there’s a bunch of splash pages here, and as much as I don’t think you need words to tell a story, I do think that multiple silent big shots is a waste of space. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see Hitch’s art, and I love the way the art of the book was in general, but there was too much art not enough story. I’m going to slap it with a mediocre 2.5 for the writing. However, the art, as I said, is great. I especially love that last page, and the images of the downed helicarrier. This world works because Hitch sells it to us. 4/5 for him here.

Maillaro: Hitch definitely helped bring Age of Ultron to life…well…dystopian death might be more accurate. Some of the preview covers for Age of Ultron looked ugly (we actually spent a lot of time mocking them in my RPG group), but Hitch’s interiors worked great. I especially loved how beat up and worn down all the characters looked throughout. This universe is a total suckfest, and Hitch captures that perfectly. 4.5/5.

Maillaro: Damn this column ended up going into some strange waters this week. Any thoughts on next week? I actually wanna get you to read Star Trek 12 which came out last month. REALLY GOOD McCoy story. We also got Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, last issue of X-Treme X-Men, Fearless Defenders 2, Secret Avengers 2… Or the millions of comics that have come out in the last 80 years…

Weaver: Hm…that’s a lot of cool stuff. Since Star Trek is an old story, I’d like to hold it until the week I do my vacation, so we can have a column ready to post that week even though I won’t be here. I’d like to give both Age of Ultron and Fearless Defenders another look, if it’s purely up to me.

Maillaro: Sounds perfect! See you then, brudda!

Post Script

Maillaro: By the way, before we go, I want to point people to Mr Weaver’s first solo review, Young Avengers #2. It’s a damn good piece, even without his faithful co-writer!

Final Scores

Maillaro – Story Weaver – Story Maillaro – Art Weaver – Art
Courtney Crumrin #10 4 4.5 4 4.5
Age of Ultron #1 3.5 2.5 4.5 4

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