Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Red Lanterns #6

It must be great to be a space crook in the DC Universe. The Green Lanterns haven't done anything but fight other people with colored rings for, seriously, half a decade. There are all sorts of other groups of colored ring teams out there who, likewise, do little more than fight other people with rings - or, you know, straight-up murder people by the truckload. (I still don't understand what exactly Sinestro was trying to do - if he's such a fan of law and order - when he gave magic wishing rings to thousands of serial killers.) So if you're trying to knock over a bank on Neptune, chances are good you can get away with it as long as the Green Lanterns are too busy fighting the Chartreuse Lanterns that week.

People have always used the police metaphor to describe the Green Lantern concept. If ever there was a time when the metaphor fit, it hasn't been for a very long time. All the Green Lanterns do now is A) fight each other, B) fight people who used to be Green Lanterns but who aren't any more, C) fight other people with differently-colored magic rings, and finally D) fight people who are pissed at their bosses, because their bosses are dicks who've been fucking with people for billions of years. So if you're a crook who isn't A) a Green Lantern, B) a former Green Lantern, C) a differently-colored Lantern, or D) someone who already got screwed over by the Guardians, you can pretty much assume you're in the clear. Because while the Green Lanterns pretty much have a lockdown on magic-ring related crimes, they don't seem interested in too much else. (And, really, they don't even have a great track record when it comes to magic-ring crimes, either.) The police metaphor doesn't work unless you want to believe in a cop show where the cops only chase other cops, former cops, cops in other precincts, and then have to spend the rest of the time trying to get rid of people who have a grudge against the Police Commissioner. Basically, it sucks to be a Green Lantern.

What I like about Red Lanterns is that the book does a great job of getting to the heart of why the current Green Lantern status quo is so gosh-darned silly. This is a book ostensibly about a group of aliens who have magic wishing rings empowered by anger and hatred, a group of badass monsters who want to deliver bloody justice to murderers and tyrants across the universe. In reality, the book is really about a dozen people sitting around this barren planet and yelling at each other about how angry they are, in between taking deep swims in an ocean of magic blood (not a metaphor for puberty, there is a literal ocean of magic blood) to clear their heads. This is pretty much the same formula that worked like a charm for Rob Liefeld, only at least his books actually featured some of the characters occasionally doing something. Here, there's this alien guy, Atrocitus, and he's angry because someone stole the body of this dead midget he'd been carting around so he could yell at (again, this is literally what is happening: Atrocitus is pissed because someone stole Krona's corpse from where he had it stashed before he was done yelling at it). And the problem is because Atrocitus pretty much has a case of 24/7 roid rage he is just incredibly paranoid and keeps yelling at everyone because he thinks they're trying to get him. And all his cronies hate him because he robbed them of their free will when he made them into magic-ring wielding rage-aholics.

So if we're going to keep up with the cop-show analogy: Red Lanterns is what happens when a bunch of rogue cops who really hate the guys in charge of the precinct want to bust out on their own and bring some raw justice to the streets, vigilante style, but they hold their meetings in the precinct rec room and can't really move past just yelling at each other about HOW MUCH THEY HATE CRIME, and BOY DO I HATE CRIME and they're lifting weights on the machines and pumping iron and sweating and talking about HOW MUCH ASS THEY'RE GOING TO KICK but really they never actually get around to leaving the rec room, let alone swinging through the neighborhood as vigilante badasses. They do a lot of meth and just get more and more addled. Then six months pass and you realize they're still just yelling at each other, and it's awesome, because it's terrible.

Winter Soldier #2

This is a terrible comic book that somehow managed to convince the world that it wasn't just an unoriginal pastiche of Robert Ludlum, John LeCarre, Ian Fleming, and Tom Clancy cliches pasted together from a hobby-shop kit. It's that last one that burns, right? Those who pride themselves on their taste in spy fiction probably suck the wind through their teeth like they got hit in the balls by a football at the mention of Clancy, but given the degraded state of contemporary fiction you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between good espionage fiction and crap. It's all just hard men who have to make hard choices to fight the bad guys in a world of endless grey. Except it's not a world of endless grey, it's still just the same superhero shit wrapped up in black leather - the bad guys are just the same Cold War leftovers with machine-toting gorillas in tow, and they even call America "the Great Satan" - which, you know, unless the Red Ghost is secretly Persian, that's not exactly something a Soviet would have said since, you know, the Soviet's weren't really big on religious language. (Seriously, that is just some sloppy, fixed-by-Wikipedia-in-30-seconds shit: Iran has called the United States, and sometimes Great Britain, the "Great Satan" in official government communications for a long time now. It's their thing. Are you telling me you can't tell Russians from Iranians?)

So Bucky's alive and that's great because he gets to spend all his time fucking the Black Widow which, uh, OK. I guess that's something you can hang a plot around? I think this book needs to go at that premise full-tilt - basically, the superhero comic for Henry Miller fans, Bucky travels around the world fucking women in skintight leather and then being emotionally callous to them.

I guess if you really like spy books - or, excuse me, not spy books, basically just Mack Bolan novels with a little bit of dirt over the camera lens - this is what you've been waiting for. Butch Guice is really hitting far above his weight class here - you can tell he's going for Steranko but he doesn't have 1/10th the design skill that Steranko did on his worst day. Basically what we get is a bunch of randomly jagged panels, a la late period Byrne, with human bodies splayed randomly across the panel gutters. And then put in a few close up shots of people that look like they were traced from Jim Holdaway - seriously, can we not talk about the debt Guice owes to Modesty Blaise, or does that go in the same box as "Michael Jackson magically turned white," shit we're not allowed to talk about in polite company even though everyone knows it's true?

It's an - at best - mediocre book with delusions of grandeur, as if being grim and quiet and having muted colors was somehow enough to dodge the fact that this is one of the most derivative books I've ever read in my life. (The colors are the best thing about the book, hands down.) I thought Brubaker had reached his Nadir of derivativeness with his Daredevil run, but I guess I was wrong: now he's playing his own greatest hits back at us, daring us not to notice that the cloth has grown so threadbare that we can't even pretend not to see the scaffolding anymore.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Descent of Man

(Longtime readers and Twitter followers might recall that this is a post i've been promising - threatening? - to write for at least a few years. There's not a lot of new material here but it might be new to folks with a less-than-encyclopedic recall for late Bronze age continuity.)

Evolution is the process of gradual biological change in large populations over multiple generations through incremental changes enabled by natural selection. Evolution is not, as is often supposed, random - but it is blind, without any set goal other than the perpetual survival of species. There is no "purpose" to evolution, no ultimate teleological endpoint to which the improvement of species tends - in fact, the very idea of "improvement" is a qualitative judgment wholly alien to the process of selection.

Except that this isn't how evolution works in the Marvel Universe.

Oh, don't get me wrong: natural selection works just fine, and the large majority of natural history on Earth 616 occurred almost identically to our Earth. (There are some differences, many of which can be explained by recourse to the mystical manipulation of the Elder Gods on the primordial Earth, but that's mostly a separate story involving Set and Gaia and the destruction of the dinosaurs.) But for the most part, natural history on 616 proceeded very similar to our own, until sometime around the point where - in our own fossil record - the ancestors of Homo sapiens first split off to form the primate branch that would culminate in our own species. Somewhere along the line of Nakalipithecus or Ouranopithecus, Earth was visited by the first host of the Celestials.

The Celestials tampered with these distant human ancestors and planted the seeds of later development. The Celestials had identified man's ancestors as the most advanced creatures on the planet, with the most potential for the kinds of improvement which would lead to the eventual development of civilization. So they tampered with proto-man, and inserted into his genetic code the source of a three-way divergence in human evolution, a split which culminated in the creation of three distinct branches of Homo sapiens - the godlike Eternals, the savage and genetically unstable Deviants, and the mainline of "normal" humanity. In addition to these three main branches, the Celestials also planted the seeds of a fourth, later development - the creation of Homo superior, mutants.

It is important to remember that in our world evolution is not and cannot be teleological. This is just one reason why eugenics in the "real world" has always been a bad idea. Putting aside every other consideration, it's just terrible science, an idea invented to justify racial distinctions that have no basis in physiology, and which if pursued to its logical extreme would tend towards achieving the opposite of the desired goal - that is, the weakening and attenuation of the organism through the gradual pruning of hybrid diversity. But in the Marvel Universe, human evolution is and has always been teleological: humans on Earth 616 have a roadmap in their genes implanted by 500-foot tall space gods for mysterious purposes. For whatever reason, the Celestials decided that humanity needed to exist and needed to exist for very specific reasons. (It's worth noting that Earth isn't the only planet they altered in this manner - the Skrulls and Kree are also the products of ancient tampering.)

The reason why the Marvel Universe has such a strange origin story at its center is actually quite simple. In the mid-1970s Jack Kirby returned to Marvel from DC and proceeded to create a number of new series for the company, many of them in the same vein as his increasingly weird and highly eclectic output for DC. One of these series was The Eternals, an epic sci-fi story in the mold of The New Gods, predicated on an ancient war between the Eternals and Deviants reaching back to the very dawn of human life on Earth. The series, like much of Kirby's output, was influenced by then-current cultural trends, specifically, the popularity of Erich von Däniken's Chariot of the Gods and the "ancient alien" theory. The series was not considered a success in its time, and a series of creative compromises between Kirby and Marvel editorial ensured that the series' 20-issue run ground to a stop in the throes rapidly diminishing returns.

Perhaps the most significant element in the series failure was Kirby's inability and / or disinclination to properly place the series within the context of the larger Marvel Universe. In the series' early run, there's very little indication - other than throwaway mention of SHIELD and the Thing (of the type which could easily have been inserted at the behest of editorial) - that the series actually takes place in the Marvel Universe. There's little in it that explicitly contradicts continuity, but the very premise of the series was such that, if the series was to be considered "canon," it would change the complexion of the entire line.

Perhaps it might seem like something of an obscure point, but consider the fact that once The Eternals was officially part of continuity, everything in the Marvel Universe had an origin. Every human character - from Spider-Man and the X-Men all the way down to the Punisher - was part of a massive genetic experiment on the part of ancient space gods that literally spanned the whole of human history. The question of whether or not The Eternals could be considered canon was the subject of heated debate during the early months of the series' run. The series' editors were initially hesitant to confirm or deny. Kirby himself was, to all appearances, extremely nonplussed by this reaction. While it is certainly true that he was one of the architects of the system that eventually became known as the "Marvel Universe," he had never shown himself to be spectacularly invested in the propagation of the Universe concept for its own purposes. He was perfectly happy to have a shared universe as long as it allowed him to draw Thor fighting Galactus, but he wasn't invested in the concept in the way that those fans who later became the second generation of Marvel creators were.

The idea of the Universe being a higher goal and purpose in and of itself separate from the considerations of individual creators and their series was probably very unsettling for him. His 70s run on Captain America was very much set in the context of the Marvel Universe, but that was a long-running series with an established history and supporting cast. He didn't invent the Falcon, for instance, but he was perhaps the best writer the Falcon ever had. But the idea of making every idea fit into this singular context was alien to his catholic creative tendencies. Certainly, there could have been no expectation that his 2001 adaptation would ever be folded into the Marvel Universe - and yet, it eventually was, to the extent that Marvel still makes occasional use of the rectangular Monolith from Kubrick's film (something that, according to Tom Brevoort, they've never even bothered to run past MGM). Even Devil Dinosaur was eventually made to fit into the Marvel Universe.

If there was any lingering doubt in the late 1970s that The Eternals was destined to remain a part of the Marvel Universe regardless of its creator's wishes, this doubt was annihilated by Roy Thomas. Thomas devoted a full year and a half of his run on Thor to folding the The Eternals into Marvel history, a series of stories that culminated in Thor #300, wherein the united pantheons of Earth confronted the Fourth Host of the Celestials by animating the Destroyer armor in an attempt to save humanity from the judgment of Arishem. (There's some other interesting stuff in there as well - Thomas wasn't just invested in incorporating Kirby's work into continuity during this run, but also the Niebelungenlied and its various permutations, along with establishing pantheons of god to correspond to all major Earth mythological systems. It is thanks to Thomas, for instance, that the Marvel Universe has an underutilized version of Vishnu who gets together and has lunch with Odin and Zeus. Thomas' influence on Grant Morrison has yet to be widely acknowledged.) From that moment forward, the Eternals, the Celestials, and all their baggage, have been an integral - if oft-ignored - cornerstone of Marvel's cosmology.

Next: Mutatis mutandis

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why is the world in love again?


Chances are very good that the first time you ever heard They Might Be Giants, it was something off this album. Chances are even better that if you own only one They Might Be Giants album, it's this one. There's even a good chance if you're roughly my age that your first exposure to They Might Be Giants may even have been on Tiny Toons Adventures, where two songs off Flood were featured as music videos - "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

If you need any more proof that the 1990s was a strange decade, reflect for a minute on the fact for a brief moment during the administration of George H. W. Bush the full weight of Warner Brothers' corporate promotion machine was bent towards ensuring that They Might Be Giants sold a lot of records. They took six minutes of airtime on a nationally broadcast children's cartoon and gave it over to free advertisement for a weird New York post-New Wave synth-rock duo.

I have conflicted emotions about Flood. I was one of those folks for whom Flood was their first exposure to the Johns. Although it didn't take me long to track down the rest of their extant discography (which was, at the time, all of three albums - although Miscellaneous T was actually released a few months after Flood, if I recall correctly), this holds pride of place as their first, for me and many others. The problem is that although it isn't hard in hindsight to recognize why exactly this album hit the way it did, it's also easy to discern that one of the reasons it did so was by sawing off many of the sharp edges that had defined their early albums. It is worth noting that Flood has significantly fewer tracks about divorce and despair than Lincoln.

In exchange for the anguish of their second album, we have instead perhaps the apogee of their pop songwriting skills. Excepting "Istanbul" (a cover of the Four Lads' song of the same name), the album presents a series of endlessly catchy pop ditties written in a variety of genres and presenting an incredible stylistic range. Their eclecticism and ability to sell even the most bizarre premise through enthusiasm and panache. Listen to "Letterbox," "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love," "Twisting" - you'd be hard pressed to find three more different songs, and yet each of them work exceptionally well. I would argue that the variety of sounds on Flood make it at times a difficult listen - it's so disparate, so diverse, that it can be exhausting.

And it doesn't all work. "Your Racist Friend" is still a cringeworthy attempt at - what? sincerity? an "issues" song? Not even a salsa breakdown can save it. I've never been able to get a handle on album closer "Road Movie to Berlin," either. They usually have really strong instincts when it comes to the final song on their albums - "Rhythm Section Want Ad," "Kiss Me, Son of God," Spacesuit," "End of the Tour" - but "Road Movie to Berlin" has always felt flat to me, like a sketch that was never fully developed.

The core of the album, to me, has always been what I've informally regarded as the "working" trilogy - "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair," Hearing Aid," and "Minimum Wage" - three songs dedicated to how much it sucks to work in an office. The personal anxiety of the first two albums has mutated into a more generalized anxiety about wage slavery and the small daily humiliations of working in forced intimacy with people you don't like and with whom you exist in a state of mutual contempt:
More coffee for me boss /
'Cause I'm not as messed up as I want to be /
I've turned off my hearing aid /
Don't say the electric chair's not good enough /
For king-lazy-bones like myself.
One of the band's strong suits has always been their ability to immortalize the most petty and seemingly inconsequential moments of a person's life in musical amber. They have a great deal of empathy for losers and perpetual runners-up - and there is no doubt that their attention to the overlooked ignominies of everyday existence helped cement their relationship to a fanbase seemingly self-defined by their obsession with embarrassment and an inaptitude for daily life.

When you break the album down on a song-by-song basis, it remains enduringly, almost preternaturally strong. It's much easier to pinpoint the tracks that don't work or somehow fall short than to list the songs that remain stone classics - "Whistling in the Dark," "Women & Men," "We Want A Rock." If you've ever heard the album you've probably got one or all of those songs in your head right now. If the album seems slightly patchy in hindsight, a tad scattershot, less focused and more manic than necessary, it's entirely possible that these defects may be entirely of my own imagining.

I suppose my hesitancy regarding the album comes more from familiarity than anything else. I've heard Flood so many times that I could almost certainly recite the entire thing by heart. It's not an album I pull down for pleasure much anymore. Maybe there are only so many times you can hear an album before you can't hear it anymore. Maybe I need to wait a few years before I can ever listen to it again.

Next: Mission to Mars

(out of five)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"We got along."

There's really not much that goes on in the world of comics that the readers really need to be aware of -- we got along for decades without this level of faux-transparency. But this is the world we live in now, like it or not.
Tom Brevoort*
It is an unavoidable conclusion that capitalism exerts an infantilizing influence on our lives.

If we accept these conditions we accept life in a state of perpetual childish anxiety.

If we accept this childish anxiety we find ourself regarding much of our lifestyle choices in the same manner as a child awaiting Christmas morning; the morning will surely bring the revelation that all that has been done under the cover of darkness has been done for our benefit.

If we refuse to accept the "Santa Claus" hypothesis of modernity we our simply excluded.

It is not hard to imagine that contracts drawn up between individuals and corporate interests are inherently unfair; it is far harder to imagine that any such contract ever could be fair.

All contracts are only as good as the litigators you can afford to hire to enforce every clause.

This is why contractual disputes between corporations and all but the richest individuals are usually over before they even begin: the plaintiff must spend years of unceasing exertion in the vain attempt to roll a boulder up a hill, whereas the defendant need merely remain seated on the top of said boulder for as long as he (it) may wish.

(The same principal applies to the government, but under certain circumstances it's actually easier to sue the government than a major corporation.)

If we accept the "Santa Claus" hypothesis we cannot then hold the offender to account for his moral failings: we have already given up the right to express moral outrage through our previous, tacit acceptance and understanding that in all cases the "ends" of consumer gratification outweigh the "means" by which this gratification is achieved.

No one likes seeing how the sausage is made, even the people who make the sausage.

It is to the great advantage of capital that it has assembled a system wherein no single worker can actually perceive at any given moment the nature of the sausage they are assembling.

This moral Fordism allows great injustices to be parceled out in industrial quantities; if no one actually sees the dimensions of the finished product (sausage) before it rolls off the assembly line, then no one can stop it before it is completed; and once it is completed, well, whoever would want to waste such a perfectly nice sausage?

The comics industry is very small, but still not small enough that the balance of power isn't overwhelmingly lopsided.

Other fields in entertainment at least have unions to protect small fish from being entirely trampled; union organization never worked out so well in comics.

Because there's nothing even remotely resembling collective bargaining at any level of the industry, every contract negotiation effectively occurs in a "right-to-work" context.

Contracts are private, and non-disclosure clauses exist to keep any kind of collusion on the part of freelancers from occurring.

Which is not to say that it doesn't happen, as it surely does.

But how many Marvel contracts have you seen? How many DC contracts?

It isn't in anyone's interest to make private contracts public.

The industry is too small to be held accountable for anything, but its small enough that individual actors can be held accountable for everything.

No one has the money necessary to investigate what actually goes into contracts.

There's this thing called "Hollywood Accounting."

Essentially, this is what happens when movie studios (and TV studios and record companies) cook the books in such a way as to avoid paying royalties on even the most successful properties.

There are a number of ways of doing this: one of the most common ways of cheating talent out of royalties is to sign a contract guaranteeing net profits as opposed to gross. The studio will ensure that the movie never, ever, ever sees a net profit, even if they have to go so far as to claim that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix lost $167 million dollars.

If you have any power whatsoever, you get gross points in your contract, because otherwise you'll never see a dime.

Quote from 26 February 2005:
The show, all in, cost about $110 million to make. Each year of its original run, we know it showed a profit because they TOLD us so. And in one case, they actually showed us the figures. It's now been on the air worldwide for ten years. There's been merchandise, syndication, cable, books, you name it. The DVDs grossed roughly half a BILLION dollars (and that was just after they put out S5, without all of the S5 sales in).

So what does my last profit statement say? We're $80 million in the red.

Basically, by the terms of my contract, if a set on a WB movie burns down in Botswana, they can charge it against B5's profits.

But then again, I knew that was the situation going in...I saw the writing on the wall (and the contract) from the git-go. I didn't do this to build an empire, I wanted to tell this story...and that's worth more than anything else.

Doesn't mean I can't tweak 'em about it, though.

jms (J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5)*
It is very rare that anyone actually sues an entertainment company over breach of contract or shady accounting. Even more rare that anyone win such a suit:
His lawsuit, filed Thursday, seeks 37.5% of net profits from syndication. Garner accuses U of deceiving him and suppressing info about syndication.

Garner starred as Jim Rockford in the series that ran 1974-1980. Instead of paying him $25,000 an episode in royalties, U charged him a distribution fee, according to the lawsuit. (Emphasis mine)
The comics industry has been playing the Hollywood accounting game for a long time now.

Only there are a few differences: for one, the issue of ownership is front and central to comics in a way that it isn't for movies - which are almost always the sole property of the studio, royalties notwithstanding - but which more resembles the music industry.

Every now and again a story pops up about Marvel and reprint royalties, usually foreign royalties. These things don't happen because of individual oversight, companies such as Marvel make a lot of money out of systematically pruning every possible source of royalty payments from their contracts.

They can do this because no one (as in, no readers) cares what's in your average Marvel contract. No one knows what's in your average Marvel contract because it is in the interest of everyone working for Marvel on a freelance (read: precarious, paycheck-to-paycheck) position not to share this information.

Everyone likes Christmas morning, no one doesn't want to believe in Santa Claus. We all want very desperately to believe that the men and women in charge of making our favorite superhero comic books are good people, generous and kind-hearted - if you turn your head just right in the Marvel offices you can still see Smilin' Stan in the corner chatting with the King over the plot to the latest issue of Fantastic Four, right?

Most people working for Marvel probably are genuinely good people. But the beauty of working for capital is that you don't have to take the weight of prevarication or disassembly on yourself. Privately, I'm sure most people would agree that certain things are "wrong" or "regrettable," but publicly it's "completely out of their hands."

When Mr. Brevoort says, "we got along for decades without this level of faux-transparency," I wonder how he defines the phrase "we got along."

When Malibu comics started the Ultraverse, creator contracts were written in such a way that creators received mandatory profit participation from the use of any of their characters. This was the reason why savvy creators such as Steve Gerber (!), James Hudnall, Steve Englehart and Barry Windsor-Smith were comfortable creating a slew of new properties for another superhero comics publisher.

Only it turned out that when Marvel bought the company, the hassle of paying creators was too much trouble. After a few years of desultory attempts to revitalize the franchise, the line as dropped. And now in an era of even smaller profit margins and ever higher demands for per-unit profitability, those "perfect" contracts help to ensure that those characters will simply never be seen again.

Corporations don't feel "shame." Corporations can't feel "shame."

Individuals working on the behalf of corporations can only under the most extraordinary of circumstances be made to acknowledge shame, because the structures of capital act to limit negative moral amortization across corporate interests over time.

In other words, everyone else is doing it, so I don't see what the problem is.
But then again, I knew that was the situation going in...I saw the writing on the wall (and the contract) from the git-go. I didn't do this to build an empire, I wanted to tell this story...and that's worth more than anything else.