Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Chuck Austen, Continuity Cop

Continuity is very important.

That might seem a bit odd coming from someone such as myself, with a historic antipathy to the more obsessive branches of comic book collecting. After all, the only people who seriously care about superhero comic book continuity are hopeless nerds with soiled Van Halen T-Shirts and congenital acne, right? Right?

Well, not exactly.

If you’ve read more than one comic book, continuity is very important. How the creators regard continuity, and more importantly, how the editorial support staff regards continuity, is one of the most important factors to keep in mind regarding the change in tone that has occurred in mainstream comics over the past few years.

Used to be that comics continuity was like a brick house. Every new issue added another brick onto the house. Everything built on what had been built before. To change any part of the house required a massively complicated demolition and patching operation (like Avengers Forever or Fantastic Four #319).

Then when it was decided that the company approach to continuity would be streamlined, the house metaphor lost its luster. Instead of making sure everything new was precisely in sync with everything that had come before, the decision was made simply to let the construction take a more organic direction, and to overlook things that maybe didn’t fit in with the ongoing construction. So, some wings of the house were sealed off. New wings were built without complete regard to the total design. Mistakes were made, and those who cared about the overall design were becoming apoplectic.

But a funny thing happened. The new approach, while it may have seem scattershot and arbitrary, actually succeeded in sprucing up certain wings of the house that had fallen into disrepair. By moving to change the tone of the line as a whole, the concept of continuity became a lot more fluid and inconsistent.

But the odd thing is, there is actually precious little differece between this change of focus and from how it had been done all along. For around thirty years now, the Marvel Universe has operated pretty consistently on the principles of selected amnesia. The first major run of any book is usually considered the "template" run, the wellspring from which all the major ideas and concepts spring from. Everything between the template run and the current run exists in a sort of hazy fog, in terms of how modern creators deal with it. When permanent changes are effected, the changes remain, but for the most part this has to occur in order to keep the books fresh.

Lets look at the most obvious example of this phenomena, Fantastic Four. Before being relaunched in 1998, the FF had undergone dozens of creative changes. Every new creative team picked up where the last one left off, to a point. But the major storylines and thematic preoccupations of the last creators were totally forgotten. When new ideas were necessary, the creators would dip back to Lee & Kirby’s first 102 issues. For all intents and purposes, despite whatever interesting, intense and life-altering events had occurred over the last few runs, these events would eventually be forgotten – or at least never discussed again.

Other interesting problems arose when characters had late template runs. For instance, you can definitely say that the Milelr run on Daredevil remains that books essential template. The hundred and fifty odd issues that occurred before Miller ever saw the book might as well not have happened, save for a few constant elements that occurred consistently through the character’s history. When was the last time anyone referred to Mike Murdock?

Whenever a creative team had to play clean-up for the previous run, or set about with the distinct purpose of merely fixing a previous established gaffe, problems arose. Remember the whole Ned Leeds/Hobgoblin episode? They didn’t fix that one for fifteen years. It wouldn’t probably have mattered if the Hobgoblin hadn’t been a very important character in the Spider-mythos. But it did matter, and people did care, way back when.

This was the way things worked. You didn’t contradict what had come before, but that still left a lot of room for people to work. "First do no harm" isn’t just the Hippocratic oath, it was also the mainstream writers’ credo.

Then things changed. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that there got to be so much continuity that just not contradicting it became a chore in and of itself. A generation of creators came up who hadn’t come through the ranks of feverish fanboy – actual professionals with a deep appreciation for the characters but without the obeisance to established writ that had marked every other generation of creators since Stan, Jack and Steve. And the awareness began to seep in that the continuity was becoming a Problem in terms of the books’ accessibility to new readers. Whether or not this awareness was accurate is open to debate, but looking at the types of books that Marvel and DC published during the down times of the mid-to-late 90s, I tend to think it might have been.

Which brings us, from yesterday’s discussion, to folks like Chuck Austen.

It’s not that Austen - or Brian Michael Bendis or Joe Straczynski - disliked continuity. He just had no desire to let continuity get in the way of telling what he thought were good stories. For their parts, this is exactly what the editors wanted to hear.

So you had little burps like the Purple Man being magically resurrected for Alias. It made for a good story, admittedly, but it left longtime readers scratching their heads, wondering how he had been brought back to life since he had been shown to be dead in the pages of Alpha Flight following his stated demise in the Emperor Doom OGN. This wasn’t the only instance of a dead character magically being resurrected. I dropped Bruce Jones' Hulk when the Absorbing Man appeared in a manner that was totally contradictory to how he had been portrayed for the previous thirty years. The most annoying incident for me in recent months has been the new Secret Wars series. There’s a part where Wolverine says he’s never seen Spider-Man without his mask on before. Which would be fine except for the fact that he has. It occurred during the wrap-up of the aforementioned Ned Leeds/Hobgoblin retcon. I can even distinctly remember the panel in which the maskless meeting occurred.

Is it that they don’t care? Or that they are purposefully trying to fuck with our heads? No. It’s pretty obvious that they just don’t know, or they wouldn’t be doing it.

But the fact that it does happen means that a lot has changed. Used to be when something like that happened, someone would write in and try to get a No-Prize. Nowadays the House doesn’t give out No-Prizes, probably due to the fact that they don’t have letters pages to give them out in, and also due to the fact that little burps like this are seen as unimportant. If the story is good, why get wrapped around the axle over comparatively small problems?

But the problems aren’t small. They undermine the fans’ confidence in and enjoyment of the books that Marvel depends on them to buy. Even a reader like me, who really tries not to obsess about these things, gets tripped up when something happens that I know is a contradiction of what has previously occurred. I am instantly taken out of the story and it takes a while to regain my footing. If I could come to every book blank, like it was a fresh new universe, I wouldn’t care. That’s the audience that Marvel is going after, they want very badly for every book to be someone’s first. But the fact is that for longtime readers these things add up, and what we are seeing on messageboards and inside retail outlets across the company is a crisis of confidence in Marvel. Perhaps this crisis would have eventually impacted the bottom line, perhaps not. Fan buying habits tend to be deeply ingrained.

Are people still buying Marvel? Yes. Will this end? No. But its obvious that there is perception of the problem, from the fact that Marvel is taking steps to even out the tonal inconsistencies throughout their line. It’s an economic decision, pure and simple: with their movies doing so strongly in the theaters and their licensed products selling so well, and with more on the way, they need to present a unified front.

Which makes Chuck Austen and his notions of more mature and socially responsible funnybooks redundant. But it is to his credit that he tried very hard to give the fans what they wanted, within the bounds of reason, and no one can blame him for finally having had enough of the constant abuse.

His run on Avengers was pilloried as bad as, if not worse than, his run on Uncanny. Immediately the message boards erupted with their complaints that the Avengers were acting and speaking totally out of character. The fact that he dredged up a twenty-year-old plot point concerning Hank Pym’s spousal abuse did not exactly endear him either.

The fact is, he probably thought they’d love it. Think about it: people thought he paid no attention to continuity, so what, in his mind, would be better than delving deep into an old pile of back issues in order to find a nice and juicy subplot to exhume? The problem is, that’s not how it’s done. It’s like a deaf man trying to play music: he can get all the notes right if you tell him how to play the piano and read music, but if he doesn’t know how it’s supposed to flow, it’s going to sound horrible. To the fans who had been reading Marvel comics for decades, his work seemed unmistakably off to them, and because he was not immersed in the mythos in the same way that these hardcore fans are, he couldn’t fix the problem, try as he may.

Think about it: everyone knows Hank Pym is a nutcase who has half-a-dozen secret identities in addition to a history as a guilt-ridden pseudo criminal and, yes, a wife-beater. He’s probably a manic-depressive. But even though this is established continuity, Austen didn’t know how to broach it. There’s been so much water under the bridge in the twenty-odd years since that story, and bringing it back up to the foreground after all this time just confuses matters. What would happen if Mark Waid suddenly brought back Lyja, Johnny Storm’s skrull ex-wife, with no thought to the havoc it would wreak on the book’s tone? It could probably be done, but what about the fact that every new creative team to take over the book since time immemorial has regressed Johnny to about the point he was when Stan & Jack left? It’s not as if the character growth and trauma of the DeFalco/Ryan years didn’t happen, but it has been effectively put in the past. Similarly, no one would dispute that Pym was a wife-beater, but it was pretty much a settled issue. Bringing it up again brings the current story up by its short hairs. It forces the readers to pay attention to the fact that the architecture hasn’t been very well planned for quite a while now.

So, it’s not that Austen had a disrespect for continuity. He tried, and we must respect this. But the fact that Austen and the other creators who are closely identified with "Nu-Marvel" are also the ones most responsible for the change in tone across the Marvel line is something that should probably be examined more closely.

You either tackle continuity head on, as with Avengers Forever, or you press forward, as creators like Bendis and Austen have attempted to do. The problem is that in pressing forward, the books have also lost some of the signature tone that served them well for four previous decades. For better or for worse, the books can’t keep their naturalistic tone without some concessions to the old style. After the almost complete collapse of the Tsunami launch and the ouster of Bill Jemas, that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Whether it will make a difference to the bottom line and towards the appeasement of fandom is sill something that remains to be seen.

Street Angel #2

I am not the first to sing the praise’s of Slave Labor Graphic’s Street Angel, nor, I suspect, shall I be the last. Leave it be said, however, that every good thing you’ve ever read about this book is 100% true.

For some reason this book manages to push all the right buttons with a lot of people. I think it has something to do with the fact that both Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca look like they’re enjoying themselves, and it’s definitely a contagious feeling. They’re not the first people to try their hands at the semi-parodic semi-serious superhero subgenre. A book like Street Angel can proudly trace it’s lineage all the way back to Cerebus and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, silly ideas that found a great deal of traction – and subsequent success - when their creators plaid it perfectly straight. It’s a tonal mixture that doesn’t usually work in media other than comics.

If you don’t know the set-up, it’s pretty simple. Angel City is pretty much your average comic book city: it’s overrun by mad scientists, super-villains, and ninjas. But the city’s greatest champion is not some gaudily clad defender of justice but a thirteen (or so) year old girl with a tricked-out deck. Amazingly, it works. She’s got the moves of Grant Morrision’s Batman and the attitude of a runaway gutterpunk, and somehow that’s enough to get by. Hell, she does more than get by, she carves a swath of violence wherever she goes.

There’s something so very satisfying about seeing Street Angel kick ninja ass. I don’t know how to describe it other than by saying that perhaps there’s some sort of strange irony at work here, where experienced and jaded comic book readers get their kicks from seeing familiar tropes of superhero books treated like cordwood in a dojo. Whereas there are a lot of comparable books out now that fall flat on account of poor artwork (I’m thinking Tupelo and Scurvy Dogs here, primarily), the art in Street Angel is amazingly apt. Neither overly ornate nor archly minimal, it merely supports the story perfectly.

Street Angel #2 involves a group of Spanish pirates, led by Hernando Cortez, magically transported to modern-day Angel City by the whims of the Incan sun god Inti. They run into some ninjas, and of course ninjas and pirates just got to fight. Then an Irish astronaut named Cosmick crash lands in the ghetto, and chaos ensues. It sounds complicated, but really it’s not. Basically, Rugg and Maruca throw everything they can possibly think of into the stew and watch as Street Angel makes her way through the carnage.

(Oddly, I should point out I’m actually a descendent of Hernando Cortez – great pedigree, huh? I got a great uncle who does all that genealogy stuff.)

There’s really not a lot more to say. It’s pretty simple: Street Angel rocks. I hope it lasts for many, many years to come. If you’re not buying, it, you should be.

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