Friday, April 01, 2005


As expected, the critical reaction to this week's Countdown to the Infinite Crisis is far more enjoyable and involving than the actual book itself. I can say this without having read so much as one panel of the book itself (ooops, I did read four pages of preview, I think). Even at a dollar, I shant be buying it. (But, in all fairness, I'll probably download it just ot see how bad it truly is.)

But as fun as it is to see AK coming out of his self-imposed hibernation to tear the book a new hole, it's also kind of depressing. Everyone, it seems, is basically spending all their time thinking up new and different ways to insult a book that is really kind of a joke to begin with. How many different ways can you think of to say "the Blue Beetle getting graphically shot in the head is a really poor hook on which to hang a plot" before people get the idea that the book is lame?

AK coming out of his retirement to bash the book sort-of clinches a number of thoughts I've had about blogging lately. The Blogosphere, such as it is, really didn't start to become a big deal until around the time he stopped doing Title Bout for my pals at Movie Poop Shoot. AK is, hands down, the single best commentator on mainstream comics currently alive today. He can recognize the (rare) good book and treats the bad with the respect it should be accorded, that is, absolutely none. Anytime AK chooses to speak on a given issue, he essentially obviates the Blogosphere, because the Comics Blogosphere as we know it today was created by God to fill the void opened by the passing of Title Bout. If AK ever decided to start a blog (which would be rather odd and redundant, but bear with me), at least half of my fellow bloggers would have to close up shop and leave, because that would be the Internet version of being outsourced. I at least try to offer the world something unique and different, which they can't get anywhere else - like strange pictures of naked Supermen and ostriches - but when it comes to the satire, the snark, the well-placed bon mot and the rare piece of heartfelt criticism, AK is simply the best.

The best judge of good criticism is how well someone who has no real familiarity with the given medium can read and enjoy a given writer's work. My wife has no familiarity or interest in superhero books, but she loved Title Bout. Tell me that the vast majority of writing about comics on this here Internet isn't a vast digital circle-jerk and I will point out that the only people who read comics blogs are other comics bloggers. This isn't a stereotype, this is a clod hard fact, because if it weren't true Sleeper and Seaguy would sell more copies than whatever the hell kind of Excalibur revamp they're doing this week. I recognize the fact that when I say that a comic is good and that I enjoy it, I am doing the equivalent of putting a target on its chest, antlers on its ears, and sending it out into a forest full of drunken deer hunters. I hailed Plastic Man as the best mainstream superhero book currently published - the fact that it still lives is a testament to the fact that it would be hugely embarrassing for DC to have to cancel a book the month after it swept every legitimate comics award program in existence. But it will be canceled next month, have no fear.

Look at She-Hulk. Fun book. Consistently enjoyable. Great, distinctive art. Hailed across the Blogosphere, including by yours truly and the notoriously tetchy Neilalien. Canceled within a year. I think that inasmuch as the Blogosphere has any value above that of a giant echo chamber, it serves as something of a Darwinistic indicator for the rest of the industry. Whenever we - any of us - get on our soapboxes about some book or other, we might as well be holding up a sign that says "Hey, you predators - here are the arthritic gazelles!" Chances are that these gazelles will not live to pass their traits to the next generation.

I recently wrote a review of the new Black Panther relaunch, going on about how much I enjoyed said relaunch. I'm not too worried about that book, inasmuch as it's got John Romita Jr. on the art chores. It will survive for so long as it's got a marquee name on the cover. But JRJR doesn't have a good track record for sticking on non-Spider/non-X books, and it's hard not to see why. Mainstream comics, and Marvel especially, have not been about building franchises in decades. Used to be that a hot creator on a mildly popular book could build a franchise from the ground up. Now, if a hot creator comes up through the ranks of a company's midlist, they are pretty quickly poached for an assignment on X-Thingie or Spider-Man Cleans His Bathroom. No chance to even build a midlist based on the confluence of lesser properties and top-flight talent. The comics industry is so small-stakes that they need to maximize their profits however they can.

Which means that a name like JR JR, who can theoretically make-or-break a book like Black Panther, is still more valuable when he's drawing Spider-Man. Let's say, just for the sake of a hypothetical argument, that JR JR's name alone ensures that a mid-tier book like Panther or Thor sells a quarter to a third more than it otherwise would, while his name only moves ten percent more of a Spider-Man book. If you consider - in the hypothetical - that Spider-Man is going to automatically move 75,000-100,000 copies on a given month before the retailers even know who the creators are, and Black Panther is going to be moving 20,000-30,000 (which is usually where these books are, notwithstanding stunts and sudden jumps), that means that even though Spidey's sale are relatively stable, they're still moving as many more copies of Spider-Man as they are Black Panther, and what would be a relatively small profit margin for Spidey means life or death for the Panther. What are they going to do? Keep their top artists chained to mid-level books that will never be best-sellers in the current climate or move them onto book that are guaranteed sellers, but can always use the sales goose that a hot artist can bring? As much as I love Black Panther, if I'm Marvel I'm hoping JR JR gets tired of not getting royalty checks and moves back to a top-ten book. That's where the money is. I won't buy it, but as I said before if the Blogosphere ran the comics industry things would be weird. (These numbers, while they are hypothetical, are also more or less accurate.)

As much as we may bitch and moan about Countdown, it's still going to sell like hotcakes at a hotcake-connoisseur convention. I can put up my little remixes with funny words Photochopped into the dialogue bubbles, and it's not going to have any impact at all on whether or not anyone buys it. Honestly, I think the comic book companies all figured out a long time ago that negative controversy is a lot more valuable than positive word-of-mouth. Books that get positive word-of-mouth sell 15,000 copies and get canceled in a year. Books that are universally reviled among the online cognoscente ship 200,000 copies and get second, third and fourth printings. I've gotten some truly bizarre e-mails from creators who absolutely love seeing me tear their books apart in a remix - any advertising is good advertising, as long as it gets people talking about the book, I guess. There was a cultural shift a long time ago, when appearing on the cover of Mad became less a shame than a badge of honor. Nowadays, if a big movie doesn't warrant a cover-feature in Mad, you know it won't be a success because people don't care enough to lampoon it.

I've been trying to think of something interesting to say about Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers project for quite a while now. I've read the first few books. Enjoyed them, I guess, sorta. Just not blown away. I'm surprised, however, that I haven't seen the inevitable Blogosphere comparisons between Seven Soldiers and Countdown - how the former is great because it's Grant Morrison and should be celebrated, but the latter is a horrid corporate shill.

Well, Countdown is a horrid corporate shill - no argument there - but Seven Soldiers is just not setting the world on fire either. There is something profoundly cynical about the way the series is unfolding. It seems almost as if Morrison is showing off for no better reason than that he can. Everybody has been going on about how great his "mad ideas" are, so by God he's gonna give them mad ideas up the wazoozle. He's gonna revamp seven third-tier characters who no-one cared about and make them into something New! and Different! and Weird! He's gonna go out of his way to avoid all the nasty crap in the mainstream DCU these past few years since he left! He's going to Save Comics!

Er, no. He's going to play it safe by putting out books that he knows a dedicated coterie of his fans will lap up but which will mostly alienate the kind of mainstream fans who are enjoying Countdown. On a certain level it seems resolutely boring, because it is so absolutely predictable. If you had asked me six months ago to give you the hallmarks of a Grant Morrison superhero comic, I'd have given you a list of various attributes like cosmic scope, meta-fictional narrative, multiple parallel plotlines, tangential weird elements, the use of animals as metaphors. Seven Soldiers is only three issues old and it's already got all of these elements in abundance. It seems as if he could write this stuff in his sleep. It's every Grant Morrison comic you've ever read before, only moreso. How . . . boring. My reaction to Seven Soldiers so far is a concentrated meh.

Not that I begrudge him the right to do whatever the hell he wants. I'll probably buy it and enjoy it . . . up to a point. That point is basically the vague discontent I will feel watching a very talented person do the artistic equivalent of spinning his wheels. Alan Moore could have become the richest comics writer in the universe if he'd have just stuck it out in mainstream comics and done more work for DC and Marvel. He wouldn't even have had to do Watchmen 2 . . . maybe just a run on Superman or a Spider-Man graphic novel. Do some creator owned stuff here and there to try to convince himself he's doing something interesting.

This doesn't have anything to do with corporate vs. alternative. It has to do with artists working in their comfort zones, and the inferior art that is produced when artists "play it safe". Alan Moore redefined superhero comics in the 80s, so the last thing he wanted to do in the 90s was more superheroes. He wanted to try some big ideas, some downright weird and crazy ideas. Hey, let's try self-publishing a ten-part graphic novel about an English coal-mining town . . . well, that didn't work, how about I stick with this even more ambitious serial on Jack the Ripper, and this book on pornography and hey I've never written a novel before . . .

I have an infinite amount of respect for Neil Gaiman because he decided to leave comics. On one hand, it sucks because his reputation as a comics writer will essentially be forever frozen in time with Sandman, which remains a deeply flawed work despite its numerous virtues. But you know, it must have taken an absolutely ironclad conviction in his own artistic merit to get up and say "OK, I'm not going to take a pile of money to go write JLA or whatever, I'm going to take this not-insignificant fanbase I've accrued and see if the success I've had in comics will carry over to prose books. I might fall on my face, or I might be the next Clive Barker - no way to know but to do it." I respect the hell out of that, even if it means comics essentially lost him. Sure, he comes back every now and again for stuff like Endless Nights or 1602, but neither of these were any more than decent. Writing comics is like writing anything else, you need to do it a lot in order to keep your form. He made the decision to write prose, and as much as we may regret the decision, it was his decision and I'm glad he made it.

But so far Grant Morrison shows a dogged inability to develop past a certain point. The Filth was a great book, but it was in a lot of ways only the maturation of certain themes and ideas that had been rattling around his work for decades. As good as you may or may not think We3 or Seaguy are, both are essentially only refinements of previously established ideas. Morrison needs to break out and do something totally different or in ten years he's gonna be a bald British John Byrne.

Ultimately, whether or not any writer develops has a lot to do with how hard they push themselves. Frank Miller and Mike Mignola both took chances, both artistically and financially, when they decided to leave the Big Two for good and start Sin City and Hellboy - both gambles have paid off enormous dividends. For whatever reasons, John Byrne didn't stick with Next Men when faced with a comparable situation. I don't know if Next Men could have ever been as big a franchise, but as it is we'll never know, and neither will Byrne, and if you don't think this hasn't occurred to him then you're fooling yourself. He decided to go with what he knew, a solid paycheck for doing mainstream superhero books, because his more personal creator-owned book wasn't selling what he wanted. His old pals from Legend are both rich as Croesus, while he's doing a revamp of The Demon.

Will any of the many creators who worked on Countdown ever develop into truly great artists? Never can tell, but I doubt it. I don't doubt that it's possible that some gifted writer could be hanging out doing piece-work for the Big Two to pay the rent, but somehow it never seems to work out that way. How much creator-owned stuff has Judd Winick done since he went to DC? The point is that I can't really get too upset over the Blue Beetle snuff-porn they're publishing because, essentially, they're giving the market what it wants. They want blood - they want superhero comics that read less like fun, imaginative adventure stories and more like third-rate John LeCarre rip-offs. That's OK, I'm not the audience here. I'm content to pick up and enjoy the few books they publish that do interest me in any given month, at least for so long as they publish them. But if Grant Morrison says he's gonna do a big crossover like Seven Soldiers and tries to tell you that this somehow isn't a big waste of his talent, you gotta call bullshit. Where's the Grant Morrison who put so much of himself into something as weird as The Invisibles, or went out on a limb with Animal Man? He's busy revamping the Shining Fucking Knight. He's found his comfort zone and that's OK, but if he doesn't understand that this fanbase he's acquired wants to see him doing something different - and I think the critical response to Seven Soldiers so far makes it fairly clear that a lot of his fans regard it as more of the same. Well, that way lies a grim and dusty death . . .

I could be wrong. The completed Seven Soldiers could stand as the most brilliant and incisive statement in the history of comics, adding up to a massive lot more than the sum of its parts. You certainly couldn't have guessed that Promethea would have evolved into one of Moore's most engrossing and personal works based on the first three issues . . . but if you had had an inkling, you could have perhaps seen how Promethea could conceivably become a vehicle for something bigger. Based simply on what we've seen and what we know, Seven Soldiers looks like it has the potential to be . . . a big character-revamping superhero crossover. Maybe it'll at least be halfway interesting, but at the end of the day it's not that different a beast from Countdown. It may have a different MO, but it tickles the same itch - albeit for a different set of fans.

No comments :