Thursday, August 30, 2007

Let's Talk About Composition

This is a pin-up by Jack Cole ("Jake"), one of many produced for the Humorama line of mens' magazines in the years between his early comic book work on Plastic Man and The Spirit, and the Playboy work that defined the last period of his life. (This piece is excerpted from Fantagraphics' wonderful monograph, The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole, edited by Alex Chun and released in 2004. It doesn't actually contain any of his Playboy material, unfortunately. Fantagraphics and Playboy recently collaborated on an excellent overview of Eldon Dedini's pin-up art, so the idea of the two publishers one day producing such a volume isn't that far-fetched.)

First, let's look at the general shape of Cole's picture. I've used red to delineate the piece's main focus - a central oblong focal point roughly corresponding to the curves of the secretary's body and the faces of the men crowding the opposite end of the office. Notice how most of the straight lines in the composition are tangential to the area of negative space at the heart of the picture, defining the negative space without violating it.

Something which surprised me was how the picture's sight-lines also framed the focal space. Look at how the direction of each figure's gaze also manages to do a great job of pointing the viewer towards where the artist wants the viewer to look. I've colored each character's plane of vision with a different colored triangle - you can see, roughly, that they all overlap at the center of the picture, in a pentagonal figure roughly corresponding to the composition I outlined above.

Here's I've colored the picture's three main elements: the figure of the secretary in the center, the furniture in the middleground and the office spectators in the background. Notice how every shape in the picture defines the secretary's figure. The secretary really pops out of the foreground when set against the staid, perpendicular lines of the furniture and her co-workers.

By flipping the colors we see something else entirely: a band of light across the lower half of the picture, roughly corresponding to the ostensible focus point, i.e. the secretary's breasts, torso, hips and legs. In the real piece, obviously, this band of yellow is dark, which also helps to pull the eye down towards the desired focal point. The darkest point of a picture pulls the eye towards it - contrast is one of the illustrator's most potent tools. (This is why flat compositions can present difficulty in terms of immediate accessibility to the viewer. In the case of pin-ups, as well as posters, comic-book covers and album jackets, immediate accessibility is a major goal - if not the major goal - of the artist.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"It's the end -- but the moment has been prepared for."

Well fuck, Joe Quesada had it in for poor old Mary Jane from the moment he took the helm at Marvel. The writing was on the wall from the beginning: married Spider-Man was a bad idea that needed to be done away with, but no good answers presented themselves. They toyed with a few different ideas through the early part of the decade - separating the couple, introducing other love interests, killing Mary Jane outright - before realizing that any kind of drastic measure would saddle the character with as much or more baggage as what they were trying to jettison in the first place.

As flip as Quesada's responses over the years were, he was essentially right: the only thing worse than a married Spider-Man, in terms of clearing an accrual of baggage from the character, would be a divorced Spider-Man or a widower Spider-Man. Aquaman can get away with being divorced, the Atom can get away with being divorced, but neither character's domestic drama is necessarily the focus of their appeal (which are, respectively, underwater shit and shrinking). But you will notice that the introduction of marital woes pretty much irrevocably changed both characters, in that both of their sagas took an immediate and irrevocable turn for the dark. Oddly enough, neither characters' status quo was reset by the original Crisis, which seems in retrospect like a misstep to me. It is possible to make good Aquaman stories where Aquaman is divorced, because the strip's focus has always been the character's milieu - but still, once you give him marital difficulties, they will weigh him down like an albatross for the rest of his existence. He really can't be "fun" like he was back in Super-Friends days because divorce (and a dead child!) are irrevocable signs that someone is Getting Older. From that perspective, I can see the appeal of just shuffling the old guy offstage and replacing him with a younger, hunkier version with a sword - one without an ounce of baggage.

But Spider-Man is different. Personal drama isn't just another element of his mythos, it's inarguably his main appeal. Spider-Man works best, and always has, when he's at the center of an overheated soap-opera. Marrying the character changes the focus of the soap-opera. Conversely, The Fantastic Four is not really a soap-opera, despite the book's soap-opera elements: Reed and Sue have been married long enough and from such an early date that the marriage is and has always been the status quo - a stable marriage isn't really boring in the context of the Fantastic Four because the book presents a stable nuclear family model as the backdrop for its cosmic adventures. That's the book's premise in as succinct a manner as possible. But Spider-Man, he's the "Hard-Luck Hero". He has to be having some kind of personal trouble or he's just another generic long-underwear type. And personal trouble that happens to married people is of a different type than what happens to single people. It's a lot harder for a general audience to relate to, for the exact same reasons. In movies and TV, young people's relationship problems is usually the basis for comedies, whereas married people's problems are usually the basis for dramas. It's not impossible to create serious dramas about young love, or comedies about divorce - but the former often carries some kind of campy or trashy subtext (The OC), while the latter is usually regarded as mordant or macabre. Certainly, it is impossible to imagine Amazing Spider-Man turning into a black comedy about adultery and divorce.

Spider-Man has been married for exactly twenty years, 4/9ths of the character's existence. There have probably been just as many stories written with a married Spider-Man as not. Many generations of comics readers have grown up with a married Spider-Man as the default (Ultimate version notwithstanding). Some of my favorite Spider-Man stories (for nostalgia's sake, if not on a strict aesthetic basis) have been married Spider-Man stories. I think Sal Buscema's married Mary Jane from his long Spectacular run is one of the sexiest comic book females ever. But writing good married Spider-Man stories has gotten progressively harder. How do you keep the character interesting without darkening the tone of the books to a regrettable degree? From that perspective, it isn't hard to see why the Clone Saga happened: they needed to do something to shake the character up, and with his personal life in forced stasis, they could only impose plausible status quo threats from external forces. When J. Michael Straczynski delved into all that bullshit about Spider-Totems and mystical junk, he was taking the franchise in an unpleasant leftward direction that worked against its strengths, but with Spider-Man's personal life - the traditional engine of his best stories - essentially no-man's land, it was probably the best he could do with the materials he had to work with.

I had a brief conversation with a friend of mine recently about Spider-Man, the thrust of which was essentially that dark and gritty Spider-Man stories were completely besides the point. My friend reminded me that regardless of whether or not these stories make "sense" from a characterization point of view, they don't make sense on the more basic level that Spider-Man isn't really a character. Sure, you can argue that he has character traits, but ultimately he's not a dynamic creation, and hasn't been since around 1967. He is a property, a static archetype to be plugged into any number of different types of stories. While the comics industry has been trending darker in its storytelling content for at least 30 years, the trend accelerated in the late 1980s and the effects have been especially harmful to Spider-Man. The books have been cycling for years, with stories getting progressively darker, only to be brought up short by a "back to basics" correction, shortly after which the downward trend resumes. Is there any wonder Marvel wants to put the marriage back in the box?

So now we've got "One More Day", a storyline which promises to almost certainly undo the marriage, as well as Spider-Man's recent unmasking. Honestly, the unmasking was probably the first clue that Marvel had finally gotten the guts to call a redo on the marriage, since such a drastic change to the basic mythos practically necessitated the advent of a cosmic do-over somewhere down the line. I have a great deal of affection for married Spider-Man, but honestly, when I examine the problem from all angles, getting rid of it is a sensible decision. For whatever reasons - lack of imagination, creative entropy, overall industry trends - married Spider-Man just doesn't "work" in many important ways that Spider-Man needs to be able to work in order for the property to remain viable for the broadest and potentially youngest audiences. Marvel has always avoided drastic Crisis-style reboots, with good reason, but from the looks of things they are about to break that rule in a big way.

To me, Spider-Man will always be married. Marvel does not publish Spider-Man comics for me, however, nor should they - for one thing, I haven't actually purchased a Spider-Man comic in years. The property's potency should depend on its appeal to new generations of readers, not the nostalgic memories of longtime fans. But the fantasy of a joyously married Spider-Man swinging into the sunset for one last happy ending is tremendously appealing to me nonetheless. When I was younger I accepted that Spider-Man was married without any problem - sure, it was a departure, but it made sense at the time. It doesn't make much sense anymore. But I'm much older now than I was then, married and since divorced myself, and a lot of things that used to be certainties are no longer as they were. I don't look to Spider-Man for any kind of affirmation in my life, but I feel sympathy for Peter Parker in this instance nonetheless. All things eventually pass. Only in comic books do we get the luxury of do-overs, even if something vital is still inevitably lost.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Introducing Ice Cub

Friday, August 24, 2007


First, before anyone asks, I had nothing to do with this. However, as you may imagine, I am sympathetic towards their stated goal. If in the course of human events you made the decision to aid their Quixotic crusade, I would not lift a finger to stop you.

Looking over some recent comics I was skimming, something jumped out at me that I believe I had been aware of on an unconscious level but hadn't really given the thought necessary to properly articulate. In general: there's a lot of boring shit in DC comics. Specifically: gratuitous martial arts hi-jinks.

Martial arts are really hard to pull off in comic form. Frankly, you need a really good artist to even think about doing it justice - or, failing that, an artist whose particular stylistic tics are well-served by depictions of intimately physical combat grounded at least partially in "real world" physics (a la Paul Gulacy - I defy anyone to call him a particularly good artist, but he's great at drawing kung-fu shit). Barring that, kung-fu in comics becomes just another type of generic super-power, and a particularly boring one at that, because 90% of all martial arts face-offs seem to boil down to people talking about how dangerous a certain character is instead of actually doing anything to prove it to the reader.

But nowadays it seems like every other damn DC book I see is obsessed with martial-arts, in particular the martial-arts acumen of folks like Black Canary, both Green Arrows, Batman and his brood, Nightwing, the whole cast of Birds of Prey, and a boatload of faceless schmucks whose names I couldn't be bothered to remember. It's like these characters and a boatload of their villains are walking around at all times with a bracket scorecard in their pockets with who has beat whom written in with one of those little golf pencils. Marvel has martial arts dudes too, but for the most part ninjas at Marvel are faceless cannon fodder who exist merely to pad out stories. Those few name-brand characters who depend on the martial arts usually either stay clear of the "mainstream" universe, wisely avoiding super-powered shenanigans - Shang-Chi until very recently - or they have some kind of gimmick, like Iron Fist and his, um, iron fist, which allows them to go toe-to-toe with killer robots and the like without totally breaking the suspension of disbelief.

Where exactly did this preoccupation with kung-fu shenanigans begin? My gut says Ostrander's Suicide Squad, although I may be wrong. What began as an occasional feature evolved into a motif, until a whole corner of the universe calcified around the concept that the reader cares which characters are better at fake karate. Honestly, I could not care less whether Lady Shiva is better than Cassie Cain or Bronze Tiger or Black Canary - I say, just call Metamorpho and have him turn their lungs into cyanide or something, or have Superman put them in jail at super-speed so they can move on to fighting someone interesting. I seem to recall Chuck Dixon was particularly enamored with the sub-Bruce Lee action, and he grafted these preoccupations onto the characters and titles he wrote during his tenure at DC. He never wrote much at Marvel, which probably explains why people in the Marvel Universe have better things to do than keep track of fake kung-fu shit.

Because, really, you have to be a special type of nerd pervert to get off on a static four-color representation of something film does so much better, and which very few artists can draw as anything other than generic fighting. It takes a lot of skill to make martial arts sing on the comics page, and most of the folks who draw kung-fu battles in the pages of DC Comics can't really pull it off above the level of people blandly punching and kicking each other. Just seems particularly silly to me, and betrays an almost criminal misunderstanding about what works and what doesn't work on the printed page.

I've been thinking about Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga for a while now, since it hit shelves about a month ago. It's inevitable that our reaction to this album would be influenced by their previous release, 2005's Gimme Fiction. This is not necessarily a flattering comparison, considering that Gimme Fiction was released to universal (and deserved) critical acclaim. That it has managed to hold onto this estimable reputation long after the first blush of hype is all the more precious in this contentious day and age. I resisted it at first myself, but after a handful of listenings it was obvious that Gimme Fiction was as close to a stone-cold masterpiece as is humanly possible. Despite the ostensibly smooth post-punk indie rock exterior, they somehow managed to work just enough of a Sticky Fingers-era Stones feel to conjure a magnificent tension - sort of like tiny drops of machine oil and grease dirtying up the gleaming finish of some massive retro-futuristic machine.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga seems to be a conscious attempt to scale back, even considering the fact that Spoon was already a stridently minimalist combo. There are a couple pieces of pure pop scattered throughout - "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "The Underdog", both in the mold of Fiction's "Sister Jack" - but the boisterous nature of these tracks only sets the contemplative mood of the rest of the album into sharper contrast. This is a mood piece, filled with malingering grooves and half-time Motown rhythms. The hooks are still here, but they've gone from being merely subtle to practically subliminal. This is almost the definition of a "grower": it may take a while to ingratiate itself fully, but you'll find yourself returning time after time regardless. It's not Gimme Fiction II, I'll say that, and I'm almost glad it isn't. I can definitely respect a band that chooses to follow-up their commercial and critical breakthrough with a slightly abstruse exercise in sustained mood. They're probably already making as much money on an indie label as they would be with a major, given the current climate - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is prominently displayed at Target, which is definitely a sign of the changing times. I'd say at this point they really don't need to prove anything to anybody, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is as quietly defiant a piece of work as you're likely to hear this year.

Monday, August 20, 2007

If I Ran The Comics Industry, Part Thirty-Eight

OK, it's an obvious gag, but it's been a while since I did one of these, you know?

Part Thirty-Seven
Part Thirty-Six Part Thirty-Five
Part Thirty-Four Part Thirty-Three
Part Thirty-Two Part Thirty-One
Part Thirty Part Twenty-Nine
Part Twenty-Eight Part Twenty-Seven
Part Twenty-Six Part Twenty-Five
Part Twenty-Four Part Twenty-Three
Part Twenty-Two Part Twenty-One
Part Twenty Part Nineteen
Part Eighteen Part Seventeen
Part Sixteen Part Fifteen
Part Fourteen Part Thirteen
Part Twelve Part Eleven
Part Ten Part Nine
Part Eight Part Seven
Part Six Part Five
Part Four Part Three
Part Two Part One
Your can hate me now / But I won't stop now

Over on his incredibly depressing list of things I will not be able to afford, Tom Spurgeon makes a brief but interesting point about the Scott Pilgrim series:
I'm not as smitten with this engaging series of books as some people seem to be, but the way its fans talk about it makes me think this is a seminal comics experience for a lot of readers, particularly those from about 22-30 years old. I'm not sure there are a lot of those anymore.

This is a very succinct way of parsing the appeal this series has for what appears to be a large cross-section of the "smarter" comics reading crowd. There have been very few negative reactions at all. But the negative views seem to be consistently shouted down but the praise. Just this minute I did a Google search in order to find any review of the series that wasn't entirely laudatory, but I failed miserably. Is it possibly the most universally beloved new comic being published today?

Well, eh, I don't think so.

A couple months back my review of the Scott Pilgrim series to date was published in the pages of The Comics Journal. I usually try to steer clear of commenting on pieces I write elsewhere in the context of this blog, but I am bringing it up at this late date for a couple reasons. One, I wrote the review with the specific purpose of provoking an incendiary response, and perhaps inspiring some kind of back-and-forth on the matter. The fact that this review landed like a wet turd at midnight begs the question, does no one read the Journal anymore? If the Journal can print a ritual disemboweling of one of Team Comics' most sacred cows without inspiring so much as a blink, well, I don't believe the magazine is penetrating anywhere near as deeply into the "intelligent, opinionated" comic reader demographic as it once did. Perhaps the price increase really hurt the magazine? (This is bad because I get paychecks from the Journal, and small as they are they usually go towards paying my credit card bills on any given month. So - buy the Journal, help get Mastercard off my back!)

But secondly, to reiterate, there wasn't a lot of reaction, period. Which was kind of disappointing. The only mention I could find anywhere online was one rebuttal by Mr. Chris Allen, posted here. Like the review itself it was posted a while ago, but since he was courteous enough to respond, I figure I should be courteous to resply in kind.

Essentially, Mr. Allen disagrees with every single facet of my review. Which is fun, I like writing things that piss people off. I take issue with some of his quibbles on my diction -- picking on pipsqueak grammar problems is pretty low in my book, especially since his examples are hardly deal-breakers. "Totally derailed" may be redundant, but putting a modifying adverb on an absolute verb is hardly a federal offense, and most people do it on a regular basis - I do it myself mostly for stylistic reasons pertaining to the flow of sentence structure. Sometimes a sentence just reads better if there's an adverb, even if it's not strictly necessary. I'll own up to the double usage of "deft", but again, the second figurative usage which Allen criticizes is not something I would ever criticize. Allen breaks out his thesaurus to give us proper synonyms for "deft", but apparently when he logged in to he didn't look any further down the page to see the other usages offered - "dexterous of hand and inventive of mind", "skilful, quick and neat". I'd defend my usage to anyone.

If this sounds tetchy, well, it is. Allen's reaction comes off as extremely tetchy - he even throws in a bit towards the end about "not just the writer but the editor needing to take a little more care with the final product". I am not going to defend Michael Dean - he's always been more than fair in his dealings with me - if you want to attack his tenure as editor he is a big boy, he can take it, and last I checked his e-mail address was publicly available. But accusing the Journal of being lax in its standards simply because they printed a review that you disagreed with seems to me rather to be missing the point. And many of Allen's criticisms seem to be exactly that, missing the point in the name of defending a book he likes instead of speaking to the criticism at hand.

The core contention here is one with which I strongly disagree and believe to be indefensibly fallacious: that an "inability to accept the concept of the series [disqualifies me] from writing about the execution of that concept". If you accept this at face value, you've essentially invalidated the entirety of criticism throughout history. It is perhaps the first job of an artist - writer, cartoonist, director, whatever - to convince the audience of what they are doing, no matter how unusual or leftfield it may be. Failure to convince your audience is tantamount to failing, period. Saying that because I cannot accept the series' concept I cannot criticize the series' execution is simply bullshit. I could spend a lot of time explaining how this is wrong in specific detail, but for the purposes of brevity I'd like to point Mr. Allen to Your Movie Sucks by Roger Ebert. Regardless of your opinions on Mr. Ebert, he is never better when he is lambasting bad movies. If you believed for one second that an inability to accept the premise of a story disqualified you from critiquing said story, the very idea of a bad review would seem like a non-sequitor - the only "legitimate" bad review would be a review that wasn't really bad, merely conciliatory. Your Movie Sucks would be a waste of paper instead of a very funny book, because Ebert's inability to fully get behind the premise of Deuce Bigalo 2 would disqualify him from ranting about how poor the movie actually was.

It is conceivable that a good movie could someday be made with Deuce Bigalo's premise - maybe not with Rob Schneider at the helm, but hey, it's not like dick jokes are ever going to go out of style. By that same token, it is conceivable that someday someone make an action-romance-comedy about video games that isn't insulting on the face of it, but Scott Pilgrim is not such a book. If you are not already "on board" with the idea of video games, you're pretty much out of luck with the book, and Brian O'Malley does nothing in the way of combating reader preconceptions in this regard. As it is, I am a Grown Adult and I don't accept the validity of video games as anything deserving serious discourse. I sort of skirted this issue when I wrote about Penny Arcade in the pages of the Journal a few months back, for a couple reasons. I do have an honest respect for what Tycho and Gabe have achieved, and their accomplishments as self-appointed spokespersons for the gaming community. And I didn't really think it would have been appropriate to open the can of worms of my separate misgivings in the context of discussing their work.

But for Scott Pilgrim, my misgivings were pulled front and center by the work itself: video games are for children*. Grown adults who play video games, and furthermore, relate life experience back to the dubious metaphorical world of video games, have a lot of work ahead of them before they can expect to convince me that the whole thing isn't a waste of my time. Scott Pilgrim isn't labeled or sold as a childrens' book, so I am left to believe that Grown Adults are supposed to somehow identify with the intrinsically juvenile metaphors on which O'Malley has built his story - including, it must be said, extremely offensive gender politics and an unblinking acceptance of violence as a means of concept resolution. I have an easier time accepting the multiple layers of suspension of disbelief behind Geoff Johns' continuity porn JSA than I do Scott Pilgrim.

So, call me lazy, call me dishonest, "call me irresponsible" - but I just don't like Scott Pilgrim. I think it's pretty much the definition of a work designed to stroke the pleasure receptors of a certain specific audience, with little to no attention - and seemingly a conscious disregard - given to how it may play outside this narrowcast focus. Pointing out that this approach is, in fact, a pretty lazy way to reap unearned acclaim may seem harsh, but there you go.

* There is only one video game which I play on anything resembling a "regular" basis - SimCity. I feel very bad about this because it is the definition of a "time waster" - my life would be a lot better if I didn't have such things in any capacity whatsoever. It's pretty much the definition of a "guilty pleasure", and on the ladder of "guilty pleasures" I'd almost rather admit to downloading midget tranny dog-fucking porn than playing video games, but there you go. Mea cupla.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Because Absolutely No-One Demanded It

These wonderful photos come courtesy of Mr. Alan Light.
The originals can be found here.

Monday, August 13, 2007

This Post Is So Leftfield, It Should Be
Called Paul Daley and Neil Barnes

"The original Dragon's Lair was hugely ground-breaking and influential. Sadly, the ground was probably left unbroken, as the game's influence led to trash like Night Trap and pretty much everything on the Philips CD-i. I'm not even sure you could call Dragon's Lair a "game", as "playing" it consisted of watching a few minutes of a Don Bluth cartoon, then pressing a button in order to key up the next animation. It was immensely popular, but my gosh it was rubbish.

"Obviously a then-high-end arcade machine based on laserdisc technology was never going to scale down well to the NES, and if the producers had tried such a conversion, then no one would be surprised if it were awful. What *is* surprising is that turning the game into a side-scrolling platform puzzler more in keeping with the humble grey box's technical capabilities would also be awful. The controls could be described as sluggish, although that would be doing a disservice to slugs, and the game itself is almost impossibly hard, with instant death situations around every corner, including enemies which seem to be able to kill the lead character just by looking at him. Which would be fine if you could avoid said enemies, except you can't because the controls and timing are so broken, and so on, until you start trying to hop to the Sun, because that would be less futile an activity than playing this terrible non-game. The producers of this game did what few of their peers have managed over the years, and that is to scale down a coin-op for home consoles, and yet retain the original gameplay; sadly, the original gameplay was dire." (poit)

"Dragon's Lair (Grade Incomplete) - I would give this a real grade, but unfortunately I cannot get past the first screen. I feel so awful for not being able to clear one measly little screen. Thank heaven I didn't pay big money for this game or I would be screaming bloody murder." (poit)

"It's only the hardcore, the critics and the reviewers who tend to have it in for Lair and its ilk, and that may be because a game like Dragon's Lair renders both criticism and years of carefully-accumulated gaming expertise worthless. Everything it has to offer is right up front on the surface, anyone can see for themselves in a matter of seconds what this game is about, decide for themselves if they're interested in it or not, and start playing it instantly. It doesn't need years of practice, it doesn't need explaining, it doesn't need judging. And speaking as a critic, there's nothing we hate more than having our very reason to exist taken away from us." (poit)

Thursday, August 09, 2007


As has been pointed out to me, my previous post is quite possibly the Nerdiest Post Ever in the history of this august website. So - mea culp, mea culpa - I have failed you, let you down. (In the interests of accuracy I did go back and update the chart to reflect your suggestions, however.)

So, as a way of offering penance, I present to you one of the greatest things I have ever seen. It's easy to throw around bullshit superlatives, but I think the person who is responsible for this really should be eligible for some kind of Nobel Prize medal.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Don't Judge Me

Because there was some confusion in the comments for the most recent post, I thought I'd take a minute to type out what I believe to be, from a lifetime of reading bad comics, the relative strength levels of the various Marvel characters. It's been a while since I've sat down with an issue of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe but I still recall quite clearly how the book avoided any real judgment on the more contentious issues - say, Thor vs. the Hulk - but still did a good job of providing relative power levels for most of the rest of the strong guys in the Marvel Universe. The "Class 100" thing was good way of avoiding the subject, but even given that a few general rules of thumb have cohered in the treatment of the characters - despite the occasional blunder (like Hercules moving the island of Manhattan with a tow-chain - whu?).

A couple notes: Iron Man is not included, as the variable nature of his armor makes any real guess as to his strength level moot - one of his "Hulk Buster" armors probably easily taps out at "Class 100", whereas his black stealth armor is probably very weak in comparison. Traditionally, in the context of the Avengers, Iron Man was always treated as roughly 75-80% as strong as Thor in any given story, putting him about level with the Thing, which still seems like a good rule of thumb to me.

The Sentry's power levels are constantly variable, even in the context of the same story, so any guess as to how strong he is usually comes down to "however strong the writer wants him to be". His powers are such a willful deus ex machina that it's really difficult to get a handle on what he can and can't even do - and over the years I've read more or less every story the character has appeared in! (Well, not all of the New Avengers appearances, because, well, even for free they blow.)

Relative Strength
(In Descending Order)

The Silver Surfer* / The Destroyer (Armor)*
The Juggernaut (Fully Powered) / "World War" Hulk / Gladiator** / "Odinpower" Thor
Thor / Beta Ray Bill / The Hulk (Green) / Thanos / The Abomination / Hercules
Sub-Mariner (Submerged) / Absorbing Man***
Wonder Man / The Thing (Pointy Rock)****
Gray Hulk / The Thing (Normal) / She-Hulk / Black Bolt / Demigod Hercules
Colossus / The Champion***** / Sasquatch / Sub-Mariner (Out of water)
Ms. Marvel / Rogue / Doc Sampson

* For all intents and purposes the Silver Surfer and the Odin-powered Destroyer armor both possess essentially limitless reservoirs of power. In the past the Surfer has been able to vary his physical power depending on the situation, and even without any preparation has shrugged off the Hulk's mightiest blows with little or no distress. The Destroyer Armor is probably the most powerful mystical artifact in the Marvel Universe, and has never been defeated physically. It's easy to imagine that the Destroyer could probably defeat even the Silver Surfer, if worn by a sufficiently ruthless warrior.

** Depending on his willpower, his strength is variable.

*** Having absorbed an incredibly strong metal, such as Uru (Thor's hammer), adamantium or the adamantium alloy of which Captain America's shield is composed.

****Fantastic Four #310-327

***** Without his Infinity Gem - with the gem, his physical strength is assumed to be near-infinite.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Rock & Roll Babylon

For all their supposed rock star hedonism, Crosby Stills Nash & occasionally Young still sound like goopy hippy love syrup being poured over fat wet dog shit.

The new Interpol album is good. Those expecting some stylistic breakthrough will undoubtedly be disappointed. Interpol still sound like Interpol, with all the derivative baggage that implies. But still, they have perfected their sound with such clinical precision that it's difficult not to marvel at the efficiency on display here. So intrinsically frigid that it needs to be stacked separately from other CDs, lest they crack and shatter.

New Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP: good, not great. Feels a little bit like a sop to those fans who were alienated by the mature songwriting on display on last year's Show Your Bones. To which I say: buy a clue, meatheads.

Rescue Dawn just misses out on being a truly great movie because of its intentionally narrow focus. It's a Werner Herzog film, so of course it's about a lone man set against the forces of madness and inhumanity, across a backdrop of brutal and unremittingly harsh nature. The first ten minutes are kind of weak, with Herzog clearly ill at ease with attempts at conventional exposition - but once Christian Bale's plane goes down and we're set adrift across the Vietnamese countryside, everything falls into place with an almost audible sense of satisfaction. The pacing is laconic, the cinematography deceptively plain, the camerawork barely a step above utilitarian - and yet, from about the ten-minute point onward, maniacally compelling. In some respects it's repetitive - this is well-trod territory for Herzog, and it's hard to resist comparing the film to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. In some respects all three films present variations on the same theme, told from different angles. Even if Rescue Dawn doesn't quite measure up to the first two, the fact that it still deserves to be mentioned in the same breath is quite an achievement.

I'm no awards gadfly but I'll be damned if Christian Bale doesn't deserve some sort of trophy simply based on the amount of abuse he puts his body through. If self-destructive commitment to his roles were the yardstick by which actors were measured (see also American Psycho, The Machinist), he'd be the greatest thespian of his generation - as it is, he's still pretty good. Extra bonus points for continuing to act in real grown-up films even while cashing paychecks from silly kids' movies.

I enjoyed World War Hulk #3 so much I had to keep checking the cover to make sure that this was indeed an actual comic published by Marvel in the year 2007. Looking across the internet, the reaction to this series so far seems to border on hushed disbelief - people are so ready, so willing, so accustomed to think the absolute worst of Marvel's big events - hell, Marvel in general - that the fact that most people actually seem to like the series leaves most people without anything at all to say - that is, struck dumb. Myself, I like the book so much I'm actually putting hard cash on the barrel to buy it - not only that, I'm making a trip up to Northampton out of my way for the sole purpose of buying the book. I actually want to see what happens next: it's an interesting sensation, to reach the last page of a comic book and be left wanting more, instead of just dully asking "well, how bad will the next issue be?" Such a seemingly simple objective, when considering the established purpose of serial adventure fiction, and yet so rare in practice.

There are of course a few quibbles. Pak seems to be working under the Secret Wars exposition formula: every issue features a complete reiteration of the series' premise as well as every significant characters' motivation. It's certainly a jarring change of pace from the average comic these days, which just assumes everyone knows everything from page one (recap pages notwithstanding). That said, in the modern era all this excess exposition isn't really necessary. I think it can fairly be said that anyone reading the series in serial format will be at least generally familiar with the major plot points, and the excess exposition is even more redundant in the context of the eventual collected edition.

Iron Fist uses his, um, iron fist against one of the Hulk's D&D-reject monster pals to no good effect, which I thought was rather silly. I'm no Iron Fist partisan but it seems to me that if your character's sole claim to fame is his massively powerful super-fist, something should happen when he punches someone.

General Ross is the smartest person to appear in the series so far. He's got more reason to hate the Hulk than anyone alive, and has been the characters' primary antagonist for longer than anyone else. If you consider the fact that the character had been pretty thoroughly soiled after multiple decades of useless appearances (including a nonstarter death and resurrection that didn't really effect anybody in any real way), that amounts to a pretty neat rehabilitation on Pak's part.

One quibble about the otherwise stellar Doctor Strange / Hulk fight - the major bit of action depended on the apparent fact that anything that happens to Doc's astral form happens to his physical body as well. It's not a great leap, but I didn't immediately recall this being an established bit of Doc canon, and it isn't stated at any point in the narrative. If you've ever seen a Nightmare on Elm Street movie it's essentially the same concept, but the fact that I needed to make that extra-contextual cognitive leap brought me out of the story ever so slightly. Given that the Hulk has a history of reacting unusually to magic, it makes sense to us old-timers if we give it a moments' thought (remember that all incarnations of the Hulk have always been able to see Doc's astral form), but it would have been nice to see it explicitly laid out in the narrative.

That said - wow, I can't remember the last time I wanted to read the next issue of something quite so much as I want to read World War Hulk #4. I'm glad the series has so far avoided the potential pitfalls of a super-slugfest book - lots of plot twists to keep everything interesting. The twist at the end of issue three was so unexpected, I honestly have no idea where the series is going now - I suspect that we may see Doc taken out of the fight before he has a chance to really pummel the Hulk. If you remember Zom at all you also remember that he is number one on the Living Tribunal's hit list, and an appearance by the Living Tribunal would pretty decisively change the series' focus.

I just hope they have the good sense to keep the Silver Surfer out of the book - I'd argue he's the one character who could still decisively defeat the Hulk. For all his power Strange still had a definite physical frailty which the Hulk could exploit. The Surfer is the living embodiment of the Power Cosmic, and especially now that he's been re-upped by Galactus it wouldn't be much of a fight at all.

Marvel did hint that Thor would make an appearance at some point, right?

Speaking of Thor, I read - notice I did not say buy - the second issue of his new series, in which Thor proceeds to, um, buy some real estate. At this rate, the book's second arc will feature the God of Thunder investigating term life insurance. And by the time we get to the book's second year, we might - might - see a brief cameo by the Absorbing Man, and they might actually fight by issue #27. This is simply crap, and my sympathies to anyone who paid good money for this drivel.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Stuff, 07/02
Click on a link, put a dime in my cup.

The Knife - Silent Shout (Deluxe Edition)

I freely admit to the fact that I "slept" on these guys, long past the point where I probably should have given them a fairer shake. The fact is, I had a promo copy of Silent Shout sitting on my shelf for over a year before I even listened to it all the way through. The first time I tried to listen to the Knife, sometime last summer, I was so immediately and violently repulsed by the weird vocal processing they use for just about every track that I immediately dismissed them, despite the hype and despite the weighty critical claim. To my ears it sounded silly, hysterically weird and totally unfortunate.

Well, it still sounds a bit silly. I'm of two minds about it: on the one hand, it's off-putting for the very real reason that it seems almost like they're not really taking things seriously. As if the whole thing is somehow beneath them so they're just "taking the piss", laughing at the same audience they're supposedly entertaining. I think, especially when you look at their elaborate stage presentation, there is more than a little bit of the much-maligned "electroclash" in their genes, in particular the consciously daft performance art approach of Fischerspooner.

But the thing is, Fischerspooner were horrid. They admitted as much, really, when they said on numerous occasions that their songs took a decided back seat to their show. The crucial difference here is that the Knife have some really good songs as well as a really good grasp of what works and doesn't work in the world of sinister synth-pop. There's a bit of Tears For Fears, some 80s Genesis (yay for Invisible Touch), a tiny dash of Underworld and a heaping dollop of Violator-era Depeche Mode. The new Deluxe Edition adds both a live CD and a bonus DVD with the same live set and all their videos to date. Considering how much of the group's appeal is based on their presentation, it's a fairly essentially supplement, as these things go. But it wouldn't be worth much if the songs weren't worth hearing, and in this instance the songwriting is more than a match for the visual presentation. I'm always skeptical - justifiably so, I believe - of bands that place such a weighty premium on their visual presentation, but with the Knife you definitely get the feeling that the songs aren't simply an excuse to dress up in funny costumes.

The Manic Street Preachers - Send Away The Tigers

Finally the Manics have another US record deal, with Sony subsidiary Red Ink. It's funny, the Manic Street Preachers have been one of the biggest bands in the world for over a decade, but they still can't get arrested in the States - their last album wasn't even released here. Maybe now that they've got another label here they'll go back and give us a proper release for Lifeblood, hmm?

Anyway, if you're expecting something in the mold of Lifeblood, you'll probably be disappointed here: the order of the day is mostly a return to the loud guitars of their earliest recordings. That is not to say a return to their punkish mode, a la "Found That Soul" - Send Away The Tigers is glammy like Gold Against the Soul, with some of the later albums' more elegant and developed songwriting intact. First single "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" features a guest vocal by Nina Persson of the Cardigans. I had never really paid much attention to her before but there's something almost hypnotic about her voice here. I think I might pick up some Cardigans one of these days.

They do get a few demerits for the cover of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" tacked on as a hidden track: I hate solo Lennon, and I really don't understand why people continue to idolize his post-Beatles work so much. Oh, wait, yes I do: he's dead. Well, fuck, if Paul McCartney had died in 1980 instead of John, you'd all be wetting yourself over Wings at the Speed of Sound instead of Plastic Ono Band. And if I ever have to sit through another turgid, insipid cover of "Imagine", I am gonna go nuts and strangle some geese or something.

Mozart - Requiem (Morton Schuldt-Jensen, conductor)

I was in the mood to hear Mozart's Requiem the other day, and it just so happens that the Barnes & Noble near the Target in Holyoke has an extremely awesome classical selection. Pleasant surprise! I've never been let down by the Naxos label and this 2004 recording is no exception to that rule. I am always surprised by how lopsided the Requiem is when I hear it - it always seems to me as if the climax comes too early. Perhaps this is a reflection of the piece's somewhat piecemeal origins - I am sure a PhD musicologist could tell me exactly. But it's more interesting to me to see how the piece begins big and seems to end on a much more subtle note than the listener would instinctively expect. Again, it's always a temptation with this piece to try and parse exactly where Mozart ends and Süssmayr begins - but I think its best for us amateurs resist that temptation. The slightly dissonant stylistic shifting gives the piece some of its character, at least from where I sit. Not perhaps my favorite piece, probably not even my favorite Mozart piece, but it always commands my interest.

Garbage - Absolute Garbage (Deluxe Edition)

And from Mozart to Garbage - no editorializing intended, folks. I admit that I ordered this album almost solely based on the strength of the remixers available on the deluxe edition's second disc - Massive Attack, Jagz Kooner, UNKLE and Felix Da Housecat, to name just a few. (There's also remix by - ugh - the Crystal Method, but you can't win 'em all.) But to my surprise I found myself listening to the first disc, the "hits", a lot more than the remixes. I always forget how much I like what Garbage does. It's not exactly rocket science, but they've got a tight lock on the whole post-grunge pop industrial sound. I was also surprised by how strong the later material was - tracks like "Cherry Lips" and "Why Do You Love Me" may have been released long past the point where the band could rely on any serious airplay, and consequently I was not very familiar with them, but they're easily as strong than the more familiar likes of "Stupid Girl" or "Special". (No comment on the rather facile lyrics on early tracks like "Vow"). I probably wouldn't have taken the plunge if the set hadn't been heavily discounted - $12 is a great price for two discs - but in any event I am glad I did, and may just be inspired to go back and fill in some of the gaps later.
Man, Good Fucking Thing It's The Week After San Diego So No One Notices How Lame I am For Not Posting Anything All Damn Week

Plus: Show Your Boss A Giant Purple Phallus