Today, Ryan M. and Patrick are discussing Alters 1, originally released September 7, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Ryan M: Sometimes an idea just looks good on paper. The Bumble profile that charms followed by a chat that falls flat. The sandwich on the menu that has all your favorite ingredients and tastes like none of them. Ideas are important, but the execution needs to meet them. I find myself engaged intellectually with the ideas presented in Alters 1, but mostly unmoved emotionally thanks to a exposition-heavy set up.
To be fair, there is a lot to set up. Charlie’s story takes place in a world where he is just the latest in a series of Alters, humans that undergo a change and can manipulate physics in various ways. Charlie’s life is also fairly complex. He is the middle son of a traditional and somewhat regressive family. His older brother has cerebral palsy and Charlie helps care for him. On top of the world-building, family to establish and Charlie’s new powers, Charlie is transgender. That is a lot to deal with in a single issue. With all of that, Paul Jenkins chooses a narrative device that while helpful with exposition, hinders the emotional impact of the story.
Charlie’s diary entries act as narration for the issue and it creates a distance between the reader and the story. Jenkins uses the narration to skim through the history of the Alters in a single page. The diary entry is written for a person who doesn’t live in the world. I may be pedantic, but a diary should act as a place for confidences, not necessarily a spot for explanation of the things that one could take for granted.
Because Jenkins is forcing so many broad strokes in just a few panels, none of them have any resonance. Without scaling the story down to a human level, it’s all general truths that don’t evoke anything of meaning. Anyone of these panels being built out into a scene could have made the story more engaging. What specific ways did they think Octavian could save the world? How did the new Alters change the world? Even the Chicago Incident doesn’t pack the punch that five thousand deaths should. The image of bodies strewn across a smoke-filled street should be devastating, instead is feels rote. The choice to deny any specificity in these images robs them of impact.
The final image, that of Matter Man with blood dripping from his mouth can be found in two places in the issue. It’s not clear if it’s metaphorical blood, literal blood or an affectation, but it was provocative in its first appearance. The second time, when Matter Man commits murder of an innocent, we see the same blood mouth but no context. Is he literally a vampire in addition to being a self-proclaimed “unreasonable maniac with a hair-trigger temper?” It’s not clear, but at least we are given clear motivations for him and a scene of him trying to achieve those goals.
I’ve ragged pretty hard on the diary device, but perhaps Jenkins is using the first fifteen pages of the story as a way to show us that Charlie needs to gear up before telling his own diary that he is trans. Even so, the choice to skim through so much world building while giving the reader little more to latch onto than a hand writing and a fairly generic confrontation. At that point in the book, there is no reason to care about anyone but Chalice or even to trust Octavian and his crew.
By giving the art some space to tell the story, the turn of Charlie’s identity plays really well. We don’t need Charlie to tell us much about his mom after we see her standing in her Chico’s sweater standing in front of a mis-matched framed pictures of a family. Once Leiz is given the space to communicate with the reader, there is a connection. The image of Charlie taking off Chalice while sitting cross-legged in front of the mirror feels so authentic and real. The specificity of the moment gives it power.
Patrick, what did you think of the issue? Am I being to hard on a first issue that offers some fresh dynamics? What do you make of the brewing conflict between Octavian and Matter Man? I didn’t explore the way the book deals with presenting Charlie and Chalice. How well does the story deal with the three streets of Charlie’s “intersection?”
Patrick: Ryan Mogge, starting me off with the tough questions! I’d say your note about specificity in the mythology can apply to my own observations about the expression of Chalice’s gender identity. The “Chicago Incident” might be a pretty generic naming convention for a non-specific disaster, but I don’t find that much less compelling than Charlie’s performance of either gender. And I hate to use “perform” in this context, but the texts suggests that Chalice, the woman, is something that Charlie becomes.
Notice that the wig has that shock of black hair in it all the time. That’s part of the Chalice-the-superhero design, meaning that the only time she is herself is when she’s literally wearing a costume. Like Ryan, I’m totally into the idea of following a trans teenage superhero, but the idea of double-closeting this character serves to trivialize the very real transition she’s going through. It’s clear that Chalice isn’t totally comfortable being a superhero – as evidenced by the fact that she first runs away from this universe’s Justice League, and then awkwardly smashes through their base by issue’s end – and that’s the only way we ever see the character presenting as female. As Charlie, there are more subtle shades of who the kid is. We see activity, and even if he’s blindly going along with his day job or a family outing to the ballpark, Charlie has the rich life. Chalice doesn’t. Literally all she does is disappear and reappear.
Part of this is simply a problem of an under-developed protagonist. Not only do we have that extra level of removal in the form of the expository diary, the cast is filled out with characters that do not see Chalice. The family seems totally oblivious – at least to the extent that we can say anything about how the family views Charlie. Other than making a point for both parents to refer to their three children as “boys,” we don’t have any sense of what their relationships are like. Even as just a slice-of-life, the trip to the ballpark plays like the least relevant peek into Charlie’s home life. It’s a little bit like the run-down of this Alters-populated word: there are a bunch of details, but none specific enough to breathe life into the characters.
I’m also disappointed in the way Chalice is drawn. She’s not depicted as a trans woman, but as a cis woman, with hips, waist and breasts to match. I know this has got to be a delicate balance for Leiz – playing up Chalice’s more masculine features could come across as equally insensitive. But just drawing Chalice as a cis woman is a form of trans erasure. It’s a tiny detail, but Leiz draws Charlie’s Adam’s apple, but Chalice’s throat is a straight line. I’d like to write this off as an expression of how Chalice sees herself, but again, there’s nothing to suggest that she is freer or somehow more herself as a woman. It also doesn’t totally track for me that Chalice’s costume would show so much skin, potentially revealing so many secondary gender signifiers.
I don’t know – all of that could be written away if we knew anything about Chalice in a non-superhero context.
I guess that’s my over all take-away from this issue: Jenkins and Leiz aren’t mindfully wielding the tools at their disposal. This extends way past concepts like planet-wide superhero genesis or trans issues, and right on to nearly every detail. When Matter Man issues his statement at the end of the issue, he does so on TV. That rings false – that’d be on YouTube or Instagram or something. In the statement, Matter Man issues a “Jihad” (his words), which is a rough appropriation of a concept that is very culturally specific, but not at all applicable to this situation. And then there’s the biggest sin:
Couldn’t Google Wauwatosa or Waukesha or Muskego or Racine? “Small town outside Milwaukee” summarizes my problems with the issue.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?