Friday, October 28, 2005

Comics Made Me Dead Inside

The doctor said I needed to watch my weight so I started drinking diet soda. Liquor tastes like crap and I don't like getting drunk to begin with; tobacco is disgusting; I'm too nervous as it is to even consider illicit drugs. No, I like soda pop, it's my one true vice. And now I have to make do with this watered-down crap that leaves the unmistakably horrid taste of saccharine in my mouth.

Not that I'm fat, no. But if I kept on the same path I would be; joining the ranks of the seemingly hundreds of thousands of comics folk -- pro and fan alike -- stricken by obesity. How many comics pros look about two onion rings away from a triple bypass at any given moment? Those creators who aren't shopping at the Big & Tall seem to have ferret metabolisms, invisibly vibrating like Barry Allen used to do and in the process burning more calories than they can manage to eat until their bodies begin to devour their bones. Yes, Grant Morrison, I'm looking at you. Most indie comics folks look like they may not know where their next meal is coming from, so they hardly have the luxury of corpulence.

About the same time I realized I needed to seriously think about healthy eating for the first time in my life, funny things began to happen to my eyes. Pages and computer screens that had once been crystal clear began to seem just slightly obscured. I would begin a session at the computer in a normal seated posture, but slowly my head would lean down, unnoticeably but inexorably, until my nose was less than a foot from the screen. The awareness of my slowly diminishing sight was finally trumpeted by the arrival of minor but annoying headaches positioned just behind either of my eye sockets at random intervals.

The optometrist said the damage to my sight was still minor, and that a I wouldn't yet need to use permanent eyeglasses -- just reading glasses. But the implication can't be ignored: it only gets worse from here. Of course, I've a long way to go until I'm blind or even seriously impaired: but that doesn't mean, for someone who has always enjoyed perfect eyesight, that it isn't a significant blow. I can understand how anyone -- especially anyone similarly infatuated with a visual artform such as this -- facing far more serious visual impairment could afford to be far more vituperative. Those who are blinded without also gaining the luxury of a super-keen radar sense have every right to be bitter.

Entropy is the end result of all things -- youth fades, energy dissipates and is spent, knees buckle and eyesight disappears. This is no more true for comics fans than it is for football players or bankers, but for those of us who spend so much of our lives wrapped in the comforting blanket of fantasy it seems a double betrayal. You wake up one day and realize you're getting older, and I'll be God-damned if Superman isn't still the same age he was twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Even if you've left behind superheroes, or regard them as a passing entertainment, they remain forever young. Like a latter-day Dorian Gray, Spider-Man remains eternally youthful while what remains of his core constituency begins to crumble with age.

But if the reader is the superhero's true alter-ego, the picture has become calcified and yellow. Superman may be twenty-nine forever (at least he should be), but he carries the scars of every middle-aged disappointment suffered by his fans and creators. Do I want to read about a Superman buffeted by self-doubt, moral ambiguity and marital stress? Trust me, I have enough of that as it is. The only plausible outcome of giving a character like Superman grown-up problems is to limit his readership to grown-ups. Little kids don't want the rigors of adulthood in their entertainment, they want a fun and flashy facsimile of maturity. Spider-Man's early adventures were in no way a documentary recreation of an authentic high school experience; they were every bit the high-drama and shameless soap-opera that younger kids imagined high school life as being. Real high school is far less interesting.

Art has no responsibility to give succor or moral suasion. But those of us who grow up reading these crappy superhero comics come to expect comfort from the tropes of superhero fiction. But really, just because they fulfilled an unfulfilled need in us during unhappy or unrequited moments of forgotten childhood anguish, does not mean they can bear that weight for a grown adult. And I think, at least for me, one of the most important signs that I had become an adult was the fact that the stories didn't fulfill any such vital emotional need anymore. You grow up, you look up from your book, you face the real world. (Some people get skittish and stick their nose back in the book, but that's neither here nor there.)

But on the other hand, sometimes when things are bleak and your world is falling apart, you miss the moral certitude that came part and parcel with crappy old superhero comics. But when I pick up an issue of Spider-Man, I see . . . what? Peter Parker facing some mysterious disease? Emotionally distant and unable to communicate with his loved ones? I'm sorry, that rings way too close to home to be plausible escapism. People who write stories about Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman being unable to communicate because they lose their mutual trust and are unable to bridge a highly-charged emotional gap aren't writing superhero stories for kids, their letting their own mid-life relationship anxieties inform the characters to a simply absurd degree.

But we all know the books aren't for kids anymore. If I had a kid I'd steer them towards Ultimate Spider-Man, because whenever I flip through that book I see everything I should expect to see in a Spider-Man adventure: angst, adventure and romance. No thinly-veiled metaphors for mid-life impotence or marital dissatisfaction, thank you. The Powers That Be at DC say that after the current crossover the books will become light-hearted and cheery again, but it won't work. It won't be the same thing. It's an ironic pose, and kids'll want nothing to do with it. They're busy buying manga, the most popular examples of which present a much more concise, emotionally satisfying and essentially comprehensible vision of the world -- like Spider-Man used to do.

I wish I was ten again and could walk down to the Seven Eleven and get a pile of comics for less money than it would cost to fill my gas tank now -- and that each of those comics was a fascinating, kinetic dose of escapist fantasy. Puerile? Livid? Gratuitous? Hell, yes, give me more. But even if I could, it wouldn't be the same thing. I'm not the same person I was when I was ten years old. I regret that, but only in the vague way that any change is essentially bittersweet -- not that I would seriously consider life as a perpetual child. I would regret it far more if I was unable to recognize the limited emotional palette utilized by the vast majority of the stories.

There is no succor. People grow old, become sick and get injured. Family members die and friends fade away. Wives and husbands leave, lovers betray. It is something of a comfort for the future that Spider-Man will remain eternally young for new generations of readers to discover, but he gives me no comfort in my travails, nor should he. He is for the young -- leave him be. I don't need him anymore -- and if I still did I'd be in far worse trouble than I am now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

D.I.Y. Remix

All-Star Superman #1 - Neal Adams Variant

Put your answers in the comments!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Chicken Lips

Hey, kids, check out my review of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's The Push Man and Other Stories, published last month by Drawn & Quarterly... it's ginchy!

So, I was thinking recently about something which really shouldn't concern me in any way shape or form, but which upset me nonetheless. Quite simply, how do comic book characters with no lips speak in a normal manner?

Here's everyone's favorite Nazi war criminal, the Red Skull. Does he have lips on that shrunken red head of his? It depends on which artist you ask.

The answer according to Andy Kubert would be yes.

The answer according to Dan Jurgens would be no.

Think about it: try speaking without using your lips. Some words can be pronounced easily, like "red" or "death", but most words have labial consonants of some form, such as M, B, P, V, F and W, in addition to vowel forms that require lip movement, such the long O and U sounds. Imagine being unable to speak any word that had these letters without sounding like, to put it bluntly, a total ass.

Now, regardless of who's drawing him, the Ghost Rider has no lips. His head is on fire. But, I am inclined to give him a break because he's essentially a creature of magic: if you accept that his head is on fire and he's not already dead, well, I'm sure he has some sort of magical fix for pronouncing the word "map" and not sounding like a hungry dog.

Now here is a character who absolutely defies all common sense: everybody's least favorite Batman foe, the Black Mask. I have no idea who this guy is, but that mask is quite obviously not a mask. He shouldn't be able to speak at all, and yet here he is in a recent issue of Batman:

He shouldn't be able to pronounce half of those words, and yet there you have it. He shouldn't even be able to pronounce his own name, really. The closest he could get would be "I'n da Glack Nask!"

I seem to recall reading another Batman story a while back that hinged on the fact that Scarface (the dummy) can't properly pronounce labial consonants either, because his speaking comes from the Ventriloquist. So it's not like labial consonants don't exist in comic books. I guess people are just too polite to point out that Black Mask sounds real funny whenever he speaks, and the good people who transcribe Batman's adventures have the good sense to translate his words.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Requiem For An Ass-Kicker

Super-hero powers don’t get any more basic than a vaguely defined propensity for ass-kicking and speechifying. Super-heroes don’t get any cooler than a man who shows up out of the blue to do both at the drop of the hat, sometimes seemingly without provocation.

Here we see Uncle Sam as he first appeared during the long prelude to America’s involvement in the war - kicking ass and taking names.

DC never had a Captain America. They didn’t need one, because they had Superman, who represents the whole American Way thing in a slightly more subtle way than just draping yourself with the flag. But when DC bought the characters of the old Quality line, they bought the original Captain America -- Uncle Sam. Although Uncle Sam goes back to at least the Civil War (meaning that DC “owning” such an uncopyright-able character is a dubious distinction at best), he first premiered as a four-color ass-kicker back in July, 1940, in the first issue of Will Eisner’s National Comics. Captain America didn’t premiere until March of 1941 -- but you can’t accuse Joe Simon and Jack Kirby of much in the way of plagiarism, since Will Eisner hardly had to exert himself much to make a costumed adventurer out of a public-domain symbol.

Sure, Captain America may have beaten Uncle Sam to the proverbial punch by being the first American hero to sock Hitler on the jaw on the cover of a comic, but here Uncle Sam makes up for lost time by hitting Hitler so damn hard that he spins in the air like a top as his arms and legs make a vague approximation of a swastika.

Despite the character’s pedigree as a creation of Will Eisner, Uncle Sam hasn’t done a lot in his sixty-five year history. He fought World War two, spent a good thirty years in limbo, and finally got resurrected in one of those interminable JLA/JSA crossovers in the early 70s. Along with the rest of the Quality heroes, it was revealed that he was a member of one of those WWII-era retcon supergroups, kinda like the Invaders and the All-Star Squadron. Amazingly, though, Roy Thomas doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with it.

Why did hot-pants ever have to go out of style?

So, where does that leave our beloved icon of ass-kicking unilateralism? Well, dead in a pool of his own blood, by the looks of things. Unfortunately, the events of Infinite Crisis #1 do not seem to have been kind to our friend Sam, as he got the stuffing beat out of him by a group of Secret Society villains.

Here we see Sam entering the villains’ stronghold by ripping a steel door off his hinges. Much like his symbolic namesake, he’s not big on subtlety.

Wow - getting the full business from Black Adam - I’ll bet that stings.

I don’t think anyone ever liked the Ray much. But anyway, Uncle Sam still isn’t falling yet . . .

Even after all that it looks like he’s still ready to hand out twelve different flavors of ass-whup.

The old guy’s so tough they basically have to “SHRRAKKKK” him to get him to stay down. Not very sportsmanlike, if you ask me.

So here he is, lying face down in a pool of something or other . . . looks like he got thoroughly trashed, no? Well, if there’s one thing I can say with any certainty, it’s that this is an extremely unconvincing death scene, if it is even intended as such.

Ultimately, the only way to make a previously-dismissed character cool is to turn him into a badass. Uncle Sam has all the ingredients of a badass, and the folks who brought us Infinite Crisis have done a wonderful job of setting the scene for his inevitable return as a pure-dee badass of the first order. This time, as they say, it’s personal.

I’m sure there’ll be an Uncle Sam series spinning out of the events of the Crisis, so let me be the first to volunteer my services to write the new adventures of Uncle Sam. Wouldn’t take much to make the character cool again - give him a cherry red 1969 Mustang and a talking dog sidekick. Have him drive around the country dispensing ass-whuppings to whomever looks at him funny. I can guarantee it’ll ship 100K the first month.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Oh Boy!

New reviews up at the 'Scope - Hope Larson's Salamander Dreams and Alex Robinson's Tricked. Collect 'em all!

So, the ever garrulous Alan David Doane has chimed in on the recent meta-blogosphere thread picked up by myself, Neilalien and a few others... of special note is his comment on this blog, which I found amusing:

...he doesn't blog about anything I am remotely interested in. The same goes for Tim O'Neill and When Will The Hurting Stop. I'm sure he thinks his remixed comics covers and out of context Mark Trail panels are hilarious, but I don't even visit his blog on reflex anymore. It's that dead to me.

Well, I'm not to upset about that... different strokes for different folks, and all that. If I didn't enjoy doing the blog I wouldn't do it at all, and right now I enjoy what I'm doing. But I got a kick, as usual, of ADD's typically strident tone ... I know this is how he always writes, but I couldn't help but flashing back to Fred Flinstone on Harvey Birdman:

"You're dead to me, can-opener!"

I know, I've got all the hip cultural references. (And there's only one "L" in O'Neil...)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Welcome To The Terrordome

I don't suppose that people like you and I were the target audience for Peter Schjedahl's recent critical roundup of the comics medium ("Words and Pictures", in the October 17th issue of The New Yorker). Given the nature of the subject, it is perhaps natural that a critic such as Schjedahl would conceive of tackling an entire medium in the course of a single article -- indeed, while we may quibble with omissions and miscalculations, it's hard to argue with the general sentiment, which would seem to be: comics have had a rocky history, but they've produced some good works, and here are a few. If this article inspires a handful of adventurous dilettantes to sample Jimmy Corrigan or Safe Area Gorazde, then it can pat itself on the back for a job well done.

But still, two steps forward, one step back. It's hard to avoid the note of casual dismissal that creeps in and around certain of Schjedahl's phrasings -- "graphic novels are a young person's art", "[graphic novels] induce an enveloping kind of emotional identification that makes them only too congenial to adolescent narcissism". This is perhaps to be expected from someone in the position of surveying the entire territory based on a bare sampling, with pre-existing prejudices swayed but not yet obliterated. The fact is that while Schjedahl approaches his subject with an admirable brio, the scope of this article is just too small to convincingly tackles such a wide spectrum.

First, the dogged subliminal insistence of the "graphic novel" as some definitional boundary outside the stream of the conventional comics medium is persistently grating. Repeatedly, Schjedahl takes opportunities to separate the modern crop of "graphic novelists" from their antecedents in the worlds of strip cartooning and their cousins in "grownup cartooning" (his peculiarly loaded term for The New Yorker's cartoons). It goes without saying that any conception of the comics form as anything but a holistic continuum is hopelessly reductive, and ultimately quite counter-productive.

Schjedahl refers to Jimmy Corrigan as "the first formal masterpiece of a medium that he has proved to be unexpectedly complex and fertile". Now, seriously, as good as Jimmy Corrigan is, can anyone really make the argument that it's demonstratively superior to every possible alternative? You'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to convince me that it was measurably better, even if you used the vague phrasing of "formal masterpiece" as invitation to wiggle, than Louis Riel, Epileptic or From Hell, to mention just three recent achievements. Schjedahl seems to believe that a graphic novel should only be judged against other graphic novel - again, overlooking just how unimportant format is to the medium - which means that it probably goes without saying that Krazy Kat, Peanuts and Love & Rockets were probably excluded from discussion.

But then again, Louis Riel, Epileptic, From Hell and Love & Rockets aren't even mentioned in passing. The only reason I can conceive for these omissions is simply that Schjedahl hasn't read these books. I will note that none of the above, despite their inarguable primacy in any discussion of modern cartooning, have been published or repackaged by big-time mainstream New York publishing firms -- which seems to be the unstated focus of the article. Drawn & Quarterly gets a mention of Guy Delisle's "Pyongyang", but that's all - hardly a banner outing for the Farrar, Straus & Giroux publicity machine.

He refers to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis as "the best first-person graphic novel to date", a baffling decision. I've made no secret of the fact that I think Satrapi is widely overrated, but even taking the unquestioned virtues of the Persepolis series into account I cannot conceive of a universe wherein Epileptic or any of Eddie Campbell's autobiographical works are not manifestly superior.

But then, Eddie Campbell, along with Alan Moore, hardly fit into Schjedahl's narrative. From Hell is hardly a work of "emotional narcissism", and despite its taboo status as an object of collaboration it is still one of the best pieces of cartooning ever put between two covers. I can certainly understand Schjedahl's disinterest to engage in even the most urbane of Moore's genre work, but again, this is another instance where omission implies ignorance. (Of course, it's also worth pointing out that From Hell is never likely to gain much of a mainstream following, because it's represents a type of book that nobody seems much interested in any any medium - the heavy historical novel of ideas. Paging Thomas Mann . . . )

Is it wrong to think that a critic like Schjedahl has a responsibility to advertise at least a modicum of familiarity with his subject? When he speaks enthusiastically about books he obviously likes, such as Jimmy Corrigan, he manages to overcome the inherent limitations of this kind of survey piece. But there's a whole new generation of cartoonists coming up who show the promise of being every bit as good as any generation in the medium's history, so proclaiming that "there may never be another graphic novel as good as Jimmy Corrigan" seems resolutely specious. Comparisons to Modern poets don't seem especially productive either, considering the comic medium's populist roots. By the time Eliot wrote "The Wasteland", the Moderns had already set themselves at an abstruse angle from the general public, so it makes sense that the movement degenerated into academic folderol. Wait another ten years and see what the Fort Thunder crew, Kevin Huizenga, Paul Hornschemier, Anders Nilson or Jeffrey Brown have managed to slap between two covers, not to mention any number of still-active veterans. Hell, Crumb's forthcoming adaptation of the Book of Genesis alone stands to put all these calculations on their head. I'd love if, in a decade's time, Schjedahl was still around to eat his own words, because I have no doubt that they will require eating.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Don't Trust The Fanboys

I've been thinking a bit about this recent article that ran in The Motley Fool. It flew around the blogosphere a few times and gained a general chorus of approval, which mainly appreciated the fact that a third-party from outside the industry was finally becoming hep to a conventional wisdom that had gained some currency in comics circles a long time ago: mainly, that Marvel can't keep making gangbuster profits on retrofitted versions of 60s and 70s characters forever, and at some point the paucity of lucrative properties from the succeeding decades will hurt them.

Well, first, as Tom Spurgeon pointed out, the strong implication here is that somehow or another Marvel can take rational steps to replicate the irrational success of phenomena like Spider-Man, which is on the face of it kind-of specious. No-one can predict something like Spider-Man, and the history of modern media is littered with attempts at replicating the incredible - but essentially unpredictable - success of a few freak lightning strikes. Sometimes it works, but nowhere near as well.

But even if you discount that, it seems as if the conventional wisdom is making another pretty specious error here: trusting the fanboys who compose the main audience for Marvel (and DC and most "mainstream") comics. On the face of it, the idea that the most successful media adaptions are automatically going to be the same exact properties that have traditionally been popular among comics fans is just not a strong conclusion. Sure, it goes without saying that the most popular ideas have the appeal of a built-in fanbase and a pre-existing media presence. Most people knew who Spider-Man and The Hulk were, long before their movies premiered, because of decades of previous media exposure - even if the X-Men weren't quite the same kind of household name, they still had a long and proven track-record.

But for every single decade of Marvel's existence, there are hideen gems which, for whatever reason, the comic-buying public passed on. The reasons for this are actually fairly simple: comic fans are incredibly conservative. Unless it comes from a familiar brand (X-, Spider-, Bat-), chances are a new property will flounder, and if a property flounders it becomes a punchline. But you should ask yourself, on an objective basis, why is Wolverine "cooler" than Darkhawk? Why is one character a comics icon while the other is considered a joke?

No reason at all, except for the prejudices of the people who actually buy the comics. To an investor or a potential consumer, these prejudices are not only less than important, they are actually counter-productive. Just looking at properties like the X-Men and the Punisher, it's easy to see that the "intrinsic" value of a property (whatever that is) can sometimes take years or even decades to be appreciated. Sometimes it just takes the right approach to bring out a previously-ignored facet, or a change in public tastes, but from the standpoint of someone trying to build future successes for a well-known brand, there is absolutely no reason why previous failure circumscribes future success, especially in reference to second- and third-string properties that have little or no media presence.

Take a look at the Fool's casual dismissal of more recent Marvel properties:
Marvel hasn't created an enduring hit character since 1974, when the improbably coiffed mutant Wolverine turned up in an issue of The Incredible Hulk. Even among the 10 big screen-bound properties Marvel recently announced as part of its production deal with Paramount, only two -- C-list teams Cloak & Dagger and Power Pack -- date past that period, and they launched back in 1983 and 1984, respectively.

To someone who has never heard of them before, they have no idea that Power Pack is a "C-list" idea. In the right hands, Power Pack could probably be an incredibly success, because of all the properties in the Marvel stable it comes closest to synthesizing the kind of kid-friendly charm of the Harry Potter series. Pitch a Power Pack movie as "a family of super-hero kids from the peopel who brought you Spider-Man, certain to appeal to the same audiences who flocked to Harry Potter", and you've got a good chance of making money. And furthermore, since most Marvel properties created since around 1980 or so are subject to long-standing royalty agreements, the creators of said properties actually stand to gain if their "C-list" properties are made into successful movies, which is something that can't be said for any of the other cash-cows Marvle has so-far produced. (We have seen the effects of this in the subsequent treatment of creators like Marv Wolfman and Dave Cockrum, who created Blade and many of the New X-Men (respectively) before Jim Shooter's profit-sharing initiatives began.)

So look at the aforementioned Darkhawk. Sure, he's been a punchline in Wizard for a decade now. But so what? Forget the fact that his title imploded in the mid-90s when everything Marvel did sucked, just look at the bare-bones of the concept:
A not-too-bright kid from a blue-collar family stumbles on an object of incredible power that enables him to transform into the mysterious Darkhawk. He must use these powers to learn the secret of his father's disappearance by negotiating a complex world of organized crime and police-corruption, all the while dealing with the instability in his family caused by the father's absence.

If you were a Hollywood executive, and didn't know anything about the property, that would probably jump out at you, wouldn't it? Give it the right treatment and you've got a feasible chance to make some money - and if a Darkhawk movie ever got made, Danny Fingeroth, Tom DeFalco and Mike Manley (to my best knowledge the character's creators) would get a small (certainly compared to what Frank Miller made off Sin CIty) but not insignificant piece of the action.

Sure, there are some ideas which could probably never be adequately resurrected (sorry, Kickers, Inc., we hardly knew ye), but there are also a ton of ideas which could be successful in contexts besides the ones in which they were created. Imagine a Rocket Raccoon series on the Cartoon Network, done in the same style as Krypto or Atomic Betty and I think you might get my drift. So if I were an investor at Marvel or a creator who stood to profit from a royalty agreement, I'd be pretty optimistic -- that is, if the powers-that-be could separate their business decisions from the prejudices of the fanboy classes.

Friday, October 07, 2005

...And We're Back.

Man, blogging sure went... scarce. That's what happen when you have a vacation from work and all kinds of family stuff going on. Whew.

At least the internet didn't split in half in my absence.

Am I the only one who is really, really freaked out by the fact that Rob Liefeld and Ivan Brunetti apparently share a birthday? And that not only were they born on the same day but, you know, the exact same day, making them the same exact age? Coincidence? Or ... separated at birth?

I didn't rush out and get them immediately because I'm not made of money, but damn those Pixies remasters sound good. I didn't even think the old CDs sounded bad, but it's really an amazing improvement.

I like the fact that Milo wrote something funny about comics, because when he wants to be he's wickedly funny. Most people who write funny things about comics just don't have the necessary self-loathing quotient to really get at the core of this crazy, crazy business we call comics, but Milo somehow manages. Like a little ray of sunlight in our smog-flecked world.

And, hey, this whole taking requests thing is a good idea. I'll make a standign offer: I'll gladly prance around like a trained pony for cash. Want some Wildcat / Swamp Thing slash fiction? Drop a coin in the Paypal jar and sit back. I have no shame. But what, you may ask, about the fact that my mother reads this blog? Aren't you worried she'll think less of me? Why, Gosh no... she worked in law enforcement, she knows people have to do horrible things to make their bones. me, I'll gladly produce photo collages featuring the cast of The OC dressed up as members of the pre-Crisis Legion of Super-Heroes for money.