Friday, May 29, 2015

The Two Extremes and the Resulting Compromise

I have no obvious vices like smoking or drinking but this year, there were two books so far which had compelled me to indulge in these things. Upon finishing Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer two months ago, I immediately went to the nearest convenience store and bought a single cigarette stick to corrupt my lungs with; even just for that night because the reading experience was quite exceptional and I needed the taste of nicotine in my mouth to preserve it somehow. Now, as I write this review, I suddenly had this overpowering craving to drink booze, and vodka, I find, has always had a soothing effect on me which was exactly what I needed to suckle on once I did finish the end of this novel. I'm drinking it right now as I type.
"The story is always about someone, a man or woman, who didn't seem to fit into the world and always shocked people by misbehaving. There is the rebel who tries to destroy the social order and the follower who tries to please it. And then there was the witness; one who is transformed and enlightened from all this. The rebel, the follower and the witness. The two extremes and the resulting compromise."

I suppose like most people, I know of this book because of the movie starring Jack Nicholson in the lead role but I barely remember that film adaptation now because I think it had almost been a decade since I last saw it; which was great because at least I get to read this book with fresh eyes with only remnants of what I have watched from the movie sometimes resurfacing when I read a particular scene that I can somewhat recall seeing before. Nevertheless, reading Ken Kasey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has been really thrilling in spite of the narrative's slow-burn tendencies. Told in the first-person perspective of the Native American Chief Bromden, the book reads like a journal of personal experiences and interactions of this said character with the people he is co-existing with inside the 'loony bin' where the story majorly took place. There were even quick sketches of certain in between the pages which gives the narrative an authentic 'diary' feel to it.

Chief Bromden as the narrator for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is someone I would consider the most reliable of all the unreliable narrators out there (if that even makes sense). Because of his heritage, he usually keeps to himself, content on people assuming he's either deaf, mute or dumb--or all of the above. This is a man who prioritizes self-preservation and keeping up with the status quo, more so than any character in this book and that's mostly because he knows first-hand how being different will get one into trouble. He had been in several other mental institutions before and know of the small horrors and limited compensations that people who are considered 'unfit' have to undergo. Through his eyes, readers get to acquaint themselves with the overall routine and the ridiculously inhibiting way of life that patients at the mental hospital he is currently committed in have no other choice but to live by. In charge of all this is the middle-aged re-inforcer of the most precise of rules, Nurse Ratched, whose staunch ways re-define a whole new level of totalitarian matriarchy.

I find Bromden's descriptions of her physical appearance, habits and eccentricities to be rather chilling since he always compares her to something of a detached automation than an actual living, breathing person with feelings of her own. Because of this limited perspective and insight, we never really get to see any kind of vulnerability or sympathetic trait from Nurse Ratched unless of course her perceived weaknesses are interpreted rather antagonistically not necessarily by Bromden himself but by the other male characters. If this was truly a nest of cuckoos then Nurse Ratched may as well be their mother bird and she governs every facet of their life and she often demonstrates her power and influence in the most gratingly passive-aggressive manner ever imaginable. There is certainly a matter of questioning the author's intent that somewhat demonizes female authority and I personally encourage that discussion because any criticism regarding its chauvinism towards its only main female character can now be raised and argued by readers of my generation. I do think Nurse Ratched is portrayed in a harsher light than needed and this is worth a discussion most probably because of her gender and what she directly (and in latent terms) symbolizes in relation to that.

Like any promising and compelling story on overthrowing the oppressive regime or taking away the control from the most inhumane of overlords, this book's knight-in-shining-armor is a less pristine version of said trope and this is realized in no other than Randle Patrick McMurphy, a gambler and recently diagnosed 'psychopath' who is all kinds of charming and disarming, much to the initial dread and eventual relief of the other patients including Bromden. McMurphy's very role and participation in the book is to create a shift in power dynamics among Nurse Ratched and her blabbering, passive and frightened patients. Through McMurphy's carefully cultivated chaos, the other male characters of this book started to recognize the seemingly small injustices and that they shouldn't have to put up with Nurse Ratched's deliberate manipulations. The maltreatment they are suffering was often described as rather mundane or inconsequential--such as the lack of enough free time to do other activities, or the refusal of the staff to cater to some more humane methods to pacify them--but their rights are still being violated little by little until these men are reduced into spineless fools who quiver at the sight of Nurse Ratched's shadow.

Clever and more than a match to Nurse Ratched's imposing authority, McMurphy quite literally gets the patients riled up, waking up these men from their once restful and lethargic states so they can have a more meaningful purpose than just take whatever the medical staff would give them, mediation or otherwise. McMurphy is not a saintly liberator, however, and Bromden recognizes that there is ego and impulse in every action that McMurphy commits; sometimes he deliberately tries to rattle the one in charge either to know that he could or to reap whatever kind of  benefits he will receive if he did succeed. Nevertheless, Bromden becomes fond of him and so do the other patients because for the first time in a long time they have someone to look up to, someone to defend them and someone they can consider their friend against a nameless, overreaching system that oppresses them and makes them feel less human and more burdensome creatures who can never fully function outside the confines of the facility. It's a rather poignant affair especially when McMurphy realizes what he meant to these men and that he himself is beginning to care about them beyond seeing them as an audience he can perform his anarchist tricks for. 

Bromden also grows midway through the book, realizing that he doesn't have to hide under 'the fog' anymore, not when McMurphy has shown him that the only person standing in the way of his freedom and self-esteem issues is himself and once Bromden overcame his insecurities and fears, his trauma of his past concerning his father has lessened, and he began to fight back against the same oppression that has him kneeling down for a very long time. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has some riveting social commentary regarding the function and tension of power constructs that also happens to include a scathing indictment of the health care system back then when it came to treating mentally damaged patients. The book also examines in a quite humorous but still piercingly philosophical way this inherent inclination of humans to rebel against an authority or refuse a system they perceive as demeaning and aggressive. There are plenty enough layers in this novel that readers can freely discuss and argue about for days. 

Deceptively slow in establishing its key players and moments, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is guaranteed to be very satisfying midway and until the very unexpected end.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

As the curtains fall on a stage where we're all performers

"The truth was never just one person's story, or one version of what happened, never a shining absolute but an often filthy and ragged compromise that took not only godly patience to piece together, but also the devil's sureness of the worst of human nature."
This was one of the few books that stayed on my shelves for a very long time and I was only able to pick it up now because I knew I had to include it on my Book Diet schedule for this year at long last. Now I've always considered it a great, humbling experience every time I would come across a novel to which I had no kind of expectations for or familiarity with whatsoever; and yet it'd ultimately fill me with clear-cut emotions that defied almost a logical explanation for their being. Jose Dalisay's 2008 fiction Soledad's Sister was exactly just that. It tackled really hard truths with an almost ethereal glow of optimism in its pages while still being able to leave readers an incompleteness that refuses to become whole. It's a troubling experience that personally made it unforgettable.

At its heart, it's an unmistakable tale of two sisters steeped in sweetness and tragedy, both as a hopeless and a fruitful examination of what happens when certain family conflicts never get resolved or find a happier ending. It's also primarily a novel that is so simple and straightforward in concept because it's rather familiar; yet another story that concerns overseas Filipino workers and the loved ones they left behind. Such a story has now become an insistent archetype dealing with themes of loss and opportunity as portrayed through countless middle and low-class Filipinos journeying to foreign lands to become more or less minimum wage workers (more specifically as caretakers) since it seems to be the only decent option to financially provide for their families back home. There is something immediately tragic with this storyline and Dalisay quite deftly approaches the subject with surprising empathy that for me was uniquely devastating. This has a sincere delicacy to it that can be haunting.

The premise is this: a casket with the corpse of one Aurora Cabahug arrived to an airport to be picked up by her next of kin. It turns out that the real Aurora Cabahug is alive. She is an ambitious twenty-one year old singer in a karaoke entertainment bar somewhere in the humble district of Paez, who is taking care of a nephew whose mother hasn't stayed in constant contact with for several months now. It was the police officer and Walter Zamora who notices this anomaly. Retired from a life of investigating brutal crimes, Zamora had met Aurora one night in the bar and could not forget her and so he was eager to fix the mistake concerning the wrongfully identified remains of Aurora's older sister Soledad, who used her identity to get another passport. What follows is a deceptively murder mystery scenario where readers might expect Walter Zamora to "solve" the puzzle on how and why Soledad Cabahug died. They would be mistaken to expect something like that to take place so I must caution anyone not to get stuck on this promising style of narrative because Soledad's Sister is foremost an intimate and leisurely tale about forgiveness and second chances; but mostly it's about hope--what it truly means to hope and live in hope against all odds that would state otherwise; and why there's a recurring painful pattern to that practice. That is the real mystery that can never be solved.

What I love about Soledad's Sister are the lavish descriptions and introspective passages about the two main characters, Aurora and Walter. I find myself drawn and readily sympathetic for them. Dalisay knows how to make readers care about these people which was why I was invested to know how this story will end. He was able to build up both Aurora and Walter with respective strengths and admirable qualities and then, much like with real people, expose us with their harmless deceptions, deep-rooted fears and insecurities and failures along the way. I feel like I know them very well and not at all as soon as the novel wraps up. And the wrap-up itself is just as frustrating. The ambiguous ending could be the defining quality of Soledad's Sister as a whole and it would depend on the type of reader you are on how you would perceive its rather unfair conclusion. If you're a completeist, then this book could be seen as a waste of time because the characters you've learned to root for didn't get a grand pay-off to their emotional struggles. But if you're like me and you enjoy the constant intrigue of a story that is not supposed to be about endings but of beginnings in the first place then you will appreciate the heartfelt and poignant message of Dalisay's book.

His prose is something I really fell in love with; it was magnetic and rife with uncomplicated subtext and imagery that get under your skin quite easily; while also persistently character-driven in its scope, with a sadness in its delivery that's almost akin to tasting one's own sweat and tears. This distinguishing flavor in his prose had rendered me speechless every now and then.

"But duty, she thought, was also a kind of love, perhaps a superior one, even; it had always been about duty, about doing the right thing by and for others, even if they didn't know it, and no matter what it cost."

My favorite character, ironically enough, is Soledad Cabahug who was already dead when this novel began. She was rather pitiful; a woman trapped within the prison of her own guilt for what happened in the past; and yet there are small moments when she was also brave enough to hope for better horizons even if she prioritizes penance and sacrifice as a person. It has made her so deliberately dull without any dreams of her own unlike her younger sister, but it made me love her more deeply. The quoted statement above was written in her point of view of things which demonstrates what a selfless creature Soledad Cabahug is which can also be seen as her foremost flaw. That quote summarizes her as a person and her inclinations to give more than receive something in return.

Her relationship with Aurora was so moving and uncomfortable all at once. I can liken it to the unexplored theme of emotional separation and distance between Frozen characters, Elsa and Anna which were left fully explored because that cartoon must have the happier Disney-twist. Removing that and we get what Soledad and Aurora's relationship as sisters who spent their lives not understanding or knowing one another in spite of living under the same roof but barely interacting meaningfully in a regular basis. It's a more realistic portrayal of such a tragic and fragmented sisterhood and I really appreciated the way Dalisay took his time weaving these emotions within the framework of their respective personalities and struggles.

Overall, Soledad's Sister has the near-perfect simplicity and elegance that one may never expect from a two-hundred paged novel. It has heart and soul and the author has a great understanding on what makes characters sympathetic and easy to root for. It's definitely worth the purchase years ago.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Journey Into Mystery: FEAR ITSELF

In the beginning, many of the answers ended up being 'LOKI'.
Kieron Gillen took on the task to write a rather young version of the trickster Norse god Loki for this quaint long-time series, Journey Into Mystery. His run lasted from issues #622-645 starting with the first arc entitled Fear Itself. I'll try to contextualize where this continuity falls in the Marvelverse but only very briefly since I've only researched about it and not actually read it myself.

From what I understand, Gillen's series starts right after the events in the major crossover event SIEGE where Loki tricks Norman Osborn into doing something catastrophic which has resulted with the 'Void', and as that clusterfuck takes the toll, Loki suddenly grew a conscience midway through it, and needed to repent for what the Void had transpired (which I think wiped out realms across time and space or something). He tried to undo the damage but the Void 'sensed' it and attacks him viciously right before Thor's eyes. Loki sincerely apologizes to Thor under his dying breath.

Basically, it was much like what happened in the last few scenes of Thor: The Dark World, only Loki in SIEGE really bit the dust and his brother was heartbroken for a while until he discovered that Loki--being Loki--managed to erase himself in the Book of Hel which allows him to cheat death, so that his soul just gets reincarnated (I assume for eternity) each time he dies. So Thor searches for the reincarnation who turned out to be living as a street vendor/thief in Misgard (our realm). Thor confronts him and gives him back his old identity though Loki still remains in the same form of that child. Understandably, NO ONE IS PLEASED ABOUT THIS, and they have every right to it. Iron Man was probably ready to kill this young Loki if it wasn't for Thor passionately defending his reasons why he brought his brother back. Even Odin was not happy about this development. But everyone just kind of left it alone rather than face the wrath of the god of thunder. After all, to a lot of people, it would be morally unnerving to execute a boy of ten or twelve for the crimes his old self had committed. So, reluctantly and with some mistrust, everyone decided to just give the boy a chance to prove them wrong. Hence, Kid Loki is born. This is where Gillen's series picks up.

Now I think Al Ewing's Loki: Agent of Asgard can be considered the second act (or sequel) to Gillen's own run where the latter has a twenty-something Loki still trying to wipe his ledger of crimes clean but his time by going on missions as assigned by the All-Mother who currently rules Asgard. I liked that series so far but it's still untidy in a lot of places (especially the second volume) which is not something I could say for Gillen's Journey Into Mystery.

This was well-paced, thoughtful and tons of fun. Kid Loki has become my new Damian Wayne (current Robin of DC's New 52). There are parallels to their journey; both are young boys who are heavily misunderstood as a whole because of their dark backgrounds (Kid Loki is a reincarnation of a monster while Damian Wayne was raised by the League of Assassins to one day replace the Demon's Head), and in spite of this darkness they are still pretty much 'children' whose youth and determination to fight back against the prejudice that their lives have been defined with is what makes up and sustains their emotional character arc for their respective series.

I suppose I just have a thing for badass kid characters so Kid Loki was once again a resonant figure for me. I find him adorable in a lot of ways since Fear Itself began but this doesn't lessen the seriousness of the story arc itself. Here Kid Loki tries to do something about his bad reputation by using his cunning and tricks for the good of everyone; even if the very people he wants to save and protect don't believe he is ever capable of change.

And that's the central theme of Kid Loki's arc (and, to some extent, Ewing's Agent of Asgard): he either CHANGES or DIES, seemingly until he gets it right. After all, he's immune to the permanence of death and will be reincarnated over and over. The irony is not lost to me; reincarnation by virtue is change but Loki's greatest challenge remains the majority's overall perspective of who he is. Is he forever bound to be cast in the role of villain? Won't his new good deeds ever erase the rotten ones--the atrocities--in the past that he has committed?

Much like AoA, Gillen's Kid Loki is almost a meta-commentary of the narrative for a villain archetype itself, a criticism of the stifling concept of black and white morality and humanity's tendency to pigeonhole bad guys to a doomed cycle of evil and misdeeds. Fear Itself is still the first arc of this run but Gillen effectively addresses this issue through the way he writes and portrays Kid Loki who so desperately wants to prove he can be a good person--but perhaps this is only possible if people will also allow him. It's not a one-sided journey which is unfortunate for Loki. Luckily, his brother Thor does have faith in his capacity to grow and evolve into a hero.

And maybe this time Loki earnestly wants to be a HERO. Just once. You could tell how much he craves for it and how much he will work hard to prove he can be worthy of such esteem.

My favorite issue for this volume is the Spotlight one where Kid Loki spies into the various conversations of the people in Asgard concerning their opinions about him. What he found has not been encouraging and yet Thor promises him this:

In a nutshell, Journey Into Mystery: Fear Itself is recommended for all you closeted and avid Loki fans out there who want to get to know more about this enigmatic character in the comics medium. I find that both writers (Gillen and Ewing) are taking interesting turns in trying to unravel Loki's role as a villain and whether or not it's possible for him to establish and re-define himself with whatever 'label' he chooses to be identified with.

I think that we all do that in our lives. Loki's story helps us further internalize the discussion as to whether or not we can truly be the masters of our fates; the captains of our souls. 


Monday, May 11, 2015

"If they were affected by war at all, they bore no scars"

"I love our country. But what is our country? It is a land exploited by its own leaders, where the citizens are slaves of their own elite."

This is the third installment for F. Sionil Jose's Rosales saga after Po-On and Tree, and being able to finish it last night left me rather cold and unsatisfied. Unlike the first two books, this one has a protagonist I could not form any attachment to, and I truly tried to make some sort of genuine connection with him and it doesn't make sense to me why I couldn't. All things considered, Luis Asperri--the lead POV character for this novel--is probably the closest archetype I should have some affinity for. He's a writer who lives with his ideals through pen and paper. He worked for print media. He was privileged, well-educated and eloquent. In other words, I should have related to him because we have those listed commonalities to contend with. But I simply did not like him at all; and perhaps that reveals something about how I view myself in an objective sense. Perhaps these same qualities are things about me that I'm rather ashamed of even if I feel entitled to have them.

Set in the fifties, My Brother, My Executioner is rife with historical allegories that I immediately recognized upon reading. Personally, I find that strong parallels have been made between Luis Asperri, the illegitimate son of the rich feudal lord Don Vicente, and Victor, his half-brother and the leader of the Hukbalahap guerrilla movement, to that of two of the most iconic national heroes: Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio. Much like Rizal, Luis is a writer who desires to help his fellowmen through his writings. Victor, like Bonifacio, admires his brother for his ideals on paper but is more inclined to follow through with actions even if they only lead to violence and chaos. History had told us that Rizal had inspired Bonifacio to lead a revolution for Philippine independence through his writings, and this is probably the fundamental basis of the relationship between the characters of Luis and Vic, However, the comparisons end there and much of the characterizations for Luis and Vic have a life of their own, and neither is always portrayed in a flattering light.

In fact, I could argue that from all of F. Sionil Jose's protagonists so far (Istak from Po-On and unnamed first-POV narrator in Tree), Luis Asperri is the least relatable--or the most, depending on how much you can actually sympathize and appreciate such a flawed, sad idealist. There are times I can understand his motivations and sufferings; the way he would rationalize and justify his decisions through dark contemplation; the way he yearns for control and freedom to govern his own life; the way he would desire to contribute more to society and to help the poor but is nevertheless reluctant about sacrificing his own material comforts and heirlooms. Luis Asperri is the most realistic of all the protagonists in the books so far, and for that I think he is compelling and interesting enough--but I have no affection for him whatsoever. I suppose I can't help but feel harsh and critical of him because in spite of his failings and weakness, Luis Asperri is also a reflection of what I generally feel about myself as a Filipino which is to say he mirrors the same kind of helplessness, cynicism and hopeful dreams for the future of this country that I know a lot of us Filipinos still possess and have learned to suppress because we have gotten so used to the functional dysfunction of our economic structure and government system.

"We cannot conquer life, no one can conquer what one cannot define, but at least it is there and it is ours to shape and to possess fully, with all the senses working, with all the powers of the heart surging, as we search for the answers to the greatest riddles."

My Brother, My Executioner is, as I would have expected, well-versed in the underlying political and ideological discussions (that manifest literally in the texts with the conversations with characters or is latent through the reader's own personal perspective) concerning societal inequity and the cycle of poverty and uneven distribution of wealth in the Philippines--which is very much the oldest story of the world, isn't it? Luis Asperri and his father Don Vicente are inherently different in their views about the elite (their kind) and the poor but at least one of them is a lot more genuine and action-oriented than the other. Sadly enough, it's Don Vicente, and he is more pragmatic albeit oppressive in his actions as a rich man. He believes in self-preservation; that in order to rise from the ranks you need to seize opportunities, and this is only possible when there is are masses of people who are lower than you and often you need to rule them over. 

Meanwhile, Luis is a dreamer so consistently blinded by his own heartfelt illusions of harmony and peace that they have made him bitter and angry because they remain unfulfilled throughout the story. He claims to embrace change and yet is trapped within his failed progressive ideals, going back and forth between trying to become the man he aspires to be and the man he is meant to be because of predestined options because of his family background and way of life.

And that in itself is a worthy discussion. Are we truly in control of our destiny when choices are scarce? Can we truly forge new paths or be content walking across paths which were already there to begin and we simply have to follow their direction? What god are ethics and ideals if we are not strong enough to live by them through actions and not just words? My Brother, My Executioner had introduced such fascinating concepts and dialogue regarding national freedom and that of individual autonomy, the tension between the privileged and the masses, and the often inescapable obligations for family and country. However, most of these ideas remained only half-baked, most probably because the protagonist Luis Asperri as a character is ultimately both too proud and ashamed of his life to actually take its reigns and be the change in the world he is always preaching he wants to see fulfilled. He's too caught up in his crippling inaction.

This was why the ending was so unsatisfactory and underwhelming for me. I would have liked to have known his brother Victor some more, and his relationship with him but instead we get so many wasteful pages highlighting Luis' doomed relationship with Ester Dantes who is, by the way, a rather poor representation of women here in this book (which is odd, considering F. Sionil Jose also wrote one of the most empowering women in fiction, Dalin from Po-On, in my opinion). The other female character in this book (the 'all-woman, sensual' Trining), is just as stereotypical and one-dimensional as the evasive Esther. I think that is my major criticism of this novel and it's made even more obvious because Luis is frustratingly chauvinistic without the self-awareness he usually applies when it comes to his moral dilemmas. That said, I think I may have to late this installment the lowest of the bunch so far and I dearly hope the next one would have more focus and purpose like Po-On had been.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

LOKI: Agent of Asgard [Trust Me; I Cannot Tell a Lie]

Back in the day, comics-Loki is an ugly piece of shit villain who is also an eternal prankster and an exponentially talented liar whom you will damn well assume never gets invited to family reunions (but is probably there for the really dangerous parties). Thanks to the lovely British actor Tom Hiddleston making his mark with the cinematic role version, I could never look at this comic book character in any way, shape or form that doesn't portray him anything less than hunky and a tad bit emo-tastic. Like a good quarter of the Tumblr population, I may or may not have fantasized Hiddleston as the Norse trickster god Loki every time I take hot showers. I also may or may not have gotten so fed up one day that I was forced to get myself acquainted with him in comics just so he'll appear less in my dreams at night. I needed to read Loki in the medium he came from because I'm steadily losing grip of my mental faculties the more I delay this. But I want to read him not as the shriveled, serpentine bastard he had been portrayed as for as long as the Thor stories have been around. 

So I picked yet another recent depiction of him here in 2014's LOKI: Agent of Asgard. Now this Loki is pop-punk rock pretty. Aesthetically-speaking and in a shallow sense, I guess one could say that I consider him as my own Justine Bieber--if this comparison also means I get irrationally turned on just looking at him in the pages of this comic book...which I DON'T (most of the time). But if the comics-Loki everyone is used to is a skinny, vile, untrustworthy grand deceiver of a character (though he was even a woman at one point?), then how do we explain the appearance of this teenage-looking Loki in this continuity? Well, that's the beauty and the disadvantage of reading Agent of Asgard. Every issue does provide a summary of events just so new readers like me can get the context and gist of what happened in the previous titles related to this 2014, one but it's pretty much going in blindfolded as you eagerly expect to sample the wonders of the  highly-anticipated orgy party you've recklessly invited yourself into--MY MIND GOES TO VARIOUS SEXUAL PLACES WHEN I TALK ABOUT LOKI, I'M SORRY

Let me start over. EHEM.

Volume 1: "TRUST ME"

Reading Loki: Agent of Asgard without getting acquainted first with any other publication before it can get confusing at various times but in a fun way. If you are reading Loki here for the first time and nowhere else in the meantime, then a struggle to understand contexts in between issues is unavoidable. 

See, about sixty percent of the time I had to piece things together by myself with limited knowledge of the old storylines being referenced, but the rest is still easily enjoyable because there is a charm and humor to the way Al Ewing writes Loki as a titular hero as we follow him on his quest to redemption. Artist Lee Garbett also illustrates him in the scrumptious ways that make me tingle. The first volume (issues #1-5) makes him likable and dynamic enough for readers to stay interested. By now if the strongest association you have of Loki is his movie version, then this Loki will be reasonably pleasant enough. 

It's really hard to get into the meat and bones of the actual storyline for this series without probably alienating anyone reading this review--but I'll try.

First off, DON'T READ THIS THE WAY I JUST DID. Say you don't share my itchy lust to get to know Loki (because of Tom Hiddleston)--this could be either a good thing or a bad thing. If you do like Loki as a character in the movies as I do then you will find the smallest things about this comic book worth experiencing; it'll serve as enough motivation for you to try and understand the rather complicated and helplessly ambiguous and layered storytelling of the issues as a whole because you already like Loki. Now if you're not primarily interested him as a character foremost then Agent of Asgard is not going to be a casual read. It can get very self-referential and at times, and rather excessively narrative-oriented (I'M TALKING VOLUME 2 WHICH I WILL GET INTO). Your attention span may not handle it well if you don't latch onto Loki as a character you want to see grow throughout the story. If that is the case, then maybe you shouldn't read this series--not until you follow my instructions:

LEARN (OR READ) MORE ABOUT KID LOKI. Who is Kid Loki? To save you the trouble from looking up Loki's exhaustive comics profile and history in Wikipedia, I'll just keep this brief. Some time during the Thorverse, old, grumpy and deceitful Loki allows himself to die (debatable) and gets reborn as a boy to wipe his slate clean. Kid Loki is his second chance at redemption. There are various hints and vague flashbacks in Agent of Asgard that touch upon this thread but it won't be enough which is why you need to actually read said issues to understand it more. I've personally tracked them down and were able to read them so I might just re-read the second volume of this series before posting a review for that since I can finally properly contextualize the events after reading these key issues:

  • Journey Into Mystery issues #622-645
  • Thor #17 [his origin]

Now these issues serve as some kind of "prequel" to the ultimate plot relevance of Kid Loki in Ewing's own 2014 series, as well as the implications of the sort-of retcon that occurs in the second volume concerning Kid Loki. I don't want to post that spoiler here because you're not going to get it or be grateful in any way especially when you are intrigued to pick up this series one day. I still think you should. Loki: Agent of Asgard can be fun and endearing in a lot of ways, but only if you visit those key issues I've suggested before thoroughly browsing this series. 

[A complete listing of all Kid Loki issues are found here


I'm presently reading Journey Into Mystery issues which focus on Kid Loki this week, but I know I had to review this volume sooner rather than later because I've delayed it for an entire month now. I actually forgot some of the stuff that happened for Agent of Asgard, most probably because as interesting and as potentially riveting the idea of a newly-minted Loki in his twenties trying to make amends and rewrite his bad-guy reputation, there are certain aspects to this series that would make it unreadable in general especially when you're not a Marvel comics reader like I was so there are so many stuff that got past me because I was just inherently unfamiliar with them.

So I had to re-read issues 6-10 of this collection just a few hours ago and it just occurred to me how uneven it was that I had to change my perfect five-star rating from my initial one last month. I remember enjoying what I read because it was woven with compelling mythology elements, but the more I thought about certain plot points in this volume, the less incomprehensible they got and that lessened my enjoyment upon re-reading them again.

The first volume comprised of the first five issues were fun; it introduced this version of Loki quite nicely--he was young, hip and eager to change opinions of the people he had wronged. The redemption angle of AoA prove to be a selling point that hit my sweet spot,; one that is beguiling for me whose only connection and knowledge about Loki is mostly movie-based as portrayed by the painfully orgasmic Tom Hiddleston. This was why Agent of Asgard easily appealed to me on that shallow surface; I like looking and reading about a pretty-faced Loki and his antics and shenanigans. I continue to be hopeful for the development of his characterizations and his relationship with this "walking human detector" Verity Wills whom he was growing increasingly fond of even when he shows it in confusing ways. I can certainly detect a genuine friendship developing between both sides which should be challenging for either of them, considering what they are as individuals. It's delicious irony to pair the self-made God of Lies with a woman who could always see through any deception. I think this is mostly why Loki likes her company; in a weird way, he knows she has the ability to keep her true, and all throughout this volume she's definitely giving him a hard time every time she knows he's withholding things from her. 

The best part of this ordeal is that readers can see Loki tries to form some kind of trust with her which might come off uncharacteristic for him but to me it's rather endearing to see him vulnerable around Verity especially when he doesn't even know that he is.

Now, no matter how I look forward to more Loki-time for this series, this second volume left a bitter aftertaste because four out of the five issues collected here are tie-ins to the crossover AXIS event in Marvelverse. Here Loki gets confronted by Doctor Doom, Thor is a bad guy, etc. It's just damn confusing for someone who doesn't follow other titles so I'm not nearly invested in crossovers unlike with DC whose crossover stuff I always try to keep track of when they affect my Batman comics even if I have yet to read them completely myself. The second volume suffers because of these woefully unnecessary tie-ins to Agent of Asgard. It would have been so much better if they kept everything about this series standalone for now. This version of Loki is developing as a character and it's reckless endangerment to throw him at whatever convenient storyline he could fit in and rather poorly at that as seen here in AXIS. Heck, he even made an appearance in a Ms. Marvel Valentine issue which was cute and nonsensical fun, but again, it's fanservice for the sake of pleasing female fans who totes want to hang pin-up posters of this hot twenties Loki.

Now, I'm not saying I don't belong to that crowd because I probably do, but I much prefer this character to be well-written and interesting in the long run. This was why the second volume was a complete let-down because it's as if the writers won't let this version of Loki have his time in his own spotlight and in his own series to figure out how he will grow and progress as a titular hero. It's sad, really. However, the silver lining does come up by the tenth issue which finally switches back to something standalone and intimate for Loki. See, once Al Ewing focuses his lens back on actually telling a Loki-centric tale woven with fantastic mythological elements from the Norse lore, this series really does shine and hold up as a riveting piece of fiction. The next issues that will be compiled in the third volume (11-13; it's ongoing at this point) hold promise because ever since then, no stupid crossover is being pushed down my throat as I read this series and I want that to stay that way. So, this second volume was a drag but good things do come to those who wait and I know I will have a more positive review for the next volume of Agent of Asgard soon enough.

I think I'm going to have to post reviews for Journey Into Mystery issues that are Kid Loki-centric this week. Those are guaranteed to be filled with spoilers because I plan to analyse Loki there as a character and his relationship with his brother Thor which is something I really enjoy watching in the movies unfold. 
Overall, put this series on your TO-READ list and keep it there in the meantime. 

If you like Loki (and even intensely desire him as far as you can want a fictional character), then this comic book may be for you.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

THOR: God of Thunder [The God Butcher and Godbomb]

I honestly only watched the first Thor movie last year, four years after its release in 2010. Like I said, not a Marvel fan in general, but I got to admit that of all the movies Marvel Studios have released so far, the first Thor film is my most favorite next to the first Iron Man. Admittedly, I love mythology stories which was why I stumbled upon this 2013 title, God of Thunder rather easily (also, it's written by Jason Aaron who is writing Wolverine and the X-Men which is a part of my comic diet this year). Much like with Ms. Marvel, I went into reading this unaware of the content I was being served with and it was only when I finished the two volumes, The God Butcher and Godbomb, that I've done some research just to see how my experience is comparable to that of other people; and I was pleased to see that a lot of them were just as positive as mine had been. 

The truth of the matter is that I immensely enjoyed God of Thunder in a scale that I didn't expect since I only read it with the mindset of someone who has only encountered the titular character in the films. I know just enough about the original Norse mythology it was based on, and watching 2010 Thor was almost reminiscent of the Hercules television show I was very fond of as a kid. I suppose that was the draw of Thor's characterization in that movie; that he was an arrogant god who could not see past his war-advocating aggression until his own father banished him and stripped him off his powers to teach him a valuable lesson. And then a hero's journey follows where he has to claim his own powers back by proving that he has learned the importance of temperance and the meaning of leadership. It's an archetypal narrative I have a strong penchant for.

Now I wouldn't consider Thor as a favorite character (nor Loki, even though Tom Hiddleston's portrayal is painfully orgasmic for me), but I'm invested enough in the general atmosphere of his mythological story to want to read him in the actual comics medium, so I selected something that was fairly recent and something of a standlone from the rest of the roster. And it pleases me to no end I chose God of Thunder. I think this is a comic book story that is digestible for a first-time reader of said character so anyone can pick it up because it's actually a rather intimate tale that follows a detective story structure while it also blurs the timelines among past, present and future.

THOR: God of Thunder, volume 1: "The God Butcher"

In God of Thunder, long-time Avenger Thor is patrolling the galaxies when he encounters a small nation living in a planet where one of its young citizens claimed that they had no gods to pray to which was why they sought his help instead. Naturally disbelieving this, Thor decides to visit the planet's own absentee gods in their kingdom so he could possibly chastise them for slacking off and ignoring their worshipers' calling. Upon arriving to said land, Thor was shocked to find that all of its godly inhabitants were gruesomely disposed of; disfigured and hacked corpses littered every corner of the palace, prompting Thor to investigate what and who could have possibly murdered these gods.

Meanwhile, in the distant future, a worn-down and ancient Thor, now the last king and remaining survivor of Asgard, which is now being relentlessly attacked by soulless entities who seek to bring him down, tries to hold off the evil forces by his lonesome. We then jump back to the past where an axe-wielding and strapping young Thor, who is as reckless and as fun as anyone expects from an adolescent jock, accompanies the Vikings on earth as they pillage and loot across the lands. These transitions would feel slightly abrupt at first until we slowly find out in the present that Avenger Thor's encounter of those mutilated deities is only the beginning of a horrific cycle that will touch upon different levels of reality where the god of thunder himself is at the eye of its storm. 

The first volume is a bleak and serious murder mystery set in a mythological landscape that hit my sweet spot just right. Comprised of the first five issues of the series, The God Butcher is a sweeping epic that manages to be very personal and character-driven at its core in spite of its seemingly expansive premise. In it, three versions of Thor seeks out a madman by the name of Gorr, a serpentine black-hearted rogue whose shade of darkness is only matched by the vivid ink streams he is often depicted with in the pages. He is on a personal mission to wipe out every living god in existence, and he is not going to stop until he accomplishes this. 

Back in the past, it seems like a young Thor has encountered Gorr before but lacks the self-awareness and wisdom of his Avenger's version in the present, and therefore unable to comprehend the possible horrors that Gorr would be committing someday. The stakes increase significantly once present-Thor and future-king-Thor finally collide and join forces with the past-Thor. But this set-up will be expounded more by the second volume collection which also provides a more detailed background about Gorr, his origins and the driving motivation for his ultimate goal.

Artist Esad Ribic's visual style and illustrations are phenomenal and consistent for each issue; each panel has great fluidity and substance. My most favorite moment that showcases Ribic's dynamic fight scenes as they unify alongside Aaron's storytelling is the scene in issue #2, featuring the confrontation between past-Thor and Gorr. It was a chilling narrative concerning Thor's memory from childhood when he meets certain type of killer he could not understand:

If these weren't enough to get you excited, I don't know what will.

THOR: God of Thunder, volume 2: "Godbomb"

The second volume collection of the continuing God-Butcher epic/murder mystery is Godbomb which revealed the accumulation of all of the villain Gorr's plan from the beginning ever since he started his personal crusade of wiping out every living god in existence. Comprised of issues 6-11, Godbomb has all the essential elements to increase the stakes and fairly conclude this arc, and some of its important parts  did manage to deliver a solid ending; but there are details across said issues that make less sense once examined more critically. Still, this volume is what the first one's set up was eluding to: it was brisk and exciting filled with great action sequences and small crowning moments of awesome among the three versions of Thor.

The sixth issue focused primarily on Gorr's origin which was emotional and believable enough to accept. He was an ordinary being from a harsh environment who lost his wife and unborn child to unfortunate circumstances. Even with the worsening conditions, his wife remained faithful to the higher powers, often lecturing and assuring him that the gods are looking after them. Already an aspiring atheist, Gorr questions her religious allegiance and after her tragic death, he began to outwardly and passionately despise the concept of gods in general and so began his lifelong hunt to exterminate every kind of deity across the universe.

The one god who struggled to find a way to prevent this is Thor and all his past, present and future incarnations gathered together because each version feels responsible about Gorr in some way, and the strength in their number should be enough to overcome the god-butcher's ill-intentioned and widespread hate-mongering disease. All three of them--though initially uncomfortable with each other--arrive to a common goal to destroy Gorr and his malicious plan to render all godly creation null with this 'bomb' he created as reinforced by the surviving gods he had managed to acquire and enslave for his own personal use. His personal army, the Black Berserkers, meanwhile, face the Thors from every counter point holding them back until the climatic confrontation with Gorr himself.  

Thor: God of Thunder is spectacular because it was every bit of fantasy and mythology fiction that I have always wanted from a character I am slowly and steadily growing to love and look forward to. The story was uncanny and unlike anything I would have believed is possible to read in a Thor title. It was a haunting tale about the myth of gods and why people need to believe in a higher power; as well as what happens when that faith is taken for granted and betrayed such as the case with Gorr. I didn't personally connect with him as a villain but I thought he served his role well enough for the plot. The three Thors fighting alongside together was always a hoot and I especially love future-Thor the most. I like glimpsing into the possible king and leader Thor will become someday. He was a prissy, cranky old man, sure, but you can tell he knows what he's doing and why he must do it. The overconfident version of him as the past-Thor was oddly endearing, though, and present-Thor was possibly the Thor I'm most closest to because I do believe he's in the middle of an important transition at this point, and seeing him interact with his past and future is rather intriguing.

I found this moment between him and past-Thor moving:

It's an eye-opening moment for both Thors. Young Thor aspires to be just like Odin, his father, but the future-Thor invalidates this and tells him for his own good that he will never be the son Odin wants him to be and there's nothing to fear or be ashamed of in understanding this truth. Future-Thor is also admitting this for himself; for so long, whatever kind of man he shaped himself to be was dictated by what his father wants but not this time, and he hopes his past version would fare better by imparting him this knowledge. Perhaps Thor needs to come to terms with this by himself though.

I'm so excited to read the next issues for this series (there are 25 of these by now). Overall, The God Butcher and Godbomb are worthy installments that you should pick up if you like mythology stories that feature the Mighty Thor. Somehow, his characterization for this series needs more work but I'm confident that both Aaron and Ribic's collaboration will have more ways to move forward and improve.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MS. MARVEL [No Normal and Generation Why]

I was initially unaware of the hype surrounding this particular title at first because I never considered myself a Marvel Comics fan in general. For a very long time, the X-Men are the only superheroes I love from the Marvel line and since I started my comics diet for this year that centers strictly around them, it's often unavoidable for me to encounter other current Marvel titles online as I do my research of specific X-Men series to read, particularly when they are included in crossover events. SO now I've expressed interest on four ongoing Marvel titles which are Thor: The God of Thunder, Loki: Agent of Asgard, She-Hulk and this one, Ms. Marvel. I don't know anything about the Captain Marvel character except that the last one was Carol Danvers and I think she used to be a pilot(?). That's really just about it but I did encounter the actual character when she made a cameo appearance in Chris Claremont's The X-Tinction Agenda storyline from The Uncanny X-Men. 

Much like everyone else, I think what convinced me to pick up this series was because the titular heroine is a Muslim teenager (a Pakistani American, to be specific) which means she was supposedly created to offer something more culturally diverse than her predecessors. Honestly, I used to be such a big Spider-Man fan, and the idea of teenage superheroes has always been an alluring one for me (the realization of that fixation was something I found in the cartoon program, Young Justice which is all kinds of awesome). So, 2014 Ms. Marvel is something I instinctively wanted to read for those obvious preferences cited. When I did manage to get around it, I was pleasantly intrigued by a lot of its aspects in its first five issues as collected in this volume, No Normal.

Created by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona, the character of Kamala Khan is notable initially because of her lineage and youth and for a time in the five issues compiled for No Normal, those qualities seem to be the only thing going for her as we follow her misadventures upon her own discovery that she possesses shape-shifting abilities. We can thoroughly argue that whatever made Kamala special as a superheroine in fiction is the fact that this is the first time we ever had a Muslim female character with her own solo title in comics and so everyone wants this series to succeed and meet the expectations and hype it was build up to become from the start. And much like anything hyped in a pop culture medium, it proved to be just another simple, quaint and charming tale about yet another teenager struggling to find her place in the world of adult responsibility and consequences. 

But just in case you haven't been paying attention in my introductory remarks, then let me state it once again: I LOVE THE IDEA OF TEENAGE SUPERHEROES and it's mostly because they uniquely display qualities such as vulnerability, uncertainty and identity crisis until the eventual acceptance of their roles. We've all been  in that age of trying to figure out what we want to be and if we even like what we were back then--add the burden of having superpowers and you get yourself a compelling coming-of-age story, and that's why I can't help but eventually fall for Kamala.

For me, the story of Kamala Khan is an uplifting journey. Eventually, this awkward, introverted yet defiant and shrewd teenage girl will learn that (in her very own words):

"Good is not a thing you are, it's a thing you do."

Given my sincere emotional attachment to the idea of teenage superheroes, I had no qualms going through the usual formula of such stories involving them, which typically followed Kamala as she copes and tries to control her transformative abilities and how that reflects her inner self. She steadily gains a sense of self-worth and confidence once she realized that she could use her powers to help people. She admits that being able to save someone from harm was a rush to her; her first rescue may be that of some spoiled, bratty schoolmate of hers whom she doesn't have any kind of relationship with, but Kamala treasured that experience anyway because it made her feel in control while she was able to keep someone safe. Since she idolized Captain Marvel, Kamala figured she could just shapeshift into that bombastic blonde heroine and no one will know better except for her.

But over the course of her trial and error, Kamala was also becoming less of a person by imitating another, and thanks to a conversation with her father where he explained why she was named "Kamala" (which means "perfection" in Arabic), our teenage heroine proudly reconciles with herself that: 

"I'm not here to be a watered-down version of some other hero. I'm here to be the best version of Kamala." 

Now how many teenagers her age can actually look at herself in both a critical and confident manner like she just had during that precise moment? I'm twenty-five now but I still remember being sixteen very well; to be that paradoxically scared and fearless all at once, and so reading Kamala Khan in No Normal has made me very nostalgic about my own issues and challenges as a teen. This was why I enjoyed seeing Kamala face her fears as she asserts herself during dangerous situations with a quick and agile mind and reflexes. She only had one friend to aid her in her quest and there was nobody else to help her figure out what she wants to do with her powers and how she can enhance them--it was all up to her to train and improve herself. It's like seeing your kid sister grow up and accomplish something worthwhile. With G. Willow Wilson's great writing and Adrian Alphona's dynamic illustrations, I can't help but root for Kamala to succeed every step of the way.

No Normal is a basic narrative about a likable heroine still finding her way and still at odds on how to best define herself, but it's a riveting read that you should all keep going forward with. Sure, she's catered to be a representation of a certain minority and that may come off as pandering to some but that's not all she is. She will grow over the course of the issues and for me that does happen in Generation Why, the second volume collection that proves to be a stronger installment of the series.

In Generation Why, Kamala learns more about the nature of her powers. It turns out she's not completely human. After her encounter with Wolverine during a rescue mission, she became more curious of her possible origins. Her newly formed role as New Jersey City's superheroine has called the attention of some other interested parties who want to safeguard her so they sent a super-powered watchdog named Lockjaw to protect and aid her in her missions. Of course, any superhero must have a villain to battle it out with, and for the second volume Kamala goes head-to-head with what she considers as the "boss" monster to fight (being a gamer herself, this is a reference Kamala is often fond of making; it's just a personality quirk of hers).

The choice of villain for this story was in line of the general forces Kamala faces in her own life as part of the youth which is the seemingly shallow adversity of how teenagers of her generation are discriminated against by the previous one because they are viewed as a self-entitled, lofty, unambitious flock who would rather numb or entertain themselves with their gadgets and other reclusive preoccupations. I thought this is a worthy theme to tackle for her series, seeing as generation gap is not a new thing by itself but a rather recurring theme we see in our own lives between parents and their children, so it's only natural to discuss this in a comic book series which stars a teenager who is also inquisitive enough to admit to the flaws of her generation but not necessarily condemn nor excuse them either.My favorite moment in the volume comes in issue #10.

In this issue, it was revealed that a horde of teenagers just volunteered themselves to serve as "batteries" to the villain's scheme, stating that it was the only way for them to make up for their simple crime of being your average teenager who is apparently perceived to be a burden who has wasted all of his or her potentials away. Understandably, this outwardly angers Kamala, and she passionately refuses to believe that she and her fellow teens are a lost cause; that they are as unimportant and as vain and neglectful as they are portrayed in media and such. She gives an unexpected yet rightfully timed speech, expressing her most earnest sentiments regarding the passivity of the other teens around her, and that she's no longer going to contribute to that number--and neither should they. 

It's a great self-aware and crowning moment for Kamala's character which only solidified my growing admiration for her. I hope they keep this up because Kamala Khan is slowly but surely proving herself to be a wonderful, awe-inspiring role model. So go on and pick up Ms. Marvel and see for yourself what you've been missing out on. And you are missing out on a lot if you don't read this today!