Thursday, August 28, 2008

Out of Town, Out to Lunch

On vacation in an undisclosed location. In the interim, I'll throw out a question for my readers, something I've been meaning to write about for some time but have yet to actually do so.

The Donald Duck we read about in comics is an entirely different character than the Donald Duck we see in cartoons. There are many reasons for this. The difference is similar to something you might expect from an Earth 1 / Earth 2 division.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Life With the Skrull Kill Krew

Let's talk, briefly, about the 90s.

Dick asked whether or not there were any good superhero comics in the 1990s. He gave a thorough drubbing to a few of the usual suspects here. Tom answered with a partial list of his own.

Looking back through my archives, I've addressed this topic more than once, so I thought I'd pluck out a couple interesting pieces that might be of note if you've never seen them before.

First, about a year and a half ago when I was hard up for something to write about I banged out a brief list of my Top Five Mainstream Superhero Books of the 90s. It was off the top of my head and I can see maybe tinkering with it if I ever decided this were a topic that really mattered a lot to me, but essentially it's a good list I'll still stand by today:
5. Weapon X - Barry Windsor-Smith
4. Starman - James Robinson & Various (notwithstanding the bad parts)
3. "Unity", in various Valiant titles - Jim Shooter & Various
2. "The Rock of Ages", in JLA - Grant Morrison & Howard Porter
1. Marvels - Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross

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

Keep in mind I had just recently reread "Unity" at the time and if I had to do it over again perhaps the book would not have placed so high - perhaps the Ellis / Hitch Authority would find its way on to the list. My main motivation behind putting it on the list, I guess, is the fact that - like a lot of comics fans - I've got a deep-seated affection for huge reality-bending crossovers which feature every character ever, but am fully aware that even the best of them usually suck. I mean, yeah, Infinity Gauntlet still holds up as a ripping yarn, but given that the original artist quit halfway through because the story was too repetitive*, it hardly holds up as great comics art. "Unity" actually felt like the kind of story that had to involve all these different disparate characters, and it also had real, legitimate repercussions that would play out throughout the remainder of Valiant's lifespan. Now, we didn't actually get to see most of the events promised in Rai #0 come to pass because the company changed hands and went out of business (in that order), but the tight continuity and fairly unusual adherence to more-or-less well-defined sci-fi strictures made for a uniquely engaging set of stories. The bit where Magnus gets to meet his parents and doesn't even know it is simply great.

Lobo - the original Lobo, that is - is a great book that I suspect most people who came of age after the character's prime have never given a second thought, and there's a good reason for that, considering how poorly the character has fared in the ensuing years. I mean, seriously, if your only exposure to the character was the watered-down Main Man of 52 or the JLU cartoon or even - shudder - his surprisingly long-running, execrable solo title, you'd probably be disinclined to ever want to see him again in any capacity. But it was great black comedy, sort of like Marshal Law if that book had been created with the sole purpose of mocking its own audience. Gleefully hateful.

Dick hates Howard Porter with a passion that seems slightly out-of-proportion, at least from where I'm sitting - I bought the run off the stands as it came out and I must say that Porter's art seemed perfect for the material at the time. Even the dated elements don't really seem to grate that much. Sure, Electric Blue Superman and Crab Mask Green Lantern are goofy as fuck, but rather than date the stories (as I've seen many people suggest) they rather add to the tacky, overheated stew. Hell, there's even a "Genesis" tie-in right in the middle of "Rock of Ages" - and yet it works, because Morrison's JLA was a book composed of hyperventilating day-glo neon bullshit, and the more extraneous junk that could possibly be thrown into the pile, the better. Of course, Morrison would later take that philosophy and overdo it to the point of exhaustion, but on a book like JLA it felt right.

(I have to disagree that the hook-handed Aquaman was a bad idea. Maybe it's one of those things that you just had to be there for, and I'm not making any claims for Peter David's interpretation of the character, which I found rather boring, but at the time it made perfect sense.)

Weapon X is a great book that, again, is probably less read today than it once was. Probably the best Wolverine story there ever could be, even if it's only tangentially about Wolverine, and even if everything good about this story was subsequently trampled and gang-raped by the people who made the actual Wolverine comic book.

Maybe I need to reread Starman. I've seen more than one person recently make the claim that it doesn't hold up nearly as well as we all remember it. Maybe my memories of the early issues are distorted, and my evaluation of the later, dire, space opera storyline not quite as even-handed as it should be.

As for Marvels, I've never made a secret of my affection for that series. I wrote a couple long-ish evaluations here and here which hold up fairly well, even if they fall prey to some of my worse tendencies as a writer - namely, stating my case a bit too strongly, and rather skirting around the point when a more concise, direct approach would be more appropriate. To wit: the reason Marvels holds up for me is that it's about nostalgia, and the way nostalgia can distort people's lives. It's not about how great it is to read superhero comic books, it's about how affection can turn into blind devotion, and how the object of that devotion can't really love you back. Marvels is essentially a long-form version of Tom Spurgeon's "Comics Made Me Fat".

If you're of a certain age and have never had the kind of "break" in comic reading that a lot of people usually do - you know, the old, "I discovered girls / college / pot and comics went by the wayside" - in other words, if you're a lifer, your relationship with comics is probably pretty complicated. Comics can be like a drug. They say addicts get stuck at the level of emotional maturity they were when they first began to use. That is definitely true for comics fans, and learning to outgrow what can be a pretty crippling, albeit comforting "crutch" can be really, really traumatic.

That's what Marvels is about. Sure, there's that rush of first, sweet love when you find yourself drawn into the world of brightly-colored superheroes. But then you grow and mature, or at least, you do so haltingly, held back by your unhealthy devotion to the minutiae of Spider-Man and Wolverine. Instead of a sideline it becomes a shield against an unthinking, uncaring world. Reading comics as a young adult makes you, in other words, a socially retarded, sexually frustrated, out-of-shape and ethically confused shithead.

Marvels doesn't end with Phil Sheldon looking up into the sky, seeing Thor fly by and saying to himself, "gee, these super-heroes sure are wonderful". It ends with Sheldon throwing a coffee cup into a television and washing his hands of super-heroes, forever, because he's sick of that shit. Then he goes out and has his picture taken with a kid who will one day grow up to be Ghost Rider, which proves that these things will go on whether you're a part of it or not. The world keeps on turning, and it'll keep on turning whether or not you're at the comic shop every Wednesday to buy Amazing Spider-Man.

* Yeah, I know - there was the small matter of his being over-committed, due to penciling that summer's other big x-over, DC's War of the Gods - which was obviously a bigger priority considering it was built on the chassis of his Wonder Woman run - but if George Perez thinks your story is redundant, well, maybe you should pay attention.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Stuff I Have Read

The Last Defenders #6

The Defenders is a difficult concept, both in terms of how the book can be approached by a writer and what the readers expect. Bluntly, it doesn't work. It worked for a brief period in the 70s when all the main characters' status quos happened to place them in similar enough mindsets that they could conceivably be expected to be in the same room at the same time for longer than five minutes. I guess that's the appeal, but it's also the inevitable problem. The Hulk, Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer just don't need to be on a team together. They all have their own lives and adventures, and the only possible way to put them together for more than a single storyline is essentially to contrive a silly motivation or an even sillier plot device. Back in the 70s, they managed to make it go for a surprisingly long run before it fell apart, but in the end there was little that could be done to commercially redeem a book whose main draw is seeing four disparate characters bitch at each other for 22 pages at a time, especially when three of those characters are only intermittently popular enough to support solo books.

One of my favorite Defenders stories is a reunion crossover penned by Peter David somewhere during the first half of his Hulk run. There's a nice scene in there where Dr. Strange, Namor and Bruce Banner are sitting around having a cup of coffee or something, reminiscing about old times and discussing the threat of the moment. It's a great bit because the characters are relaxed, not at each others' throats, positively friendly - it underscores the fact that the characters don't necessarily hate each other, and in fact, if they just met periodically for social visits they'd be fast friends, considering how much they have in common. But because circumstances dictate that they must be individualists, the moment they "have" to work together for a "common cause" - and especially the moment the Hulk starts making fun of Fish-Man's pointed ears, or Dr. Strange starts telling people what they should be doing because it's clearly obvious to him - they start acting like a pile of bickering junior-high kids. It's fun to watch but the forced conflict grates a bit thin, especially considering that we're long past the point where folks like Dr. Strange and the Surfer can reasonably be written as domineering assholes without also being massively out of line with 40+ years of character development. (Although they seemed to have found a loophole for that on the Surfer's part by returning him to his original status quo, but said status quo also effectively cuts him out of having any logical or even passably illogical reason for being seen in the company of any of these other guys.)

But that's just geek talk: the real reason why they never found a convincing reason for the Defenders - the core team of Defenders, that is - to stick together for any amount of time past the original 70s run, is that the Defenders don't sell. If they did sell, you best believe that someone would have figured out a damn good reason to bring the team together. As a brand, it rates somewhere below the Outsiders or the New Warriors - borderline concepts that nonetheless manage to stay in print periodically - and above Checkmate and Cloak & Dagger, perpetual losers in the revamp game. There will always be brief Defenders revivals, but barring a miracle they will be just that - brief.

The conventional logic behind team books - that putting less-popular characters together in one book makes for a book that is more popular than the sum of the composite characters - works in reverse for The Defenders. It is possible to make a successful team out of second-and-third stringers with a good enough creative team and a strong hook - they did it with the post-Crisis Justice League, they did it with the original New Warriors - hell, the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men were pretty much the definition of B-listers. But the same formula works in reverse for the Defenders - on their own, each character can at least make an attempt at feasible, marquee-level solo success: they each have their own distinctive mythos, supporting characters, and rich history. But put them together and watch sales shrivel faster than the Sub-Mariner in Death Valley. It's not just that they are, in the context of their own stories, an "anti-team" - the book itself is an anti-comic. It has every reason in the world to sell, but it doesn't.

So while no one was looking, Joe Casey wrote a comic book about just that fact. The Defenders is a concept that has no reason to exist, and on its own it just doesn't make sense. There's no motivation. The concept of The Last Defenders is that there is no motivation for this team to exist, and really, no reason for this book to be printed. There's just an idea, a random, abstract notion on the part of both Kyle Richmond and Joe Casey that there should be a Defenders. Nighthawk wants there to be a Defenders for the same reason that David Lovering will never say no to a Pixies reunion. Part of me is sad that Joe Casey put so much obvious thought, effort and subtle attention to a comic that will be read by maybe 20,000 people and almost instantly forgotten. But another part of me is happy that he did because despite how futile it is that he created such a wonderfully awkward story, it was nevertheless very fun to read.

I think, to a degree, Casey is underrated because he goes out of his way to minimize the kind of flashy, attention-getting impulses that make Morrison beloved among the comics blognognoscenti. This is not to say he doesn't have his fans, but they tend to be far more reserved than not - when was the last time you heard someone talking about how absolutely fucking fantastic Automatic Kafka was, but how many words have you seen devoted to that boring-ass Aztek thing in just the last month since they put out the trade? You'll never see Kafka collected, not unless someone at DC wakes up one morning and decides to put it on the production schedule as their last act before flipping off Paul Levitz and jumping out a 10th story window.

Casey is an extremely understated writer when it suits his purposes. This series, for instance? It's essentially five-and-a-half issues of feints and misdirection, a seemingly pointless series of events that only coheres in the final pages of the final issue - but then, when Casey finally delivers the punchline, well, the whole thing makes a whole lot more sense. What had been random, disassociated bits of plot come together and there's something interesting there, an amalgamation of ideas that - while none of them terribly original on their own - come together for a unique, spicy flavor. It's not like he could have just started out on page 1 with this new, "final" line-up of Defenders, he had to prove a point, which was that this wasn't just another team of Defenders, this was the best team of Defenders there could ever possibly be. And there's an open question in the book's final pages as to how necessary even that is. It's a tricky move, considering that in any event he wasn't likely to maintain an audience through five issues of shadowboxing to get to the pay-off. That's how Morrison has been operating for the past few years, but Morrison's name ships a lot more copies than Casey's. The Last Defenders was structured very much like "Batman RIP", with a whole bunch of misdirection and false preamble leading up to eventual coalescence. The difference is that even if it were the most abstruse, unreadable piece of crap (and I was convinced up until this last issue that that is exactly what "Batman RIP" was), Batman has to work hard to dip below 70 or 80,000 copies, whereas any book selling itself on the strength of The Defenders as a brand-name better hope that one of the creators on the cover is named "Alan Moore" or "Alex Ross". Just the way the world works.

It means we might be waiting in vain for another adventure of Joe Casey's Defenders. It's OK, all things considered, because the concept has been constructed with planned obsolescence in mind. A lot of work for the superhero equivalent of a shaggy dog story!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

With the Usual Apologies to Dorian for Stealing His Schtick

Although, honestly, context really doesn't help for this one.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Who Watches the Wazzzzzzxxxxzzzzz

I sort of implied I'd be writing something about that Watchmen trailer, didn't I? I'm not really that upset about it. It doesn't offend me on a profound level in the same manner as that Spirit trailer. I just don't care. I'll probably see the movie, it might be fun, most likely not really for anyone who read the book. But I do care about the book.

If 1/20th of the however-the-fuck-many copies of the book have been printed actually get purchased and get read, the movie will have been a rousing success for that purpose. It's obviously not as if Watchmen has ever been short of plaudits or attention - most of it well-earned - but seeing a legitimately great book being exposed to a even larger audience than would normally seek it out, well, that's pretty good. To his credit, and even as much as I dislike the man's work, Zack Snyder has said pretty much the same thing. Despite the fact that simply making the movie is dodgy from an ethical and aesthetic point of view, the director has at least an iota of class. A small iota, but an iota nonetheless.

Still, it must be said: the book was great for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons has to be the way in which it methodically deconstructed all the beloved genre trappings of its parent, the superhero comic. "Deconstruction" has become a cliche of almost unimaginable proportions, but it's still true - more than mere deconstruction, the book took a fucking scalpel to the entire notion of the super-hero. There were good books to follow which treaded the same ground - Marshal Law turned the mysanthropy up to the proverbial 11, Marvels made the poison-pill bittersweet by inverting and poisoning the process of nostalgia itself - but this is the book that made all that possible. Again, as with the Spirit, I ask, how much of the book will be lost by even the most faithful adaption, simply by dint of the fact that the movie can't come with any kind of contextual referents for the uninitiated?

Reading the book, it's fairly obvious to any moderately intelligent reader* that Rorschach is - far from an absolutely bad-ass combination of the best qualities of Batman, Daredevil and Wolverine - a mess, scary not so much because he's dangerous (although he is) but because he's fucking crazy. He's a violent psychopath with sociopathic tendencies, a racist, a reactionary, obsessed with Reagan-era** eschatology and fueled by delusions of unimpeachable moral righteousness. In short, he's the logical extension of every vigilante power fantasy ever brought to life on paper. But I suspect any filmmaker, even an extremely skilled filmmaker, would have to work pretty hard to keep Rorschach from coming off well in a film adaptation, for much the same reason that all but the most inhuman, unwatchably brutal war films can be accused of ultimately glorifying war simply by portraying it.*** If the film can pull it off, great, but I remain skeptical. The proper reaction to Rorschach is revulsion, straight-up - maybe not in the first chapter but certainly by the time the reader reaches the sequence of the psychiatric examination. If they keep the flashback sequence with the rottweilers, I'll be extremely surprised, because if they did it in the same manner as the book they'd have people walking out of theaters all across the country at about the 90 minute mark. Hell, I don't even think I would care to see that onscreen. Killing a midget in a prison toilet, on the other hand - there's one for the Rambo reel. THIS . . . IS . . . SPARTA!!!

But the worst thing to come of the movie has to be the overhype surrounding the book itself. Just as you can damn something by faint praise, it is also possible to damn something through effusion. Watchmen is a damn good book, probably even a great book. But, as I'm exactly the ten-thousandth person to point out, it's not the greatest comic book of all time. As Tom Spurgeon recently pointed out, it's probably not even the greatest comic book of 1986 - certainly not measurably greater than the then-current first series of Love & Rockets, peak-era Calvin & Hobbes, or freakin' Maus (and that's just in the English speaking world). It's not even Alan Moore's best book. Critical consensus is chimerical and all that, but I'd wager a plurality comics-literate people would put From Hell above Watchmen. There are also many people who would argue the merits of V For Vendetta, and good arguments could conceivably be made for Swamp Thing or Promethea.****

Pitching the book to the general public as "The Best" can only end badly, especially given as it's the final, poisonous flowering of the same old mindset that inevitably equates comics with superheroes. I would argue that this isn't even a good attitude for the people who publish superhero comics to promote at this late date, as it creates marketplace distortions which can only rebound badly on those who promulgate the misconceptions. If the people who ran MLB decided to start pretending that Baseball was the only "real" sport, and that football, basketball, hockey, golf, track & field, horse racing and mixed martial arts were all weird outliers whose business models could only be grappled on the most theoretical basis, I think most sports fans would probably regard this as a questionable move which would probably hurt baseball's standing with fans, broadcasters and merchandisers. Why would any young manga fan be attracted to a product promoted - in an unthinking, unconscious, subliminal fashion - in such an insular, obviously fake fantasy-land manner? Let alone any living person with a pulse who may have read Ghost World in college . . .

So, essentially, it's great that people are buying the book. It's a good book, one that anyone who loves comics should read, and because of its subject matter, one that also might conceivably be of substantial interest to non-aficionados. But it's dense, ethically murky and stylistically rococo, in such a way that despite the fact that it has descriptive comic-book pictures, it might just be this generation's Ulysses: a great book that everyone acknowledges as great and which many people may even own, but one which the general public finds a bit too dense to easily read, let alone enjoy.

A movie adaptation is a dumb idea, but the book itself is good enough to survive the inevitable misconceptions and mischaractizations that will follow, although it could certainly do without such effusive phrase. Lesser-known books like From Hell or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will probably take a while to crawl out of the shadow of their crappy adaptations. But at this point, I think there's a chance that Watchmen might be well-enough regarded by those who pay attention to such things that an inferior adaptation might just rebound on the filmmakers themselves, with little or no impact on the book itself. You don't see crappy adaptations of Emma punching holes in Jane Austen's sales, after all.

* Of course, a large percentage of comics fan do miss this very point. Go fuckin' figure.

** Of course, Nixon is president in the book, but you know what I mean. Reagan was the nuclear cowboy.

*** Insert your favorite boilerplate film-crit rant about this subject.

**** If just occurred to me that the "best" Alan Moore book might well be one that hasn't been published - a compilation of his short work, stuff like "Pictopia", "The Bowing Machine", "The Hasty Smear of My Smile", "Hungry Is The Heart", maybe the Bill Sienkiewicz CIA thing. There are enough shorter, lesser-known masterpieces scattered throughout his corpus that a compilation of the best would be an event in and of itself.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Son Of At The Movies

In reference to difficult source material, folks often say that something is "unfilmable" -- be they massively dense tomes like The Sound and the Fury or Ulysses, transgressive and controversial texts like American Psycho or Lolita, or books which are simply too recondite in their execution, so rooted in the medium of prose, to make for an easy adaptation, a la Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief or The Lord of the Rings. But all of the books I just mentioned have one thing in common: they were all the subject of motion picture adaptations at various points.

Nothing is unfilmable. If the last 100 years of film history have proven anything, it's that there is no text so slippery that a clever filmmaker can't figure out how to hammer it into a two-hour-long cinematic framework. Clever in this context can be pejorative or complimentary -- if you're discussing Mary Harron's underrated, subtle adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' shocking tour de force, it's definitely a compliment. If you're talking about Peter Jackson's thunderingly obvious adaptation of Tolkien's fantasy series, well, clever is not necessarily a good thing.

(The best Lord of the Rings movie will always be the one that plays in my head when I actually read the book. Also, movies rarely replicate the kind of ambiguity that can be found primarily in the source text: this is one area were Harmon's film excelled, in terms of making an honest attempt to import some of the stranger effects of Ellis' combative prose onscreen. In adapting Tolkien, however, Jackson never made a single creative decision that rose above the glaringly obvious, with the end result of pasteurizing a prickly and at times frankly unpleasant reading experience in the service of making a movie that could sell a lot of toys. Which was by no means a surprise, but it doesn't mean I have to care about the finished product.)

So it's not like The Spirit is unfilmable, not by any means. But the prospect of The Spirit film fills me with not a little disgust, far more than that raised by the looming specter of seeing Dr. Manhattan blow up Vietnam real good on a screen near me very soon. A Watchmen movie was inevitable, really. It was only a matter of time. But The Spirit wasn't inevitable, and I find myself sad that it has been made. Because The Spirit is important. It's far more important than Watchmen. It's one of the great works of English language comics, with all that that implies -- it's a foundational work.

If Will Eisner had had a time machine, I bet he would have
gone back in time to slap his younger self for this shit.

But it's also incredibly problematic in all the ways that "classic" texts have always been problematic. The issue of race is never far from the reader's view, not until Ebony White is gradually phased out of the proceedings. A great deal of the strip is poor-to-mediocre. Much of the strip was actually done by other people (which isn't an aesthetic judgment, but it makes talking about the work as Eisner's creation problematic). There's just so much of the damn thing: at last count, 26 giant DC Archive editions. That's more Spirit than most people, even comics aficionados, probably even most comics historians, will ever feel the need to read. And at it's best, the strip defied categorization, mixing what could only be called virtuosic, playfully metatextual storytelling with a sincere, unvarnished humanism. It was more than the sum of its plot points or characters. In fact, I don't think it's very controversial at this late date to say that the Spirit really worked in spite of its ingredients. As a crimefigther, the character's only real claim to fame was getting the living shit beat out of him on a regular basis. He had no powers, his motivation seemed to be little more than that fighting crime might be a worthwhile way to pass the time. (Oh, he did have an origin, obviously, but his origin was always perfunctory, much like Superman and Batman's origins were in the beginning, just an excuse to get the super-hero on stage with some rudimentary motivation to push him in the direction of the plots.)

The point being, the Spirit is a complicated strip, the reasons why it was so important might not be readily apparent to anyone not already familiar with the form, and the chances of a Spirit film totally missing the mark are pretty high. Especially if you give the film to someone who, while certainly one of Eisner's most vocal admirers, is also almost equally famous for not really "getting" Eisner at all, or rather, understanding the most superficial qualities of the man's work while consciously eschewing, well, everything else. Eisner himself made no bones about this fact, despite his apparent friendship with Frank Miller. (This, while unfortunately, only an excerpt of a longer piece, is a nice snapshot of the tension between the two men, and the slightly facetious mindset that seems to orient the two creators so closely despite their obvious differences.) Gary Groth sums up the difference in attitudes succinctly:
Aesthetically, they share virtually nothing in common. Miller has expressed himself mostly through the trappings of genre — crime, superheroes, occasional forays into sci-fi — whereas Eisner very purposefully eschewed genre after he ended The Spirit in 1952, and even did his best to skirt genre within the Spirit stories. Miller loves to juggle the outsized pop-cult trappings of sex and violence, the more outrageous and in-your-face the better; Eisner's forte had become domestic melodrama and generational sagas where physical violence is conspicuously absent. Miller enjoys pushing boundaries and causing offense (if that's still possible); Eisner has striven for legitimacy among a rarefied cultural elite and frowns upon vulgarity. Miller considers himself more of a popular entertainer; Eisner considers himself a serious artist. Eisner is by temperament or calculation utterly genteel; Miller sees himself as a controversialist and a rebel with all the license that goes with that.

Among Eisner's shortcomings, an inerrant amiability is foremost: the same restraint that keeps many of his later works grounded by an extremely sincere brand of sentiment - that some would call mawkishness - is evident throughout the Spirit. There's nothing "extreme" about the strip at all, and in fact, the protagonist's occasionally bumbling, definitively middle class approach to adventuring was as close to humble in conception and execution as you can imagine a costumed adventurer ever getting. Moreso considering the adventurer's costume is nothing more than a blue suit and domino mask.

I am fairly confident that my fears will be fulfilled when the film is released. Frank Miller has done nothing in his career that indicates he has either the ability or temperament to eschew his own aesthetic prerogatives, even for the sake of hewing closer to the (literal and figurative) spirit of someone else's work. The movie will, of course, have no impact on the strip itself. There are no Spirit collections rocketing up the charts in response to the movie trailer, no 300,000 print runs being drop-shipped to retailers across the nation. The Spirit had already faded from the national consciousness a long time ago, along with Captain Marvel and Plastic Man and Pogo, once ubiquitous cultural brands now essentially the province of hobbyists and academics. So, while for that reason it's hard to imagine very many people coming to the strip as a result of the movie, it doesn't help that the tone put forward in those trailers is so diametrically opposed to the actual tone of the strip.

I could be wrong. I'd love to be wrong. But Frank Miller has spent the last twenty years trying his damndest to turn himself into a living caricature, and an avatar of the way comics' worst and most excessive impulses have been gradually repackaged as a new paradigm in pop culture. It's really just shiny, exploitative shit being shoveled with enough energy to convince the audience that there might actually be real calories, when in fact it has the nutritional content of Cool Whip. The man is a hack, and the only reason he's being allowed to direct The Spirit is because his ideas - deformed, malnourished and derivative as they are - have been proven to make serious money. Given the chance to take the plunge into directing a movie of his own, he chooses instead to tarnish a dead man's family jewels.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Stuff I Have Read

The Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day Extra

All you need to know about this comic is that the majority of pages are devoted to giving Hammerhead a grim & gritty revamp.

What, you want to hear more?

OK, there's a couple other innocuous bits of padding, including a legal interlude with Matt Murdock that actually roused a chuckle out of me, and had some art by the guy who did that nice Dr. Strange mini a couple years back. But overall, it all still reeks of flop-sweat, the kind you might expect if you put half-a-dozen middle-aged guys into a room and ordered them to replicate the intangible mood of forty-year-old comics, the actual shape and dimensions of which are consistently distorted by nostalgia.

Plus, the story features a sequence where a good pile of super-people impersonate Spider-Man. One of them is Hawkeye, who is still pretending to be some guy named Ronin. And of course when Hawkeye put on his Spider-Man costume he made sure to put his bulky Ronin ninja armor on underneath Spider-Man's tight-fitting costume. If you can figure that one out, you deserve this comic.

Green Lantern #33

The left-field success of the whole Sinestro Corps storyline surprised the hell out of me, considering that it was pretty mediocre, aside from a few nice moments. The fact that the entire Green Lantern franchise has basically been rebuilt on a chassis built by Alan Moore in the space of a handful of weird off-model Green Lantern Corps back-ups (which were so weird they got buried in an annual, for Chrissakes) is just bizarre. And the fact that Geoff Johns decided to follow up the Sinestro Corps thing - which succeeded primarily because it was big, loud, fast and unexpected - with one of the slowest bits of decompressed flash-back origin retelling filler tales I've ever seen is just straight-up baffling. The real meat here are the hints being dropped for the forthcoming "Blackest Night" story, but these hints could have been covered in a much more economical - not to mention interesting - fashion, i.e., just about any other fashion than a half-year-long retelling of Hal Jordan's origin.(But then, I also suspect that the real reason for this storyline is so that Geoff Johns can erase some unpleasant episodes relating to Emerald Dawn II from New Earth continuity. Which, again, makes me want to die.)

I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of a lot of Johns' writing lately, but this can't help but seem like a fumble - a story that was obviously planned and outlined months before they saw the sales figures for the Sinestro Corps, because it is so at-odds with the tone, pacing and scope of that storyline. If something succeeds, you do more of it, you don't take a six-month detour into the modern-day equivalent of a fill-in. Hal Jordan just is not that fascinating a character, certainly not as fascinating as these kinds of "in-depth" character studies would have us believe.

(And on that note, neither was Barry Allen, but I'm betting we're going to be hearing a lot about how fascinating he is in the coming months.)

Justice Society of America Annual #1

You know how I said a while ago I was enjoying Johns' JSA? That verdict will change overnight if this twenty-years-stale fan-wank pollutes the main title. Anyone who has ever read this blog will know that I have an inordinate amount of fondness for many backwaters of mainstream superhero continuity, but the whole Earth 2 / Infinity Inc. phenomena is one whose appeal has remained steadfastly opaque. Boo-urns, as the kids say.

Reign In Hell #1

Quite possibly the most blasphemous comic I've read all month, and considering this month also saw the release of a Ghost Rider comic wherein the title character beat a psychotic emissary of rogue angels to death with a Holy Bible, that is saying something indeed. Don't these companies have stockholders anymore?

Skaar Son of Hulk #2

I used to really like Ron Garney's art. I loved World War Hulk without reservation. This, however, is unbelievably bad, the kind of weird anomaly you have to at least give them credit for trying. But it's still not very good. This is a spin-off not of World War Hulk but Planet Hulk, and despite Greg Pak's insistence, the strange alien world of Planet Hulk just wasn't that interesting or original to begin with, and it certainly isn't interesting in the least without the Hulk in it. Imagine if someone had read the collected works of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs and decided to regurgitate them in as unironic and unimaginative a way as possible, reproducing all the weaknesses of the source material while also managing to import a fair number of cliches from other sources as well. Does the Marvel Universe really need a rampaging space barbarian Hulk-lite? The only conceivable direction this can go is basically a redux of World War Hulk, albeit with a far less compelling protagonist / antagonist / anti-hero coming to earth to kick ass over some perceived slight, only to find his lost father and oh isn't that wonderful everything was just a misunderstanding.

Whatever. I guess if you write a huge crossover tent-pole you get to polish your own turds in public.

Superman / Batman #50

So what are the chances of a space-probe sent by Jor-El finding Thomas Wayne on Earth? About the same as this comic not being so bad it makes kittens cry blood.

Sadly, my cat is weeping blood.