Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Hey Honkey Bastards

New fun stuff up at the 'Scope. Check out my review of Matt Kindt's 2 Sisters as well as my look at the first volume of Scholastic's new color Bone series.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Lest We Forget

Please take this image and circulate it far and wide throughout the internet.

Oh yeah... this has to be the coolest cover of all time:

Where's Captain Americat?

Why? Because it features the return of PETER PORKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-HAM, that's why. Not to mention Ken Connell, wielder of the Star Brand - admittedly, not as cool as PETER PORKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-HAM but a personal favorite nonetheless. The fact that Marvel actually remembers it owns such wonderful properties gives me hope - albeit, a sickly, somewhat emaciated hope - that we might actually see these characters again at some point before the heat-death of the sun. I mean, come on - I may not give two shits in a sack about House of M or whatever, but I'd camp out for a week in front of the comic book shop for a Spider-Ham / Star-Brand crossover. What does that say about me?

Spider-Ham and Spider-Girl's knee discuss ambiguous the legacy of Henry Kissenger.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Batman Begins . . . To Suck!!!

Probably the single most idiotic - and, thankfully, almost totally devalued - idea to have sprung up around comic book superheroes over the past decades was the notion of "modern mythology": the idea that comic books were creating a series of myths that resonated with modern life in a similar fashion to how classical myth related to the classical world. Thankfully this idea isn't given much credence anymore, remaining the sole province of the prototypical Comic Book Geek with Cheeto-stained fingers who studied comparative mythology in college because Heracles and Thor were, y'know, prototypical super-heroes. Whether or not these people actually exist outside The Simpsons is besides the point: whatever value super-heroes and their stories may have has nothing to do with their "mythical" attributes, because the way super-hero stories are created, as commercial entertainment, has no relation to the process of how myths are created.

The idea goes a long way back, to the insecurity at the heart of every American comic book fan over the deep-rooted feelings of inferiority instilled not merely in the singular genre but the format itself, to the point where the pejorative reputation of the former infected the latter to a degree which has only recently been realized. People will always think up reasons to defend what they like from accusations of mediocrity. No one enjoys learning that what they really, really like is actually crap, and so a lot of mental energy is perpetually expended not only to defend the crap but to upend the entire notion of critical standards in such a way that they become perceived as absolutely meaningless. Admittedly, academia and the so-called "intelligensia" have done themselves the greatest disservice by essentially abdicating any meaningful role in cultural discourse. Most people don't have a lot of respect for modern art because the perception has permeated society that most modern art is a fraud, the modern art establishment is composed of phonies, and that anyone involved in either is a condescending boor. It's only a hop, skip and a jump to get from the current state of modern art to the notion that if the emperors have no clothes in regards to one particular subject, then they must be full of it in regards to the entirety of art. Hence, "I don't know art but I know what I like": the triumph of the subjective in the face of the failure of the establishment's objective.

(The worst aspect of this phenomena has to be the insular reaction of the art world to the rampant ignorance in American society. Honestly, the invention of conceptual art really has opened the doors for a lot of really bad, or at least mediocre art, and don't the folks who run those museums and institutions which receive public funding know that things like an elephant-dung Virgin Mary are going to do the cause of modern art as a relevent cultural entity a great disservice? Confrontational exhibits only serve to turn people off to the entire notion of art, and to enrage cultural conservatives like Mary Cheney, who can lead politicians towards questioning the viability of public arts funding based on widespread discontent with the shenanigans of a few arch-cynical conceptualists. Of course, not one person in a thousand actually knows who Jasper Johns or Lee Bontecou are - which is more the shame.)

Of course, it all boils down to money. Art isn't popular because art doesn't sell, and art doesn't sell because it isn't popular.Whichever way you spin it, Art with a capital "A" just can't compete with crap, because crap has a tendency to cater to the worst preconceptions and preoccupations of its audience. Art has to entertain at least the possibility of upsetting the audience, or it can't make any sort of meaningful statement other than reaffirming the values of its audience. (Of course, all entertainment of any sort is technically "art", but it's pretty universally awknowledged, even by those who are ignorant of gradations, that "entertainment" and "fine art" are different in kind, if not in degree.)

Which brings us, by means of a rather elaborate cul-de-sac, to the latest Batman film, and the means by which Batman has gradually surpassed the significant metaphorical underpinnings of his origin to become, essentially, a contextless idea - a mythic shell which can be filled by succeeding generations of creators and audiences to fit their own notions. In his recent review of Batman Begins, Tom Spurgeon says:
The Batman "story" as much as I understand it seems to be about Bruce Wayne getting his shit together enough to start fighting a comic book version of "the good fight." The battles themselves are interesting primarily as spectacle, and verge upon outright dullness because the totality of Bruce Wayne's personality is oriented towards beating up things -- making for few personal places any conflict can safely echo. I could give a shit about what Batman looks like fighting the Joker or under what circumstances he would adopt a child and train it for combat. You keep going, and Batman ends up fighting super killer whale women, like in the last issue of a Batman comic I bought at a quarter bin.

Which is, unsurprisingly for Spurgeon, very much to the point: the most interesting things about Batman are not the extravagant adventures he experiences or the endless soap-opera shenanigans which continually rock the Caped Crusader's world, but the way in which the very basic metaphorical substance of his creation is refabricated and refitted over time - that is, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about Batman, and it's actually quite easy to make boring and pointless Batman comics, but occasionally the ideas can be made to resonate. Which brings us back to the notion of super heroes as myths. The idea is actually not as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance, but it requires something of a reorientation of perspective to see the value. The original conception of super heroes as myth - in terms that it has been reiterated throughout the theory's history - is ultimately self-serving, drawing a correlative value between the cultural weight of classical myth and the (deserved) dearth of respect accorded to super hero stories based simply on superficial similarities.

But myths were not created from a whole cloth as belief systems. Myths evolve and grow gradually out of a mixture of history, rumor, gossip, politics and propaganda. Similarly, the very concept of gods for the ancients was far more elastic and supple than anything which correlates in modern society. The problem with super hero comics is similar to the problem with conservative Christianity: literalism which refuses to accept the metaphorical underpinnings underneath basic concepts. I apologize if you read the Bible and believe every word as being absolute Truth: this is probably not the essay or blog for you. But then again, I wouldn't read too much history either, or you'd learn about how many books in the Bible were organized for political purposes, and some of them [like Revelations] were chosen on the basis of their metaphorical significance. The Left Behind books testify pretty convincingly that many Christians don't understand the meaning of "metaphor" (or the ravings of the mentally ill, but that's the topic of another, far more contentious essay).

By a similar token, by refusing to interpret Batman as anything other than a very literal translation of the accrued 65+ years of stories, the people in charge of DC Comics and the makers of Batman Begins are ultimately showing as little imagination as the most hide-bound Fundamentalist. Batman, like Superman and Spider-Man and many other iconic superheroes, is mythic not because the character carries any grand stature or inherent significance, but because, like the stories of ancient Greece and Rome, they reveal as much about their creators and audience as they do about the actual stories themselves. Batman is only as interesting as the last story he's in, which makes him a pretty boring character most of the time. This isn't a popular interpretation of super hero canon because it essentially negates the entire notion of continuity. Continuity, as the accrual of literal detail to create extended narrative structure, is the antithesis of depth. By building an ediface of complicated circumstance on top of a simple idea, the original meaning is eventually obscured to the point where, as Spurgeon says, Batman is fighting maniac shark women. Of course, I'm sure it makes sense in the context of the comic itself: there's a reason why things happen which proceed from previous stories. But then you're getting away from the very basic notion of why and who Batman is and most importantly, what he represents, and getting into weird sci-fi stuff like the difference between the Batmen of Earths 1 and 2, and who the Earth 2 Batman married and why the Huntress is no longer Batman's daughter after Crisis and yadda yadda yadda. It interests people in the same way that sports statistics do, and both kinds of data have essentially the same significance. Building your comics around continuity is like building your baseball coverage around statistics: it may be of prime interest the sabermetricans in the audience, but if stats are presenmted as anything more than a footnote people get bored waiting for, you know, someone to hit the damn ball and have some fun.

Which explains the overwhelming popularity of the Spider-Man films. True, I and other comics fans may not have responded to them because they upset specific notions about what I understood the character to be, but they obviously struck a big chord with the general public, in a lasting way that even the best action movies don't acheive. There is an idea at the heart of Spider-Man - it may be a simple idea, an occasionally misunderstood and diluted idea, but it is still there. What remains fascinating about the original Spider-Man comics by Lee & Ditko is how that idea is elaborated and commented upon - how Ditko's uniquely spooky art accentuated the amoral ambiguity asserted by Peter Parker's world and (conversely) the absolute utility of Peter's self-sacrificing. Once they start to deviate from that idea - which is the point at which the series becomes more about the adventures of Spider-Man than the idea behind being Spider-Man - the returns diminish at a rapid rate, until you have Spider-Man fighting the cloned children of a girlfriend whose been dead for thirty years and the maniacal offspring of an alien costume he picked up on an alien planet twenty years ago fighting in a super hero war. I used to look with disdain on the kind of cultural criticism that sought to put popular entertainment like, say, the Lord of the Rings movies or Star Wars or Spider-Man into proper context - and indeed, many of these approaches to the subject of pop cultural relevance are badly written or, if on the cover of Time or Rolling Stone, self-serving and ultimately apologetic to the economic media complex that spawned them. But most of the super heroes which have survived through the long decades have done so because - in addition to the fact that coprorations have perpetual trademarks to exploit - the ideas themselves have some sort of resonance. If that resonance is to be properly exploited, it cannot be obscured.

Perhaps this explains why Captain Marvel, despite his one-time enormous populairty, is no more than a footnote in modern continuity. The wish-fulfilment concept behind the character is so basic, so universal that really the only way you could screw it up would be to over-complicate the stories with exteraneous baggage - which is basically the only way they know how to make super hero comics anymore. The Ultimate books, especially the Spider-Man series, were successes because they recontextualized potent ideas in an effective way. But if they had really wanted to make an effective go of it, they would have needed to cancel every "normal" Marvel Universe Spider-Man title in order to make a clean break. And then they'd have to cancel Ultimate in a few years as well. Sure, it's essentially retelling the same stories over and over again, but that's how Batman evolved as well. And that's how the classical myths of old were created, through iterations of fact and history which became fantasy when they impacted with belief systems and then-contemporary modes of conduct.

It may not always be very flattering to realize that potent cultural objects are a reflection of our own best and worst impulses. Look at the Punisher: one of the most potent super heroes of the last thirty years. Is he a pleasant, or even tolerable character? No, he's a monster, a murderer and a sociopath. But look at the early Punisher stories, the first stories written in the mid-80s after the character had been brought back from limbo and made into a commercially-viable property. They're absolutely fascinating. Here's the 80s that we all carry in our racial memory from pop culture and exploitive news stories: random street crime on every corner, drug gangs tearing apart the fabric of society, terrorist threats at every turn. Everyone is either a target or a civilian, there is no gray area. We're out to get ours, and there are no moral or ethical restraints to concern ourselves with, its just raw will and violent expression of force that carries the day in a world gone mad. The ends always justify the means. Because of his primal nature (and because the character has a habit of, well, killing everyone), the Punisher resisted the accumulation of continuity for the longest time, but eventually it caught up with him, and the stories (and sales) went so deeply downhill that the character was persona non grata on comics racks for almost a decade. And then Garth Ennis very cannily brought him back, but whereas before he had been an unconscious reflection of the 80s ethos, now he was a purposeful satire of that very same mentality.

The Dark Knight Returns is without a doubt the most influential Batman story of the last 20 years. Why did it succeed so well? Because it was a compelling reinterpretation of the character which actually updated the ideological underpinnings in an interesting way. Look at 80s movies like Commando or Red Dawn and tell me that the Batman in Dark Knight, with its street-gangs and ineffectual liberals and communist paranoia, doesn't make for a compelling snapshot of the decade.

All the crap that accumulates around super heroes - the baggage, the continuity, the crossovers and the soap-operas - are good for perpetuating current trademarks but bad in terms of creating any lasting value - any extrinsic meaning - for the audience or franchise. Entertainment makes money because it refuses to challenge its audience, but by that same token, popular entertainment can be read backwards in order to glean just why and how the audience responds. Considering the degraded state of popular art in America and the world, it is probably (and ironically) the best and perhaps the only way to engage an audience on a mass scale. Super heroes are mythical creations, but their significance comes not from an appeal to the legitimate insight of past generations but their ability to resonate in a denuded public imagination. This resonance is built not on any specific application but the manipulation of a studied inspecificity.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Black Diamond: On-Ramp

I’ve long championed Larry Young as a far better writer than most give him credit for. Beneath the rugged man’s-man demeanor and irascible salesman’s cap lies a subtle and contentious cerebellum of a born storyteller, and it is almost a tragedy that his responsibilities as mastermind of AiT/Planet Lar publishing keep him from writing more. When he sets aside his business responsibilities he proves himself to be one of the best mainstream writers in the business, consistently capable of welding high-concept adventure to surprisingly subtle execution.

Sometimes he’s more subtle than he needs to be – just ask any of the many people who didn’t “get” the industry satire dressed as superhero allegory that was Planet of the Capes. Somehow, I don’t think subtle is going to be an issue with Black Diamond. The high-concept - Die-Hard meets Road Warrior on a futuristic superhighway strung over the lower 48, according to the promo blurbs – promises explosions in abundance. But again, as much as Young tries to front, his attempts to come off as a card-carrying he-man are somewhat less than convincing: not many car-chase scenes come equipped with Tom Stoppard name-checking bits of meta-textual exposition.

It’s this dichotomy that makes AiT/Planet Lar such a fascinating entity, the constant tug-of-war between high-concept genre entertainment and a more understated, cerebral sense of style. Whenever the books veer too closely to one side or the other of the equation, the product invariably suffers, but when they stick to their core conviction that genre entertainment does not necessarily have to be insultingly dull, the results are usually at least interesting. Based on this promo, Black Diamond appears to be Larry Young at his best, or at least, that's what he wants us to think! (The series itself could suck. There's always the possibility of that - but hey, judging a book solely by it's preview would be like judging a film based on it's trailer. I gotta leave myself an out if this thing turns out to be 22 pages of Elmo and Snuffalupagus singing with Carol Channing.)

As such, the package is as integral to the story as anything else. Although most people know them for their commitment to the black & white original graphic novel format as a commercially-viable vehicle, Black Diamond is an eight-issue limited series in glorious color. Young’s last experiment in monthly comics, the critically acclaimed Demo, stood out because of production values which made every issue stand out as a mini-graphic novel, but if this preview’s format can be judged, Black Diamond looks to be every bit the pamphlet, both physically and conceptually – complete with dastardly cliffhangers and cheap newsprint. Of course, this is only a preview, an introduction to the characters and concepts behind the story, but based on this tease I’m looking forward to seeing what the next eight months will bring.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Who Sell Out

OK, first off, if you read this blog at all (or just look at the funny pictures of Space Sharks), then you know how much of a great spiritual debt we all owe to the wonderful Tom Spurgeon. He's having a fundraiser over at the Comics Reporter this week: even if you don't follow Tom's site (for shame!) comsider plunking some coinage in the hat just for the sheer sake of doing what a random and faceless voice on the Internet tells you to do.

And while you're at it, surf over to The Unofficial John Westmoreland Memorial Tribute Webring and salute the stamina of Milo George, who is now officially one year into his fight against the dreaded scourge of Endemic Treponematosis. He's selling stuff on eBay to help fight the disease, so if you don't like kids in distant lands dying in awful ways (and who does, except maybe for Hitler? and the Space Sharks, who honestly couldn't care less...) Milo doesn't blog about comics too often, but when he does the awesomeness is a wonder to behold. Not for nothing is he the Last Honest Man In Comics - even The Journal couldn't "handle" his street-wise, kung-fu packin' Truth.

That is all... for now. But soon there will be more instructions.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Back In The Saddle

OK, after a brief hiatus, the Comic Remix is back, with a look at the Rann / Thanagar war.

Also, reviews of Kevin Huizenga's "Or Else" #2 and Anders Nilsen's Dogs & Water.
If I Ran The Comics Industry, Part Thirteen

Now that's what I call and astronaut in trouble.

Part Twelve
Part Eleven
Part Ten
Part Nine
Part Eight
Part Seven
Part Six
Part Five
Part Four
Part Three
Part Two
Part One

Friday, June 17, 2005

"Haw Haw"

Being chronically behind on everything, I just recently read this week's Lying In The Gutters - and I found the bit about Steve Gerber calling Jonathon Lethem to task for his Omega the Unknown revamp to be both sad and absurd. You can read more details here.

I feel for Gerber, I really do: he's been fighting "the good fight" for almost as long as there has been a good fight. He's walked away with a few good scars, but he's certainly given as good as he's gotten. The fact that he still makes at least a part-time living in this industry is a testament to the fact that even if the good guys don't always win, sometimes they don't lose, either.

But I also feel bad for Lethem. I don't know him, know next to nothing about him... but coming into all of this must be the equivilent of a dinner guest being caught in the middle of a decades' old fight between an unhappily married couple... yes, actaully he reminds me a little bit of the George Segal character in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? I don't doubt he means well, and just wanted to write a weird little comic about this character that inspired him as a kid... little did he realize that he was stepping into the kind of moral, ethical and (if Gerber's hints are to be taken at face value) legal quagmire that the comic book industry excells in. He probably didn't even know Gerber and Skrenes were still alive, let alone nursing thirty-year old war wounds. I imagine he wasn't happy when he found out.

You know, the whole Omega revamp has always seemed rather odd to me. For one, this is just about the single most absurdly obscure Marvel property in existence, and yet even though a Big Time Award-Winning Literary Author wants to write him, there are still people online who not only remember the series but are bewailing the fact that it's not going to be a "real" superhero book, but a weird faux-indie (I'm not going to link to Newsarama - you know where to find these people if you so desire). But this latest turn of events really clinches the bizarre factor. Without even trying to, Lethem has put himself into a possible position of (percieved) ethical compromise. Working for Marvel, there is almost no way to avoid this kind of moral ambiquity. Thankfully (for Marvel) Hollywood doesn't care as long as there are no lawsuits, and the Hollywood machinery is such that the actual creative people who make the films are relatively insulated from these issues. I'd be extremely susprised if any of the cast members of the Fantastic Four movie know who Jack Kirby is, and if they know who Stan Lee is, it's probably because they briefly shook his hand when he came on the set to do his obligatory cameo. But getting real, live flesh-and-blood talented prose authors to work for their comics is another thing entirely. I can't predict the future, but it seems to me that this is the kind of thing that could cast a pall over Marvel's ability to ever swing these high-priority literature crossovers again.

Most prose authors come from a world of relative moral clarity, where all the creators' rights that comic book folk have fought decades for are taken for granted. Why would they want to place themselves in a position of being compromised when their buddy Jonathon Lethem got burned by some angry creators? No one purposefully sets out to be an asshole lightning rod, and if this story gets Lethem even a drop of negative press in the "real" world, you can bet this will be the last project of its kind for a long time to come. I feel bad for Lethem, who can be forgiven for knowing absolutely nothing of any of this beforehand, I feel bad for Gerber, but mostly I am feeling sort-of sorry for poor old Marvel (don't laugh), who can't win for losing. Because no matter what they do they're always going to be carrying around sixty+ years of baggage. The faces in the corner office change every few years, but they all inherit Marley's chains, accrued from the very beginning and kept up-to-date with interest.

But, it's still only "sort-of" sorry, because there's still the matter of karma, and even if the folks in charge now didn't actually do the screwing way back when, they could have chosen to work for a less morally culpable company, like, I don't know, Exxon or Halliburton or something...

Monday, June 13, 2005

Doctor Doom’s Mailbag

Doom takes pride in answering all of his personal correspondence.

Dear Doom,

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the European Union, and in particular whether or not Latveria is considering joining. My own country is facing a vote on whether to ratify the new EU constitution shortly and I was wondering if you have an opinion on the matter.

T.B., London, England

The European Union is essentially superfluous to the national goals of Latveria. Our country prides itself on being economically, politically and socially self-contained, and would under no circumstances welcome the degree of outside meddling mandated by ratification of the numerous treaties which compose the legal backbone of the Union. The national prerogatives of Latveria differ from the supposed "mainstream" of European thought on matters of political expression and individual liberty to such a degree that no level of cooperation in matters of pan-European destiny could be considered desirable if it came at the cost of Latverian self-determination.

Under the graceful stewardship of Doom, Latveria successfully resisted the entreaties of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, remaining neutral throughout the bulk of the so-called "Cold War". Our participation in diplomatic entities such as the United Nations is wholly dependent on said entities' willingness to allow Latveria its rightful manumission from the tyranny of international intrigue. The proud people of our country do not wish to be enmeshed in the endless, futile struggles for world domination waged by international conglomerates in the name of "globalization": Latverians do not need "broadband" Internet access to decadent international entertainment programs, not when the will of Doom endows the single greatest lending library network in all the world. Within the borders of Latveria there is a copy of The Aeneid for every man, woman and child of reading age - what more does an educated populace truly need?

But to return to your question, Doom is perpetually amused by the attempts of lesser nations to form secure economic partnerships. All such alliances are destined to crumble. One day the pitiful bureaucrats in their national capitols shall know the folly of subservience to any ideology save the will of Doom. The European Union as it stands now is ultimately a chimera: the only true and profound union of nations possible is the union of all peoples under the banner of Doom. Only then shall all national, racial, religious, economic and evolutionary differences be liquidated, and a true society of utopian equality be created. Of course, many will inevitably die in the coming wars, but it is a small price to pay for absolute peace and prosperity.

Dear Doctor Doom,

As you are undoubtedly aware, an interstellar war currently rages between the planets Rann and Thanagar. In your studied opinion as an individual of cosmic eminence, which side do you think will emerge victorious?

Yer Pal,
Mogo, Mogo

After a cursory examination of both sides in this infernal conflict, it is the studied opinion of Doom that neither side shall emerge victorious. The circumstances are such that continued conflict can only precipitate the utter desolation of both races.

The Rannians are fools and cowards. Their greatest champion is an Earthman named Adam Strange who possesses no more than average intelligence or aptitude, and yet is somehow regarded as a significant factor in the outcome of major interplanetary conflicts. Despite their supposed scientific prowess, the men of Rann have allowed their indolence to weaken them until they are, currently, unable even to rally the appropriate will to repulse an alien population.

But however fierce they may seem in contrast to the insipid Rannians, the Thangarians are ultimately no more imposing. The winged reprobates may seem fierce, but ultimately they are easy prey to demagogues and hierophants who wish to exploit their pliable, aggressive natures. The fascistic nature of the Thangarian state renders them rife for institutional instability such as factionalism, sectarian division and civil war should fighting continue. These factors will render them incapable of crushing even the puny resistance offered by the decadent Rannians.

Ultimately, even an observer of less savvy than Doom should be able to see that this conflict is only a diversion - a feint - on the part of an unseen third party who will turn the fighting towards their own purposes. Both Rann and Thanagar are being played for the proverbial patsies, and Doom commends the ingenuity of whomever emerges from the wreckage to claim victory.

(As an aside, it is extremely worrysome to Doom that the forces of both Rann and Thanagar seem to be physiologically identical to Earth. The odds of multiple races arising across the galaxy with identical bipedal Caucasoid characteristics are simply uncanny. Adam Strange is especially loathsome for undertaking sexual relations with one of the Rannian aliens. Do we even know what sort of reproductive system they use? Perhaps they are egg-laying creatures, which would imply that Strange is an individual of remarkably deviant sexual appetites.)

Dr. Doom,

In your long career as a super-villain, you've encountered Doctor Strange many times. Why do you suppose that, despite his unbelievable coolness, Doctor Strange is chronically unable to support a solo series? I'll bet it's because his origin needs to be updated to bring it more in line with something you'd see in a derivative action movie.

J.M.S., Outer Space

Bah! Stephen Strange succeeded to his role as the Sorcerer Supreme of the Earth dimension only through luck and guile. Any fool could be Sorcerer Supreme with access to the library of mystical tomes and artifacts that the Ancient One possessed. But was Strange's mother an incredibly powerful Gypsy sorceress who was able to pass her great acumen to her only son? Was Strange able to complete his mystical training without access to the greatest forbidden libraries on the planet, instead relying only on his own peerless instincts to guide him through the perilous realms of outer experience? No, Strange had a wrinkled old man to hold his hand. Squirrel Girl could have a decent go at becoming Sorceress Supreme if she had the Eye of Agmotto and the Book of the Vishanti at her ready disposal.

Surely the reasons for Strange's perpetual inability to hold down a solo title are easily explained: the readers know better. They would much rather read the monthly adventures of Doom, and until they receive this they are choosing to boycott any faux Sorcerer Supreme titles. But soon, once his plans come to fruition, Doom shall assume his rightful mantle as the mystical master of this world, and all shall bow before him. It is only a matter of time.

And as for origins being changed to more reflect the whims of Hollywood, Doom shall note that almost every significant retcon of the past two decades has been eventually reversed. Do you recall when it was strongly implied that Doom was actually half-brother to the hated Reed Richards? No? Well, neither does anyone else. In another six months, Strange's new origin will be as fondly - and as frequently - remembered as Highlander 2.

Yo Doom,

First Come, First Served was tight, yo. When you gonna come with another joint? I just wasn’t feelin’ that 'Black Elvis' shit, dawg.

Yer Homie,
MC Bitchnutzz, Da Hood

I think you have me confused with someone else.

And on that note, dear reader, Doom wearies of this unceasing avalanche of idiocy.

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Last Temptation of Steve Ditko

The art of Steve Ditko exerts a massive gravity that, to me, surpasses the appeal of all but a few of his peers in the history of cartooning. His work is strange, famously awkward and even stiff, especially when compared with more graceful and kinetic contemporaries such as Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Alex Toth and John Romita. But there is more to be found in his ungainly figures and drooping inklines than initially may meet the eye, something fascinating that manages to repulse in the same proportion as it attracts.

The Comics Journal recently devoted part of an issue (#258, during the tenure of Milo George) to a multi-author exploration of Ditko's appeal. While many of the essays were interesting, they also seemed to dance around some of the very specific and baffling issues conjured by Ditko's expressionistic worldview. Of all the artists who compose our modern cartoonists' "canon", Ditko has traditionally been the hardest on which to get a proper bead. Mention Kirby and most understand the appeal: the power and dynamism, the angular tension between sublimated anxiety and energetic expression. Likewise Barks has his lyricism, clarity and masked cynicism; Kurtzman is defined by the interplay between insightful satire and cerebral craftsmanship; Crumb is an understated social critic in the guise of a bomb-throwing anarchist. Whether or not you agree with these succinct encapsulizations, they still provide entryways to very well-trod schools of thought: people can disagree as to why Carl Barks is an important cartoonist, but most people don't have trouble agreeing that he is important. But Ditko's work, although appreciated by many, has so far defied the kind of ready-made analysis that provides an easy-access to any artist's critical corpus. People like Ditko, but as the recent Journal spotlight proved, it's not easy to explain why.

Part of the blame for this, of course, has to be leveled on Ditko himself, for better or for worse. He has always cultivated an invincible air of privacy, refusing to speak with the fan or mainstream press under any circumstances. He is, by all accounts, a gracious and friendly gentleman, but he doesn't want to have anything to do with any of the many, many people who would dearly love to glom onto him. He doesn't need us, and that considering how small and incestuous the comics industry is, that fact stands out like a sore thumb.

Kirby never stopped being open and accessible to every fan who made an attempt at communication, especially in the later years of his life when he became increasingly involved in the fan press in an attempt to publicize his legal maneuverings against Marvel. Barks was singularly anonymous for the bulk of his career, but after his fans tracked him down he spent the rest of his life basking in the warm glow of their appreciation (and, of course, charging them for his goofy paintings). Crumb may try to cultivate the image of a reclusive iconoclast, but he's never made a convincing hermit, preferring some degree of engagement with the world as the price of his relative autonomy. But that's not a bargain that Ditko has ever seen the need to strike: his autonomy is already absolute. His philosophy ensures his solidarity, because he doesn't need anyone else, either fan, sycophant or critic, to reinforce his own sense of worth or validity.

Or, to put it another way, even Dave Sim, famous for his bizarre beliefs in a field that embraces bizarre beliefs, keeps in touch with his fans and maintains a rudimentary presence on the Internet. On some level Sim recognizes the utility of keeping a public profile to ensure that Cerebus is not forgotten in his lifetime. But Ditko, to judge purely on the basis on his (non)-relationship with the greater world, seems blessedly free of any insecurities regarding the value of his own work. He continues to work and manages to find outlets for his personal polemic work when he wants to. Until relatively recently he was even still a fairly prolific presence on mainstream comics shelves, content to produce work for a different Marvel, under different circumstances (but never, to my recollection, on Spider-Man or Dr. Strange). But at some point in the mid-90s, probably around the time of the Image exodus when comics took their turn for the flashy, most veterans stopped getting calls from mainstream editors (except for occasional token "prestige" projects), and Ditko was no exception. (Incidentally, I’ve always found it amusing that one of the last editors to regularly use Ditko was Jim Shooter, for whom Ditko was a mainstay during his tenure at Marvel as well as, later on, at Valiant and [briefly] Defiant. Considering how many people then and now have regarded Shooter as the living incarnation of Satan, the fact that Ditko was consistently loyal to him is somewhat curious – Ditko’s loyalty is not, I imagine, easily bought.)

The fundamental core of Ditko's Objectivist beliefs is that Right is irrevocably Right; A=A and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it except ignore or accept it. So, in terms of his legacy, I think its fair to say that by choosing to maintain his silence, Ditko has - either consciously or simply by happenstance - chosen the long view, believing or assuming that his legacy is intact for those who bother to educate themselves. And, for the most part, he's correct. Sure, there will probably always be mistaken newspaper reporters who declare Stan Lee to be the sole creator of Spider-Man, but that's not his fault: anyone with even a modicum of sense can do the five seconds of research required to verify the truth. By being confidently and quietly in the right, he essentially puts the burden of proof on everyone else. Whether you're an Objectivist or not, you have to admit it's a pretty efficient system. Certainly, by remaining silent and refusing to enter into the industry's political infrastructure on anything more than an oblique level (the odd small-press tract), he seems a lot more secure in his modest claims than many who squawk far more loudly.

But even if Ditko doesn't need us, we desperately need Ditko. His work remains powerful and evocative, a reminder of the communicative force of a single brushline in an era of institutional opacity. Despite - or perhaps because of - the overriding clarity with which Ditko's worldview enables him to tackle and dismiss heady ideological conflict, his artwork remains mired in almost existential fatalism. His heroes are uniquely positioned to discern the forces of good from evil. Some, as in the case of Spider-Man, are almost universally beset by the forces of moral disrepair which surround them, and helpless to do anything but struggle forward in the almost-Christian conviction that doing right is its own reward, because to do wrong is an insufferable, self-evident obscenity. Others, such as Dr. Strange and the Question, are not so universally beset, and are much more able to compete with the negative forces of society (or the universe) on their own levels. The cards are less obviously stacked against Stephen Strange and Vic Sage than Peter Parker, but for all these characters the reward for their righteousness is not the acclaim of their fellows but merely the satisfied silence of a clean conscience.

Ditko's universes are dark and slightly soggy places. If Kirby's Marvel was brighly-lit soundstages and grand Technicolor, Ditko's work has always seemed purposefully shabby. His monsters were never as grand as Kirby's, but were sometimes genuinely creepy whereas Kirby's were merely fun. His panels are coated in shadows. His characters' cheekbones are accentuated to make them seem gaunt and the bags under their eyes drawn to make them seem constantly harried. Although Rand's Objectivism was conceived in diametrical opposition to socialism, it is of a cloth with Marxism (and particularly Stalinism) in that it conceives of the world as a compromised realm - but whereas Marx viewed the compromise as originating in the degrading structure of capitalist society, Rand and her followers see the compromise not in the essential nature of our economy but in most individuals’ inability to recognize the flaws of collectivist ideals and moral relativism. In Objectivism, as with Ditko, the individual's responsibility trumps the authority and prerogatives of the body politic every time. It's the difference between a conception of society as a class-based organism and the conception of society as a contract between autonomous individuals. The dirt and the grime - the droopy inklines, vast vertiginous mystical realms and awkward flailing limbs of Ditko - represent the forces of moral turpitude which continually assail the singular righteous individual.

Ditko’s work remains inaccessible to a large portion even of those who ostensibly enjoy it simply because it represents the primal communication of a coherent worldview which is alien to most. But you don’t need to be an Objectivist to appreciate the massive importance of Steve Ditko: you simply need to understand how completely his work, almost all his work, is sublimated to the purpose of this ideology. In Ditko’s work do we see the ultimate expression of cartooning as personal revelation, severed from any conception that does not follow his essential prerogatives: form follows function, meaning forever welded to aesthetics.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Doctor Doom’s Mailbag

Doom takes pride in answering all of his personal correspondence.

Dear Doom,

There's been a lot of talk lately about "creator's rights" in comics. As the ruler of a small Eastern European nation, what is your studied opinion on this subject?

G.G., Seattle

As you may know, Doom is the absolute monarch of Latveria, and while his subjects enjoy unparalleled peace and prosperity, their freedoms are accorded them only by his benevolent grace. No artist in Latveria goes hungry: the inculcation and respect for culture is absolutely integral to the cultivation of a happy and humble citizenry. Whereas most other Western countries have foolishly eliminated the classics from their primary schools, all students in Latverian grammar schools are conversant in both Latin and Greek, and fluent in advanced mathematics, world history, geography, astronomy, natural science, agricultural science, world literature, and of course the history of our region and country. Whereas other Western countries have problems with academic attrition, Latverian test scores have remained at their current peak levels for almost thirty years. Those unable to properly adapt to the rigorous educational demands of Latverian citizenship are, as you may imagine, dealt with accordingly.

It is of paramount importance that Latveria be able to compete with the rest of the world on the cultural stage, and it is for this reason that we accord our artists the highest accolades. Poets and composers are afforded every luxury in order to create an environment suitable for the exercise of imagination in service of glorious creativity, provided only that their subject matter be the personal glory of Doom. So, to return to your question, Latverian creators are afforded absolute freedom: freedom to produce works of sublime edification, and also freedom to face the consequences if their works are found to contain subversive ideas. Would not this be an ideal system for the entire world to operate under?

I should add that it is still the official policy of Latveria to renounce the subversive work of Kragstein. Leonard Kragstein was a noted subversive and anti-establishment radical dedicated to the destruction of the noble Latverian state. His smuggled letters and samizdat doggerel are nothing but anarchist propaganda, and the misguided decision to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature was protested most sternly by our ambassadors across the hemisphere. Thankfully, Doom has personally seen to it that Kragstein will never again be in a position to spread his malicious lies about this beloved country and its beloved monarch. Countries that refuse to ban Kragstein's books have been warned that they face swift reprisals for their defiance of Doom.

Dr. Doom,

What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to disco?

Your Friend,
Alison B., Westchester

Doom regards all Western "popular" music as ignoble excrement, especially "disco". However, being a kind and generous monarch, Doom has allowed a number of Western "pop" acts to perform in Latveria, as part of certain cultural exchange programs. The Doomstadt Amphitheater, in scenic downtown Doomstadt, has been host to performances by international celebrities such as Foreigner, the Flock of Seagulls and the Bay City Rollers.

It is common knowledge that Doom enjoys nothing so much as a well-tuned orchestra. Every year, Latveria's Conservatory of Doom produces dozens of the finest classical musicians in the world. Not all of them, however, can be awarded a place in the prestigious Doomstadt Philharmonic -- some of the less-gifted players are granted leave to seek their fortunes in orchestras around the world. The discipline, precision and faultless work-ethic of even a second-rate Latverian musician serves as a humbling example for the rest of the world.

The highlight of the Latveria's cultural calendar is the annual Mahler Festival, where the citizenry of Doomstadt assemble for seven days in July to hear the Philharmonic pay tribute to the majesty of Latveria's finest composer. (Although it is not widely reported, Gustav Mahler was himself 1/16th Latverian). All Latverians must appreciate the matchless beauty of our great cultural heritage, or face the consequences.

Despite his universal disdain for "rock and roll" music, Doom has also recently come into possession of a strange compact disc by an American trio ominously named "Sleater-Kinney". Entitled merely The Woods, the disc seems to channel the pure destructive force of the Power Cosmic itself. Doom shall seek out this "Sleater-Kinney" for his own purposes - their stolen power would perhaps enable me to finally destroy the accursed Richards and his insufferable family.

Dear Doom,

I read in that Kragstein book that as many as 75% of your public appearances are not you but actually robot doubles. Is this true?

Herbie T. Robot, Jersey City

This is a long-standing rumor which Doom is glad to be afforded the opportunity to address. Doom has never employed robot doubles. Why would a benevolent and well-loved monarch such as Doom have any reason to employ brilliantly-designed and ingeniously-manufactured perfect cybernetic duplicates of himself? Is there any force on the face of the planet which Doom need fear?

If such "robot doubles" did exist (what whimsy!), to what use would I put them? Kragstein's perfidious lies would have the world believe that Doom is a megalomaniacal madman who does nothing but shout "I AM DOOM!!!" from the turrets of his castle while gesticulating wildly. Would a madman answer his personal correspondence in such an intimate manner? If he did have robot doubles for the purpose of delegating unpleasant activities, don't you think he would use them to answer his mail? Obviously, he does not have robot doubles, because this is very clearly Doom.

That this rumor has survived for as long as it hasaffeprigneorgbeorghepgjeprokgjergerg
. . . . . . .
. . . . . . .

General Failure 1Eh
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is absolutely astonishing.

The frequent comparisons between Kragstein and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, however, are surprisingly astute: both are craven fools who sought the downfall of their governments through terrorist acts of treason. Although Solzhenitsyn has never personally meddled in the affairs of Doom, there will one day be a reckoning for his treachery. But you did not hear that from Doom.

Dear Doctor Doom,

Do you like Swamp Thing? I really like Swamp Thing. He's the coolest swamp monster ever. I am not gay but if he were real I'd be totally gay for Swamp Thing. How about you?

M.S. in Sunny Southern California

The Swamp-Thing is a fool! For someone to have had such incredibly power and let it slip through his fingers without bringing the world to bear under his mighty heel shows an intolerable lack of will. If Doom is ever in the DC Universe it will be his personal pleasure to annihilate the wretched creature. Or perhaps his power could be stolen and used in the ongoing campaign to destroy the accursed Fantastic Four! Either way - if ever our paths cross, the Swamp Thing shall feel the wrath of Doom!

Bah! Enough letters for today. Doom quickly tires of this never-ending parade of stupidity.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Oh, The Humanity

Lots of "news" out of Wizard World Phillie for the nerderatti to get excited about. Hell, even I'll admit to being happy about those Showcase Presents books. But a couple items in the Marvel news caught my eye. A couple items that might just signal the death-knell of Marvel comics as we know it.

First, you have this cover, for The Pulse #11:

Nice cover, right? Great, expressive features on all the characters, especially Jessica Jones. Jumps off the racks right at you. Except for one detail:

Yes, that's Professional Bad-Ass, Mr. Fan Fave Wolverine, with the world's dopiest look on his face. Somehow, Wolverine was perennially popular for all those years when they had spastic gorillas writing his adentures -- I have a feeling that this one image shall represent the end of Wolverine as we know him. You thought Kitty Pride as a ninja tarnished Marvel's cash cow, wait until this image circles the internet a few dozen times...

And as if that weren't bad enough, during the J. Michael Straczynski panel, the following words were uttered -- which have forever seared themselves onto my memory -- which once spoken can never be unsaid:
Along the same theme, Straczynski said that coming up in Amazing Spider-Man, Aunt May and Jarvis’ relationship moves to the next level, much to Peter’s dismay.
Let me repeat, for emphasis:

Aunt May and Jarvis’ relationship moves to the next level

Aunt May and Jarvis’ relationship moves to the next level

Aunt May and Jarvis’ relationship
moves to the next level

I don't know whether to laugh or cry - but I think I'll mostly be laughing when they wonder why all the kids at the 7/11 aren't falling all over themselves to buy the geriatric sex book.

Man, I never thought I'd ever see the day where geriatric sex was used as a marketing ploy by Marvel comics...

Eros, maybe.

Marvel, I can't say I saw that one coming at all.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Incrementalism As A Way Of Life

Why has the question of "Creator's Rights" returned so suddenly and singularly to the forefront of the conversation? It is no more or less urgent a topic now than it was at any point in the last decade, and yet for some reason a number of stars seem to have aligned just right to resurrect the discussion.

Obviously, it's important that these issues be kept at the forefront of our community and professional discussions. In a very profound way, we should never stop talking about creator's rights: the concept should form the background and bedrock of what we consider to be the moral interactions of any publisher and any creator. But there reaches a point where the current discussion of creator's rights reaches a necessary terminus, and this point occurs at the exact point where the marketplace ceases to function on any rational level. In other words, the concept of creator's rights as they has come to be understood in comics, has reached something of a zenith, at least inasmuch as it is possible under current conditions. While I could be mistaken (anyone who reads this blog knows I've a tendency to step out onto fragile limbs which can ill-support my assertions), a great deal of the current conversation, including the semi-rancorous contributions from the usual suspects, boils down to frustration. Comics is a peculiar medium, and an even more peculiar business, and the fact is that there is only so much more that can be done to further the cause of creator's rights.

At the risk of drowning in aphorism, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. The past few decades has seen a steady and incremental increase in the awareness of creator's rights. But, as some have pointed out, the acknowledgment that creator's have rights is not the end of the discussion, but in some circumstances merely the prelude. The fact that a creator has rights also means that a creator can use these rights as bargaining chips. In a post-Cerebus, post Love & Rockets, post-Image, post-King Cat, post-Bone and post-Achewood world, it's not as if there aren't any options for the discriminating creator. Get a website, publish your own comics, staple your own minis, get good enough to publish with an indie . . . if you want creator's rights, they're there for you to take. No one is stopping you.

The crushing realization for many -- and I count myself firmly among this group -- is that many (most?) people are content not to exercise most of these rights. Many intelligent, articulate and creative people are content, or at least somewhat satisfied, to sign over many of their "rights" in exchange for . . . what? Financial security? Medical benefits? The privilege to work with trademarked characters? All of these are valid reasons (some, admittedly, more than others), and all of these undoubtedly exert a force on different people to different extents. There are a lot of talented people working in mainstream comics who seem perfectly happy to have stepped "up" from self-publishing or creator-owned endeavors and into the realms of company-owned properties. Who is to tell someone like Brian Michael Bendis, who made his name on creator-owned properties (Jinx, Goldfish, Powers), or Mark Millar, who had (I think) the most successful creator-owned book of last year (Wanted), that they don't understand or appreciate their rights as creators?

This is the reason why the current conversation seems slightly anachronistic. To a very real degree, the dialogue has shifted. Now Bendis and Millar, and most creators to a greater or lesser degree, have the option to exercise their rights selectively. The fact that these creators acknowledged these rights meant something, because at the very least it gave them a perception of value, so that they could negotiate from a position of relative strength. They got where they are in the industry -- from a purely economical point of view -- by leveraging their rights as an asset on the bargaining table.

The tacit admission on the part of Marvel and DC that creators can represent a significant -- and in some cases overwhelming -- appeal to the consumer represented another sea-change. Within the living memory of every person reading this blog, regardless of how young you are, the creative personnel on mainstream comics used to be absolutely superfluous to anyone but the fans. The editors and publishers had so many books they had to publish, and so many creators to produce them, and it was all very much like a factory. If one cog slipped, they just replaced it. But now it's been decades since any major publisher has slotted a reprint in place of a late issue, and it's been many years since I've seen a fill-in that wasn't planned: no last-minute substitutions with inventory issues. Used to happen all the time, and when most people were buying their comics off spinner-racks no one could do anything about it. But now when a comic ships with different creators, it's returnable (thanks to Mr. Brian Hibbs for standing up for the enforcement of this rule). The unavoidable implication is that, at some point, the creators themselves became an asset for the corporations, and ceased to be just cogs. For so long as the current system exists, this is undeniably a positive step forward.

But this ultimately brings me back to my main point: the current system isn't going to die anytime soon. The system, as it is represented by the direct market, is built around super-hero comics, and the most popular super-hero properties are owned lock, stock and barrel by Marvel and DC. If they weren't the two biggest companies in comics, this wouldn't really matter. But we have an odd and myopic system that acts according to strange properties which really aren't analogous to any other segment of the entertainment industry. Is there something inherently bad about some of the most talented creators in comics working basically as artisans for the replenishment of corporate trademarks? On a very real level -- and, lets be frank, as someone who still reads a few superhero books -- I think that the answer is yes. But on the other hand I cannot blame anyone for making the economic and creative decisions that they do. It's not like they don't have options. It's not that they haven't seen creators of past generations who got royally screwed by a less-developed version of the same system, and it's not that they haven't seen what the rewards have been for creators who have stepped outside of the system. It's not as if Marvel and DC are conspiring to make sure that none of the "house slaves" get wind of the fact that Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird and Todd McFarlane all became millionaires.

As sad as it is for me to say this, I think that everyone in comics who wants to be doing meaningful work of lasting value (whatever that means), is already doing it. Are there any burgeoning Chris Wares or nascent Phoebe Gloeckners slaving away over uninked pages of Iron Man? I don't know, I honestly don't. But I do know that most of the people who want to create meaningful work in the current climate have found ways to do so. There are many, many cartoonists who live at or near the poverty level in order to be accorded the freedom to create as they want: as horrible as it may be, we don't live in a perfect socialist society, and sometimes if you want something badly enough you have to make sacrifices. Usually, people who want to do it find a way. Sometimes, if they have the talent to match their ambition, they are even remunerated for their efforts. It's hardly a perfect system -- it is in fact a grievously imperfect system in many profound ways -- but for better or worse it's what we got for the time being.

It's easy to imagine Todd MacFarlane's incredulity at seeing a young talent like Brian Michael Bendis cheerfully going to work at Marvel -- willingly submitting to what MacFarlane himself frequently termed called slavery. But there was a sea change in corporate comics in the years between the Image exodus and the beginning of Quesada's tenure as Editor in Chief. The admission that creators were a vital ingredient towards the success or failure of any endeavor was an enormous concession. Of course, they are still only a single ingredient: a Spider-Man comic drawn by John Romita Jr. may sell more than a Spider-Man comic drawn by Joe Blow, but the Joe Blow fill-in still sells more than John Romita Jr's prestigious creator-owned project. The creator isn't all-powerful, but there is at least a recognition of significance. To some like MacFarlane it may smack of being a well-groomed "house slave", and others still might bewail the fact that anyone might willingly subject themselves to those conditions, but can we honestly at this point say the decision isn't made with some degree of foreknowledge? To say otherwise is an insult to the creators.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the current system. If comics had an economic structure that more resembled real publishing, this wouldn't even be an issue. In a bookstore, even the crappiest suspense potboiler belongs to its author. Licensed properties are a perpetual presence in bookstores, but they aren't the rule. People still buy Star Trek novels, Hardy Boys adventures and movie novelizations, but they are nowhere near the be-all-and-end-all of successful prose publishing as their four-color counterparts are in comics. In a perfect world, if the comics industry totally changed overnight and the primacy of the creator was firmly established as the law of the land, I don't think that Marvel or DC would go anywhere. They just wouldn't be the only game in town, or at least the only game in town that lets you pay the rent. In a balanced and healthy marketplace, creators could choose as they want with a minimum of duress or perceived duress. As long as corporate modes of production retain their primacy in the comic book industry, the choice to work for Marvel or DC will always look like exploitation to some. But perhaps, within our lifetime, things shall change, and I don't think there's anyone who can say that wouldn't be a good thing.


And if you read all that, here's the coolest thing ever in the history of the world. Well, not really, but man, do these people have way too much free time or what?