Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Black Diamond: Get In the Car and Go
by Larry Young & Jon Proctor

(Travels With Larry: Supplemental)

I'd be disingenuous if I didn't lead off this review by saying that Larry Young has had a long and fruitful association with this blog. Way back in the early days - as in, the very first months - of The Hurting, Larry was one of the first comic peoples to really get behind the whole "blogosphere" thing. He's a smart man when it comes to selling comic books, and he was one of the first to realize the marketing potential of a whole network of websites dedicated solely to discussing and criticizing comic books - a whole pile of websites devoted to the proverbial "hand sell". I can't say for certain if one of my reviews - good or bad - has ever resulted in the sale of a single comic (save for the very occasional traffic my Amazon links get). The actual value of the internet as a promotions tool for comics is not measured in sales, but "buzz". Marvel and DC figured this out a while back, and the recent jaw-dropping press releases promoting Marvel's latest War Machine revamp serve as conclusive proof - as if any was needed! - that in comics, any press is good press, so long as they spell your name right and print your Diamond order code correctly.

That said, I'm not here to blow smoke up Young's skirt. For all the goodwill Young has cultivated in the blogosphere in the middle of the decade, the last couple years has seen the company remarkably silent. Admittedly, some of the reasons for this can probably be chalked up to personal issues - family deaths, the birth of a son. The company is basically two people, Young and his wife Mimi Rosenheim, so personal issues are, unfortunately, de facto business stumbling blocks. But aside from that, the company just hasn't done a lot lately. The last half-dozen or so OGNs I've received from the company haven't done a lot for me, I'm sorry to say. Some of the bigger names who consistently worked for the company in its formative years have been silent. They lost arguably their biggest name "franchise" - Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's DEMO to Vertigo. Even Joe Casey's remarkable Codeflesh is getting a new edition, from the series' original home, Image. I don't know the whys or wherefores of these setbacks - and I'm certainly not going to speculate in a public forum, that's Rich Johnston's job - but the fact remains that a company which four or five years ago seemed poised for much bigger and better things is facing the turn of the decade in a position of seeming or actual retrenchment. It's, frankly, a shame, because I like the publisher, and even when I haven't liked every specific release, I've long admired the company's general goals and aesthetics. I actually consider Young to be - if not a close friend - a good acquaintance, so I mean it when I say I want his company to succeed. (There's my reviewer's impartiality, in case you were wondering.)

But I've come here not to bury Larry Young, but to praise him - for whatever the failings of Young the Businessman, Young the Writer remains one of my absolute favorites. I don't think I've ever read a Larry Young comic I've disliked. I still recommend Astronauts in Trouble as one of the best hard-sci-fi series of the last decade, and likewise, Planet of the Capes is a criminally underrated bit of deconstructionist superhero narrative. So, when I met the new year with a recommitment to featuring reviews for this blog, it should come as no surprise that I found Black Diamond sitting at the very top of my too-read pile.

Which does not mean that I wasn't skeptical. I'd read the first couple issues in periodical form before resolving to wait for the trade, and while I enjoyed my initial exposure to the material, I was still a bit wary about something which held every promise of being, well, a bit more of an action story than I usually care for. Not to say I'm a wuss (although I probably am), but many of Young's obvious touchstones - fast cars, seventies road movies, Bullitt - are not really big on my radar. About the only thing I know about cars is when I need to get the oil changed on my 1998 Mercury Sable. (Which is not to say I don't harbor a strange fantasy about one day owning a primo 1964 Chevy Impala, black, but for entirely different reasons altogether.)

But I should have known better than to doubt Young. Black Diamond really isn't a story about fast cars and hard blacktop - although that's certainly a part of it. But I can't help thinking that anyone picking up this book for the promise of Mad Max-style car chases (or, barring that, Blues Brothers-style car wrecks) will walk away sorely disappointed. Young tips his hand almost from the beginning, with his references to Tom Stoppard and Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern - a play about incidental characters who can't quite figure out that they're incidental characters, trying to understand the shape of their narrative when the narrative they're in involves them only peripherally. Black Diamond is itself concerned with a group of characters only peripherally involved in a much larger narrative. That narrative is the story's science-fiction "hook" - the existence of a huge cross-country elevated freeway sometime in the near future, sort of an American Autobahn, only given over totally to outlaws, criminals, transients and punks. The overarching plot concerns the efforts of the federal government to win back the Black Diamond, cracking down on the ne'er-do-wells by sending the military in to restore law and order one mile at a time. Against this background, we see hints of the government machinations involved in these decisions, and the corporate cross-machinations of those involved in supplying the United States valuable petroresources.

It's a huge canvas - sprawling - and certainly the most ambitious thing Young has done yet. My first instinct as a critic is to ask the basic, bottom-dollar question, does it work? Does it hang together on the most basic level? But then, reading the book, you realize these questions aren't really important. Does it work? It's not supposed to work, is the best I can come up with. Much of the book is devoted to exposition, detailing the various factions and concepts involved in this not-so-strange near-future scenario. Contrasted against the macro scale of the global concerns, we have the immediate plot, the story of a dentist out to save his wife, held captive by sinister forces bent on using their hostage as a bargaining chip to keep the road free of federal interference. This story, at least, reaches some form of resolution - the hero sets out from San Francisco heading east, right into the jaws of the imminent conflict between federal forces and the road's outlaw irregulars. He finds what he's looking for, at least.

But the book isn't about resolution. It's about stymieing the readers' expectations of resolution. Just like poor Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern, hung at sea before they ever figure out what's going on, the book ends not merely on a cliffhanger, but on the horns of a proverbial dilemma - how to resolve the irreconcilable, the demand represented by the fiction readers' desire for conclusion tempered with the fiction writers' understanding that irresolvable conflicts often have no solution whatsoever.

All of which means that Black Diamond is less an action story about fast cars in the future, than a metafictional exercise in the impossibility of fiction to properly encapsulate complex systems. The author and audience are essentially immobilized, exhausted by mutual consent, unable to reach a constantly receding conclusion, much like Zeno's namesake paradox. The book is purposefully designed to frustrate on almost every level, up to and including the putative "climax", motivated by the most surprising bald-faced dues ex machina I've ever seen, just about.

So, does it work? Well, yes, sort-of. I've been mulling the story over for a few days since I finished the book, and I have yet to reach anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion. It almost seems like a parallel to Grant Morrison's stated aims regarding "Batman R.I.P." and Final Crisis - constructing a narrative so packed with signifiers and implication that practically all that's left at the end of the book is signal and inference. It didn't work for Morrison's work - as I've already stated - because he sacrifices too much coherence, at the cost of leaving the lions' share of the interpretational work in the readers' lap. That approach, frankly, has only arguable place in any Batman comic (you can, I suppose, make an argument that it works better in Arkham Asylum, but that's still a contentious assertion), and certainly not in the company's tentpole franchise Batman comic. Here, though, it works a lot better - Young doesn't have to be concerned with the audience's expectations regarding how a Batman event comic should read. He does have, admittedly, the audience's expectations regarding how action-packed gearhead speculative fiction narratives should read, but there's a lot more leeway. In any event, as I said, this book is about subverting expectations. From the very beginning, the narrative is filled with signifiers pointing towards the story's open-ended conclusion - it's not like we're promised a resolution that simply never arrives (a la "Batman R.I.P.").

But still, does it work?

I've given a qualified "yes", even though I admit I'm still chewing it over. Ask me again in a few years how the book has aged. It took me a while to "get" Planet of the Capes after my initial read, after all. I "get" Black Diamond: it's a ballsy piece of storytelling sleight-of-hand that almost careens tragically into the "too clever by half" column but just manages to stay on the side of the angels, due pretty much single-handedly to Young's sure hand. I will repeat what I said a few hundred words ago: Young is a much better writer than a businessman (and he's no slouch as a businessman), and it's a shame he doesn't write far, far more than he does. For better or for worse, I could do with another dozen or more comics that challenged and stymied me as much as Black Diamond.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alex Robinson's Lower Regions
by Alex Robinson

Back in the hazy days of yore, I played Dungeons & Dragons for about a week. I received the basic set for Christmas one year and we (being me and a friend) set about to have some fun. Sure enough, we had great fun, for - as I said - about a week. After that point, we quit by mutual accord. Perhaps if we'd known anyone else who played, more experienced players who could do more than a basic out-of-the-box dungeon crawl, we could have done more. But as it is, I think we got about as much fun as could be gotten from the game, at least for us, considering neither of us were enamored enough with our basic experience to care to seek out more.

More than any other specific brand of fantasy storytelling, Lower Regions is designed to evoke the sensation of role playing, specifically the aforementioned archtypal dungeon crawl. It's a short narrative: there's a woman with a battleaxe and a halfling companion, searching through mysterious catacombs in search of something or other. It's entirely wordless, which is actually a pretty clever choice on Robinson's part, as it allows for a number of surprising fake-out moments that might not have been so surprising if Robinson had allowed his characters the opportunity to speak through their situations. (As in: "By Crom, I sense treachery afoot! Perhaps all is not as it seems on first look . . ." or some other second-hand Howardism.)

Alex Robinson has long been a personal favorite of mine, dating back to his second full-length graphic novel, Tricked. It was such an accomplished piece of work that I reevaluated what I'd seen of his earlier work. Box Office Poison was one of the most overhyped indie series of the 90s (I seem to recall Wizard, of all things, having an extended love affair with it). Once BOP was compiled into a single massive volume, it was easier to get a grip on the work's respective strengths and weaknesses. It was obviously ambitious, but it was equally obvious that Robinson's reach clearly exceeded his grasp. It was simply too much for a freshman creator to pull off in his first at-bat. But reading Tricked, it became possible to see BOP as less of a noble failure and more of as a concrete learning curve, a means for Robinson to learn the hard way how best to produce a cartoon narrative over a long period of time. Sure enough, Tricked was a lot better than BOP - half as big, twice as focused, and with a much better grasp on Robinson's core strengths. Even back in the earliest days of BOP, Robinson had an uncanny knack for character development - using a nice combination of anecdote and dialogue to peel back layers of deceptively transparent feature. It may not be very flashy, and in fact it's probably the oldest trick in the book, but there you have it: Robinson is by no means a trendsetting formalist or an explosive iconoclast, but he is a master of well-plotted character melodrama. Which is nothing to sneeze at.

Despite what I just wrote, Lower Regions isn't a well-plotted character melodrama. But regardless of that, the story still gains strength from the juxtaposition of a recognizable type - Robinson's very real-world, anti-idealized physical specimens - against the fantastic milieu of a second rate Terry Goodkind knockoff. The protagonist - who, lacking a name, I will simply call Battleaxe Woman - may possess a rather formidable physique, but her face is nevertheless all Robinson. The emotional weight of this silent story - such as there is with such a brief narrative - rests on her facial expressions, her anger, exhaustion, relief, fear and happiness. It's really quite accomplished, for all its seeming absurdity. You find yourself sucked into her story, rooting for Battleaxe Woman in her quest to find her schlubby hubby. Despite the story's purposeful brevity, you find yourself wishing there were a lot more. (There is at least a little bit more, in the form of a brief piece here.)

I don't really know what to call a book like this, although it seems to fit nicely with a number of other similarly-themed books from recent years, books like Powr Mastrs, Goddess of War as well as work by former Fort Thunder folks like Brian Chippendale and Mat Brinkman. What all of this work has in common is that it trades on a trove of received fantasy imagery in order to create formally ambitious narratives that consciously play with audience expectations, a trick partially abetted by the fact that so many people in the art comics audience are intuitively familiar with the vocabulary and conventions of fantasy through a lifetime's exposure to comics and other kinds of nerd media. Perhaps Lower Regions is nowhere near as ambitious, but, as I said, Robinson's skill rewards a more subtle agenda. Don't be mistaken: Lower Regions is obviously a trifle, a tiny lark of a pamphlet from a cartoonist who customarily works on a much larger canvas. But still, an immensely fun and surprisingly rewarding trifle, for all that.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Punk Rock and Trailer Parks
by Derf

I think the highest praise I can give to Derf’s Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is that, for a book for which I held absolutely no previous expectations, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read all year. Prior to encountering the book my sole exposure to Derf had been his My Friend Dahmer, which showed up in an anthology I read a while back (almost a decade if memory serves me well), and which stayed in my remembrance not out of any specific merit other than, hey, it’s a first person reminiscence about Jeffrey Dahmer. I didn’t even remember the name of the guy who did it. But I just happened to be in Cleveland over the holidays, and came across this book in Mac’s Backs and figured it might be interesting. I wasn't necessarily that excited about it - the purchase was overshadowed by a pair of rare James Purdy novels I had also found. But lo, those Purdy novels remain unopened these weeks later, but the Derf has stuck in my mind, far more than the slice of "local color" I initially took it to be.

The book is about Ohio - or rather, a specific time and place in Ohio history, the late seventies, Akron. (My girlfriend gives me shit for pronouncing Akron incorrectly - it just seems more logical that it would be Ack-rawn, not ak-run.) I was not aware, but apparently the area was a hotbed of punk - and not the American-born second-wave hardcore stuff, either, we're talking about the real first-wave stuff like the Clash and the Ramones, with strange offshoots like Klaus Nomi thrown in for good measure. Sure enough, it’s the scene that gave birth to Devo and the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. It seems inexplicably strange to me that such an unassuming place could be so musically savvy - no offense intended to the greater Cleveland area, but it seems quite an accident of history that they were so integral to the American punk scene and not, say, Tulsa or Omaha or Pittsburgh or any number of second-tier Midwestern-or-thereabouts cities filled with industrial blight and restless primarily white surplus youth.

Derf takes the unlikeliness of this historical fact and builds his fictional narrative around it. The story follows the adventures of a small group of high school pals as they fall into the center of the Akron scene. The ostensible "leader" of the group is a strange, extroverted and unrepentant nerd calling himself The Baron. One of the most uncanny thing about The Baron is the way he seems - despite his preposterousness - to be a genuinely recognizable figure, the type of person who I can remember knowing (some might say I had a few of these qualities myself). Despite his outcast status, he nonetheless possesses a healthy dose of self-esteem, supported by his unapologetic embrace of the "nerd" lifestyle - complete with playing trombone in the marching band and quoting Tolkien at length. He doesn't feel the need to hide or justify what he likes or who he is, he just is. He just manages to skirt the edges of self-delusion, buoyed by the fact that for all his seeming geekiness, he is nevertheless more on-the-ball - perceptive, intelligent, courageous - than anyone else around him. For all the elements of wish-fulfillment in such a unique character (wish-fulfillment, that is, for probably the majority of the folks who will read this book), he's nonetheless fascinating. I knew people like this in high school, folks who managed to get through with perfect equanimity despite their seeming status as outsiders, gifted with a preternatural sense of perspective and able to simply ignore (or pretend to ignore) the daily ignominies of teenagerhood.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that he would fall in with the nascent punk scene, a scene defined not by its commitment to miserable self-laceration but defiant opposition to the norms and presumptions of "square" society. It strikes everyone in the book as more than a little bit amazing that such a fascinating thing could exist in the heart of Rubber City, USA - the manner with which Derf illustrates the juxtaposition of two such unlikely opposites as semi-rural Ohio and the international punk scene is the book's primary strength. The Baron - a lanky denizen of the titular trailer park, probably the living definition of Midwestern "white trash" - soon takes up residency at The Bank, a decrepit, uh, bank that was repurposed as a punk club and became the epicenter of the regional movement. The Baron, despite his humble origins, meets and interacts with everyone who stops on their way through, and again, the seeming preposterousness of the narrative is checked at all times by the simple fact that there really was such a place as the Bank, and it really did provide a showcase for the Ramones, the Clash, the Plasmatics and Klaus Nomi. The Bank itself doesn't exist anymore, it was torn down in the early 80s as part of one or another urban renewal schemes. But simply the fact that it did exist, against all ludicrous odds, in the most ludicrous of places, is the most fascinating aspect of the book.

So you don't really mind when Joe Strummer and the Baron take a quick trip down the road to the local arena - with Lester Bangs in tow, no less - for the purpose of stabbing the tires in Journey's tour bus. The whole point of the book is to spotlight how weird and crazy a time this was. But nostalgia is a two-edged sword - the last page of the book is filled with capsule biographies of many of the musicians featured on the previous pages. Most of them are dead: Nomi, Joe Strummer, ¾ of the Ramones, Ian Dury, Wendy O. Williams, even the Bank itself has been rubble for decades. It's all basically gone, and for all the critical lionizing that has been heaped on punk's first wave, only one Ramones CD ever went gold (Ramones Mania), but Journey have sold 75 million records worldwide.

For all the agonies of high school depicted herein, it's nevertheless a cozy slice of teenaged life. The only person who seems to understand that is The Baron, ready and willing to leave Akron but not before he gets the most out of his high school tenure.

Derf's style owes a lot to Peter Bagge. Every panel is filled with the type of loving detail that makes the pages practically bulge with personality. You can definitely see that Derf has spent much of his career working in newspaper panels: he knows how to wring the most out of every centimeter of space allotted him. For all the seeming modesty of the book's construction, it's really quite an accomplished achievement.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Albums You Should Own, Part the Third

My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

Believe me, this one was as much of a surprise to me at the time as it probably is for you. Most of the reviews I have read for Gerard Way's very good Umbrella Academy series for Dark House usually begin with some kind of dismissal of Way's day job, i.e. as singer and songwriter for My Chemical Romance, one of the most popular rock acts of the last five years or so who aren't named Nickleback. I don't listen to a lot - read, hardly any - hard rock anymore, but something about MCR grabbed my attention from the first time I heard their single "Helena", off 2004's Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.

In the first place, the music is incredibly tuneful. One of the reasons why so much contemporary hard rock leaves me cold is that it just isn't very interesting. Pop music of all varieties lives and breathes on the strength of its hooks. Hooks can be wildly different depending on what genre of music you're listening to - certainly, Leonard Cohen circa 1969 wrote vastly different kinds of songs than Metallica circa 1986, but both Songs From A Room and Master of Puppets are filled with hooks. Whether we're talking about the subtle, deceptively gentle Vaudeville stage hook at the turn of "Bird on the Wire" or the violent, flesh-rending meat hook of "Master of Puppets, there's something there that grabs the listener's interest, something visceral that makes the songs themselves dynamic and alive in a way that remains separate from - albeit extraordinarily complementary to - the lyrical or sonic qualities. I've heard loads and loads of literate, well-written contemporary folk that is obviously heartfelt and even compelling on a lyrical basis that is nevertheless about as interesting to listen to as drying paint. For all Dylan's lyrical acumen, he understood that "Desolation Row" wouldn't have been at all interesting if the words weren't wrapped up in a compelling, deceptively placid melody - one of Dylan's best, actually. Similarly, strong hooks and compelling energy have salvaged any number of rock albums beset by poor lyrics - I mean, seriously, I love David Bowie like a house on fire, but if you printed the complete lyrics to Aladdin Sane in a chapbook completely separate from their music context, they would be laughable. (Admittedly, that's probably Bowie's weakest album - lyrically - from his classic period, but Bowie has never been a great lyricist, and is in fact probably the weakest lyricist among all of his peers in the "classic" rock canon, despite having recorded far more than his share of the greatest rock albums ever.)

So, for all Gerard Way's "weakness" as a lyricist he nevertheless understands the emotive power of pop music like few of his contemporary peers. In some ways, yes, the band betrays its roots in the regrettable early to mid 00s swamp of light metal / punk influenced "emo", a branch of music so enduringly uninteresting to me that I can't even recall the names of any of the bands I don't like. But there's something fresh in My Chemical Romance's sound that sets them apart from any of the similar bands with whom they might be compared. If I had to pinpoint what that "X" factor was, I'd probably say something to the effect that MCR seem to have a healthier relation to their forebears and influences than most contemporary rock acts. Because, if we're honest, we'll admit that almost all pop music is highly derivative of what came before - it's just that some bands manage to be more endearing and honest in their filching than others.

This is, roughly, the same kind of attitude Way uses to approach The Umbrella Academy. It's obvious that Way grew up reading the same "classic" mainstream books that most superhero fans of his age range did - Claremont's Uncanny X-Men, Wolfman & Perez's Teen Titans, Miller's Daredevil. But most contemporary superhero comics fail for the simple reason that they try to pretend they're somehow something radically different from their forebears. Secret Invasion tried to pretend it was something besides a warmed-over version of Invasion! mixed with bits and bobs of every other paranoid late 80s crossover from either company. In the end it couldn't mask the fact that all those other stories at least had a strong enough grasp on the basics of craft and engineering required to tell superhero stories on an epic scale that they remain - if not high art - at least readable and coherent, whereas Secret Invasion was neither readable nor coherent, and couldn't mask these basic faults with all the David Mamet dialogue in the world. The Umbrella Academy makes no bones about its influences - for all intents and purposes it's the jam comic that Claremont and Wolfman never got to make, with some of Grant Morrison's early verve thrown in for good measure. But Way doesn't disregard the mechanical necessities of producing this kind of comic in favor of pretending what he's doing is somehow all that different. It's not, not really. But where it succeeds as more than a pastiche is the way Way uses his influences as the solid foundation for what comes after your influences, that is, his own personal spin on the well-trod territory of a cobbled together post-nuclear family of modern superheroes with deep oedipal issues concerning their father figures. What happens in The Umbrella Academy isn't particularly novel, but I want to read more about those characters and their adventures in a way I haven't cared about the actual X-Men or Teen Titans in decades.

Way takes the same approach to his songwriting for MCR as he does The Umbrella Academy. He begins with an honest appraisal of his basic influences, and then proceeds forward with a strong understanding both of how these influences worked and how to tweak them in order to achieve his individual artistic goals. Again, all art is derivative to some extent or another - it's not a matter of being unoriginal, it's a matter of how you use your influences (because everyone starts out as little more than the sum total of their influences) as a prism to reflect your own sensibilities that dictates your success. Bendis totally failed in his two attempts as creating massive, line-wide crossover epics (House of M & Secret Invasion) because he very obviously didn't understand the basic mechanics necessary to make a story like Infinity Gauntlet or the original Crisis readable in the first place, let alone interesting. My Chemical Romance aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they've got their influences pretty obviously written on their sleeves - Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Queen, Iron Maiden, the Smiths, a touch of early 90s pop punk in the vein of Green Day. But the most important thing is that they seem to honestly understand how these bands and albums worked, not merely on the visceral stylistic level but on the nuts-and-bolts level of practical execution necessary to make listeners care about this kind of elaborate and ornate, emotional and theatrical epic rock and roll.

It's comparable, say, to how Bendis thought his two-page spreads in Secret Invasion would work just like previous climactic spreads in previous crossovers, even though he totally failed to provide the necessary scut work to establish setting and context, and rather depended on the audience's familiarity with tropes to provide a story significance that couldn't be guessed without recourse to extra-contextual data. In the original Crisis, for instance, Wolfman goes out of his way to "sell" Superman in a way that you wouldn't think necessary in the context of a story specifically about Superman's fifty-plus years of continual publication. But he understands that every character and every concept needs its justification in the present context or it refuses to be necessary and merely becomes vestigial. Superman works as the emotional center of Wolfman's sprawling, so-big-it's-probably-sui-generis epic because Wolfman takes the time to tell us why Superman is the emotional lynchpin, why the events are important to him and therefore to the reader as well. Bendis just assumes we've already read all the build-up and tie-ins, so the result is lazy, complacent and just about dead. He assumes we care without doing the hard work necessary to ensure that we do.

That's how I'd describe the majority of rock I hear these days - when I actually hear new rock on the radio, that is. My Chemical Romance go the extra mile by not merely suggesting but insisting the listener insert as much of him or herself as possible into the emotional context of the songs. They do this the old fashioned way: constructing their songs with consummate care, not merely assuming their listeners will be familiar with their influences, but approaching every song as if it might be someone's first ever exposure to rock & roll, and therefore their best chance to convince that person of just how awesome - how evocative, how lurid, how grandiose and how epic - rock & roll can truly be. This is why, like early Bowie, Way's best lyrics arise from those simple moments when he addresses the listener themselves, making an honest emotional appeal that, despite its familiarity, never fails to convince.

It's become a cliche of music writing for the past decade, far more so in recent years than ever before, to begin a review by going down a laundry list of the act's influences and forebears (I've done it myself more than a few times). That's because, like superhero comics, rock music long ago entered a state of advanced, attenuated decadence best encapsulated by the music's dependence on the constant bartering of dead symbols to signify present significance. Little care is taken to ensure that these symbols actually remain significant, because the assumption is made that this significance is a given among the remaining, die-hard fanbase. The group's CV is offered with equal significance alongside the work itself.

What significance does a band like Vampire Weekend possess besides the list of their formidable influences? I've got the album, I've listened to it a few times, it absolutely fails to hold my attention despite the protestations of hundreds of music bloggers - including some whose opinion I actually respect - telling me that I should like it and why. The band itself doesn't seem to want to take the effort to convince me why I should care, and it shouldn't be the job of the critic to finish the work left half-accomplished by the artist. On the contrary, I've never read a single glowing review of My Chemical Romance by any member of the ostensible hipster music press, no rundown of their accomplishments and forebears besides what could be easily discerned from listening to the music itself. You've got your Queen, your Bowie, your 80s pop metal (Maiden! Priest!), your maudlin 80s indie (The Smiths! The The!) Those are obvious, and if you've got a strong dislike for any of those types of music, then MCR are not for you. But more than simply name-checking "Bohemian Rhapsody", they understand that Queen's theatricality only works if the band commits itself wholeheartedly to the artifice. They understand that the Smiths weren't just morbidly depressing, they were also fuckin' funny, and the reason why The Queen Is Dead remains such a great album almost two and a half decades later is that Morrissey's punchlines are still as funny as ever. You've got to sweat for every ounce of the audience's suspension of disbelief. You can't get by, like Billy Corrigan, on some kind of faux-grandeur undercut by winking irony. For all their faults, I have never believed anything but that My Chemical Romance are absolutely 100% committed to making the best rock & roll they know how to make, and that they've invested everything they have into making me believe in their ability to do so.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lightning Round!

Marvel Zombies 3 #4

This was far, far better than it had any right to be. Everyone involved should pat themselves on the back for a job extremely well done. It is really a testament to how well this series was done that I was actually sorry it was only four issues long - I thought it would be five, like the previous Marvel Zombies series, and was disappointed when I turned the last few pages to find it was ending. Seriously, I can't remember the last time that happened.

For all the crap Warren Ellis gets - most of it deserved - he deserves praise for his reconceptualization of Machine Man. From being one of the least well developed Kirby creations - so boring that not even Barry Windsor-Smith could do much with him - Ellis was able to make him into the type of character whose presence can make even boring crap like Ms. Marvel fun to read. I imagine he's really fun to write, which is one reason he keeps showing up now. He was even fun in that X-Men: First Class issue where the old-school overly-earnest Machine Man appeared. Imagine that - a character revamp works so well it even makes the older versions of said character more interesting.

But with all that said, reading this incredibly enjoyable series, only to turn the final page and see the set-up for a new Morbius the Living Vampire relaunch, is akin to waking up to find out the hooker stole your wallet and your car keys. The fact that Morbius spent the previous three issues being repeatedly vivisected by his evil twin from Zombie Earth was one of my favorite parts, considering how much I loathe the character. Seeing him relaunched into his own spin-off - featuring a revitalized Midnight Sons, no less - feels like a cock-punch from Tom Daschle.

The Punisher #1

First, this was not a comic book - this was the opening scene of a larger comic book story which must have gotten mixed up at the printers, sort of like that thing where they printed the X-Men / Spider-Man innards in the Manifest Destiny packaging. Seriously, even though it was a nice piece of action storytelling, it was damn frustrating to realize the story was over at the point where, in truth, the story was just getting interesting. There's cliffhangers, and then there's just stopping the story because you ran out of pages and realized you maybe should have been more economical with your action sequences.

That said, this issue also points to a major problem with "Black Reign". I realize the Sentry is the definition of a "problem" character - i.e., the fact that the guy is a walking deus ex machina whose comically exaggerated power level and cardboard personality make it necessary for every writer who uses him to spend more time rationalizing and extenuating his presence and lack of potency than actually, you know, doing something interesting with him. There have actually been a few good Sentry stories but, surprise, they've been stories about the Sentry and his individual problems, set slightly aside from the superhero universe he's ostensibly enmeshed in (the original Sentry series, corny gimmick aside, was good), and never actually stories involving other characters or his membership the Avengers. The premise of the issue is hamstrung from the beginning.

So - here he is, the Golden Guardian of Good, not merely an apologist for Tony Stark's post-Civil War, at least theoretically defensible New World Order, but an actual active defender of the new psuedo-authoritarian reign of terror perpetrated by one of the Marvel Universe's most infamous murderers. How does that make sense considering that one of the Sentry's few incontestable, unambiguous character traits is the fact that he is supposed to be an archetypal "good guy", a blatant and purposeful Superman pastiche whose problems stem from an extra-textual inability to reconcile the (perceived) Manichean ideals of old-school Golden and early Silver Age superheroics with the morally ambiguous ethical texture of contemporary post-Bronze Age superheroics? That's why his arch-nemesis is a schizoid version of himself, for God's sake, the metaphor isn't that hard to follow. Given that, how does it make sense for the Sentry to ever put himself in the position of defending the life of the man who murdered Gwen Stacy? I don't even mean just preventing the murder - we all know why he's doing it, because we've seen Superman save the Joker's life under similar circumstances hundreds of times, so we understand the logic behind the specific choice. But putting himself in the position of being an apologist for the "Dark Reign"? Working for the man who killed Gwen Stacy? Superman was always able to see through Lex Luthor's schemes, and Norman Osborn isn't even trying very hard.

Even if the Sentry doesn't remember who Spider-Man is, post "One More Day", it's been established that he does know who Peter Parker is. Would you put yourself in the position of taking orders from a man who killed your friend's (for all intents and purposes) fiance? Even if it wasn't a particularly close friend, hell, even if it was just someone you met at your friend's party that one time, wouldn't that still probably make water-cooler conversations a bit awkward? If the character wasn't already practically worthless I'd say that making him a tool for the Osborn regime ruined him for good, but as it is it's just another in a long line of non sequitor plot points in bad superhero comic books.

Invincible Iron Man #9

And again, any suspension of disbelief I may have had about "Dark Reign" dissolves the moment I see Norman Osborn ordering his government goons to murder Maria Hill. For a useful analogy, imagine if incoming Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano ordered Michael Chertoff's assassination. It's certainly possible, say, if you live in Russia or another post-Soviet kangaroo oligarchy, but it doesn't really jibe with my empirical understanding of the way the United States Government, even in the darkest days of the Nixon or Bush II administrations, has ever operated. And it especially doesn't jibe very well if we're supposed to believe that Barack Obama, elected as the champion of responsible, accountable, transparent and ethical government, is also president of the United States in the Marvel Universe.

There are two options: one, Marvel was betting the farm on McCain winning the election, certainly a feasible option if we consider that the details of the post-Secret Invasion Marvel Universe were probably being hammered out during the interminable Democratic primary fight, when it looked not only possible but probable that a divided Democratic party would manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat by putting up a fatally wounded candidate to lose against a weak but well-backed Republican. The second option is that everyone at Marvel is an arch-conservative who sees the election of Barack Obama as the first step in a totalitarian socialist takeover of the American government, a la Michael Savage, or those people who still jack-off when they think about how Hillary shot Vernon Jordan for threatening to go to the press about her lesbian harem. The only other option to explain a storyline so radically out of synch with the country's mood is that the people at Marvel are just not bright enough to understand how a story which is obviously designed to be read in a political light might actually be read in a political light, to the confusion and bewilderment of many. Civil War had a metric shitpile of problems, but the one thing it succeeded quite well at doing was figuring out how to express topicality without being explicitly topical, fingering the pulse of the national mood in a blatant, albeit effective manner. This new storyline is so tone-deaf and preposterous that it's almost endearing, but more likely just disheartening.

Secret Six #5

There's been a lot of talk lately about just why certain books about female characters, or books by female creators, don't sell. I can't pretend to answer that, and I won't try because the answers a most likely depressing as fuuuuuck, but I do feel confident saying that the reason why Gail Simone's Wonder Woman isn't selling better is that it's just not very good. It's not just a matter of exaggerated expectations - the Number One Female Writer in Comics Finally Writing the Number One Female Character in Comics! - but the stories themselves have done precious little to rise above the stinky morass of the DC Universe circa 2008, or even make Wonder Woman's dull-as-dirt status quo seem more than life-threateningly banal.

But then I read a book like this - which, I must stress, is far from perfect - but nevertheless hums along with sufficient vim and vigor, and positively sings at certain moments, and I have to (heh) wonder. Is Simone saving up her A-game for this decidedly B-list book? Stranger things have happened: Bendis still writes a mean Ultimate Spider-Man even while his far more high-profile gigs suffer from attenuated craptitude. Has the pressure of turning around the perpetually sagging fortunes of Wonder Woman - a book every single person in the comics industry wants to see succeed but which nevertheless resolutely fails to do so year after year - cramped her pen, bringing about a series of clenched and constipated autopilot exercises? It's not that there haven't been flashes of interest. Her first arc had some nice ideas - the funny monkeys, the new Amazon arch-nemeses. Genocide, for all the characters' regrettable qualities, seems like she might have the potential to evolve into a genuinely creepy adversary once she moves past the "over-hyped and slightly preposterous debut" stage. But despite those moments, it still seems as if Simone is writing Wonder Woman with one hand tied behind her back. It never takes off like it should.

Secret Six, on the other hand, is a good book. Sure, it suffers from being a bit too reserved in places. There are moments when you wish the story would lose some of its soap-opera trappings and just take off into Nextwave-style ultra-weirdness. It's a book full of despicable villains, supposedly doing despicable things, and sometimes it feels too mannered for its own good. But still, it's a far sight better than her Wonder Woman, and even when it threatens to get dull, it's not long before the fun Gail Simone rattles her chains and something genuinely weird or scary happens - like the scene with the formerly conjoined twins, for instance, which evoked a real honest-to-Gosh chuckle.

Sometimes there is no larger reason behind a book's not selling other than it just isn't good enough to get people to want to read it. Other times, however - and judging from the sales figures for Secret Six, this may be the case - there's no good reason why a superior title doesn't sell much better than it actually does. This is a fun book, the kind of book I can see lasting some sixty or seventy-five or even a hundred satisfying issues, a perennial critical darling like Suicide Squad or Birds of Prey that never manages to break any records but nonetheless pleases a devoted readership for many, many years, the backbone of any successful publisher's strong mid-list. Or it could be another in a long line of series that gets canceled far too early because no one cares. As they say, U-Decide.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Criminally Underused / Misused / Forgotten Marvel Character #1

The Wasp

Now is it not a good time to be a Wasp fan, but then, when has it ever been a good time to be a fan of the Wasp? Of all the classic Marvel characters - all the folks dating back to the earliest Stan & Jack & Steve days - I feel safe saying that the Wasp has gotten the worst shake of them all.

She's never even had the chance to headline her own title.

Her primary attribute, as a character, is her marriage (and later, divorce).

She married her husband while he was having some kind of schizophrenic episode.

His own instability - seemingly the only thing writers could think to do with Henry Pym for decades - forced her into the role of prop for Pym's ongoing mental health problems.

To that end, she was subsequently on the receiving end of the most famous episode of spousal abuse in the history of superhero comics.

When no one could figure out what to do with her, she was turned into a mutant wasp woman creature, and then turned back into a human at the nearest opportunity.

But it's not enough merely to like the Wasp because so much crap has been foisted upon her. No, the fact is, merely by virtue of having survived and thrived despite these circumstances, her durability has managed to become a facet of her character.

It's an old, ghastly cliche that personal trauma is necessary for female characters - a rape, an assault, something like that. The Wasp has collected her fair share of them - see above. But rather than swear vengeance and become Dark Wasp, she's managed to survive pretty much the way real people do, you know, in the real world: by getting up, dusting herself off and pushing forward. Her father died in her first appearance, after all - but, you know, she's no Peter Parker. The default mode for the Wasp, after all this time, is that of strong, independent woman in a leadership position. It's not something any one creator really did, it was a natural progression more than anything else. But there you have it: the quintessential Avenger, even moreso than Captain America. This is why when, a few years back, Chuck Austen's bringing back the abuse storyline as an important piece of continuity felt so forced. Not because it wasn't important - certainly, it's probably, unfortunately, the single defining act of Hank Pym's career. But for Janet van Dyne, it's probably something she's done with and put in her past. She's not a victim, she's the only person on the planet (in Cap's absence) from whom Kang was willing to accept the unconditional surrender of Earth.

Now, the one facet of her character I've struggled with is probably the part that most readers see as most intrinsic: her affiliation with the fashion industry. Now, I'm probably the least fashion-positive person in the world - on my good days I think of the industry as a blight on the face of humanity, a parasitic organism attached with a death-grip to advanced capitalism. I long for the day we will all be mandated to wear identical unisex jumpers. But the Wasp is a fashion designer (albeit a terrible one, from everything we ever see her design), and this aspect of her character is often played for laughs. Even if I, personally, don't like it, the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Comics are wish-fulfillment through and through. It's obviously a guy's dream of what a successful woman would want to do - play with dresses and purses all day, tee hee - but nevertheless the Wasp actually has a career and a life outside the realm of superheroics (and one that would doubtless appeal to many female readers who could find little to envy in conventional male wish fulfillment fantasies). This is entirely due to the fact that she is and has never been a headliner, so that even when she's featured in the Avengers we don't see everything in her life, but the fact is that unlike Tony Stark or Peter Parker or Reed Richards, her success and her business acumen occur in a field that is absolutely 100% divorced from her avocation of crime-fighting. That's pretty cool.

I think of her as someone in the mode of Coco Chanel - fierce, intelligent, powerful, more than the equal of the men in her life, and actually willing to use fashion as a means of self-expression in more than just a bullshit consumerist Carrie Bradshaw fashion. You don't have to be Adorno or even Foucault to see the limitations of that lifestyle and the economic presumptions that accompany it. The Wasp changes her costume to express herself - sometimes loud and garish and ugly, sometimes simple and stark and sleek, sometimes utilitarian. Always herself, a personality that is strong and unflappable despite the best efforts of many unthinking writers.

She's often been a standout of the Avengers, but never been given the opportunity to shine by herself. If her temporary death will have any effect, let us hope that - like Thor, Hawkeye and Mockingbird - a return from the grave will only serve to make her a fare more popular character than she was before.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Mike Sterling linked to this page. Which is awesome. But I clicked onto the main page and found this.

Now, it's long been something of a canard that for all the popularity Japanese pop culture and manga has in America, Japan is only selectively interested in our comic books. So seeing a page devoted to what is obviously a healthy love of not just Gundam and that type of stuff but also DC Direct action figures is slightly interesting. Is there a market for the merchandise over there, or is it just imports? I was under the impression Japan didn't care for American superheroes at all, but some of those figures - such as the Teen Titans figures - don't look like American versions. This is an interesting little corner of the international comics world, a bit like finding a French site devoted to Tintin dressed like Spider-Man.

Anyway, due to the wonders of the future, I was able to translate the page through the Google Translate function. Which doesn't really work that well with pictographic languages - but it's at least a start to try and understand this strangeness. (I am ASSUMING that at least the gist of the text is preserved, which gives it at least some value besides a "oh, look at the funny Engrish" amusement factor. But yeah, the translation programs have a lot of work to go before we're going to be able to have computer sex with Japanese people in The Future.)

Submitted for your approval:

Daemon. The notation of the name "ETORIGANOBUDEMON" Some "DEMONETORIGAN" DAっor confusing. NYUGOZZU, Sand Man, along with Jack Kirby DC characters are typically created.

The Fire Storm NYUKURIAMAN. Unite the two men (in the sense that there is no change) was born heroes and manipulate atoms. Jason Rush, who plays as a variant current Fire Storm (black) version.

AKUAMAN. This is because they buy so much custom work.

Well, all that promise.

I was掴MA again. This person, I found difficult to understand in a flash, the lower part of the thigh, and both left foot. China Factory Cut it out. And I was dead from crushing the ants do not do it in a blister of Fire Storm.

Batman. Terry McGinnis, Bruce Wein successor future of the world. ANIMEORIJINARUKYARA release (it was mentioned in the recent global launch parallel) I can.

It is cool the body of a shiny gloss. Grasshoppers run so lonely in the accessories, I do good with me on things like a little more like a big old Toys Series.

Since all the four series of five species, and was completed by DEZUPERO.

Lobo's also borrowed blaster. The old "TOTARUJASUTISU" He had a series DESUPERO Blaster had the silver. Were found in the room I looked sloppy and → I figure that fell to the edge of the store under a bed.

Do not you know now, and not just Mr. Lobo Blaster, the most common of the body. I mean, the nature of the event limited edition, like what items will be diverted for Mr. Lobo.

Azrael is not going to buy I thought.

(And I believe that was pretty much everyone's reaction to the latest DC solicitations.)

Captain Atom. Kingdom Come emergence of variants (later appeared in the main knitting) Alex Ross version of the design. Things like, I buy the same price and it was normal but a variant version. Or alterations in part because it is tragic that as a red line painted in the imagination.

Cyborg. No popular as expected. However, I'm in character with respect to the former SUPAPAWAZUKOREKUSHON this side you're pretty excited. Like many GORUDENFARAO into KABIIKYARA ... but we will not be forever.

Also, the Red Tornado, but also bought a series. 並BEYOU SUWANPI and also bought one in the Fire Storm (add Ney and will not be absolute, not a character that you want to ...)

(Is BEYOU SUWANPI the Japanese Swamp Thing? Sterling?)

I could do that all night. But before I go, check this out. Couldn't all of our cultural difference be solved and put aside if we could just agree to love GYARAKUTASU equally?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Lightning Round!

Incognito #1

I missed out on Sleeper because it didn't seem like my thing. I have kept away from Criminal for the same reason - I just don't like crime stories all that much, even done well. And here we are with Incognito, which . . . well, do you think Brubaker is being serious here? Because, honestly, for all the praise that gets thrown in the direction of the Brubaker / Philips team, this is some seriously weak sauce. I've heard people say this series is some kind of attempt at commercial appeal, doing a superhero project in the vein of Criminal in the hopes of bringing a larger audience back to Criminal. I really hope so, because this mish-mash of been-there-done-that noir superhero cliches isn't gonna win any awards on its own. Does not make me very interested in any of the duo's other books.

Fantastic Four #562

There are two Mark Millars: the crappy, sensationalistic thug who paces stories like epic masturbation sessions, a series of climaxes paced between nonsensical passages of interstitial detumescence; and then there's the sweet, humble Millar who used to write such nice Superman stories and had a fantastic run on Swamp Thing. The former Millar has been in the drivers' seat for so long it has become harder and harder to remember the guy he used to be.

Although his run on Fantastic Four started off really poorly, somewhere around the halfway point it started to click. It's not perfect, but he's finally got a better handle on the characters' speech and behavior, and the second story arc seemed far more in keeping with the series' premise than the first - a laughably poor "giant robot so powerful he can destroy the world and even demolish the Sorcerer Supreme in a giant crown scene" tale. Again, the second story - featuring a band of future terrorists ostensibly trying to take over present-day earth - was hardly original, but the resolution was very nicely put together with the kind of "Reed saves the day because he's just that much smarter than everyone else" twist that Bendis just couldn't manage to sell in Secret Invasion. This iteration had came with the added bonus that the ostensible antagonists were actually counting on Reed being smart enough to defeat them. I don't care for the fact that Dr. Doom was essentially used as a prop - and there's something seriously wrong with your structure if Galactus dies off-panel - but there was more right than wrong, finally.

So, the first issue of the last arc of the twelve-issue run has come, and picks up on the previous issues' strengths. Dr. Doom is back in the drivers' seat - let's face it, between being used as a prop in the last arc, played for a fool in Bendis' Mighty Avengers and a patsy in Dark Reign, it has not been a good year for the Greatest Super-Villain in Comics (you cannot dispute what is indisputable). He's in jail in this issue, facing execution but waiting any minute to be freed (which, because we read Dark Reign, we know is imminent, but regardless), and then for whatever reason drops some weird non-sequitor about the imminent arrival of the "first super-villain", a creature so depraved he makes Doom blanch. It's so odd and seemingly out-of-character that it can only be the first salvo in some kind of really bizarre scheme on Doom's part - at least, if he has any understanding at all of these characters, that's what it is. Although Millar burnt my last shred of patience many moons ago, the set-up is promising enough that, based on the last two or so issues, I will extend him further leeway. Maybe it's just because it's the Fantastic Four that I'm willing to me more generous than I would in another situation.

Doctor Who: The Forgotten #5

So . . . the Doctor's mirror-universe evil twin has a goatee. That made me chuckle.

And yes, I am disappointed with the announcement of the new Doctor just like everyone else, but I at least will give him a fair shake. I didn't like Tennant at first but he seems to have had a strong run. It is going to be extremely bizarre to have a Doctor who is significantly younger than myself.

Justice Society #22

Remember a few months back when I said that the Gog storyline could be really interesting if it turned out that the all-powerful, benevolent Gog actually was as benevolent and kindly as he wanted everyone to believe he was? That such a twist would actually be far more interesting than the inevitable revelation that Gog was just an evil demigod after world domination after all? Well, this is the issue wherein the omnipotent evil demigod is dispatched with surprising alacrity considering how effectively he was built up as unbeatable. All the thorny ethical and ideological questions of the past six months are wrapped up in a dismissive "oh well, he really was evil after all" shrug. Geoff Johns' recent Superman work was strong enough for me to actually think the story held some promise, but it's all thrown away rather mechanically here. At least, on the very last page, they finally managed to answer the question of what just Earth the post-Zero Hour Legion actually lived on, but if an answer to a burning fifteen-year-old nugget of fan-wank trivia is the best you get after closing the book, the story was pretty much an epic FAIL.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

How To Read Superhero Comics

Let's get something out of the way, because I think it's clouding the conversation unnecessarily: although I may prevaricate and even demur on occasion, I think that anyone who reads this blog for any amount of time knows that, whatever else I may feel about the damned things (superhero rags, that is), these feelings are coming from a place of great affection. It's certainly not unambiguous affection - I think the best statement on the matter is still Tom Spurgeon's "Comics Made Me Fat". You can love comics while also hating a lot of things about comics. But if I didn't like comics - super hero comics, too - I wouldn't be here. But if you're over, say, twenty and still reading comics of any kind, you've got some kind of baggage - some kind of mixed feelings - about the medium. If you don't, you're kidding yourself.

If you read comics throughout your childhood and adolescence and teenage years, it was in spite of a host of other factors, and probably because there was some aspect of immersive, all-consuming escapist fantasy that you needed at whatever point of your life you were in. Every element of comics is designed to be as immersive as World of Warcraft: you go to different, strange stores to buy them; meet different, strange people who you would only encounter in the context of reading comics; when you aren't reading comics you organize comics and make lists about comics and fill out checklists and grade your comics and go to conventions where you can do all the above and then (in the pre-internet days) you'd might even have pen-pals about comics. You can have as little or as much involvement in the realm as you wish, but I seriously believe that most people who kept reading even when the world of sports and girls and school and girls (and did I mention girls?) opened up before them were probably so firmly in the grip of the World of Comics that their immersion, and their commitment to maintaining that immersion as a means of defense against exterior reality, was deep. Sometimes I wish I could just throw it all down the toilet, snap my fingers and make comics not exist anymore - but then I come to my senses and realize that writing about comics also occasionally pays my bills (very small bills, but still).

So when I talk about how disappointed I am about this or that Big Event Comic, there is certainly an element of detached industry insider, the type of person who really isn't that invested in the actual content of the books themselves but still cares in an academic fashion for the way the pieces fit together. But there is also, on some level, a little bit of me deep inside that still - as Fox Mulder would say - Wants To Believe. I want to be able to enjoy the damn things without having to fall back on that sort of cynical, seen-it-all industry trainspotting perspective, but I'll be damned if that isn't the only conceivable way, at this late date, to get any shred of enjoyment from books as poorly conceived and executed as Ultimatum or Secret Invasion. When I was discussing the end of "Batman R.I.P." a few weeks back my disappointment was acute because, in spite of my reservations, I actually had been sucked into the story in those last few episodes. Morrison had made up for a slow start (and even begun to redeem a generally somnolent run on the title) with what appeared to be a promising run-up to a strong finish. But the finish was - to say the least - poor, and therefore not only was I disappointed in an academic, "let's dissect the ways in which this was a creative disaster" fashion, but also in a very visceral, "you actually got me halfway involved in this stupid thing but you just couldn't seal the deal so now I'm sitting here with the superhero comic book equivalent of blueballs, asshole" manner.

Something else Spurgeon says, which I generally agree with, is (and I'm paraphrasing here) there reaches a point where you realize you just don't really need to read more Spider-Man comic books. You've read a lifetime's fill, and any more from this point forward is sort of gratuitous. I think for the most part I am in the same boat, but where I'll disagree with him (if I understand him correctly) is that while I've read more than enough - infinitely more than enough - really bad or just mediocre superhero comics, I'm still open to reading and enjoying a really good Spider-Man comic, and when I do come across one - rarely, very rarely these days - it's like scratching an itch I didn't even realize I had, you know?

Recently I went back and finished reading JLA / Avengers - I had read, I believe, the first half or first 3/4, I can't remember, but never bothered to finish it for whatever reason. Maybe it's just because most of the superhero comics I had been reading - or, not even reading, just flipping through - were so poor, but the book hit me like a ton of bricks. I mean, seriously, it's probably the most complex, overly-mannered bit of baroque continuity porn ever printed by either company - but it was done so well, with such enthusiasm and excitement and attention to every little stray detail, that I couldn't wait to turn the next page. After I read that book I felt like I'd eaten a six-course meal. I'm not going to sit here and make the case for JLA / Avengers as great art, however you want to use that yardstick - it's not going up against Maus or Louis Riel anytime soon. But it is one of the best examples I have ever seen of a certain type of comic that perhaps only really hardcore superhero comics aficionados can appreciate - and as such, being one of those people (at least, when I'm not in denial, hysterically waving my copy of Kramers Ergot #7 in the air to ward off the flies buzzing over the corpse of my critical reputation), it hit the spot.

So my critique is not necessarily detached. One of the most interesting criticisms I've seen bandied about in recent days is this notion that criticizing business and marketing decisions alongside creative decisions somehow equates to creating a kind of straw-man "hypothetical reader" for whom a perfectly-crafted-and-marketed comic book would perfectly appeal. The implication is that, by couching critique in a real appreciation of the commercial factors involved in creating and marketing comic books, it precludes any kind of involvement with the comic itself. For many reasons, I think this is a specious dichotomy. As Sean T. Collins puts it:
For what it's worth, I think you put yourself in an awkward position as a critic when your criticism is basically a thought experiment where you purport to speak for the needs of an audience you acknowledge to be slow, or at least slower than yourself, and interested in uninteresting things.
There is no thought experiment at all here, and I think the assumption of any such thought experiment is an exercise in bad faith on the part of anyone who formulates such a criticism in response to anything I have said (I can't speak for Tucker Stone, but I assume he feels similarly). Superhero comics are just another type of widget, really, and if they insist on producing comics that - through whatever kind of confusion or incompetence on the part of the creators, editors, publishers, marketers or retailers - draw attention away from their capacity as immersive entertainment and towards their status as disposable widgets in a crowded marketplace, well, I'm not going to pretend I care about something when the most vivid emotion I can summon is apathy.

Recently, in the comments section for one of his encyclopedic assaults on Secret Invasion, someone took Abhay Khosla to task for coming out hammer & tongs against a series he "obviously" had no interest in reading. To which Khosla replied, essentially, he wanted to like Secret Invasion - he had loved Civil War and World War Hulk, and therefore constituted what is presumably the specific target audience for something like Secret Invasion.
How could this possibly not be my bag? This is so my bag. How do you accuse someone of being a cranky fanboy for not liking the THIRD ISSUE of something?? I liked it enough to get to #3. I just love how that's the default retort for someone not liking a superhero comic you like. "You're not one of us, man." What do I need to do-- chop off a pinky?*
It's not exactly a perfect analogy, but follow me here: there is no thought experiment. If a comic like "Batman R.I.P." or Final Crisis doesn't appeal to a guy like me - who regularly pulls out his TPB of the original Crisis to reread his favorite parts - who the fuck is it supposed to appeal to? Is it my fault if the actual toy is so boring that the box holds my interest far more effectively? That's probably the most damning criticism of the series and its ilk which I can possibly imagine: it is literally more interesting for me to speculate about behind-the-scenes editorial shenanigans than to look at anything that actually made it onto the page.

Let me make a shameful confession: I actually think the last third or so of Countdown was pretty fun. The parts after the creators must have realized that the writing was on the wall, that the whole series was a big white elephant sales graveyard that the company couldn't cancel even if they wanted to so they were just sort of stuck publishing it even if everyone acknowledged it was horrible and would be forgotten the moment it was finished. Sure, it wasn't very good by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a slight hint of flop sweat to the proceedings that make it kind of cool - at some point they're just throwing shit up against the wall in order to see if something, anything will stick. Let's blow up a few of these stupid 52 earths, turn one of them into a plague-ridden Earth Kamandi, turn Jimmy Olsen into Turtle Boy and have him go at it against Darkseid in Kaiju Big Battel! style before hiring one of their 27 rotating artist monkeys do a horrid Kirby pastiche for the umpteenth FINAL BATTLE between Darkseid and Orion - I guess the most dangerous animal is the cornered animal. Kind of like the end of Thelma & Louise when they realize the only way out is to drive straight off the cliff - the folks behind Countdown - I don't even know their names, their deeds resound anonymously through the ages like the 300 Spartan warriors (and 1000+ attendants and squires) who perished at Thermopylae. Their futile efforts produced some memorable - to me - comics, and the fact that they didn't receive the memo explaining that their efforts would soon be swept under the rug on account of corporate fiat makes the work all the more endearing. I feel bad for those guys in a way I don't feel bad for Morrison. Morrison gets smugger and smugger with every passing year, and I think it would probably frustrate him to no end to know I preferred semi-retarded-Jimmy-Olsen-Turtle-Boy-fighting-Darkseid to Slavery-Is-Freedom-subcutaneous-meme-transmission-Anti-Life Darkseid. Maybe it's the fierce kennel-blindness speaking, but I prefer enthusiastic car-crash to smug mediocrity any day of the week.