Monday, April 17, 2006

Lots 'O' Thots

I have never warmed to Paul Pope's art. Whereas almost everyone else seems to think he's the bee's knees, I actively dislike everything of his that I've seen. I couldn't tell you why, it's not like this is a fully formed opinion or anything -- there's just something about his linework that puts me off. Looking at a page of his, for some reason my eyes are drawn away from the art, off the page, anywhere else but actually on the art itself. Without fail. His compositions seem forced and his people always look like big mouth bass. And his linework -- gah! -- how twee. If Belle & Sebastian ever decided to draw a comic book (and not just license their lyrics for an Image anthology), I imagine it would look like a Paul Pope comic book, all fey and curvilinear.

I found myself laughing way more than I probably should have at this week's Twenty Questions over at The Great Curve. The revolving door of death in superhero comics long ago ceased to be in any way effective or convincing, and really, it's not even funny anymore. Now whenever someone dies, I don't think there's a single reader who can possibly react with anything other than a cynical chuckle: no character, regardless of how well-written or convincing their death may be, will ever stay dead. If they brought back God-damned Bucky, they certainly won't hesitate to bring back Superboy or whomever. Hell, they brought back The Ringer. (So why no Justice League of Detroit? I'm not the only one who likes Vibe, so why the fuck not?)

But anyway, I had another passing thought on the subject that might be of interest to those who care about such things. If you're going to bring a character back from the dead -- and I guess this goes for any kind of serialized fiction, not just superhero books -- the operative phrase is Keep It Simple, Stupid. However a given character died, find the single easiest way to bring him or her back. Attempting any number of elaborate storytelling contortions just threatens to undermine the whole thing by pointing out how silly the process actually is.

For instance -- the way they brought back Nick Fury was perfect. (As an aside, I remember him getting killed by the Punisher -- I enjoyed buying the $5 chromium covered abomination where he buys the farm straight out of the quarter box -- but I don't recall when he got resurrected. He just showed up again.) Apparently the Punisher just killed a really special LMD that provided a convincing corpse. Sure, it may seem like a cop-out to some, but essentially all resurrections are cop-outs. At least the "special LMD" idea wouldn't take more than, say, two or three panels to properly explain. Best just to get it over with and not dwell on the circumstances.

However, some characters call for more complex resurrections than others simply by nature of their deaths. Doctor Octopus doesn't have a history or using robot doubles, and if I recall the issue where Kaine (>shudder<) killed him, it was pretty explicit in establishing that Doc Ock was very, very dead. So, based on that and the fact that he never had any kind of healing factor or magical associations that could explain a comeback, having the Hand resurrect him made as much sense as anything. We know that the Hand does that, we've seen it before, so seeing it again doesn't strain credulity.

It's a variation on Occam's Razor for superhero stories: the least complex explanation possible is the one that works best. As much as we mocked the whole Hal Jordan resurrection business, putting out a huge story where every single element of Hal Jordan's long and chaotic death and afterlife was brought up, explained away and dismissed was probably necessary if they wanted to restore the character to the previous status quo. They had simply been too thorough, not only showing him going insane, but showing him turn into a mass-murdering cosmic super-villain, killing him and then bringing him back as the Spectre, which is as close to a conclusive death as you can possibly get in comics. So they had their work cut out for them, and I guess it's to their credit that it worked out as well as it apparently did.

But then something like Kevin Smith's resurrection of Green Arrow is just galling. I remember reading the issues where Oliver Queen died -- they had some of Jim Aparo's best late-career work, even if the stories were just so-so. In any event, the mechanism for his resurrection was pretty well sketched out: there was a plane crash. Green Arrow was trapped in the plane. Superman tried to save him but had to abandon the plane for some reason or another before the crash. They never found the body. The simple way to do it would just have Green Arrow showing up alive again, with the explanation that Hal Jordan, then Parralex, saved him in the split second before the plane crash. Instant resurrection, no muss, no fuss. Chuck Dixon, who wrote the issues in question, obviously had little doubt that the character would eventually be brought back, and provided whomever was going to end up doing it with a simple, quick and effective way of doing it. They went to great trouble to ensure that Hal Jordan wouldn't be coming back (which ultimately just made more work for the people who brought him back), but there was little doubt that Oliver Queen was going to return someday.

But then Smith came in and wrote an incredibly convoluted story wherein the scab of the rotating comic book death thing gets picked until it bleeds. Not only does he spend a lot of time needlessly reiterating the problem, but he even sends the heroes of the story to Heaven -- not a metaphorical substitute, but real, honest-to-God Heaven. Which is just stupid. He spent the first ten issues of his fifteen issue run constructing the comic book plot equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine that had the implicit purpose of calling attention to how stupid comic book resurrections are in the first place, when it could have easily been explained away in five pages. Then they could have moved on to telling a story that wasn't just a conscious rebuttal to a previous story, which is about as nerdy and superfluous as comics get.

Speaking of which, I know this has been mentioned before, but damn, how stupid is it that they established a Judeo-Christian afterlife in the DC Universe? It's OK if they have it in Sandman or Swamp Thing -- even if the characters interact with the regular DCU, it's only intermittent and easily overlooked -- but when you've got Batman going to Heaven and getting proof positive that his parents are relaxing behind the pearly gates, well, you've essentially annihilated your most popular character's raison d'etre in one fell swoop.

I mean, honestly, if Batman knew that Thomas and Martha Wayne had gone to Heaven and were chilling with Jesus, why would he continue to dress like a bat and beat the snot out of criminals? Wouldn't it make more sense for him to hang up his cape and devote the Wayne fortune to evangelizing?

Unless... there is the chance that Batman's paranoia is more deep-seated than anyone has ever suspected. It's an established fact that Batman once concocted contingency plans to help him defeat his fellow Justice Leaguers -- what if Batman actually has a contingency plan to defeat God, should God get out of hand? I imagine if Batman knew God existed, he'd probably be skeptical that God would stay on the side of righteousness forever. He'd probably have a plan, at least if Grant Morrison were writing him. Even if it meant demolishing the entire universe just to get at God, Batman would win, because comic book logic dictates that Batman > God.

Going back a few more years to the Marvel vs. DC thing, it never made sense to me that they didn't have Batman fight Wolverine in their fan-polled bout. In hindsight, all the battles were fairly predictable, and that's probably exactly how the companies wanted it (I remember being mildly surprised that Storm beat Wonder Woman, but that was the only surprise to be had). But still, Wolverine vs. Batman in a straight vote across the fanboy community -- it would have been interesting, had the internet existed then as it does now, to see the fanboys tie themselves into knots trying to figure that one out. Seeing who would win in a straight popularity contest would also have been revealing, even if it would have been a source of apoplexy for the companies involved . . .

Since we're on the subject of Iron Man covers, here's a couple fun ones no one else has highlighted yet:

Shell-Head fights Santa Claus. Of course, that's not exactly what happens in the story, but still, we can dream, right?

Despite the fact that the second Armor Wars was one of the single most depressing stories I've ever read in a comic -- I remember actually quitting the story mid-stream because it was just unrelentingly unpleasant -- it had some great JR Jr art, of which this cover is a great example. There's a reason he gets paid the proverbial big bucks -- don't you just want to open up the book and see why the hell iron Man is carrying another Iron Man in his arms? That's what a good cover should do.

Paul Ryan may be one of the least flashy artists in comic book history, but he's also one of the most unsung craftsmen in recent years. Especially when everyone and their brother was trying to ape the Image guys (with horrible results), his work stood out for its unfailing commitment to the basics of craft and storytelling. Nothing flashy or visionary, but compared to most of the crap that was on the stands at the time, pretty damn good. He also knew how to craft a pretty striking cover. I still can't figure out if Fin Fang Foom's alien origin was good or bad, but having Iron Man fight a giant green dragon is pretty much a recipe for fun regardless of the circumstances.

Iron Man is the only superhero besides the Wasp who has an actual good reason to be changing his costume all the time. Although he kept his initial red and gold armor for many years, it's always been fun to see him change it periodically, especially back when the writers used to, you know, put some effort into thinking up good reasons why he needed a new set of duds. If I recall correctly (the stories weren't particularly memorable in and of themselves) he had a similarly good reason for building the extremely imposing War Machine armor. The armor itself is striking, with its black and silver color scheme, and even if the story inside wasn't that good (which it wasn't) the cover itself would stick in your memory.

And no look at Iron Man would be complete without a representative cover from the most popular, most well-received, best written and brilliantly conceived Iron Man story of the last twenty years -- Teen Tony. The story so popular that it only took seven issues before it was written out of continuity forever. Here's a great example of my previous thoughts on character resurrection: when they decided they had to bring back the regular Tony Stark, they didn't write some complex tale about his return. They basically just did it, sneaking the character back in during the whole "Heroes Reborn / Return" nonsense and letting it go at that. Like, whoops, he's alive again, let's just get on with the show, shall we? If they had still had No Prizes at the time, Classic Tony's resurrection would have been a great opportunity for them to elicit a fan-made solution. I seem to recall Busiek ended up concocting some jury-rigged retroactive solution in an Annual back-up or something like that, but essentially the how was unimportant. All that mattered was that the character was back, and once he was back they could move on to telling the real stories that people wanted to see without spending all their time poking the wound and calling attention to the original mistake.

Anyway, I'm sure whoever painted this cover (there's no credit on the GCD listing) is a wonderful person, but the last thing the world needed was an over-rendered neo-Impressionist portrait of Teen Tony. Talk about bringing a gun to a knife fight . . .

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