Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another Year

New Year's Resolutions:

  1. Write more.
  2. Write more for money. (Also for food and drink; also non-alcoholic.)
  3. Blog more.
  4. Read more.
  5. Read more comics.
  6. Shave more.
  7. Get haircut.
  8. Don't get shot in San Francisco.
  9. Maintain charming good looks, but not at any cost.
  10. Find love of my life.

Thank you for reading, and have a safe 2009.

Odds and Sods

Comic Book Resources has started a new series of articles, titled "Best 100 Comics of 2008," which vividly illustrates the hazards of a mostly genre-focused outlet attempting to compile a comprehensive list. Please believe me that I'm not trying to be snarky here. This really is what the list says so far.

In Part 1, we learn that Green Lantern Corps is better than Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole. Also, G.I. Joe: America's Elite beats Matthew Loux's Salt Water Taffy. New Avengers is better than all of the above, but not as good as Jason Lutes' Berlin or Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's Local. Justice League of America and Green Arrow/Black Canary are much better than the latter two, on the other hand.

Part 2 goes on to establish that Dave Sim's Glamourpuss is better than Tiny Titans, but not as good as The Walking Dead, and all three are inferior to Marvel's Nova. Ed Brubaker's Captain America and Brad Meltzer's DC Universe: Last Will and Testament are superior to Hope Larson's Chiggers, John Pham's Sublife and Terry Moore's Echo, on the other hand. Kramers Ergot Vol. 7 is better than The Amazing Spider-Girl, you'll be relieved to hear. But the finest, the absolute best among all those comics listed to date, is Punisher War Journal.

Again, I'm not trying to be snarky. That's what the list says. You can place your bets right now that Blue Beetle is going to kick Kramers Ergot's ass.

(Edit, December 31: See, I was right. Also, Secret Invasion and Final Crisis: Requiem are superior to Ganges.)

In related news, the online department of German newspaper Die Zeit has demonstrated that polling your audience can produce similarly astounding results. In December, they asked their readership for the best records of the year. When the poll closed a week later, they had received a sobering 230 replies that favored 137 different records. And the three winners weren't TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend or Santogold, but Thomas Godoj, Daniel Küblböck and Fady Maalouf.

Now, if you haven't heard these names before, that's because they're all participants in Deutschland sucht den Superstar, the German version of American Idol (or Pop Idol, if you're British). Evidently, the article says, the poll was hijacked by fans of the show.

Admirably, the author, Rabea Weihser, puts a good face on the proceedings and explains all this patiently before dutifully going down the list. (Runners-up are Portishead, Sigur Rós and Fleet Foxes, in case you were wondering, so it seems there were some people who took the poll seriously, at least.) Given the tiny number of participants in the poll and the botched results, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole affair had just been quietly swept under the rug.

Denial and Other Rivers in Egypt

Is there a policy at Comic Book Resources against interview questions that might be misconstrued as coming from a journalistically tainted perspective? Or is it one of the conditions imposed by DC Comics on fan sites seeking to talk to talent through official channels that no such questions be asked?

In an article posted today, CBR's Kiel Phegley talks to writer Ian Edginton about the WildStorm Universe series StormWatch: PHD.* As usual, the plot is discussed a lot, as are Edginton's long-term plans for StormWatch. "We'll get there by my twelfth or fourteenth issue," he says about an upcoming plot point. Phegley closes the interview observing that, "with so much going on, nothing seems off the table for the future of Stormwatch: PHD."

Now, that's all good and well. The piece might as well have been produced by DC's marketing department, of course, but that's hardly a new development for the big comics news sites.

Even so, I'm still baffled. With all this talk about the book's "future" and what's going to come up nine months down the road, not once does the question of sales arise. From the look of things, plainly, StormWatch: PHD won't be around nine months down the road. The November issue sold an estimated 6,824 units, and at the present rate of its sales decline, literally no one would be left reading the book in a year's time.

I'm not suggesting that this is something Edginton should be grilled about. But surely, he must be aware of the situation. Surely, this is a point of concern if you're even remotely interested in the book. Addressing the big white elefant in the room would at least give its writer the opportunity to share his thoughts on how it affects his approach to his work. Cheerfully talking about all kinds of possible future storylines while it's very plain that the next issue might as well be the last just strikes me as bizarre and morbid, in this context; not to mention insulting - not only to the website's audience, but also to Edginton himself.

)* I should clarify that you can't tell whether it really was a conversation, though, thanks to CBR's tendency of running quotations randomly interspersed with paraphrasing by their writers, instead of straight-up question/answer pieces.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Weekly Chain Reaction: December 24, 2008

One of the advantages of living in the United States is that I get to go to the comics store and buy new comics there every week. So, for the duration, here's a new capsule review column, for your perusal.

* * *

Batman #683, by Grant Morrison, Lee Garbett, et al. Kick me silly, it's the Kurt Vonnegut Batman! "[W]hat I am doing," Morrison said on his "Batman RIP" story back in April, "is a fate worse than death." In an eponymous 1982 speech, Vonnegut pondered "Fates Worse Than Death," and the only thing he came up with was crucifixion. And what do we get now, in this comic here? Crucified Batman. Told you so. Well, kind of. Batman looks kinda crucified, but it's more of a Kirbytech brain-drain kind of thing: one of those stories where the hero has to relive his greatest tragedies and comes up all the stronger for it. Morrison does the routine reasonably well, but, hey. It's still a routine, right?

(DC Comics, 24 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Captain America: Theater of War: America First! #1, by Howard Chaykin, et al. Howard Chaykin writing and drawing the 1950s Commie-Smasher Captain America? Sign me up. Good news: The artwork is fantastic. Bad news: The story is trying too hard. "How many political prisoners do we have to pull from the Gulag, dress as yankees, and kill in the crossfire before I'm satisfied?" Gah. And why is McCarthy called McMurphy? Does he still have fans, or what? The 1950s reprints are fun, though. In the first one, the Red Skull wears a cape. In the second one, Chinese characters are all colored yellow, and it ends with Captain America being heroic by not telling a guy that his twin brother just jumped off a roof, face forward. Unfortunately, Marvel neglected to include credits for the reprints, although one seems to have been drawn by John Romita.

(Marvel Comics, 44 pages, plus 12 pages of reprints, $ 4.99)

Grade: C

* * *

Daredevil #114, by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, et al. Here's a question: If Matt Murdock doesn't want anyone to think that he's Daredevil, why the heck are his glasses tainted red? Isn't that, you know, counterproductive? Is it his way of giving them the middle finger? "I deeply resent your insinuations that I am secretly a vigilante clad in red. To let you partake in the depth of my resentment, I shall wear glasses which are tainted red." I don't get it. Anyway, hats off to Mr. Brubaker and friends for giving us the twenty-eighth Frank-Miller-style Daredevil vs. Ninjas story and still making it seem fresh and entertaining somehow.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B

* * *

Thor #12, by J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, et al. The Asgardian Goddess of Hell lives in Las Vegas, apparently. I've never been to Las Vegas, so I don't know what to say about that. Then again, I've never been to Detroit, either, and that would have been my first choice. Like in this short story called "The Disappeared," by Charles Baxter, where this guy from Sweden comes to Detroit and it smells like something's burning and then ... no, Thor. (If you're in Detroit: Sorry! Just kidding!) This issue has "set-up" written over it so large that it makes me want to make little felt patches for the characters, just to stop the loud clicking noise as Mr. Straczynski moves them on the board. Oh, and we get Emo Loki, his fingernails painted green and everything. Très extravagant.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #2 of 6, by Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. Speaking of Emo. (Har har har.) Let's call it Pinteresque: At a diner, two guys in business suits wearing big-honking, primarily colored funny-animal masks are maniacally fond of the pie. In a cheap hotel room, a six-year-old boy in an old-fashioned, blood-stained sunday suit takes sips from a glass of whiskey, maniacally staring at a monkey dressed up as Marilyn Monroe who, slowly and hypnotically, is shaking his (her?) hips to the tune of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." This is a superhero comic.

(Dark Horse Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: A

* * *

Sunday Linkage

o Alan Moore gets the chuckles:
[...] Judge Gary A. Feess has ruled that 20th Century Fox “owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the Watchmen motion picture." [...] [I]t appears that, if the judge’s ruling stands, Fox could get an injunction preventing Warner Bros. from distributing the film, if Fox so desires.
More at Icv2.com.

o Sean T. Collins, circa 2005, takes measure of Warren Ellis:
Warren Ellis wants you to take him seriously. I don't. Partially it's because he [...] noisily stormed away from the [superhero] genre in a rage to try his hand at the wave of the future he dubbed "pop comics," [...] and is currently the author of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the "Ultimate Galactus" trilogy (!) and JLA: Classified. Partially it's because this supposed anti-establishmentarian could not write a comic that didn't feature a select group of badass illuminated Übermenschen using their secret knowledge of the world to shape it into a better one for the good of the sheeplike plebes [...]. And partially it's because his mobile-podcast-Delphi-forum digital-revolutionary comics-activist persona, his relentless touting of (say) Godspeed You Black Emperor! accompanied by diatribes about how (say) Avril Lavigne is bullshit, his name-dropping of his fetish-model friends and his close pal "Bill" Gibson, and his desire to utilize the Internet to cultivate groups of people who think and act exactly like he does [...].
And once that's off his chest, there's a pretty good review of Planetary, too.

o Harold Pinter, the man responsible for Brian Michael Bendis in the same way that Watchmen is responsible for Youngblood, is dead.

Newsroom Blitz

London's Times Online got in a last-minute bid for the most historically insensitive headline of the year today:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Agents of Yawn

A few months back, senior Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort complained about the boring and repetitive questions creators working on his books tend to be asked by the people writing for Internet magazines.

Has anything changed since then?

Well, judge for yourself. Here are the interview questions Newsarama's Vaneta Rogers asked Jeff Parker, the writer of Marvel's upcoming Agents of Atlas series:
So Jeff, your first issue of Agents of Atlas ties into [Marvel's latest blockbuster event] Dark Reign? How did that come about?

Why do I get the feeling that the Agents of Atlas are going to be [Marvel Universe major villain] Norman Osborn's worst nightmare?

For people who aren't familiar with the critically acclaimed mini-series that introduced this concept, what is Agents of Atlas about?

What is the story in the first issue of the new Agents of Atlas ongoing?

[Fellow Marvel series] Guardians of the Galaxy may have a talking raccoon, but you've got a talking gorilla. Really - is there anything better than a comic with a talking gorilla?

Seriously, though, this character has really captured the attention of readers. What is it about Gorilla-Man that makes him so endearing?

Introduce us to some of the other characters in Agents of Atlas.

The mini-series kind of functioned in its own little corner of the Marvel Universe, but the way this comic is starting it, it looks like Agents of Atlas is going to really interact with the rest of the Marvel U. Will that be the case going forward as well?

What can you tell us about the artwork you're seeing from Carlo Pagulayan and the visual tone of the comic?

Anything else you want to tell people about Agents of Atlas?
Now, it wouldn't be accurate to describe these questions as "superficial," granted, since they never so much as touch the surface. Rather, it's fair to say that anybody who looked at the five-or-so lines of promotional preview copy released by Marvel would have been grossly overqualified to compile this questionnaire.

So, in order to further streamline Newsarama's process and render their efforts ever more efficient, here are two humble suggestions on how to approach creators in the future, using the example of Jeff Parker and Agents of Atlas:

Suggestion No. 1: "Dearest Jeff: Please outline the concept, the plot of the first issue and the main characters of Agents of Atlas, elaborate on the group's role in the Marvel Universe and gush a little about the artists. (Also, please leave an opening or two for impromptu gags, suggestions welcome.) Hugs and kisses, Newsarama."

Suggestion No. 2: "Dearest Jeff: Please write us a 1,500-word essay promoting your new Marvel Comics series. We can proof-read it, if you like. Hugs and kisses, Newsarama."

See? Isn't comics journalism easy? Everybody can do it.

Sgt. Pepper's Litpop Comics Club (2)

Before I continue moving (mowing?) down the list of creators mentioned in response to earlier posts (here's Part 1, and here, um, the Prologue, or something), perhaps I should clarify again that the point of the exercise is not to dismiss (or approve, for that matter) any of them as valid candidates for a "serious" Best-Comics-of-2008 list.

Rather, it's a purely selfish, self-indulgent exercise on my part, meant to hone my tender critical faculties and give me a better understanding of what my own "standards for greatness" are and how they work. The best way of doing that I can think of right now is to hit these standards with whatever names and works I can come up with, and try to figure out whether I find they make the grade, and why. Of course, this is all bound to terribly rushed and superficial here. The next step, then, after separating the wheat from the chaff, would be to go back and examine the individual works more closely.

And I'd still like to strongly encourage everybody else to chime in and do the same for themselves, using their own standards. I love what Dick Hyacinth is doing over at his blog, for instance (though he clearly needs tags, so you can get all the Meta-Best-of-List craziness with one click); because the lists resulting from his survey (here's the one for 2007, by the way) are intriguing, certainly, but more so because of the discussions generated in the process.

What comics still emphatically lack, after all, is a sturdy canon. In part, this is because there aren't quite as many great comics yet as there are, say, films or novels or plays or short stories or poems. But it's also because we don't have a good idea of the required standards yet. What makes a good comic? More significantly, what separates a "good" comic from a "great" comic that future generations should be nudged towards? It's still a relatively young form, and it will probably be a while before comics are a permanent fixture at high schools and universities the same way prose, drama and poetry are. But the sooner we start talking about standards, the better, surely.

And few people seem to be doing that, unfortunately. I can see a lot of Best-of and me-likey lists out there, but nobody seems to be talking about their standards for these things. So either people don't consciously think about standards, or they don't share them - both of which is fine for the time being, but neither of which is likely to get us better comics, or a better understanding of comics and what we want from them, in the long run. So, whoever you are, if you are reading this and are in the business of doing Best-of lists or reviewing comics in general, I'd love to hear what your standards are, no matter how broad or narrow your focus is.

Aaand... I guess that's all for today, then. Next up: less theory, more practice. Scout's honor.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cocked-Up Crisis Mystery Shocker Resolved?

"Why Has DC's Final Crisis Been So Cocked Up?," Tom Spurgeon asks, wondering "why DC Comics let their Final Crisis comic book event be executed as if it lurched out the door, clutched its chest, set itself on fire and then rolled around in broken glass." (Props for good imagery.)

Well, I don't really believe it's that great of a mystery. I talked about what I think is at the core of the issue back in July, and while there are a few other things playing into the supposed blockbuster event's woes, I think my essay still holds up nicely - as does this one from June 2007, for that matter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sgt. Pepper's Literary Pop Comics Club (1)

In response to Friday's post on the quality of superhero comics, a few names were brought up. And it's not a bad list at all, actually. In fact, you're going to find most of them on my own upcoming Best-of list for 2008.* Still, are they really good enough to fulfill the criteria?

To restate the challenge: Are there any pop comics writers whose recent work you think was so good that it's up to literary standards? So great that it absolutely has to appear on any self-respecting Best-Comics-of-the-Year list? Are there any recent pop comics works that weren't just entertaining, but also offered genuinely profound truths and insights? In other words, are there any recent works that transcend their given genre, like, say, The Sopranos or The Shield or Deadwood do?

(Of course, this begs the question whether the non-genre books that are on those lists fulfill these criteria. Since I didn't read any of them, I'm the wrong guy to be talking about that, though. Maybe next year. More well-read and thoughtful critics and reviewers like Dick Hyacinth or Douglas Wolk or Sean T. Collins or Tom Spurgeon might be able to answer that one, though.)

Now, before I'm going through the names that are mentioned in the comments section, I should say I'm aware that I was talking about superhero comics last week; those were the subject of the Blog@Newsarama essay I was responding to. On reflection, though, I guess it makes sense to expand the discussion to "pop comics" (or "genre comics," if you prefer) in general. First up, it's obviously not like superheroes is the only pop genre that seems to be absent from most "serious" Best-Comics-of-2008 lists. Second, for all intents and purposes, the people who make crime, espionage, sci-fi, horror, etc. comics largely seem to be the same ones that make superhero comics, anyway.

But now, let's look at some of the names that were dropped.

Grant Morrison: Well, yes, he's the one I was referring to - the one writer working in North American pop comics I could think of to whose work I would assign the adjective "literary" without hesitation. Not all of his work, mind you. I'm really only talking about All Star Superman here, as far as 2008 is concerned. And before that, maybe Seven Soldiers? As far as Final Crisis and Batman are concerned, I'm reserving judgment until they're done. "Batman RIP," at any rate, really did have a rubbish ending (if any ending at all, so far), so it's out of the race as a separate story.

Peter Milligan: When he's on form, Milligan comes close, probably. I think some of the better Human Target and X-Force/X-Statix stories might make the grade. The only things I've read by him this year, however, are a few issues of Infinity Inc. and the Moon Knight: Silent Knight special from a couple of weeks ago; both of which were much better than the average dross, granted. But they're also pretty light stuff and not free of flaws, either. I wouldn't insist they deserve spots on any general Best-Comics-of-2008 list by any stretch. Am I missing something more substantial Milligan's done lately?

Garth Ennis: My exposure to Ennis was limited to Dan Dare this year, and while I liked that book tremendously, it's not what I would call profound. I didn't follow The Boys or The Punisher or anything else he did this year, though, so maybe those were better. Overall, though, I don't recall reading anything particularly insightful from Ennis recently.

Ed Brubaker: I consider Brubaker the most consistent, most polished genre writer in American comics right now, and I can't think of any other comic besides Daredevil or Criminal or Captain America of which I enjoyed more issues more thoroughly this year. Even so, I would shy away from asserting that those books offer the kind of literary insight I regard as obligatory from anything on a general Best-Comics-of-the-Year list. Thinking of Brubaker and "literary," I can only come up with Sleeper. But hey, that's something, I guess. (Yes, I've read Brubaker's Uncanny X-Men. The less said of that one, the better. The Immortal Iron Fist is on top of my stack - hopefully I'll get around to it in time for my own Best-of-2008 thing.)

Warren Ellis: No, no, no. I don't think so. Doktor Sleepless has been Ellis' most ambitious comics work this year, probably. But, honestly, it's not his best by a long shot, and it would need to be to make the grade, where I'm concerned. Black Summer and particularly Thunderbolts were fun, but certainly not literary. He was on a roll last year with Nextwave and Fell and Thunderbolts and Crécy, where good pop comics are concerned, but this year has seemed like a retreat for Ellis, and his output not what I consider prime-list material by a long shot. But then, I didn't read everything he's done. Did I just miss the good stuff? No Hero, maybe? Or Newuniversal? Aetheric Mechanics? Ultimate Human? Any good, any of them?

Matt Fraction: Casanova comes very close, I have to admit. Call me crazy, but I genuinely think it's the best thing to happen to Anglo-American comics since Watchmen. I still find it too rough and haphazard for a genuine masterpiece, however; the ingredients are all there, but they're not refined enough. And, unfortunately, since Fraction's priority right now - much like Brubaker's - seem to be solid but largely unambitious things like Invincible Iron Man, I wonder whether he'll ever fulfill the promise inherent to those first fourteen issues of Casanova. I can understand why it's happening: A lot of these guys have families to support and Marvel offers a solid paycheck. I would do the same, probably, under the circumstances. It's still a bit of a shame, though.

Jason Aaron: Wolverine, Scalped, Black Panther - all very solid and entertaining genre work, certainly, but not more. Which is almost disappointing in the case of Scalped, by the way, since everybody keeps hyping it like it's the second coming of Christ. Is it a good crime series? Absolutely. Is it as good as, say, The Sopranos? Well, not exactly, so let's all calm down for a second. Aaron's Ghost Rider - yes, let me say that again, because it's so weird and unusual for me to speak these words: his Ghost Rider! - I just love to pieces for the mad, cocky, blasphemous hellride of a comic that it is. But, you know, to be perfectly honest? I'd much rather see Aaron come up with something that builds on his 2007 trailblazer The Other Side. Once he does, let's talk again, okay?

Okay, this is getting longish, so I'll have to come back to it later this week. In the meantime, I'd like to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments; they're much appreciated.

* Which, I hasten to add, will not presume to be anything but a list of the best new pop comics I have read this year, so put away the knives.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Pow! Bam! Boom!

Here's a dirty little secret: Most comics writers wouldn't know a proper story if it kicked them in the nuts with hard-nail boots.

And here's another one: In the United States, most of those people write superhero comics.

As I'm sure you've noticed if you have been following this blog for any length of time, I rather like superhero comics. I think, in fact, that the overall quality of what's being offered in the North American superhero market has grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten years. I honestly believe that superhero comics, as a whole, have never been better than they are nowadays.

But what does that mean in practice?

It means there are many writers now who have the genre down pat and are capable of constructing solid, sturdy, engaging and very polished narratives with identifiable characters that at least give you the impression that they weren't produced with a target audience of complete morons in mind.

It means that we've got a very respectable number of superhero writers right now who accomplish dazzling experiments with not only the genre, but frequently the form of comics itself, as well. While working on superhero comics, they deconstruct the genre and put it back together and think about where it comes from and where it's going.

It means, in other words, that - for the first time in history - we can actually claim right now to live in a decade where the average superhero comic is at least broadly on par with the average mainstream television show or Hollywood film or genre novel. That's certainly an achievement, and it's not something that I think was true ten years ago.

It also means, however, that, just like the average mainstream television series and the average Hollywood film and the average genre novel, the average superhero comic is still not particularly good.

In part, that's due because there's still a whole lot of crap on the shelves, of course.

More importantly, though, here are a few questions for you to ponder: How many writers are there in superhero comics whose work combines and generates originality, authenticity, empathy and urgency?*

How many are there whose stories have a depth that genuinely goes beyond what's flat on the page, and whose work rewards repeated readings? How many are there who know precisely what it is they want to achieve in a given story from the outset, and who subsequently have the internal and external resources to bring exactly that story to fruition? How many superhero stories have you read recently in which every single plot element, line of dialogue, character moment, anything, are accruing meaning and adding up to a particular point which the author knew he wanted to make before they ever started typing? How many superhero writers have you come across recently that have left you with a nugget of honest-to-god truth or insight that you didn't have before?

In short, how many superhero writers can you list of whom you are, without any qualifiers or reservations, convinced that they stand up to, well, literary scrutiny?

Don't duck the issue with some nonsense about all that being subjective - use your own standards. If you're reading this, chances are you know what you consider a good superhero comic and what not.

In recent memory, I can come up with one such writer who at least generally meets these standards, personally, and 2008 hasn't been his best year, overall. If you think there are more than five, you're facing a real uphill battle if you want to convince me you're right, but don't let that discourage you.

This isn't to say that superhero comics necessarily need to have meaningful, insightful, proper stories, mind you. If you're just reading them for the fisticuffs and explosions, the mad ideas and the nostalgia and the puzzles, the flashy artwork and the thrill of finding out what happens next to characters you've been invested in for ages, more power to you - so do I, a lot of the time. But then let's at least be honest enough to acknowledge that we just like to kick back and enjoy some solid, well-written pulp fiction every now and then. There are quite a few Best-of-the-Year lists for that sort of thing, too (such as the ones I make, for instance).

If it's your genuine opinion that superhero comics are being short-changed in critics' Best-Comics-of-the-Year lists, however, then put your money where your mouth is and try to convince me. What are some superhero comics you think are up to the standards for greatness established above and deserve to be rated among the Top 10 in 2008? I'd like to know. Or, if those standards above don't work for you, more power to you - what are yours, then? Surely you've thought about that before you filed your complaint, so tell me what they are - seriously, I'm interested.

Why am I typing all this? It's in response to this Blog@Newsarama essay by a chap named Lucas Siegel, of course, which probably wouldn't be half as noteworthy if it hadn't generated a lot of feedback in the comments section, as well as commentary from Dick Hyacinth and Heidi MacDonald (and in their respective comment sections).

So, while we're at it anyway, let's talk about it. I'm working on a Best-of-2008 list myself, and I'm genuinely curious about this stuff.

* Disclaimer: When I say "originality," I'm not referring to plot. When I say "authenticity," I'm not referring to realism. When I say "empathy," I'm not referring to images of Superman weeping. And when I say "urgency," I'm not referring to cliffhangers.

I'm referring to stories which attempt to do something different from what we've read a thousand times before in content and form; which make me buy into the world they create; which allow me to genuinely feel with the characters and have a good sense of what it is they want and why it's important for them and the overall story.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ClusterRIP

DC Comics editor-in-chief Dan DiDio explains to Newsarama why Grant Morrison's "Batman RIP" has a rubbish ending:
[B]ecause we live in the world of collected editions, we needed a conclusion in the Batman series, so that we could collect it properly within Batman, without having to bring in segments of Final Crisis to complete the story.
So there you got it. "Batman RIP" has a rubbish ending because we live in the world of collected editions.

Or, in other words:
[T]his is reflective of the world that we live in now – the world of collected editions. The "RIP" story was always meant to play through to the end of Final Crisis - always. The thing is, we had to come up with a very complete story in “Batman RIP” as it existed in its title. The reality is that the “Batman RIP” story does not conclude until Final Crisis #6. There are also issues #682 and #683 of Batman that feed directly into Final Crisis #6, and we’ll have a big finale to the Batman storyline. That’s how it plays out.
Or, in other words:
NRAMA: So – fundamentally, “Batman RIP” did not end in Batman #681?

DD: Correct. We have the two parts that we’re in the middle of now, and they lead us into Final Crisis #6 which gives us a definite conclusion to the Batman story. That’s how Grant designed the story from the start, and that’s how the story plays out. So, the people who are looking for the big finale, the stuff that Grant was talking about – he knows how big an ending he has, because he wrote it in Final Crisis #6. That story has been so planned out that it reflects events from the pages of Final Crisis #1 in order to pull it all together.
Or, in other words:
NRAMA: So Final Crisis #6 is like when you’re driving on, say, I-40 and it merges with another for a while, and you get the road signs telling you that you’re on two highways at the same time…and you follow another highway out other than the one you went in on.

DD: Exactly. And Batman #682 and #683 are reflective of things that took place earlier in Final Crisis as well.
Or, in other words: Grant made the ending of "Batman RIP" a bit rubbish because it is in the world of collected editions that we are living, right now.

So DC made a 51-part series called Countdown to Final Crisis that was not, in actuality, a countdown to Final Crisis of any sort. And they made an 8-part series called Death of the New Gods that came out immediately before Final Crisis when, blimey, how can we now kill the New Gods in Final Crisis when those goll dang New Gods have already gone goll dang deadened in Death of the Goll Dang Dead Gods.

And now they made a story called "Batman RIP" that has a rubbish ending, and it is rubbish - the ending - because we live in the world of collected editions.

Let's be serious, just for a second: What is Mr. DiDio saying here? I see three possibilities.

(1) Our readers and retailers are a cowardly and superstitious lot. They cannot possibly be trusted to be given in advance such sensitive information as,

"Dear retailers, dear readers:

"Please note that the comic titled 'Batman RIP: Conclusion' is not actually the conclusion of 'Batman RIP'. Instead, it has a rubbish ending.

"For the real, non-rubbishy kind of ending of 'Batman RIP', please refer to this other comic we've been making that people thought was kind of rubbish and may or may not be out sometime next year. Once we've released it and you bought it, we'll apologize profusely if that comic has a rubbish ending, too.

"Because we live in the world of collected editions."

(2) We don't have a jolly dang clue what we're doing. It's a world of collected editions, and we just live in it.

(3) La la la la, you can't see me if I dance for you real quick in my pretty pink new dress.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dork Reign Begins Here!

When I picked up my comics this week, they came wrapped in a "Special Dark Reign Edition" of Marvel Previews. It's a 30-page pamphlet that "reveals" the hitherto "classified" solicitation text and images for all the books connected to Marvel's "Dark Reign" from December through February. Newsarama has an online version for your perusal.

The thrust of it is that, in the wake of Secret Invasion, Iron Man loses his position as the head supervisor and administrator of the United States' now strictly regulated superhuman population. The job is then handed to somewhat reformed arch-fiend Norman Osborn, formerly known as the Green Goblin, who's been in charge of the Thunderbolts since Civil War.

As they've done with past crossovers, Marvel are using "Dark Reign" to launch a whole slew of new titles. In theory, that seems like a smart approach, since it grants the new launches more exposure than they could otherwise expect. But in practice, the good sales never stick for more than a few issues.

For one thing, that's because there are already many more superhero books by Marvel and DC out there than the market can support, so I doubt that adding ten more to them - not counting all the "Dark Reign" one-shots, more on which later - will increase the chance to really gain traction for any of them.

Somewhere in limbo, Heroes for Hire, The Order and New Warriors are agreeing with me. More recent crossover launches like Skaar, X-Force, Cable, Young X-Men and Captain Britain aren't setting the charts on fire, either.

Marvel are also evidently looking to tie their line of books more closely together, which is puzzling. If there's one thing they've done much better than DC over the past eight years, it's that they've been taking care to keep their books self-contained and accessible. With "Dark Reign," though, that seems to be changing, and I don't think it's a very smart idea at all.

Don't get me wrong: They've got a lot of promising new titles coming up - I absolutely applaud Marvel for hiring fresh voices like Jonathan Hickman, Andy Diggle, Jeff Parker and Matt Fraction. But then again, I'm not very interested in reading material from them that plays a supporting role to what feels like the nineteenth monthly Avengers title cooked up by Brian Michael Bendis - especially a Brian Michael Bendis whose creative faculties seem to be in a recession so deep as to rival that of Iceland.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's tackle the "Dark Reign" launches and makeovers one by one.

o Dark Avengers, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato Jr. This is the big one, obviously: the flagship book for the Avengers line, and of the whole "Dark Reign" event. And, well, it's a little disappointing, isn't it? "Dark Avengers"? Is that the best they could come up with - another Avengers book by Bendis, only now it's "dark"? Wow. They could at least have bothered giving it a proper title - what's wrong with "Avengers: Dark Reign" or just plain "Dark Reign," for instance?

Conceptually, this seems to be the Thunderbolts, with some new characters like Daken (over from Daniel Way's Wolverine: Origins) and Noh'Varr (from Grant Morrison's Marvel Boy) thrown in for good measure. If it were by someone who can write more than one type of character, I might even have been interested.

Also, Dark Avengers is evidently Marvel's first high-profile mainstream series with a regular cover price of $ 3.99. So far, when using the price point, they've always tried to justify it with more content or, at least, like in the case of Secret Invasion, with slightly higher production values, such as cardstock covers. But this time around, it's just a plain old 32-page package (including ten pages of adverts, presumably) for four bucks, with no apologies. I'm interested to see how it goes.

Personally, I have no intention of ever buying a standard-sized 22-page comic for that kind of money - unless it's written by Grant Morrison, perhaps, although I should point out that Morrison's Final Crisis has been clocking in at a very fair 30 pages of content each for its $ 3.99 tag. If 22 pages of content for $ 3.99 becomes the new standard format, however, I guess I'll find myself with a pretty manageable set of periodicals by 2010.

o New Avengers, by Brian Michael Bendis and Billy Tan. The solicitation copy promises that issue #49 brings "the first major roster change since the very first issue!!" I guess the one where Doctor Strange and Iron Fist joined didn't count. I've been following the book out of curiosity, but after eight dreary and mostly pointless Secret Invasion tie-ins, I'm not really interested anymore. Bendis is horribly miscast on this franchise, and Billy Tan's bland and frequently poor artwork doesn't help.

o Mighty Avengers, by Dan Slott and Khoi Pham. Slott is hit and miss, and it looks like the book will mainly serve as a counterpoint to the two Bendis titles, so: not really interested. If the reviews tell me that it's good and works on its own merits, I might buy a collection.

o Thunderbolts, by Andy Diggle and Roberto De La Torre. Contrary to some other folks, I don't really consider Diggle's The Losers a classic - it was a fun action book most of the time. Nor, for that matter, did I read any of his DC Universe books. Still, judging from The Losers, he seems like an intriguing choice for Thunderbolts, and I've read good things about De La Torre's art. I'll watch out for the reviews on this one.

o War Machine, by Greg Pak and Leonardo Manco. I haven't been impressed by anything Pak has written, but then I haven't read a lot of things he's done except that god-awful X-Men miniseries drawn by Greg Land a few years back. And the notion of Leonardo Manco drawing a big shiny battle armor armed to its teeth with things blowing up left and right is tremendously appealing to me, I admit. Another one to keep in mind until the collections start coming out, then.

o Invincible Iron Man, by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca. Yeah, I know. It's not Casanova, unsurprisingly. It's not even The Order, in fact, in terms of being innovative. Still, I've enjoyed Fraction's take on Tony Stark so far - he seems to be the only writer besides Joe Casey who ever got the character, and he knows how to build a good spy-tech thriller around that. My only reservation right now is that it seems like the "Dark Reign" nonsense is cutting the book and its set-up off at the knees. In any case, I give Fraction the benefit of the doubt. I'll be sticking around.

o Punisher, by Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña. I don't have much of an opinion on Remender's writing - it seemed serviceable on the two Fear Agent issues I checked out, and awful on the one issue of The All-New Atom I read. The Punisher War Journal series launched after Civil War had two major problems, at any rate. One was that Matt Fraction didn't get the Punisher, at least in the first five issues before I dropped the book.

The other, though, was that pitching the Punisher against super-villains comes with a whole range of conceptual problems. So relaunching the book with what looks like the exact same premise seems questionable - I mean, it's not like the Punisher is ever going to kill Doctor Doom, Norman Osborn or the Sentry, as the previews of the first two issues are teasing, or is he? So why not use a set-up that allows the writer to build, you know, tension instead?

o Deadpool, by Daniel Way and Paco Medina. The reviews on this one have been surprisingly positive so far, but it's going to take a lot more than that to make me consider picking up a Daniel Way comic. Maybe he's gotten better in the last few years, but everything I've seen from him so far suggests this guy wouldn't know a story if it bit him in the nuts.

o Black Panther, by Reginald Hudlin and Ken Lashley. More dumb and clumsy attempts at being provocative, I presume, only now the title character is a girl. I'm not sure what Marvel see in Hudlin, to be honest. Okay, Bendis can't write, either, granted - but at least his name sells comics. What's Hudlin's excuse? And what is Christopher Priest doing these days, anyway?

o Secret Warriors, by Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman and Stefano Caselli. A Nick Fury series by Jonathan Hickman sounds fantastic, in principle, but Secret Warriors has three strikes against it: (1) Superheroes, (2) Secret Invasion, and (3) Brian Michael Bendis.

I'm also skeptical whether Stefano Caselli's style particularly lends itself to what I presume is going to be some gritty espionage series or other, although I concede that this apprehension may turn out to be entirely unfounded. Overall, though, I'm afraid I'd rather not bother, at this stage - I'm open to be surprised by reviews telling me Secret Warriors is the greatest thing since sliced bread, in which case I'll line up to buy a paperback collection, post-haste.

o Agents of Atlas, by Jeff Parker, Carlos Pagulayan and Benton Jew. This is the one I'm most curious about, really. I liked last year's Agents of Atlas miniseries by Parker and artist Leonard Kirk, a delightful pulp story starring a secret agent, a spaceman, a mythical heroine, a mute robot and a talking gorilla, but since it didn't sell at all, I understand why Marvel decided to plug the concept into "Dark Reign," to a degree.

Although, at a second glance, while the story apparently uses the Marvel Universe's new status quo as a launch pad, the solicitation copy actually name-checks neither "Dark Reign" nor Secret Invasion. To be perfectly honest, I don't have much faith in the book's long-term health, but I think I'll consider reading it, at least.

o Ms. Marvel, Avengers: The Initiative, Wolverine: Origins, by various. These may be perfectly decent genre serials, for all I know, but I've got no interest in, or opinion on, any of them, really.

o Robin & Mockingbird and Skrull Kill Krew, by who knows. Oh, no, wait: That's "Ronin & Mockingbird," actually; was caught up in the bird theme, for a moment. Which is not only a much crappier title than "Hawkeye & Mockingbird" would have been, come to think of it, but also makes me wonder whether Marvel have jumped the shark, big time. Do we really need their version of, um, Green Arrow/Black Canary? A rhetorical question, if there ever was one.

I can see the appeal of a Skrull Kill Krew book, though, if they let someone like Fred van Lente, Matt Fraction or Jason Aaron run batshit crazy with it. Neither series has been solicited yet, though - they're just mentioned in the solicitation copy for Dark Reign: New Nation. Speaking of which.

o Secret Invasion: Requiem, Secret Invasion: Dark Reign, Dark Reign: New Nation, Marvel Spotlight: Dark Reign and Dark Reign Files, by various. How many variations and combinations of "Secret Invasion" and "Dark Reign" can you come up with? Well, five, evidently.

The five one-shots are celebrating the transition between the two events, if you're so inclined. I'm not, since I read a few of the similar specials they released after Civil War and they weren't worth the paper they were printed on - not to mention that Civil War itself, for all its faults, is actually a proper story, which Secret Invasion is not. The cake for the most egregious cash-grab among the bunch goes to Secret Invasion: Requiem, by the way. It's eight pages of new material stuffed out with two reprints, for $ 3.99.

So, all told, things are looking rather bleak for Marvel, particularly considering the appalling quality of Secret Invasion proper. It seems they're putting too many eggs in one basket, not unlike DC did with Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis.

(Of course, even if "Dark Reign" should turn out to be a commercial dud, Marvel will still be better off, because they still have the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Babble for the Cowl

There's a new interview with DC Comics editor Dan DiDio at IGN.com. In brief, it just keeps getting weirder. Again, there's no mention of is-he-still-or-not Superman writer James Robinson, and DiDio is awkwardly prancing around the question whether Grant Morrison will return to write Batman next year, which suddenly does not seem to be a certainty anymore.

And then there's this bit, when DiDio's asked about the bizarre decision to have Tony Daniel write Batman: Battle for the Cowl.
Well, when we… let's start with this at the beginning. When we first hired Tony to do Batman, it was on the strength of his work on The Tenth. He was known as a star writer and artist, but at this particular point he wanted the opportunity to work with Grant Morrison, and he's been having a great time doing it.
Um. My comprehensional faculties must be in decline. DiDio seems to be implying that they originally wanted Daniel to write Batman, but then Daniel asked to work with Morrison instead. Or, if that's not what he's saying, what is he saying? Help!

And what's with the odd phrasing, anyway:
During this time [Daniel] seemed like the perfect person to bridge the conclusion of [Morrison's] "Last Rites" issues to what's coming in June.
Why the past tense? Does Daniel not "seem like the perfect person" to write Battle for the Cowl anymore now?

DiDio also addresses his publishing philosophy with regard to the DC Universe line he is overseeing.
I think what we need to do is produce smartly. I've used this expression before – we're not just going to create comics to create a bucket. We're not going to produce 60 to 65 titles, regardless of what they are, and just put them out there. You can't do that.
For your interest, the monthly number of new DC Universe periodicals over the last twelve months has ranged from 48 to 69, with an average of 56.

He goes on:
What we need to do is be smart about what we're creating and make books that people want. If people can't buy everything, I at least want them to consider everything very highly. I don't want it to be discounted from the moment it's introduced, it has to be something they want to pick up – they'll feel bad if they don't. For the most part. –laughs-
Mr. DiDio is laughing, of course, because he knows he's publishing books like, among others, El Diablo, The War That Time Forgot, DC Special: Cyborg, DC Universe: Raven, DC Universe: Decisions, Hawkman Special, Adam Strange Special, Halloween Special, Vixen: Return of the Lion, Tangent: Superman's Reign and, wait for it, Superman & Batman vs. Vampires & Werewolves.

DiDio also says that there will be "a unified version of the Joker" across the DC Universe after Final Crisis. Whether or not that version will be soliciting anal sex, like the one in Kevin Smith's Batman: Cacophony is right now, DiDio doesn't say. I, for one, would much applaud it.

Bottom Line

Quick note as I'm diving into the October sales figures: Jonah Hex and Simon Dark are now the only ongoing DC Universe books below 24,000 units (we're talking ICv2.com estimates) that haven't been canceled yet. Given that both titles are selling significantly below that marker, there's probably not much rope left for them, either.

Looks like someone's trying to raise their bottom line.

DC Comics had previously announced the cancellation of Legion of Super-Heroes, Birds of Prey, Manhunter, Blue Beetle and Checkmate.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

No Direction Home

Over in the latest edition of "Lying in the Gutters," Rich Johnston has two big rumors relating to DC Comics editor Dan DiDio's management of the company's DC Universe line:

o Rumor No. 1: There are further delays for Final Crisis #7 looming, because DiDio has asked Grant Morrison for massive last-minute rewrites of the series' ending. As a result, a disenchanted Morrison may cut back on his future work for the DC Universe line, and work-in-progress on numerous spin-off and tie-in books was put on hold.

This one seems rather odd, given that DiDio emphasized in a recent Newsarama piece that "it’s essential for us to have the last issue of Final Crisis come out in the month of January. Therefore, we are moving heaven and earth to make the book come out in the month of January, because so much follows." That doesn't sound like DiDio's particularly open to the notion of meddling with the story's outcome, at this stage.

But then again, who knows. It's not exactly like DiDio's line has been characterized by stability or reliability in the last two years. And, of course, Morrison, against all expectations, is not writing Batman: Battle for the Cowl, a supposed major miniseries following up on the writer's successful "Batman RIP" event - and, evidently, meant to be written by Judd Winick at one point.

o Rumor No. 2: Writer James Robinson, who only recently took over Superman and has in interviews seemed enthusiastic about reviving the flagging franchise along with Action Comics writer Geoff Johns, is no longer working on the book - or on any other DC Universe titles - after an argument with DiDio. Well, I'll say this: DiDio didn't talk about much about the Superman line - or mention Robinson, for that matter - in either one of his two recent interviews at Newsarama and Hero Complex. That certainly seems odd.

Needless to say, neither of the two rumors is the kind of thing DC should want to be dealing with right now. But both would fit into the pattern established over the last two years: hideously late major books; talent and supposedly "regular" creative teams coming and going on a range of titles like through a revolving door or even leaving in a public huff (like Chuck Dixon and Jim Shooter, most recently); repeatedly botching a whole number of high-profile relaunches; getting hold of J. Michael Straczynski, one of the industry's few superstar writers, and asking him to work on a commercial lame duck like The Brave and the Bold; giving a major event like Battle for the Cowl to a completely unknown quantity like Tony Daniel; as well as an ongoing string of last-minute editorial changes, sometimes long after books have been solicited in Previews, like in the cases of Batman and the Outsiders or Titans.

I don't know who's responsible for those decisions - I certainly don't expect it's DiDio alone, from what little I've heard about how DC works. But regardless of who's to blame, I find it quite remarkable how erratic and directionless, and how riddled with bafflingly bad judgments the management of the DC Universe line has been.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ball, Dropped

There's a new 20-question piece with DC Comics editor Dan DiDio at Newsarama.

Generally, DiDio's assessment of what went wrong with his line in the last couple of years seems fair and frank. Discussing plans for the Batman franchise after the commercially very successful "Batman RIP" crossover, however, he says this:
[...] Battle for the Cowl will be written and drawn by Tony Daniel, which we’re very excited about.
Wait. Stop. What? Surely, I misread, or Newsarama misprinted, that comment. Surely, what he means is "Battle for the Cowl will be written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Tony Daniel." Right?

Wrong. The next sentence confirms that, evidently, DiDio means precisely what it says in the article:
[...] Battle for the Cowl will be written and drawn by Tony Daniel, which we’re very excited about. This is the first time Tony’s written in a while, and he’s just champing at the bit to be able to do this, and we’re excited that he’s on the series.
Consider me baffled.

So you've got a mega-popular event storyline by Grant Morrison, who apparently even intends to stick around on Batman after "Batman RIP." And you're going to do a big sequel series to that, now that everybody's watching. And the writer you choose for that project is... Tony Daniel?

So far, Daniel is mainly known as a penciler - he's drawing Morrison's Batman right now, after all. He has written comics before, it seems, but mostly - if not exclusively - his own creations, such as The Tenth, F5, Adrenalynn and HumanKind. Don't get me wrong: Daniel may be a perfectly capable writer, for all I know. But he has to be downright fabulous to justify DC taking this sort of bet on him, doesn't he? Because he's certainly not someone who sells books with his name alone, or has received critical accolades for his writing in the past.

To make a long story short: What on earth are they thinking? Is this what DiDio is talking about when he says, later on in the piece, that "I looked at my budget for 2009, and I understood what the challenges are going to be"?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shoe Shine

If you're in the mood for myth-building, Jonah Weiland has an interview on the creation of the Ultimate Marvel line of books with then-and now editor Joe Quesada and former Marvel executive Bill "Mad as a Hatter" Jemas, the dynamic duo that made superhero comics fun again starting in 2000, over at Comic Book Resources.

Take this anecdote by Bill Jemas on getting a shipload of free sample issues of Ultimate Spider-Man out there, for instance:
The first thing we did was had [sic] a shoe company, Buster Brown shoes, that was filled with these very irrational Spider-Man fans. We spent a fortune to create a great pair of shoes. Joe, remember the red shoes with the webs?

I’ll get back to the shoes in a second, but Joe gives me more credit than I deserve — I brought Joe into every high-end sales and creative meeting I could find because I’m not an enthusiastic person really, but Joe would come in and start beating the drums! Big sponsors and newspapers and companies — you know how Joe gets the comic industry to follow the drum, well, Joe did a lot of that with people from the electronic game companies to the shoe companies.

Okay, so back to the shoe company. They bought 500,000 copies of Ultimate Spider-Man and stuck them in the shoes and sold those shoes like crazy! So, really, what we were doing was getting the comic books out there way in advance of the movie and that spurred the graphic novel program. Then people saw the success of the graphic novels and the shoes and wanted to do some t-shirts and we forced them — and this is horrible to say — but we forced the sample comics down everybody’s throats at first, but then they really liked them. I think the sampling number ended up being around 8 million units.
Also fun are Jemas's comments on his early experiences with the Internet in part two:
I remember walking into Marvel and not really understanding the Internet at the time, saying things to reporters like, “Well, the comic books sucked.” I didn’t realize at the time that that line would be all over the Web for weeks! “Well, I didn’t mean sucked like they were bad, I just meant sucked like I couldn’t give the books to a twelve-year-old who would enjoy it!”
During the course of the interview, oddly, Quesada suggests that Mark Bagley, the artist who ended up drawing the first hundred-and-then-some issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, was not around at Marvel in 2000, and was "brought back" by Jemas.

Erm, no. Bagley had been drawing Marvel's Thunderbolts since 1997, and continued to do so until well into his tenure on Ultimate Spider-Man, in fact.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Run-Off Election

Behold. From the makers of "What's Better: The Book or the Movie?," "Who's Stronger: Hulk or Thor?" and "What's Colder: Pepsi or Coke?" now comes another great moment in the history of critical analysis:

"Politics and Comic Books: Should the Two Mix?"

Comics industry veteran and current Papercutz editor-in-chief Jim Salicrup about nails it in his reply:
Would anyone ask if film and politics should mix? Or literature and politics? Comics as an artform can be anything, and there's no reason to impose limits. One can also argue that politics exists in all fiction -- comics, prose, film, etc. -- and it's virtually impossible to exclude.
Everyone else polled for the article kinda sorta seems to agree*, but the author, Benjamin Ong Pang Kean, still gets it wrong when he takes a stab at summarizing his findings: "So, yeah, the general consensus is that comics and politics should mix."

Well, no, it's not. The "general consensus" among the, erm, three people quoted in the piece up to that point, if anything, is that comics and politics, do, in fact, mix all the time, and, as Salicrup points out later on in the article, have probably been doing so for as long as there have been comics to begin with, and so the question is really a little bit behind the times.

*) Everyone but Bluwater Productions boss Darren G. Davis, that is, who not only agrees, but also seizes the opportunity to stress, in many words, that he is, as a matter of fact, just doing it for the children.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Financial Crisis, or: It's the End of the World and So Can We

Greetings, my friends!

Good news and bad news!

Interlude! Consider the following exchange in Final Crisis #4:
SUPERHERO: You seen the new Planet edition yet?

LITTLE KID: It still comes out?

SUPERHERO: They have a printing press in Superman's Fortress of Solitude. [...]

LITTLE KID: When does everything go back to normal?
End Interlude! Good news first! Financial Crisis is an invention of Grant Morrison! Another front on which the forces of Apokolips are hammering away at the Planet Earth! It's all going to be reversed once the man sent to save the Planet Earth from Planet Krypton and his friends will fix things!

Bad news! Crisis will not be over until 2009!

Conclusion! Fourth-Wall-to-Fifth-World Synchronization! Has! Begun!

Heads up and heads down, my friends! Do not succumb to the Anti-Life Equation! Watch out for Black Knights mounted on Dogs of War with Alaskan Apokolipstick chanting nihilistic slogans!

When it starts raining blood and Evil Gods of Destruction begin their descent from the skies - Do. Not. Panic! Remember: All just temporary, imaginary, fictional concepts with no bearing on reality, no more real than communism!

And even if We Can't, there will be another chance in 2012, just as we leave the Fourth World.

So it goes!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pan's Pipes

A.O. Scott of The New York Times joins the chorus of naysayers on writer J. Michael Straczynski and director Clint Eastwood's feature film Changeling:
The character [of Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie], as imagined in J. Michael Straczynski’s script, is as flat as a nickel. Each side is stamped with the likeness of a familiar movie archetype — victim of circumstance on one, crusader against injustice on the other — and Ms. Jolie composes her features and adjusts her voice accordingly when it comes time to flip.
Scott's review criticizes Eastwood and Jolie's work more than it does Straczynski's, to be fair, and he even goes so far as to acknowledge that the basic ingredients for a good film are there in the script.

Overall, though, it's also fair to say that the critical response to Straczynski's major film debut isn't anything to write home about so far, and the reasons ring familiar to anyone who's familiar with his comics or television work.

(Rotten Tomatoes currently shows an average rating of 49% for Changeling.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Straczynski Factor

At Slate, Dana Stevens reviews Changeling, also, like her colleague David Denby, finding more than just a trace of what I consider the most prominent and recurrent flaw in writer J. Michael Straczynski's work:
[...] The Changeling [sic] settles for middlebrow uplift and handsomely conventional melodrama. [...] [The film] doesn't invite the viewer to share in its heroine's disorientation, rage, and grief. Rather, it keeps us at a stately remove, presenting Christine's suffering as a kind of religious tableau.

[...] [L]ike many of Eastwood's late movies, this one takes place in a deeply phony moral universe. How hard is it to like a baby chick better than the hobnailed boot that's stomping on it? As gifted as Angelina Jolie may be, there are only so many different inflections she can give to the monotone refrain, "Please help me find my son." All of Eastwood's rigorous craftsmanship seems wasted on a movie whose message never rises above the bumper-sticker admonition that "mean people suck."
Et cetera, et cetera. Stevens tears apart the roles played by John Malkovich and Angelina Jolie, who, she finds, are horribly miscast, and calls the film "clompingly heavy-handed."

Of course, Stevens seems to attribute the film's shortcomings to its director, Clint Eastwood, and she may well have a point. Eastwood's films - take Million Dollar Baby - have always displayed a tendency towards drippy, one-dimensional moralizing, after all.

So has Straczynski's work, however. I guess Eastwood and Straczynski were made for each other, as far as directing and writing are concerned. It's a shame, really, since both creators can actually be pretty good. By teaming up, it seems, they're bringing out the worst in each other, though.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Spot of Bother

At The New Yorker, film critic David Denby reviews director Clint Eastwood and writer J. Michael Straczynski's Changeling and has an objection that probablt doesn't come as a great surprise to anyone who's familiar with Straczynski's work.
“Changeling” is beautifully wrought, but it has the abiding fault of righteously indignant filmmaking: it congratulates us for feeling what we already feel—in this case, contempt for psychiatry used as coercion and for long-discredited male-chauvinist attitudes.
Between Straczynski's writing in Babylon 5, Rising Stars, Amazing Spider-Man or The Book of Lost Souls, the desire to get on a soapbox and preach to his audience about what's good and just and right is, perhaps, one the most defining threads.

Granted, it's also a crucial part of the appeal of Straczynski's voice - but even so, he's overdoing it a lot of the time. To Straczynski's credit, though, it should be said that the preaching doesn't seem to have as much of a presence in Thor and The Twelve.

Crisis Management

Original Final Crisis artist J.G. Jones has confirmed that he's not going to draw the book's final issue. Instead of Carlos Pacheco, who has been lending a hand starting with this week's Final Crisis #4, however, DC are bringing in a third artist, Doug Mahnke, to draw issue #7. Of course, the book is already off schedule anyway, and even if Final Crisis #7 does come out in February, it's still going to be two months behind.

I find it worth noting that while Marvel were infamously weighing the option of shipping Civil War on time and with multiple artists involved against the option of waiting on Steve McNiven and shipping the book late a couple of years ago, DC are now having it both ways.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Please Don't Tell Wesley Snipes

In The Washington Post's article by Michael Cavna on Marvel's upcoming Black Panther revamp, writer Reginald Hudlin lets fly some faintly baffling sound-bites.
"Honestly, my entire run on the series has been controversial. Which is great," he says. "All the writers I admire are hotly debated online, and I feel like I'm always in great company in that situation. But more importantly, it means that people care about the book."
Really? As I recall, there was a bit of controversy among hardcore fans early on in the run, if you can call it that, because the series was inconsistent with earlier stories and the publisher left it unclear whether it was meant to be part of the "Marvel Universe."

After a few months, though, the controversy stopped, because, as it seems, nobody was reading anymore. Hudlin's last issue of the recently cancelled title, #38, sold an estimated 19,459 units - which is pretty sad, and likely the reason why another relaunch was deemed necessary in the first place. Perhaps Hudlin is referring to his frequent clashes with fans on the Internet or at conventions when he's talking about controversies. In terms of the comics, though, I don't see it.
"Over the course of 40 issues [over three years], we ... really defined the character in a way that hadn't been done before. ... Having done that, you go: "How do we up the stakes?"
Well, tits, evidently.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Secret Deflation?

Breaking news!

From Diamond's "Product Changes" page for 09/24:
Eternals Annual #1 (SEP08 2332, $3.99) will be 64 pages, not 48 pages.

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1 (AUG08 2405, $3.99) & #2 (SEP08 2387, $3.99) will each run 32 pages, not 48, with no change in the contents.

Secret Invasion #8 (OCT08 3908, $3.99) was cancelled by Marvel Comics, with no change in the contents.
Well, okay, not really.

But it would be funny, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Words & Images

There's no getting away from the comics for me, it seems, no matter where I go or what I do.

Turns out my fiction writing instructor, Alan Heathcock, has a short story in the latest edition of Zoetrope: All-Story. It's called "Fort Apache," and it's illustrated by Marjane Satrapi, the issue's guest designer.

Jealousy comes in layers, and you can peel it like an onion.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Broke, Back, Mountain

Not necessarily in that order.

The radio silence over the last couple of weeks was due to me relocating to North America (not North Dakota, though, Heidi!), immediately followed by the biggest computer crash I've had in a while. Luckily, I was able to salvage everything of importance, apart from 75% of my music - I've got a backup of that, too, actually, but it's in a drawer 5,000 miles away from me. So I guess I've now got the unique opportunity to finally give those Pink Floyd albums the attention they deserve.

Anyway, I'm more or less settled in now, and the DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales" column for July is finally up now, as well. Paul's Marvel one has been done for ages, actually, so I'm really sorry about the hold-up.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Selector

New comics recommendation for August 20, 2008:

(Click on image for more information.)

Up for Air

Sometimes, DC sends me comics to review, which is very nice of them. The most recent one reached me literally minutes before leaving the house for an eleven-hour transatlantic flight last week. Ooo, nice, something to read on the way over, I thought.

What it was? Oh, it was the first issue of Air, the new Vertigo series by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker. You know, the one starring a flight attendant, dealing with the fears of flying in the aftermath of September 11, 2001? With the images of crashing planes and people in free-fall? Yup, that's the one.

It was my first transatlantic flight, you see, and I don't feel very comfortable on planes. But, hey, it's just a comic, let's not make a thing of it, right?

Well, the trouble started with my flight being late. When we were finally ready to go, the first take-off had to be aborted last-minute because, as it turned out, the runway hadn't been cleared, and there was another plane trying to land right on top of us. They had to abort landing at the last minute. "They were a little close, so we'll have to try again," the captain cheerfully informed us. Finally on the other side of the big pond, there was a jam at the baggage belt. Then my connecting flight was late, and I had to spend the night. Luckily, the curse seemed to be broken and everything went according to plan on the next day.

Now, I'm not superstitious, but at this point I think it's safe to say that, whatever grievances I've caused the Standard Attrition crew (which Ms. Wilson belongs to) with the sales column, you may consider them properly avenged. I didn't just read Air. I experienced it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Case of Identity

Sean T. Collins, whom I rate as one of the Top 5 writers on comics you can find today, very smartly points out in his review of Black Dossier that Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Geoff Johns' Green Lantern are much more similar than you would typically expect: They're both examples of excessive intertextuality - different kinds of intertextuality, certainly, but intertextuality nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Selector

New comics recommendation for August 13, 2008:

(Click on image for more information.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Selector

New comics recommendation for August 6, 2008:

(Click on image for more information.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Selectus Interruptus

Just in case you're wondering, I didn't forget about "Selector" this or the past week. For July 23, I would have recommended Dan Dare #7, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Gary Erskine, and published by Virgin Comics. For July 30, I would have recommended Pilot Season: The Core #1, written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Kenneth Rocafort, and published by Top Cow Productions.

That's "would have," mind you, since their respective publishers have two annoying things in common that suggest they don't want people to find out about their comics: (1) Their websites don't work without enabling Java Script, and (2) they've somehow managed not to put any promotional material about those comics on the web - not even a usable cover image. Well, maybe next time.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Piece of Cake

You think there are no DC Comics books for casual readers out there?

Think again:


As many as four tens! Take that, Final Crisis.

(Found, with thanks, at Comics Should Be Good.)

Junk Press

Read some comics interviews lately? At Newsarama? Or Comic Book Resources? Or, uh, The Pulse? Well, it seems like Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort has, and what he's found does not amuse him.
[...] I find myself a little bit dismayed about the overall quality of the journalism surrounding our industry. [...] So often, these interviews feel like the interviewer is using a macro he’d developed for this purpose: “Tell me what NAME OF PROJECT is about? What’s it like working with NAME OF CREATOR?”

[...] I know, for myself, I get bored trying to answer these same-old, same-old questions whenever there’s a piece of promotion to be done. And I know that if I’m bored, the people reading the interview are going to be bored, and that’s not going to help sell any comic books.
Now, there are a couple of things worth noting about this. First up, it's hard to argue with Brevoort's point that the bulk of what websites tend to label as "interviews" hardly deserves the description, obviously.

That aside, though, you'll note that Brevoort doesn't differentiate between "journalism" and "promotion." As a Marvel Comics representative, he doesn't need to, of course. But the people writing for websites like the ones mentioned above certainly should, if they harbor any pretensions of being outlets of journalism. And I wonder how many of those interviewers (and, by extension, their editors, if they exist) actually care - or even think - about this stuff.

On a side note, I suppose you can raise an eyebrow or two at the notion of a top editor at a major comics publisher frowning at the appalling quality of the unreflected free promotion his books tend to receive from the comics press.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Crisis Strategy

In last week's "Permanent Damage" column, Steven Grant takes the historical approach to analyzing the issues surrounding DC Comics' mainstream superhero line, which include, but are not limited to: underwhelming sales, erratic editorial management, dissatisfaction among the existing fanbase and a failure to attract casual readers.

In a nutshell, Grant argues that DC essentially created comics fandom by acknowledging the Golden-Age versions of their characters and incorporating them into the "DC Universe" with titles such as Justice Society of America. This, in turn, is where he sees the root of the problem that led to ostensible deck-clearing exercises like Crisis on Infinite Earths and its many successors, including the current Final Crisis: With their fanbase dating back to the 1940s, DC has effectively become unable to jettison that part of its history, and has been caught in a self-perpetuating circle that forces the company to incessantly acknowledge those proto-versions of its properties - which, ultimately, can only be done through the addition of "parallel earths."

Hence, Grant says, the publisher's long tradition of producing excessively self-referential comics that are frequently impenetrable to anyone but the most committed hardcore fans. The solution he proposes is sweeping.
Shut it down and start from scratch. A clear editorial vision of what specific characters should be. [...] No "old continuity over in a parallel" universe [sic] to seep in. Don't refer to old continuity. Everything new again. Who wouldn't come by, even those who'd protest the loudest, just to see what happens next? [...] After a year or so, it would be the new status quo and everyone would start getting along just fine.
Now, as Grant himself is aware, the idea isn't new. Marv Wolfman had something very much like that in mind for Crisis on Infinite Earths when he first came up with it; for that matter, no week probably goes by without somebody calling for this sort of thing in some Internet forum or other. And on the surface, it certainly seems reasonable. Still, there are a couple of problems with this approach.

First up, how do you prevent creators from referring to "old continuity," or even just sneaking in references, let alone for any substantial length of time? Have there been any major creators at DC who don't cherish some wacky bit or other from the company's Golden- or Silver-Age origins? Quick experiment: Enter the creator's name and the term "pre-crisis" (both, don't forget, in quotation marks) in your search engine of choice, and see what comes up. If you're going to ask Grant Morrison or Geoff Johns to stop referencing beloved stories from those periods, for that matter, there's bound to be heartbreak, and you might as well not hire their services in the first place. Consequently, I don't think Grant's proposal is realistic. It didn't work the first time, or the second, or the third. And for the very same reasons it failed then, I doubt it's ever going to work - even if it were a cure for DC's woes.

And that, incidentally, is a pretty big "if." Is it really the validation of "old continuity" and the presence of "parallel earths" in the DC Universe that renders their comics inaccessible? I'm skeptical. "Parallel earths" also exist in Marvel's fictional world, for instance. There are dozens of them, and they've been an established part of the Marvel Universe for decades. And yet, they don't seem to be hampering the accessibility of the publisher's line in the slightest. It may have seemed that way at one point or other in the past, which resulted in calls for the Marvel Universe to exorcize its baggage and do its own Crisis-style clean-up. But Marvel always ended up resisting the notion, stopping just short of it a few times with quasi-reboots like "Heroes Reborn" or, more recently, their Ultimate Marvel line of titles - the former an experiment with a built-in back door that ended after a year, the latter a wholesale reimagination launched in addition to the existing Marvel Universe rather than as a replacement.

Nonetheless, the mainstream Marvel Universe line seems in perfect health today, in terms of accessibility. So much so, in fact, that the purpose of the Ultimate Marvel books has become increasingly flimsy over the last couple of years, necessitating an upcoming shake-up. So Grant has the right idea, I think, but his emphasis is off. It's not "old continuity" per se that stands in the way of DC producing accessible superhero comics. Rather, it seems to be a matter of the basic storytelling approach to your line. Sure, the rigid decree of slowly building, "decompressed" stories, tailor-made for Marvel's then burgeoning program of paperback collections and steering clear of time travel, parallel earths and any kind of convoluted backstory resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth for the first few years of Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada's tenure in the publisher's driving seat. But Marvel continues to benefit from it to this day. Even if the formula is no longer as strictly enforced as it was back then, accessibility remains the guiding storytelling principle in virtually everything Marvel does.

So the Jemas/Quesada model is proof positive that you don't necessarily need to "start from scratch" to make a line of comics based on a long-standing fictional superhero universe creatively and commercially successful. What you need to do is to Just Not Worry About It. Instead, focus on telling accessible, engaging, attractive stories first and foremost, with the big, sprawling universes and "old continuity" as distant secondary concerns. The trick, in other words, is to not put the cart in front of the horse. A "shared-universe" setting is a backdrop, and a means. It is not, however, an end in itself. Arguably, this approach may be more difficult for DC than it is for Marvel, due to the generational differences Grant mentions, as well as the various major reboots of DC's world, and of their characters. But it's not impossible.

Looking at Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman, Matt Wagner's Batman and the Monster Men and Batman: The Mad Monk or even 52 is instructive, in this context. Each of these recent comics, in its own way, draws deeply on what Grant calls "old continuity," but still remains perfectly inviting to more casual readers of DC's books (e.g., me). They're exceptions, and what they have in common is a refusal to take the characters for granted. Right from the first issue of each series, the creators pull out the stops to remind us what Superman says about humanity, why Batman is a fascinating concept and how we can relate to Renée Montoya or, what do you know, Ralph Dibny. They let us know who these characters are, what they want and why it's relevant to us. I tend to think of it as the "genetic code" of a given concept or character - meaning, if it's not present somewhere in a story about those concepts or characters, then something's wrong. Which, I've found, is precisely what's the case with a lot of DC's books right now. They present the characters as "icons," whose relevance - and worse, the relevance of whose world - is taken for granted, rather than demonstrated.

I noted a year ago that DC's major stories are no longer about anything a casual reader can relate to, and not much has changed. The line's major stories seem to be driven by a Sisyphean challenge to "fix" the DC Universe, "for good." Quite what that means, though, or why the DC Universe is something that's worth being "fixed" in the first place, nobody, including the people in charge, seems to be sure of. Confronted with the criticism of inaccessibility by Douglas Wolk, Dan DiDio, the editor-in-chief of the publisher's DC Universe line, recently clarified that DC's direction is no accident:
My opinion is that [the recent 50-cent primer DC Universe #0] was accessible to the people who understand and read comics and understand the stories and characters and world. We had [DC Universe #0] for the people who are familiar with and excited by DC Comics, whether they’ve been reading them for five years or 25 years.
This admission is nothing short of spectacular. What DiDio says here, basically, is that, yes thank you, the snake is well aware it's eating its own tail, and now could you please shut up and pass the ketchup. Quite what the point is of producing cheap promotional loss-leaders for people who already "understand and read comics and understand the stories and characters and world" and "are familiar with and excited by DC Comics, whether they’ve been reading them for five years or 25 years," Wolk didn't ask DiDio, unfortunately. In the light of this editorial stance, though, you don't need to wonder what went wrong with the marketing of supposed sales juggernaut Final Crisis. The answer is nothing. Everything went just the way DC wanted it to.

The key to producing more attractive comics, therefore, is simple: DC, once and for all, needs to get over Crisis on Infinite Earths. In fact, they need to bury it, and bury it deep - with a strong line of comics that recognizes the strengths of their properties and emphasizes them in ways which allow someone who's just seen Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to feel welcome. The latter part should be self-evident, really. Given the attitude of DC's current editorial regime, however, which is implicit in the comics they produce and explicit in statements such as the one quoted above, it seems like an unlikely prospect right now. As long as they don't want their comics to be accessible, they're probably not going to be.