One of the hottest comic book titles right now is Morning Glories. Written by Nick Spencer with art by Joe Eisma, and published by Image Comics, this series has been advertised as a cross between the TV show Lost and the Marvel series Runaways. You can’t go on any forum, any review website, or any Facebook page that mentions Morning Glories without some reference to Lost. In fact, that’s one of the comic book series’ problems: it’s heavy-handed likeness to the television series. But more on that in a moment. Right now, and to put it bluntly, all the praise for Morning Glories is sorely distorted and even suspect. Indeed, it seems to me that the popularity of the series is self-sustaining, meaning that the title is popular because it is so popular. Folks read about or hear about how wonderful the comic is, and when they read it are sucked into the praise vortex and are unable to really approach the book with much of a sense of critical objectivity. Perhaps I’m not giving many of these readers their due, but I do know about the popular bandwagon phenomenon and how easy it is for an audience to grab onto something just because it’s popular.
My own reading of the comic book series isn’t very positive. In fact, it’s downright critical, and I mean “critical” in a negative way. I was on the website Goodreads, where I’m a member, and while listing my completion of both volumes (so far) of the series, I read through the reviews of other Goodreads members to get their take on the books. I usually don’t pay attention to what Goodreads users say about the books I’ve read, but because I was so turned off by this series, I wanted to see what other felt about these comics. And everyone absolutely loved Morning Glories. I didn’t read one bad review. Everyone praised it as the best comic they’ve ever read, and of course most compared it to Lost. On top of this, I was listening to the latest episode of John Mayo and Bob Bretall’s Comic Book Page podcast, and they reviewed issue #14 of the series. Both gave that particular issue a 5 out of 5 rating, which floored me. Are we reading the same thing? Am I the only one attending to the flaws in this title? I usual agree with–or if not agree, then certainly respect the opinions of–Mayo and Bretall on their reviews, but this time I found it hard to swallow their assessment. I just can’t get into the series, and here are some of my objections to Spencer and Eisma’s work:
- Derivative, derivative, derivative. Getting back to the comparisons to Lost. Could Spencer be any more obvious about what he is trying to do and where he is getting his influences? This seems more like an exercise in narrative appropriation than it is an attempt at creativity and strategic allusion. Consider the following:
- The basic plot of Morning Glories is suspiciously parallel to that of Lost, right down the second story arc of the former focusing on the backstories of the individual characters, and having these backstories interspersed with the current mystery storyline. And of course there’s the play with time, going back and forth with the narrative filling in backstory while at the same time sustaining the current mystery. Also, that big spinning or vibrating thing that the kids find hidden away–what the hell is that thing?–is not dissimilar to the hatch (especially when you consider shape) that the people find on Lost. And there are so many other obvious parallels between the two serial narratives. Just pick one at random, and there you go: Morning Glories = Lost-wannabe.
- All of the characters in Morning Glories, at least the kids, are two-dimensional, even stereotyped, characters. I haven’t really seen much depth to them. Honestly, they’re almost stock figures: the slut, the nerd, the spoiled rich kid, etc.
- Miss Daramount and her sister, Miss Hodge, bear a striking resemblance to the Page sisters in the Jack of Fables series. In both cases, you have teacher/librarian characters who are sexy, smart, holding people against their will, and shrouded in mystery for the first part of the series.
- Eisma’s art is suspiciously similar to that of other artists who tend to titillate. Reading Morning Glories, I can’t help but think of the comics of the Luna brothers and the art found in Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales (more on that below). I’m not suggesting that the art is the exact same, but that there is a commonality that, frankly, doesn’t demonstrate much originality. It’s the same kind of clean, more realistic kind of comics art you find in many other books. In other words, the art just doesn’t strike me as anything other than generic and…well, derivative.
- Cheap thrills. The Lost-like mystery and cliffhangers that saturate every issue is cheap enough as it is–too easy of a way to rope in readers–but the series goes for the cheap thrill in other ways. If I were being cynical–and I guess I am here–I’d say that Morning Glories is largely an effort to present busty young women in school girl uniforms, complete with the short short skirts and the tight shirts (with ties) that nicely showcase their figures. And these are girls we’re talking about here, only 16 years old. I know that many other comics are written/drawn in ways that titillate, especially when it comes to the representation of young women (or girls, in this case). But Eisma’s efforts just seem too, too obvious.
- Laziness? Beginning with the second narrative arc, Spencer began playing around with not only narrative time–the past stories interspersed with current events–but also frequency. In several issues of the comic, we get repetitions of past events. This is what Gerard Genette would call repeating narratives, where an event that occurs once is narrated multiple times. This would be fine if what Spencer was doing was presenting a particular event from different characters’ points-of-view, so that we could get a variation of meaning on a singular happening. But this isn’t what Spencer does. What he and Eisma end up doing instead is repeating an event exactly like they did the first time, with no variation whatsoever. Look, for example, at the time when Casey tells Hunter that they should just be friends and Jade (wrapped in a bath towel) witnesses it. You’ll find this scene in issues #10 and #13…presented the exact same way. Spencer doesn’t shift the perspective at all, nor does he abbreviate the event in any way the second time around. He merely recycles. You get the same thing in issues #13 and #14, where Hunter bumps into Zoe and they have a confrontation in the hallway. In this instance, Spencer and Eisma end up reusing the exact two pages of the same event. And the same thing happens with three panels, during the woodrun event, in issues #13 and #14. I understand the need to repeat or reference certain episodes for any number of reasons, but why recycle the exact same panels with the exact same images and words in the exact same manner? Why not vary the event, either using differences in focalizer, visual angle, or duration (regarding the latter, Spencer could merely cut some material, in essence creating an ellipsis)? I’ve heard readers of this series praise the use of repetition, stating that the writer/artist are doing this to introduce differences of perspective. But a careful reading will show this to be false. By reusing what they’ve already produced, Spencer and Eisma demonstrate more laziness than narrative astuteness.
- Skin Deepness. I’ve heard some reviewers of Morning Glories claim that this series is so great because it’s deep, that there’s more than surface story going on. From what I’ve seen–and I’ve read the entire series to date, up to issue #14–this series is nothing but surface. I think that these reviewers are mistaking depth for mystery and simple irresolution. I concur that Morning Glories raises a number of questions and sustains mysteries, eluding any ready answers…again, much like Lost. But isn’t this more of a ploy to put off any significant revelation in the hopes of sustaining readership? And how exactly is that “deep”? Narrative depth has much more to do with complex character development, ambiguous perspectives, uncertain (or at least competing) themes, resonance with imagery, fully developed irony, and a plot that’s much more than a string of irresolutions and cliffhangers. You scratch the surface of Morning Glories, and outside of a few unanswered questions that keep you buying the comic, you won’t find much underneath.
- Motivating Factor. I know that Morning Glories is built around unsolved mysteries, à la Lost. In fact, these unanswered questions are the scaffolding around which the entire series is built. But having ongoing mysteries shouldn’t preclude the need for realistic character motivation. There are many instances in the series where characters–both the students and the faculty at the Morning Glory Academy–act in ways that aren’t entirely clear. I’m not referring to the shadowy or unknown motivations behind the nefarious happenings that are shrouded in darkness. I’m talking about simple character actions, day-to-day behaviors, where you feel certain you understand a figure enough to know why they are doing the simple things that they do. Many times in Morning Glories, Spencer has his fictional minions act, if not completely out of character, then at least with little realism embedded in their actions and decisions.
- Compression to the Point of Headache. There are some instances in the series where events happen in such a compressed way, that you wonder if you missed something. Case in point: the room flooding that occurs in the second issue. In almost no time, the classroom where the kids find themselves in detention floods, and floods very quickly. This question of narrative credibility is a mark of weak writing, and it goes hand-in-hand with the issue of character motivation I previously mentioned. I know that the series is not one that is embedded in realism–at least realism in a more generic sense–but I think we should expect at least some tip-of-the-hat to what is probable, even within the context of the fantastic.