12 June, 2012

De-Programme

I can safely say that The Programme Vol. 1 is one of the legitimately worst comics I've read in a long time. It's a mess from start to finish and while the first issue does set-up an intriguing premise it not only fumbles that idea (being that the Nazis developed superhumans, but instead of deploying them in the war, they fell into the hands of the US and the USSR, developing a secret side-game in the Cold War. In a modern generic Middle Eastern country at war, those weapons have been awakened into a world they cannot understand), it obliterate it in a fever of poor art, poor design, and the most facile political points this side of a high schooler's peechee folder.

It's a poor, poor book and I want to make fun of it. Join me, won't you?

(See this cool cover? It's the last good thing you'll see in the book.)
I recently posted that I liked Prometheus because, despite its flaws, there are some really cool things going on. The Programme is the inverse of that where I hate something even more because of how badly it screw up its potentially cool ideas. I'll try to come up with a smart corollary rule for that.

(And besides a successful version of this story already exists, it's called The Winter Men and it was amazing.)

The dialogue and the general themes of the book have all of the relevance of a Human Shield in the months before the Iraq War. There's nothing wrong with a book being political and there's certainly nothing wrong with the kind of angry liberal politics inside of this book (I'm more of a Mort Zuckerman-man myself, but that's just me). What is a problem is when the politics of a work have all of the energy and poignancy of a bumper sticker on an ugly car.

V for Vendetta managed to be a strident attack against the policies of Margaret Thatcher and a statement on the feelings of the time, but it also managed to be a parable about political power in general and, most importantly, be a well-told story. That's an intensely liberal-minded story. It works and people from all over the political spectrum enjoy it because it is much more than a rebuke of a political philosophy that no one can recall in detail.

This book ended its much too long 12 issue run in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States. Could you think of anything less relevant than the angry hysteria of the Iraq War protest movement in 2008 (and, also, wasn't Obama going to fix that whole mess)? The Programme seems to be written as a reply to an argument long since paved over in light of the forward movement of reality.

The politics are a kind of whiny, rambling dissidence that was annoying during the Bush years, but now has all of the heft a homeless man arguing with a dumpster. Vague anger and political buzzwords isn't a theme. When a forth of a page is taken up by the panel "THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES IS A DANGEROUS PSYCHOPATH" (is there any other kind of psychopath?) apropos of nothing you can't help but conclude that not only is this book without subtlety, it's a book that values making a statement over creating a story.

Plus, we know the US president is a dangerous psychopath, he just fired off a nuclear warhead. Psychopathy is implicit in the act of firing off a nuclear warhead. We don't need to be told that. . . unless of course you were making an important political point! In which case we should all stop and ruminate on the important things you have to say, oh mighty swami!

The plotting is even worse. It reveals things with such little weight or care that it all feels incidental. Flashbacks come and go with no real context and while they do fill in the background of some of the characters they don't seem to actually be relevant to anything that is happening in the present. It'd be like if Dr. Manhattan's flashbacks were all about him attending physics classes in college. Too be fair, though, the flashbacks are the least agonizing thing about the book because at least stories begin and are concluded in them.

It's one of the only books I can think of that has managed to move both too quickly and still manage to drag everything out. Every opportunity for explanation or intrigue is wasted or tossed away in favor of vague references to imperialism or the worker's republic or whatever else. And they aren't concepts or thoughts, they're just words that people say. They're saying them enough times so they must mean something!

The biggest waste of an opportunity is present in the presumed protagonist, Max. Our boy is a superhuman made by the Nazis and programmed by the US government as a protector of truth, justice, and all of that other fun stuff that has no place in a comic this lifeless. As a protagonist he would make the main character in The Stranger blush with his ineffectualness. Bartleby the scrivener would tell him to get his shit together. Besides super strength and speed, his main power seems to be to make me want to throw a clock radio at him.

When he's told that he was a baby made by the Nazis and brainwashed by the military industrial complex by the CIA he takes it with all of the excitement of being given a pastrami sandwich instead of a Reuben. He doesn't seem to want any documentation on his heritage as a Nazi superman and just takes the spooks that show up at his word.

Then he proceeds to do nothing for the entire comic. He escapes from a CIA holding facility, but instead of going on the run like a normal plot would make him, he ends up running. . . right back to the bar where we found him in the first place where he proceeds to do. . . even more nothing. His personal problems are then explained away in one line of dialogue and he goes back to having a non-debate with himself for three issues. Because, again, if people like anything in their stories it is for comflict to present itself, however stupidly, then be instantly swept away with a declarative sentence.

Eventually another superhuman named Senator Joe, who is woken up and convinced that the US government is overrun by commies and pinkos, is sent to retrieve the reluctant superhuman.

But, of course, that character is wasted as well. He goes from being a super-powered Red-baiter to a being a guy who just wears a hat (Max, importantly, does not wear a hat). His change of heart happens off panel and is explained away in the next scene he appears in. So what you have is a super-powered right-wing nut job and a psycho-out-of-time changed into a guy who just kind of hassles Max ineffectually for half of an isse. Good. Great. That's the kind of crack story-telling people come to comics for!

At some point Max has a crisis of character, which is that he's a weapon of mass destruction that hates destroying things. At no point does anyone state the obvious which would be "Then don't fucking blow up anyone, you jackass" or "Good, because blowing up things for fun would make you a fucking asshole and everybody hates assholes." No, the scene is about. .  . I don't even know. There's nothing I can tell you factually that would be more interesting than whatever you imagine the scene is actually about.

Here's the writing prompt: Timothy Lehery and Superman are in a bar. They are talking about brainwashing. Go.

Alright, good work everybody.

Anyways, the scene drags on and, again, nobody states the other incredibly obvious point about how his mind has been messed with, which would be "It's called a conscience, you dingus. You're welcome for not being a soulless monster." Milligan doesn't seem to understand the difference between a revelation and a premise.

Then again having any motivation at all in our heroes puts the villains into sharp relief since they have all of the depth of a henchman in a Die Hard fanfic. They're Soviets! And they're evil! And they're attacking a faceless composite of Middle Eastern nations! And these Soviet guys are. . . doing bad stuff! Why? Because they are going to destroy American imperialism! Why? Because they're good Soviets and good Soviets murder Americans! Apparently!

There's no motivation, there's no plot, there's just a vague set-up that never really goes anywhere. They're plot is cardboard thin. They keep on referencing Joseph Stalin, but thinking on that mass murderer I can't help but feel he was a far more rational actor than these group of weirdos. If you made them Nazis or Christian fundamentalists or Martians or irrate mathematicians literally nothing would change in their motivations or actions.

Strangely the first Soviet super villain introduced seems to be intensely concerned with killing American soldiers, but doesn't even seem to be aware of the concept of there being people living in the country they're invading. Milligan doesn't seem to be either. He seems to want to bristle at the hubris of the American empire invading a country, but doesn't seem to be interested at all in the people they are presumably conquering and killing. He also seems perfectly fine in lumping the entire Middle East together into one big ball and calling it "Talibanistan." Real progressive work you're doing there, buddy.

Questions are all I have for this book. Angry questions. Is this an important moment? Is this a side character? Why is this happening? Who the hell is that? Do I give a shit? Questions like this pop into my mind at such frequency that I have to wonder whether Mr. Milligan ever asked "What the hell am I doing here?" It would have been a more constructive question to ask instead of what exactly we're doing in Iraq. At the very least there'd be an answer and my pain would end.


Then there's the art.It's a hideous neon-soaked nightmare that is so garish and blown-out that it would make Andy Warhol vomit in rage.There is really nothing redeemable about it. At its best it's merely competent. It is on a page, it is of people, and the word balloons correspond to those.

The coloring is an obnoxious mess. It reminds me of how Jae Lee's artwork is handled, which is it is very flat with maybe a few textures thrown in, but overall the colorist (Richard Isanove, especially) let's Lee's sparse line work and heavy shadows do the heavy lifting. Jae Lee (and Richard Isanove who seems to work with Lee most often) are talented artists though and CP Smith and Johnny Rench don't seem to know what a comic book is or even how to draw.

The color palette is a clear stylistic choice, which is fine. Had it worked it would have been a bold and striking style for the comic. Unfortunately the coloring seems to be barely competent, more reminiscent of something out of the late 90's when people started figuring out this art on computers business. The texture work is quite transparently just a texture out of Photoshop and the actual artwork itself is so reliant on tracing photos that its hard to tell when the shitty coloring stops and where the crappy drawings begin.

Most egregiously there are some pages that are digitized and chopped up to the point of actually being pixelated. I'm reading a comic book made in 2008 and I am looking at textures that seem to have fallen out of Kid Pix. It makes me ask another question which is whether somebody intended for it to look this lackluster or if this was a plan all along?

It's all made worst with a sickeningly dull layout. Every page seems to consists entirely of "Digitally traced people covered in too much shadow making weird faces at each other.While those silly faces aren't crammed with too many word balloons or caption boxes, the story's glacial pace makes me think that even the meager potential of these panels is being wasted on a poorly paced story.

The book is filled cover to cover with pictures of people standing with the odd addition of somebody maybe flying. The backgrounds are few and far between and what we do get, like the people in the comic, are clearly just photos of ugly places made uglier with Photoshop filters. Brian Lee O'Malley made it work. This CP Smith is no Brian Lee O'Malley.

You look at the artwork of Tony Harris and you realize that tracing and heavy photo referencing can be done and done to great effect. I'm fairly certain even Darick Robertson used photo references for characters in Transmetropolitan and that book looks amazing. So, in both the case of the flat, digital coloring and the tracing there are excellent examples of that work.

(To be fair, though, this Wolverine cover by CP Smith is pretty killer. I also seem to vaguely remember the issue being competently drawn.)

Fuck this book. If I wanted to read a half-assed and hideous version of Watchmen I'd vomit into my Absolute edition and shut it. This is a book without redeeming qualities. I let you know this because not only is it great fun to inflict retribution on this book, but it also presents a pause for us to reflect upon how great some of the comic books in our lives are. While not every superhero book is All-Star Superman or Powers at least there are also very few books like The Programme.

(Alright. That's enough of that. I promise to write about something good in the future)