Monday, April 23, 2007

Casualties of War

I had a week off from work, an event which usually saps my desire to blog. Add to this the fact that I got a serious case of the flu for the first time in many years, and my enthusiasm for blogging was seriously curtailed. Even just cherry-picking a pile of cockshots from the Marvel and DC solicitations was more effort than I really wanted to expend, considering the many hours spent shivering under a blanket on the couch watching the commentary tracks on the Tom Goes To Mayor DVD that constituted a large part of my "vacation".

But, yeah, fanboy homophobia is the gift that keeps on giving, isn't it? It's not your father's gay panic, that's for sure. I'd have to say that if there is any particular constituency that loses more than any other out of this weird phenomenon, it's the women whose legitimate resentment towards objectification are supposedly "mirrored" by the concerns of hetero-normative men facing the shocking sight of a superhero with a penis. It's really an interesting inversion on the usual status of sexual repression: in this case, it's the men who force themselves into metaphorical burkas, with every small bulge in a persons' clothing setting off shrieks of Puritanical horror. Anyone who watches team sports sees more in the way of bulges in the form of the standard jock strap protector that professional baseball and football players wear. Hell, even just walking down the street on a sunny day, you're likely to see men in tight shorts or jeans showing off more than just a little bit of the you-know-what. Remember the cucumber joke in Spinal Tap? People did not automatically assume that the rock star was gay for trying to advertise his package as being bigger than it actually was. Really, now.

But the women in the audience are now supposed to believe that the shock and horror of merely seeing a male superhero with an actual primary sexual characteristic (never mind that their entire body is completely covered in fabric and said sexual characteristic is mostly implied) is somehow comparable to the daily onslaught of seeing every single superheroine in the entirety of comics dressed like a tramp every single day, such that not only can you see the outline of their nipples but even, in many cases, a good glimpse of the proverbial cameltoe? Jeezum crow. Off the top of my head I can think of one female superhero who actually gets away with wearing pants on a regular basis - Vixen from the Justice League. I've got the world's smallest violin for all the guys out there cowering in fear at seeing a glimpse of Commander Steel's penis.

I've also got a heaping dose of pity for anyone out there in the wide world of comics who has characterized said penis as "erect" - if you think, based on personal experience, that's the size and shape of an erect penis, I am profoundly sorry.

Skimming through some DC pamphlets released last week, I am really quite amazed at the overall sensation of helplessness radiating throughout the company's line. Has it really been a year since the Infinite Crisis? Wow, seems like just yesterday people were bitching about how late that series was, instead of Civil War. (At the very least we know that if World War Hulk ships late, it's not the artist's fault.) But despite the fact that 52 shaped up to be a much bigger success than anyone could reasonably anticipate, the series' impending ending and fallout is still going to be something of a commercial anticlimax.

The big push coming out of Infinite Crisis was One Year Later, a line-wide jump-ahead that was supposed to build excitement in much the same way (or so it was said in interviews) that the piecemeal franchise relaunches after the first Crisis on Infinite Earths drew readers to the new Superman, Wonder Woman and Justice League books. The problem was that One Year Later tanked pretty hard. Sales across the line barely moved, and the exciting changes that were supposed to inspire fans to sample titles from across the line inspired, at best, confusion from longtime fans, and at worst outrage (evil Batgirl, anyone?). The big franchise relaunches - for the Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League lines - have all been plagued by late-shipping books, fill-ins, or both. Just that fact that DC has returned to using fill-ins, practically unheard of in 2007, as an aggressive means to staunch the flow of blood from late-shipping flagship titles is an admission that the problem has metastisized to incredible proportions. So 52, which was initially intended as a supplement for One Year Later, ended up eclipsing the event it was designed to compliment - it would perhaps be excessively polite to call One Year Later a commercial trainwreck.

Which brings us to last week's World War III, a storyline which can probably best be compared to having your mortgage payment due the day after the stock market tanks. You set your interest rate a year ago, it's not your fault that rapid inflation and cratering real estate values have demolished your escrow. So yeah, let's use all the excitement and buzz surrounding 52 to promote the new Martian Manhunter and Captain Marvel revamps, which have spent the preceding year tanking like the Exxon Valdez. Let's make sure everyone gets a fresh reminder of all the unpopular story elements that we had to spend the last year undoing, such as Evil Batgirl and Squid-Faced Aquaman. Sure, you can argue that this is exactly what they had to do, because these are the reasons 52 was supposedly created to begin with, and it's best (at least for the readers involved in the storyline and the retailers responsible for selling unpopular stories) they got it out of the way in the least painful manner possible. But the people in charge of 52 at least realized that that would be a really unsatisfying (not to mention unpopular) tack to take, so they focused on a handful of characters who were best positioned to take advantage of the unorthodox format and told their stories to the exclusion of any kind of wider tapestry. This is the only thing they could have reasonably be expected to do, because the fact is that to even an uninterested observer, the tapestry was becoming unraveled even faster than it could be created. Where was the grand, unified cohesion that would have made One Year Later, if not a surefire success, at least less of an embarrassment and more along the lines of what they were probably hoping for at the outset? Nowhere to be seen, because the lynchpin of the line was perpetually stuck fifty-two weeks in the past, surrounded by a haze of failed initiatives and bungled relaunches. I imagine that many retailers, pleasantly surprised by 52's staying power, have been more and more nervous the closer the series has gotten to the actual events of the One Year Later books - along with a fresh reminder to the costumer base of all those things they hated from a year ago.

Will Countdown be able to capitalize on what they've learned from the mistakes of One Year Later? Certainly, you have to believe that at some point things have to start working better than they have, if only because the people involved presumably know what they're doing now better than they did then, and have had a chance to see in great detail what works and what doesn't works in no uncertain terms. On the other hand, there's every reason to believe that DC is suffering from a case of extended event fatigue, with all the of major architects behind 52 sniping either at each other, DC or even their fans in public interviews and message board statements, and other creators voicing their misgivings in the pages of the books themselves. The fact is that despite 52's undisputed success, DC is still so far behind Marvel coming out of Civil War that any new initiatives are going to have to work twice as hard to overcome the dominant stench of flop-sweat. At this point I think DC could do a lot worse than just slapping the "Casualties Of War" banner atop half their line - it wouldn't be false advertising, to judge from sales figures.

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