Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Megas #1

Megas #1, February 2008, Virgin Comics
writers: Jonathan Mostow & John Harrison
artist: Peter Rubin
colorist: S. Periaswamy
letterers: Rakesh B. Mahadik & Nilesh P. Kudale
assistant editor: Charlie Beckerman
editor: Mariah Huehner
Blogger's note: Entry for Monday, March 3, 2008.
Can you separate the art from the artist? When Stan Lee decided to become Marvel Comics' mascot with his behind-the-scenes "Soapbox" every month, he effectively answered that question for you, at least in regards to comics. Furthered by the ever blossoming convention circuit, cross-media franchising, and the Internet, the comic book industry has become as infused with the culture of celebrity as has television and film. Sure, Jim Lee doesn't make as much money as, say, Brad Pitt, but when his name graces a comic book cover, it's often as large or logistically prominent as the very series' title or lead characters. Just look at the cover of the Justice League of America: Tornado's Path hardcover collection. Who can boast top billing? I rest my case.

Megas is another example, though thankfully a bit more subtle. Jonathan Mostow's name isn't emblazoned across this inaugural issue's cover, but I count at least three places throughout entire issue where his name is followed by the prestigious credential "Director of U-571 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. (Never mind that Fox's recent smash hit Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles effectively eliminates the events of T3 in Terminator continuity . . . but I digress.) Once would have been enough. Such posturing evokes an impression of desperation to me, as if the comic book industry as a whole has something to prove by courting already accomplished writers and actors to its ranks. Sure, drop the cred on the cover or credits page, but every time we see his name? Look, I bought the book, okay? And I haven't seen either of those films.
I'd hate to consider the alternative: that these writers are actually that pompous. I'd hate to think that Mr. Mostow actually introduces himself this way, that the Starbucks barista calls his drink with, "A caramel macchiato for Jon, director of U-571 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines!"
I bring this up because my copy of Megas is the so-called "director's cut," which includes an introductory essay and a few supplemental sketch book pages. I was disappointed in these supposed extras, since contemporary first issues usually contain these elements anyway (though, granted, the introduction is usually disguised as lettercol filler, but, as I said, Stan Lee paved the way for a little aggrandizing, which is a-okay by me). My Lone Ranger #1 director's cut edition by Dynamite Entertainment actually included some page-by-page commentary, which I ignored during my initial read and completely enjoyed the second time 'round. I thought a "director's cut" penned by a director would at least be on par. We were only told that the guy's a director some three times.
In his introduction, Mostow presents the premise to Megas -- that, the more the American government talks about spreading democracy, the more he's wondered what America would be like if it never was a democracy. What is our founding father brought the tenants of the motherland to America with them? Just as I thought that these thoughts make for a cool comics "what if" scenario, Mostow is quick to tell me that Megas is more than a cool "what if" scenario -- that it's actually a metaphor "for the America we live in today."
"Think about it," he explains, "Aren't there two classes in our society -- the privileged few and . . . everybody else? CEOs and celebrities reap fame and riches while the rest of us toil away in our anonymous daily grinds."
Wait a minute. "We?" I've already read twice by page one that you're the director of U-571 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Doesn't that mean you've worked alongside the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Hardly sounds like a daily grind to me. As I said, I understand that these actors make incomparable salaries . . . more for one film than most two income households make in a lifetime. Still, sitting in the director's chair can't be too shabby. Putting words in McConaughey's mouth, moving Arnold around like an action figure on set . . . that sounds like "reaping fame" to me, even if it is an extension of legitimate art.
So, in this case, I really couldn't distinguish the art from the artist. He made it impossible to ignore his connection to this material, what with his transparent, futile attempt to connect with me, the reader. If Mostow had said, "Working in Hollywood has taught me that [insert previous quotation here]," at least I could've rest assured that he recognized the sociological dividing line between his lifestyle and mine.
What did I think of the issue itself, you ask? Meh. With a murdered (and apparently open-minded, what with all of the hookers laying around) prince and a dying king on his hands, Agent Jack Madison has a whopper of a case on his hands, and the prejudice between classes certainly isn't helping him get to the bottom of things. When a night club is bombed with laughing gas and scraps of paper conveying an anarchist message from the Dada theater troupe, Madison is the only one that isn't laughing as he realizes the seriousness of his quarry. The story is paced well enough, with a fair balance of political and pop cultural intrigue, as Mostow and Harrison explore how such a tyranny would really play out in our celebrity-oriented culture. I only wish they had taken their "what if" scenario to the extreme with caricatures of real life politicians and debutantes. Could Paris Hilton survive in this new world? Could George W. Bush? Does tweaking America's political past negate their existence entirely?
Interestingly, Peter Ruben's art and colorist S. Periaswamy depict the Megas' hair as stark white, regardless of age. The homage to our founding fathers' penchant for wigs with this touch of seemingly divine heritage is an inspired move that elevates otherwise standard interior art to a higher plane of interaction with its script. The Megas are distinguished visually, and historically. Keeping it real.
The metaphor for America as we know it today is as obvious as Jonathan Mostow describes it. Just as his Megas cannot separate their private lives from their professional status, as it goes with all royalty, so too I simply cannot distinguish this piece from the first impression Mostow's essay left with me. Had it been in the back somewhere, I wonder if I would've even noticed the dichotomy. That's the thing Stan Lee established so well -- his Soapbox page used to be in the midst of the issue, on random pages every month. He'd pull you out of the story only to drop you right back in, so even if you didn't like the peek behind the curtain, you either overlook it or eventually forget about it entirely. Today's artists need a little bit more fulfillment than that, I suppose. I suppose it's the only true reward that comes from the toil of their daily grind.

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