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The Longbox View #7 – Pride

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Happy Pride! 5 LGBTQ+ Recs

The Longbox View #007 | Variations on a Theme 001

Happy Pride to my LGBTQ+ friends out there.

The Enigma

Writer: Peter Milligan

Artist: Duncan Fegredo

Color Artist: Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh

Letterer: John Costanza

It was 1993 when Enigma was originally published and, that being the case, it’s natural that I didn’t read it or understand it. Even so I’m actively annoyed at myself for not going back to it sooner.

Enigma is, for lack of a better description, a Vertigo take on a superhero book. But that doesn’t really do it justice, either. It focuses on Michael Smith, a rather average and very boring white, straight, cis man who has a very controlled life: on Tuesdays he has sex with his longtime girlfriend, and not on any other day. He has an ordinary job and ordinary friends.

When Michael was a kid he used to read a comic book called Enigma – a sort of drug and new age philosophy fueled superhero story with little plot or tension and a great many questions. The book was kind of terrible and only lasted three issues, but it made an impact on him… enough so that when characters from the comic begin appearing in real life, he takes notice. Soon, notice turns to interest and interest turns to fascination as he seeks to unravel the mystery of this new Enigma… and find out why he feels so strongly as though the events are somehow linked to him. This search will take him on a long, strange journey as it delves into the connections between people, identity, sexuality and flying lizards.

We mostly follow Michael as he strives to find answers and also to find himself and his place in the world. It works on the surface level, as a story about this strange thing that happened when a comic book character stepped into the real world and the way it made Michael Smith leave the Ordinary World to answer the call… but it also works as a parable – a metaphor for discovering, exploring and accepting one’s sexuality and, in turn, oneself.

Duncan Fegredo’s artwork and Van Valkenburgh’s coloring is frenetic and visually distorted in many cases, but becomes still and serene as a calm lake whens the emotions and events shift, too. The Enigma himself has a strange, otherworldly feel to him, like he stands apart from the rest of the planet as a man out of time or some kind of spirit… and yet there are moments where he seems all too fragile, all too human. It’s confusing and fraught, and when things fall into place, it’s just. Perfect.

Enigma can still be found here and there in its most recent Vertigo reprint from 2014, but is also scheduled for a new print from the Dark Horse imprint Berger Books in October. I have already placed my preorder, and your heart will thank you if you do, as well.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Writer: Mariko Tamaki

Artist: Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Letterer: John Costanza

“I like making things out of other things. I like the smell of strawberries but not the taste. I’m a good kisser. I think. For almost the past year I’ve been in love with a girl named Laura Dean. Which is the hardest thing I’ve ever been. Because Laura Dean keeps breaking up with me.”

When Freddy Riley types these words on her laptop, she’s 17 years old and a year into a relationship with popular, outgoing and deeply unreliable Laura Dean… who may or may not love her back. It’s an endless cycle – get together, break up, get back together, and every breakup cycle has its reasons (well, most of them do) that make sense to Laura but, inevitably, not so much to Freddy. The cycle is as consuming as it is toxic… and the more it eats her the less she can see anything else.

To make matters worse, her friends have reached the point that friends eventually reach in these situations – frustration and impatience despite their heroic attempts to dredge up what remains of their long-spent sympathy.

That’s how she comes to write a letter to Anna Vice, an online advice columnist. Through this letter we are brought into her world and shown her fears, her frustration and her longing for a girl who is everpresent and yet somehow absent and unavailable.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me centers on the time immediately following break up #3 – a particularly cruel split, and not just for having taken place on Valentine’s Day.

Freddy is struggling to assess Laura’s place in her life. Or, well, whether she should even have one. Because Laura is dismissive, abusive in those subtle, cutting ways that make it hard to pinpoint what the problem is or why she’s so hurtful… aside from Laura’s frequent bouts of infidelity, or flirtations with it. Complicating matters is that Laura seems unconcerned with Freddy’s feelings but also a little oblivious to them. I never got the sense that she was trying to hurt Freddy but more that she just wasn’t… thinking about whether she would. And that’s just as bad.

Hell, maybe it’s worse.

All of this just leaves Freddy feeling unwanted and taken for granted, and her difficulty dealing with her pain and confusion is not just relatable but maybe a little too relatable. Most people know how she feels, if not because of a present or former partner then because of friend, or even a parent – just… someone they love who is… casually callous and self-centered all while demanding all the air from their lungs and the heat from their body.

The artwork, the writing, the tiny touch of color in this mostly black and white book, is so subtle, so graceful. Valero-O’Connell’s artwork lives in moments, tiny gestures, subtle changes in stance or expression that make these characters feel real. The book as a whole is too gentle to be painful, at least for me, but it resonates, it impacts. It sings.

Midnighter & Apollo

Writer: Steve Orlando

Artist: Fernando Blanco

Color Artist: Romulo Fajardo Jr, John Rauch

Letterer: Josh Reed

Famously invented as part of a mostly deceased Justice League expy group in Stormwatch, Midnighter and Apollo were, at the time, essentially standins for Superman and Batman with their famous close friendship (though admittedly less close at the time) reinterpreted as a romance.

If you could play their history over the past 20+ years over a screen in your mind, you would see them co-found the Authority, share one of the first on panel male/male kisses, marry, raise a child together… and then get rebooted into strangers with the advent of the New52 and fall in love all over again. They parted ways for a time, during which the Midnighter series by Steve Orlando, ACO, and etc. took place with Midnighter (going by Lucas Trent) beginning a new romantic journey, only to discover that his new love interest was a murderous supervillain in disguise, eventually reuniting with Apollo in the second half of Midnighter’s 2015 series.

Which brings us to Midnighter & Apollo, the 2016 followup to the previous solo series, this time by Orlando and Fernando Blanco, a story that brings them from the tentative beginnings of their newly rekindled romance into a mythic-scale adventure that grabbed onto my heart and ran away with it, never to return.

The series finds Midnighter going head-to-head with Henry Bendix, the brilliant mind who once created him. And, knowing Midnighter can’t be stopped by normal means, he targets Midnighter’s one obvious weakness: Apollo. This may, at first, seem strange – Apollo is a Superman-class meta and Midnighter is more like Captain America with a processor in his head. But it’s not dissimilar to Superman and Lex Luthor really – if you’re brilliant enough, and you live in a DC Comic, you can find a way to make fetch happen.

In the end, with Apollo’s body kept barely alive through constant exposure to solar radiation and his soul captured by Neron in Hell, Midnighter declares his refusal to bow down to death and marches straight into Hell after the man he loves.

To accomplish this, however, he needs to get there… which means that M&A also features the return of DC’s first gay character, the magician Gregorio de la Vega – Extrano. Meanwhile, inside Hell we also follow Apollo’s journey – more intellectual and emotional than physical – as he plays a game of wits with the devil.

Now. I’ve seen some complaints that this book, the book named after this relationship, has rather little of the relationship since Apollo spends most of the book semi-dead. And I get that. And I realize I’m not a gay man, I can’t speak for the value of seeing them live their romance vs. what was actually done. But here’s my perspective on it:

This is where the Midnighter and Apollo that has been incorporated into the main DCU finally advanced their romance to the “soulmate” level that they had previously inhabited in the Wildstorm universe. Because before this book, they had loved each other, and wanted each other, and kind of… circled each other, struggling with their disparate natures, and Midnighter’s fear of commitment, especially so soon after discovering his sexuality. But in these pages, when Apollo was lost, Midnighter was forced to realize that Apollo has become an integral part of his life: his heart, and his anchor. Someone he couldn’t accept losing, even if it meant marching into the fire to bring him back.

It’s a grand romantic epic – Orpheus and Eurydice if Orpheus could beat up the shades of Tartarus into submission instead of playing music and making deals. If Eurydice could follow Orpheus’s voice back out of the dark. For the first time in his life, Midnighter has found someone worth not just killing for, but worth dying for. Someone, even, worth living for.

And that’s love, isn’t it?

Destiny, NY

Writer: Pat Shand

Artist: Manuel Preitano, Rosi Kampe, Elisa Romboni

Letterer: Jim Campbell

Somewhere between urban fantasy, slice of life and romance there is Destiny, NY. In a world where there is not just one Chosen One but many, each with their different destinies to fulfill, Logan McBride is destined to “go into the unseen and remove untouched death.” Like many destined, Logan was sent to Destiny University, a school for the fated with a full educational curriculum. That’s where she met Bailey Ross, the woman she was sure she’d spend her life with. Bailey is beautiful, athletic, popular, and now engaged to someone else, leaving Logan alone and bereft with only her cat to keep her company.

And then Lilith comes into her life.

But first, let’s contextualize. The truth is Logan’s been struggling a bit in general. Having completed her destiny quite young, she’s not sure what she should be doing with herself and has thus far stayed at Destiny University despite being near 30, enrolled in a graduate program but not getting much of anywhere with it. Instead she works at a coffee shop and just tries to get by day by day, hopefully not thinking too much about Bailey.

She meets Lilith on the street when a guy is harassing her and Lilith steps in to send him on his way. Lilith is tall, cool and tough and when Logan meets her, she feels an instant attraction that leads to a quickly growing connection. Soon they’re in bed together, and then they’re in love, and now Logan has been drawn into Lilith’s complicated and sometimes terrifying life complete with magical gangsters and dangerous wizards who wield magic as a weapon instead of a tool… people like Lilith’s sister Song and her protector, Arvid.

Of course, it isn’t just Logan and Lilith. Destiny, NY has an expansive cast full of fascinating and diverse characters, most of whom have their own destinies to contend with… or their own responsibilities as part of the system of prophecies. Among them, popular Gia, the beautiful and well-loved girl destined to slay the most ancient of evils, and Joe, a Harry Potter like figure who is meant to slay an evil wizard. Logan’s coffeeshop manager Augusten and his partner Andre have a touching, frustrating relationship – love and complacency… each character is as real as characters can be, navigating their complications, their angers and their loves.

Given the title of the book it is, of course, a given that the series takes place primarily in New York. What’s less clear is that it takes place in New York City. And New York is, in some ways, a character to itself. If you live there, if you’ve been there, you can flip through the pages, catching glimpses of the places you know – the sculptures, landmarks, buildings.

In the back of each volume you’ll find a small anthology – some of the stories are poetry. Some are comedy, some drama. One even made me cry. That one’s about a cat.

The series doesn’t have a steady artist – each volume there is a new artist with Matteo Leoni coming on soon. Each volume has its own visual style as a result, but every artist is strong, the artists are consistent per arc and, in the end, the glue that holds it all together is Pat Shand’s writing –often poetic and always poignant. The series takes hiatuses between arcs, and is just about to make its return, so I can’t think of a better time to settle in with hot cocoa and a warm cat.

Kill a Man

Writer: Steve Orlando and Phillip Kennedy Johnson

Artist: Al Morgan

Color Artist: Al Morgan

Letterer: Jim Campbell

It wasn’t the theme that drew me to Kill a Man. Not that I have anything against stories about arena sports but… I didn’t actually know what the plot was when I decided to smash that Buy Button. What I knew, all I knew, was enough to spur me on, and that’s all summarized in five “words.”

Steve Orlando. Phillip Kennedy Johnson.

Two names that make me sit up and take notice. So okay, I really didn’t know what to expect… but I knew that, whatever it was, it was probably going to be good.

What I’m saying is, I wasn’t prepared. So here we go.

It’s 1998, and Xavier Mayne and DJ Bellyi stand in the boxing ring, the main event of their particular night. They’re both talented fighters, powerful hitters…. But Bellyi’s hardest blows don’t come from his fist. You see, Bellyi is aware of something about his opponent: Xavier Mayne is gay. And Bellyi is more than prepared to use that against him.

The assault starts pretty quickly as Bellyi throws slurs and taunts at Mayne between and during every blow. It throws Mayne off, gets his head spinning with rage. That’s an advantage of sorts. Until it isn’t.

Until he pushes it just a little too hard.

After that, it’s all done in a blur: Mayne lets loose, and Bellyi goes down. Hard.

He never gets up.

Fast forward 20 years. James Bellyi, son of DJ Bellyi, has become a rising star of Mixed Martial Arts. One of the most popular fighters of his time, he’s gearing up for a title match. For someone in his position, steeped in the culture of arena sports, it’s incredibly important for James to hold his secrets close to his chest – and he does have secrets. Most notably, the truth that he is… repressed, living on the downlow, hiding his truest self. Gay.

That becomes “known” when he’s outed during a press conference. Suddenly, his life is in freefall – cut out of opportunities, shunned by the MMA world. Once the golden boy of the sport, James can’t even find a trainer. Things only get worse from there.

Desperate to save both his career and himself, James Bellyi, son of DJ Bellyi, is forced to turn to the only person he can think of who might be willing to take him on as a trainer: Xavier Mayne, the man who killed his father.

Al Morgan’s art is striking, intense just like the subject matter, and the flat planes of stylized color work well to set the tenor of a scene. He’s also one hell of a storyteller, able to conjure moving images in the mind’s eye of a reader, controlling the flow of time with large or small panels, with composition, with color. He’s a perfect fit for the characters and the co-writers, especially since he doesn’t shy away from being confronting.

Kill a Man is brutal sometimes. Intense. Uncomfortable. It confronts us with the ugliest parts of our society – the dirty corners where it’s still socially acceptable to do the socially unacceptable. Of course there’s homophobia, racism, intolerance everywhere. But it’s becoming less accepted to put your bigotry on the table, to just go ahead and say that slur, call that name. It varies, of course, depending where you go but it’s true that changes, imperfect and breakable as they can be, are changing. It’s no longer as easy, or as seemingly forgivable, to say there are people who don’t deserve opportunities not because they’ve done something wrong but because they are something wrong. Just by being there. Just by existing.

Even so, whatever progress has been made in some areas, there are other places – subcultures and corners and sometimes entire cities, states, nations, where that open cruelty is still allowed. Arena sports are all too often among those places… and Kill a Man shows it to us.

Every other story on this list is about love, and I won’t say Kill a Man isn’t. There is love there – the love between people, the struggle to love oneself. But as much as it is about these beautiful things, it’s about the ugly things, too. And that’s important. Because even if we don’t always see it in the open anymore, there is still hate in the world. There are battles left to fight, miles left to walk. The work isn’t done, not yet.

But there’s strength and healing in self-belief, in hope, and in forgiveness – of others, and of oneself. And Kill a Man shows us that, too. [Ed. Note: You can hear more discussion about Kill a Man in the Capes on the Couch interview with PKJ here. – Anthony]

Next time on The Longbox View… I really want to keep doing “Next time on” but my posting order keeps changing so for a while, at least, I’m going to use this to talk about the things that are coming up in the near future. So!

-Next time, for absolute and for certain, I will be posting an interview with Scott Snyder. I KNOW, RIGHT?

-If I can find the time to read more LGBTQ comics that I have on my to do list, I’d like to come back with another round of recs. I just ran out of time and, frankly, space because this column is already really long.

-And of course, I will be circling around to discuss the entire complete I Breathed a Body AND

-I’ll pick up on my Snyder readthrough again, starting with Gates of Gotham!

Until then, stay safe and keep reading!

ARIEL BEE IS… An Old Person. A Comics reading veteran. Mostly involved with DC and indies but happy to go on the occasional Marvelous Mission into the unknown. An analytical overthinker. Also found as a reviewer on Comics-Watch and Twitter @thearielbee.

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