When the first issue of 27: Second Set came out, I wrote about how much I’d loved the triumphant ending of the first limited series and how disappointed I was that the continuation of the series necessarily had to begin by robbing our hero Will Garland of his triumph. Now that we’ve come to the end of this second series, Garland has achieved another triumph, but even though I liked his journey to it, this one feels hollower.
In the first series author Charles Soule dealt with the concept of the flameout musical genius, the creator who burns so bright he burns himself to death: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, Amy Winehouse, Elliott Smith. Will Garland is such a talent, but he’s lost the use of his playing hand to a repetitive stress injury, and makes a deal with the god of artistic creativity trying to get it back. Instead of his playing hand, though, he gets a console embedded in his chest; each time he presses its buttons, he gets a different superpower for three hours, but after the 27th time he uses it he will die.
The first series ended with an extended monologue on the nature of artistic creation. Yes, some people are given the gift of aptitude, Garland says, but they make real sacrifices of time and effort to turn that gift into greatness. Art is earned through hard work, and great artists don’t merely love the products of their genius, they love the work. Garland flips his guitar over and plays with his left hand.
Sounds awful. But I’ll get better. And the music I make—it’ll be mine. And it’ll be loud.
Second Set starts a year later. Garland has grown frustrated trying to play wrong-handed. He can’t make the music he hears in his head, and audiences aren’t responding to the music he can make. Moreover, he’s playing soft, not loud.
He picks a fight with his girlfriend/manager and sleeps with a groupie, who accidentally triggers his console. Garland runs outside shooting lights from his hands and is captured on video, which makes him famous again. A washed-up, one-hit-wonder singer from the 1980s sees him on TV and sets in motion a plan to steal from him the fame she’s lost.
As with the spirit of creativity in the first book, Fame is personified and demands sacrifices for his gifts. A series of plot twists ends with Garland and the one-hit-wonder playing before an audience of all the people in the world, in a competition for Garland’s power.
For a while as I read Second Set, I thought maybe I was less engaged than I had been with the first book because the question of how one becomes or remains famous is less interesting to me than the question of where great art comes from. That is part of it, but I think Soule did raise interesting sub-questions about fame that should have held my attention: What happens when you have talent, and you do the work, and the world refuses to listen? Fame is fickle and doesn’t always touch the most deserving.
But that gets to the greater problem I had with Second Set: Will Garland is acted upon by others rather than initiating action himself. In First Set, he sets in motion everything that happens, from his first attempt to make a deal for his hand to the final confrontation he forces with the creative spirit. Often he doesn’t understand what he’s causing, and the repercussions of his actions may spiral out of his control, but everything arises from his desires.
In Second Set Garland is much more reactive. The groupie triggers his console. The one-hit-wonder tries to kill him. The personification of Fame forces him to play for his life. He can and does reclaim agency within these situations, but he does not create them and isn’t really driving the story.
I don’t think this is an accident. I think Soule has quite cleverly matched his storytelling to his theme—the arbitrariness of fame. The trouble is, a hero thrown around by caprice is simply less compelling than a hero who makes things happen. When at the end Garland vows to do something big with the fame he’s been given, in a final page that deliberately echoes the final page of First Set, his conviction doesn’t grow out of a struggle we’ve been watching up to then. His triumph this time is vague to the point that he has no idea what what that “something” might be, and neither do we.
I still think Second Set has interesting things to say, and Renzo Podesta’s art is still gorgeous. It’s still a very good book, even if I didn’t love it the way I did the first.
P.S. A complaint about distribution: these issues obviously take a long time to write and draw, so there have been long gaps between them. I’m fine with that. I’m not fine with Image’s decision to put out the trade paperback in lieu of issue #4 of 4, presumably because #4 has been delayed a long time and everyone’s waiting for the trade anyway. The exact same thing happened with First Set (and it looks like the same is going to happen again with Mondo, another Image title). When you do this, Image, you tell all of us who have been buying the issues that we are suckers, because now we have to shell out for the trade to see how things end. If you’re going to expect everyone to just buy the trade, then just put out the trade. I might buy issues for Third Set to review them (I assume it is coming), but no one who isn’t writing reviews and who has half a brain is going to continue buying Image issues. Be aware of that, Image, and don’t cancel Soule’s deal when your sales figures go tits up. You’re forcing fans not to buy titles they like; make sure it isn’t the creator who suffers from your shortsightedness.
I have been fairly reliably informed that this is all probably my local comic book store’s fault. My bad.
The annual exercise. Please to begin the arguing.
#7 Amir, Zahra’s Paradise
Zahra’s Paradise begins on June 16, 2009, the day after one of the earliest and largest election protests in Freedom Square. Mehdi, a nineteen-year-old university student, was at that protest and hasn’t come home. His mother Zahra and his brother, the unnamed narrator, are worried about him and try to find out what’s happened. That’s it, but that basic motivation allows Amir and his artist collaborator Khalil to create a full portrait of the horror of daily life in Tehran during the repression that followed the protests.
#6 Fred Van Lente, Comic Book Comics
For a comic book buff it’s fascinating to read tidbits like the series of events that led from the Frankfurt School, to Fredric Wertham’s testimony before Congress, to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, to the death of EC Comics, to the birth of Mad magazine. Or how the increasing crackdown on drug paraphernalia in the early 1970s put head shops out of business and thereby killed the distribution network for underground comix artists like Robert Crumb. Issue #5 even manages to make interesting reading out of nothing but the many intellectual property ripoffs and lawsuits that have plagued the medium since its birth.
#5 Ted McKeever, Meta 4
I think (and this was never my strong-suit philosopher so I’m not sure, but I think) that Ted McKeever has written a Heideggerian allegory in comic-book form. Now available in a trade collection.
#4 Phil Hester, Golly vol. 1: Catching Hell
Golly feels as if someone took Garth Ennis’s Preacher and drained out all the meanspiritedness, sadistic jokes, and sexism. Golly Munhollen grabs the circus strongwoman’s ass one day, she knocks him out, and he’s visited by an angel who informs him that the Apocalypse has been postponed indefinitely due to lack of interest, and in the meanwhile he’s been appointed the clean-up squad for all those demons left running around the world. When Golly asks the logical question—why me and not someone smarter—the angel tells him that from a heavenly perspective the difference between him and a genius is negligible. “It would be like asking you to look into a puddle and select the smartest amoeba,” it says. “You will do.”
#3 Charles Soule, 27 (Twenty-Seven)
Will Garland has a repetitive stress injury in his playing hand, and in trying to cure himself accidentally makes a Faustian bargain that leaves him with a console implanted in his chest. Every time he activates it he gains a miraculous ability for three hours, but after the 27th time he does so, he will die. The ending is unexpected yet perfect. Now available in a trade paperback.
#2 Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, Daytripper
Every issue of Daytripper tells an episode in the life of the protagonist, Brás, at a different age. Brás starts his working life as an obituary writer, then becomes a novelist in his thirties; at the end of each issue he dies and we read the opening lines of his obituary. Though the episodes are told out of order, we realize very quickly that we are to read each one as if none of the preceding deaths happened, but everything else we’ve read about did. Brás has many loves in his life—a girlfriend, a wife, a best friend, a father, a mother, a son, a dog—and there are episodes touching on each of them. Brás is built up as the sum of these many loves and remembered in relation to them in each of his obituaries, in an extended meditation on loving in the face of death.
#1 Anders Nilsen, Big Questions
If Chris Ware is the comic book medium’s James Joyce, Anders Nilsen is its Samuel Beckett. Think Beckett meets Beatrix Potter, adorable little creatures on a bleak, featureless plain, staring into the abyss—but hopeful nonetheless, in its own way. “We can’t ever really know the outcome of our actions,” one of them concludes, “but if we act earnestly, and do our best, everything will turn out right in the end.” Of course the bird saying that happens to be responsible for the deaths of many others. And dead herself. Now available in collected form.
It’s the curse of success for comics, movies, really any popular entertainment: if it’s good, if it sells well, they’re going to want you to make a sequel.
The first four-issue run of 27 (now available as a trade paperback) was a perfect, self-contained story. As I wrote about the first two issues, guitarist Will Garland has a repetitive stress injury in his playing hand, and in trying to cure himself accidentally makes a Faustian bargain that leaves him with a console implanted in his chest. Every time he activates it he gains a miraculous ability for three hours, but after the 27th time he does so, he will die.
Much of that first story is spent on him trying to figure out what’s happened to him and what he can do about it. In the end, he confronts the deity that gave him the console and delivers a moving, multi-page speech on what artistic creation is really about. It’s not about a muse giving you genius, he declares. It’s a process of false starts and painful lessons, won gradually over years. Genius may be given to some people, but they still have to put in the work to make their gift grow. He plans to use his miraculous abilities no more.
The goddess recedes. Garland finds himself alone in his apartment. He flips over his guitar and tries to play with his off hand.
Sounds awful. But I’ll get better. And the music I make—it’ll be mine. And it’ll be loud.
I loved that ending. It was unexpected yet perfect, a real moment of character triumph.
Except now there’s this sequel, so it’s not an ending anymore. Worse, in order for there to be conflict in this new run, author Charles Soule has to take away Garland’s victory.
Yes, Garland is playing his music at the start of 27: Second Set, but it’s much more subdued than what he was playing before, and his fans aren’t going for it. He’s not going for it either: he can feel how the music should sound with the use of his natural playing hand, and what he’s able to actually prodce with his off hand dissatisfies him. Frustrated, he breaks up with his girlfriend/manager and sleeps with a groupie, who triggers the console in his chest. He runs outside, shooting light from his hands, and lets the world—and the news—see his unearned genius.
I should say that all of this is well written, appropriate to the character, and beautifully drawn by Renzo Podesta. But it’s still all disappointing. Garland had a transcendent moment at the end of the first series; the best he can do now is get back to the same height. I can’t see how it’ll be as satisfying to watch him get there a second time.
SIDE NOTE: The main comparison I thought of here was to Buffy’s resurrection before season 6. Buffy’s self-sacrifice at the close of season 5 was a high note for the show, and while Whedon & Co. had some interesting ideas when they resurrected the show and her, most of them were directly about how that transcendent possibility was forever spoiled. Now Buffy was stuck in the hell of everyday life. So even though season 6 had some great, memorable moments (Once More With Feeling of course chief among them), it was always clear we were never going to get as satisfying an exit the second time around. And in fact season 7 was utter shite, with a final battle that left us nowhere near the high of the season 5 finale. Sometimes when you stick the landing it’s better to leave the floor.
To give one more example: if Michael Jordan had stayed retired after the 1998 Finals, after the greatest walk-off moment in sports history, we’d all remember him that much more fondly. The pathetic run with the Wizards took a lot of the shine off that final shot.
And yes, I am comparing the end of the first four issues of 27 to both of those. I liked it that much.
Despite its early popularity, I didn’t review the first issue of Charles Soule’s Twenty-Seven because it seemed like a straightforward Faust tale and I wanted to see if it could come up with any interesting wrinkles in that basic fabric before I spent time on it. With the second issue arrived a fuller revelation of the nature of the hero’s deal, and I’m pleased to say that yes, there are some fresh new ideas here.
Well, one big idea in the Mooreian sense and a few more smaller ones. The big one is that where Faust wanted world domination, Will Garland, the protagonist of Twenty-Seven, merely wants to reclaim his ability to play guitar. His rock stardom has been cut short by a repetitive stress injury to his right hand.
That’s both a much more sympathetic reason for a Faustian bargain than the usual, and a much more human one. Even those of us with no need to bring the world to our feet can relate to the fear of losing the ability to do what we love. After all, with few exceptions that’s coming for us all someday.
The smaller new ideas are in the mechanics. Instead of the Devil, Garland’s deal turns out to be with something like the concept of the number 9, with possible interference from some other supernatural agent. The ceremony to cure him, which kills 81 cats and the mad scientist who sets it up, also leaves him with a mysterious console implanted in his chest. Each time he activates that console he temporarily gains a power; each will only occur once and last a short time, and after 27 uses of the console he will die. He’s not sure how many times he’s already pressed its buttons when he learns this.
There are a few silly moments—he visits a university mathematics department to try to learn what it might mean to be indebted to “the number 9,” and shockingly finds a grad student who takes him seriously.
I’m slightly worried that it takes until midway through issue #2 of this four-issue miniseries before the setup is really done. It seems like the basis for a much longer-running superhero story. Still, it’s a solid premise and I want to see where it ends up.
The comic is printed on a larger-than-normal format page, which has apparently made production tricky but which also gives Renzo Podesta’s lovely art room to breathe. Check out a preview here.