Thursday, March 31, 2011

Got That Swag

When we are young we are all baby birds, clean slates awaiting the first mark. The mark is made by our idols, the first images of "cool" that imprint themselves on our consciousness. Whether we realize it or not we're stuck with the idea of "cool" we form from a very young age, and although we can always change and grow and learn new things, those first pieces of cool wedge themselves very deeply into our nascent personas.

Monday, March 28, 2011


FF #1

Tucker wuz right, naturally, but Mighty God King was right, too. Even though the two reviews are saying pretty much the exact opposite of each other, both Tucker's critique and MGK's praise hit fairly near the mark. The truth is somewhere in the middle. By which I mean: it's a good comic if you like the Fantastic Four, and fairly well-constructed as well, but hardly perfect and in some ways a lot worse than it should be.

It's frustrating to be a Fantastic Four fan, it really is. Batman fans - people like Tucker - get tons of awful Batman stories to sift through, but the higher volume means that simply by dint of stochastic reasoning more good Batman stories will be produced. If 10% of all Batman stories are good, than the chances of their being good Batman stories on any given month with at least ten Batman comics being published is usually pretty strong. And again, the high volume means that even if only 1% of all Batman comics are great, that means there will be at least a handful of truly great Batman comics in any calender year. The same math works for Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men (although Superman's percentage might be lower simply by virtue of the fact that no one at DC seems to have a vested interest in producing good Superman comics anymore). But if you buy into this logic - a simple extrapolation of Sturgeon's Law - characters who appear at a far lower frequency than Batman or Spider-Man have a much harder road to hoe. If only 10% of all Fantastic Four stories are worth reading, and there are only twelve issues of Fantastic Four printed in a calender year, how many of those comics are worth reading? The math is not encouraging.

Because - as I discussed briefly in the context of eulogizing Dwayne McDuffie - Fantastic Four has always been the symbolic flagship of Marvel's fleet, the book has traditionally attracted top-tier creators even though it has rarely sold in numbers directly proportional to this esteem. Looking back over the last twenty five years of Fantastic Four, you see a murderers row of top-shelf mainstream creators - Byrne, Simonson, Jim Lee, Jeph Loeb and Carlos Pacheco, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, JMS, McDuffie, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Even those creators who were considered either subpar or past their prime - I'm thinking the underrated DeFalco & Ryan run, and Chris Claremont's underwhelming run - still considered themselves to be "standing on the shoulders of giants" in a way that you can't quite argue for any other long-running franchise. New creative teams on Fantastic Four are a Big Deal. Just because it's a hard book to get right - and an even harder book to make a consistent commercial success - doesn't mean that some of the biggest names in comics haven't spent decades trying.

So maybe the math on Sturgeon's Law is skewed the other way for Fantastic Four? I would argue - and there aren't many properties in corporate comics you could make this argument for, but I'll make the exception for the House Stan & Jack Built - that the relative scarcity of Fantastic Four writing gigs, and the commensurate prestige that comes from writing the characters, actually brings out the best in most of the creators involved. Everyone loves Batman, but there are so many Batman comics produced on any given month that there's hardly any prestige left. No one gets the gig of writing Detective and talks about following in Bob Kane and Bill Finger's footsteps - or if they do, it doesn't really carry any weight.

Here we are, then, with one of Marvel's periodic attempts to pump new life into the book. It is by no means a new observation that it is simply impossible to boost readership by producing a good comic on a monthly basis and building a new readership through the accretion of word-of-mouth. FF #1 is in no way shape or form substantively different from what Fantastic Four #589 might have been. It's equally certain that FF #12 will probably once again be Fantastic Four #600. (What this tells me is that there is literally no good way to effectively build audiences for serial periodicals anymore: it seems as if emphasizing a new storyline through heavy promotion merely results in costumers choosing not to spend more money on comics but to shuffle their purchases. I think it's probable that every time they promote a new book Marvel is competing with their own long tail as much as with any "Distinguished Competition.") So, what's the deal? In choosing to push FF #1 as hard as they are, Marvel are effectively putting their weight behind the creators themselves. Jonathan Hickman is the name above the masthead, and his stories are the stories that have effectively built the head of steam that brought us to the point where a major media initiative was deemed necessary in order to expose the book to a slightly larger pool of readers than those who might otherwise have been willing to purchase Fantastic Four.

Is it good? Well, it's as good as Hickman's run to date has been, which is to say, good but . . .

For those of us who love the Fantastic Four, it's a pleasure to see the characters written well. Hickman knows how these characters think and act, knows how they interact as a family, and is very much intent on putting the dynamics of these familial relations front and center. I've been reading Fantastic Four for a good long time, and I've suffered through things like battling Kraven the Hunter over a Lockjaw puppy in the sweres beneath the Baxter Building and Reed Richards defending the HUAC, so I appreciate the fact that Hickman cares enough about the book to let the characters' actions dictate the plot, and not vice versa. (How Hickman plans to rationalize this issue's last-page reveal is another matter - as has been pointed out, accepting the gentleman in question as a "family" member will be significantly more of a stretch than Spider-Man.) I like the what is happening generally: I've liked Hickman's run since those first three truly cosmic issues with the "Council of Cross-Time Reeds" and the Celestials taking on the Star Brand. That's good stuff, and even if subsequent issues haven't been anywhere near as high-stakes, we have every indication that Hickman is building gradually towards something very big indeed.

The problem is that the book, as presented, is just terribly, terribly slow. While, as I said ,I'm generally a fan of what actually happens in this book, precious little actually happens. We don't hear as many complaints about "decompression" as we used to, and I think the reason why has as much to do with readers' adjusted expectations as it does to any increase in storytelling density on the part of the creators and editorial. (I think both factors are probably at work across the industry, but a grossly decompressed storyline - such as Fraction's Thor - still sticks out like a sore thumb.) This comic could easily have done with a significant increase in plot, or even just more character interaction - there's a lot of big silent panels, and splash-pages, and quiet looks, and all sorts of stuff that might add up to good "Merchant-Ivory"-type superhero storytelling, but precious little in the way of energy and verve. There's a fine line between respectful and stolid, and I hate to say that Hickman's obvious reverence for the characters risks throwing the balance of his storytelling towards the latter, but it's hard to argue with Tucker's rationale when he says:
Underneath bland covers that answer the brain tickler of what it would look like if an Alex Ross obsessive finished a John Cassady convention sketch (hideous n' sickly), you'll find what seems to be the past and future Hickman ideal: multiple splash pages of mid-to-high end website design, which is what settles for art amongst those whose dvd collection ranges from Shaun of the Dead to Spaced.
I have more affection for these characters and ideas than Tucker does, I think it's fair to say, but I share his frustration that such a well-meaning comic - and a comic which, at least from my perspective, nevertheless possesses much to recommend it - is still quite damningly imperfect. The characters are right-on, the plot whirs smoothly, the big moments are well-balanced with the small moments and all those other things that traditionally stand for "quality" in mainstream comics - but it still can't help but seem a bit boring.

And it hurts me to say that, because there aren't many fans who are more invested in the perpetual hope of a truly great Fantastic Four run than myself. The earliest issues with Dale Eaglesham, were - as I said - great, but the art since then has been perfectly competent and otherwise completely unexceptional. Steve Epting is capable of doing great work but his strengths are perhaps not those of an artist best suited to the Fantastic Four. The visual remit here seems to be blandness for the sake of blandness. This is not good news in a book that desperately needs to sing.

Is Hickman's respect - respect for the characters, respect for the book, respect for the fans - just another kind of pandering? Because I get the respect: I recognize it and appreciate it. But respect shouldn't be the destination, it should be the launchpad. It's where you go that matters. So far the book is perfectly "good," but Hickman so far seems unwilling or unable to turn the corner and really run with the ideas he's very painstakingly established. His writing, at least on this book, is extremely methodical. He needs some jazz. So far, as much as it pains me to say it, we're stuck with the superhero comics equivalent of Wynton Marsalis: accomplished craftsmanship, obviously a very respectful approach to the source material . . . but man, this is supposed to be fun, not a damn mausoleum. You don't have to top the King but you at least have to try to top yourself. Go Kirby or go home, dog.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Fear Itself: Book of the Skull

I can't shake the notion that the reason we're being blessed with the company of an event book called Fear Itself is very intimately related to the fact that periodical comics sales have cratered fairly spectacularly in the last year or so. Which is to say: Marvel was always going to do another event, but it seems as if this particular event might have been rushed through the incubator with less foresight than might otherwise have been exercised. I have nothing to go on here other than my own multiple decades' experience as a trainspotter for these kinds of publishing events, so take of that what you will, but something seems decidedly perfunctory.

You can make a very good and cogent argument that every event since Avengers: Disassembled back in 2004 has led in a more-or-less coherent fashion to the following event, and that for those readers heavily invested in following the large superhero event cycles there was more than a small amount of foresight attached to the macrostructure of successive events. If the individual stories themselves - Disassembled, House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege, as well as the unifying interregnum "Initiative," "Dark Reign," and "Heroic Age" events - were sometimes less than satisfying in and of themselves than as pieces of a larger puzzle, that is only to be expected, since each story carried the responsibility of feeding into the next with clockwork precision. "Event fatigue" is easy to say but hard to prove: how do you decide whether or not fans are sick of events if they still continue to buy the events? Well, here's a way: stop doing events and see if sales stabilize across the line. If they don't, then the data can be interpreted to say that fans really do prefer events despite their hassles for the simple reason that people like big, loud, "important" stories when they've been trained for almost a decade to regard anything that falls outside the imprimatur of an event as small, quiet and "unimportant."

All the events I mentioned earlier "mattered" because they all fed one into the other in a very clear and coherent matter. Any fan - even a casual fan - could read those events in succession and feel as if they were reading single chapters in a much larger story. This is, on the face of it, an extraordinary thing: even the most well-coordinated events of previous years and cycles were confined to their own calendar year. Inferno did not lead into Acts of Vengeance which in turn had absolutely nothing to do with Infinity Gauntlet. (Infinity Gauntlet itself spawned two direct sequels but they were nowhere near as all-encompassing in scope and execution as any of Marvel's 00's crossovers.) The closest thing I can compare this current series to is the state of the X-books in the mid 90s, but even there the feeding mechanism was less conscious structure than institutional momentum. (This momentum ultimately destroyed itself in the form of Onslaught.) Marvel has devoted the last eight years to banking on the long memory of habitual comics fans. "Fear Itself" - at least from the outset - does not appear to have any kind of overt connection to the previous half-dozen events. Whether or not the fans will remain invested - when even Secret Invasion and Siege, which were direct sequels of earlier events, were themselves less successful than Civil War - remains to be seen.

The other way the data can be interpreted is that in the middle of an excruciatingly protracted period of economic uncertainty, $3 or $4 a pop for 5-10 min of leisure reading really is not a very wise transaction. if this is in fact the case, we will see the main Fear Itself series (and Flashpoint too) and its most essential tie-ins sell well while the midlist withers on the vine - because if people only have, say, $30 to spend on comics where they used to have $60 or $90, they'll purchase what they feel they need to purchase and leave the rest behind. Marvel gets the money either way, but I imagine if the end result of Fear Itself is not some kind of line-wide sales bump, they'll be sorely disappointed. If the downturn in sales is the result of larger macroeconomic forces, it is almost certain that any sales bump will be confined to the Top 20 or 30 of the sales chart while the bottom half of the list is decimated due to cannibalized sales. I'm sure Marvel would be happy if those sales were cannibalized from DC (and vice versa), but we shall see. The most likely result is simply a wash, with the end result being more creators losing their jobs because the companies are able to support fewer and fewer mid-list titles.

All of which is to say, this is the long-awaited prologue to the next year or so of Marvel's mainline publishing initiative. And the result is . . . well, hunh. That's what we're going with, then? The Red Skull found a spell in 1944 that enabled him to summon a mysterious Viking war hammer but he didn't know how to use it, so the weapon (and the spell that summoned it) sat unused for sixty-five years until Sin - the Red Skull's annoying sociopath of a daughter - decided to go leafing through dear old Dad's back pages. On the face of it, and given what else we know so far - that we will see the return of Norse gods who predate Odin and Asgard and whose actions send the world into spiraling chaos - that does not seem so promising. I live to be proven wrong, of course, but if this first chapter was intended to elicit excitement on my part, it rather succeeded in accomplishing the opposite effect. Even though the creative team is quote-unquote "top shelf" - Ed Brubaker and Scott Eaton - the result reads less like an essential chapter in a massive epic than one of those sad one-shots they squirt out at random intervals whenever a character has a movie coming out. This feels perfunctory, as if the people involved were sleepwalking. And do I detect the faint odor of flop sweat?

Captain America" First Vengeance

This, on the other hand, is "one of those sad one-shots they squirt out at random intervals whenever a character has a movie coming out" - or rather, that should read "one of those sad eight-part digital e-comics they squirt out at random intervals whenever a character has a movie coming out." This comic took about two minutes to read - a fact that is made only slightly less damning given that the book is thirteen pages long. I have to wonder whether the paucity of story is a conscious effort to format a story for the iPad - something brisk, without a lot of small word bubbles and story detail to be obscured on a tablet screen. All I can say is that if you own an iPad and this is your first exposure to Captain America, there's not a lot here to bring you back for seconds. That's a shame, van Lente is usually a lot better than this.

Uncanny X-Force 5.1

Seemingly out of nowhere, Uncanny X-Force has surprised a lot of people by being quite good. The reason why this series impressed so many people can be summed up in the very simple observation that Rick Remender knows who his characters are and how they should be written. The cast is small, only five heroes - Wolverine, Deadpool, Fantomex, Psylocke and Angel - and the size allows each team member the room to breathe and speak without being crowded out by the sheer mass of superfluous characters who clog most of the X-books. Sometimes, for long-term readers, it really is something as simple as letting the characters act like themselves.

This is simple, Writing 101: every character in a story should have something to do or he or she should not be in a story. I've been rereading some old Levitz / GIffen Legion lately and its remarkable how well the book reads as a direct result of the creators following this simple rule. It's not as if every character has to appear in every issue, but every time a character shows up on panel he or she should have something to do, something to think, a goal or a purpose. Levitz and GIffen had to work pretty damn hard to keep the book humming with so many characters, and the reason why the main X-Books have failed pretty spectacularly for these past few years is easily diagnosed by anyone with the patience to read back and see how team books like these should be written. The larger the cast, the harder it is to keep narrative focus; when in doubt, pare it down. Uncanny X-Men is an illegible mess because - for all the characters who are supposedly cast members - almost none of them get any significant panel-time and those that do are often reduced to reciting rote catch-phrases, the comics equivalent of "hey, rtemember me? I'm still here, waiting to be killed off-panel at some point." Since that's the direction they've set out for themselves in the flagship, the only room for real development is in satellite titles like this. The small cast and careful mixture of characters - two popular, overexposed heavy-hitters (Wolverine and Deadpool), two long-neglected veterans (Angel and Psylocke) and one fairly recent cipher (Fantomex) - enables the creators a great deal of freedom in crafting stories that actually utilize all the characters at their disposal.

This is another good issue, and a special treat for longtime fans. I've always had a soft-spot for the Reavers - they were the main villains through one of my favorite runs, the mid 250s of Uncanny when Claremont tore the team apart and killed half the cast. They were dangerous then but they haven't really done much of anything since then - I recall that they appeared in Claremont's X-Treme but that's about all. They're good villains of the mustache-twirling variety, and they present a nice tactical challenge for a clever writer like Rick Remender. I have to question one bit of errata towards the end of the book - how exactly is Psylocke able to make herself invisible from detection on Utopia? She's nowhere near as powerful a telepath as Emma Frost, so I'm curious as to how she's able to do what she does. That's a quibble, though, and might have as much to do with confusing Psylocke's powers as anything else. (Does it go back to the Australia-era X-Men being invisible to machines?) Uncanny X-Force isn't going to be winning any Eisners, but for those of us who like the occasional old-school character-driven action book, it can't be beat.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Great Moments In Irish History

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One of the Beautiful People

I've been trying to avoid sitting down and writing out my thoughts on The Social Network since I finally saw the film a few weeks ago. It was not something that I felt a driving urge to sit down and write about in and of itself - spoiler alert, I didn't think it was very good. At all. The fact that so many people did like, and turned the film into the year's critical darling cause célèbre, is somewhat - no, scratch that - is very mystifying, and therefore fascinating to me. It was by any reasonable stretch of the imagination a deeply mediocre film, and yet it received almost universal praise. So much so that the praise itself became a kind of marketing gimmick:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hey, Hey Alligator

The arrival of a new R.E.M. album is always as much a cause for trepidation as celebration. The last decade wasn't very kind. Even the hardest of hard core fans - us old timers who remember a time when you couldn't understand what that hairy kid was mumbling on the Letterman show - had trouble working up genuine enthusiasm for Reveal, and then Around the Sun was just plain bad. Accelerate was not a "return to form" - it was still different enough from their past glories to qualify as something new - but it was a definite course correction.

Friday, March 04, 2011


Wolverine: The Best There Is #4

I'm about to blow your mind: the X-Men movie was ten years ago. Feel old yet?