Welcome to Split Seven-Inch, a new feature of Loser City wherein we examine two pieces of media that are not necessarily closely related with each other yet still have something interesting in common. This week, Christopher M. Jones pits two opening issues against one another– the A-Side is the heavily hyped Art Ops, a new Vertigo series by Shaun Simon and superstar artist Michael Allred, which offers a “lo-fi weirdness” concept with operatives pulling figures out of paintings, or something. On the B-Side is The Vision, a new Marvel book about everyone’s least favorite Avenger, with Tom King scripting and Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Both issues offers lessons in how to introduce a new series, but which is the good lesson and which is the bad?
This week I went to my local comic book store and bought a stack of comics for the first time since 2012, when Marvel and DC’s respective fiascos regarding Before Watchmen and Jack Kirby’s estate drove me away from a world my feelings were already growing increasingly tepid for anyway. Among the pile of predictably Pretty Good to Kind of Lousy floppies, two stood out as being emblematic: one that reminded me of why I left corporate comics in the first place, and one that made me wonder if perhaps I’d been missing something vital these three long capeless years. Those comics were Art Ops by Shaun Simon and Michael Allred and The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and though they were both first issues they could not be more different in terms of quality and purpose.
Art Ops #1 presented two worrying signs almost immediately; the first was a quote from My Chemical Romance singer and amateur Grant Morrison impressionist Gerard Way praising the story’s “lo-fi weirdness” (I suppose in opposition to the hi-fi or quadraphonic weirdness of most other comic books). The second was the fact that a protagonist identifies Art Ops as Art Ops two times within the first three pages of a comic called Art Ops. By the fourth page I was sick of the words “Art Ops.” By the tenth I was sick of Art Ops.
Most of this book is narrated in the first person by a cretinous dullard whose name I can’t be bothered to remember. He is devoid of personality; his hair is his personality. He is written like there is a bomb in his mouth that will go off if he says something I would want to read. His worthless girlfriend has eight lines of dialogue and dies within three pages of being introduced. His arm gets torn off and replaced with a stronger one, like all shitty heroes written by cowards. He sucks, and I hate him as much as I can hate anything that doesn’t actually exist.
Nothing about this world is interesting or even competently produced. This is a comic where modern day lower Manhattan has an open air drug market and people still box to make rent. It’s like it was written by a time-traveling shoeshine from the 1940s who walked around Washington Square Park for five minutes and filled in the rest of his data on the modern world with assumptions. This comic’s New York has the trappings of modernity without any sense of place or significance. This city could be anywhere and it would be just as humdrum and lifeless.
I’ve read the comic three times and I still don’t know what Art Ops does or what this comic is about. Paintings are alive, kind of, but just the people in the paintings and not the art itself, because that could be interesting and as such is to be avoided, apparently. I think Art Ops’ job is to pull the painting people out of the painting places and protect them from…art thieves. Or shadow goblins. Both? It’s not clear. The woman who runs this stupid thing and all her friends are kidnapped by a “WOOOOOOOOOSHHHH” sound effect and her shitty kid has to start doing whatever it is Art Ops does. He doesn’t want to, though. Then the comic ends, potentially by being thrown into a ceiling fan depending on your temperament.
The dialogue consists of heavy handed exposition and horrible, lazy jokes. There is no other kind of thing that leaves anyone’s mouth in Art Ops. Michael Allred is drawing this, out of what I can only assume is an obligation to the Serbian mafia. There is absolutely nothing here that required his vision to bring to life. The main character’s splotchily colored prosthetic arm is pretty cool, and Mona Lisa is drawn as perpetually smirking, which is kind of hilarious. The rest of this book is a series of assholes complaining to each other about nothing comprehensible. You might as well have asked Gaspar Noe to direct an episode of Home Improvement for all the freedom Allred is given to be visually creative.
Everything about this comic is a drastic misfire. I would say that it’s as if Doom Patrol were the brainchild of a soulless CBS executive, except that a soulless CBS executive would at least make sure his idea had a definable premise. Art Ops is a comic that begs to be forgotten. It is at once obtuse and simple-minded, generic and yet uniquely unlikable. It is a triumph of mediocrity and narrative waste. It sucks, is what I’m getting at.
On the opposite end of the quality spectrum is The Vision, a kind of superhero comic that I honestly didn’t realize people were allowed to make any more: quiet, methodical and otherworldly. It subtly draws the reader in with warm, detailed narration describing the neighborhood that the Vision and his family have moved to and introduces us to two middle-aged POV characters, George and Nora. They don’t know what to make of the Vision: he is polite but distant, and his house is full of artifacts from his time as an Avenger that no human could find purpose or significance in. And maybe the Vision can’t, either.
We are then treated to a scene where the Vision tersely explains to his wife the colloquial difference between the words “nice” and “kind”; she’s a machine like he is, and gets tripped up on human mannerisms that he’s long gotten used to, if maybe not fully grasped. This tension quietly pulses throughout all of the first issue of The Vision: we’re never really sure how much he or his family “gets,” and he can be short with his family when he has to explain concepts that maybe not even he totally understands.
The Vision is in this way a very vulnerable character, far removed from the triteness that many superheroes wade into when they’re asked to grapple with concepts above an 8th grade education. There’s a rhythm and lyricism to King’s narration that recalls Steve Englehart as much as Yukio Mishima, theatrical one moment and revealing stark emotional subtleties the next. By keeping what he feels, knows, and to a lesser extent even what the Vision is a mystery, we feel his disconnect from humanity and his and his family’s isolation becomes equal parts relatable and worrisome.
Speaking of isolation, there’s a beautiful panel where the Vision children are first introduced to their high school; they hover above their peers, close enough to be discernable, far enough away to be inscrutable. It’s a fine visual metaphor for the distance of the Visions from their classmates, and from the reader by extension. Walta is an artist that cares about perception; whether it’s Nora’s bemused observation of an alien trophy or cyborg’s wilting panic when tragedy strikes, the weight of moments is never lost. I haven’t felt as much suspense and dread leading up to this comic’s last moments as I have in ten or twenty issues of Event Comic pageantry combined. Nothing feels wasted even in the quietest moments thanks to Walta’s firm sense of place and distance, machine from man or bird from machine.
In the final analysis, what we have with Art Ops and The Vision are two opening chapters about disconnect-one about a young man from his destiny, the other about a robot from his humanity. But while Art Ops obstensibly takes place in a more “real” version of the world than the Marvel Universe, one that is supposed to be like ours with subtle arcane variations, its observations (or lack thereof) come off as trite, hollow and angsty, something you’d hand to a teenager if you didn’t want them to talk to you for a while. By contrast, The Vision uses a premise that is at once straightforward and outlandish-Robot Superhero Family Drama-and a deft intermingling of prose and illustration (also known as Being a Good Comic) to draw us into its world. You couldn’t ask for a better What/Not to Do for a first issue, or, in my case, a more critically dynamic introduction back into a hobby I used to love.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.