Thursday, November 30, 2006

Are We Feeling Safe?

I only wish there were a thousand cartoonists like Keith Knight . . .

There aren't many political cartoonists of any persuasion who can afford to be as tirelessly provocative. Knight seems to have found some modicum of success while remaining independent for just that reason - he is independent. If you go to his website and look, his strips are being syndicated in a remarkably low number of venues. I am certain that each paper or website represents something of a personal commitment on the author's part.

It took a while but Aaron McGruder finally figured out that there were more effective venues for harsh political commentary than the comics page. I don't blame him at all for leaving newspapers: there was always going to be resistance to an "Angry Black" voice in Everytown, USA; without even so much as the friendly, deceptively rounded exterior of the very caucasian Doonesbury to hide behind, Huey Freeman was always going to be a hard sell*. It's difficult not to see Knight, and like-minded fellow-travellers like Ted Rall and Ruben Bolling, as slightly Quixotic figures, fighting hard to get a liberal perspective heard in mainstream outlets. It's not so much that conservatives have a lock on the cartooning arts (they obviously don't), but the centrist perspective is so hardwired into all but the most adventurous editors and news institutions that anyone tilting even slighty to the left of, say, Shylock Fox, faces an uphill battle from the start.

All of this would be besides the point if the strip weren't funny, but thankfully it is. Humor depends to a large part on shock, the sudden, bracing confrontation with the unexpected that elicits laughter. Knight's best panels are can be pretty bracing: like the best political cartoonists, he doesn't seem very willing to give the world a break. Injustice and stupidity are all around us, and it takes a keen eye to not only pinpoint said injustice and stupidity in the cosmic world of politics and society, but to trace it back to its roots in the behavior of everyday people. Like McGruder, Knight's harshest invective is reserved for the short-sided and harmful behavior inside the black community, the kind of behavior that chronically hinders attempts at serious political discourse on matters of race on anything but the most piecemeal basis.

Sure, white people can be stupid and racist, but black people are stupid and racist too; the army may use predatory recruitment tactics in the face of increasing attrition, but every soldier in the Armed Forces faces needless death on a daily basis; and everyone can agree that George Bush is a moron. The reason Knight is so effective is that, unlike a good many political cartoonists (Gerry Trudeau included), you really get the idea that Knight is as mad at himself as anyone else. You get the feeling, reading a large sequence of these panels in one sitting, that Knight is fully aware of the fact that folly and tragedy are human conditions, not merely black or white or male or female, and that subjects such as racism and poverty and AIDS and war impact every single one of us. He's not excluding himself from any measure of blame. That's the message - and you can forgive Knight for the occasional didactic turn - let's every one of us get the fuck off our asses and stop being so stupid. An admirable sentiment for one and all; it would be even better if you didn't get the sinking sensation that with such a circumscribed audience he's preaching to the choir.

If I have one criticism, it's that Knight is a strong cartoonist who appears to be purposefully hobbling himself. It looks as if he draws with a Sharpie marker and ballpoint pen - it does the job, but limits his vocabulary. I can see what he's going for, but I can't help thinking that he wouldn't become a vastly more interesting cartoonist - as opposed to polemisict - if he started working with a brush. All you need to do is look at James Kochalka's early work compared to his current work. In the beginning Kochalka was famously anti-craft, and his early strips reflected this primitivist ethos. Once he started using the brush, however, he gained a much firmer control over his work - he didn't become a different artist, he merely became a more focused and elegant artist. Elegance isn't really Knight's bag, but I'd still like to see what he could do if he gave himself the opportunity.

*Not so on late-night cable. It took a few episodes to hit its stride, but the Boondocks cartoon is already a far superior vehicle for McGruder's political commentary than the strip ever was or ever could be. In a perfect world the "Return of the King" episode would win an Emmy.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Seven Sons
by Alexander Grecian & Riley Rossmo

I should preface this review by pointing out that I have essentially no interest in repurposed fables or fairy tales. For some people, I know, finding historical lineages and modern parallels for ancient stories is simply an irresistible pastime. I don't have a lot of patience for allegory, period, and the layer of metaphor and legend that accumulates around fairy stories is, for myself and I suspect to most, simply an obfuscating fog of historical detritus - as opposed to some romantic historical-literary saga*.

So I am perhaps the last person who should be reviewing Seven Sons . . . but, I am willing to put aside my personal prejudices in the name of criticism. As the text piece at the back of the book makes abundantly clear, Seven Sons is something of a labor of love for writer Grecian: a retelling of a favorite story from his childhood, built from extensive study of the tale's history and varying incarnations. In choosing to place the Chinese fable in a western context, and specifically that of an actual western (as in, horses and guns and such), Grecian is consciously placing the facts of the country's racist history into the foreground of his story. The seven Chinese brothers are here presented as expatriates, living abroad during the time of the Taiping Rebellion, having fled the Asian turmoil for the quieter but no less dangerous shores of California during the mid-century Gold Rush (an event that all California children must learn about extensively**).

The problem is that the western historical subtext really doesn't add anything to the story itself. As presented, the miners and settlers during the California Gold Rush are very racist, yes, but selectively so, according to the needs of the story. This pinpoints one of the basic problems with the book: as is often the case with retellings or "updatings" of classic fables, the story itself becomes little more than an elaborate pageant, less a logical series or events or character-defined actions than a procession of things which occur for no reason other than that they must occur. So we've got seven brothers who each possess a different fantastic power, and in a certain situation each power is presented as exactly the antidote to the problem at hand at that specific moment - the man who can stretch is unsuccessfully hung, the man who cannot burn is trapped within a burning house, etc. Perhaps this would work in a straight fable or a childrens' book (apparently it has for hundreds of years), but by stretching the core concept to fit into a novel historical setting, the authors strain credibility - the specificity of the historic setting works to directly contradict the supposed "mythic" connotations of the repurposed fairy story. By combining different approaches, the actual finished product possesses all of the weaknesses inherent in the approach, but none of the strengths.

Riley Rossmo's art is interesting, but he is still struggling under the weight of a number of influences. The most obvious of these would be Ashley Wood (himself influenced by Sienkiewicz***). But the kind of stories Ashley Wood draws are very specifically suited to his extravagant style. Here, Rossmo's elaborate presentation - mixing what appears to be uninked pencils with bold swathes of black and various muted graytones - seems too ostentatious for the actual story on display. This kind of presentation is best for design-heavy, more laconic storytelling, not necessarily concise action storytelling. The heavily-stylized design work overwhelms the story, to the point where often it is difficult to follow the progression of events. That is not to say there aren't some striking setpieces - but you can't tell a story simply by leapfrogging from setpiece to setpiece.

I could go on****, but ultimately it will suffice to say I am not the intended audience for this book. I supposed there is a large audience who will probably be able to accept the trappings of the genre with a lot more ease than myself - I just don't care for fairy tales.

*I have so far escaped entirely unscathed from the Fables phenomenon, save for a free copy of a recent overprinting of the first issue slipped into my bag by a friendly comic shop owner - not impressed.

**When I was a kid I had to participate in this massive historical pageant in fourth grade. It paid a little bit of lip service to all the mountains of dead indians killed in the 19th century by western encroachment; little or no mention of the thousands of abused Chinese workers who built the railroads, except to give them credit for participating in the grand experiment of American nationalism - yay Manifest Destiny! And boy, what few crumbs they did throw to the Indians - "paleface is coming with iron horse!" Jeezum Crow.

***Who was in turn influenced by Adams, who had been influenced by Kirby - it all comes back to Kirby in the end.

****Why, for instance, are they shown in kung-fu poses on the cover? None of them do any kung-fu at any point within the story! And the "surprise" next-to-last page twist - if you didn't see it coming on page eight I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you . . .

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My Humps

There's something I've been wanting to rant about for a while now.

I believe it was Mark Evanier who once observed that an artist should never draw a naked woman unless they've actually at some point, you know, seen an actual naked woman. It's a good rule of thumb, I believe, but the problem is that there are so many gross inaccuracies inflicted on the female figure by male comic artists on a weekly basis that it's almost impossible to begin to parse where the institutionalized sexism ends and where overt titillation begins.

Howard Chaykin is an artist to whom I will extend the benefit of the doubt in assuming that he has indeed seen a naked woman once or twice in his life. Chaykin's work is famously sexualized, but somehow it never seems dishonest or particularly exploitive (except, of course, when it is purposefully meant to be exploitive in the context of a story). Of all the people who've worked regularly in mainstream comics the past few decades, he seems to be one of the few who actually understands sex as more than a theoretical pastime. What a concept!

That said, he's recently committed a singularly weird faux pas, a hideous gaffe that I can only imagine was intentional. I speak, of course, of Hawkgirl's breasts, one of the most bizarre running visual gags to his comics these past few years.

Now, it's accepted that Hawkgirl, like many superheroines, has an above-average bustline. OK, fine. But - there are ways to draw large breasts and ways not to draw large breasts. Dirk Deppey coined the term "boob sock" for good reason: many (male) comic artist seem to think that all women's blouses automatically conform to the shape of the individual breast, forming a kind of "sock", giving the impression of something that has been painted on rather than an item clothing that drapes across the figure in a semi-naturalistic fashion.

See this woman here, modeling the nice sky blue ("French Kiss") New Balance T-shirt for the JC Penny catalog? Notice how that works? Even something relatively form-fitting still obscures part of the breast, because the fabric is pulled across the body in such a way as to not necessarily obscure the chest, but hardly defining every curve, either.

OK, that's Exhibit A. Exhibit B is what you would expect a woman participating in regular athletic activity to wear, a sports bra:

See what's that's doing? Supporting and confining. Because when you're running around, flying above the city, spearing ancient demons and wrestling with Kite Man, you really want to be supported. Especially if, say, you've got a larger than average cup size.

Assume your average superheroine is wearing tight form-fitting spandex. The "boob sock" phenomenon is actually less likely to occur with spandex, because the material stretches more than, say, cotton or wool. So while it can still accentuate the chest, you don't see a lot of cleavage. In fact, tight fabrics tend to support and confine - which is one reason why a lot of athletic wear is made out of spandex.

Now let's take a look at Chaykin's Hawkgirl:

It would appear based on the evidence on this picture that Hawkgirl's breasts, in addition to being unnaturally round, in addition to having preternaturally erect nipples, are also independently leaping up and away from her body in opposite directions.

This is where our good friends at the Scheudenfreud Clearinghouse, AKA Awful Plastic Surgery, come in handy. It would seem, rather than merely presenting an elevated and unrealistic idealization of the feminine form, Hawkgirl has actually been the victim of a bad boob job.

Hey! It's Hawkgirl! Er, no, it's some random model I found when I typed "bad boob job" into Google's image search.

But I can see how you might have trouble telling the difference...

It's long been accepted as the norm that superheroines have large busts - so much so that every time a woman in comics was presented with anything less than a C-cup, it was practically a news item. Hawkgirl, in both her comics and cartoon incarnations, has usually been drawn with semi-rational sized breasts.

This is a picture of Hawkgirl drawn just last year. Notice the normal breasts? Relatively well-proportioned?

I wonder if 52 will show the part where Hawkgirl goes to the hospital for saline implants, because obviously One Year Later her breasts were much bigger.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rock Bottom
Joe Casey & Charlie Adlard

For a while now Joe Casey has been quietly building a career as one of the most versatile writers in comics. It probably helps that he never reached the level of popularity that circumscribed the careers of many of his peers. He's written a few popular comics but many unpopular ones as well. This has enabled him to settle into a satisfying career as a dependable mid-list writer, highly respected but by no means a marquee attraction. Thus even when he's writing books like Avengers and Fantastic Four he can still devote a sizable amount of effort towards independent work. I can't begin to speculate which is more fulfilling, but just the fact that he continues to hoe parallel fields when he could easily have abandoned publishers like AiT/Planet Lar for (no doubt) greener pastures speaks volumes. So many creators of similar stature seem to be more concerned with signing exclusivity deals than producing more personal work - not my place to castigate anyone for the kind of work they choose to pursue, but as a consumer and a critic it is still slightly disappointing that careers like Casey's are more and more a rarity*.

Rock Bottom is, at least on the surface, a familiar story: the idea of a man turning or being turned into rock has a long pedigree in comics, all the way back to the Thing and it, The Living Colossus and Concrete (although, of those three, you can probably guess which one is least fondly remembered - hint: it's the same one who got crushed to powder by the Hulk). The volume at hand tackles the question, albeit from a different angle: whereas the Thing and Concrete are essentially forced to make their peace with their conditions, living lives that have been fundamentally altered by their transformations, the protagonist of Rock Bottom is faced with a slightly more pressing predicament. Thomas Dare wakes up one day to discover that he is slowly turning to stone. There's no cure for this condition. It can only be fatal.

Dare hasn't lived a particularly good life. He is filled with regrets and surrounded by loose ends. As the end comes, he is given cause to reflect on his own fatherless upbringing, and how his situation - both medical and moral - reflects that of his long-dead father. How much of a person's life is dictated by their heritage? Of course, this would be a wonderful opportunity for Dare to rise above his own limitations, to use his final days to become something better - but Casey resists the temptation, for the most part, to wrap the story in some kind of redemptive arc. The "message", as such, is far less upbeat, but in its own way more reassuring: regardless of the ways they live their lives, the casual cruelty and neglect with which they inflict each other, people still contain the potential for kindness. Reality is often messy, filled with ambiguities and uncertainties - but at least we contain the potential to rise above our circumstances if given the opportunity.

For the most part, Casey succeeds by remaining close to the proverbial ground. There are no cosmic explanations or weird plot twists, this is essentially the story of a man in his final days, attempting to face an inevitable end with some modicum of dignity. Dare isn't a saint and he leaves life with more than his share of regrets. Casey overreaches in the book's final act, pushing for a far more cosmic resolution than the story perhaps called for. Undoubtedly the ending is much more in line with how such events would actually play out in the "real" world, but ultimately it's more than a little unsatisfying to see Dare's story subsumed by the demands of ostensible reality. Thankfully the last few pages regain the book's equanimity, allowing Dare and the reader to leave with something resembling grace.

Although he's been one of the industry's best-kept secrets for quite some time already, Charlie Adlard's work here represents perhaps the best of his career. Like most all AiT/ Planet Lar books, Rock Bottom is presented in black & white - interestingly, Adlard has chosen to work exclusively in fine ink lines, with a line so even and unvaried that it could have been produced by a technical pen. There is no cross-hatching, no spotted blacks, just black lines on white paper - with the sole exception of the creeping graytones of Dare's petrification. It's a pretty ballsy move, considering everything that could have gone wrong: a black & white page relies on balance and contrast much more so than a color page, and unvarying line weights can blend together without the leavening influence of color. To his credit the composition is never anything less than crystalline in clarity. The effect is peculiarly clinical, framing Dare's story in as unsentimental a context as possible.

This is not a happy story or even a very sympathetic story, but regardless of a few extraneous detours it is most importantly a surpassingly human story. It is definitely significant achievement for all involved, and a resounding rssponse to any who had written off the publisher after recent setbacks.

*Props to Peter David and Brian Michael Bendis, however - two of the most mainstream of mainstream writers, both of whom have also pointedly kept their toes in creator-owned work. The opportunities are there for those who seek to pursue them.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Crossover You Demanded

Thanks to the tireless research of Mr. Mike Sterling, we can finally catch a glimpse of the single greatest crossover of all time:

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


No one got the joke yesterday? Come on, people. It wasn't that obscure a reference. I'd been dying to use it for ages.

So you don't think this is a totally wasted blogpost:

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

No One Likes You, Please Die

One of the things about reading superhero comics for any amount of time is that you get pretty comfortable with a lot of second-rate, slipshod ideas that might seem laughable in any other context. A man with a magic ring who flies around the universe and takes orders from blue midgets in bathrobes? Great, let's make it the cornerstone of our fictional cosmology. A dude who gets to hobnob with the most powerful superheroes in the universe simply because he's good at shooting arrows? Wonderful, let's do it twice, and then recycle the idea a dozen times more.

Getting into the slightly loopy logic of superhero comics is what allows you to enjoy them. There have been a lot of good stories written about exposing these absurd notions to the harsh light of day. But really, when you get down to it, you're missing something if you can't "get" why a man who supposedly fights brutal street crime in dark alleys on a nightly basis while wearing all white with a giant billowing cape and vision-obstructing hood is, at least on some level, a fun idea. There's nothing wrong with that -- I don't like soap operas or Laurell K. Hamilton either, but more power to those who do.

But then, every superhero fan can also point to a few characters that cross this line. It's a different line for every fan, as you might imagine -- I know for a fact that some people think the idea of a naked man covered in silver riding around the cosmos on a surfboard is the height of silliness. As has been discussed, I have a lot of problems accepting Batman as a given -- but at the end of the day I can still enjoy a Batman story if I've a mind to do so. But there are a few characters who I simply can't stand, in any capacity. Not, mind you, characters like Turner D. Century or Dial H for H.E.R.O., characters so bad they're good, or even Diablo, the character so bad even Stan Lee hated him (but who never seems to go away). No, I mean characters for whom every single element, from their creation to their concept to their execution, is simply horrid. Characters for whom, try as you might, it is impossible to find one redeeming characteristic.

Quite by accident, the other day I realized just who my own nadir was. He's not a character you see much anymore (thank God), or even a character with any recognizable fanbase at all. And yet, for who-knows-why, he's also a character who gets trotted out every few years in some misguided attempt to update an idea that was abominable to begin with. The only -- and I mean only -- possible redeeming feature this character possesses is that his first appearances were drawn by the great Gil Kane.

I speak, of course, of Morbius the Living Vampire.

Don't ask me why, I couldn't for the life of me tell you. There's just something about the combination of bad ideas that creates, in my mind, a perfect storm of repellent lameness. Dr. Michael Morbius, a "Nobel Prize-winning biochemist" is afflicted with a rare blood disease that leads him to experiment with a radical cure involving a serum derived from vampire bats. Instead of curing himself, however, he becomes a strange "living vampire", forced to drink the blood of regular people. Somehow along the way his skin turned chalk-white, his eyes turned red and his nose became flat like a pug dog.

Just the sight of Morbius on a comic book cover makes me not want to buy said comic book. All Morbius ever does is whine -- whine about his condition, about his dead wife, about only drinking the blood of the innocent, blah blah fucking blah. He made his first appearance in the infamous story where Spider-Man had six arms -- yeah, if you've not read it, you're not missing much, Kane art aside. He later got a serial in Adventure Into Fear, which featured some bizarre science fiction shenanigans. Later on he was revamped as part of the Midnight Sons promotion -- ugh. He even returned, if I recall correctly, during Howard Mackie's dire last few years on the Spider-Man books -- thank God, if I read these at any point I don't remember them.

Morbius is unspeakably lame. To know him is to loathe him.

Look deep in your heart and you will know this to be true.

My idea for a "Fifty-State Initiative": we burn every Morbius comic in the country, state by state.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Monument Valley Hubris

It has been suggested in some quarters that, following the tentative election results of this Tuesday as well as the resignation of the Sec. of Defense, I should redact my previous pessimistic outlook. I am not going to do it, because now that the Democrats have supposedly "won" the elections, things look bleaker than ever.

I am reminded of nothing so much as the Road Runner and the Coyote. The Road Runner liked to play with the Coyote, allowing the Coyote to feel as if he had the upper hand, allowing the Coyote to believe that whatever new ACME death trap the Coyote had devised was indeed going to succeed in crushing the elusive bird. And every single time, the Road Runner slipped out of the trap in just such a way that the Coyote was clobbered by his own device -- hoisted upon his own petard, as it were, only in this case the petard was usually a four-hundred-ton atomic-powered magnet designed to drop gigantic boulders from southwestern mesas.

If you can't get the metaphor, the Republicans are the Road Runner, and in place of the Coyote we have the hapless Democrats ready to assume the burdens of power. What the Democratic party needs now is discipline, focus, strength of character, resolve, tactical aggression and strategic patience. None of which have ever been particularly popular values for Democratic politicians to possess. Where is the Tip O'Neill rising up from the ranks to ride herd over an unruly mass of agitated liberals? Nancy Pelosi? If you listen closely you can hear the President's whisper echoing softly across the Texas prairie -- "Meep meep."

In a way, it would have been better if the status quo had remained -- at least then we wouldn't all be worried about just when the other shoe was going to drop, and what it was going to be. The Republicans have this amazing way of making it look like they're on the retreat, when really, the Democrats are really just chasing their collective tails. Every concession made by the Republicans is simply just a tactical gaslight, lulling us into a false sense of security. When all is said and done, it's George W. Bush who shall have the last laugh, because he always does. The Democrats will end up hanging themselves -- it's only a question of how much rope.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lots O' Thots

So I wonder if your average comic fan, having grown up on Claremont's X-Men and Claremont and Miller's Wolverine throughout the 1980s, upon encountering the samurai films which Akira Kurasawa made with Toshiro Mifune (especially Yojimbo and Sanjuro), would have exclaimed, "wow, that Mifune guy is a total rip-off of Wolverine!"

Did Marvel ever sue MF Doom for appropriating so much of their artwork for his early albums? I really wish I had picked up Operation: Doomsday when I had the chance. I was living in the Bay Area when ti was first released in 1999, and if I had bought the first indie printing I'd probably be able to get a pretty penny for it on eBay.

But yeah, if he didn't at least get a cease & desist letter at some point, well, he was extremely lucky.

Speaking of Dr. Doom, just how bad is that new Fantastic Four cartoon? Bad enough to scar small children, if you ask me. I have a pretty high tolerance for bad cartoons - I'd much rather watch a mediocre cartoon than a pretty good-to-decent live-action show if we're talking pointless TV watching. But against all odds they have produced a Fantastic Four cartoon even uglier and less appealing than that Spider-Man abomination that ran on MTV a couple years back. This isn't just mindlessly mediocre, it's the Bataan Death March of television cartoons.

The whole thing looks like it's saturated with some sort of nausea-inducing glow. Everyone has ugly haircuts. The voice acting is about what you might expect from a junior high production of Caligula. The Thing has a big "4" spray painted across his chest for no reason I can tell.

And, of course, the Thing is huge, which is one of my biggest pet peeves for pretty much every comics artist to come along since John Byrne. The Thing is not huge, he is slightly shorter than Reed, for heavens' sake. That's why him going up against the Hulk is such an effective image: it should be obvious from the art that the Hulk is bigger and stronger, but the Thing steps up anyway. When the Thing and the Hulk are both roughly the same size, the whole dynamic is shot all to hell, because the reader (or viewer) has no reason to believe that the Thing isn't as strong as the Hulk . . .

Oh well, maybe it's just me.

How the heck did they let Jim Lee get behind on not one book, but two? That takes a special type of talent. I have to wonder why we haven't seen a new issue of All Star Batman & Robin in forever -- did the toxic word of mouth force the creators to step back? Or perhaps they both have so many irons in the fire that they can't be bothered to produce what is inarguably one of the top-selling comics in the country, regardless of the negative buzz?

Why does Heidi MadDonald's photo on the masthead of The Beat look like she's just about to attack someone? It's always struck me as a particularly menacing picture, like the kind of "mug shot" you'd see on the back of some really angry punk rock album. I don't know if the image Heidi wants to project is that of an angry ferret.

On the other hand, I still chuckle whenever I see the masthead illustration for Spurgeon's Comics Reporter. That's pretty much exactly how I envision evenings around the Spurgeon dinner table.

Dirk needs a masthead with some kind of fun picture in it. Perhaps he should hold a contest?

OOOOOOOH, the McRib is back. It's odd how something so totally disgusting can at the same time be so appealing. This is why I will probably never actually become a vegetarian.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Politics As Usual

Every political conversation I've had recently has centered on the near ubiquitous presupposition that it's not a question of whether the Democrats will win on Tuesday, but by how big a margin they will win. Although I wish I could share in the partisan enthusiasm, I have no real choice but to remain skeptical.

The Republicans are like Cobra Commander. Now matter how conclusively you think you've got them on the run, they still manage to slip away to fight another day. Time and time again history has proven that Democratic gains will always prove ephemeral, while the Republicans will always retain their lock on the hearts and minds of American voters. Said voters retain an almost comical ability to overlook the hypocrisies seemingly hardwired into the modern Conservative mindset, while holding the Democrats to an impossible double standard. I maintain that regardless of the polls, regardless of the mood, regardless of every shred of anecdotal evidence on display, every single vote the Democrats need will still be a hard-fought battle.

It wouldn't matter if the President was facing a 2% approval rating and indictment for child rape; it would matter if effigies of every senior Republican legislator were being burned in the nation's capitol; it wouldn't matter if we were living under martial law in a new-fascist dictatorship. It wouldn't matter if the Republicans were openly advocating forced euthanasia for little baby kittens and panda bears. A Republican defeat still entails a Democratic victory, and that is impossible.

Hendrik Hertzberg put it well, writing this week in The New Yorker:
In a normal democracy, given the state of public opinion and the record of the incumbent government, it would be taken for granted that come next Tuesday the ruling party would be turned out. But, for reasons that have less to do with the wizardry of Karl Rove than with the structural biases of America’s electoral machinery, Democrats enter every race carrying a bag of sand. The Senate’s fifty-five Republicans represent fewer Americans than do its forty-five Democrats. On the House side, Democratic candidates have won a higher proportion of the average district vote than Republicans in four of the five biennial elections since 1994, but—thanks to a combination of gerrymandering and demo-graphics—Republicans remain in the majority. To win back the House, Democrats need something close to a landslide.

Hertzberg goes on to finish on a slightly optimistic note, but the essential facts remain. Are the Democrats really that confident that their advantage in the polls will translate into electoral support? Really? Because, honestly, it just seems like the better the polls look now, the worse off the Democrats are going to be come Wednesday morning. (I'm already envisioning photos of incredulous, dazed and defeated Democrats running in newspapers across the country -- "Wha' happened?", jaws slack and eyes glassy.) They're quite good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I'd love to be proven wrong, but history suggests otherwise.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Don't Eat Poo / It's Not Good For You

Many years ago, during the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover, a story ran in the pages of the Fantastic Four detailing a trip the team made to Washington, DC. It was something of a lead-in to Walt Simonson's abbreviated but spectacular run on the series -- a breather after Steve Englehart's lengthy but unsatisfying run, three issues written by Simonson but not pencilled. It's kind of fun as these things go -- the whole point of "Acts of Vengeance" was that a consortium of super-villains (led, secretly, by Loki, duh) decided to gang up on really inflict some punishment on their arch-enemies. They actually succeeded in doing this fairly well by switching foes, which made for some fun match-ups. Where else are you going to see Daredevil fight Ultron?*

Anyway, the crossover part in Fantastic Four was basically played for laughs. Instead of trying to find an actual villain worth battling for the FF, Dr. Doom uses a variation on the same device he used to bust up Reed & Sue's wedding, psychically attracting every two-bit, no-name supervillain to try to take them down. People like Plant Man and the Eel, basically every lame supervillain that Scourge hadn't killed. The best sequence occurred when, after being beset by all these lame-brained losers, a report comes in from the Air Force that Apocalypse has been seen flying near the DC area. Well, the FF run out to change into their costumes, thinking that this is going to be a real fight . . . and then the report comes back that Apocalypse was just passing through, flying near the capital on his way to somewhere else. And they have to go change back out of their costumes in order to continue testifying in front of Congress.

Anyway, this story recurred to me today for some odd reason. The whole thinjg was predicated on the FF being called to Washington to testify on the matter of a proposed Mutant Registration Act -- an act that, if I recall correctly, was used as a MacGuffin throughout the 80s and early 90s, the constant threat of which hung over the heads of Marvel's mutants. Anyway, there's a lengthy sequence where Reed pontificates on how such an act is not only misguided but would be counterproductive and open to abuse -- using Spider-Man as a specific example of a hero whose crime fighting activities would be seriously curtailed by the requirements of registration, if and when the Mutant Registration Act was ever broadened to cover the entire superhero community (which, he reasoned, was practically an inevitability given the proposed act's nature). Given all the uproar over the recent Civil War business, that made me laugh when I remembered it. You know it's bad when someone who hasn't bought a regular monthly Marvel title in years can punch a whole through your premise with a half-remembered plot from twenty years ago . . .

Now, I suppose it is too much to ask that anyone writing a Fantastic Four story have to keep up-to-date on every Fantastic Four story ever written, but dammit, it seems that somewhere along the line, someone should have spoken up to say that not only was this exact same story told a little less than twenty years ago, but the same character was on the exact opposite side of the debate. And they wonder why the long-term fans are up in arms . . . the Powers That Be in charge of superhero comincs have got this idea in their heads that any controversy is good controversy, and as long as it gets people talking, they'll continue to buy the books. And as much as the long-term fans scream about it, they'll continue to do so as long as it sells the books. And it will, because people will continue to buy the crappy comics regardless of what their common sense tells them. And that is the secret of capitalism right there. Right now there is no market premium on quality, in terms of consistency. There is a premium on controversy, because that's the only thing capable of shocking moribund sales to life.

And you see this across the superhero industry. I am morbidly amused by the fact that, despite the sales success of Infinity Crisis and all the crossover titles leading up to it, almost all the post-Crisis spin-offs have been losing readers at a precipitous rate. If the purpose of the Crisis was to build interest in new long-term properties, it failed miserably. 52 is a success, but that is because, from what I have seen, it keeps a sense of the large-scale, widescreen adventure that worked so well for the Crisis. The market is so desiccated that the only thing that gets any attention is massive upheaval, the storytelling equivalent of an adrenalin shot straight through the heart. Anything else just withers on the vine.

And sure enough, all these titles that are spinning off out of Civil War? Some of them will probably continue to do well, but most of them will start shedding readers at frightening speed once the crossover is over. The new, inevitable Thor relaunch that will most certainly be the end push resulting from Civil War will be a classic example here. I can predict the outcome, barring any major upheaval: it will premiere big, maybe even the biggest seller of that month. But after a year, regardless of the creative team, regardless of how good the book is or is not, it will be lucky to still be moving a third of the numbers as it premiered with. And then they'll look around and realize the only thing that juices sales is events, because that seems to be the only thing that does work consistently. So then they'll eventually figure out how to create a state of constant anticipation and building tension in a vain attempt to keep sales at a plateau.

Which is sorta what DC did in the year building up to Infinite Crisis. The problem was that eventually it had to build up to something, and when that release came, it was inevitably an anti-climax as compared to a year and a half of epic buildup. When the release came and they had to get to the business of just telling regular stories, everything started sagging again. But then, DC was smart about that -- even as they are trying to pitch a new direction, they're still planting seeds for a potential new cataclysm, certain to be bigger and louder and even less satisfying than the last one.

*This wasn't actually as mismatched a fight as you might imagine: Dr. Doom rebuilt Ultron in order to sic him on Daredevil at the Kingpin's behest, but Doom didn't do a very good job so Ultron came out all kinds of crazy, with every different programming iteration of Ultron's personality vying for predominance. He was schizoid with religious delusions -- a perfect match for Daredevil, who was at the time bumming around the country, half-crazy and depressed himself. Fun stuff.