Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stuff I Have Heard

Wilco - Wilco (The Album)

I've been trying for a while now to articulate what I find so damn depressing about Wilco (The Album), but I think I may have finally stumbled onto a good analogy. Those with long-ish memories might recall the early years of this decade, during which Radiohead followed up 1997's OK Computer with a string of increasingly recondite albums - Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. For some reason people were convinced - or, at least, a large and very vocal minority of people were convinced - that at some indefinite point in the future Radiohead would quit all the "experimenting" and return to the guitar-based rock of OK Computer and The Bends. Somehow or other the idea took hold that Radiohead's default format was still post-grunge guitar pop, and that they would eventually return to this format after getting the "weirdness" out of their systems.

This idea was not without precedent: a lot of bands go through "weird" phases, and most eventually make the proverbial "back to basics" record. This expected pattern is old enough that we can actually trace its lineage back to those hoary old grandaddies, the Beatles, who indeed got "weird" with their self-titled "White" album before heading back to basics for the Let It Be sessions and Abbey Road. But this doesn't always happen, sometimes people get "weird" and stay weird. In Radiohead's case, the obviously have very little interest in returning "back to basics", and they seem perfectly content to stay right where they are, making interesting, occasionally difficult but more often than not rewarding music that somehow manages to remain consistently new despite their status as one of the three or four biggest bands on the planet. People stopped making noises about them going back to The Bends sometime around the time Hail to the Thief came out - Radiohead had been making vague comments about their next album having more guitar sound on it since 1998, and people finally figured out that Radiohead's idea of guitar rock had ceased to correspond to most other people's, and the results were getting increasingly prickly, paranoid, dense and difficult. A track like "2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm.)" is technically guitar rock, but it's hardly "Just" or "Planet Telex". Kid A is, as you might recall, my third favorite album of the decade, so I've never been one to clamor for them to take what would most obviously be a severe backwards step, but the number of people who were convinced that they should do just that for the majority of the 00s is somewhat baffling to me.

You can probably see where my train of thought it heading here.

After Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, people started calling Wilco the "American Radiohead", and the label stuck enough that it became practically axiomatic. It didn't help matters that they followed up their career-defining magnum opus with the dark, difficult and introspective A Ghost Is Born; just as Radiohead followed OK Computer with Kid A, an album which many at the time deemed to be - you guessed it - dark, difficult and introspective. The difference is that, unlike Radiohead, Wilco really did return to basics after a couple far-out albums. It turns out, unfortunately, that Sky Blue Sky wasn't itself the lapse after a pair of beautifully dense and haunting milestone albums. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born - and even to a degree Summerteeth - were the lapses, because in Jeff Tweedy's mind the Platonic form of Wilco is in fact genial, workmanlike shit.

Perhaps it wouldn't seem to defensive if I hadn't made the error of watching the accompanying DVD that came with the special edition of Sky Blue Sky, in which Tweedy speaks at length about his frustration with the expectations of fans and the anticipated negative reaction to the band's new direction. He comes off like a real prick - no surprise to anyone who's seen I Am Trying to Break Your Heart - but more importantly, rather oblivious to his band's appeal. Certainly, it wasn't that people were just churlishly insisting that every album be Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 2, it's that Sky Blue Sky was - a couple exceptions excepted - a piece of rancid, complacent shit that sounded like it fell out of Leo Kottke's winsome, down-home anus.

Wilco (The Album) is only just sightly better, but it's still damnably inconsequential. It has the added bonus of insulting the group's fans, with lyrics like:
Are you under the impression
This isn't your life?
Do you dabble in depression?
Is someone twisting a knife in your back?
It's just depressing. Especially so on a track like "Bull Black Nova", an obvious attempt to ape the success of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", without any of the intellect, drive or power of the latter. It just seems like an apparent sop to the fans who liked "that weird depressing album", not any kind of honest attempt to continue on the same interesting path.

In 2009, Jeff Tweedy has finally succeeded in making Wilco the band he apparently wanted it to be all along - he's the figurehead, the songwriter, the creative director, surrounded by a crack team of session men. The only guy who is still around from the earliest days is the bassist, and that's probably because he keeps his head down. I think it's time for me to say goodbye to Wilco: they had a good run as a great band, but I don't feel the need to stick around and watch them squander that goodwill on coprophilia.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Not Brand Ecch

In the comments to the previous X-Post, moose n squirrel made some interesting points which I think warrant full reiteration, for those who may only skim the comments:
Anyway, I feel that this series of posts is in danger of running aground, in that it keeps getting hung up on Claremont, the uniqueness of Claremont, etc. Claremont's successors - particularly Lobdell and Nicieza - showed that they could ape Claremont's formula quite successfully, and did so for years. The problem is Claremont's formula itself, which is designed to endlessly recycle soap opera elements beyond the point of their viability. In order to make these periodic deck reshufflings convincing, increasing elements of tension have to be added to the mix - new plot threads are opened as often as old ones are closed, new mystery ciphers are introduced even as old ones are finally, grudgingly put to rest.

All of this takes place within the context of an ongoing story that presents itself, on the surface, as a story about change, while the reader cannot help but notice, over time, that nothing is changing but the most superficial elements. That's why all of us end up dropping the X-Men at some point or another - and, indeed, why most of us have dropped corporate superhero comics entirely at some point. The soap opera can't maintain the illusion of change forever, and so it loses its readers at some point. This didn't used to be a problem for superhero comics, because they used to attract a steady stream of new, younger readers, who'd get sucked into the soap opera and follow it reliably for a few years before dropping it; now, though, it really is a matter of attempting to keep readers reading forever, which is kind of insane.

How can a story like X-Men ever be a satisfying narrative? It doesn't have an ending - hell, its marketing strategy demands that it can't have an ending. But it must forever point in some direction (and don't you love that word "direction" as it's used in comics? Always "a new direction"!) without actually going anywhere. When we see this in television - most notoriously with "The X-Files," but more recently with shows like "Alias" and "Lost" - we call bullshit. When we see it in comic books, we accept it as a matter of course, because we've been trained to expect nothing happening, forever.
Most of which is 100% correct, and moose n squirrel does a wonderful job of articulating something which I've been trying to say in my traditionally roundabout, long-winded and exhausting (if not necessarily exhaustive) fashion: the X-Books are and always have been an ongoing soap-opera that hooks people at an early age and which many readers eventually outgrow. For a quarter century the books were popular enough that even with the expected reader-base attrition the sales remained steady, high and dominant. Then somewhere around the turn of the century something very vital got lost along the way and the books stumbled. What is it that precipitated the fall? That's the key question.

I think this answer is mostly correct, in that it points the finger squarely at the idea that an older readership grows less satisfied with soap-opera shenanigans once they begin to perceive the circuitous, repetitive and static nature of change within the context of corporate super-hero books. It's no secret that comic readership has been skewing older for a long time, so obviously those books which relied most heavily on hooking younger, less-experienced readers into boilerplate soap-operatics, which appealed primarily because of consistent attention to some very simple but dependable rules (some of which I outlined by negative example in the brief discussion of Cry for Justice).

But the point where I have to disagree with moose n squirrel is in his statement that "Claremont's successors - particularly Lobdell and Nicieza - showed that they could ape Claremont's formula quite successfully, and did so for years." I am really not trying to be facetious, I honestly would like to know: what part of their runs are you referring to? What issues are you talking about? Because over the years I read every single X-Men comic from the 1990s - I think I can say that with some degree of authority - in addition to a lion's share of the spin-offs. What can I say? Back then it was a lot cheaper to satisfy your guilty pleasures. $5-10 on X-Men comics nowadays would barely get you two books, but you could follow the bulk of the line for that price during most of the Clinton administration - most of you probably did, too. Anyway, I've read all of Lobdell's run, all of Nicieza's X-work, and I have to admit that this comment leaves me flabbergasted: when was it a successful ape of Clarement's formula? Sure, it was some kind of ape, but rather than a successful ape I think it was a pretty piss-poor ape that succeeded in replicating all the worst problems of Claremont's tenure without any of the charms.

Because, if we can say one thing about Claremont without any fear of contradiction, is that the man had a profound understanding of the franchise's limitations. The primary limitation was and remains that a book predicated on change - mutation, itself reflected in constant turnover and unexpected happenstance - could not and cannot actually change or end because it had become so popular it would never be allowed to follow any of its narrative threads through to their natural conclusion. Again, to reiterate moose n squirrel's comment:
In order to make these periodic deck reshufflings convincing, increasing elements of tension have to be added to the mix - new plot threads are opened as often as old ones are closed, new mystery ciphers are introduced even as old ones are finally, grudgingly put to rest.
That's pretty much the size of it, and to this effect, Claremont became quite adept at being the world's most expert plate-spinner. To return to the previous statements about character dynamics, he understood that in order for a long-form static soap opera to remain fresh it had to stay light on its feet. Things had to move quickly in order for people not to notice they weren't really moving very fast at all. It sounds paradoxical - it is paradoxical - but in practice it's not that hard to recognize.

The more stuff is happening, the easier it is to get wrapped up in the surface elements of adventure comics and soap operatics while conveniently overlooking the constrained franchise constants. Look at something like - to move away from usuing vintage Uncanny as our constant referent - Wolfman & Perez's Teen Titans that was a very, very dense comic, lots of stuff happened every issue, and yet very little about the status quo changed over the course of their long run. Tons of little things which sort-of kind-of added up to change if you just measured it in terms of collateral damage done to secondary and tertiary characters, but little in the way of actual change - and why would they risk changing the formula on what was, for a time, DC's most popular book?

So, Claremont's X-Men was constantly changing, changing as much as Claremont was allowed to do so - despite the fact that for the bulk of his run the most popular characters - Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Kitty Pryde and, later, Rogue - stayed fairly static throughout. Some of the parts of the later run which are regarded poorly by contemporary fans are regarded as such in part due to the perceived failure of some of Claremont's more outre attempts at deck-shuffling - hey, let's just have half the most popular members permanently incapacitated and replace them with Dazzler, Longshot and Havok! Let's kill them and send them to Australia! Let's totally dismantle the team and turn the title into a Forge solo book for a year! But even in the darkest days of the post-250 run (and it did get pretty dire, especially during the brief period when Forge was leading a team composed of Muir Isle cast-offs), there's still a genuine sense of unpredictability around many aspects of the storyline. Even if you get the feeling the constant desire for novelty is leading the book in weird and not entirely convincing directions, it still has a direction.

But the moment Claremont left the book's calcified into a pretty dire and static status quo - the type of status quo that made it infinitely harder to maintain even the most precarious illusion of change. Everyone who was ever an X-Man moved back into the mansion where they could all sit around and be beautiful, wealthy and bored. They got in their jet to go find adventures and react to all sorts of stuff, they went from being the perennial, haggard underdogs to a supremely efficient paramilitary strike force that actually could give the Avengers a run for their money. They became fat and complacent, and the soap opera became downright asinine, because without some sort of pressing narrative exigency, it just became flabby.

Look at the stretch of issues from roughly 212-240. This whole run is essentially a single storyline that has the X-Men slowly dismantled by the Mauraders, hired by Mr. Sinister for the sole purpose of hunting down and killing mutants who Sinister found to be superfluous or detrimental to his plots. Nowadays, the X-Men could deal with the Mauraders in no time flat, but back in the day Claremont took the time to sell them as not merely a legitimate but an existential threat to the team. Members were incapacitated, the team went on the run, picked up a pile of members who no one really knew and no one really trusted, had to constantly fight from a position of weakness, and were therefore made easy pickins' for a succession of gradually more diabolical threats. It felt like stakes were high.

Once the post-X-Men #1 status quo was instituted, however, the cast got too big to manage successfully - even spread across two and sometimes more main titles. Characters appeared and disappeared seemingly at random, showing up in crowd scenes waiting for something to say or do. (First rule: never include more characters than you can use!) And when subplots did arise, they did not do so organically, but haphazardly. Plotlines were forgotten and dismissed. You hardly got the feeling - even after, say, Lobdell had been writing the books for years, that there was a direction to any of it. Whereas you could feel confident when Claremont depowered Storm and introduced Madelyne Pryor and teased Nimrod's identity that these were plotlines which were going somewhere - even if it took years to actually get there - the mid-90s X-Books were so jerky and halting that anyone expecting to receive a consistent reading experience from one year to another - sometimes even one month to another - were sorely disappointed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sometimes failure is a prelude.

Failure can be liberation. The admission that something doesn't work frees those held in sway by the influence of outdated modes and mores.

Thinking about The Woods lately I was also drawn to Pavement's Terror Twilight. In some respects a radically different album than The Woods, Terror Twilight nevertheless shares with the former album the status of being a valedictory statement, the final words from a once-hallowed indie rock institution fading into obsolescence. One album is gently melancholy, the other is fiercely defiant - and yet there is no mistaking them for anything other than last albums. "Major League" is a song filled with gentle regret over the group's passing: there's nowhere else to go because they've succeeded on their own terms. They specifically chose not to chase any brass rings outside their personal visions for what the band was and could be. But looking back, the question - half ironic, half sincere - recurs with a startling urgency: did we do everything we could, just because we did everything we wanted?

When the calendar ticked over from the 90s into the 00s, the kind of indie rock represented by bands like Pavement and Sleater-Kinney began to disappear. The idea of either principled disinterest or fervid engagement became hopelessly naive, and every indie band with any type of following or presence became, simply, entrepreneurs. Of all the big "indie" rock bands of the decade, it's harder to find ones who haven't made the jump to the "majors" at some point, or barring that, haven't sold major-league numbers through tireless touring and merchandising spurred by major-league ambition. If you grew up on Pavement, Guided by Voices and Sebadoh, how else to react to the likes of Interpol, the Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse than with thinly-veiled disgust? This isn't a career, this is a beautiful mess. Of course, the contracting music industry means that the lines separating "indie" and "major" have shrank away almost to nothingness - when a smash hit of a record can barely squeak past one million sold, and groups like Neko Case and Andrew Bird debut in the Billboard Top 10, it begs the question as to whether or not the ambition grew larger or the playing field just shrank accordingly.

When Sleater-Kinney inveigh against the fashionistas and scenesters of the early 00s music scene in "Entertainment", the denunciation carries the weight of God's own wrath. But it also can't help but seem strangely impotent, for all its fury, The clock has turned, times have changed. Indie rock isn't politics anymore, it's fashion. It's not about the message but the medium. The message can always be coopted, so why not sing like Duran Duran?
If your art is done,
Johnny get your gun!
Join the rank and file,
On your TV dial.
Artistic nostalgia begats complacency, and complacency begats apathy. An apathetic, fashion-obsessed entertainment industry breeds a non-functioning, apolitical electorate - and a non-functioning, apolitical electorate opens the door for George W. Bush's "landslide" reelection in 2004. Where's the blood, where's the passion? Where's the black and blue? What is left to keep the fox from dragging us deeper into the deadly woods? This is a band playing not merely at the height of their powers but to the brink of hysteria: Carrie Brownstein is screaming like someone's got a gun pointed to her head, as if her deep reservoirs of feeling can somehow overcome the collective apathy of a nation, or the absolute unlikelihood that anyone who doesn't already agree wholeheartedly might hear her words.

Did Sleater-Kinney ask too much of their audience, of their country? They stood for something, really they did; but in the 00s is it even possible to stand for anything from as fragile a perch as pop music? The assumption of impotence is so deeply felt as to be instinctive even by those who exert themselves towards change, so is it any surprise the majority of music made by young people today is so damned apolitical? It's hard to be political when you're going back in time to suck off New York circa 1976 - but forget the Strokes, they're an easy target and old hat. What the fuck is up with all the damn mealy-mouthed folky bullshit these days? Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear want us all to sit quietly and hearken back to some acoustic vaguely Arcadian fuzzy juvenility. Vampire Weekend seem to care about as much as I do about their middle-of-the-road Ivy League world music condescension - that is, not at all. At least the Animal Collective have the decency to be weird. Sleater-Kinney were dinosaurs too strong and too principled to die any other death but a self-inflicted gutshot. The Woods is the sound of their dying screams.

But revolutionary fervor is itself only another kind of fashion accessory to be traded and commodified. Green Day went multi-platinum with their most explicitly political album ever, and all it did was turn well-intentioned anti-reactionary populist rhetoric into a fashion statement available for $17.99 at your local Hot Topic. What does it even mean for a pop group to "stand for something"? The bigger the megaphone, the easier it is for the message to be overcome by the medium - and the medium, in this case, is commerce. Failure to assault the system only reifies the system - but how the hell do you fight a system that can metabolize even the most poisonous criticism by turning it into readily digestible product? It's a losing battle. If Horkheimer & Adorno couldn't crack that nut, it's no surprise three punk rock grrrls couldn't either.

Not coincidentally, The Woods was also the first Sleater-Kinney album not to be released on Kill Rock Stars. The album was distributed by Sub Pop, which is partly owned by Warner Brothers.

But somehow, despite the desolation, despite the depression, despite the atmosphere of failure and the acknowledgment of passing time, there is still energy, there is still life until the very end.


The Woods sounds different than anything which came before. Their earlier albums were produced with an exacting precision that did little to distort their very disciplined playing. Here, however, the sound itself seems to come alive, becomes a swirling, dancing, pulsating living creature, the beating heart of a livid, passionate animal.

And so they celebrate their own demise with the wildest bout of fucking you've ever heard in your life. No, it's not lovemaking, even though they might want to "Call it Love", it's fucking - raw, brutal, angry fucking. This is the climactic battle between good and evil inflated across the roof of the sky; this is Brownstein wielding her guitar like the living embodiment of Kirby crackles. This is hardcore. This sounds like two lovers meeting for the last time, knowing that in the morning they must leave (which, in a way, it is). This is the last, most desperate, and most exhilarating sex of your entire life. This is the act of love as an act of pure destructive energy - a destruction that leaves the entire universe barren and raw, empty and inchoate and yet . . . ready. Fecund.

Even after everything has fallen apart, there is still life enough to fill a universe, hope enough to rage forever against the brutality and ignorance of the worst evils. The Woods is both life and anti-life, the will to fight and the desire to die. It's everything nasty and gorgeous, beautiful and scarred. You can't hope to escape unscathed, but you can't escape without feeling wonderfully alive for every harrowing minute.

In the aftermath of such a titanic self-immolation, what strange gods will yet arise from the ashes of this miserable decade?

Best Music of the "Aughts"
10.The Field - From Here We Go Sublime
9.Spoon - Gimme Fiction
8.The New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
7.Girl Talk - Night Ripper
6.The Roots - Phrenology
5.LCD Soundsystem - Sounds of Silver
4.The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
3.Radiohead - Kid A
2.Sleater-Kinney - The Woods 1
1.Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 1, 2

Monday, July 20, 2009

Media I Have Consumed

The State (DVD)

For whatever reason I missed The State the first time around. I wasn't watching MTV during the mid-90s (actually, haven't regularly watched MTV since the mid-80s, although I did follow M2 religiously back in the late 90s before it was turned into a clone of the parent channel). So unlike a lot of people with my rough demographic background and cultural affinity, I have exactly zero nostalgia for or personal emotional investment in the show. Because when you start talking to people who like The State, they really like The State - as in, they're obsessed with the idea of The State and spend an inordinate amount of time eulogizing the show , reciting their favorite skits and lamenting the fact that it has never been released on DVD.

Well, this past week, it was released on DVD. And although my interest in the series is negligible, it made a great gift for Violet, who is one of those aforementioned State fanatics. She has pretty much the entirety of Skits & Stickers memorized, and even had a VHS recording of the rare-as-hens'-teeth CBS television special before it got ate by her machine. It's an odd thing: I was alive during the 90s and seemingly quite hep to the nascent "cult" culture that was just a'borning in those Pleistocene pre-Internet days, and yet the whole phenomena passed me by just like it never was.

And now I can't help but wonder whether or not they would have been better off just letting the show rest snugly in people's memories, because bringing it back to light really exposes the fact that it's not very good. I think it might be something you had to be there for, because without rose-tinted nostalgia it's pretty weak sauce. Even Violet recognized pretty quickly that despite a handful of still very funny skits, the large majority of the show was just not very funny. It's kind of sad, really, but I'd be surprised if her experience wasn't a common one among State fans this last week: now that you have the chance to sit down and experience it all again, it really doesn't hold a candle to the Platonic image which resides in your fondest memories.

Obviously, the show was influential. You can't watch it without marveling at just how much of the program was stolen and repurposed by later comedians and comedy troupes, sometimes shamelessly. Even if you didn't watch the show, every other comedian of this generation did. Some things which might have seemed revolutionary at the time are just lackluster in retrospect. (Sometimes even the best comedy can't escape being obviated by passing time - and comedy which wasn't strong to begin with dates faster than an overripe peach in the back of a Buick.) To be fair, they stole more than a dollop from the Kids in the Hall. But by and large the Kids were much stronger performers than most anyone on The State, even if their material wasn't that much better.

Because, wow, you've never seen anyone overselling a joke like the State oversells a joke. You've never seen so much wacky mugging and energetic flopping as on these DVDs. Here's a secret I'll let you in on: an enthusiastic performance will not save a weak premise, it really only makes things far more annoying. Because if there's one thing that isn't funny, it's hyperactive college students bellowing bad punchlines into each others' ears. And I was also surprised by just how genial the whole thing was: for a show held in such high regard, it's really quite tame - maybe it wasn't so tame at the time, but I'm not just talking about the occasional sex joke or reference to dipping one's balls into something or other. It's just way too nice - you get the feeling that at any moment they're going to break out of character and smile to the audience, "we're just kiddin', folks, just clownin' around!" There's never so much as a drop of blood spilled.

Sketch comedy is by nature horrible. It's true: in my own judgment I expect even a good sketch show to have a 70-30 crap ratio - as in, 70% crap to 30% good. As you might expect, based on this, I don't really like sketch comedy. The State doesn't do too well by this measure, managing at their best a 75-25 or 80-20 ratio. In seasons 2 and 4, whole episodes passed without so much as a cracked smile. Perhaps the show would be remembered far more fondly if they had just reissued the Skits & Stickers collection on DVD - that had a high percentage of the really good skits with relatively little of the dross. And that makes sense: pretty much everyone I've talked to who has bothered to sit down with any of the vintage SNL season boxsets that have appeared in recent years has agreed that the vast majority the show, even in its supposed "prime", was crap; watching some old Monty Pythons recently, I was startled at just how crap a lot of those were, too. (How many fake BBC interview programs can you do before it starts to get old?) I haven't even bothered to watch any SCTV in decades simply because I used to think it was hilarious, and I'm sure it wouldn't hold up any better.

At its absolute worst, sketch comedy is like spending time with some people who you sort of know but not really, who have a huge pile of inherited in-jokes and wacky schticks which they think are fuckin' hilarious but which are steadfastly opaque to everyone who wasn't actually present the first time, oh, George did his Principle McMillan impression. There is nothing worse than watching a bunch of otherwise well-intentioned people have an awesome time being painfully unfunny - not merely is it boring but it's downright embarrassing for all concerned.

(Plus, it's worth mentioning that I think Michael Ian Black is not merely unfunny but painfully, aggressively unfunny in the manner of a quickly metastasizing tumor in your mother's breast. Seeing his smarmy asshole face on the TV makes me want to change the channel - which is problematic when you're watching a DVD.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Auteur Theory

In the comments to my original X-post a week or so ago, dddoofus made the following comment, in reference to the current reduced circumstances of the X-books:
I notice everyone here is focused on blaming the writers. But notice that [the] X-Men's high points in terms of sales and popularity were always because a new artist showed up who draws different than everyone who came before.

The Neal Adams era, the Cockrum/Byrne era, Jim lee era, and Joe Madureira era. I'm not saying all these artists were great or even that I enjoyed all of them, but they all were something new and different when they showed up. and people payed attention.
People read X-men for Byrne or Jim Lee, not Claremont. When Jim Lee showed up X-men was the most popular comic book in America.
This makes a lot of sense, and to a degree I think it's a necessary corrective to the line of reasoning into which many critics (such as myself) naturally fall: mainstream comics as an auteur's medium, whose successes occur as a direct result of a writer's vision and his (usually his, since we're talking about mainstream comics) ability to wrest control over the corporate production line utilized in the creation of superhero books.

Sometimes this is a more accurate assertion than others - Neil Gaiman's Sandman is obviously Neil Gaiman's book, and the best proof of that is the the series' original artist left within the first year due to creative disagreements with Gaiman. Starman was James Robinson's baby; Punisher MAX was Garth Ennis through and through. But Uncanny X-Men wasn't some (relative to mainstream tastes) art-house critical darling: it was mainstream comics. Every artist who worked for any significant time on the main X-book became industry superstars - save for Paul Smith, who purposefully chose not to be. I think it is safe to say that in terms of immediate appeal, the art was the primary reason why Uncanny X-Men became and remained Marvel's ostensible flagship title* through most of the 80s and 90s.

But pointing out that the book was the visual trendsetter not just for Marvel but for the entire industry doesn't really take away from Claremont's achievement, or from what I believe to be his central responsibility for the flagship's success. He was, after all, the one common denominator. If he had left the book when Byrne left, who knows what would have happened. Bill Mantlo? What if Byrne had managed to push Claremont off the book? It might still have been popular, but every creative shift changes direction. It might have tanked after a year of fill-ins. Who the hell knows? The point is: the fact that the same writer remained, year in and year out, created a consistency and continuity that in turn fostered the situation wherein the company's best and brightest art stars were naturally drawn the company's biggest book - and the book remained big because all the hotshot artists were drawn to it, and they were drawn to it because it was a consistent and recognizable brand. And it was able to remain consistent for all those years because of one man: Chris Claremont.

So, this is the distinction I'm attempting to draw: the book was incredibly popular in large part because it had the best art in the industry throughout the majority of Claremont's run. That would have been the reason why it sold so well, why it appealed to burgeoning readers looking for the coolest book. I don't want to say something as stupid as "kids love looking at the pictures, grown-ups like reading the words", but there is a grain of truth in the assertion that eye-popping visuals will hook kids far more consistently than even the most awesome story content. I mean, seriously, if you're seven or eight or nine and you're getting sick of Mickey Mouse and want to try something your parents might not be quite so thrilled about, something with a hint of transgression and danger and risque content, what are you gonna do? You're gonna scan the racks for something that looks like this or this or this. Something that looks like you might need to hide it between the covers of your mattresses. Something that you imagine your older brother might want to read.

But the reason the book was blockbuster was that it had spent years crawling up from the abyss of Marvel's back bench, building its readership person by person and slowly assembling the building blocks of what would eventually stand revealed as an invincible sales juggernaut. What was the foundation? Consistency. Look at Daredevil: before Frank Miller, one of Marvel's consistent underachievers. Sold well during Miller. But then whenever Miller left, the book fell on rocky shores. Most books have occasional well-regarded runs interspersed by long low valleys of nothin' special. This happens as a result of the fact that these books, for the vast majority of their history, have placed a premium not so much on being really good as being on time. Imagine a book that gains a reputation for being really good month in and month out, and builds that reputation not just for being good for a year or two years or even five years, but 17 years. The reason why the book had the best artists is that it sold well, and the reason it sold well was that it had the best artists - it really is a chicken & egg situation, which is one reason why it's hard to definitively say one way or another what single element was of premium importance.

But I'll do it anyway: the single most important element was Chris Claremont. If the reason the book sold was because it had the artists, the reason it had the artists was that it had the momentum as a top-seller, and it had that momentum was because of consistency - and that consistency came from having the same writer for 17 years. Of course, we're leaving out another very important element - that is, the actual characters themselves and their stories. These elements would eventually prove to be more important than any other single element, at least in terms of the company's understanding of why and how the properties succeed. But that is another conversation.

* I still believe that Fantastic Four is Marvel's flagship, simply because it was the first, although I fully realize this is mainly a sentimental argument. You can probably make a better argument for Amazing Spider-Man.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dropping the Science

What is the first rule of ensemble storytelling? For that matter, what is the only hard and fast rule of ensemble storytelling? This rule applies (for the purposes of this discussion) to superhero comics, but it applies equally well to any kind of long-form serial ensemble fiction, be it a TV drama, film series or even a sitcom.

The first rule of ensemble storytelling?

Character dynamics.

This is a big phrase, and encompasses a lot of information and a lot of disparate, equally valid approaches to storytelling mechanics. But if we're going to parse this phrase into something more applicable, I think it would be best to introduce a maxim. To wit:

Use Every Character, and Never Involve More Characters Than You Can Use In A Given Scenario

Character dynamics doesn't just mean "characterization", although that's a big part of it. More broadly, it means giving each and every character something to do, some important reason for them to be in the story, to be on panel or onscreen. If there is no reason for a character to be in the story, then he shouldn't be in the story. This is not real life: in real life, more often than not, any given event is accompanied by some degree of confusion and redundancy. In fiction this effect is just boring: who wants to read a story filled with a ton of characters, most of whom don't really do anything important at any point? Go back and flip open any random issue of The Infinity War or "The X-Cutioner's Song" and you'll see pages and pages of people standing around doing nothing much of anything. In fact, stories like these spend as much of their time filling in the blanks regarding what the people who aren't necessary for the story are actually doing while the main action of the story is occurring somewhere else.

But it's besides the point to beat up on crossovers whose only real purpose to begin with is to have all the characters in a room together for a short period, even if the circumstances required to get them all in the same room are more often than not asinine. The few really good crossovers that have been produced still follow the rule of character dynamics: even the first Crisis, perhaps the most sprawling mega-opus ever published in comics, still managed to give every significant character something to do, some reason to be there, some motivation, no matter how small their significance to the larger plot.

But on a day-to-day basis, ensemble storytelling doesn't have to be - and in fact, should not be - anywhere near as ornate. In fact, when done well, it can almost seem elementary, but given that it's still remarkable how often people writing ensemble casts still manage to fuck it up.

I mentioned Justice League: Cry For Justice before, and it is interesting to me that for all the book's myriad faults, no one (that I have seen) has really spent any time dealing with the main reason the book doesn't work: after the first issue, we still don't have any actual character dynamics. We have a line-up - that's all we do have, since it was announced something like a year ago who would be in the comic. And the first issue seems to be setting the stage for an origin roll-out, where all the characters will slowly coalesce and subsequently find their raison d'etre sometime by the sixth issue. Each character is painstakingly introduced, given a motivating setpiece (whether they need one or not!), an introduction to their background and milieu.

Here's the thing: that's all irrelevant.

One of the problems with "decompression" is that it attenuates and elongates the stories in such a manner that the generic shortcomings of the source material become glaringly obvious and much harder to forgive. In this case, James Robinson & Co, are trying to tell the story of their team's origin - but in most other cases, the origin of any given team is their most unimportant feature. It's so unimportant that the X-Men have never really even had a team origin - characters have origins, yes, and some aspects and iterations of the team and their spin-offs have origin stories. But really, all you have to know is that the X-Men were founded as a school, and the team grew over the years primarily as a school, with new teammates added and old teammates leaving in much the same way as students in real schools transfer or matriculate. Even after all these years and all these many different permutations, the books more or less always find a way to reset to this basic milieu, for really no other reason than that it is a remarkable bit of storytelling shorthand. You don't need to go to the trouble of working out some awkward origin story when you've got the school setting on which to fall back. You can dive right into the most important factor: that's right, you guessed it, character dynamics.

Cry For Justice fails not because the story is weak (although it is). Objectively, the story as given in the first issue is really not that different from any eleventy-billion other super-group origin sequences. Hell - the Justice League itself has done some variation on this story at least three times in recent memory - you know, the whole "we're not getting anything done just sitting around a big round table, we need to be more proactive and streamline this organization" schtick. The reason why this storyline occurs with such frightening predictability is that the Justice League is uniquely vulnerable to ossification and calcification, by virtue of the fact that at its most popular it is composed almost entirely of characters who are uniformly static. That is: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and even the Martian Manhunter are all not merely "known" quantities but the most known quantities in all of comics. It's not a new observation but it bears repeating in this context: the guy writing Justice League can't do an awful lot to fuck with Batman's status quo.

These things follow a fairly standard pattern. Super-teams start their run with the "Big Guns". Then the creators get tired of dealing with characters for whom a super-team is at best a secondary priority - which means, in practical terms, the creators' hands are tied as to interesting things that they can do with said characters. So secondary and tertiary characters are introduced by the creators in the hopes of "jazzing up" the series, essentially introducing foils for the more static characters in the form of properties that can be fucked over with little or no negative consequence. This is necessary because in almost all cases it is far easier to write new or underdeveloped characters about whom any number of stories can be told than, say, Superman and Batman, who can't really do anything except act like Superman or Batman. So: enter Red Tornado, Vixen, Vibe, Triathalon, the Vision, et al.

(JLA got away with bending this rule a little bit by dint of the fact that, for the entirety of Morrison's run and even into Waid and part of Kelly's runs, it was DC's de facto flagship. Justice League of America was never really DC's flagship at any other time before or since, and the proof of this can be found in the simple fact that, back in 1997, putting all seven of DC's most iconic and marketable characters together in one book for an extended period of time - and putting top creators on the series, to boot - was so novel as to be practically unheard of. That Morrison was able to reverse this traditional dynamic was nothing short of astonishing: he established primary character beats for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that impacted their own books for the next decade, and his versions of Kyle Rayner and Aquaman were far more interesting than the versions seen in the characters' own titles. Kurt Busiek managed something similar during his contemporaneous stint on Avengers, but the two teams are different enough in fundamental structure - or, at least, they were until Bendis' "All Star" New Avengers line-up - that direct analogies are problematic.)

Cry For Justice appears to have an interesting mix of characters - but I say "appears" because we have no idea how these characters are supposed to interact or even meet. Again: if a book with this exact same plot had been created twenty or thirty years ago, it wouldn't have been received anywhere near as poorly. The reason is that in the space of the hypothetical 1979 or 1989 first issues, all the backstory & exposition from this first issue - and, I'm assuming, from the next few issues as well - would have been handily dispatched in the first dozen pages of a very packed book. Seriously: look back any old issue of Wolfman & Perez' Teen Titans or any contemporaneous issues of X-Men or Legion of Super-Heroes. There is a reason these books were so densely packed - it wasn't simply storytelling style, it was narrative common sense. You need to devote as little amount of time as possible to the least important part of your story, and in this case, the least important parts of the story are everything that happens before the point where the team meets and bands together for future adventures. Even if this is only a mini-series, the point remains: you can't hang a book like this on something so arbitrary as a plot, because the plot behind these team books are basically arbitrary. The plot is - or should be - an innocuous a vehicle to get a good mix of characters together to start interacting dynamically. If you've got a good mix of characters, the dynamics create their own stories. Then it doesn't really matter if you're batting against Moses Magnum or the Key - the villains are window dressing.

(Again, Morrison's JLA is something of an outlier in this respect because it was so dependent on high-concept menaces to the detriment of soap-opera stuff that is traditionally the mortar that holds together any successful - or readable - team book. The first couple years of JLA are some of the most intricately plotted super-books ever written. It must have been an impossible chore to concoct so many plots that could comfortably contain seven or eight iconic [by "iconic" I mean "static"] and powerful characters. But every story had something for each character to do, and additionally, something that could only be done by each respective character - not as easy as it sounds. Sure enough by the last year or so of the book even Morrison ran out of steam, the storylines eventually devolved into standard action figure posing. Writing satisfying plot-driven action stories is maybe the hardest thing to do well, which explains why almost no-one can manage to do it correctly.)

So, is Cry For Justice a good book? I have to give it an "incomplete", as much as I wish I could simply flunk it, because it simply isn't a comic book yet. It's the first dozen pages or so of a series proposal. So far the only characters we've seen interacting are characters who we've already seen interacting ad nauseum - Green Lantern / Arrow, the two Atoms. But how do Congorilla and Starman fit into the picture? How do Supergirl and Batwoman enter the line-up? I wish I knew! But the story Robinson and Co. are telling is simply not the story they need to be telling in order to get people to want to pick up the next issue. Spend a dozen pages on exposition, put all the characters in place, and then conjure up your causus belli, tout suite. Make it the Big Bad of the first arc - or the Big Bad's herald / henchman - whatever. Get them doing something, concoct some rudimentary mystery around the menace. Most importantly, give us a taste of these characters: give us some inkling of how they react to each other, which characters have a natural affinity, which have an antipathy, who distrusts whom and who has secrets, who has what issues and who has a crush on whom.

It may seem a lot to cover in 22 pages, but look back at something like, say, Nicieza and Bagley's New Warrors #1, or the first issue of Busiek's Thunderbolts, or even more recent examples like the original Exiles. None of these books were ever gonna win an Eisner, but they did exactly what they needed to do: got you to come back for the second issue by introducing interesting characters and a compelling concept. All of these books had long, surprisingly successful runs - especially so considering they were brand-new properties filled a mixture of C-and-D-list also-rans and brand new ciphers. All of them followed the formula developed by Lee & Kirby on Fantastic Four, extrapolated by Roy Thomas on The Avengers and finally perfected by Chris Claremont on X-Men.

Which brings us back to the most important aspect of writing superhero team books: there is a successful formula, and if you stick with the formula you will almost always succeed. That is not to say you can't succeed if you break the formula - cf. JLA, but unless you're Grant Morrison that's a tricky proposition. That is also certainly not to say that following said formula is a guarantor of commercial success: one of my favorite books of the last decade was John Arcudi and Tan Eng Huat's star-crossed Doom Patrol revamp, a book that failed miserably despite being an unalloyed pleasure. Arcudi's Doom Patrol worked because he made the book almost entirely about the characters to the exclusion of most all else - a group of misfits who were not so much physical or mental freaks (like the original Doom Patrol) as simply dysfunctional human beings who bickered, fought, loved and lost. Great book, simple high concept, doomed (heh) from the inception.

You can't write team books in a decompressed format. I mean, obviously you can, but the result is stilted and unsatisfying. With so many characters vying for panel time, it is simply impractical, and the result is the worst kind of action figure storytelling: loads of people standing around waiting for their opportunity to say something, instead of the plot evolving naturally from the interpersonal dynamics. You can't have interpersonal dynamics unless you're willing to sacrifice some degree of narrative naturalism in favor of foreshortened character beats. Group books have to be dense in order for things to actually happen. Bendis finally seems to have figured out the rudiments of writing team books, to judge by Dark Avengers, of all things. That is a book that actually works, against all odds, because every character in it has an identifiable personality, a specific agenda - something they want - and the ways in which these personalities and conflicting agendas bounce against each other propels the book along quite nicely. His New Avengers is still deathly boring, but that is just proof positive of the basic point: it's hard to write a team book without recourse to the formula established above. Without the pressure of having to incorporate highly static characters such as Wolverine, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, et al, into his plots, with a line-up full of dynamic personalities, the book almost writes itself. It's dynamic.*

Which brings us back, as you might imagine, to Chris Claremont and Uncanny X-Men. The franchise's success is predicated on many things, but most important I would argue is the sense of momentum driven by decades of Claremont's dense, heavily dynamic storytelling engine. Let us not forget that when Giant-Size X-Men #1 shipped, Wolverine, Storm and Colossus were less than ciphers, they were nothing. Blank canvases on which Claremont and his collaborators could paint to their hearts content.

* EDITED to reflect that Luke Cage is not really an iconic character like the others mentioned, but he has been the team's most prominent member and basically the only member of the "New" Avengers to have any kind of personality or dramatic arc beyond their status as action figures. Bendis made Cage an A-lister by sheer force of will, despite the fact that of all the characters ever in the Marvel Universe, Power Man was perhaps the least likely candidate for Avengers chairmanship, only ahead of the Mandrill and Typeface. But, props where they're due, he resuscitated the character pretty damn successfully, considering his most memorable appearance in the entire decade of the 1990s was a team-up with Blackface Punisher.**

** Bet you forgot about Blackface Punisher.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

X-Cuses, X-Cuses

So, I've got a good pattern going, why mess it up? You know, the whole tease-a-brand-new-series-then-fall-off-the-face-of-the-planet-after-one-installment thing that seems to recur with startling frequency around here. But that's what happens when you A) actually get to go away somewhere for a holiday weekend, which is quite the novelty but puts blogging on the back burner and then B) come home to find your desktop machine infected with some kind of nasty virus, for which the anti-virus program "accidentally" fucks up the TCI/IP stack causing a couple days of cussing and sweating before relenting with a cold reinstall of XP. So - yeah! Fun! (Violet has asked me why I still bother with keeping a Windows desktop in addition to a Mac laptop and, honestly, when I'm knee-deep in DOS trying to get the machine to rebuild its internet protocols I wonder that myself!)

Anyway. We were talking about the X-Men?

I'd like to thank everyone who replied to the first X-Post last week - although I don't think I'll be replying to every comment specifically, it's really good to get a feel for other peoples' thoughts on the matter. Interestingly, most people's comments echoes a few general points, most of which related back to my own ideas in one way or another - to wit, the books got too big, too complex, too expensive, too far removed from their thematic underpinnings. if you scratch a current comics fan chances are you will find, somewhere, an old-school X-Men fan - whether that "old-school" is Dark Phoenix, Inferno, Age of Apocalypse or even Here Comes Tomorrow. The X-Men are simply so big, so central to the last few decades of industry history that most people had some affection for the franchise at some point in its history.

But the common denominator for many peoples' stories is that whatever era of X-Men comics they liked, something happened that made them step away. Of course, this is life: it's relatively rare for someone to like something with the same fevered intensity throughout their entire life. Only in comics and other related nerd-media properties is it ever expected that a devoted customer now become a devoted customer for life. Only in comics and other related nerd-media properties is it ever expected that a popular franchise will remain in constant production for decades on end. (Of course, there are soap operas too, but seeing as how they are basically "nerd-media" - albeit for what is mostly a strikingly different demographic base - I'll lump them in with conventional "nerd-media" for the purposes of this brief discussion.)

And because the X-Men are so central to the idea of mainstream superhero comics - even to this day, when the franchise has fallen off dramatically, the idea of Wolverine and his friends being the ne plus ultra of the spandex set has never been shaken - a loss of interest in the X-Men on the part of casual comics fans has often meant a loss of interest in comics, period. We're getting into the realm of anecdote, and it's hard to say anything hard and fast in a realm where personal experience is the only real measure, but there are more than a few comics blogs whose authors started by stating that they read the X-Men when they were kids and adolescents, gave up "when the books got lame", dismissed comics for a decade or more, and then got lured back by Watchmen / Sandman / Chris Ware / Adrian Tomine / take your pick. For better or for worse, the popularity of the X-Men books has often been a bellweather for the mainstream industry as a whole - not necessarily the good parts of the industry, but in terms of raw sales and public accessibility. If you're a kid getting into comics for the first time, you want the coolest thing on the racks - and for most of the last thirty years that has been the X-Men. And when you're an adolescent or teenager getting out of comics, your apathy is likely to be strengthened by the perceived coolness (or lack thereof) of the "coolest" comic on the racks. If X-Men isn't really measurably more cool than, say, Quasar or Aquaman, what's the point?

Lots of questions! Next time, we might actually start digging our way towards some answers, and we'll begin with a brief look at Justice League: Cry for Justice - obviously not an X-Men book, but such a great example of contemporary story structure that I can't avoid the temptation to compare and contrast. For educational purposes.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Clorox Lantern

This is hardly rocket science but I am CALLING IT NOW so ALL YOU BITCHES gotta pay respekz when I am proven right:

White is the topmost color on the visible light spectrum (I dunno if "topmost" is the right word but you get my drift): if you put a rainbow through a prism it's come out white, yadda yadda. So the climax of Blackest Night is going to feature Hal Jordan getting his hands on one of every extant power ring (cue the homage to this) and then becoming the all-powerful "White Lantern" with the power to destroy the Black Lanterns just by looking at them funny. And then he'll recite this oath:
In whitest dawn, in purest pale,
No color shall escape my bleach,
Let those who mess with honkies quail,
Beware my stain-fighting power, Clorox Lantern's gonna getcha*.

* This didn't rhyme well.