Monday, July 05, 2004

Weekend At Bernie’s

So let us now discuss Chuck Austen.

The majority of the mainstream comics community detests Austen with a wrath that burns hotter than the fire of a thousand suns. Because I haven’t read anywhere near all the man has written, I have remained resolutely indifferent on the subject of his skill. But I have quietly admired his work ethic, his admirable persistence and his dogged indifference to the very vocal segment of fandom that chose him as their personal whipping boy.

Does this mean I admire him for being a hack? No, I admire him for being a professional. He was hired to do a job, and he pleased his bosses the best he could. He didn’t lose sight of the fact that his bosses were the men at Marvel who signed his checks, and not the X-Men fans over at He certainly tried his best to please everyone, however, but in the end he just couldn't do it. Although he was certainly responsible for more than a few boneheaded blunders, I think that anyone in that position, thrown into the most unforgiving and demanding task in all of mainstream comics (writing Uncanny X-Men, the flagship title of the flagship franchise of the number one publisher in the industry), would be in over their head. The fact that Uncanny slipped in prestige compared to Morrison’s New is not his fault, that particular damage was done by Joe Casey, not Austen. (Casey himself admitted he hadn’t been the man for the job in his recent Journal interview.)

I don’t make a habit of reading X-Men comic books. My recent dalliance with New was solely due to the allure of Morrison, and sure enough I quit the book, and the characters, the moment he was gone. But I keep an ear open and I read the occasional issue of this or that off the shelf. I think Austen’s reputation suffered greatly at the hands of bad editing. I haven’t actually read the things myself, but I have read many detailed explications on just why his various Nightcrawler stories (both the anti-pope saga and the bogus origin story) were the most convoluted, nonsensical and contradictory tales ever printed. I feel bad for Nightcrawler fans, I do – to read mainstream comics at all, ever, is to feel the pain of seeing a favorite character manhandled by greasy thugs at some time or another. But the stories would never have seen print if an editor – probably two or three editors, given the way Marvel works – hadn’t signed off on it.

I think the rise and fall of Chuck Austen reveals a lot about the ways the comic book industry has both changed and stayed very much the same over the last five years – pretty much, you could say, since Quesada and Co. came to power. The magic word, the word behind all the controversy, all the fan uproar, the entire hubbub, is tone.

There was a conscious decision made in the corridors of power at Marvel to change the tone of their books. All the controversial points in the last few years of Marvel history - "decompressed storytelling", personnel shuffling, strange creative decisions – it was all part of an attempt to change the way Marvel books were read and perceived.

Chuck Austen embodied the type of tone they were trying to capture. They wanted the books to read more naturally, to be less indebted to ingrained continuity, to be less afraid to change the character status quos, and to be less afraid to take stylistic chances. In other words, and this was undoubtedly a big issue at every step of the process, they wanted to create books that could more easily be picked up and enjoyed by any average Jane or Joe off the street. Austen, with his background in TV and his breezy, conversational writing style, fit perfectly into this plan.

On paper, there’s nothing wrong with any of these goals. But in practice, as Austen learned the hard way, it doesn’t always work like that. In order for the books to read more naturally, you have to change the way people talk. Instead of small balloons with dense narrative exposition, you have more "natural" banter spread over more panel real estate, enabling the writer to at least make an attempt at creating a more conversational rhythm. The problem is that while this is a perfectly valid way of writing your comics, the folks who buy the books might feel slightly ripped off if they start getting less story than they bargained for.

But really, it all has to do with tone. Pick out an average issue of a Marvel, DC or Image comic from ten or twelve or twenty years back. Not a lot usually happened in one of those, either, but it happened in a much more dynamic manner. There’d usually be a fight of some sort, every issue without fail, maybe two. There’d be some time spent going over the soap opera back-story, with heavy expositional captions that put the most information across in the most artless way possible. There’d be a few pages devoted to ongoing subplots. And then – blammo! – another fight and a cliffhanger. Without fail. Any book that delivered on all these elements was considered a satisfying read.

So the Powers That Be didn’t want the books to read like this anymore – fine. But they failed to take into account the fact that even though events of lasting import may not transpire every issue, the old system at least made you feel like something had happened every issue. Maybe it was stupid or contrived or hokey or all of the above, but at least the time passed more slowly. Nowadays, books are much more realistically paced. By realistically paced, I mean that a lot of time is spent waiting for things to happen, and mulling over things that have already happened, instead of having things actually happen.

Take your average issue of Daredevil. Used to be, whatever DD’s relationship problems were, they’d be fleshed out in a series of thought balloons while he was swinging over the city or bashing a bad guy. But now, while thought balloons may not have been totally outlawed, these things are supposed to take a more natural course. People really don’t do a lot of thinking and talking when they fight in real life. Even a short, one-sided fight is probably going to take all of your concentration for the duration. So, you’ve got to spend more time on the soap opera elements since you’ve essentially separated all the disparate narrative parts that used to go on pretty much simultaneously. You’ve got more ground to cover and the same amount of time to cover it in, so naturally people are going to feel like they’re being cheated.

Of course, "writing for the trades" has undoubtedly impacted this as well, but I have to say from my own perspective that this doesn’t really bug me. If I like a superhero book enough to want to read it, I’ll want to read it the moment it hits the shelves. If I don’t care enough to want to read it when it comes out the first time, I most likely won’t care about the trade. Some books, like Bendis’ Daredevil, are good enough that even though I’m getting less "story" per issue than I was ten years ago, I feel like I’m getting more than my money’s worth. If "Born Again" had been produced now, it would have probably lasted a lot longer than a mere six issues – probably twelve, if not twenty-four, to cover all the ups-and-downs of that particular story. Would it be any less enjoyable? That’s one of those questions that you really can’t answer, but I tend to think the answer would be no.

Austen tried his best to give the fans what he thought they wanted. He very astutely reasoned that one of the primary attractions for comic book buyers is the ongoing soap-opera elements. But from what I gathered and read he didn’t have a feel for the way comic book soap-opera is supposed to read. It seemed awkward, out of place. The fact is, what passes for soap opera in most comics is anything but what passes for soap opera in conventional media, and this is the wall that Austen came up against. You can’t surprise people. If a relationship is popular, or even just something that people are used to, you can’t change it. No less an authority than Chris Clarement exclaimed, famously, on his return to the X-Books a few years back: "you can’t fuck with Rogue and Gambit." (Not an exact quote, but you get the gist.) It must have been somewhat galling, considering that he had created and shepherded both characters through their developing years, but the romance that grew between them in his absence was - and is still, I assume - considered sacrosanct. Soap opera in comics is not surprising the readers by separating Rogue and Gambit, soap opera in comics is finding a way for Rogue and Gambit to stay together, even though from a storytelling POV that’s about the most boring development in the universe. But it makes the fans feel warm and mushy inside, and that’s why they buy X-Men..

Same with Jean Grey and Cyclops, and I’m amazed Morrison’s violation of that unspeakable taboo didn’t cause more uproar. But the fact is that there was more continuity supporting Cyclops being a rather immature flake whose romance with Jean, rather than being an immortal love story, was a childhood infatuation that he never grew out of, than most fans probably realize. Here’s an instance where Morrison was using continuity to his advantage, but it still took fans unawares because he was using it to come to rather surprising conclusions. Austen, however, seemed to have a slippery grasp of continuity despite his avowals to the contrary. His understanding of the kind of soap-opera elements that are popular was even worse: I flipped through a few issues of Uncanny, and while I thought that the various characters were acting in interesting ways, I understood in a moment why the fanboys didn’t like it.

The Angel and Husk (who I remembered from my days reading Gen X as a very modest girl, not the kind to wear a red miniskirt in a fight – but I digress) was not a relationship that the fans would go for because it came out of nowhere. Messing with Havok and Polaris was similarly unpredictable, because that is one of those Relationships (in capital letters) on which the backs of the X-franchise is built. Although Polaris has a well-documented history of mental instability (dating back, if I recall, to her first appearance), the normal comic book way out of this would be to have Havok deliver a long soliloquy talking about his "immortal love that has crossed the universes" or something like that. But instead of all that, the issue I read had Havok basically saying what you or I would, "hey, this green-haired bitch is nuts, I am going to make a pass at the cute brunette." Because said brunette chick is not someone who the readers have any attachment to, the relationship is deemed Bad. Because the relationship is dealt with in an elongated, more naturalistic fashion, it is even deemed Boring.

So even though, on paper, these things seem like rational ideas, the fact that they were a breach with "established continuity" was enough to get fans up in arms. I’m referring to the romantic subplots in Austen’s X-Men, but you can take this to apply, really, to any development that occurred under the auspices of Nu-Marvel. Change was always supposed to be transitory: at the end of the day, Cyclops still loves Jean. But even though that’s not the way the world works, that’s the way that the comic book world works. The fact that the Juggernaut and Professor X made up after feuding for forty years makes a ton of sense: the Juggernaut’s motivation was never anything that couldn’t have been resolved in two-page’s worth of well written dialogue. Sure enough, they finally did get past it and the fans think it stinks, merely because it breaks with continuity. Doesn’t matter if it makes any sense - woe betide the plot development that makes sense at the expense of the fans’ comfort zones.

We’ll discuss that eternal bugbear, continuity, and why it’s not actually a bad thing, tomorrow.

Travels With Larry Part XIII

White Death

I am skeptical by nature. What can I say, I can’t really excuse it save to say that I think its prudent to be a skeptic. I’ve read a lot of comic books over the course of my life, and I must say I’ve read a lot of the bad ones and not so many of the good ones.

This is usually the part of the review where I’d say "White Death defies all my cynical expectations", or "White Death lives down to my worst expectations." But really, I found the book good. Not very good, not mediocre, just good. There are some very good elements interspersed with some good ideas and a sound grounding in historical reality, and even if I didn’t find myself totally riveted throughout the course of the narrative I was, on the balance, entertained.

Italy was not a good place to be during either of the World Wars. This is not to imply that any of the different warring nations were particularly good places to be. Certainly, both the disastrous Russian offences of 1914-15 and the horrible Nazi invasion of Russia in WWII were about as bad as war has ever been. But people do seem to forget that Italy saw some of the fiercest fighting in both wars.

White Death takes much of it’s factual basis, as well as a liberal sprinkling of contextual quotes, from Alberto Diaz’s book by the same name, White Death: War in the Trentino. The book focuses on the unbelievable destruction wrought by the use of artillery bombardments to bring down avalanches on enemy forces. It’s a savage and inhumane weapon, and almost uncontrollable to boot, but as with nitroglycerine at the turn of the century and atomic weaponry at the end of the Second World War, the temptation to use such an awe-inspiringly powerful force in the service of war was too great to resist. The morality of the atomic bomb’s usage in WWII is still open to great debate, but for the sake of brevity I will point out that White Death takes the uncomplicated stance that when the forces of nature are harnessed in the service of war, there is really no way to control the forces that may be unleashed.

If the Travels With Larry series has taught me anything, it would be to never again underestimate the versatility of Charlie Adlard. If you had asked me about Adlard beforehand, my memory would have told me that I recognized the name from Topps’ long-running and fairly successful X-Files adaptation. But after reading Codeflesh, Astronauts in Trouble, and now White Death I have come to regard Adlard as one of the hidden talents of the industry. Sure, his faces may seem slightly stiff at times, and his compositions may be crowded, but in terms of a sheer willingness to try anything that comes down the line, I can’t thing of a more dexterous artist currently working. White Death is done with charcoal and chalk on gray paper, which is a technique that I can only really remember Will Eisner using in comics. It works really well at capturing the smoky, dusty fog of war, especially those found in the bitterly cold combat conditions of the Italian mountains. It’s a perfectly fitting technique for what is, essentially, a story of unremitting death and bleakness. Some of the passages are confusing, but I think this is something of an intentional choice on Adlard’s part: it’s hard to tell people apart in the midst of a war. It’s hard to distinguish individuals you know from strangers you’re trying to kill. There’s even a comment towards the end of the book about not looking the new recruits in the face, because most of them are going to die very soon. Sometimes it makes for confusing storytelling, but considering the nature of the story it’s a strategy that works surprisingly well.

My problems arise not so much from the art or any of the well-researched historical detail, but with some of the character moments. I’m not familiar with Rob Morrison’s past work, and there’s no biographical details, but based on the evidence herein I’d go out on a limb and say that he suffers from the same problem that a lot of historical writers wrestle with. That is, he is great at packing the stories with interesting detail and compelling action, but not so great at crafting unique and clearly defined characters.

There are a lot of moments throughout White Death that read very familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with war stories. There are the soldiers who get by with good-natured humor, there’s the grim death-dealers, there’s the first trip to a prostitute, there’s the gradual thickening of a raw recruit into a cold-blooded warrior. All the bases are touched on. It’s not that these details are false or untrue – I’m sure these stories unfold on a battlefield with depressing regularity and a startling sameness. But in the context of a work of historical fiction, you are not so much competing with the reality of the actual events but with every other writer who has ever tried to communicate the incommunicable realties of war. So, while there’s nothing wrong, per se, with his handling of the soldier who loses his legs, it’s by no means anything you haven’t seen before if you’ve seen Forrest Gump.

But this is, all things considered, a small complaint. Some of our very best writers of historical fiction, such as James Michener and Leon Uris, have had tin ears for dialogue and perfectly pedestrian characters. I don’t know what Morisson is doing now or may do in the future, but this book shows signs of promise.

There are many good things to like about White Death, such as Adlard’s art, the vivid historical setting, and the surprisingly amoral ending (I won’t give it away, save to say that the quote-unquote "bad guy" not only escapes without his comeuppance, but he is ultimately rewarded for being a royal SOB). Ultimately, the point is made that regardless of the vicissitudes of war, Mother Nature is Not To Be Fucked With. It’s a message with universal appeal, wouldn’t you say? The somewhat predictable character work is nothing to write home about, but all things considered it’s a slight blemish on a good book. Not great, as I said, and hardly mediocre, but definitely a worthwhile diversion for fans of historical fiction.


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