Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Old Heave-Ho

There's a tendency in the blogosphere towards repetition of sentiment. (You think?) It's not enough that a bad comic be excoriated once, but that it be excoriated a thousand times by every available able-bodied blogger within typing distance of a keyboard. It's fun, admittedly, to dog-pile on the bad books, even if it is slightly counter-productive. No one has ever proved any correlation between blog buzz and sales, for good or ill, but I can't help thinking that more people talking about how bad certain comics are is just . . . well, more people talking about crappy comics for no real reason, piling excess verbiage in an attempt to get the wildest zinger in before the statue of limitations runs out. I've been guilty of this myself, and I know I shall be guilty in the future. Mea culpa.

By the way, have you heard about The Ultimates III?

People are flipping out about how bad this book is. And it is bad. I like to think I'm fairly inured to these things after all this time -- but I'm still impressed by the level of incompetence displayed here.

I am amused by just how much Jeph Loeb's recent Marvel work has been reviled. Now, again, so far as I can tell all the negative internet reviews and invective in the world has never been shown to have any concrete effect on comic sales. You could show me circumstantial evidence if you wished, such as, say, Chuck Austen's various runs on the X-Men books, to illustrate the point, but I still say it's devilishly tricky to try and judge the effect of poor writing on a book's sales. So many other factors -- good art, crossovers, institutional completist inertia -- go into a book's sales, especially when we're talking about top-tier sellers which could sell (and have sold!) respectably with your drunken Uncle Bob at the helm. Even if Loeb's recent mini-run on Wolverine was the worse comic book ever written, it is almost impossible for a short, punctuated stunt run like that to have any real effect on sales other than positive short-term gains. That's the way the industry is currently structured. I'm not just pulling this out of my ass, either: Paul O'Brien's done the hard work of compiling the numbers to prove just this point.
10/06 Wolverine #47 - 106,201 ( -1.5%)
11/06 Wolverine #48 - 99,991 ( -5.8%)
12/06 Wolverine #49 - 78,807 (-21.2%)
01/07 Wolverine #50 - 117,160 (+48.7%) - First Loeb
02/07 Wolverine #51 - 99,636 (-15.0%)
03/07 Wolverine #52 - 97,111 ( -2.5%)
04/07 Wolverine #53 - 98,441 ( +1.4%)
05/07 Wolverine #54 - 96,082 ( -2.4%)
06/07 —
07/07 Wolverine #55 - 130,707 (+36.0%) - Last Loeb
08/07 Wolverine #56 - 73,368 (-43.9%)
09/07 Wolverine #57 - 74,588 ( +1.7%)
10/07 Wolverine #58 - 83,810 (+12.4%)

Look at those numbers and tell me you can discern any notable effect from Loeb's universally-reviled "Evolution" storyline other than a massive sales spike. The fact that the creative time of Loeb and Simone Bianchi left right afterwards meant there was little in the way of a long-term sales boost, but given the nature of this kind of stunt programming I almost doubt that was even expected. There is no such thing as long term sales build anymore: if Alan Moore had taken over Swamp Thing in 2007, it would have been cancelled in the middle of his first fight with Etrigan. (If it were Marvel, they would have probably tried to boost the series with a zombie variant -- I'm trying to envision what a zombie Swamp Thing would look like.)

I'll pick on Paul for another moment, if I may. Now, I don't really know Paul, but I have had a few exchanges with him over the years -- and more than once I've asked him about just why he is so kind with ratings for books that, honestly, don't really seem to deserve his mercy. I was more or less satisfied with the answer I got: he really tries to see the best in these comics. He honestly loves the X-Men, and God bless him, because even the most kindly-disposed Marvel Zombie will admit that that has entailed eating a lot of shit over the years. But even O'Brien can only take so much, and for him Jeph Loeb represented The Limit. His review of Wolverine #55 is a classic example of just how you should write a take-down review, going through the entire book and methodically pointing out every weakness in both conception and execution. He finishes it off with an enviably terse coup de grace:
Somebody, I forget who, once said "It's easy to mock. But that's no reason not to." It is indeed easy to mock this story, because aside from the art, it is without any redeeming virtues whatsoever. I've read worse central ideas; I've seen more incoherent plots. But rarely have I seen a story that was so bad and so misconceived across the board as this one. It's truly awful.

The reason I quote from this months-old review is that I believe much of this criticism can be leveled towards the first issue of the new Ultimates book.

Used to be, Jeph Loeb was an uninspired, if serviceable mainstream writer who worked best when paired with simpatico artists, i.e. Tim Sale. I was never a huge fan of The Long Halloween, but I used to have a copy and it was a fun afternoon read (even if the supposed "mystery" was about as mysterious as a box of Corn Chex). I loaned it out to a friend and lost track of it, and I've never felt the loss. If you know me you know I am totally anal about my book collection, so my lack of concern over losing a $20 trade-paperback should give you some idea of how high my apathy level is on even the subject of Loeb's supposed "best" work.

It took me months after the fact to realize that the asinine, incomprehensible "Kryptonite meteor" plot from the first six issues of Superman / Batman was supposed to be a political allegory to the Iraq war. I don't think it's because the allegory was particularly subtle, it was just poorly conceived and poorly executed in every possible way. It was just a bad comic, period, but it sold like hotcakes. Loeb was and is still considered "hot" because he delivers sales, but I think at this point his popularity has as much to do with his having built up a strong head of steam over the last few years: he is popular because he has been associated with a string of highly-successful projects, never really sticking around very long one way or another. In most cases his contributions have been, at beast, negligible to the overall success of these projects: putting Jim Lee on Batman, you could have given the scripting duties to Harvey Pekar and still sold through the roof. These high-profile projects always have high-profile artists attached to them, and by the same token I strongly suspect the reason Loeb is such a popular collaborator with the A-list of mainstream artists is that he knows how to write for artist -- or rather, write for artists' worst impulses. Every day is 1994 in a Jeph Loeb comic, with all the splash pages and nonsensical scene transitions that implies. Those are fun to draw, and probably resell for a lot more than a page of, say, Greg Rucka or Mark Waid's talking heads.

Joe Madureira is an artist who used to be popular but hasn't done any kind of significant sequential work in almost a decade. Back in the mid-90s, he was a legitimately interesting figure, one of the first major mainstream artists to incorporate the influence of manga as a pop phenomenon into their superhero work. I'm not necessarily talking about the kind of formal influences that had been around ever since Frank Miller cribbed Lone Wold & Cub for Ronin: I'm talking about the hyper-stylized mega-super-action-GO! exaggerated elements of shonen manga which had been previously verboten in the vaguely xenophobic pages of Western adventure comics. It's not exactly an artistic revolution, but important as these things go, for the simple fact that so many of the new artists who followed directly in Madureira's footsteps were obviously and extensively influenced by him.

Nine issues of his aborted Image title Battle Chasers were released in the late 90s. At the time of the book's launch, it was considered an even bet that Battle Chasers had the potential to be the next Spawn (remember way back in the day when Spawn was Spawn?) He's been doing video-game art for many years now, and honesty, the fact that he hasn't been doing any real cartooning hinders the art on Ultimates III more than anything else -- more than the muddy colors or the disproportionate anatomy or the seemingly random design schemes splattered across the pages. Take a look at perhaps the worst example from the book in question:

What exactly is happening here? Hawkeye is running towards the reader, shooting guns at Venom. However, you can't tell because the object at which Hawkeye is supposedly aiming is, physically on the page, directly in front of him. I'm all in favor of interesting panel design, but here Madureira is reaching for a technique that is obviously beyond his present skill level: without panel borders or any indicator that time has passed between the first region of the page and the second, the eye is given nothing with which to signify sequentiality.

Hawkeye is the focus of the first "panel", but has almost disappeared in the second, dwarfed by the figure of Venom in the foreground (the horrid coloring does little to help legibility). I've illustrated below just how the reader is supposed to interpret this shift in perspective:

I tried to calculate roughly how many degrees the panel perspective shifted around Hawkeye's figure between the first and second panels, but honestly, it gave me a headache because there is no physical context given for any of these events. None of it makes sense because no relative scale is indicated. This is the absolute bare essence of competence in regards to action-adventure storytelling: you have to be able to tell what the characters are doing in each panel. There are as many different ways to make comics as there are comic artists, but when you're talking about an action sequence, you cannot disrupt or distort the legibility of physical narrative. You have to be able to see that what happens in panel one has consequences for panel two, and on the most basic level this is how comics are built. There are some not-so-horrible sequences elsewhere in the book, but for the most part this is very much indicative of the kind of disjointed action the book offers.

Now, let's look at another page of Joe Madureira art (courtesy of, this time from Battle Chasers #9:

Now, you can probably find reasons to criticize this page -- it's a bit crowded, for one, and I don't know from this how well the addition of color would modulate the balance of the page. But even given those caveats, this is a wonderfully legible bit of narrative: without knowing anything about the characters, you can roughly figure out what's happening and follow the story. Madureira's artwork was always full of expression, if nothing else, and this page uses comical exaggeration to good effect. The use of smaller, tight-shot inset panels to escalate tension is an especially nice effect.

So it's not as if Madureira never knew how to draw a good comic book page. He apparently can't do so anymore, however, because there's absolutely nothing to recommend the artwork in Ultimates III beyond the level of seeing a once-competent craftsman spinning his wheels in senescence.

I can't imagine how this book was made, except that it's executed with such stunning enthusiasm that I have to believe that the creators thought they were really cookin'. They weren't. This is a poor effort. I don't expect better from Jeph Loeb, hell, I barely have reason to expect better from Joe Madureira, besides the vague reminiscence that he was once not a horrible artist. It's a good thing this is only five issues long, for a couple reasons. First, as has been pointed out, five issues is just long enough for the series to not show too much of the kind of embarrassing sales drop that an extended run of this would have inevitably provoked. Second, and probably more importantly, five issues in a reasonable (if probably not exactly punctual) span of time is not outside the realm of possibility for this creative team. I'm not saying it'll happen, in fact, I know it won't: but it's easier to believe that we'll see five issues of this before, say, New Years' Day 2009 than that we would have seen twelve or thirteen issues finished before New York is inundated by melting polar ice caps and ravenous polar bears devour Joe Quesada in the streets.

So: short term, it'll be a sales blockbuster. It probably won't have the same kind of long-term shelf-life that Mark Millar and Brian Hitch's runs did and do, but then, say what you will about Millar and Hitch, but they have a good habit of giving a large amount of people what they actually want to read, delays be damned. I can't imagine -- do not want to imagine -- the hypothetical audience who would actually want to read this.

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