Monday, July 30, 2007

You Have To Learn To Take The Good With The Bad

Ladies and Gentlemen, here's a horrible caption:

And now, a fantastic music video, with juggling:

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pissing In Your Wheaties Since 1926

I realize everyone's either trying to be polite or, or is honestly optimistic, but in all seriousness - this whole IDW thing? Bad news. I mean, sure, it looks nice on paper. But in the history of the comics industry - and this is going back a long way - every single time a company has put itself in a position to be sold like this, despite the best of intentions, it's ended up demolished within six months or a year. You can say the circumstances are different this time - OK. IDW is a good company. I know Chris Ryall, at least, a little bit, since way back in the days of Movie Poop Shoot. He's a good guy and he's done some really good things with the company since he's taken the helm. But history is not kind to this scenario... sure, both Marvel and DC survived being bought (Marvel more than once!), but there's just so many others that have fallen by the wayside. If history teaches us one thing, it's that once a company starts making major structural changes of any kind, no matter how seemingly healthy, things can go from good to horrible in a blink of an eye.

I'm just saying, I don't want to see IDW office furniture on eBay in 2009. I like IDW, they publish good books. But this is the comics industry we're talking about here, people.

Speaking of the comics industry -

"Shouldn’t there be business opportunities in a growth period instead of wheezing, scale-downs and closures? What is it about the shape of that comics market where a boom period is felt more through articles claiming 'This is a boom period!' than it is in the wallets of creators and retailers?" - Tom Spurgeon

This quote from a fews days back got a bit of attention, and with justification. It's as cogent and canny an analysis of the current manic-depressive fortunes of this industry as I've seen. It got lodged in my head for a few days.

And then something occurred to me. Please, if this is just totally obvious conventional wisdom, somebody point it out to me - or if this is just totally unfounded and wrong-headed, I want to know. Because it may seem obvious but it really seemed like something no one else was saying . . .

1) You can't open a comic book store, any kind of comic book store in the entire country, without having Marvel and DC as the bedrock of your costumer base. A lot of stores sell a lot of stuff besides superhero books, but even stores like Comic Relief, the Beguiling, Comix Experience - they only get the luxury of specializing in such a wide and diverse array of products because they built their bread and butter on superheroes. For all the occasional talk about a manga-only model, manga stores are still few and far between (if not outright urban legends).

2) You can't sell superhero comics in the direct market without going through Diamond. Diamond is a big business and they do a very good job of getting comics where they need to be on a weekly basis, but all indicators point to the fact that their current distribution system is tapped to the max. And the current business model, while profitable, does not seem to be giving them a lot of incentive to expand their direct market logistics capacity.

3) Who does Diamond make more money off of, retailers or suppliers? That make seem like an idiotic question but bear with me: the only news you hear from Diamond anymore is when they sign a publisher to exclusive distribution through either the direct or bookstore markets. When was the last time you heard anything about initiatives for new retailers?

4) The last boom-and-bust cycle of the comics industry involved many, many undercapitalized, incompetent and just plain wrong-headed store launches, people who were enticed in by the boom and demolished by the bust. At the time, if memory serves me well, there were allegations of predatory practices on the part of both Diamond and Capital City, in terms of enticing fledging retailers to set up accounts with the promise of easy money.

5) As so many people have pointed out, we are living in a second Golden Age in terms of both the quantity and the quality of comics being made available in all genres - from manga and artcomics even through to plain vanilla superheroes. The books are selling everywhere but the direct market, where the pipeline is unaccountably clogged. Too few retailers in too few locations to really take advantage of any kind of "critical mass" - which may or may not be illusory, there's really no way to tell - and retailing is still too risky under the best of circumstances for most to ever take the plunge.

6) Is it in Diamond's best interest to promote a diverse market? Obviously not, that goes without saying. The market as it stands now could not be better situated to serve Diamond's needs - it's not sinister, it's not even shady, it's just capitalism. They were handed a plum opportunity and they took it.

So the question is - when do the Big Two's exclusive contracts with Diamond run out?

It may seem like a silly question. They may have already re-upped for some umpty-billion years and I may have missed it. But no contract exists in perpetuity. I'm not saying history is going to repeat itself - but it's been a long decade. Marvel and DC aren't the same companies they were back in the days when Capital City and Heroes World roamed the earth. It's something to think about.

Because . . .

If there were ever again a situation where more than one distributor held the keys to the bread-and-butter weekly superhero world, one of the happy side-effects might just be a more diverse industry. If it seems obvious, well, so be it, but I don't think I'd ever heard anyone connect the dots in quite that fashion before.

Maybe this is idiotic - but it's been rattling around in my head for a week. Kick it around and see if it holds water. If not, holler in the comments.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"reverse the polarity of the neutron flow"

Pop Quiz: What is the best title theme and sequence in the history of television?

There is only one answer.

No points for guessing.

In many ways the classic - from the years when William Hartnell defined the character - and still one of the best. You don't see the Doctor's face, just the intimation of mystery and strangeness. I can almost imagine what it must have been like to have been a British child in 1963, seeing this strange and spooky intro for the first time - probably inspired more than a few nightmares on its own, never mind the Daleks. There's also an extant version with a thunderclap at the beginning.

Here is the intro as we saw during Traughton's tenure. This is the first to feature the "floating face" motif that would be continued all the way up through Sylvester McCoy (but thankfully no further). Little change to the theme. The way the Doctor's face appears from the shimmering cosmic light is still kind of spooky.

And here's Jon Pertwee. The first Doctor to be filmed in color, he was also an extremely colorful character - definitely a change from the ascetic first Doctor and the "scarecrow" second Doctor. (Pertwee and Traughton actually appeared together onscreen twice, and the difference in their personalities was accentuated during these appearances.) Pertwee is not my favorite, but his tenure did see the advent of Sarah Jane - probably by universal agreement the best companion ever.

And here is, almost inarguably, the series' best opening sequence. As good as the previous seasons' opening sequences were, the Tom Baker years (the end of the Pertwee era had introduced a modified version of this 2001-influenced theme) were simply classic. For those of a certain age who grew up with the Doctor reruns on PBS, and undoubtedly for those who grew up with the program on first-run in the UK, there are no words to properly express the thrill of seeing the first few seconds of this opening, with the Tardis appearing in the far distance of the vast corridors of time. The best version of the theme music as well. And I always get a kick of the weirdly hangdog look on Baker's face when he appears.

And then there's . . . this . . . which, while certainly not horrible, was a definite step down. I guess the thought process was that since it was the 1980s, they might as well spruce things up, but there's an old saying about not fixing something if it isn't broke. Plus, the picture they picked of Baker makes him look as if he's had a few too many Jelly Babies.

And here's Peter Davison, with essentially the same opening sequence as the last year of Baker's run. Still not great, but better than what was to come. I quite like Davison in hindsight, even if he was the first Doctor stuck in progressively worse clown-costumes - I can't rightly blame the actor for the producer's bad decisions, now can I? He was the most humanistic Doctor, definitely a change after Baker's ultra-competent interpretation, which at times almost bordered blasé. It's an interesting take on the character and perhaps the most influential Doctor in terms of David Tennant's interpretation (with a lot of Traughton in there as well).

And here we have still more of the same. In my mind I like to call Colin Baker the "Asshole Doctor" - not a value judgment, but that was his take on the character. After Davison's downright modest version - and the unpleasant circumstances around his regeneration - Doctor #6 was unbalanced, not very personable, and even occasionally cruel. There was a lot of potential there, but it was undercut by the worst clown costume of any Doctor, ever. (At least he didn't have to wear the sprig of celery.) I haven't seen it in a while but I have very fond memories of the "Trial of a Time Lord" season.

And then there's this, the nadir. It's almost no wonder the show got cancelled with an opening sequence this ugly. And that blink . . . gah. I actually quite like Sylvester McCoy. I wish he'd had a longer tenure, because his take on the character was really interesting - quieter, but with a lot going on beneath the surface. Sometimes even slightly sinister in his machinations. The bohemian Fourth Doctor, for instance, suffered a crisis of conscience before deciding whether to destroy the Daleks at the moment of their conception, ultimately deciding against it. The Seventh Doctor, a few hundred years' older and wiser, later sent a super weapon to destroy the Daleks' home planet without shedding so much as a tear. This was definitely a large part of the bedrock for what would become Christopher Eccleston's interpretation. And Ace is probably my personal favorite companion ever, but that says as much about me as about the show itself.

And this is from the Fox TV movie. Less said about it the better.

. . . And, barring a few variations through the years, this brings us up to date. Both Eccleston and Tennant's Doctors have used the same intro sequence. It's certainly an improvement on the McCoy years, I'll say that, but the new title sequence just doesn't sit well with me - it might just be the orchestrated theme. I mean, it just doesn't sound right: the Doctor Who theme should be produced on vintage electronic instruments sitting around the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, not a full orchestra. There's always been something weird and creepy about the classic theme that sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill TV themes, and this bombastic orchestrated version falls entirely flat in my eyes - tarts up the Doctor's most timeless feature. As ugly as the 80s opening sequences were, even they never really screwed up the music.

Apparently I'm not the only one who agrees that the new music is the suck:

I am not a big fan of the CGI Tardis bouncing around, but it's still better than seeing Tennant's face (nothing against his face, but the Doctor's face motif hadn't looked right since 1980).

And for those completists out there, there's always this:

And then the same song, live at Glastonbury in 2004 (which would have been their farewell tour if memory serves me well). I love the Hartnell sample at the beginning, also used at the beginning of the Five Doctors movie - good salute to the man who started it all.

And here, to finish us off, is something maybe five people remember. Good luck finding this - the album on which this was originally released is so out of print it's negative in print. I'm glad I have my copy, is all I'm saying. (If you must own one KLF album, it should be The White Room. That one's not too hard to find, I still see it in used CD stores now and again. I've only ever seen one copy of the History of the Jams CD and it's the one I own. I don't imagine it will, ever be reprinted, and if you've ever heard it you'll know why. So if you do see it, grab it.)

And, just because, here's Ace:


See that baseball bat? She used it. On Daleks.
That's why she's the bizzety bomb.

Monday, July 23, 2007

F*** You Guys, I'm Going Home

I've been talking for a few days now about the ways in which Marvel systematically destroyed the Punisher franchise back in the mid 90s, but looking over what I've wrote I realize that I may have been a bit scant with details as to just what these stories entailed. Aside from a few mentions of the Demon Bounty Hunter Punisher (and really, can you possibly have enough mentions of the Demon Bounty Hunter Punisher?) the details themselves have not been forthcoming.

The reason for this is that, well, I barely remember these stories. Those that I read, I have mercifully blocked from my memory. Those that I did not read, well, thank God. The books were pretty dire for a number of reasons. I did, however, do some work to refresh my memory - if you are ever in need of any Marvel trivia, no matter how maddeningly inconsequential or painfully obscure, this is a great source. It's also really depressing, but that's another conversation.

Anyway: in 1994 the Powers That Be decided it was time to shake up the Punisher's status quo. So, they concocted a ten-part crossover that would run through all three Punisher titles (Punisher, Punisher War Journal and Punisher War Zone), "Suicide Run". The plot of the series was fairly straight-forward: there's a meeting being held with all the bosses of all the big crime families. The Punisher takes it into his head to crash the meeting. The easiest way to do so apparently involves simply blowing up the building in which the meeting was set to occur. (A good seven years before 9/11, but it's worth noting that the original World Trade Center bombing was still fresh in peoples' minds. I believe, if memory serves me well, the Punisher also intended to use a truck bomb to collapse the building from the basement levels. So classy!) Anyway, he blows up the building and is declared dead. The media makes a big deal about this. So while everyone else thinks the Punisher's dead, a bunch of other people take up "the mantle" of the Punisher:

Can anyone say "Reign of the Punishers"?

Anyway, the Punisher obviously didn't die in the building explosion, but the fact that he had blown up a building I guess made him a bigger priority for law-enforcement than he had been in the past. So - you've got half-a-dozen people running around in Punisher costumes, a bunch of cops and SHIELD agents running after the Punisher, and God knows what else going on. At some point you've got a series called "Pariah" running in Punisher War Journal detailing, I guess, how the Punisher had become even more of a pariah to the rest of the Marvel Universe. Which doesn't make a lot of sense considering he was an anti-social mass-murderer to begin with, but there you go.

Most of the other Punishers didn't last long (most were dispatched in fairly short order) but they stuck with the Lynn Michaels character for a while - Punisher with breasts, basically. Her origin was the same as the origin of Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft in the 2000 sequel - a cop gets disgusted with the inefficiencies of the justice system and goes rogue. Only in her case it entailed skin-tight spandex and kevlar, with a strategically redesigned skull logo to accentuate her suspiciously spherical stripper tits.

However, I suspect that Lynn Michaels was much less popular than Marvel would have liked. Because not only was there no Lynn Michaels spin-off series to be seen - this being the disastrous mid 90s when seemingly any Marvel character, no matter how dubiously popular, received a spin-off under the logic of depriving competitors of that much more shelf space - but the big push for Michaels' character was made right before all three Punisher titles were cancelled in the early months of 1995. Whatever future the Punisher had, there was no room for female sidekicks / partners / analogues, even ones with big tits. In the space of twenty months - between the first issue of "Suicide Run", cover dated December 1993, and the final issues of all three Punisher titles, cover dated July of 1995 - the Punisher franchise imploded in as spectacular a fashion as conceivable. Not even statuesque blondes in skintight leather could save the day.

As previously discussed, the Punisher had always existed on a fragile foundation. There was a very delicate balance that needed to be upheld in order for the Punisher to remain a viable character. Despite his supposed status as a "gritty", street-level character, there's probably less you could do with the Punisher than a straight fantasy property like, say, the Silver Surfer. Thanos could kill half the universe in the pages of Infinity Gauntlet without raising an eyebrow, but for the Punisher to kill even one person under the Comics Code required some very careful juggling. The moment you start to pry into that status quo, you're asking questions that really can't be answered in the contest of a the Punisher's adventures: how does a mass murderer continually escape the clutches of not just thousands of crooks who want him dead but the cops, the feds, SHIELD, and every super-hero on the planet who see him as really no different from any other murderer? When they shook up the status quo they put these questions front and center, and the answers weren't flattering. If you insist on making the Punisher a global celebrity, an "inspiration" to dozens of wannabes and a target of not just street-level police organizations but super-spy groups like SHIELD and VIGIL, the character falls apart. From the standpoint of storytelling mechanics, it's easier to "believe" in overtly sci-fi or fantasy characters like the Silver Surfer, Thor or Dr. Strange than a world in which the law enforcement infrastructure is such a colossal failure that you can have dozens of well-armed vigilantes prancing over hither-and-yon with impunity and indulging in what are essentially large-scale gang-wars. The United States we see in these later Punisher stories has less to do with the "world outside our window" that still presumably makes up the backbone of the Marvel Universe than something you might expect from a former Soviet Republic, with corrupt warlords and freelance mercenaries carving out niches of "turf" on every corner.

The Punisher is simply not a character around whom you can accrue that kind of storytelling baggage. Once you start telling stories that mess with the basic principles of the Punisher's world - he's a loner, keeps a low profile, stays clear of law enforcement, not super powered but somehow manages never to get shot, no recurring antagonists - well, things just get kind of silly. Because then you've turned the Punisher into Batman, with Lady Punisher and Anti-Punishers and Arch-Nemeses and even a Punisher Dog. (Admittedly the Punisher Dog was around long before "Suicide Run". I liked the Punisher Dog, myself.) It doesn't fit, and it's not wha tthe fans even remotely wanted from the character.

But running into problems with suspension of disbelief was ultimately only a symptom of greater instability. The Punisher had reached a wall where the stories in the main titles were increasingly repetitive and were shedding readers in a context of greater industry instability. When "Suicide Run" began in fall of 1993, the industry was just beginning its tumble down the economic precipice of the 90s crash: Superman died in the fall of 1992, and the successful "Reign of the Superman" series ran through the spring and summer of 1993. But Turok: Dinosaur Hunter #1 also hit stores that summer, cover dated July 1993. Dark Horse's "Comics' Greatest World" hit. (They actually had a feasible idea, I thought at the time - sixteen issues introducing their new universe, each costing $1. Would that the interiors had been worth even that.) Malibu launched its Ultraverse. Valiant and Image crossed over with Deathmate (tying up hundreds of thousands of dollars in product that shipped many months late and stunk up shelves for months). Warriors of Plasm launched from Jim Shooter's Defiant. Marvel launched the fourteen-part "Maximum Carnage" crossover. Batman had "Knightfall". I could go on . . .

So, basically, the industry was tanking and the appearance of an ill-conceived multi-part Punisher crossover was just another squirt of lighter fluid to fan the flames. By July of 1995 Marvel had bought Heroes World - I still remember the cover of the very first Heroes World Marvel-exclusive catalog, it had a picture of the Punisher from the Double Edge Alpha special -

- a picture which is barely legible here because of the chromium cover on which is was printed. The "Double Edge" event was an attempt by the editorial office that oversaw the "unaffiliated" characters of the Marvel Universe - the Punisher, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, the Hulk - to replicate the success of the X-Men's "Age of Apocalypse" event. "Age of Apocalypse" had been a line-defining event that ran through the entire X-Men family of titles, beginning and ending with bookend "Alpha" and "Omega" one-shots. The difference between "Age of Apocalypse" and "Double Edge" was that the "Age of Apocalypse" was both extremely popular and actually pretty good. I read a lot of bad comics in the 90s that I wish I could take back, but I still have some pretty good memories of that story. Definitely the highlight of the post-Claremont era of X-Men stories (not that that is saying a lot, but still, bear with me).

"Double Edge", however, took off from the last issues of the Punisher's various defunct titles, which ended with the character in SHIELD custody and insane - I mean, more insane than usual. Then, because he's insane, he gets it into his head - somehow - that Nick Fury was responsible for the death of his family. Never mind that the Punisher had killed the people directly responsible for his family's death decades before. Anyway. He went on a rampage and encountered everyone involved - including heavy-hitters like the Hulk and Ghost Rider - none of whom were any help in stopping the Punisher from killing Nick Fury. Of course, it was eventually revealed that that Fury had been an LMD - of course! Bwahahahaha.

Somewhere in the middle of this the Punisher also popped in to Spider-Man's "Maximum Clonage" story, suddenly remembering how the Jackal - Professor Miles Warren - set him up against Spider-Man way back in the Punisher's first appearance. So not only was he involved in his own bad storyline, but he was also incriminated in the worst Spider-Man storyline of all time.

So. After killing Fury the Punisher is in federal custody, at which point he is sentenced to death by the electric chair. The first issue of the Punisher's next series, therefore, began with his death by electrocution. But of course he didn't really die, he was resurrected by the mob (??!!) or something in order to do something or other. This brings us up to cover date November 1995, right before the collapse of Marvel.

And this series would limp on for another year and a half before ending with issue 18, cover dated April 1997. This was Marvel's nadir: bankruptcy, near collapse, creative entropy. And this was the last we saw of the Punisher before he was resurrected in the pages of his first Marvel Knights series as (uggh) Demon Bounty Hunter Punisher. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What saved the Punisher? In the end, I think it boils down to one thing: the Comics Code, or rather, the corporate culture that enabled a character like the Punisher to exist ostensibly under the auspices of the Comics Code. As soon as Marval had changed enough to let a creator like Garth Ennis have his way with the character in the context of a "mature readers" title, the character immediately went from being a dead-end creative nightmare - how many stories can you possibly tell where the Punisher "just barely" escapes from Daredevil / Spider-Man / Nick Fury / Wolverine? - to one of boundless potential. At his best, the Punisher is the ultimate 80s action hero, Sylvester Stallone out of Cobra and Arnie from Commando wrapped up with a skull on it. Presenting his stories as PG-13 adventures where the untenable and unsavory aspects of the character are necessarily ignored castrates the character in a very literal fashion. Allow the creators room for some black comedy, some satire, even some dark ultra-violence, and you've given the writers a lot more room in which to play. Taking the Punisher seriously is a big mistake, because on the face of it the character is really abominable. But you're not supposed to sympathize with the Punisher - he's less a character than a fulcrum, a force of nature around whom things happen, and who can be used as a vehicle for any number of stories. Just don't try to actually tell stories about the Punisher. Effacing the blank slate of the Punisher's featureless wrath risks obscuring why anyone cares in the first place.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Regrettable Out-Of-Context Panel Theater
Or: How I Antagonized All The Women

Speaking of which - does DC publish anything anymore that isn't simply depressing? I mean, seriously, skimming over a pile of new DC books I am just overcome by this frighteningly powerful malaise, like I'm looking into the eyes of some great hypnotic beast of the Apocalypse or something. It's not pleasant. I skim a lot of bad comics - it's a weakness, but at least I don't actually pay for them - reading modern DC actually makes me think that "free" is too high a price to pay. Shouldn't they cut the readers a check for slogging through this Amazons Attack junk? Talk about horrendous.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

No, Really, F*** You Guys

The Punisher is at base an extremely problematic character. Or rather - let me phrase this correctly - he's an extremely problematic character in the context of general-audience action-adventure franchises. At base, there's no getting away from the fact that he's essentially the world's greatest serial killer. If you have the Punisher as a recurring character and not merely a one-off villain, it naturally follows that he kills a lot of people. That's what he exists to do. Kill people. It's kind of their in the name - Spider-Man is spidery, Superman is super, and the Punisher - well - he punishes people.

And it's worth keeping in mind, in an era where "mature readers" has essentially become the baseline for all mainstream comics not released under the "Marvel Adventures" or "Johnny DC" labels, that until the year 2000 every single Punisher comic ever printed was published with the Comics Code seal of approval. There were isolated graphic novels and "Prestige Format" stories, but every single issue of the character's regular series - and there were many hundreds of them - was theoretically safe for children. In practice this didn't work out so well - by the time the Punisher had become such an incredibly popular character, the Code had already become toothless in many ways. The Punisher was one of the most violent comics on the stands, and the very basic premise of the character as anything other than - repeat after me - a villain (which is essentially what the character had been, a few gritty appearances in Marvel's short-lived black & white magazines notwithstanding), sort of went against the grain of the entire Marvel Universe. Or at least the conception of Marvel as a publishing company whose entire mainline was theoretically fit for kids aged 8 to 80.

So despite the character's unquestioned popularity, the whole situation made for a pretty rough fit. After the success of Marvel's first Secret Wars series, Mike Zeck's next assignment was the first Punisher five-issue mini-series, with Steven Grant (although Zeck and Grant only did the first four, for complicated and unfortunate reasons), pretty much the diametric opposite from the space-based cosmic opera of Jim Shooter's Secret Wars. The series was, by all reports, a surprise hit - Marvel hadn't expected it to sell so well, but as soon as it did they rushed an ongoing into production, on which Mike Baron logged a successful run over the course of the next five years or so (give or take a few fill-ins). Grant and Baron's take on the character was pretty much the only feasible take given the context, and became the default mode for his next decade of adventures - less focus on the insane psycho-killer aspect of the Punisher's character, more on the boys'-adventure, PG-13 Rambo stuff. Sort of like, say, a Mack Bolan novel aimed at a slightly younger audience. However: the Punisher did not - and could not - have much in the way of depth (at least inasmuch as it was traditionally defined in the post-Chris Claremont, constantly dynamic Marvel Universe), because his status quo had to remain unchanged.

The Punisher himself, if not exactly a good vehicle for ongoing soap opera (and every attempt at grafting any kind of supporting cast or soap opera background died on the vine), was great for isolated adventure stories. So in essence, the Punisher as a character was very similar in conception to how super-hero comics had been pre-1961: episodic, static. Nothing ever really changed for the Punisher. He was stuck in his milieu, and nothing could change this, because to a large degree changing the Punisher's milieu would have meant changing the character. Give him a supporting cast (besides fellow vigilante Microchip), soap opera shenanigans, any kind of super-hero trappings, and you butt head-first against the fact that the character is a ruthless serial killer. Keep him isolated, keep him occupied. The character, because of his near-perfect featurelessness, has been used to great purpose by Garth Ennis as a vehicle for both dark comedy and black morality tales - but neither option was really available to the folks writing the Punisher back in the late 80s and early 90s. So the Punisher was one of the few Marvel characters for whom nothing ever seemed to change - you could pick up any random issue and the story would be the same, just the scenery would change.

While nothing ever really changes in comics, the illusion of change keeps the cash registers ringing: Spider-Man remains Spider-Man, but good writers fill his life with so many constantly-changing variables that it can seem new, especially if you haven't already read hundreds of Spider-comics. But eventually everyone (or most people) realize that superhero comics are by nature unable to change. Most people either learn to appreciate serial comics differently than when they were twelve - i.e., by appreciating the good and bad aspects of craftsmanship and storytelling that individual talents bring to the table - or they get stuck in perpetual adolescence, demanding increasingly high stakes for the illusion of change they crave to keep the reading experience fresh and interesting. As the economic disaster of 90s comic publishing hit the realities of an aging, increasingly hard-core fan base, it became that much harder for the Punisher to remain interesting.

If the illusion of change - the suspension of disbelief necessary for older fans eager to believe that they are not wasting their time on the same stories they've read a thousand times before - was difficult to maintain in comparatively rich and diverse characters such as Superman and Spider-Man, imagine how tricky it would be for a character like the Punisher. When sales started to lag, and attempts were made to shake up the status quo (already de rigeur in the 1990s, when seemingly every major character experienced major upheaval in an attempt to ape the success of Superman's "death"), the Punisher took it harder than anyone could have expected. By trying to change the character's milieu, they had done seemingly irreparable harm to the character's appeal.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

F*** You

Mike over at Progressive Ruin mentioned in passing the masterful way in which Marvel torpedoed the Punisher franchise back in the mid-90s. Having lived through (some of) these fearful comics as they arrived on the newsstands way back when, the memory of just how thoroughly Marvel demolished a character who had risen from obscurity to become one of their top franchises still boggles. They could not have destroyed the character more thoroughly and completely if they had sat down at a meeting with the intention of wiping every ounce of creative potential from the concept.

You can say what you will about the way the Spider-Man franchise imploded, but the Clone Saga at least began with the best of intentions before going entirely off the rails. It was pretty much the textbook example of a story getting away from every creator involved, as a succession of writers, artists, editors and even editors-in-chief tried and failed to right the damage done by a succession of progressively disastrous calls. Through it all, however, it's vital to remember that people still wanted to like Spider-Man. He remained the company's flagship character. The desire for quality stories on the part of Spider-Man's fanbase never wavered, the desire for saleable stories on the part of retailers never faltered, and ultimately after enough time had elapsed and the franchise had undergone a succession of purgative gestures the character was able to recapture all or most of the commercial stature he had held on the eve of the Clone Saga. (Admittedly, the Spider-stories on the eve of the Clone books hadn't been that great either - I vividly remember seemingly years' worth of stories, over a number of different titles, dedicated to dismantling the once-awesome character of the Hobgoblin, a move which struck me then and strikes me now as peevish and short-sighted, specially considering how poorly the Green Goblin has been handled since.)

(Digression: Jesus Fucking Christ in a birch bark canoe, has it really been over ten years since they brought back Norman Osborn? Way to make me feel old, God.)

Anyway - Spider-Man eventually recovered. He had enough fans and strong enough support from retailers that it was only a matter of time. The Punisher, on the other hand, was hurt so badly by four or five solid years of horrible stories that the character's entire fan base was demolished. A character who had no problem sustaining three solo titles and a raft of spin-off projects in the boom years of the 90s was soon reduced to no regular titles. Relaunches were attempted, and failed. The character was positioned as a lynchpin for a new publishing initiative - Marvel "Edge", courtesy of the editorial reshuffling brought about by corporate downsizing and bankruptcy - the initiative failed. The character was again resurrected in the early days of Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti's Marvel Knights line - and the relaunch again failed.


This was the brilliant idea that was supposed to revamp the character for the 21st Century: demon bounty hunter. This series also featured some of Bernie Wrightson's last comic book work before going to work primarily for Hollywood doing concept work for various and sundry projects. (Also: he's got some form of eye problems - macular degeneration or something similar - that prevents him from concentrating on extended sequential projects, doesn't he? Correct me if you know more.) Anyway - it was far from Wrightson's best work, and the series as a whole was three shades of horrible.

At that point, I think, offering up the character to Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (fresh off their successful run on Vertigo's post-Sandman flagship Preacher) was something of a "hail Mary". In hindsight it seems like the most natural fit conceivable, but at the time the idea of these particular creators tackling a Marvel character, any Marvel character, outside the bounds of a "What If?" one-shot (like Ennis' previous What If the Punisher Destroyed the Marvel Universe? book) or prestige project, was while certainly a promising idea, no more certain to succeed than any of the last half-dozen attempts at raising the character's flatline profile. It didn't fit Marvel's long-standing profile as a relatively safe company, which, despite it's "edgy" reputation, actually produced far less in the way of shocking or potentially controversial comics than DC, with its numerous different segmented publishing arms. Now, of course, the Punisher has become synonymous with Garth Ennis, to the point where Ennis is essentially allowed to do whatever he wishes with the character in his own nasty corner of the Marvel (Max) Universe.

After the initial twelve-issue maxi-series which did the grunt work of reintroducing the character to the reading public, the then-new Punisher ongoing was conceived as a rotating showcase, with Ennis & Dillon providing the initial arc, to be replaced by a succession of creators dealing with the Punisher in his new, gritty Marvel Knights milieu. The first arc after the initial Ennis & Dillon six-parter was a Tom Peyer story that received such a negative reaction from fans that Ennis was rushed back onto the title immediately afterwards, where he has remained ever since. It was unusual for Marvel to make such a public admission that a signature creator had become so vital to the ongoing viability of a property - the story of Marvel in the 90s, after all, is partly the story of the attempt to diminish the importance of the individual creator in the wake of the Image imbroglio - but the fact was that the Punisher was still in need of careful shepherding in order to regain the same stature he had once held. Once they had found an approach that worked, they couldn't afford to take chances - one false step and they would be back where they started, which was this:

Now, of course, the Punisher is sufficiently rehabilitated to the point that the company feels relatively secure in branching out again - launching a new title set at a remove from Ennis' work, established more firmly in the superhero context that Ennis has largely eschewed. But it's worth noting that this could only really happen after many years of methodical rebuilding, during which Marvel essentially rebuilt the character's fanbase from scratch. The only other character that suffered anywhere near as badly during the late-90s, early-00's interregnum was the Ghost Rider, and I'd argue that Ghost Rider has never really found the kind of post-bust equilibrium that the Punisher now enjoys.

Monday, July 16, 2007


First, they really had no idea just how bad / offensive / condescending this would look, did they? I mean, seriously. It's one thing to screw up all the big things so badly, but to be so tone-deaf for even these little symbolic gestures - that's like some kind of record-breaking political autism or something.

Just watched Children of Men, and I have to say I am really, really impressed. I'm so used to being disenchanted and simply aghast at how mediocre-to-bad the majority of mainstream films are these days that I barely even make the effort to keep up. But this one had a few things going for it: Alfonso Cuarón is a filmmaker of no small pedigree (despite the whole Harry Potter thing, but I can't begrudge anyone a paycheck, especially if it enabled him to make a movie like this); the film received almost universal rave reviews (admittedly no guarantee); I had read the book when it first came out and liked it considerably.

I have to say that the film is definitely the best contemporary production I've seen in quite some time. I didn't remember the book very well (I read it soon after it came out, over a decade ago), but the movie seemed to actually correct some of the book's tonal inconsistencies. The book was focused very keenly on the nature of order in a crumbling society - the way governmental bodies would impose dictatorial powers in order to maintain quiet in a fading society. The movie, wisely, chose to de-emphasize these kind of political shenanigans. The dissolution of societal control is not likely to come with clean precision, more like the absolute chaos and anarchy we see in failed states all over the globe. The thrust of the movie is not that order is maintained in the face of oblivion, but almost the diametric opposite: things fall apart and they fall apart quickly. I don't know if I've ever seen a dystopian movie that was quite so unrelentingly grim in its illustration of the "end of the world" - I am fond of Michael Radford's adaptation of 1984, but I think when all is said and done this a much more unsettling vision.

I think the film definitely profits from a much more aggressive focus on the brutality and unrelenting despair of its end-of-the-world scenario. The violence, once it begins, never really ends. There's nothing glamorous or sexy about the gunfire and explosions, the cinematography and set design of the dying cities seems almost viscerally contemporary, very much of a piece with the video footage we see broadcast into out homes from downtown Baghdad, Lebanon and Kabul. Without giving anything away, just about everyone dies. There's previous little hope on display, and yet at the same time the filmmakers are clever to avoid the trap of making a fetish out of their hopelessness. There isn't a lot of hope, but there is a vestigial urge for survival that continues irrationally.

As grim as the film was - and it is by far the grimmest film I've seen in many a moon - there is one interesting change they made in adapting the book into a movie. In the book, Clive Owen's character accidentally kills his daughter with his car - backing out of the driveway he hears a dull thump - and this explains his estrangement from his wife (in his movie played by Julianne Moore, compacted down from two distinct characters in the book). In the movie this is changed to their child dying during a flu outbreak. Considering just how unrelentingly bleak the film is - and let's be frank here, it essentially illustrates the final days of humanity, past the point of hope and into utter senseless society-wide suicide - it's an odd detail to change.

In any event, I can definitely understand just why the film was buried upon release. I'm amazed it got made to begin with. But I think that given enough time and hindsight it will be seen as one of the finer films to emerge from this benighted, depressingly mediocre era of filmmaking.

Speaking of "depressingly mediocre", has anyone seen The Fountain? Without a doubt one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and certainly in the top tier of bad movies made by otherwise talented filmmakers. I mean, anyone who's seen the movie - you can't tell me you weren't just laughing uncontrollably for the last, oh, twenty minutes, at least. I mean, seriously. About the time when Hugh Jackman 2500 got into the lotus position and flew into the Giant Exploding Space Vagina, and then also went back in time 1000 years to help his conquistador ancestor fight the evil Mayan priest with the power of his Third Eye... well, seriously, people. I'm not made of stone.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why We Care

For Better Or For Worse is the last great example of serial comic strips, the only one to survive into the twenty-first century. Doggedly old-fashioned, animated by a commitment to craft that sets it at direct odds with almost every other current strip of similar stature, endearingly corny in its commitment to heartfelt emotion and straight-ahead family values (in a totally non-ironic, non-ideological meaning of the phrase), it remains in its final years one of the last few universal touchstones of American cartooning.

Despite ourselves, we care about the Patterson clan, and as the strip continues its long-forecast march towards climax, we find ourselves drawn up in the emotions of the event. It is an event of significance: it's hard to imagine the ending of any current comic strip ever having a shadow of the same possible resonance. The format as it exists now just doesn't have the power it once did, and the strengths of For Better Or For Worse are only amplified by its pallid competition. By any yardstick its a square piece of work, but as the last gasp of a once vibrant and influential piece of American culture, it is hard not to reflect that the passing of the feature represents something more significant than merely the ending of a specific work of art.

This is why we care, why the impending Anthony is more than merely the comedic diversion we might expect from the senile likes of Mary Worth or Apt 3G. Against our better judgment we still care what happens to these characters. They're probably the last newspaper strip characters we ever will care about, but we do, and we will, until the last panel of the last strip on that last day. There's no way, seeing where Lynn Johnston is heading, we won't be unhappy with the destination, - like the last episode of The Sopranos, like Cerebus fading into a purgatory of his worst impulses, the creator seems doggedly intent on ending their magnum opus their way despite the howls of their most committed fans: so be it. But the fact that we care when by all rights we shouldn't is as much of a testament to the significance of Johnston's work as any other objective measurement.

This is why we care:

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Felinus Domesticus

On Monday night I ventured out of my sheltered abode in order to see my first concert out in the western wilds of Massachusetts - none other than Ms. Chan Marshall herself, Cat Power. Never having seen Cat Power before, I honestly had no idea what to expect: anyone who knows anything about her knows that her live performance history is . . . let's say "erratic" and be kind, shall we? She's got a habit of breaking down on stage, running off in mid-performance - mid-song, sometimes - when something upsets her. She has always cultivated an image of frailty and imbalance, and while you could legitimately ask whether or not some of her visible disarray is calculated, there's never been any doubt that her discomfort at performing live is genuine and painfully acute.

This was not the Cat Power we saw on Monday. Sure, she is an eclectic presence - despite rumors of newfound sobriety, she looked to be at least partly drunk (to guess from the fact that stagehands refilled her glass at least twice during the show), and she moved like someone with at least a partial buzz on. Very catlike, as a matter of fact. But she was nevertheless a confident and commanding presence throughout the show. She only managed to forget the lyrics once during the set (she did have a music stand with lyrics that she referenced occasionally), but seemed unconcerned with her flub: no lying in a heap on the middle of the stage and weeping uncontrollably.

I must admit that I wasn't quite as enchanted with her newer material as I wanted to be. I thought The Greatest was a decent album, but nowhere near as good as many other critics maintained - for all the songwriting acumen and musical skill on display (both from Marshall and her crack team of Memphis all-stars), the whole thing seemed a bit too sleepy. There's an intensity in Cat Power's best records that was lacking on much of The Greatest (and they neglected to play my favorite song off that record, the rather more intense "Love and Communication"). The first handful of songs were taken from that record, and as a consequencethe show took a while to warm up.

She didn't play "Living Proof" either, but
this video always cracks me up.

But when it did - well, it cooked. She's one of the few artists I've ever seen with the balls not only to take on the Stones' "Satisfaction" but to convincingly remake it in her own image as well. Her current live version is nothing like the stripped-down acoustic version she recorded for her Covers Album, but it's still pretty damn good. I really can't stand that song after having heard it so many times over the last few decades, but she makes it sing with something like the transgressive, nervous energy it must have originally possessed way back in 1965.

Not from the Northampton show,
but with her current touring band

The highlight of the show, however, was her cover of "Tracks Of My Tears". Yeah, I can honestly say that the maudlin Smokey Robinson number is probably one of my least favorite Motown songs - I never cared for Robinson's voice, to begin with. But Marshall takes the sleepy ballad and turns it into the kind of soul powered rave-up that Aretha Franklin specialized during her late-60s heyday. Easily the highlight of show, her performance was startlingly intense.

Based on her reputation I was skeptical going in, but there were no flies on her on Monday. Perhaps the show flagged in spots, due to the subdued, borderline-somnolent nature of some of her original tracks, but whenever the material allowed she rose to the occasion with sublime aplomb. There's a lot of contradictory hyperbole surrounding Cat Power's strange career, but at this point I can safely say that she's as powerful an onstage presence as I've ever seen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Truth, In Its Various Guises

To Whom It May Concern:
This post should be considered my official
resume for the job of writing Spider-Man.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Back To Save The Universe

Well I'm still alive.

I really didn't want to move in the dead of summer, and yet somehow it just so happened that I ended up moving on the hottest day of the year - so far - in the middle of an oppressive heat wave. I now live on the fourth floor of a four floor building and three Puerto Rican dudes had to carry all my stuff up four flights of stairs in oppressive 95 degree heat. I have a lot of stuff. Thankfully they didn't decide to rise up and slay their white oppressor.

And then of course I still had a few days left in the old apartment, lots of cleaning, still carloads of stuff to be moved. And somehow I managed to through in half a week of housesitting in the middle of all that. The cat got to live in my ex's basement for a week, much to the dismay of the three dogs upstairs. Somehow she didn't hate me after all was said and done, although she was filthy after five days of rolling around on a bare concrete floor.

And then finally I moved in, on Monday the 2nd . . . and waited until Friday the 6th to get my cable, internet and phone running. So in the intervening time I unpacked stuff and caught up on my Doctor Who, courtesy of a DVD with half the recent season a friend from work gave me (my ex-work). But of course the last episode on the DVD was "Human Nature", which ended with one of the best cliffhangers in Doctor Who history... so the first thing I did when I had my internet up and running was to find the rest of the season. Man, I have to say that although I did not care at all for the Shakespeare episode (magic, even lame faux-magic, doesn't fit with the Doctor's milieu, yo), this is perhaps the strongest season of the new series to date. Even if you discount just how much the creators screwed up 1930s New York in the Dalek episodes - I've always wondered just why the Doctor never spent more time in America, and I guess I now know why: British TV writers write America about as well as American TV writers write, um, any other country. But still fun. I'm wondering where the Daleks go from here - since they are running out of classic villains to bring back, does this mean we'll see the return of Davros in season four? There is the small matter of Davros having been killed about as definitively as possible (in an exploding supernova, kind of hard to get around that) but I wouldn't put it past the current crew to give it the old college try. I'm happy with the news that Catherine Tate will be an "official" companion in the next series: the Doctor does well with sparky companions, and Tennant's Doctor especially needs someone to prod him in the ass, considering the generally adulatory tone of both Rose and Martha's tenures. I'm all for them bringing back Ace, too, but I'm probably the only one, and it will never happen, so poopie.

What the fuck is up with no one selling waterbeds or waterbed accessories anymore? I must have walked around six different stores looking for a patch kit, and people looked at me funny just for saying I owned a waterbed. Thank you internet, at least there are some people on this planet who still believe in the primal dream of sleeping on a liquid-filled bladder of pure relaxation.

A big shout out to my homie Neilalien who was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to come sleep on his couch for MOCCA - but alas, it was not to be. I haven't been to a comics convention of any kind since Clinton was president. In any event, it was just horrible timing - busy week, bad time to be planning any trips down to the Big Apple, especially since just looking at a subway schedule makes me hyperventilate. I am horrible with transportation schedules of any kind. Bus schedules make me break out in hives. Not because I dislike public transportation, I just have some weird mental block against understanding transportation schedules.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Back, But Still Limping