Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Watching the Toilet Bowl Slowly Fill With Blood

So, yeah, anyway, just when I was starting to build up a head of steam towards more frequent and substantive posts, the motherboard on my desktop went and shit the bed. Leastwise, the tech expert tells me it's the motherboard, I already tried replacing the power supply and that didn't work.

And, of course, all my main blogging supplies are on the desktop. So I can't even do the week's Mark Trail panel yet.

So, in lieu of content, I will give you an extemporaneous list to discuss and debate to your heart's content.

The Top Five Mainstream Superhero Books of the 90s
5. Weapon X - Barry Windsor-Smith
4. Starman - James Robinson & Various (notwithstanding the bad parts)
3. "Unity", in various Valiant titles - Jim Shooter & Various
2. "The Rock of Ages", in JLA - Grant Morrison & Howard Porter
1. Marvels - Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross

Honorable Mention - Lobo & Lobo's Back by Keith Giffen & Steven Grant & Bisley

Now go, flame someone.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine

The other day I was browsing in Newbury Comics and I saw one of those strange things that you just know will probably be stuck in your head until the day you die.

There was an old man - if he was a day under 75, I'd be surprised - bald, stooped, using two-canes to walk. Now, an old man being inside Newbury Comics was admittedly odd enough. But what was he buying?

An Armand van Helden 12".

Yeah, I think that's probably the weirdest thing I've seen in many, many months.

Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed?

by Liz Prince

At the risk of appearing a curmudgeon (me? never!), I should probably say that regardless of Liz Prince's skill as a cartoonist, her subject manner leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, it's enough to recognize that there are cutesy people in the world, and that said cutesy people will probably meet, fall in love and have cutesy relationships. Hell, I have been occasionally accused of cutesyness myself. But a surfeit of cute? Well, that's just a recipe for disaster. Anyone who's ever been in an English class knows that when an author stresses anything to the brink of incredulity, it usually means just the opposite. That's called irony. So how else are we to interpret the barrage of cutesy relationship humor in Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed? than as a coded message of domestic tragedy, a modern-day Kramer vs. Kramer played out in the lingo of the cute-addled modern hipsterati?

(Not actually from Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed?, but fairly indicative of her work nonetheless. There's more where this came from here.)

"But you're so cute I want to squeeze the pee out of you!" probably means "I hate you for ruining my life and taking everything of value from my soul, leaving me a twisted and shrunken shell of a man."

"You haven't given me any special kisses in a long time . . . I want specialer ones!" probably means "Now that our love is a cold and shattered husk, there's nothing left for me but the long and futile road to a dusty, forgotten death."

The bit where Liz pretends that the teapot is talking and says "Hi, Kevin, Liz thinks you're cute" is probably a veiled reference to an absolutely unforgivable act of domestic violence, probably involving scalding hot water, a fireplace poker, and a starving ferret, ultimately resulting in a trip to the hospital and an arrest warrant.

It's simply too depressing a scenario to contemplate. Surely, the hatred and loathing on display here rivals even The Lockhorns for sheer soul-numbing passive-aggressive torpor.

The thing is, despite the unremittingly grim subject matter of her strips, Prince's art is still quite attractive. She wears her influences on her sleeve, and considering the fact that this is her first book you can't really hold them against her. Jeffrey Brown contributes a brief forward, and James Kochalka provides an (unflattering) illustration of the author. Much as it used to be de rigueur for up-and-coming, journeyman (and even established) mainstream artists to ape Kirby and Buscema, there's nothing particularly wrong with being up-front about your influences in the indie scene: if it were, Adrian Tomine would long ago have had an appointment with Ol' Sparky. Now, if five or ten years pass and Prince is still aping Brown so heavily, well, that will be a different story: but for the time being I'm willing to chalk it up to the process growing up and into your own style.

And there's no denying that it is definitely a pleasant style. Even given the soul-deadening abject cruelty of her subject matter, her work combines the best aspects of her influences -- Brown's keen eye for gesture and expression, along with Kochalka's sense of pacing and whimsy. Ideally, this kind of choice appropriation could bode well for her career. If she can prove as apt at shuffling and sifting other influences and ideas, she should find copious fertile ground for further work, easing into a more comfortably distinctive style as a matter of course. Or, she could produce another book of cutesy relationship vignettes that make me want to drink drain cleaner. Either one.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 03/22/06

I'll stop making the Brokeback jokes when they stop being funny.

(I am really disappointed that no one got last week's reference.

In any event, is it me or does Mark look particularly raffish in this picture? Almost the splitting image of Jake Gyllenhal in Brokeback Mountain...)

For the Week of 03/15/06 For the Week of 03/08/06
For the Week of 03/01/06 For the Week of 02/22/06 For the Week of 02/15/06
For the Week of 02/08/06 For the Week of 02/01/06 For the Week of 01/25/06
For the Week of 01/18/06 For the Week of 01/11/06 For the Week of 01/04/06
Year One

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

V For Crap

So I guess as a blogger I have to mention that I went to see V From Vendetta. Not out of any real desire to see the movie itself, mind you, but mostly because I hadn't been to the movies in months and I felt like going, and that was as good a reason as any. And maybe I should have followed my first disinclination because, well, I was just bored. It wasn't really bad, it wasn't really good, it just sort of sat there and flopped around onscreen for the better part of two and a half hours. All the talk about the politics and ideology is essentially a waste, because -- just as with the last two Matrix films -- either they didn't put a lot of thought into it to be begin with or they're simply not that bright, because it was so hopelessly muddled as to be ethically incomprehensibly. Now, I can't say the book was either boring or incomprehensible, so at the very least they got mixed singles somewhere along the line.

Was I sad? No, not really. It was just a very, very mediocre movie that didn't really seem to even hang togther very well. Not even enough of a failure to be disappointed with, just a big old wet fart. Say what you will about the Matrix films, but even during the direst moments of the last two they sure zipped along. There was no sense of cohesion in V, it was just seemed very lifeless and lethargic. The only thing that makes me sad about the movie's success is the suddenly very real threat that they will get around to making a film of Watchmen, which is just about as stupid an idea as there ever has been, short of Eisenstein's (thankfully unrealized) notion to film Das Kapital. Of course, I said that about Lord of the Rings as well, and I heard that ended up making a few bucks. (But it's worth noting that, seemingly alone among the masses, I was extremely disappointed by the Lord of the Rings films.)

So, eh, forget the stupid movie and buy the book if you haven't already got it. Alan Moore will, at least, get a few pennies from that:

Monday, March 20, 2006

And Now A Word From Our Sponsers

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Doctor Doom’s Mailbag

Doom takes pride in answering all of his personal correspondence.

Dear Doctor Doom,

Considering that you are listed as a sponsor for this blog, how do you explain the massive gaps between postings? Most other prominent comics blogs post at least once daily, sometimes more often, but The Hurting often goes the better part of a week without new posts, and often only a random
Mark Trail panel at that. How do you explain these shoddy, unprofessional and downright lazy lapses?

J. Q. Public, Anytown, Latveria

Doom thanks you for your letter, as this is a matter which is of great concern. It is a well established fact that bloggers are a singularly wretched and foul lot, and those who assume the burdens of blogdom take their sanity and health into their own hands. As with many other popular bloggers, the proprietor of The Hurting is racked by a form of dementia that eerily resembles the late stages of syphilis, and in fact can often be found prowling the streets of Worcester late at night, his only companion a half-consumed bottle of the novelty liquor "Thunderbird", half-singing and half-mumbling arias from imaginary John Adams operas. Recent medical scans conducted at the Doomstadt General Hospital indicate that not only should he be dead, but the compositions of his genetic material resembles nothing so much as a semi-evolved wolverine.

In any event, said proprietor was recently diagnosed with a newly-discovered condition which I have minted "Bloggers' Disease". The symptoms coincide with the appearance of a strange rash across the arms and torso of the sufferer that -- for inexplicable reasons -- seems to resemble scars and welts such as one would receive at the business end of a bullwhip, as well as odd purple bruises about the head and shoulders which bear a strange similarity to the kinds of blows one would expect to receive from a heavily-armored foot. Leave it be said that following a speedy diagnosis of "Bloggers' Disease", the sufferer makes a quick recovery and resumes regular posting.

Dear Doom,

Excuse me for stating the obvious, but it seems as if this blog spends far too much time investigating the provenance of the post-Crisis Lex Luthor, and not nearly enough battling the scourge of Endemic Treponematosis. As a figure of great authority in the international community, how do you propose to redress this imbalance?

M. George, The Empire State

One of the worst indulgences to which this blog falls prey is a tendency towards ill-researched and poorly conceived opinion pieces. Whereas most bloggers, sensing the feeble mental capacity endemic to their breed. stay within their areas of expertise, the proprietor of this blog insists on making an ass of himself in a public arena on a regular basis. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that The Hurting is best regarded for the "Photoshopped" comics covers which have brought it international fame and vast wealth, there is still a small portion of the audience which demands a more lively and "thought provoking" brand of content.

The demands of producing this content on a semi-regular basis -- while also maintaining the grueling regimen of foraging for roots and grubs which comprise the proprietor's balanced diet -- are such that occasional corners are cut. Sometimes our legal team fails to run the appropriate fact checks, and the results are often costly. This was certainly the case when, for no apparent reason, The Hurting misidentified Wonder Woman's creator as game show host Pat Sajak, and not, as is commonly attributed, William Moulton Marston. After civil lawsuits were filed, The Hurting issued a public apology that almost climaxed in the perpetrator dousing his body with white gasoline and lighting a match -- before Doom interceded, signaling his satisfaction at the perpetrator's act of contrition. In his gratitude at being saved from certain death by painful immolation, the underling swore to never again make such a ghastly journalistic error. Doom finds such slavering devotion to be useful. In any event, those who serve Doom readily acknowledge that their lives are forfeit, subject to their monarch's every blessed whim. They are the walking dead, having given their very souls over to Doom to use as he may see fit, begging only the opportunity to serve, laying down their very lives without hesitation.

But, as to your other concern, it must be noted that Latveria is the only country in the world that has totally eradicated the scourge of Endemic Treponematosis. Additionally, other crippling diseases which tax the so-called "free" world's impossibly burdened health care infrastructure -- diseases such as AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer's and all varieties of hepatitis -- have been banished from our fair country. A cure for these nagging ailments was child's play for an intellect of Doom's caliber -- and in his infinite generosity, Doom has made an open offer to all the governments of the world to give these cures and vaccines freely. But so far, to the eternal regret of their beleaguered populations, no government has yet taken up Doom on his magnanimous offer. Perhaps the nominal, almost trifling fee required for such an exchange -- complete and total subservience to the will and law of Doom -- makes them balk? In time they will live to see the folly of their recalcitrance.

And, as an aside, Doom must ask his constant reader why, if the accursed Reed Richards is supposedly so intelligent, he has so far failed to concoct a cure for so much as a hangnail, let alone AIDS? I notice after years of Richards' diligent effort that the Thing is still a shambling rock-heap of a man, whereas Doom was able to cure Sharon Ventura of a similar condition in the space of an afternoon. I ask you, how could any reasonable observer fail to conclude that Richards is anything less than a lucky dilettante, unable to conjure so much as adequate shielding for a simple rocket-propelled space vessel in the same time period in which Doom constructed a working time machine? It is simply beyond even Doom's infinite patience to explain the disparity of perception that exists even in the minds of supposedly intelligent observers. Bah! In time they will all fall as tenpins before the peerless might of Doom!

Dear Dr. Doom,

I've noticed an annoying tendency on the part of many comics bloggers to spend their time lambasting certain "uncool" comic books in microscopic detail. It seems to go in cycles, with certain books becoming popular targets of scorn, prompting dozens of invective-filled, increasingly shrill and supposedly "humorous" take-downs until another controversial book comes down the pike to distract their attention. Why is it not enough for people to simply say they don't like certain books, perhaps briefly explaining their reasoning in a rational tone, and then move on to the discussion of things they do like? It seems as if all the "cool kids" in the blogoverse are nothing more than bees that swarm the weak, playing a pointless and relentlessly negative game of one-upmanship in their pursuit of the ultimate pithy put-down. Why can't they just devote more time to writing about how cool Wildcat is? Because really, Wildcat is the coolest super hero ever, and if there was a Wildcat comic book I'd probably buy ten copies of each issue, minumum.

Yer Pal,
D. Wright, Sunny Southern California

Ah, the relentless negativity of the Internet . . . one of those strange phenomena that cannot be explained, only exploited. One day, perhaps, Doom shall devise a manner in which to harness the collective hatred of the internet -- with such power at his disposal, surely Doom would be unstoppable!

But as to the meat of your question, take solace in the fact that Doom also finds the never-ending stream of negativity to be occasionally baffling -- if highly amusing. After all, it must be considered that those with nothing better to do than produce panel-by-panel dissertations on the foulness of certain Frank Miller comic books surely live a life of precious little joy. This is, of course, a totally different matter than those who take comic book pages and insert funny dialogue into preexisting caption bubbles -- that, certainly, is a valuable and well-considered way to occupy one's meager time on Earth.

But even if Doom shares your exasperation at the endless wastrelry of certain online commentators, he can only throw his hands up at your preoccupation with a third-string comic book superhero such as Wildcat. Surely this is a joke, and, as the youth of America would say, I am being "punked"? This reminds me of a similar letter I received from a man claiming to be the number one Swamp Thing fan in the world -- as if such a thing were worth bragging about! He lived in Southern California as well -- perhaps you might even know him. It is inevitable that social outcasts -- such as anyone who would publicly admit to having read a DC comic book -- would band together for protection against predators, so it is conceivable you may have met him in your travels. Perhaps you can find others of your breed, perhaps there are even bloggers who may possess a rare affection for Aquaman, say, or the short-lived Justice Leaguer Vibe.

But then again, probably not.

Hey Doom,

I heard tell that you did some advertising work in the seventies, particularly for the Milk Duds candy cartel (possibly a wing of Hydra). What's up with that, man, I thought you had more integrity than that!

K. Church, Boston, Purgatory

Although Doom usually considers it a wise policy to avoid discussing such embarrassing matters, the resurfacing of certain incriminating artifacts from the 1970s has forced his hand. But while it behooves Doom to say that his image was used in the 1970s to advertise certain industrially manufactured confections, there were mitigating circumstances.

It all began, as so many of these stories do, at the Playboy Mansion. Doom was playing blackjack with Jimmy Caan, Lorne Greene and the drummer from Foghat when the subject of the Latverian tourist industry was broached. Apparently, and much to Doom's surprise, the perception of Latveria in the industrialized West was nowhere near as glowingly positive as could be imagined -- a sorry state of affairs for which Doom must blame himself. After all, tourism is predicated on public relations, and in his never-ending quest to bring about world peace and destroy the accursed Richards clan, Doom had neglected to properly burnish Latveria's image in the world press.

As Caan's suggestion, Doom later signed a contract with a noted Los Angeles public relations firm, as well as the then-fledging CAA, with the goal of raising Latveria's esteem among the tourist classes, and perhaps counteracting certain pernicious lies that have long lingered in the Western imagination as to the disposition of our wonderful country. Accordingly, I dispatched a Doombot to conduct the more menial details of this campaign, and returned my attention to more pressing matters.

Which was, in retrospect, a mistake. Somehow -- probably during a brief bout of fisticuffs with short-lived "Champions" of Los Angeles -- the Doombot malfunctioned and began to sign ill-advised contracts and make indiscriminate television commitments. There was an appearance on an episode of "The Pink Lady and Jeff", as well as a short-lived run as the center square on the original Hollywood Squares. The errant Doombot also appeared in the aforementioned candy ad, as well as a number of promotional spots for a malted liquor beverage named "Schlitz". By the time the activities of this errant Doombot were brought to Doom's attention, serious damage had been done to the image both of Latveria and Doom himself.

Whereas, historically, Doom has been reticent to confirm or deny the activities of his Doombots -- for security purposes -- Doom has gone on the record many times to explain that, any time Doom was seen to hawk inferior goods, it was not Doom but a robot duplicate who signed the regretful contracts. Although the temptation exists to use his time machine to travel back to the 1970s and ensure that James Caan would never give Doom such a misbegotten notion, the results of eliminating Caan from the timestream cannot be predicted. Even Doom bows before the preeminance of temporal causality. But one day Caan shall yet feel my wrath.

Enough! Doom tires of this never-ending parade of imbecility.
The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 03/15/06

I got excited because I thought the squirrels would be palling around with raccooons, but apparently they aren't even in the same family.

(Deep in the woods the squirrels are out today /
My wife cried when they came to take me away.)

For the Week of 03/08/06
For the Week of 03/01/06 For the Week of 02/22/06 For the Week of 02/15/06
For the Week of 02/08/06 For the Week of 02/01/06 For the Week of 01/25/06
For the Week of 01/18/06 For the Week of 01/11/06 For the Week of 01/04/06
Year One

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 03/08/06

And is it me or is that house plant actually doing the talking? The plant is propositioning Lex Luthor, right?

(Holy Wow - I knew Brokeback Mountain was popular, but I don't think anyone expected Mark Trail to pick up on the current vogue for gay sex...)

For the Week of 03/01/06 For the Week of 02/22/06 For the Week of 02/15/06
For the Week of 02/08/06 For the Week of 02/01/06 For the Week of 01/25/06
For the Week of 01/18/06 For the Week of 01/11/06 For the Week of 01/04/06
Year One

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I Stand Corrected

In the comments of a previous post Milo took me to task for crediting the post-Crisis Lex Luthor revamp to John Byrne. I expressed a bit of incredulity at this, simply because, well, I had never read otherwise but that the majority of changes Byrne instituted after the Crisis in the pages of the Man of Steel series were Byrne-originated. But, of course, having only my half-baked memories to back me up, I decided to look around.

And lo and behold, Milo was right. Or, at least, partially right.

According to the very front page of Wolfman's own site:
One of my favorite ideas was coming up with the revised version of Superman's arch foe, Lex Luthor. When I was growing up, Luthor was a mad genius who wore prison grays every time you saw him. The typical story began with him breaking out of jail, finding one of his old hideouts, and usually building a giant robot or something equally preposterous in order to fight Superman. I turned Luthor into a brilliant businessman who lived on top of the highest mountain in Metropolis, so its citizens would have to look up at him while he looked down on them. In the comics, Luthor hated Superman because, as a boy, he lost his hair in a chemical accident and blamed Superboy.

(If you want to read about how the bald thing is not quite the whole story, Kevin has a post for you here, by the way.)

Anyway, that sounds pretty solid. However, not knowing when to leave well enough alone, I felt the need to try and get both sides of the story. So I ventured into the dark heart of the internet, that site from which no sane man can escape with his soul intact - yes, Byrne Robotics.

My instincts were correct - namely, that Byrne would be unable to let any perceived controversy go unmentioned. Sure enough, there was a whole entry devoted to this controversy in Byrne's FAQ. Reading Byrne's side of the story, he admits to having taken the kernel of the idea from Wolfman - literally, the four-word seed of "the world's richest man". There was some other extraneous baggage that Byrne ejected before premiering the character in Man of Steel. But then, of course, things got complicated. According to Byrne:
Later, when everything was launched, and ACTION COMICS had become the team-up book and Wolfman was writing ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (the title was my suggestion, to invoke both the George Reeves' TV series and the old ADVENTURE COMICS home of Superboy), I found out that he was claiming sole credit for "creating" Luthor. I shrugged it off. It did not seem important enough to worry about.

Years later I found out Wolfman got paid a bonus for his "creation" of the new Luthor. Something that, somehow, no one at DC had thought necessary to tell me about.

As with many of these things, it boils down to he-said-she-said. Both parties agree that Wolfman's ideas were used, but the degree to which Byrne contributed is a matter of controversy. And, barring any third party revelations (and I can't imagine why any editor from the period would be insane enough to walk into a firefight between these two), I don't think this is a question that can be answered with any degree of certainty, other than simply choosing to believe one side over the other. After all, neither Wolfman or Byrne are unbiased witnesses, and both have been ceaseless and oftentimes belligerent in defense against actual and perceived wrongs and slights for many, many years.

Ultimately, it's probably best to say the "Wolfman / Byrne" Luthor. Or maybe, the "Byrne / Wolfman" Luthor. But I think I'll probably leave it at that before I attract undue attention.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Superboy Punched Through Time

So, the oddest thing happened the other day. There I was, sitting in my tiny, squalid apartment, a newly divorced bachelor reheating a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken which I had bought with a clipped coupon.

And then BOOM, Superboy punched through time so hard I woke up the next morning in a palatial estate overlooking California wine country. I was a rich and famous author who just happened to be married to Neko Case. Then Kurt Cobain and Wesley Willis came over for brunch because, you know, Superboy is so strong the force of his blows causes the dead to rise from their graves.

Superboy should hit time more often.

OK, originally I was thinking of belaboring the point, but I have changed my mind and decided to make this as concise as possible. Because, really, elaboration never really did me any favors except turning any coherent arguments I have into a hopeless muddle.

Basically: line wide relaunches are just a stupid idea. The direct market retail mechanism for monthly superhero comics is as close to a zero-sum game as can be imagined. If you keep an eye on the numbers posted at places like ICV2 (and I'll admit I don't follow as closely as some, but it gets repetitive after a while), the sales story in comics these days is a fairly stable dollar amount being fought over with increased ferocity by the Big Two. The problem is that, just like in the Cold War, both sides are so symmetrically matched that any real gains are essentially illusory. (Apparently in January, DC closed the gap in dollar share with Marvel, bringing it from 5% to only 1.5%. Marvel will undoubtedly strike back next month, or the month after. At this point it's academic.)

It's about putting product on the shelves, it's brinkmanship in order to ensure that neither side loses an inch of shelf space to the other. No new observations there.

But I think it bears saying that, at this point, I can think of few things less likely to succeed on anything more than a piecemeal basis than a line-wide revamp / relaunch. Tom Spurgeon spoke on the topic here, and as is often the case his words rattled around my head for a while before anything solid cohered. This is the money quote:
I'm also not convinced a big chunk of the fanbase, primed for years to divide money between their selected favorites among the regular titles while extending their wallets to a few temporary must-haves with industry-wide "buzz," has it in them to suddenly divert that energy and capital to a wider variety of titles, particularly when others are going to play the event card for a while longer now.

Trying to make every book in their line a "must have", replacing (to a limited, but still tangible degree) the endless event-driven hype with the perception of actual quality (I mean, come on, having Kurt Busiek writing friggin' Aquaman is the mainstream superhero equivalent of taking a gun to a knife fight) . . . in a perfect world (ie, one where the rules of market economics functioned less retardedly then in comics [is "retardedly" a word?]) these would be the ingredients for DC to take a step towards breaking Marvel's permanent - if slim - hegemony. But the comics market doesn't work like that.

There's only so much money to go around. And most comic book buyers are about the furthest thing in the world from the theoretical "rational" agent that economists study... if what you're attempting to measure are any kind of "objective" standards of quality and value (the type of things you would normally try to quantify in art). No, these are patently false assumptions, or else Wolverine would not have been such a consistently popular comic book these past twenty years. The fact is that for the majority of Wolverine's existence, the book has been bad to mediocre, even by the relatively loose standards of good Wolverine stories. And yet people buy it - have bought it - month in and month out. Because, and this is where DC is ultimately fighting an uphill battle, the product is not a quality issue of Wolverine, but merely a 32-page paper pamphlet that has pictures of Wolverine in it. Marvel figured out a long time ago that they didn't need to expend a lot of energy on "sure things" like Wolverine because they would sell regardless, so long as quality didn't dip below a certain level. They discovered exactly what this level was in the 1990s with Spider-Man, but I would argue that creating comics so aggressively bad as that is almost as difficult as creating comics that are really, really good. So as long as Wolverine shows up and fights ninjas every month, people will show up to buy the comic.

These are the buying habits of the vast majority of mainstream costumers, and they can only be changed slowly, if at all. Meaning: just because you have a bunch of decent creators producing good work on books like Aquaman and Firestorm and Hawkman, it does not necessarily follow that sales will explode. In a closed system, the best you can hope for is that sales across the line will level. Assuming the pressure from across the aisle continues (and neither side can ever balk, Marvel's already got at least one major crossover in the hopper to counter DC's One Year Later and 52), you're in a situation where, for the most part, the only way a person is going to be able to add Aquaman to their list on anything but an occasional, event-driven basis is if they drop Batman or Action. And in most fans minds, the value of a 32 page book of Superman drawings supercedes the value of 32 pages of Aquaman drawings. From an economic point of view, does it make sense to bring the sales of the top books down in order to lift sales for the mid-tier?

I don't have an answer to that, and in any event, we won't know how successful "One Year Later" will have been for about six months or so. Hell, we could see a miracle and the direct market's total dollar amount could increase exponentially. But again - I don't see a flood of new costumers in the stores chomping at the bit in order to see what Aquaman has been up to. Whether or not a few piecemeal, hard-fought success stories will have been worth the incredible exertion is a damn good question, and one on which the immediate future of the direct market hinges. Any sales gains are going to be the equivalent of robbing from Peter in order to pay Paul - and by making such a bald ploy for increased market share, DC is gambling that the Peter getting jacked is Peter Parker. We shall see.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 03/01/06

Although it is kind of weird how the pidgeons look like they're actually conversing through body language...

(Ah, nothing like a good old fashioned talking animal panel to indicate that Mark Trail has returned to its usual level of bland non-action.)

For the Week of 02/22/06 For the Week of 02/15/06
For the Week of 02/08/06 For the Week of 02/01/06 For the Week of 01/25/06
For the Week of 01/18/06 For the Week of 01/11/06 For the Week of 01/04/06
Year One

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Invasion of the Giraffe Women

Before we go any further I'd like to draw your attention to an ad I came across recently in The New Yorker:

This is an ad for some kind of computer thingie from Intel that we'll surely all rush out and not buy tomorrow. I don't spend a lot of time looking at ads (who does?) but I must have spent two or three minutes just staring at this ad. Why?

That woman has a freakishly long neck. I have never seen anyone with a neck that long, save possibly for those African tribespeople who elongate their necks with concentric brass rings you always see in National Geographic. This is pretty much the definition of a failed ad. Ideally, you would imagine an ad should make a point of drawing your attention to the product in question in a positive manner, creating positive associations or at the very least building product awareness. Now, if I ever stumble across one of these Viiv things, my first thought will automatically be: that is a product for people with freakishly long necks. I like my neck just fine, I think I'd better steer clear. Correlation isn't necessarily causation, but I'm not going to take any chances with the thing that keeps my head from collapsing into my trunk.

I'd like to clarify a couple points I made the other day, in light of some interesting observations Milo made in the comments section.

First, I don't think that there's any overarching chronological plan to Marvel's Essential line. I do, however, believe that the collected series have followed a more or less chronological order in terms of their releases. The reason for this is simple: the hard core of Marvel's most lucrative properties, with the obvious exception of the Clarement X-Men, hails from the 1960s. When Marvel ran out of Silver Age material to compile -- and I think they've Essentialized or Masterworked every Marvel superhero series from the era except for Sgt. Fury and Not Brand Ecch -- they moved on to the 70s. Now that they're getting pretty deep into the 70s -- Killraven, for God's sake -- it's only natural they're beginning to utilize more and more 80s material. There's no master design at work other than the fact that Marvel is in the business of making money, and Marvel is obviously going to put their more lucrative properties into print before they move on to undoubtedly less lucrative but still greatly appreciated niche volumes like Howard the Duck and Luke Cage. So expect more and more 80s material to show up, as this is an era which has been only lightly exploited in recent years.

(Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks it odd that Marvel has been chronically unable to exploit any of their stable of horror and monster characters these past few years? The success of the Tomb of Dracula reprints -- and I think it's safe to say they were very successful, based on the speed with which the entire series, as well as companion volumes for Werewolf by Night and Frankenstein's Monster were printed -- shows there's obviously a demand for these characters. Vampires and the like never really go out of style. Plus, the horror genre has had a major renaissance in comics these past few years, becoming probably the most successful non-spandex mainstream genre. And yet, Marvel can't put out a good new horror book to save their lives. It's almost as if they've completely forgotten how to make a genre book that isn't a superhero hybrid -- look at Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandos [or don't, as it is a horrible, ugly eyesore of a book], look at Marvel Zombies [which is fun, but not what I'm talking about]. I would be willing to bet -- and I imagine the retailers in the audience will back me up -- that if Marvel put out a good, solid Dracula book that wasn't a retread of the Wolfman stories and maybe even managed to tie into the real-world popularity of Blade [something else Marvel has been chronically unable to do], it'd fly off the shelves. Hell, Marvel could probably bring back Simon Garth and do decent numbers, considering the current craze for all things shambling and undead . . . assuming, of course, it's not some lame superhero hybrid. [Are there enough Simon Garth stories to make an Essential? I remember seeing some awesome art from those books, and I don't think they've ever been reprinted before . . .])

Also, it bears repeating for posterity: DC does not have some sort of vendetta against Sugar & Spike. I merely think the extremely vocal and enthusiastic support the series receive from its many fans is funny. I mean, seriously: DC is in the business of making money. They will not hesitate to reprint something if it will make them money -- but you can forgive me for suspecting that a Sugar & Spike Archive might not be the biggest money-maker in the company's history. Now, obviously, with the invention of the Showcase Presents, the possibility of vintage Sugar & Spike stories returning to print is a lot higher. I still don't know if it'll ever happen... but not out of any hidden agenda on DCs part. It's just not something that I could imagine selling very well outside of a very small and vocal minority who'd probably camp out in front of the shop for it.

But that might be changing. Dark Horse is bringing a sizeable chunk of Little Lulu back into print, and Lord knows the Complete Peanuts is doing well. A market for vintage kids comics apparently exists, even if it requires some prodding. Now, Sugar & Spike are nowhere near as recognizable as Little Lulu, let alone Peanuts, but I can see some overlap.

However, if I may make a suggestion: don't bother publishing a Showcase Presents Sugar & Spike. Instead, enlarge the art about 150%. Print the books in softcover, about two hundred pages each. Use a comparable paper stock to the Showcase Presents and print the stories in black & white. But price it at about three dollars and market it as a coloring book.

I'll bet you no one ever went broke publishing coloring books.

A while back ago, if you'll recall, I made a promise to spend some time discussing my favorite Superman stories from the Byrne revamp era. I did not forget this vow, but circumstances intervened. I've spent some time thinking, however, and while I am handicapped some by the fact that 90% of my comics are 3,000 miles away, I have a good enough memory to be able to remember a few key stories.

First, do you own a copy of this comic? Let me suggest that if you care for superheroes at all you need to track down this comic. It's very good, and it's got Eduardo Baretto art, which is very good indeed.

I must admit that, growing up, I thought Lex Luthor was kind of stupid. I mean, sure, now I get it: Lex Luthor was a badass. He broke out of jail every other week and he didn't even bother changing out of his prison jumpsuit before trying to kick Superman's ass. He had green and purple armor and he flew around the universe trying to fuck shit up. There's something so pure in the concept of a cranky old man who basically wants nothing more out of life than to kill Superman; it's almost Platonic in its purity.

But this is not that Lex Luthor. In fact, this is pretty much the antithesis of that Luthor. This is 80s Luthor at the height of his form, a plutocratic predator who has more in common with a Bret Easton Ellis character than, say, the Toyman or the Trickster. He's a badass, too, but for entirely different reasons than the pre-Crisis Lex.

First, the post-Crisis Lex gets a lot of flack for being a Kingpin rip -- which is, I believe, a wholly unfair generalization, considering that both characters are pretty transparently built off the same visual shorthand cartoonists have been using to characterize immoral, avaracious fat-cats since the days of Thomas Nast. In that respect, I guess you can say that both the Kingpin and the 80s Luthor were rip-offs of the O.G. supervillain, Boss Tweed:

If I had to guess I would say that this book was commissioned as kind-of a companion to The Killing Joke, in that both books are bookshelf-format spotlights on the company's major villains. This one doesn't get a lot of attention, however, because it doesn't have Alan Moore and it doesn't have the Joker shooting Barbara Gordon. I don't believe there were any major continuity changes or gratuitous violence in this book (although I may have forgotten something): what you have is merely a good story about how Luthor became a very, very bad man.

Essentially, there are two plots. First, we see Clark Kent being dragged into a police station on suspicion of murder. It's an obvious set-up, a frame, but Kent has no alibi because at the time of the murder he was halfway across the planet saving some brown people or something -- which he can't very well tell the police. Parallel to this, there's also a reporter sneaking through Luthor's back pages, uncovering the brutal truth behind the facade of the "respectable businessman" and pillar of Metropolis' business community. I don't remember exactly how Kent got out of that jam, but I do remember the other reporter comes to no good end (I don't think it's a spoiler to point out that, when messing with Lex Luthor, the odds are high you won't die peacefully of old age.)

Now, the post-Crisis revamp worked so well, in my eye, because it didn't try merely to revamp or redo what had already been done. There was a tacit awknowldgement (or at least, I felt) that changes were being made with a respectful eye to what had worked in the past, and a desire to neither repeat the mistakes that had hurt the character in the first place or to slavishly hew to those aspects of the mythos that had worked. It was, in every respect, a new beginning, a blank slate with which to try and create a new framework for a character that had grown very, very tired. It's an interesting approach which I think more people who work on these kinds of serialized corporate-generated fictions should keep in mind. It's the same reason I think that, despite it's flaws, The Ultimates is going to have a fairly long shelf life: it's not necessarily replacing the regular Avengers, but it is significantly more than just a new coat of paint. It's a wholesale reconceptualization that fulfills both commercial and creative prerogatives. On the one hand, it puts old characters in a new, more contemporary light that enables them to remain at least potentially lucrative, and on the other it gives the people who will make a living writing and drawing the characters' adventures down the road a whole new set of perameters with which to play. The problems occur when, as happened with Superman, the "new" status quo is eventually warped to resemble the old status quo. If you find yourself reintroducing fourty- and fifty-year-old ideas just because you liked them when you were a kid, maybe it's time to pass the reins to someone younger than you who doesn't have strong personal attachments to every little bit of accrued minutia, and who maybe even has a healthy disrespect for conventional wisdom...

But in any event, this wasn't your father's Luthor. Whereas old-school Lex was a scientific genius, 80s Lex was smart but not as smart as the people he hired. He didn't get physical. He didn't even have a hoard of kryptonite -- just a small shard, but more than enough. The thing that made post-Crisis Lex such a badass, and which The Unauthorized Biography illustrates wonderfully, is the fact that he could get away with just about anything. Unlike the Kingpin, whose "humble spice merchant" facade was about as transparent as John Gotti's construction firm, Lex Luthor really was a respected and beloved community leader. He was also the world's biggest amoral hypocrite. Only a few people, at least on the outset of the Byrne run, saw him as anything other than Metropolis' version of Donald Trump or Steve Jobs. This, combined with his resources, gave him an almost limitless ability to cause mischief, so long as he kept his hands clean.

Which is exactly what he did. This is the man, after all, who got the seed money for his first business by killing his parents for the insurance money. He grew more and more powerful until the moment he first encountered Superman, at which point (the third issue of Byrne's Man of Steel, I believe), he became obsessed. Not because Superboy burnt off all his hair and caused him to go bald (>snort<), but because Superman had the appearance of being everything Lex was not: incorruptable, honest, and selfless. Luthor knew full well he himself was a hypocrite, that everyone was a hypocrite, that they all had their price, and that everyone had skeletons in their closet. The fact that Superman was, or appeared to be, not a hypocrite and held no sinister motives, made Luthor seem that much worse in comparison. He was suspicious because (like a true sociopath) he couldn't understand such transparently benign motivations, and his suspicion made him afraid, and his fear made him deadly.

Luthor was a great villain because he knew exactly how far he could push Superman. He didn't get his hands dirty. No brawling. He knew that unless he was stupid enough to get caught red handed, Superman was essentially powerless. The most powerful man in the world was bound by a petty morality that Luthor found laughable. Luthor knew that if he had wanted Superman could crush his heart without a second thought, could boil his brain in his skull or just make him vanish off the face of the planet. But he would never do that, and Luthor found this restraint both comical and extremely advantageous.

Of course, this was a delicate status quo that could never last: eventually, they wrote some crappy story or another where Luthor was exposed for his misdeeds. He died and got cloned. He became briefly Australian, had an affair with Supergirl, destroyed Metropolis in a hail of nuclear rain (which is something no one ever seems to mention anymore), got resurrected by a demon (another story which never gets mentioned), somehow managed to regain enough popularity to get elected President, before he became a drug addict and began running around in that silly green and purple suit again. Also, somewhere along the line he (again) became retroactive friends with Clark Kent, and regained a great deal of scientific acumen that, honestly, is just sort of superfluous.

Lex Luthor didn't need to have any sort of personal connection to Superman. He was a great villain in the 80s because he was, essentially, the biggest asshole sociopath on the block. If Superman hadn't come along, he could have just as easily have become fixated on Batman or Green Lantern or the Flash, but as it was he just happened to cross paths with the biggest and bluest boy scout of them all. The big-business corporate milieu might be slightly dated, but there's no doubt that this iteration of the character is a convincing and all-too plausible template: just look at Ken Lay. If Superman gets his main thematic juice from being a representation of everything good and noble about the American dream, why shouldn't his worst villain be a twisted example of that same American dream gone awry, twisted by greed and rapacious capitalism into something wholly evil? There aren't a lot of references these days to Superman's earliest, populist roots -- the guy who threw wife-beaters out of high windows and cracked down on payroll fraud -- and all the sci-fi baggage of the first fifty years served to further distance Superman from the human implications of his adventures. But in the years immediately following the revamp, there were at least some faint signs that Superman had not totally forgotten the lessons of the economic and social tribulations of the 1930s: never trust a rich white guy who presumes to have your best interests at heart.

One last bit of business: a friend is selling a painting on eBay and very graciously asked if I wouldn't mind spotlighting the auction on this blog. Here you go.