Comics We Love: ‘Morning Glories’
Image's Morning Glories has getting a lot of buzz lately, which comes as no surprise, given that Spencer spent the last year becoming one of comics' biggest breakout stars, rocketing into mainstream super-hero comics like Jimmy Olsen and Iron Man 2.0. With Morning Glories, though, Spencer, Eisma and Esquejo have created one of the best new creator-owned books in recent memory with a premise Spencer has described as "Runaways meets Lost," and it delivers on that comparison's promise of teen drama and mysterious hooks.
And this week, the first six issues get collected in a paperback for less than ten bucks, which means that if you haven't jumped on yet, you're officially out of excuses. If, however, you're still on the fence, I've gone back through the first arc and reached out to the creative team for never-before-seen sketches and art to show just why it's such a great read.
At the start of the series, six kids -- three boys and three girls -- are all accepted into an extremely prestigious boarding school called Morning Glory Academy. Once they're there, however, they discover that not only does everyone in the school share a birthday -- May 4th -- but their parents don't seem to remember them when they call home. And as evidenced by the opening sequence, there are students willing to create chemical explosions with booby-trapped blackboards just to get the chance to escape the grounds, despite not actually knowing where the Academy actually is.
Like Runaways, it's a premise that takes one of the universal truths of childhood and literalizes it on a grand scale. We all had times when we thought our parents were super-villains, and everyone can relate to the feeling of being trapped in school, thrown together with strangers that just happened to be born around the same time and pitted against with teachers that felt like they were out to get you.
Of course, in Morning Glories, they really are out to get you, and that super-cheery new roommate who wants throw slumber parties and eat cupcakes all the time doesn't just seem like she's going to snap and try to stab you with a knife while you sleep...
...she actually does it.
Which points to another strength of the book: the work that's gone into building the characters.
On one level, they're built from the framework of cliches -- Casey, the headstrong leader, Jun, the quiet strong guy, Jade, the depressed emo headcase, and so on -- which is an almost necessary element of introducing an ensemble cast. Giving everyone a familiar role that they fill in a group dynamic makes things easier to grasp, which comes in handy when you're dealing with a book that throws out plot twists like basement-dwelling cultists and messages carved on prison walls in the 15th century every few pages.
But like all good characters, those roles are only where things start. There's a slow build going on with each character as the series goes on, and even in these first six issues, the book shows showing that it wasn't screwing around when it talked about characters having dark pasts. Ike, for instance, isn't just the smarmy, conniving rich kid; there's a line in the first issue referencing the fact that he may have actually murdered his own father.
Even as dark as that is, though -- and things do get pretty dark, pretty fast -- Spencer's dialogue and Eisma's well-rendered body language manage to temper it with a healthy dose of comedy:
Even the extremely creepy overt weirdness lurking within Morning Glory Academy provides an opportunity for a well-placed one-liner:
It's not just thrown in as a gag, either. As much as humor is used to break the tension before it's ratcheted up another notch, there's also character work here, with Ike being shown as the nonplussed sociopath that he is.
There's a meticulousness to it that's reminiscent of another of Spencer's influences: The Prisoner.
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, The Prisoner was the brainchild of star Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein, and is considered by many -- me included -- to be the greatest television show of all time. In it, a spy is kidnapped after he resigns and taken to The Village, a surreal island where everyone is identified by a number, ruled over by an ever-changing leader called Number Two. The Prisoner -- allias Number Six -- is constantly besieged with attempts to get him to tell the people in charge why he resigned, and refuses, not just because he doesn't know whose side the masters of the Village are on, but because his reasons are his own.
When you boil it down, it's a series about an individual refusing to be stripped of his humanity by a society that sees him only as a commodity, an idea that, like the feeling of being trapped in a school, is something that a lot of people can relate to. It's been extremely influential in comics -- especially in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, which is namechecked in Morning Glories #1 -- and here, it provides the basis for a good deal of what Spencer's scripts draw on in his first arc, particularly with the character of Casey.
Specifically, her arc draws from my favorite episode of the series, "Hammer Into Anvil." In it, No. 2's constant psychological torture of the Village's residents leads a girl to commit suicide while the Prisoner watches, held back from saving her by No. 2's thugs.
As you might imagine, this does not sit well with the Prisoner.
No. 2: You shouldn't have interfered, Number 6. You'll pay for this.
The Prisoner: No. You will.
In response, No. 2 has a conversation in his office while holding the point of a sword against the Prisoner's face, telling him a quote from Goethe, "you must be anvil or hammer."
He promises to succeed where the previous Number Twos (Numbers Two?) failed and hammer the Prisoner into submission, but unfortunately, he has the meaning of the quote wrong. It's not the anvil that breaks when you hit it as hard as you can, it's the hammer.
What follows is the Prisoner embarking on a campaign of complete, brutal psychological warfare against No. 2, using trickery and deception to drive him insane to the point of being a broken, sobbing mess. It's great.
It also represents a turning point of the series: Before that episode, the Prisoner's efforts had been focused on escape, but after, it turns into a battle for control.
Which brings us back to Morning Glories. She's as trapped in the Academy as the others, but for her, the possibility of escape is gone -- Miss Daramount, who stands in for No. 2, has killed her parents.
But while that's what galvanizes her resistance to the Academy and its staff, it's not what spurs her into action. Like the Prisoner, Casey decides to act not by fighting, but by out-thinking her captors, beating them at their own game of trickery and deception. And she does it in order to save a girl who attempts suicide:
Obviously it doesn't play out the same way. For one thing, Miss Daramont and the equally sinister Mr. Gribbs certainly don't end the episode broken, and Casey's plan is vastly different, built as an extremely clever action set piece rather than a relentless psychological drama, and of course, the creepy blood-soaked finale is unique to Morning Glories. It does, however, manage to capture that kind of tension in a new way, with Eisma's incredible staging matching the flow of the story.
It's a great story that feels like it's only starting to ramp up into what it could become, and it's an incredible example of how to synthesize influences without stripmining them. In other words, it's something fans of smart, tense, funny and occasionally frightening comics should definitely be reading.
Morning Glories volume 1 is out today with a cover price of $9.99, but if you'd rather get it digitally, the series is also being released for Desktop, iPhone and iPad through Comixology for $1.99 per issue, with the massive, 44-page first issue available to download and read for free.