Thursday, March 04, 2004

Notable Links for 03/04

Hey everybody. If you're interested, scroll on down past today's links and you'll find some actuall commentary from yours' truly. I'm going to try and be better about putting more original content on the page besides just the weekday linkblogging, but there are only so many hours in the day... so we'll see.

Also, I still haven't got any responses from anyone who's got a copy of the Comics Journal #255 to sell. More than anything, I guess I'm disappointed. I expected so much more from you people.


* "Embattled Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Michael Eisner on Wednesday was stripped of his role as chairman, but kept his position as chief executive even after 43 percent of shareholders voted against him in an unprecedented protest." Read more here, courtesy of Yahoo! Finance. Meanwhile, The Christian Science Monitor takes a look at Disney's flagging luck in the realm of feautre-length animation here. BBC News profiles Roy Disney, one of the main architects of the anti-Eisner movement, here.

* "A comic book about Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, sold 530,000 copies in Japan last year. The comic book's title is the 'Introduction to Kim Jong Il,' which tells stories of Kim Jong Il ranging from his abduction of Japanese civilians to his private life." Read more here, courtesy of The Weekly Post (link courtesy of Nailalien).

* The Seuss Centennial continues apace: Time's Richard Corliss takes another look at the erstwhile Thedor Giesel here. Meanwhile, Nancy Beardsley for the Voice of America commemorates Seuss here.

* The Crossville Chronicle wishes Popeye a belated happy 75th birthday here.

* Silver Bullet Comics points out here that one of every two comics sold in January were Marvel Comics.

* Steven Grant's Master Of The Obvious is back this week after a slight detour last week. Of course, it remains essential reading, as Steven Grant has evolved into just about the most vital mainstream commentary around. This week he tackles Marvel's "Secret War" reprint, the essential nihilism behind 90's comic books, as well as some political stuff that you will either love or loathe. Always interesting, never less than compelling. Link courtesy of Comic Book Resources.

* Silver Bullet Comic's "Panel" feature asks a slate of creators just what's going on with the future of comics here.

* Here's an article on Santa Cruz-based comics-inspired artist Koak, from the Bay Area Metroactive.

* "They’re as unlikely a bunch of superheroes as there ever were: Menorah Man, Dreidel Maidel, Minyan Man, Magen David, Kipa Kid, Shabbas Queen and Matzah Woman. But on creator Alan Oirich’s glossy comic book pages, the Jewish Hero Corps leaps, spins and multiplies to fight the enemy Fobots — robots charged with stealing Jewish memories." Read more here, courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

* There have been to my knowledge two musicals written around Charles M. Schultz's "Peanuts" strip. The other one is returning to New York for a limited all-star engagement after a hiatus of some thirty years. Read all about "Snoopy!"s return here, courtesy of Playbill.

* "With the primary aim of enhancing the overall concepts of cartoon in the State, Sarad Sharma, a cartoonist representing World Comics India (WCI) is currently holding a weeklong workshop on communication skills under the aegis of the Diocesan Social Service Society (DSSS) that began from Sunday at the Retreat House, Mantripukhri." Read more here, courtesy of E-Pao.

* Here's another article on reknowned fine-art thief Roy Lichtenstein on the occasion of a recent retrospective show in London. I feel sort-of obliged to link to these things but I'll be damned if I can understand how anyone with two brain cells to rub together could possibly see Lichtenstein as "brilliant" in any way whatsoever. Courtesy of the Daily Telegraph.

* Immortal comics-page gadfly "Jumble" is making the leap into the digital realm. Read about it here, courtesy of Yahoo! News.

* The Daily Yomiuri takes a look at the "Ghost In The Shell" sequel, opening March 6, here.

* reviews "X-Statix"'s recent "Back From The Dead" storyline here, and they're a lot kinder than I was to that shambling mess...

* "Amateur cartoonists are being given the chance to make the whole of London laugh. Comic scribblers could have their work shown around the capital and on the Tube as part of a contest linked to the London Comedy Festival." Read more here, courtesy of the NewsShopper.

* "Slylock Fox & Comics for Kids is teaming up with Walsh Public Relations as part of a national marketing campaign to support the popular syndicated comic strip, according to Slylock Fox & Comics for Kids creator and artist, Bob Weber Jr." Read more here, courtesy of PR Leap.

* "The closed and vacant International Museum of Cartoon Art is suddenly becoming a popular place. A citizens group headed by the League for Educational Awareness of the Holocaust (LEAH) has begun the process of buying the building. But the Boca Raton Orchid Society also wants a piece of the action." Read more here, courtesy of the Boca Raton News.

* 13-year-old Patrick Ugas has won a guest appearance in an issue of "Batman Adventures". Read more here, courtesy of the Ansonia Valley Gazette. (I'd make a joke but - come on, he's thirteen years old, he's probably thrilled to death.)

Captain America #12-23

An interesting problem with Captain America that I have noticed is that people who aren’t familiar with the character dismiss him as a jingoistic right-wing propaganda mouthpiece and those who follow him regularly regard him as a bleeding-heart liberal mouthpiece. There are probably less of the latter than there used to be on account of the fact that the industry has shrunk so much, but the fact remains that the character has always fought the former perception by leaning too hard towards the latter.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the character’s own title. Whereas the Cap that appears regularly in “Avengers” is portrayed as, literally, the world’s greatest super-solider and the most brilliant tactician in the universe, the Cap that appears in his own title has always seemed more adrift, almost unmoored. Why is it so hard to take the Cap from “Avengers”, the one that everyone loves, the one who possesses the same kind of inscrutable charm and authority that Batman only wishes he had, and make him work in his own title?

The problem could have something to do with the fact that the two characters couldn’t be more dissimilar.

It’s hard to give Cap conflict in the pages of “Avengers” because more often than not he’s the lynchpin of the action, the crux behind the Avengers’ actions and the leader of the team. But by that same token its hard to resist the temptation to give Cap personal trauma and moral quandary in his own title, because the adventures of the World’s Most Competent Man would make for a boring book.

The one man who cracked the proverbial “Cap Code”, who made the character work against all odds on his own for the first time in years, was Mark Waid. The Captain America Waid wrote was the same Cap we knew and loved from the Avengers, only somewhat more approachable. Waid succeeded in shaking the cobwebs from Mark Gruenwald’s elongated run and made the character work.

Gruenwald himself wrote a fair number of good Cap stories, but his run suffered for the most part from a surplus of good ideas in the first half and diminishing returns from then on in. As good as some of Gruenwald’s early stories were, the fact is that he also turned Cap into a woman, a werewolf, and Iron Man during the course of his later run. Perhaps he should have quit while he was ahead.

Dan Jurgens’ Cap barely registered on my brain whatsoever. By the time we get to the Marvel Knights relaunch the character had passed into the kind of somnolent fugue that typified Gruenwald’s later years: stuff happened, and then, more stuff happened, and then next issue, more stuff happened. Cap was in need of a makeover.

The Marvel Knights relaunch started strong. I really liked John Ney Reiber’s initial take on the character, particularly his impassioned and reasoned response to 9/11. And then . . . something happened. I don’t know exactly what, but the Cap relaunch found itself on shaky ground almost from the start. The story sort-of lurched on but it seemed as if the character had been undercut by a screaming desire for relevance. More than anything else the ensuing issues were just plain boring.

Which brings me back to where I just finished up: the last year of “Captain America”.

Its hardly newsworthy to point out that “Ice” was a mess. The real sad thing is that there was obviously a germ of an idea here, a nucleus of a story, but it never quite succeeded in making it past the meandering clusterfuck stage.

I’m not going to rag on Chuck Austen unnecessarily, he gets enough of that from the “X-Men” fans. But I think I understand why he keeps failing.

One of Nu-Marvel’s smarter prerogatives has been their insistence that continuity is merely a tool and not, to paraphrase the famous barrister, a suicide pact. However, this approach is obviously a two-edged sword, because it’s also a tool that can be misused. Its not hard to write new stories, there are lots of good new stories written every month that neither disregard established canon or rewrite established continuity. Austen fails when he decides he’s going to write about continuity, because quite frankly he just does not possess a deep enough understanding of the characters’ histories to pull it off without screwing up. He writes like someone who pulled an all-nighter to bring himself up to date on specific details, but fails to understand the bigger picture.

So, we have “Ice”. First, as I said, there’s a nugget of a good idea here: the concept of a villain trying to understand just what exactly makes Cap tick through trauma and suffering. The true shame of Austen’s writing, is that, at least on “Cap”, he does possess a fairly comprehensive understanding of the motivations driving his characters. But, again, the key here is the modifier “fairly”, because this limited understanding is undercut by his incomplete knowledge of character history.

It’s been established that Captain America does kill. When the situation calls for it, when there’s no other choice, he can take lives. He is, for better or for worse, still a soldier at heart and so he does possess the capacity to kill. Does he like it? No. But will he if he has to? Yes. He killed Baron Blood during Byrne’s short run. He killed an unnamed ULTIMATUM goon during the early part of Gruenwald’s run, in a situation where he either had to kill or allow others to die.

So the question of whether Cap will or won’t kill is moot. It’s unnecessary to ask the question because there’s already an answer.

It goes without saying that Austen’s attempt at a retcon in “Ice” is equally ham-fisted. It could be argued that the only good idea Rob Liefeld had during his “Heroes Reborn” run was the idea that Cap had been placed in suspended animation by his own government because of his opposition to the atomic bomb. I can sympathize with Austen (and obviously a heavy editorial hand) in wanting to place this idea into canon . . . but its too late. There’s just been too much water under the bridge to convincingly place this crucial kernel into the backstory.

Thankfully, the story was vague enough on these particulars that the whole “Ice” interlude could easily be construed as a dream. I have a feeling that its going to be remembered alongside the lab explosion at the genesis of “Spider-Man: Chapter One” as one of those ideas that was so good we all had to agree never to mention it again.

The truly sad thing is, despite the torpid storytelling, the weak character points, the uninspired villain (“I have a hand! With an eye in my palm!”) and the unconvincing story mechanics, “Ice” is nowhere near the worst Cap story ever. I hate to bring up bad memories but may I simply reacquaint you with . . . Capwolf?


Dave Gibbons and Lee Weeks’ short run, the celebrated “Captain America Lives Again” storyline, was good but essentially superfluous. This is the type of Cap story a monkey could write in his sleep: you just have to hit all the right notes and it will read fantastically.

Back in the days of “What If?” there used to be a story in this vein every few months. Captain America wakes up on the submarine but . . . something has gone terribly wrong! The Nazis have taken over America. Cap has to lead a ragtag resistance to defeat the Nazis and win back the spirit of America . . . you get the idea. Sure, its fun, it works, its great, but its the equivalent of Spider-Man being crushed under a giant piece of machinery only to save himself by a feat of superhuman strength and will. It works every time but you feel a little bit dirty after the fact.

Robert Morales’ run has so many things in its favor – Chris Bachalo’s stellar art, a clear understanding of the character, a sly sense of humor that is often overlooked in Cap stories – but the attempt at placing Cap into a more geopolitically relevant milieu somehow feels fake.

It’s not as if Cap is unable to work in a politically charged story. Lets not forget that one of the best Cap stories ever featured the character temporarily retiring in disgust in the wake of Watergate – hanging up his shield and taking up the identity of Nomad, the Man Without A Country. Hell, even Gruenwald had Cap fighting a temporarily-serpentine Ronald Reagan – not one of the more subtle plot points ever, but I got a chuckle out of it.

But the problem with Cap going down to Camp X-Ray is not that there isn’t the potential for an interesting story here, but just the fact that the story they’re actually telling isn’t very interesting. Perhaps, with a character who’s so baldly allegorical than Cap, its best to merely flirt with relevancy. Ultimately any real attempt at drama in this storyline is going to be undermined by the hard-and-fast fact that, for instance, we know the Red Skull or Baron Strucker are not actually behind the Guantanamo detentions. They can’t write that story because its something we know to be untrue in the real world – it would immediately kill your suspension of disbelief. But unless they do something in that vein, come up with something for Cap to do, its going to be a pretty boring story. So far we’re watching Cap sit around and talk with people.

Why is it so hard to strike the balance between Captain America the moral idealist and Captain America the professional asskicker? I don’t know. The rumor mills holds that perhaps Marvel is going to drop back ten and punt the book – sending Cap back into the mainstream publishing wing and writing off the Marvel Knights experiment as a failure. Unfortunately, I can’t see any reason not to do this.

I would never in a million years suggest that Mark Waid write the book again – he’s been screwed so often I think he’d have to be on drugs to accept the poisoned chalice again. But the fact remains that he’s wrote almost every good Captain America story worth remembering from the past fifteen years, and whoever does write the character should remember this.

I sincerely hope Cap gets good again, because he’s one of my favorite characters. But it’s a tall order. I don’t think it would be a good thing to eject the relevancy that Marvel Knights has attempted to inject into the book, because without some sort of grounding in the actual realities of modern-day America the temptation is strong to make Cap just another colorful superhero in a market already jammed-full of colorful and superfluous super-heroes. But as we have seen, going overboard with this approach makes the book boring as hell to read.

It’s a tough gig, and my sympathies to whomever ends up writing the book when all is said and done.

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