Monday, October 18, 2010


Thor #616

The story goes that Milton Berle never actually pulled the entire length of his penis out of his pants. He only used just as much as was necessary to prove that he was longer than whomever had challenged him to a (literal) dick-measuring contest. This is an interesting idea because it points to a seemingly contradictory exercise of restraint in relation to something that is, in the most basic terms possible, the ultimate assertion of masculinity. Ultimately, it's about confidence: Berle only pulled out as much as he needed because he had no desire to do anything other than prove his supremacy - he was already secure in his position as the biggest wang in Hollywood and needed no conspicuous display in order to solidify his reputation in the matter.

If you're a critically-acclaimed writer who finally gets The Call to move up from the minor leagues to the Big Show, you probably approach your early writing gigs with a certain amount of trepidation: on the one hand, you like getting paid; on the other, you know from decades' experience as an observer on the edges of the industry that there's always a substantive difference between work respected creators do for love and work they do for money. So you want to play it too-cool-for-school - yeah, I'm gonna do some hot shit work-for-hire, but I'm not even going to pretend that I'm bringing my A-Game. It's all about pulling out just enough of the dick to prove that you're the Biggest Dick on the Block. All these masculine metaphors, all this testosterone! Is superhero comics really just another arena filled with alpha male monkeys swinging around like Powers #31? Well, yeah, duh. Only . . . at some point you realize that maybe it's not exactly a matter of pulling out just enough to get the job done, because "just enough" isn't really anything more than "lazy." Half-ideas and extreme decompression, leaning on heavily photo-referenced art in order to carry nuance not necessarily present in the original script?

At some point you, the reader, realize that you went easy on him all this time because you though he was holding back his A-Game, probably out of some misguided belief that he was "better" than the work-for-hire spandex books, and you imagined you and him were sharing a laugh over the banality of the whole enterprise. But at some point you, the reader, wake up and notice that the supposed hot-shit "golden boy" really hasn't done a lot but pile up a stack of wholly average superhero comics. Where was the charm, the wit, the verve of his earlier creator-owned material? Obviously nowhere to be found in his corporate work. But that's OK because we're better than that, right? Right? At some point, "good enough" becomes "the best you can do" because you don't remember how to work around the shortcuts you started using because you didn't want to spend the time to do it better. And then you spend your time trolling the internet and wondering why pinhead bloggers spend their time calling you out for being lazy when you work hard and try your best, and why the hell does this guy think he can read my mind? Who the hell does this guy (this pinhead blogger) think he is? But the proof is in the pudding: Uncle Miltie barely cleared the tip out of his tighty-whities before you sunk off to the back of the stall, a knot of nervous failure in the pit of your stomach.

It's easy and perhaps unfair to criticize writers these days for not possessing any kind of encyclopedic history of the characters they write. Thor has almost fifty years of continuous publishing history behind him and, honestly, it's imposing. But it isn't just for the comfort of socially maladjusted basement cases - AKA internet Straw Men - who have an explanation for why Beta Ray Bill's boots were purple from 1993-1996 that we shoul take this publishing history seriously. Long-term serial superhero characters are hard to write precisely because there have been so many iterations throughout the years - even a character like Thor who has only ever head one monthly book at a time still has 47 years of monthly comics under his belt. It probably feels stifling. But a failure to grasp the significance of a characters' history only rebounds poorly on the creator, because they're depriving themselves of decades worth of trial and error. We know exactly what Thor's relationship with Loki is because we've had decades of Thor comics, good and bad, wherein the relationship has been explored in exhaustive detail. Is Thor going to become grief-stricken over his brother's death and attempt to resurrect Loki? Probably not, because he already cold murdered Loki back in 1991, and didn't really feel any remorse over it because he already knew back when George H. W. Bush was in the White House that his brother was rotten to the core. It's hard to turn back the clock on Thor's relationship with Loki because so many of those story directions have already been exhausted. And a more nuanced understanding of the character's history would point in the direction of different, better ideas.

So we're two issues into the new Thor, and the Mighty Thunder God has spent some time - looking at big windswept vistas? The large part of the Thor action this issue was, literally, Thor cleaning out an old storage closet. (Odin's tomb, but still.) And then you've got the scientist from last issue reiterating almost the same information he did last month, only to be brusquely dismissed by Thor, who apparently hates all modern technology and science even though he, you know, flies around in rocket ships and knows how to steer a Quinjet. And the new dark gods who are - I think? - invading the old Asgard are still basically doing more of what they were doing last issue. That's pretty much it. Thor doesn't get to hit a damn thing.

Do you think a writer believes himself generous when he gives directions for the artist to draw humungous two page spreads with just a few spare word balloons stuck at the edges? Sure, it looks nice, but we're kidding ourselves if we think that every reader pores over all the details of these (admittedly very well drawn) spreads. Pascual Ferry is good, but we're not talking Hal Foster here. Nice art means the book takes maybe five minutes to read instead of four. And everyone who says that a radically decompressed book is redeemed in the trade perhaps overlooks the fact that, if $3.99 for five minutes is an unsatisfying cost/benefit ratio, $25 for 30 minutes really isn't much of an improvement.

So we're left with the image of Thor in Odin's tomb, brushing his shoulder against the Odinsword. Your heart leaps a moment - will some vile, bestial villain burst into the room and overpower Thor in a savage attempt to pull the Odinsword from its scabbard, thereby bringing about the end of the universe? No, for the time being the Odinsword will remain firmly ensconced in its bejeweled holster. Uncle Miltie doesn't even need to unzip his trousers.

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