Monday, January 16, 2012


Battle Scars #2

I don't read Malcolm Gladwell but I like the fact that he's so good at thinking up pithy little titles to his books about how incredibly complex phenomena can always be boiled down into manageable chunks of middlebrow pop psychology. Sometimes you blink, sometimes you hit the tipping point, sometimes you look like Andrea Fraser. That kind of thing.

Let's see if we can find our way through one of these, it's been a while:

Gladwell's books are the kind of thing you can imagine business travelers ingesting on their way from Dubuque to Miami for a sales conference: pithy, vaguely quirky but never too quirky to be monstrously optimistic about the world. Someday Gladwell needs to think up some sort of magic formula to cover the concept of creatively bankrupt inertia. Because, man, the idea is strong enough and central enough to our current conversation on mainstream comic books that I wish we had some sort of catch-all phrase we could point to at a moment's notice for mutual convenience. Like, how about "drowning not waving"? This is a story of the comic book companies who kept right doing what they were doing until they noticed the water had already come up to their necks, but by the time they realized what the problem was and started to make some noise, the boat was so far away that everyone on deck just started waving back, thinking the tiny bobbing figure on the horizon was having an awesome time.

Marvel comics have looked so much alike for so long that the idea that they ever looked different from how they do now seems like one of those "we've always been at war with Eurasia" moments. All these little things that seemed so unusual at the time have compounded themselves for so long that we don't even blink anymore.

Think back to the early days of Nu-Marvel: it was the Wild West. There were dozens of different things happening all over the place. I do not want to overemphasize or exaggerate just how good the comics produced during this time were, as I've already begun to see here and there over the course of the last few years - but stop and consider for a moment just how hard it is to make a comic in an environment as complicated and fraught as Marvel Comics. Any comic. Most of them are terrible. Even the ones that are good are still terrible - never forget that! Those of us who know better stick around because we don't have anywhere else to go. Seeing the occasional Good Book poke its head up from under those waters seems to be a miracle of downright messianic significance. This is turning into a crappy history lesson, something about which most people reading this either already know or don't give two shits. The point - there is a point - is very simple: the reason why they did so many weird, different things after the turn of the millennium is that things were pretty bad. The company had just been (literally) bankrupted and had suffered the ignominy of seeing its two flagship franchises - the X-Men and Spider--Man - dragged through years of sewer-gargling shit. (Seriously - just go back and look at the types of stories Marvel was publishing around December 1999, if you dare.) Things were bad enough that they were willing to do anything to make them better.

Whenever you feel like dramatizing the creative output of a corporate entity, it's always good to remember that the best stuff almost always occurs when people are either A) desperate or B) not paying attention. So those things that hit the wall and stick? That's what you build your franchises around. And when it works? When it works you stick the saddle on and ride it for dear life, because there is no telling when (if ever!) these things are going to run out of steam, and in any case by the time the gravy trains stop running on time hopefully you'll be far away.

Somewhere along the line the single most important question at issue in Marvel comics became Who Was In Charge of the superheroes. This is really weird: 2005's House of M was Marvel's first line-wide crossover since 2000's Maximum Security (an event so bad it was terrible), and the plot was basically Who Gets To Be In Charge, the Avengers or the X-Men. The winner was, of course, the Avengers, because House of M ended by kneecapping the X-franchise for years to come. But if the jockeying for dominance was metaphorical in House of M it became literal in Civil War: Who Gets To Be In Charge of the superheroes. If superheroes were real obviously they'd be run like any other branch of the federal government, so who gets to be the guy in charge of that agency (The Initiative). And then when that happens what happens when the guy in charge of the agency falls down on the job and lets a bunch of aliens invade (Secret Invasion) meaning that the new guy in charge is the looney ex-con who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to shoot Space Osama in the head (Dark Reign). And then the looney guy in charge goes nuts and leads his branch of the government right over a cliff (Seige) and then it's time for Daddy (AKA Captain America) to step in and take care of things. And from then on out it's all basically a story about all the characters getting in on Daddy's good side, because of course Daddy is the government and we all want Daddy's approval, right?

Because, you know, if there's one thing I always really wanted when I was a kid growing up reading superhero comic books, it was for stories about superheroes working for the government. There is a reason why, for decades, the idea of "government sponsored super-hero time" was usually synonymous with villains. No real hero would take their orders from a bureaucrat. Spider-Man and the X-Men were outlaws, the Fantastic Four were always having trouble with landlords and lawyers, even the Avengers - Earth's Mightiest Heroes! - had adversarial relationships with their government liaisons and the city of New York. That always worked for Marvel because Marvel wasn't Your Dad's superheroes: Marvel was the choice of the New Generation. There is, perhaps, something in the fact that Nick Fury has never been able to maintain a successful solo series not set in the distant past of World War II: guardians of the status quo just don't work in Marvel as headliners. That's the whole point of Captain America, for God's sake: he's not a symbol of the government, he's a symbol of idealism and rebellion, a man who has more than once given up his costume when faced with the government's failure to live up to his ethics. And now he's In Charge, he's the Daddy signing paperwork in the front office making sure all the different Avengers teams fill out their personnel forms by the end of the government's fiscal year.

At some point Marvel started receiving advertising money from the US Army. So here's the big new launch, one of two series spun out of the final pages of the underperforming Fear Itself event, starring a decommissioned Army officer on the run from . . . well, the government, I think, for unknown reasons that have not yet and do not promise to be explained any time soon. And the bulk of the book is this dude - Staff Sergeant Marcus Johnson, fresh off a two-year stint in Afghanistan - running from other dudes with guns and there's another guy with a sword (Taskmaster, pretty much the definition of the kind of villain you use when it really doesn't matter what villain you use just so long as there's someone to fight Captain America in passing) for reasons which - I want to stress again - we don't know. I know what they think they're doing: they've got this great idea for a story and it requires a slow burn, a long roll-out of pertinent information intended to drive the audience into a kind of tizzy over all the wonderful shit that is being withheld from them. It'll be like Christmas and Marvel is Santa Claus and if only we know how awesome Christmas morning was going to be we'd be so thrilled to be reading this book that we'd basically just plotz on the spot from the excitement.

The only problem is no one - and I mean no one is going to care to stick around six months for the resolution of the most boring mystery in the history of comics. WHO IS MARCUS JOHNSON? asks the advertising copy - my answer remains: someone about whom I know nothing 1/3 of the way through a limited series devoted to telling me the answer to precisely this question. It'd be one thing if this was 1981 and this comic cost 50 cents - fuck, scratch that. Even if this whole story cost $3.00, that'd still be too expensive. As it is, one issue of this book costs $2.99 - meaning, in order to get to the very premise of the story, the explanation as to why exactly the reader should have cared about Marcus Johnson this whole time - one must expend $18 basically on faith. On pure faith that the dreamengineers and fantasybuilders at the House of Ideas sure do have a real humdinger hidden up the sleeves of their viridian wizard's robes.

Remember back when I said that Marvel was buying advertisements from the US Army? I don't suppose on the face of it there's anything particularly wrong with that, per se - that's not on me to criticize children's' entertainment for idolizing men with guns, after all. But what is this? When I went to college - the first time - I roomed with a guy who was obsessed with ROTC, and with the idea of being an Airborne Ranger. Never mind the fact that he was rail-thin and kind of on the short side, he was still COMMITTED to the idea in a way I could only admire, albeit from a carefully-calculated ironic distance. Reading Battle Scars is a bit like having to play an AD&D campaign with that guy, dealing with his rationalizations about why his well-trained special forces character armed only with a Ka-Bar could take down the biggest Orcs in Darkwind Forest because the US Army is the best trained fighting force on the planet. So of course we get plenty of stuff that goes along the lines of "These men may be SHIELD agents, but I'm US ARMY" - not an exact quote, but Jesus who's counting. What little respect I have for this comic would be instantly trebled if they just had the balls to come out and have a page where Johnson rips off his clothes and reveals a giant phallus with the US flag tattooed on the glistening head while screaming "I AM GOING TO FUCK YOU WITH THE POWER OF THE ARMY, TEN HUT TEN HUT BITCHEZZZ." Because that's about the size of things, ahem.

The problem is that at some point Marvel's current approach to making comics became so powerfully calcified that it became impossible for the people involved to realize that they had long since reached the point of terminally diminishing returns. Because there are many worse things than bad comic books: if you like mainstream books at all, you know full well that a bad comic book is better than a boring comic book. A boring comic book is simply a sin. How do you take something with all the raw potential of brightly-colored superheroes bashing into each other for 22 pages with huge sound effects and make it boring? Oh, I know: let's take the superheroes out of the book and replace them with identically uniformed government employees, and instead of having them fight about weird symbolic adolescent displacement, let's have them fight about mishuffled paperwork and redacted government reports. Because you know what kids love? The Pentagon Papers. That right there is exactly what we need to create. Having superheroes talk about their position vis a vis the government worked well for a few years there, I'm sure people will never get tired of them having this conversation.

I just have to wonder about the mindset of the people working at Marvel who can read this book - who can approve this script, see the pencilled pages, see the inked pages, see the coloring, the lettering, see the book at every step of its creation - and not, never once, say, you know, this is boring. This is a comic about generic people in brown civilian clothes running around and fighting about things they don't know and we don't know. There's no discernible villain, the conflict is poorly defined (sure, this guy's running from the government, but why?), characters we do know (Captain America) are acting in inexplicable ways . . . for a big new character launch coming out of last year's major crossover event, this is simply an abortion.

Somewhere along the line the company lost the ability to see that comics like this were terrible. Because it essentially apes the surface qualities of hundreds of other similar comics that were not quite so terrible, it's probably hard to tell the difference at this point. But just because they were "not quite so terrible" doesn't mean they still weren't terrible, and that this whole well of vaguely paramilitary, pseudo-espionage superheroics didn't pass its expiration date a long time ago. To the people involved in making this comic: is this what you want to do with your lives? Is this the kind of story you wanted to tell when you grew up and fell in love with superheroes? All those wonderful stories of brightly-colored gods and men flying between planets and fighting all the metaphorical embodiments of existential fears and anxieties, living larger-than-life soap-opera lives and making out with all the hottest babes on the printed page - this is what you wanted to do? This is garbage - unimaginative, derivative, so purely, unabashedly tasteless as to be complete drivel. If you were involved in any way with the production of this comic book for any reason other than that you needed money to pay your rent, you really need to take a hard look at your life and question your priorities. Is this a story you needed to tell? If that is the case might a suggest that you shouldn't be a storyteller, because this is not a story. It's a hook on which a publisher has hung its logo, a logo which has come to be recognized as synonymous with tired.

The worst part is that I'm almost certain that this isn't a story anyone needed to tell. This is what Marvel does now: makes stories meant to be read on iPads by business travelers on their ways from Dubuque to Miami. Tom Clancy for illiterates. It took three people to come up with the "story" here, another of those three to actually write the "script," before it was passed off to a disinterested penciler who has produced much better work in his time. There were fully five editors involved in the making of this book, to say nothing of a Chief Creative Officer, Publisher and Executive Producer. I'm guessing most of the people involved in the making of this comic book did so because it was their job to do so: in which case, that's perfectly fine, I begrudge no one their right to make a living. But whomever involved in the making of this comic actually thought up the idea for this comic - whichever of you gentlemen (I'm trying to avoid using names here because there's no need to get personal) actually though this story up, you need to maybe have one of those late night / early morning walks along the beach that usually accompany mid-life epiphanies. Because if you can read this comic and not realize that you've wasted your life, you haven't looked hard enough. Drowning not waving.

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