Tuesday, January 31, 2006

And Now A Word From Our Sponsers

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Who Do They Think They're Kidding?

At the negative reccomendation of The Sleestack over at Lady, That's My Skull, I checked out a copy of Adventures of Superman #648. (Notice I did not say I actually bought a copy. There's a reason for that.)

Yeah, this was a bad comic. This is pretty much all the reasons why big event stories like Infinite Crisis make superhero stories look even stupider than they usually are. And, furthermore, they make the people who write them look like they're either not too bright or just don't care anymore. Considering everything in a DC comic in the next couple months is going to be mooted by the editorially-mandated "One Year after" business, it makes perfect sense that the folks working on Adventures of Superman #648 might feel less than inclined to give their best work. They got their pink slips a long time ago, and they're basically just keeping the bench warm for the next team. As such, this is pretty much the definition of a "bench-warmer" book.

First, it features one of those horrible faux-newspaper articles that show up in comics now and again, but which really resemble no newspaper articles that have ever or will ever (God forbid) see print in anything remotely resembling a respectable newspaper. I am going to show you the first three captions we see in the story -- the first sentences from a story supposedly printed in the Daily Planet. I am not going to show you the actual page they are from because I want you to see these as something an actual newspaper might print:

Doesn't quite work, does it? I'm sorry if I seem like I'm belaboring a point, but this is something of a pet-peeve of mine. Comics just can't get newspaper journalism right. This is something a news magazine like Time or Newsweek would print - and even then, the whole "They were the lucky ones" bit would probably be spiked by any editor on the planet. But not, apparently, any of the actual editors at The Planet.

A newspaper story, especially a story being written on the chain of events immediately following on a major disaster, would be written in the most neutral and purely informative tone possible. It would put its most important data in the lead paragraphs, implementing an upside-down pyramid structure to impart successively less important information as the story progressed. Furthermore, in an event like this, with a death toll in the six figures (an event -- in America, at least -- absolutely unimaginable in our modern media era), there'd be multiple reports on the event. So the particular tone the reporter (who we later learn is, of course, Lois Lane) adopts is just superfluous. Anyone who ever took Journalism 101 would see that this is an unacceptable piece of reporting. Anyone who's ever even read a newspaper would see the same thing.

I remember the first time I ever saw this particularly odious device used. It was - strangely enough - on another Superman title. It was one of the books written in the immediate aftermath of the death and "return" of Superman, during the period when the four ersatz Superman were running around. Anyway, there was an issue featuring the cyborg Superman meeting Bill Clinton, written in the same absolutely horrendous faux-newspaper style. It grated then and it grates now. Of all the devices a lazy comic book writer could think of to try and communicate a specific type of story, that is the worst, because it makes it look as if the writer has only heard of actual newspapers as some sort of distant rumor.

But that's not all. Later on, the reporter inserts an informative sidebar comparing the death toll in Bludhaven to similar "tragedies" in the DCU:

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Notice something missing? Heh. I am thinking that someone up there had some common sense. As it is, it just looks patently ridiculous, instead of just plain offensive. The problem with superhero comics raising the stakes to such absurd heights is that as soon as reality comes anywhere close to this kind of disaster, the fictional superheroes just seem patently ridiculous. There's not a person reading this comic book who didn't - probably without even thinking - insert 9/11 into that line-up. Now think about that for a minute - 3,000 or so people died on 9/11 and it brought American life to a near-standstill and changed the course of our lives for decades to come. We're expected to believe that roughly 7,120,000 people died in the DCU United States in the last decade or so (not to mention the nuclear weapon that got dropped on Qurac at some point, which I recall being similarly silly) as a direct result of superhero shenanigans and the lives of the average Joe and Jane on the street are basically unnaffected? Suspension of disbelief in superhero comics is a canard, I know, but this is just silly. These massive massacres should never have been written in the first place, because even a child can see that life - even in superhero comics - just doesn't work that way. If they had to write fictional genocide into the superhero universe, they should have the courage of their convictions and follow the story to it's logical conclusions. As it is, I sincerely doubt any of the villains who sicced Chemo onto the city will see trial for Crimes Against Humanity...

The constant idolization of Superman and his fellow heroes is just insult on top of injury. Considering that it was their villains that started this in the first place, I would be a bit pissed if the best these guys could do was the equivalent of a band-aid over a gaping chest wound. I'd throw an egg if I lived in Bludhaven.

Others have already showcased that fabulous panel of Green Lantern sitting on his ass and looking semi-retarded while the heroic firefighters bravely tried to save lives, so I won't beat a dead horse. But the look on Hal's face in these later panels is simply classic -

Man, Hal just looks like a moron whatever he does. It's not his fault. He's just got "that look".

But the best part of the book comes near the end, and serves as something of a signifier - at least to me - that those involved realize just how crappy this book actually is:

Tell me that any person could have written the line "tugging at that foul sack with all his might" with a straight face. How the hell did that make it past an editor? It boggles, it does. But it is a fairly accurate indicator of exactly what they were thinking when they were writing this book: jacking off onto the reader.

How many other industries can you think of where the people producing content can legitimately say "We're going to totally revamp our product and really bring our 'A-Game' in three months, but in the meantime, here's a pile of crap to tide you over!" You gotta give it to the mainstream publishers, though - they do what they do so well that even when they shovel crap, they've still got willing consumers. You have to admire those balls, because they're big and brassy.

Yay! Me love crap! It am tasting so good!

(Then again, it's not like I paid money for it - but really, anyone who reads this blog knows full well that I just like to hear myself bitch.)

Friday, January 27, 2006

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

And Now A Word From Our Sponsers

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 01/25/06


So what does it feel like to kill a man with your bare hands? It's a topic I'm very interested in.

("Bring out the gimp."

"I think the gimp's asleep."

"Well I guess you'll just have to go wake him up now, won't you?")

For the Week of 01/18/06 For the Week of 01/11/06 For the Week of 01/04/06
Year One

Friday, January 20, 2006

Into the Lion's Den

So I took one of my infrequent Nerd Pilgrimages, with the intent of purchasing the new issue of "Schizo". Thankfully, there was one left, which tells me that either they didn't order many or they underestimated the demand.

But man, after eight fucking years you maybe expect too much. It's a good comic - hell, a great comic - but I was moderately disappointed by how much of the contents I'd read before, even though I had been warned of this beforehand. So let's not make it another eight years, eh buddy?

In other news, when did DC decide to get such a godawful cover stock for their "prestige" books? I picked up a copy of the new All-Star Superman book (yeah, I didn't really "like" the first one but I plunked down for the second one anyway) and I swear this is the same paper stock they use for glossy porn. Which is, I guess, a pretty good analogy...

And they had a bunch of unsold copies of the Frank Miller variant of the last All-Star Batman comic, the Black Canary cover. I can guess why no one bought it, since it is offically the ugliest cover I've seen since that Neal Adams variant for the first All-Star Superman. Let me see if i can find a .jpeg of it...

Ah. Here we go:

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Is that not the most hideous thing you've ever seen? I mean, seriously... it's like, whatever artistic ability Miller had at one point has been siphoned off somehow. Do you think it's Starro's doing? I am envisioning Miller sitting around his apartment with a big purple starfish on his face, and the image actually explains a lot. I mean, regardless of whether or not you like the book (and we've all been over that, haven't we?) that is still an incredibly ugly image. I'd come up with some witty slam but honestly, I can't think of anything extreme enough.

And OK, let me see if I understand this: we've got a Haunted Tank Showcase Presents volume in the chute, but still no Legion of Superheroes? If ever there was a series tailor-made for a big honking slab of black and white newsprint, it was that one. But then, I just love the old-school Legion probably more than is healthy... it basically embodied all the worst / best aspects of pre-Crisis Superman continuity, and then somehow morphed into a weird, hyper-concentrated version of Claremont's X-Men (and of course, Legion was doing it long before the "all new, all different" X-Men got into their never-ending soap opera shenanigans). Reading an issue of the Legion is like an advanced post-graduate class in weird comics. Like drinking concentrated Slurpie juice. I love it probably more than I should.

But it also leads to odd moments... like when I'm reading an issue of the new Legion in the store and I see Princess Projectra making goo-eyes at Brin Londo, and I scream out "No! Brin is fated to love Ayla Ranzz! Forever!!!"

Actually, no, I don't yell that out loud. But I think I'd be cooler if I did. I bet Milo never has these kinds of moral dilemmas...

Oh yeah. Picked up the new Planetary. I like that they seem to be publishing new issues of Planetary about as often as I go to the comic book store. Which is convenient.

But, man, you walk into the comic shop and I swear to God, Warren Ellis needs to stop typing so much. Seriously. He's got so many books out, and they're all about the same character. A hard-bitten dude / gal who smokes a lot and uses guns to solve their problems when they're not going into weird political tangents. He needs to just put out one book with this character in it that doesn't have any words in the word balloons, so that people can just fill in their own Ellis dialogue every couple weeks. Voila, new Ellis book. It'd save people a lot of money.

But yeah, Planetary somehow is still readable. Although, admittedly, having read every issue as they came out over the last however many years but not having them all in front of me, I was a little lost at all the revelations in the new one. One day when my comics aren't all 3,000 miles away I'll sit down and read them all. And then it'll all make sense. Or so I hope.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 01/18/06


The raccoon has been dealt a bad hand by fate but he wishes to improve himself through education.

(One raccoon appearance is a fun coincidence. Two in the space of a single week is getting kind of surreal. Do you think Elrod is reading this? Do you think he knows what I'm thinking? These are his special messages to me, encoded in the thoughts of his magic cartoon raccoons, thoughts which only I can read.)

For the Week of 01/11/06 For the Week of 01/04/06
Year One

Monday, January 16, 2006

Trapped in the Closet

I was planning on writing more about Superman this week - and believe me, I will - but I came across something else of interest this weekend, and it occurred to me that it might just be of interest to those who read this blog.

(Incidentally, is there anything more nerdy in all the world than arguing over the best Superman? As much fun as these types of conversations can be, I always feel a bit guilty that I'm not exerting my mental energies on something else. But you go where the muse* takes you, as it were . . . I haven't been buying many new comics lately, so I get stuck thinking about old, crappy comics that probably don't deserve the effort to begin with. But, c'est la vie.)

Anyway, this weekend, thanks to the glory that is Netflix, I finally saw R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet Parts 1-12. Man, this thing is nuts. There really is no other word to adequately describe something so willfully odd. It is so weird it crosses over into the realm of absolutely compelling, and I think it's probably one of the most memorable things I've seen in quite some time.

Now, let me say that I'm not an R. Kelly fan. I think the vast majority of modern R&B is pure crap. I think, furthermore, that R. Kelly himself is something of a loathsome individual, based on his well-publicized predilection for peeing on underage girls. (Of course, consensual sex with a minor - even bizarre sex acts like those - is still only statutory rape. Therefore, while it may be far from "good", it's still an order of magnitude less loathsome than outright rape or molestation. As such, I think that R. Kelly is probably less than outright sinister, more like a little bit disturbed from having been in the Famous People Bubble for so long. I bet if you had thousands of women and girls literally throwing themselves at you for decades on end, you'd probably have some weird and self-justified ideas about sex as well. I say all of this not to absolve or ameliorate but merely to contextualize.)

And hoo-boy, does Trapped in the Closet offer some context. It's impossible to watch the series without keeping Kelly's offstage exploits in mind, and really, I think that it would be counter-indicated to do so. Anyone who keeps an eye on the music business (and everyone who reads this blog knows that I devote a large portion of my energies to that field as well as comics) has seen R. Kelly's output explode in the last few years. He was already a prolific artist, but since the sex tape and other related allegations surfaced, he's been recording, touring and producing like a man possessed. Considering how deracinated and anesthetized most modern pop is, R. Kelly's recent output has been remarkable for its not-so-subtle ongoing subtext. The ongoing conflict between his public shenanigans and his private conflict reaches its zenith with the Trapped in the Closet series.

It was interesting for me to watch the series and see Kelly's fevered, circuitous and slightly loopy storytelling unfold. He narrates the story - sung over a single instrumental bed throughout - in a combination of a past tense first-person and omniscient third-person. The main character is named "Sylvester", placing him a thinly-veiled step removed from Kelly. The series begins with a fairly straightforward recitation of events but eventually we see the invisible narrator as a separate entity from "Sylvester", stepping into the narrative and even stopping the story to insert plot points and comment on the ongoing action.

The story is structured as an episodic cliffhanger. Each segment is the length of a pop-song, and picks up right where the previous episode's cliffhanger leaves off. The result - complete with the constant reiteration of established information and the implacable narrative momentum - bears not so much a resemblance to the traditional soap-opera as the superhero comic book.

The narrative arc throughout Trapped in the Closet is, like most ongoing superhero stories, open-ended. Episode twelve ends not with any closure but another cliffhanger, and the promise of an indefinite number of future episodes. Every new chapter opens up further information in such a way that it becomes possible to catch glimpses of a larger meta-story outside of the actual character's view - a vague conspiracy featuring ties to organized crime and the police department - but only when the meta-story crosses-over with the personal soap-opera adventure that provides the main source of momentum. In this way Kelly is using the dynamic of a domestic farce - albeit as wacky and exaggerated a farce as can be imagined - to open up connections to a broader, more cosmic storyline just outside the perception of any one individual participant.

Meanwhile, the soap-opera itself touches upon a number of tertiary issues unrelated to either the main plot or the subplot - opening up subtextual tangents on issues such as gay life in the black community, religious hypocrisy, interracial marriage, the relationship between law enforcement and the black community, and even the stereotypical media portrayal of young black men as violent ex-cons. (Don't ask me to explain the midget.) I seriously doubt that any of these issues will be accorded full thematic closure by the end of the series. But just including these hot-button issues in the scope of the narrative - and certainly Kelly knows full well these are hot-buttons - opens up the scope of the story to another level of cultural commentary.

The hottest thing going right now in terms of blogosphere-wide criticism and discussion is Grant Morrison's ongoing Seven Soldiers of Victory project. I've noted on a number of occasions that after buying the first few issues I gave up on the story - not out of any dissatisfaction with the quality thereof, but more a general sense of disinterest with the subject matter, as well as the personal disappointment that Morrison is still doing superheroes. (I admit this is a highly subjective and arbitrary opinion - he's not my personal slave, he has every right to do what he wants with his talent, just as I have every right to be disinterested when he continues to toil in the superhero mines.) I imagine I'll probably catch Seven Soldiers one of these days, after the hype had died down, and when that happens I'll probably even enjoy it.

But anyone who is actively following Seven Soldiers, and especially those participating in the ongoing discussion / group explication thereof, owes it to themselves to rent Trapped in the Closet. Through some strange cosmic confluence, R. Kelly has become the Grant Morrison of R&B. It's undoubtedly the sheerest of coincidences - Kelly doesn't strike me as a -ahem- closet comic fan - but Closet offers a glimpse of another artist in another hybrid genre (the music video is a hybrid of both music and video, whereas comics are hybrids of words and pictures) using a remarkably similar metatextual and postmodern storytelling palette to achieve strikingly similar means. The recurring rupture of the "fourth wall" barrier even points to the possibility of an Animal Man-esque meta-climax. Whether or not Closet is any good is another matter entirely - but it is simply too weird too ignore.

*The blogging muse is a cranky old broad who really, really likes it when people complain about All Star Batman and Robin. She's got half a dozen nasty-ass STDs and anyone who lays with her is scarred for life.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 01/11/06


The Raccoon Wars are a state of mind, you see. Yes, I think the joke is still funny, why do you ask?

(How did I know it all comes back to the raccoons?)

For the Week of 01/04/06
Year One

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


A process, condition, or period of deterioration or decline, as in morals or art; decay.

Chris Butcher's recent post on the subject of skeletal superheroes and the rather transparent thanatos being practiced at the corporate level of the great mainstream superhero manufacturers has been rattling around my head for the past few days. I recently had the chance to flip through the first two issues of Marvel Zombies, and I have to say that while I think I wholeheartedly love this comic, it is also probably the most evil thing in the universe.

It only works if you have an intimate familiarity with the characters and their histories. You have to know them well enough that their personalities and character tics are subliminally familiar. That may sound like a lot, but there are very few people reading comics today who aren't gynecologically familiar with the psychic innards of Spider-Man and co. - even those who ostensibly hate superhero comics and all they represent still know too much for them to ever sleep comfortably at night (which explains the chronic self-loathing). Gary Groth could pick up Marvel Zombies and probably get every joke therein , and maybe a good chuckle as well.

But let's look at it closely for a moment: when was the last time anyone told a zombie plague story from the POV of the zombies? Marvel Zombies gets points for showing the logistic involved in a superhero-sponsored genocide, wherein a handful of people with godlike powers set about depopulating the planet in a matter of days. It comes off as funny because we know these characters so well. It's funny because Spider-Man keeps weeping over the fact that he ate Aunt May. It's funny because they've tied up the Black Panther to an operating table and are slowly devouring him piece by piece. BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!

It's fairly obvious that the mainstream superhero books are "through the looking glass" in terms of their relationship with their audience. Gone is the brief flirtation with mainstream tastemakers. Here to stay is the realization that in terms of the direct market and superheroes, the Big Two are actually doing quite well selling their product to almost the definition of a captive audience. (Excuse me if I'm going over some of the same territory that was covered in the recent OH MY GOD MOMMY AND DADDY WON'T STOP YELLING saga.) They've essentially conditioned the market so well that it doesn't blink when they release a comic that involves Spider-Man and the Hulk eating millions of people. That is an awesome, perhaps unprecedented achievement in the history of marketing.

I think it's great, really. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," or so the song goes . . . the Big Two don't have anything to lose because the audience they have now is basically going to be with them until they die. They can put out whatever kind of bizarro shit they feel like. At the very least, we'll get to experience the sheer joy of bat-shit crazy comics such as Marvel Zombies.

But I will say that after I've seen zombie Bruce Banner's shrunken stomach explode because the Hulk ate Magneto's foot, they've really got no excuse for not publishing Peter Bagge's Hulk book.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Man of Steel

Just because I find Superman to be - as a rule - a spectacularly uninteresting character, it does not follow that I haven't read a few Superman stories. I've read many, in fact, probably more than I'd readily admit.

My favorite Superman is the Superman of 1986, the Superman we first met in John Byrne's Man of Steel miniseries. Of course, for many purists and even some casual fans, the post-Crisis Superman was heresy. There were so many changes - many of which were conceded as necessary but a few of which were ill-advised - that it was inevitable there would be a backlash. Sure enough, despite the "new" Superman's utility, the "old guard" mentality has spent the last twenty years restoring Superman to what he was before the Crisis. I refer to the "old guard" as less an actual conglomeration of individuals and more a pernicious mindset spread across dozens of creators and editors and thousands of fans. For people who grew up with the Golden or Silver or Bronze Age Superman, the new guy, even if not appreciably different from the old guy, must have been a bitter pill to swallow. People have odd sentimental attachments to these colorful super-characters - I'll be the first to admit it. Superman in particular exerts an impossibly strong grip on the imaginations of those who are so inclined.

(Of course it goes without saying that if you don't have any attachment to a particular character you can be fairly cold-blooded. Anyone who reads this blog should recall my crusade against Batman and my recurring favorable references to Quasar and the New Universe. I am the last person to cast aspersions on another man's peculiar tastes.)

I didn't grow up with the Man of Steel Superman, but he's my favorite. Certainly, Byrne and his cohorts made a few missteps in their methodical reconstruction of the mythos. Before the Crisis, Braniac was probably the most visually impressive and menacing villain in the Superman mythos - he's never really recovered from his unsuccessful "revamp". Similarly, Mr. Mxyzptlk was turned into a cackling sadist - but he was eventually rehabilitated, thanks primarily to Louise Simonson and John Bogdanove, who utilized the character to excellent effect during their tenure on Man of Steel.

But for the most part, the changes were good and they made for marked improvements. Yeah, the whole Superboy thing took the sails out of the Legion of Super Heroes, necessitating years' worth of complicated stories dedicated simply to explaining how pre-Crisis continuity could be maintained in a post-Crisis world. Even Byrne has - I believe, although I may be mistaken - voiced some regret over the deletion of Superboy from the mythos. Well, I think that Superboy was a stupid idea to begin with, and the stories were better off without him.

It's a commonly accepted fact that the pre-Crisis Superman was an asshole. There are entire websites devoted simply to explaining this fact. So many of Superman's adventures for so many years basically revolved around him tricking his friends, the world or both that it's hard not to see him as something of a sadist on occasion. But part of this disconnect, I believe, evolved from the way the character evolved. The pre-Crisis Superman, as had been established over the course of many years, knew his Kryptonian origins from the very beginning, remembered his childhood on Krypton, and identified himself as an alien living amongst humans. So of course it goes without saying that he regarded the humans around him with some degree of disconnect. Empathy was a strong motivator for Superman, but so was condescension - put the two together and you've got a pretty obnoxious combination. Although I am certain the creators at the time didn't put a lot of thought into these motivations, it came to seem as if he was something of an boor. No fucking wonder Lex Luthor wanted to wipe that smug look of his face - you probably would too.

Post-Crisis, Superman became much more identifiably human, and I think the development made for a stronger character. The fact that Superman regards himself as a human who just happened to inherit an intergalactic legacy, as opposed to an omnipotent alien who pretends to be human for shits and giggles, makes for a far more interesting character - certainly, it goes a long way towards injecting pathos into an otherwise stolid figure. The fact that he didn't grow up Super but came into his powers later in life added to the appeal by ensuring that he had a firm recognition of human weakness and limitations - so, no Superboy. Sure enough, almost every Superman story adapted into other media since 1986 -- the cartoon, the Lois & Clark series, even Smallville (although I haven't seen enough of the latter to comment) -- has implemented many of the ideas first seen in Byrne's revamp, in particular the newer "human-perspective" outlook. The famous comment about there being two Supermen - the licensed, publicly-known Superman and the actual character in the books - has proven to be surprisingly inaccurate when examining the character's life in other media.

But again, the old ideas are slowly returning, regardless of whether or not they should. The idea of Luthor and Clark Kent being friends in Smallville is one of the stupidest ideas in comics history, and I the fact that it's been folded back into continuity is just silly. Reed Richards and Dr. Doom have a reason for knowing each other, whereas Luthor and Kent being childhood pals is just too pat. Might as well have Bruce Wayne stop by and sit a spell while you're at it - but I'm sure they've done that, or will do that at some point.

The Superman introduced in Man of Steel was powerful but not the most powerful. The last decade has seen his powers visibly ramping-up, subtly returning to pre-Crisis levels through a process of subliminal inflation on the part of creators who don't want to portray Superman as anything less than a God-like force of nature. Used to be that Darkseid could wallop Superman with one punch - it made sense that such a badass would be more powerful than Superman - otherwise, what was the point of conflict in the first place, if Superman was stronger than even the mightiest intergalactic warlord? Now Superman makes a regular habit of beating Darkseid like a red-headed stepchild. Part of the fun of the post-Crisis Superman was that he wasn't omnipotent, but enough stories have portrayed him as powerful enough that it just doesn't matter anymore.

Now we've got kryptonite everywhere - whereas one of the smart things Byrne did was establish that kryptonite was so extremely rare you would never again see small-time hoods chucking pieces at Superman while rubbing a bank. There was the recognition that it was a powerful enough plot device that it had to be used as sparingly as possible. The multiple colors are even back, to judge from flipping through recent titles. Maybe this is an element that'll be swept under the rug with the new Crisis - I guess we'll see.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that the character should have stayed static since 1986. But for all you can say about Byrne, he did a pretty good job of building a fine framework in which a character who had pretty much been exhausted of all interest could have some fun stories again. It wasn't perfect - the Mxyzptlk and Brainiac examples spring to mind, as does the regrettable story with Superman and Big Barda filming a porno movie - but it was pretty good. And sure enough, there were people who have insisted all along that this Superman was not their Superman, and who have furthermore taken umbrage at every subsequent development. Well, I don't read any of the ongoing Superman titles, but judging from those Superman books I have read I can testify to the fact that Superman is an incredibly difficult character to write well. Byrne's ideas made it easier to tell interesting stories by defining a new set of boundaries for the character.

Boundaries are necessary. Boundaries define limitations, and if you don't give a character limitations, there are very few interesting ways to create conflict. Besides, how else do superheroes prove their heroism than by surpassing their limitations? Many of those stories from the pre-Crisis era that succeeded did so by placing Superman on an existential level removed from the actual process of physical struggle - "Superman Red and Superman Blue", "Must There Be A Superman?". But you can't turn Action Comics into Keirkegaard Comics, so you have to find a way to create conflict, which Byrne did by tweaking a few aspects of the mythos while still keeping the character's iconic elements essentially intact. By restoring so much of the pre-Crisis status quo, the current creators have gone to great lengths to restore so many of the attributes that made the pre-Crisis character so damned boring. Considering the character's history of inconsistent and wavering popularity, they return to unsuccessful modes at their own peril.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Look, Up In The Sky...

I've been thinking a lot about Superman lately. You will notice that I did not say that I was reading Superman. No, even given the fact that I haven't been buying a lot of comics lately, I still wouldn't be buying any Superman books. Why? Because Superman is boring.

Let me repeat that for emphasis, in case you missed it: Superman is boring.

I think that Superman is one of those things you really have to get into when you're very young. Kind of like how the X-Men work best for adolescents and Spider-Man speaks to pre-teen anxiety - Superman is very much a figure of childhood wish-fulfilment. Which is to say that before you can even conceive of how you could one day either work hard or get lucky enough to become Batman or Spider-Man, you understand the concept of an all-powerful force for benevolence that protects you from the outside world - i.e., your parents. No one can become Superman because it requires an accident of birth on a similar level of unlikelihood as virgin conception by a divine force. Assumedly, by the time you're old enough to know what Superman is, you've already figured out you weren't the last son of a doomed world (or, for that matter, the second coming of Christ). Similarly, no one can ever become their parents, in terms of embuing their own lives with the same sense of well-being and comfort that their parents did during their youth.

But if you've identified with the character from a young enough age to understand the concept, you're hooked. Otherwise, Superman is going to be kind of lame. Every other super-character descends from him, so it makes sense that he's the blandest hero around. He's vanilla, the baseline. You can add all the chocolate and sprinkles you want, but vanilla is still vanilla. Some people will always prefer vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, while others will just go straight for the chocolate ice cream.

I like superhero comics. When done right, they're like candy - not, for the most part, very filling, and you need to make a regular habit of brushing and flossing to prevent tooth decay - but immediately satisfying. Superman is like Necco wafers - no-one buys those things, but they still make 'em just because they always have and it's impossible to imagine that they'll ever stop.

Like the rest of the blogosphere, I trooped down to the local comics emporium and bought the first issue of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman. I was late, so I'd already heard all the reviews - many from people whose opinions on these matters I hold in fairly high esteem - I knew the critical consensus held the book to be every bit as good as was expected. So I came home, eagerly opened the book, and read...

... a Superman comic. Yeah, the art was OK, I guess. But at the end of the day, it was still a Superman comic. And there's only so much anyone can do to make Superman interesting to me. No matter what kind of metatextual bells-and-whistles you put on it, Superman still makes my eyes glaze over. You've got Krypton, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor - all the same pieces being moved around on the same chess board. Hey, it's some wacky Willy Wonka dude who lives on Mercury - how, um, OK, I'll go with it.

This isn't meant as a review of All-Star Superman, save to say that it was not to my liking. I don't begrudge the people who do enjoy it, because there seem to be an awful lot of people getting some good enjoyment out of it. Good for them: if you can find something you enjoy and gives you pleasure without hurting another person, I'm all for it. But man, this is the state of the art for superhero comics in 2005? This is what Grant Morrison is doing now? I knew there was a reason why the whole Seven Soldiers thing was so off-putting to me. I quit buying that two issues in because the aura of self-congratulatory cool was just too much for me. Just can't get excited about it, you know? At the end of the day, it just doesn't impress me. I was not enjoying it - seems an awful lot of work for very petty rewards.

(My new comics reading lately has almost solely consisted of a multiple-year run of the 80s Legion of Super Heroes I picked out of a quarter box. A pile of comics as high as my forearm for less then $20. Good stuff, perfect size and shape for reading around the house on a lazy afternoon. But I digress.)

I have also been working my way through the Showcase Presents Superman book. All I can say is, these stories are bad. Very bad. Many of them are so bad they cross-over from the realm of funny-bad into just plain "what the hell were they thinking? this is horrible"-bad. That is not to say I haven't been enjoying the book... even though the creators would probably be horrified to know that their honest attempts at creating enjoyable children's literature have aged so terribly (or, more likely, they might not care at all).

Those of us whose exposure to the Golden and Silver age Superman was limited to the same small group well-remembered stories DC reprints periodically might have been tricked into thinking that Superman's history was more interesting than it actually was. The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told is simply a fantastic book, probably one of the few truly indispensible books of mainstream comics history available. (Of course, when they brought the book back into print they changed the contents and I wouldn't recommend the new version, so it's worth digging up a copy of the original from the 80s. Warner Books printed a ton, it's still fairly easy to find.) But the reason this book is so good is that it tricks you into believing that Superman's Golden and Silver ages were anything less than utter crap. Reading the book makes you really like Superman - until you get out into the real world and realize that Alan Moore only wrote two Superman stories and that the original "Death of Superman" and "Superman Red and Superman Blue" are only accidental masterpieces, in no way representative of the actual tone and content of the vast majority of Superman stories ever published. There were so many Superman comics published that it only makes sense that one or two of them would have been good - throw enough crap at the wall and something will stick. Most of the stories were crap.

Most of everything is crap, of course. But Superman, especially, seems to have got the short end of the crappy stories stick. I think most of the people who really like Superman do so for reasons other than the actual content of any stories they may have read featuring the character. Of course, this is not something I could ever prove in any way - but if you were to base the character's survival these past decades on the actual quality of his stories, you'd come to the conclusion that Superman has been the recipient of the comics industry's version of agricultural subsidies: trademark perpetuation titles. Of course the most famous superhero has to stay in print, even if his stories are dry as dust. Hell, it's probably better that they remain dry as dust.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Hurting's Weekly Out-Of-Context Mark Trail Panel

For the Week of 01/04/06


We were somewhere around Palmetto Cove on the edge of the swamp when the drugs began to take hold.

(Mark knew the mescaline was beginning to take effect when the fish bega nto speak. Soon, the great god Mescalito would lead him to his victims, and his machete would drink deep the blood of the infidels.)

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