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A tone-deaf Marvel doubles down on Civil War II’s Nazi agenda

Also reviewed: Zonzo, Jonesy, and Babybel Wax Bodysuit

Civil War II: The Oath
Civil War II: The Oath

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In the aftermath of a civil war between two gangs of superheroes, the victor is elevated to a place of authority at the cost of the respect of the gangs’ peers, while the vanquished enjoys a moral victory in death. That was the ending of the original Civil War in 2007 and also the ending of Civil War II. Only the names have changed. Captain Marvel, victorious but loathed by the superhero community, is head of Earth’s interplanetary defense organization (tasked by the president with building a wall, no less!), Iron Man lies almost dead, and Captain America is the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. But now Cap is a Hydra fifth-columnist. To say that this comic—and the entire event—was a misstep is to underestimate the degree to which Marvel has damaged itself with this ill-conceived and poorly received storyline. Civil War II: The Oath underscores just how badly the company has erred.

The logic behind annulling Spider-Man’s marriage in 2007 was that a married Peter Parker aged the character and took him too far away from his core theme. Eventually, most accepted the logic (if not the execution), because Spider-Man is a character who deserves to be left intact for the next generation. This is common sense, but surprising to remember given how far almost every core Marvel concept has strayed from its roots. Some of the decisions have turned out well (female Thor), and some have been regrettable (Nazi Cap). The problem is not the characters themselves; it’s that the company appears to have forgotten how to tell big stories that don’t involve heroes fighting other heroes or radical status quo shifts. How about just telling a story about a hero fighting a villain?

It’s difficult to quantify just how upsetting it was to read a comic about a treasonous public servant being sworn into a position of power this week. It’s also difficult to quantify how ludicrous it is that Marvel is doubling down on its awful Nazi Cap storyline at this moment in history by turning it into the next crossover. Creators have lost the ability to craft stories that simply take the characters themselves as given and use them in fun and compelling ways. For The Oath, Nick Spencer turned in a carbon copy of Brian Michael Bendis’ script for 2007’s Civil War: The Confession, which featured Tony Stark delivering a lament over Steve Rogers’ corpse. There are even specific panel throwback meant to evoke that issue. Instead of being a cool throwback, it only underscores the lack of imagination. You’ve read this comic before. (Rod Reis and a handful of embellishers do a fine job with what they’re given to draw, but what they’re given is a lot of people talking to themselves in an empty room.)

The idea of a Nazi Cap was objectionable in the first place. But the fact that Marvel has continued despite the fierce and legitimate criticism speaks to the company’s tone deafness. Now that Donald Trump is president and approximately half the country lives in a state of heightened terror, the idea of Captain America being a Nazi and infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. will be, for many, simply dispiriting, unsettling, and too close to home to be fun. It’s demoralizing. It’s a very sad and upsetting comic, but not how anyone intended.

Marvel hasn’t been in this weak of a position, creatively, since the mid-’90s. Every popular character is bogged down in weird stories. Readers are cooling on events. Creators are leaving the company. Management remains dismissive of critique and increasingly stubborn. The last time this happened, Marvel suffered years of attrition before a complete change in management at the turn of the century. Drastic changes are needed, because the company has profoundly lost its way. [Tegan O’Neil]

Most comics readers will have encountered Joan Cornellà’s work in some form or another—he’s all over Tumblr and Facebook—and his art is easily identifiable, featuring six panels, black humor, and often violent situations. His are the comics where a man shoots himself in the head so that his blood spatter forms a cool mohawk. Zonzo (Fantagraphics Books) collects a number of these more recent comics in a slim and stylishly designed book.

The Spanish cartoonist uses thin lines; simple, clean layouts; and vibrant color palettes, all of which make his comics affable and easy to engage with. They are the kind of thing that literally anyone can follow along with, which may explain why people are so quick to share them on social media platforms. The jokes hit hard, and they require no decoding. But they are not as wholesome as they at first appear, as anyone familiar with these comics can attest. Usually by panel two, readers are confronted with incredible violence and vaguely scatological gags. In some, the violence functions as a kind of jokey surrealism—a hunter, clad in stereotypical safari gear, stalks and stabs a young child wearing a crocodile costume and is then lauded for his efforts. Additionally, Cornellà’s penchant for genital manipulation (and mutilation: strips include one figure breaking his penis by running headlong into a wall, another features a man looping his preternaturally long and ropy penis into his own butt to emulate the “handicapped” symbol) may lead some to see Cornellà’s work as something akin to Johnny Ryan’s. But whereas Ryan’s work is mostly scattershot and anarchic—often trapping it in an amber of retrograde “ironic” racism—Cornellà’s work is in many ways more refined.

That may seem like an odd way to describe a cartoonist who produced a page (which is included in this collection) where a man’s head appears to be a penis and scrotum, but it is nonetheless true. Cornellà’s aesthetic evidences this most immediately: He is obsessed by the comics frame. In many of his strips, the joke takes the form of a series of reveals, with Cornellà pulling back farther and farther, offering more of an image, a kind of reverse mise en abyme. Each new piece of visual information radically alters how an object or person may be seen.

Other strips play with perspective—how the visual information within a frame may be manipulated and the effect those manipulations may exert on the contents of the frame. But the deftness of his writing rears its head in more overtly political ways. One strip is particularly political: A pink elephant draws a swastika on a rainbow flag, and the flag holder—rendered unable to tell the difference between himself and a Nazi through a maleficent, though not at all meaningful, exchange of symbols—kills himself. Looking at this page through the lens of recent events, it seems to offer a succinct articulation of critiques of the liberal defenses of Richard Spencer, and it does so with humor and style—functioning as a microcosm of Cornellà’s ethos and aesthetic. [Shea Hennum]

As many cape and cowl comics shift to ever darker storylines and more convoluted continuities, having a roster of decent kid-friendly books with a slew of different characters to choose from is necessary. Jonesy #9 (Boom! Box) is in great company, a standout book with a compelling if sometimes caustic lead and a great creative team. The titular character is a girl caught in the awkward years between childhood and being an adult, ruled by peer pressure, intense passions, and her own whims. Her parents are separated, and her friends are just as juvenile yet grown-up as she is. The real kicker is that Jonesy has the inexplicable power to make people fall in love, not just with other people but also with objects, populations, and even ideas. Much of the plot is driven by Jonesy using her powers out of anger or a desire to get her way, and then dealing with the fallout.

The most recent issue takes a turn from the previous one, with Jonesy visiting her mother in a city much larger than her hometown of Plymouth, trying to decide if she wants to stay or return to her old life with her father and friends. This is the only real problem with the issue, as it feels like a sudden jump from #8, a narrative leap that takes readers from Jonesy meeting a boy with powers like hers to Jonesy in a new town, alone and morose. This issue picks up a thread that started in #7 as Jonesy and her mother attempt to repair their relationship—apparently the motivation for her move from Plymouth. There are allusions to some bad behavior back in Plymouth that have Jonesy seriously considering making the move permanent, but it’s never explained. It’s a familiar story about a kid pulled between two parents, but the inclusion of Jonesy’s powers, hobbies, and adorable pet ferret keep this well-trodden path from feeling trite or stale.

Jonesy is still as brash and unapologetically herself as ever, with a great series of panels depicting her as Godzilla destroying a city for shutting down a shelter for her beloved ferrets. Writer Sam Humphries walks Jonesy on the fine line between selfish and vulnerable, managing to make her sympathetic even as she rages against the world. That’s in no small part thanks to Caitlin Rose Boyle’s art, which evokes a similar kind of bubble gum pop style as cartoons like Adventure Time, shifting from antics to serious topics without any effort at all.

Boyle’s treatment of facial expressions and body language are particularly vital to showing Jonesy as someone who’s often reacting to new and frightening situations out of fear or frustration, rather than any real malice. The art in this issue is a little more contained than usual, demonstrating Jonesy’s emotional isolation with physical isolation, and Brittany Peer’s colors, while still bright and peppy, skew toward cooler tones and monochromatic palettes, giving the issue a very different tone overall. It’s a great place to jump in if you haven’t picked up the title before, taking Jonesy on entirely new adventures. [Caitlin Rosberg]

There’s something uniquely satisfying about the process of eating a Babybel cheese wheel: pulling the tab, peeling through the shiny wax, discovering a perfect little disc of creamy cheese tightly nestled inside. Cartoonist Eric Kostiuk Williams uses this process as a visual for shedding his own protective outer layer in Babybel Wax Bodysuit (Retrofit/Big Planet), a collection of short comics spotlighting his bold point of view and mercurial artistic style. The book begins with an amorphous person encased in the titular bodysuit, anxiously trying to break out of the glistening red wax. The wax is peeled to reveal the cartoonist’s anxieties in the introduction, but later he retreats into this crimson shell as he’s consumed by fear of the immediate future. There’s a sense of safety in this confinement, and even though he knows it’s cowardly, he can’t resist the urge to retreat.

The most powerful story in Babybel Wax Bodysuit, “The Literal World,” moves in the opposite direction, exploring Williams’ need to connect with others during a particularly alienated time in his life. As a closeted teen, Williams turned to comic book message boards to create meaningful relationships with sympathetic people who had personal circumstances different from his own, and he does excellent work visualizing these digital bonds while delving into his complex emotional state during this turbulent period. This reviewer was another one of those closeted teens that became deeply entrenched in the message board world, and Williams’ depiction of that experience is remarkably accurate, capturing both the camaraderie of finding like-minded individuals and the fear of fully revealing yourself to strangers.

Williams’ art style is psychedelic and unconventional, with layouts that swirl and bleed together in ways that are as expressive as they are experimental. His vibrant colors energize his linework and heighten the surrealism of his compositions. The one-page strip “What We Say” uses bizarre imagery to evoke a strong sense of paranoia and discomfort as Williams’ ponders what people say about him when he’s not around; the straightforward message is given extra weight when paired with the surreal visuals.

Babybel Wax Bodysuit ends with a hilarious comic about a cyborg Britney Spears that is still performing her Las Vegas show in 2116, a story that pays tribute to Spears’ music catalog while delving further into the theme of self-commodification that is first introduced in the opening pages of this collection. Spears wears shiny, red thigh-high boots that evoke the Babybel bodysuit (which also looks a lot like the red latex outfit Spears wears in the “Oops!… I Did It Again” music video), and “Britney Jean 2116” is ultimately about shedding those confining items and the image they represent to find a new sense of self. All the comics tie together very nicely in this book, making it an especially cohesive read.

Retrofit/Big Planet consistently puts out captivating works by some of the most exciting cartoonists in the industry, and it’s worth checking out its subscription options to get all of the new releases at a discounted price. Babybel Wax Bodysuit is included in both the general 2016 subscription, which includes 12 comics for $75 plus shipping (or $40 for digital PDFs), and the fall 2016 subscription, which is six comics for $40 plus shipping (or $20 for digital PDFs). The 2016 subscription also includes A.V. Club favorites like Eleanor Davis’ Libby’s Dad and Luke Howard’s Our Mother, and it’s the easiest way to support this progressive small press and ensure that it continues to put out challenging, innovative comics. [Oliver Sava]