Tuesday, December 29, 2009


ITEM! Seriously, if there's an Avatar sequel, it's going to have Gargamel in it, right? He wants to skin the N'avi and eat them, naturally.

ITEM! Really, I have a hard time quantifying how little I want to see this movie. I think I long ago passed the point where they could get me in the door with the promise of something just "looking cool" - call me back when I'm eight years old, why don't you. Everything I've seen and read of the movie leads me to believe that it's Dances With Wolves in SPAAAAACE, even down to the representative of the western imperialistic / hegemonic / capitalistic military culture teaching the indigenous peoples how best to preserve their own way of life. It's well-meaning, sure, and the underlying message of "wouldn't it be awesome if Europe had given up on the Americas after Jonestown collapsed?" is certainly unobjectionable, but well-meaning centrist-liberal pap is still pap. Wow, James Cameron, way to make a stand against 300 year old genocide and colonialism. For his next trick: a movie about how awful the Hundred Years' War was, told by talking grasshoppers on Neptune.

ITEM! The most frustrating attribute of international capitalism, as it persists currently bolstered by liberal-centrist ideology, is how easily it metabolizes and subsequently dismisses alternate points of view. It's not that artists and supposedly "leftist" (actually liberal centrist) provocateurs are hypocrites - they're not, anymore than everyone else on the left or the right who makes hay out of deriding the status quo while still making a living from its continued existence. The system is simply too smart for even the most pointed criticism to have any effect - and in any event, crying over fake-ass blue Navajo or whatever sure does a great job of making centrists feel like they achieved something of value while still slapping down cash for their Avatar Happy Meal.

ITEM! Man, Secret Warriors is the most boring comic book in existence. Seriously, how is it that a Nick Fury comic can be so boring? Let me count the ways: It's got a cast of thousands of interchangeable nobodies; every villain has a similar visual design, i.e. busy and muddied; Nick Fury isn't actually in the book very often; the focus on the titular "Secret Warriors" is laughable in the face of the fact that the book is almost a year old and they are still the cipherist ciphers that ever ciphered; the one member of the team who isn't a cipher is Ares' son, but his storyline is so widely divergent from the other plotlines that any attention given it grinds every other plot threat to a screeching halt; considering how "important" the premise of the book is, it hasn't actually had any impact on the larger "Dark Reign" metastory, or really, any other book than itself. The art is muddy (I think I already used the word "muddy" in relation to character designs, which should tell you something) and the storytelling is massively, massively repetitive - when you have to take half an issue to show different characters doing the same things, or having the same things done to different characters, you're making unwise use of your storytelling opportunities. And hey, did you like that one comic where someone tracks down the Silver Samurai to ask hi mabout a magic sword? You'll like this other one. You know, there are other characters in the Marvel Universe who carry swords, many of them nowhere near as boring as the Silver Samurai. The only thing I can really remember from the last issue was a brunette chick with large breasts poring out of a latex one-piece with a Power Girl-esque boob window. If the only memorable attributes your series possesses are brief flashes of third-rate cheesecake, you are in trouble. If I were Abhay I would really go hammer-and-tongs into why this is really such a terrible comic, but I'm lazy. Just take my word: this is a terrible comic.

ITEM! Spider-Woman isn't very good either. It's nice that the women in this book have different faces, which is depressingly rare in the world of superhero comics, but I think they should have stopped the photoreferencing at the faces. Because all the rest of the copious photoreferencing just makes for a static, awkward, visually flat book. Some of the storytelling decisions almost give one the idea that the creators are actively going for a Steranko on S.H.I.E.L.D. vibe, but the gap between conception and execution is so wide and deep you could throw your grandmother into the abyss and never hear her hit the ground. Most damningly: the book walks away from a potentially interesting moral dilemma in favor of unintelligable fisticuffs. The creators actually set up a not entirely unintelligent dilemma: would Spider-Woman kill an imprisoned, defenseless and broken Skrull in cold blood in revenge, or would she try to help one of the creatures who had kidnapped and imprisoned her? That dilemma gets about five seconds play before, surprise, the Skrull just tries to kill her and her ambiguous moral dilemma gets tossed out the window. It is never surprising when superhero comics revert to type, but it is notable that this specific book entertains some very blatant ambitions of surpassing customarily stunted expectations. Surprise Spoiler! It doesn't.

ITEM! As fast as the new creative team on Fantastic Four established a pile of goodwill with a strong first arc, two monstrously poor artistic fill-ins have erased a good deal of that momentum. Here's a hint, Marvel: when you're launching a new creative team for a struggling book, and advance word is positive, don't throw in an unintelligible story about tying up the poorly-received loose-ends from the last high-profile creative team's aborted run, and then follow that up with a not-quite-as-bad-but-still-pretty-poor story about Franklin Richard's birthday party that is transparently just a methodical lining up of expository ducks for the next major storyline. Jeez-Louise, talk about shooting yourselves in the foot.

ITEM! In other news, finally got around to "The Waters of Mars" in anticipation of "The End of the World." The former was fantastic, one of Tennant's best, the latter was thrilling but very empty. Russell T> Davies may love the Doctor, but he's a horrible science-fiction writer. Doctor Who's pseudo-science has always been more pseudo than most, but the way Davies' stories often hinge on absurd borderline magical super-science is just tiresome. I mean, yeah, we're talking about a sci-fi franchise built around the adventures of a 900 year old alien who flies around the universe in a blue police box. But I have a far easier time believing that than the existence of a machine that can rewrite 7 billion people's DNA in a heartbeat. There's pseudo-science, and then there's hand-wavey plot devices. It all seems leftfield and poorly-cobbled in a way that, say, Grant Morrison's similar type of super-science does not. But with that said, you better believe I'm counting the minutes until I can find a torrent of Part 2. "It is the end, but the moment has been prepared for . . ."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Rings Around the World

I owe a great deal of my appreciation for Pavement to Violet. Never let it be said that close proximity to someone does not bring you a closer understanding of those things they hold closest to their hearts - I "liked" Pavement before I knew her, but she loves the guys, so it rubbed off significantly from that direction as well. It's also been fun to see that we've come at the question from opposite angles: she's never been to California, so she doesn't really "get" the atmosphere quite the way a native does. But on the other hand, she actually saw Pavement, for realz, back when they were for realz. So I guess she's got me there.

With that in mind, I wrote up a brief blurb for the reissue of Reckoning on Popmatters' best of the year list, you can check it out here if you scan down. I'm happy with how that came out considering spatial limitations: as Martin Brown has pointed out to me in as many words, writing long and windy is easy, writing short and pithy is hard. So I'm not as satisfied with the blurb I did for Yo La Tengo's Popular Songs on their best albums list - I was going for pithy but ended up punchy. Can't win 'em all.

I also contributed some writing to the Factual Opinion's critic's poll on the best singles of 09 - scan down for my words on Dan Deacon and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but stick around for the other bits of good writing as well by people who are not me. I am honored to have been invited to participate. These kinds of lists are always a little bit weird for me because it's slightly disconcerting to see where one's own tastes stack up next to supposed peers. Musical taste is particular and individual, and it's sometimes hard not to judge people harshly based on their inability to measure up to your own standards of decency. In other words, anyone who voted for that Lady Gaga song is officially off my Christmas list - Jeez-o, people,I actually like Gaga, but "Bad Romance" sounds like a trip to the dentist. Is she singing on anesthesia with a spit vacuum between her teeth? If you don't agree with me exactly on everything, especially this, you're just not a good person, and you are dead to me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I used to hate Pavement. Or rather, more precisely, I hated what I thought Pavement was. When Pavement was an actual going concern, I didn't have a lot of time for most indie rock. I was into electronic music and all that accompanying, vaguely European utopian futurism. There was something really appealing about the sleek, gleaming, worldly cosmopolitanism communicated by bands like Underworld, Massive Attack and the Chemical Brothers that excited me in a similar manner to how superhero comics and science fiction had done once upon a time. It was an alternate universe predicated on different aesthetic principles than those of mid-90s post-Nirvana grunge - and best of all, it was the future. It was where we were going to spend the rest of our lives. At the time even Radiohead's Meeting People Is Easy seemed glamorous, a vision of the future as dense confusion and dystopian signal-to-noise ratios.

But then a funny thing happened: that future did not arrive, or at least, it didn't arrive in the same way we thought it would. You can buy a PC that fits in the palm of your hand and fit a thousand CDs into a little box the size of your wallet, but things are still shabby around the edges. Most of us still live our lives in those edges.

The people I knew who listened to Pavement when the band was first around were, well, I don't know the polite way to say this - burn-outs. They did coke and worked at grocery stores, and the whole vaguely polite smirking indifference and lack of ambition could not have been further apart from my life and experiences. I guess I didn't fit with Gen X. (I never actually sat down and watched My So-Called Life until earlier this year!) Anyway, looking back I realize that I misunderstood the whole thing. I was on some whole other trip. Eventually I learned to stop seeing things in binaries - futurist vs. revanchist, for instance. There was nothing revanchist in Pavement. It took me a while to "get" lo-fi - and I'm not even trying to say that Pavement were lo-fi, except maybe the earliest tracks on Westing By Musket and Sextant - but that whole Sebadoh / Guided By Voices scrappy shambling thing was something I needed to grow older to appreciate.

And now Pavement is one of my favorite bands. The thing that strikes me most about them now is just how quintessentially Californian they are. Of course they're one of the most popular indie bands of all time and not all the people who ever liked them were Californian or even American - but all the same, if you are actually from California, it seems as if there's a whole 'nother layer of inference and meaning that reveals itself. I don't just mean the songs that are obviously about California, like "Unfair" - but damn, if you had any idea how funny that song is for anyone who actually grew up in Northern California!* - but there's this washed out, sprawling enervation of spirit that comes from living anywhere in the state that isn't either the Bay Area or greater Los Angeles. There's a whole lot of nothing from San Bernadino County to Siskyou, and the older I get and the longer it's been since I've lived in California that I am drawn to Pavement for the vicarious thrill of driving through the sun-saturated desert byways of my home state.

I couldn't recognize what was so intrinsically Californian about them until I'd been away from the state for long enough to recognize it as something slightly removed from myself. But now that attitude makes perfect sense. Forget for a moment that all the people who listened to Pavement in the 90s are all aging hipster yuppies by now, and that their forthcoming reunion tour will probably look like American Apparel mugged an iPhone commercial. There's something irreducibly sloppy and aggressively banal about the whole enterprise. California is big - California is huge. Something people who just see the state on a map probably don't realize is just how diverse it is: you've got the hottest spot on the surface of the earth within a couple hours of high ski mountains that stay snow-capped all summer long; you've got rain forest and desolation wilderness; you've got the Sierra Nevada mountains and the San Joaquin Valley. But living in the middle of all this natural splendor sort of makes you jaded. It wasn't until I lived in Oklahoma for a few years that I realized just how awesome it is to actually have mountains on the horizon everywhere you looked. It wasn't until I lived in New England for all these years that I realized how nice it is to have nice wide-open spaces that aren't claustrophobically penned in by midget foothills.

And that's California: sure, there's a small percentage at the top who live Hotel California or even Ritual de lo Habitual, but for most everyone else it's life on the margins of cartoonishly large splendor. You take it for granted, which sounds obscene to anyone else but that's the truth. It's enervating, slightly used, but yet pretty irreplaceable all the same. And that's Pavement.

* Briefly: you can understand in theory that Bakersfield is the pits in the same way that, say, Newark is the pits, but until you've actually spent time in the area Bakersfield you have no idea how funny "I'm not your neighbor, you Bakersfield trash" actually is. Likewise, the constant references to just how much Southern California exploits the North is just one of those things that everyone who lives north of Sacramento knows on a cellular basis (Pavement is from Stockton, yes).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Breef Thots

ITEM! One of the primary reasons for Wonder Woman's consistent unpopularity is the dogged insistence on keeping all of her adventures tied so intimately to her origins in Greek mythology. I don't know why, but DC's interpretation of Greek & Roman mythology is just the most boring thing ever. I know it's crucial to her origin and all, but George Perez's revamped Greek pantheon is just so po-faced that it's dramatically inert, and every attempt to sell me otherwise over the past twenty-odd years has failed miserably. This would be like if every single Captain America story had to be about World War II in some substantial way. The last Wonder Woman stories I can remember actively enjoying were the first year or so of Byrne's run, and in hindsight I realize that was because he made a conscious decision to separate the character from all the accrued mythos and tell some fun action stories. But everyone since has gone back to the mythology well, and it's just about run dry: every single story is about Wonder Woman's hyper-developed sense of responsibility and absolute stoicism in the face of adversity. If I had to pick one word to define her character in 2009, it would be "obligation." Everything she does is defined by obligation. How is that supposed to be fun? Hell, how is that supposed to be any kind of role model for young girls - look at your fictional role model, she's defined by a punishing, rigorously ascetic sense of obligation to powerful authority figures and religious upbringing. Score!!! Order me two of those, plz.

ITEM! Superman's current "New World of Krpyton" storyline is going to eventually be remembered as Superman's Clone Saga. Think about it: sure, it has some vocal defenders, but so did the Clone Saga, up until the very end. It might not be as aggressively bad, but it makes up for that in sheer, stultifying boredom. Just like the Clone Saga it takes the protagonist's unique attributes and spreads them out over a large cast of secondary characters no one cares about, which has the double effect of stripping the main character's unique status and also diluting the reader's patience across a dozen stand-ins. You can make an argument that the profusion of new Kryptonians and Metropolis stand-ins filling "New World of Krypton" are supposed to highlight just how special and unique Superman actually is, just like all the nightmarish clones and freakshow variations were supposed to make Peter Parker stand out - but no, it doesn't work that way. Having a hero fight a bazillion versions of himself is about the worst possible premise for an adventure story possible, and is pretty much an admission that you've run out of stories to tell that don't involve some kind of metatextual admission of just how confused and thematically muddled the franchise has actually become. (Pay attention, Fall of the Hulks!)

ITEM! How the heck did the Supreme Intelligence appear in that Dark Avengers annual? Didn't the Supremor's soul get sucked into Wraith during Annihilation: Conquest? Plus: Marvel Boy is an extra-dimensional Kree, so how did the 616 Supremor know who Noh-Varr was? Is the answer to all the above just "because Bendis"?

ITEM! You know you've taken some wrong turns in life when you regard the return of Top Dog as a totally sincere bit of awesome.

Seriously, Marvel: you want some Top Dog? I'm your man.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Just In Case You Didn't Believe Me About
How Awesome Realm of Kings #1 Is

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us

(Click to biggify.)

There have been a lot of horror mash-ups in comics in recent years - straight on down to the latest DC line-wide crossover, and the latest X-Men event. Not to mention Marvel Zombies, et al. But my favorite horror is and always has been Lovecraftian cosmic horror - you know, of the mind-blasting, cyclopean variety. It doesn't get a lot of play in superhero books outside of mystic stuff like Dr. Strange - and even there, Shuma Gorath has had a hard time rising above the level of an evil cosmic kaiju. But this? This is promising. This is promising indeed. All I need is some Cthulhu mythos and I feel like how Sims must feel every time he sees someone getting kicked in the face. I love space opera, but Lovecraftian space opera? If they can somehow manage to get that peanut butter to taste good with that chocolate, Abnett & Lanning will have worked a modern miracle.

Plus: Quasar.

Well, I'll Be

Maybe this was given away somewhere else in advance and I missed out, but how come no one has said anything about Realm of Kings #1? I love Marvel's cosmic books, which should come as no surprise to anyone. The fact that so much love and respect has been laid out for Mark Gruenwald's Quasar is simply extraordinary, and the fact that Quasar is prominently featured in this next event is really cool. But the really interesting thing, which is what I'm surprised no one has mentioned, is the fact that the next big cosmic event is apparently going to be the Marvel Universe vs. the Lovecraft Mythos. And not in some kind of veiled pseudo-Lovecraft Shuma-Gorath way, either, but the actual Cthulhu Mythos tearing its way through a rip in space-time and coming to eat the 616. Of all the possible directions for the cosmic books after War of Kings, this is pretty much not what I was expecting. But honestly, even though I didn't know I wanted it, this is now the thing I've always wanted more than anything.

Quasar vs. Cthulhu, with Rocket Raccoon and Darkhawk on the sidelines - it's like they're beaming these comics straight from my id into reality.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Old Enough To Drink

Also, old enough to make me feel even older.

(Older than I've ever been, and now I'm even older.)

(Amazingly, could not find a video of "Snowball in Hell." Or at least not in the five minutes it took to type this.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The End of Everything

Just took a few minutes to compile my year-end best-of list for Popmatters. It was surprisingly difficult - there was a lot of good music but it didn't seem like there was much great music. There was a bunch of stuff from high-profile artists which were OK but not awesome, certainly not "top ten" material. It's Blitz! had a handful of really good songs and a whole lot of boring, which is a shame considering just how much of a masterpiece Show Your Bones was. The Flaming Lips and Animal Collective both came out swinging and are to be applauded for both making interesting albums, if not capital "G" Great ones. Dylan's Together Through Life seemed more casual and, dare I say, more fun than his last few heavily lauded but highly sterile discs - but a fun trifle is still a trifle, even if it's Bob Dylan's trifle. Likewise, Moby, the Basement Jaxx, Rammstein, Franz Ferdinand - all hit nice doubles in the High Profile Established Artists category - but no home run action between them.

(The real Dylan action was in the long, long, long overdue remastering job on The Basement Tapes. Still not "one of the greatest albums in the history of American popular music," but a fun disc nonetheless. I'm still wondering why they haven't done a legit release of the five-or-so disc "Genuine" Basement Tapes bootleg that has been floating around for years, except to say that 1) they might be waiting to release it as a big collector's box some Christmas and 2) Dylan awfully resents all the bootleg stuff that was released against his wishes over the years so he may just not want to bother.)

So, here's The List - a lot of good but not too much great. #1 is only #1 because, well, none of these other discs were better. It's a great album, maybe one of their best, but I wouldn't have expected Yo La Tengo to be the best of the year when all the dust had cleared. There are a lot of these albums I wish were better than they actually are - Dan Deacon, the Field, Passion Pit, it seemed like there was something missing that kept them from going over the line separating very good from modern classic status.

The biggest surprise was Girls - a group I had absolutely no knowledge of whatsoever before I heard a song on Pitchfork, bought the album on sale on a whim, and was completely bowled over by how good it is. Definitely the breakout of the year. Some of this new lo-fi is actually pretty good. Now that lo-fi is less a political statement than an aesthetic choice, it seems a lot more fun than it did back in the 90s when people like Sebadoh were sincerely dedicated to being as perversely amateurish as possible. (I mean, really, anyone with a halfway decent computer can make their shoestring indie debut album sound like it was recorded by Jeff Lynne these days, so you're not really sticking it to The Man if you record it on a boombox.)

Neko Case gets her spot by inertia as much as anything - a good album, but I can't shake the feeling that she's getting more than a little bit complacent. This feeling was not arrested when I saw her over the summer - a depressingly perfunctory, if very professional show, complete with a fancy video projection show.

I might say more later. In case you haven't noticed, my hiatus is kind of a joke.

10. Passion Pit - Manners
9. Gui Boratto - Take My Breath Away
8. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
7. Jay Reatard - Watch Me Fall
6. Dan Deacon - Bromst
5. The Field - Yesterday & Today
4. Girls - Album
3. REM - Live At the Olympia
2. The Juan Maclean - The Future Will Come
1. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brief Hiatus Thots

Donald Duck Orange Juice is the coelacanth of pop culture detritus: just when you think there is absolutely, positively no way it can have survived into the present day, up it pops again.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

I KNOW I said I was on Hiatus, but seriously . . .

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Haitus Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Posting has been light around here, and it's going to be far lighter for the immediate future. I took stock of the current situation (you know, in this crazy thing called life) and realized that it would be the height of irresponsibility for me to be devoting any serious amount of time to this blog right now, for at least the next couple weeks or so. It's not the first time I've gone on hiatus and it won't be the last - hopefully when I do come back I'll have something better up my sleeve than sleepwalking through the week's crappy super pamphlets. Tucker does that better, anyway. Rest assured, things are not bad, just busy, and hopefully when the dust clears I'll have a future career trajectory at one of our country's finest institutions of higher learning. Or, you know, UC Santa Barbara*. Either one.

So: in the meantime, I would like to ask anyone who reads this message to say something stupid in the comments, so as to ward off the inevitable ghost ship analogy. If I post anything in the near future it'll probably be something short and stupid. The proverbial "low-content mode," but given how low-content this blog usually is that probably means heat-death.

* If you went to UCSB, just substitute any other chump state school that people only go to because they can't go anywhere else.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Stuff I Read

Fantastic Four #572

It is remarkable to me that people are talking about the supposedly weird way that Dale Eaglesham draws Reed Richards, as if Reed is customarily drawn as some kind of stick figure emaciated Ditko goblin. I've been reading Fantastic Four for decades, historically it's one of my favorite books - I've got a full run of the DeFalco / Ryan run, and I actually like it, which should tell you how much I love the book even at its most questionable. So, to wit, let's look at some pictures of Reed's muscles through the years:

Fantastic Four #10, 1998. Man, I didn't know we were planning to stop by the gun show this weekend.

Fantastic Four #39, 2001. You could grate cheese off those obliques.

Fantastic Four #62, 2002. Is this more along the lines of what most people think Reed Richards looks like? Still pretty muscular.

Fantastic Four #45, 1965. ZOMG - pplz. jakc kirby TOTALLY duz not no how to drawz reed richards. look at those pythons, son!!!11 Byrne is teh BEST.

In other words: find something new to talk about, nerds. Reed can stretch his body to look like any damn thing he wishes. If he wants to be cut this month, well, he'll be cut like a knife. Really, let's just focus on the fact that in just three issues the new FF has already entirely washed away the taste of the promising, brilliant-in-moments-but-ultimately-disappointing Millar / Hitch run. Seriously, what about Star Brand Reed Richards? I'm that one guy in the back whose heart starts palpitating when he sees a Star Brand. More Star Brand!

Detective Comics # 858

You can talk all day about how purty it looks, but damned if this script isn't some thin gruel. Like, oh my god, Batwoman is a twin who lost her sister to terrorists - that's real trauma right there. I cannot wait until Williams III leaves in a couple months time - no matter how good his replacement is, he won't be this good, and I wonder how many people are going to admit that if it weren't for Williams' III art, this would be just one or two steps above Outsiders. The moment we see Batwoman talking about mud on miners' boots, well, I will not be a big enough man not to say I told you so.

X-Factor #50

Even though I've been pulling down irregular paychecks from Fantagraphics for the better part of a decade now, I still like Peter David. As mainstream writers go, he can be one of the best when he wants. Sure, he's got more than his fair share of accumulated tics and storytelling tricks, there's the annoying pop-culture shit that still pops up (but seriously, the pop culture references are nowhere near as annoying as they were twenty years back when he seemingly couldn't go ten pages without a TMBG or Ren & Stimpy reference), there's the occasional winks at Bill Mumy or another sort-of but not really famous pal. Regardless: no more annoying than Claremont's "no quarter asked, none given! / take a swim in my mind!" bullshit. Fact is, David is practically the sole surviving master of a very old storytelling style that used to be pretty much de rigeur all over the comics world: the longform serial no-particular-place-to-go comic book.

You may be asking, but Tim, what about Brubaker's Cap, with it's multi-year story arcs, or Way's Wolverine: Origins, which isn't that great but is nonetheless a pretty impressive example of a single writer sticking to an overarching macro-story for a long time? The problem with these examples is that they aren't the same thing at all, although you can trick yourself into thinking they are if you're not careful. Both these stories - and just about every long-form serial running now (maybe not Incredible Hercules) - are structured. You get the idea that somewhere Brubaker has a thick binder full of character notes and a master outline regarding exactly where his story is going. You almost get the idea that, even if some of the details changed along the way, he generally knew where he was going to be in issue #50 before he sat down to write issue #1. (I dunno where Cap's death fits into this, whether it was planned from the beginning of Brubaker's first story arc, but I would not at all be surprised if he hadn't had the idea all along, with Civil War merely a fortuitous coincidence in timing.)

What David's doing is different, and admirable: he's telling stories from month to month, with little or no care given to how they fit into the eventual trade paperback collection or Omnibus. Sometimes the results are shaggy - few people would argue that the time travel storyline from the book's past year hasn't gone on a bit too long, and that the last few issues were rather blatantly biding time for the anniversary number. But still: long term plots and long term payoffs. And if it doesn't come off as perfectly planned or exquisitely structured - if at times it feels more than a little like a long-running shaggy-dog story - there's something here, a freewheeling elasticity, that feels nice. Superhero comics used to be about just this thing - open-ended storytelling that sometimes germinated into payoff, and sometimes failed to launch altogether, but could nonetheless be interesting along the way. More importantly, David knows these characters well and has their voices down. It almost makes up for the fact that the art has been so iffy in places that, at times, "big reveals" have been flattened by the fact that we're obviously supposed to recognize a charactwr who really just looks like half-a-dozen other brown haired fellows in the same comic.

Still: not great, but good stuff, and it holds my interest precisely because it holds up far better on a month-to-month basis than it ever will in collected form. Not many people know how to do that anymore.

(One nit-picky question, however, for which I really would like an answer: if Layla Miller's origin and power set have finally been explained, then how the hell was she able to restore everyone's memory in House of M? I distinctly recall her being able to make people remember things that otherwise they would not remember, which is why she was important, and why it took more than just Wolverine [who, you recall, was the first person to realize it was all an illusion] to restore the other hero's memories. This applied not merely to the heroes who had been brainwashed in the HoM pocket universe, but also to Wolverine, whose meeting with Layla left him in possession of all his memories, even the ones that had been wiped or washed away. I suspect the answer might be something like "she can resurrect dead memories" or what not, but still, it's one of those niggling continuity questions that leaves me scratching my head late at night when I should be reading something else.)

Dark Reign: The List: The Punisher

There is something inescapably sexual here. Frank and Logan did this dance a few times, never able to consummate their suppressed desires, always left frustrated by their inability to seal the deal. (Garth Ennis had Frank blow Wolverine in half, and then a couple months later in Wolverine, Wolverine found some gay porn mags in Frank's satchel, which I've always seen as a rather gratuitous unveiling of obvious subtext, not to mention just massively homophobic.) Still, finally, Frank Castle gets to have sex with a clawed man: only it's not the father. The father wasn't man enough to seal the deal. Only Daken is man enough to finally penetrate the Punisher. (Note: that last link, probably not safe for work unless you work somewhere more interesting than I do.) I imagine when Daken and Logan meet up next, Logan will have some choice words for his son regarding his ex-lover. It's sort of like how Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd could never fuck on moonlighting, it would ruin the chemistry - Wolverine knew he and Frank could only ever dance around each other. Daken is a philistine, there is no romance in his mohawked soul.

(But really, Franken-Castle? Does no one remember Angel Punisher? Even if the story looks promising, it's just a general good rule that the Punisher and the supernatural do not mix well. Although, I will admit, the preview pages here with the Man-Thing [actually being cool and menacing for a change] and his new friends are pretty cool, and promise some interesting stuff to come. And did anyone read that last arc of Punisher? The one with the Hood? No one, it seems, was paying attention, but that last issue [#10, I believe] had the Punisher doing just about the coldest thing I've ever seen him do, Garth Ennis not excepted. I mean, really, if you haven't read it I won't give it away, but that's some unbelievably cold shit right there.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stuff I Read

Incredible Hulk #603 / Wolverine: Origins #41

We're long past the point where anyone gets any credit for pointing out continuity gaffes, and hopefully most of us are adult enough to not really care. (Except I do, sort of, when the gaffe involves a comic I like or remember fondly.) I do not like either of these comics, and think they are both pretty terrible, but when taken together they do something rather interesting: they tell the exact same story, only different in such a way as that they are 100% mutually contradictory. To wit: the first meeting between the now Hulk-less Bruce Banner and his son Skaar, and Wolverine. Wolverine "meets" Skaar for the first time in both books, under different circumstances. In one, Bruce Banner throws Skaar at Daken in the name of socializing his giant mutant bastard offspring; Banner and Wolverine also share a beer. In the other, Wolverine tracks Banner and Skaar to a junkyard where, somehow, Banner managed to set himself up with a temporary job as a scrapheap operator, and then Skaar drop kicks Wolverine onto a tree a few miles off. Both comics work pretty hard to make Bruce Banner a monumentally unlikeable character. I will reiterate that neither comic is very good at all, but it's still pretty remarkable how they managed to sneak onto the stands on the very same day. It's like they're just trying desperately to see if anyone is awake at this point. It takes a lot of work to make Jeph Loeb look like Proust, but I'll be damned if his Red Hulk book isn't eleventy-billion times better than any of this shit.

Incidentally, the current plotline in Incredible centers on Bruce Banner training his son to be really good at fighting so that he can kill the Hulk (or, more, specifically, his sort-of evil "Green Scar" personality) when he resurfaces. This plotline was set into motion when Banner got a big bear-hug from the Red Hulk that rendered him unable to turn into the Hulk again. However, Banner is certain that this is only a temporary solution (as it has proven to be all the other times Banner was "permanently" cured of the Hulk), and that he will inevitably become the Hulk again in time. Wouldn't it still be a lot easier to just put a bullet in your head? I mean, that's why Banner could never commit suicide, right, because the Hulk would take over and heal whatever injury Banner inflicted on himself? Well, if he can't turn into the Hulk at present but is sure he will again someday, why not take advantage of the temporary reprieve and just embrace the suicide solution?

Mighty Avengers #30

When Tom Brevoort's asserted that the "old school" Avengers weren't coming back anytime soon because the "New" Avengers had become far more popular than the old status quo, I didn't see anyone point out that this book pretty much is the "old school" Avengers. Sure, there are lots of new faces, but most of the new characters - like the Young Avengers, Amadeus Cho - still have family or kinship connections to the team's classic iteration. Most importantly, you've got Hank Pym, the Vision, Jocasta, Hercules, Quicksilver, US Agent - all long-time Avengers. I know there are some out there who think this is something of a misfire, but this book puts a big smile on my face month in and month out.

Some have asserted that it's somewhat odd that people would feel so much in the way of proprietary interest in the continuation of one particular kind of Avengers comic book, considering how elastic a concept the Avengers really is - just a group of super-heroes who get together to fight huge threats, right? But that misses the point. For old-school fans - such as myself - the Avengers isn't just a loose concept on which to hang any number of different types of stories, in the same way that, say, the Justice League or even the X-Men are. The Avengers is a team book concerned with a loose-knit family of characters - a large family of characters, a family that's always adopting new members and seeing old members come and go, but a family nonetheless. There needs to be some kind of continuity with the ongoing saga or it really isn't the same family. There was a point in the last couple years where the New Avengers iteration didn't have a single member who had not been an Avenger prior to Bendis' relaunch (not counting Spider-Man, who had been a reserve member since the early 90s but who had never served on an active roster) - Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, Echo, Wolverine. It didn't hurt sales, but it was nonetheless slightly surreal to see an Avengers comic where there was no connection at all to the team's history. For me, that's what the Avengers is, and why it was always one of my very favorite books growing up: history. That's the essential ingredient of the Avengers above and beyond any specific matrix of characters - the sense of history. That's why certain iterations "feel" like the Avengers when others don't.

It's nice to see Hank Pym and Hercules and Quicksilver in the same pages again; it's awesome that someone thought to remember Quicksilver and US Agent's long-standing antagonism; it's cool that they're seamlessly folding the Young Avengers' saga into the ongoing tapestry. Because this is a book that actually feels like its connected to the core strengths of its franchise - or, at least, the core strengths of the franchise if you grew up reading the Avengers from a very young age. Tom Spurgeon recently asserted, in response to Brevoort's comments, that it was a slightly quaint and revanchist notion to imagine that "a specific line-up of muscled superheroes [might be] the correct way to bring into some creative reality a really loose concept with thousands of possible variations". I can see the wisdom in that statement on the face of it, but it discounts the possibility that the idea of the Avengers might have legitimate meaning to longtime readers outside the very loose requirement of a bunch of superheroes getting together to fuck shit up. I think it's not unreasonable to define the Avengers franchise as having some intrinsic connection to the abovementioned sense of shared history. It's like saying concept of Superman boils down merely to a super-strong alien with a secret identity, and discounting the importance of seeming secondary concerns such as Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Smallville. You have to be careful when you're cutting ideas to the bone that you don't accidentally remove something you thought was vestigial but turned out to actually be essential.

True, this kind of shared, oftentimes choking history is precisely the reason the franchise had to be rebooted in the first place. There are many different kinds of Avengers comics that could be made, and there's no argument that the "New" type of Avengers comic is far more successful than the "Old". Mighty doesn't sell near as well as New or Dark precisely because it is very much plugged into the old, supposedly discredited storytelling engine. But thankfully we live in a world where old farts like myself can be flattered with secondary spinoffs that appeal to our sense of history. In other wordS: This is basically what I always wanted superhero comics to be like when I was ten, and that is awesome.

Outsiders #23

Quick reminder: this book still sucks. But lets run the numbers quickly, just to be sure: You've got Man-Bat and Killer Croc teaming up after randomly meeting in the swamp - Batman's two least interesting villains, I'm sorry but it's true. You've got Katana (might as well be wallpaper), the Creeper (how can you make the Creeper boring? by drawing him to look less like a terrifying creature of random chaos and more like a sarcastic drag queen) and Halo (who actually comes off as the most interesting character here, which is really saying something). I will say, however, that I was wrong to dismiss artist Fernando Pasarin so brusquely when I discussed the last issue of this title: he's actually not a bad artist, with a solid grasp of storytelling basics and an occasional eye for interesting layout. His characters have a solid weight to them and his faces are distinctive. The problem is that it would be impossible for even the best artist in the world to make anything of this bland hash: it's Katana, Halo and the Creeper wandering around the swamp looking for Killer Croc and Man-Bat. Perhaps the least promising set-up for a comic since, I don't know, Geo-Force and Metamorpho decided to deliver a lengthy exegesis on the many varieties of mud found on coal minders' boots.

I'd say Pasarin was good enough that he deserved a better assignment than this dreck, but knowing DC, their idea of a higher-profile gig might consist of drawing chapter 7 of "The Hunt for Reactron."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wait . . .

I may have to reevaluate my dismissal of Wolverine: Origins:

I mean, really? Hands up if you expected the next step in Way's masterplan to involve any kind of reference to Gerber's Defenders. That's so weird it kind of blows my mind.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I was employing a standard where the culturally ubiquitous Superman and its hundreds and hundreds of issues of Action Comics and related titles was the accepted ideal. While I had always rejected the crass measurements that so many people in comics used that were basically cultural versions of the Thing vs. the Hulk, here I was applying a variation of my own.

The perniciousness of this bias struck me recently when I saw an article on "Classic Avengers" vs. "Bendis Avengers" and through it entertained the notion that there are some fans out there that to varying degrees considered a specific line-up of muscled superheroes to be the correct way to bring into some creative reality a really loose concept with thousands of possible variations. They did so for the simple reason, I think, that they had always been catered to with that particular solution. This is sort of like expecting Terry Bradshaw to still be quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, or for all your friends to still be just as excited about a new RUSH album the way they would have been in 1985, or for Walter Cronkite or someone looking like him to be hosting the CBS News.

- Tom Spurgeon
There is no law stating that the X-Men must always be the most popular franchise in comics. There is no guarantee that those titles which are most popular today will be the most popular in five or ten years or even next month. The fact is that the mainstream comics industry is built on consistency of a kind that is fairly rare in entertainment, in that it is built upon corporate-owned properties that have survived and thrived for many multiple decades with little or no interruption of production. Dr. Who was canceled for fifteen years with only one horrible TV movie produced for the whole of the 1990s. Star Trek was nonexistent for ten years between the cancellation of the show and the first movie, and even after The Motion Picture it was still almost a decade before the show returned to TV.

But these are anodyne examples: Guiding Light ran for seventy-two years in one format or another, before finally being canceled. It was canceled last month, incidentally. Considering the show had been in production since Franklin Roosevelt's second term - just one year older than Superman - you would have expected there to have been a huge uproar upon its cancellation. Anything that runs for 72 uninterrupted years has to be some kind of American cultural institution, right? But the reason Guiding Light was canceled was simply that no one was watching it anymore, and furthermore, attempts to update the show's format and content had met with precious little success.

Think about this for a minute in comic book terms: can you imagine a world without Action Comics? Even if, like me, you haven't bought an issue of Action in decades, it still feels like something that should be definitively "forever", doesn't it? Just the idea that someday DC might publish an issue of Action with the words "LAST ISSUE" emblazoned on the cover feels, I dunno, slightly wrong. It's been a part of the architecture of our particular corner of the universe since the very beginning. It was the beginning, for Chrissakes. But think about the fact that Action will turn 100 years old in 2038. That's almost thirty years, a long time, but barring national catastrophe most of the people reading this blog right now will probably still be alive in another thirty years. Do you think Action is still going to be around? Or is it going to be something else - say, some kind of fanciful future format digital download? Or will the property just be gone?

Mainstream comic book companies in America operate under the assumption that things are always going to be the way they are now. Meaning: DC will always publish Batman and Superman, Marvel will always publish Spider-Man and the Hulk. Disney and Warner Brothers (putting aside the fact that they own Marvel and DC now) don't rely on this kind of perpetuity for their quarterly profits. Sure, Disney is extremely concerned with not letting Mickey Mouse pass into public domain, but in all honesty, how much money did Mickey make for the company last year? He's a symbolic figurehead. If someone at Disney passed an edict saying that no one could ever make another new Mickey Mouse cartoon or movie, I don't think many people would really be too concerned with the company's future profitability. Ditto for Bugs Bunny. No one - or, very few people - are sitting around with dynamite Mickey and Bugs stories in their back pocket anymore. (I'm not talking about the comics adaptations of these characters, mind you, for obvious reasons.)

In other words: if a new Mickey Mouse cartoon tanks, it's not the end of the world. There is no assumption - or if there is, I'd be surprised - that a large percentage of the company's profits each and every month will be generated by Mouse-related media and assorted spin-offs. They've got other stuff like High School Musical or Hannah Montana or who the fuck knows what animated series with dancing gophers or some such. They're going to think of something new tomorrow and probably the day after that as well.

Marvel? They keep trying to come up with something new, but last I heard Runaways was due for yet another reboot. Seriously, for twenty-five years X-Men was their go-to title: even before it was their sales juggernaut, it was their cutting edge. It was the book that other books wanted to be when they grew up. New Teen Titans was DC's biggest success for many years specifically because it was the X-Men with Robin. When I asked the question, "why aren't the X-Men as popular as they used to be?", the unspoken corollary to that question is that the fact that the X-Men are on the wane is in some way unusual. Think about it: one property which had been either ascendant or dominant throughout the entire industry for the better part of a quarter-century slows down a bit, and suddenly you've got the British infantry band playing "The World Turned Upside Down" at Yorktown.

One of the reasons we have this idea regarding the X-Men's invincibility is that Marvel put it in our heads. Just like a few generations of Americans grew up with the idea that "what's good for General Motors is good for America" ringing in their ears, its been CW that "what's good for the X-Men is good for the direct market". It goes without saying that without the X-Men there would be no direct market as it currently exists today: the mainstream industry would probably have imploded in the late 90s if Marvel had declared Chapter 7 instead of 11. All the independent publishers who didn't have fuck-all to do with superheroes would probably have gone by the wayside if all the major specialist distributor channels had dried up - all you folks who love buying your new comics-with-spines down at Borders or Barnes & Noble, cast your minds back to a time before those retail channels existed. Marvel almost destroyed the industry when they bought Hero's World, but the fact is that it was their product that kept the stores alive in the long aftermath of that bloodbath. Look at the charts: Marvel's rough market share percentage hasn't changed in over a decade, not since Image and Valiant imploded. For most of that time the largest part of Marvel's dollar and unit share was X-Books. It's not anymore.

The weird part is that Marvel as a company aren't ready to acknowledge that the franchise has peaked - or even that, if it hasn't peaked, it needs some time off before it can perform again. When the X-Men were the number one franchise in comics they built an incredibly powerful editorial apparatus around the books to guide and control the direction. The books were so important that nothing could be allowed to pass unexamined: every creative decision was micromanaged and second guessed, characters and creators were treated as interchangeable and at the same time jealously guarded. This worked to a point - in the early-to-mid-90s when the books were at their inarguable peak, the machine ran smoothly. When things sputtered late in the decade, the weaknesses of such a top-heavy system became obvious. Suddenly the problem wasn't just editorial conservatism but editorial indecision: creators were allowed to do strange things but those strange things were almost always undone. Things became impermanent to an almost surreal degree, even for mainstream super comics.

And when sales started to decline in the 2000s, Marvel didn't know how to react. How to deal with the fact that the company's number one cash-cow for over two decades needs a rest? Keep pushing it up the hill under the assumption that it just needs a second wind, that what is needed is just a new direction, another new direction, maybe this one will stick. The X-Men have always been the biggest franchise in comics, its merely an aberration that they aren't, it doesn't have anything to do with changing demographics or creative exhaustion or simple overexposure. It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that people may have reached a point where they just don't need twelve X-books a month, that maybe the market would be much better suited to handling six. It shouldn't feel surreal, even if it does - it's just business. When a Mickey Mouse cartoon flops, Disney's first reaction isn't to turn around, retool the brand and spew out another Mickey cartoon three months later. At some point chasing after the old hegemony has to be seen as throwing good money after bad. But on a very deep level Marvel is incapable of doing that, and I would be willing to bet money (although there's no way to prove such a supposition) that one of the reasons for this is simply because the people at Marvel expect the X-Men to be number one in the same way that we expect that a new issue of Action Comics is always going to be sitting on the shelves. It's not business, it's faith.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Stuff I Have Read

Outsiders #22 / Wolverine Origins #40

Neither of them are new, but I've had them rattling around in the back of my head for a while now, waiting for a free moment to lay down some thoughts for public consumption. These are two of the worst comics I've read in a long, long time. More importantly, I think the way that they are bad is symptomatic of some larger problems. You could almost say that if you needed two books to stand as symbols of the problems and challenges facing the North American mainstream comics industry in 2009, you would be hard pressed to find two better examples.

Outsiders is a book without any reason to exist. It is a perfect example of what I would call "balance sheet comics" - ie, a title that exists simply because someone, somewhere has a spreadsheet with a slot entitled Outsiders. For so long as the title continues to earn just slightly more money than it costs to produce it will continue to be made. Regardless of the fact that it has no purpose, and regardless of the fact that putting out so many books like this has the effect of diluting their brands almost to the point of homeopathic absurdity. No one has been able to make a case for why the book should continue to exist, and yet it does. This book is notorious for a revolving door creative line-up, and there's a good reason for that: I've never read an issue of this book that has been anything other than an exercise in abject space-filling. You would think, given the restrictions, that some ambitious nobody would jump on a book like Outsiders as an opportunity to do something strange and wild and wonderful - no one is paying a damn bit of attention, and most people would prefer if the book just stopped existing altogether. And yet the people who work on these types of books are mostly the same people who've also pulled double-duty on a dozen other misbegotten Batman spin-offs and forgotten mini-series. The books have to ship, even if they need to be solicited as Creative Team: TBA - which has happened. They'll find someone in the pool of hungry and dependable creators.

Contrast that with Marvel. Now, this isn't going to turn into a Marvel vs. DC thing, because that isn't any kind of argument to have, but the difference in approach is pretty startling nonetheless. Does Marvel have any books like Outsiders that are basically cases of chlamydia for all the creators involved? (You know, something that no one wants but they end up with anyway because, hey, beats starving.) Marvel has a pretty good track record these days of sticking behind their creative teams, or at least their writers. When a writer leaves a series - at least a newer, less established series - it's as likely to be rebooted from scratch as continued. Marvel has figured out that no one likes paying for fill-ins in the world of $2.99 and $3.99 comic books. A book like Outsiders is essentially one years-long fill-in, featuring generic characters doing nothing so much as treading water month in and month out. For better or for worse, most Marvel books at least maintain the successful illusion that at some point in the creative process there was a writer involved who had an interesting pitch, or an interesting angle on some kind of editorially mandated hokum. Whereas DC crossover titles tend to be things shat out of the nether regions of the talent pool - take any Blackest Night mini-series for example, although the Final Crisis tie-ins were notable exceptions - sometimes strange things creep out of Marvel's marginal books. They have a number of Dark Reign books right now that are surprisingly good: Zodiac is pretty darn great (no surprise since it's a Joe Casey book); Sinister-Spider Man was pretty fun too, at least inasmuch as it gave Chris Bachalo a reason to draw some really weird stuff, including a pile of oddly non sequitur spoofs of indie comics mainstays like Hip Flask and the Badger (not to mention Dr. Manhattan). These were books that, while certainly the product of editorial and accounting fiat ("We need X number of books with the Dark Reign trade dress to ship in August of '09"), nevertheless managed to be interesting. There is at least the perception that creators are given more leeway to fall on their faces at Marvel these days, under what I can only assume is the operating principle that even if it only works half of the time that's still a pretty decent ratio.

And, tellingly, Marvel knows that creative upheaval on books is pretty much a death sentence: Exiles used to be a mid-list mainstay, but a series of ill-conceived changes in direction and relaunches cratered its appeal and alienated its audience. Runaways has suffered through a few high-profile botch-jobs, with "big name" writers like Joss Whedon and Terry Moore turning what had been one of Marvel's most well-regarded (if poorly selling) titles into, well, something that still doesn't sell and is no longer well-regarded, either.

(I was looking forward to Kathryn Immonen's run because - and here's something I don't know if I've ever mentioned? - I love the concept behind Runaways. The first couple hardcovers of Brian K. Vaughn's run are some of my favorite mainstream comics of the decade, and certainly the best thing of his that I've ever read. But the bleeding seems too far gone for even the most aggressive CPR - Immonen was too late, and despite the promise of her excellent work on the Hellcat mini-series, her first few issues have been pretty near impenetrable. This is probably as much the fault of the horrid mess of a status quo she was left to deal with, but still.)

But to return to Outsiders. This is a book that is explicitly occupied with filling a Batman-shaped hole - both in terms of the team's raison d'etre (a team of "specialists" put together by Alfred to pick up loose ends now that Batman is "dead") and the book's appeal. It is really interesting in a sad way that both the Superman and Batman lines are currently in the midst of year-plus long storylines that involve the main player for each franchise being taken off the board, and seeing all the supporting characters run around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to fill in for the adults. Wow, what better way to undercut any possible interest in secondary and tertiary characters than by making all of them - every single last one of them - explicitly ancillary to their biggest properties. (I mean, yeah, obviously Nightwing and Mon-El were never more than K-Tel versions of their bosses, but wouldn't it be nice if they pretended we were supposed to care?) Who has any respect for the likes of Metamorpho or the Creeper or Black Lightning - let alone any of the lesser-regarded Outsiders like Halo and Geo-Force - if even when he doesn't actually appear in the book they're still carrying Batman's water? What if Alan Moore Jr. walks in the door tomorrow with a killer pitch on how to revamp and relaunch Metamorpho for the new millennium - only to be told that Metamorpho is in the Outsiders now, maybe he should think about Gunfire instead. Outsiders exists because there are a pile of characters who are nominally under the control of the Bat-office at DC who need something to do - God forbid they let any of their properties grow fallow for more than a month.

This specific issue - well, it involves Clayface kidnapping miners, with Geo-Force and Metamorpho tracking him down in order to get to the bottom of the mess. Why is Clayface doing this? Because he's got a bomb inside him, and he needs someone to roll around inside his body and find it. And of course this is something that only a coal-miner can do - swim around in a giant clay monster. Our heroes show up looking for CLayface simply because Batman left a post-it on the fridge before he died with a "To-Do" list that had "Get Clayface" on it. Since Batgirl and Red Robin and Catwoman and Jason Bard were all busy, well, let's have those other guys do it. The net effect is that Clayface gets stack at or near the bottom rung of Batman villains - if you can get punked by Geo-Force, you're probably off R'as al-Ghul's X-Mas list. Oh wait, R'as got punked by the Outsiders, too. See what I mean about diluting the brand? How is anyone ever supposed to warm to newer or better takes on these characters if they can't go away long enough for people to miss them? How long before even a decent concept like Black Lightning is soiled beyond recognition? (That train probably left the building a long time ago, sadly.)

At this point Peter Tomasi's middle name might as well be "dependably brain-dead" - it pains me to say that, considering back in the 90s he was the editor for quite a number of good comic books, like Garth Ennis' Demon and Hitman. I have to believe, based on the fact that he supposedly knows the difference between a good comic and a bad, that much of his current work has to be mercenary rush jobs. There is simply no way someone could write this badly for so long and so consistently if they weren't getting constantly pulled in for hack jobs on dogsbody assignments. Interestingly, he actually did pull off a couple really good issues of Nightwing a couple years ago - and how often do you get to type the words "real good" and "Nightwing" next to each other? He set up a new status quo, supporting cast, setting, personality (I know, weird, eh?) - and then, after a few issues of interesting establishing work, the title got sucked back from its brief independence into another never-ending stream of crossover dreck. Tomasi wrote the bad issues, too, but you couldn't tell it was the same man who wrote the better stuff.

This is the problem: you have a hard road ahead of you if you want to convince the reading public that what they need is a Batman spin-off book that features a character who is like Batman in every significant way except that he is less so. Say what you will about Chuck Dixon, but he did just that when he was writing both Nightwing and Robin - neither book under his tenure was exactly Eisner-winning material, but they had distinctive tones and were fun. Yeah, I admit it: I have a run of the first few years of Dixon's Nightwing and Robin. (I was also a big fan of Scott McDaniel early in his career, before he became really, really bad - some of his work on Nightwing was really gorgeous. Maybe it was Karl Story's inks?) The point is that Dixon knew he had his work cut out for him if he was going to overcome the audience's suspension of disbelief regarding whether or not so many Batman copies had any reason to exist independently. So for Robin he set up a light, slightly frothy tone reminiscent of classic Spider-Man, with Tim Drake in the roll of John Romita-era Peter Parker. When people say they like Tim Drake, this is the Tim Drake they remember: hardly the most interesting character but interesting enough to sustain a fun ongoing soap-opera romp. Contrariwise, Nightwing was given an entirely different makeover, relocating him to a new, grimy industrial setting (the regrettably-named Bludhaven) and givign the book a ludicrously pulpy feel straight out of Dick Tracy - even down to one of the book's antagonists being a man whose sole "power" is the fact that his head is twisted backwards on his neck. Both books were fun, but most importantly they were different from Batman - they had independent milieus and there was a reasonable expectation that anyone who followed the titles would be rewarded with a story that had some degree of autonomy from the other Bat-books. Nowadays, with a book like Outsiders, there isn't even the pretense of independence: this is a book that exists solely to catch the crumbs from all the other, more important Bat-books. The artist Fernando Pasarin is probably a nice guy but this is some of the most boring stuff I've ever seen - when people accuse contemporary artists of drawing in a font, this is what they mean.

But even if I give Marvel more credit for knowing how to at least keep up the pretense of interest, their approach is not without its faults. Such as the fact that this is the most stupidest comic book ever. I mean, seriously.

We all know the drill: Wolverine: Origins is a book about Wolverine's quest to get to the bottom of the massive conspiracy that's been manipulating his life since he was born, based on the fact that since House of M he remembers everything that he had forgotten due to trauma or which had been erased from his memory in the intervening years. So now - Wolverine and all the other guys with claws in the Marvel Universe are really the secret servants of a millennia-old master plotter named Romulus. And hey, pretty much since the moment the plot began to unfold everyone and their mother was bracing themselves for the shocking surprise revelation that Romulus was in fact some massive ancient wolf-man warrior who was probably just like Wolverine only older and deadlierer. So we were all surprised when Origins #39 hit, and it turns out all of Daniel Way's careful plotting in this direction was really a feint, and that Romulus was really . . .

Ah, nertz.

Moronic isn't quite the word. It's so EXTREMELY over the top, so incredibly committed to its utter ludicrousness, that it almost manages to go back around from being lame to being totally awesome. The problem is that there's not so much as an ounce of self-awareness here. This is the world's most straight-faced parody of the worst trends of 90s X-comics. This is familiar ground, particularly if you ever read Larry Hama's run on the title back in the days when EXTREME was still used as an adjective in an unironic fashion. The problem is that Larry Hama is on his worse day an infinitely better writer than Daniel Way ever will be, and it's not like Hama was exactly Shakespeare to begin with. The book started out criminally slow and weirdly static for such a supposedly action-packed character. The one thing you can say for certain is that Way has evolved into a much better writer of action sequences. But his overarching master-plan for Wolverine's origin is so horrible, so overwrought, so redundant and frankly insulting, that it wouldn't really matter if Daniel Way were a pen name for Thomas Pynchon. There's only so many ways you can spin an ancient wolverine-man who rules the world from the shadows.

Riddle me this: say you've got Wolverine facing down his biggest enemy ever, the man responsible for ruining his life since as far back as he can remember. The fight for a while and finally Wolverine gets the upper hand, and has the opportunity to pop a claw in Romulus' brain, ending the fight and ending Romulus' threat in one fell swoop. Can you think of one good reason why Wolverine wouldn't do this? Seriously: think of one. Think of one reason why Wolverine is going to walk away from this without killing Romulus when he had the chance. This is absurd: every couple months nowadays Wolverine has to fight someone TO THE DEATH who we know he can't kill. Sure, Cyclops tells him explicitly that he needs to hunt down Mystique and kill her - and what does he do? He leaves her "to die" in the desert. So she shows up a couple months later, la dee da. No one is surprised, and no one bothers to ask why, if Wolverine is "the best there is at what he does," what he does lately seems to be letting bad guys walk away and recoup their wounds. The reason he can't kill Romulus yet? Because Way has this whole story planned out on what is I am sure a very intricate outline, and we're only at the end of act two. The next act has Wolverine putting together an all-star team of bruisers from across the Marvel Uni -

Aggghh dammit, I just had a stroke.


Which comic is worse? Honestly, I'll give the nod to Outsiders, simply because - at the very least - Daniel Way seems to be having fun writing his book, even if no one else is having fun reading it. There's a similar level of suspension of disbelief that has to be vaulted in order to convince anyone that there needs to be another in a very long line of Wolverine stories and spin-offs - especially since the story in question is so derivative of what has already been done many times before. Purposefully derivative, since so much of the book is devoted to Wolverine fighting people he's fought before for reasons that are beyond well-established. Way actually does seem to have a reason for doing this, a story he wants to tell, and even if the book is poorly received by the critics, and even if it doesn't sell anywhere near what a similar title would have sold fifteen or ten years ago, it still sells pretty well. As long as it continues to do so, Marvel will be more than happy to let Way produce it. There's not an ounce of life in Outsiders though, other than the slight shake of the writers hands as he tries to type up words to go in Geo Force's mouth without succumbing to the DTs.

Monday, October 05, 2009

This Will Hurt

Just got back from spending the better part of the last week in Baltimore. I don't have a lot to say or time to say it at present. But i did come across a particularly mind-bending video on YouTube - and I'm not really exaggerating when I say this rather innocuous video reminds me more than a little bit of Videodrome. It's really, really weird, and well worth the five minutes of your life it will take to BLOW YOUR MIND.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The World's Greatest Assholes

Is it possible to label an inanimate object as an asshole? Because, boy howdy, if you've ever played the above cartridge, you know what I'm talking about. You know just how possible it is that a few ounces of plastic circuits can seem like the living, breathing, pulsating embodiment of foetid evil.

I know less about the current state of the video game world than I do about quantum physics - ie, not a whole lot. But what I have heard about contemporary games like Ultimate Alliance or Arkham Asylum makes me envious. You see, back in the day, if you wanted to play a video game featuring your favorite four-color heroes in tales of derring-do, you were pretty much SOL. Sure, there were a few superhero games made for the NES and more for the SNES - and a few for the SNES were even pretty good (not Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade's Revenge, however, which is verifiable proof of the God's nonexistence). But in the beginning, despite the fact that the audiences for video games and comic books overlapped considerably, most comic book games were pretty poor. Movie tie-ins were generally dire (something I never really understood, but apparently it's pretty much CW at this point that movie games have always sucked across the board), but comic book tie-ins were worse. Who remembers the Silver Surfer game? That one actually looked pretty good, graphics-wise, but was almost impossible to win because it was impossible not to die. You know how in comics the Surfer is pretty much invincible, and can only be physically harmed by great cosmic power? In the game, he died when he was attacked by frogs. He died when he was hit by small weapons fire. He did when he flew into platforms. He just basically died, period.

But as bad as the Surfer was - and I should point out that I actually beat the Surfer's game, which at the time seemed an achievement on par with passing the oral defense for a PhD - it plays like Super Mario 3 next to LJN's X-Men. Calling this thing a game is stretching the point. First of all, you can't move - you just sort of wiggle. It's an overhead view, so you can't really see anything distinctive about your characters, other than they are vague lumpen dwarf things moving about in a surreal, ill-defined world of labyrinths and puzzles. In retrospect, it sort of plays like you imagine a Teratoid Heights game would - only, instead of the poor, unresponsive controls being a symbol of some kind of dysfunctional, existential reality-altered perception, the controls in X-Men just make it looks like the characters are wiggling when they should in face be running or dodging or doing something to avoid being hit by everything on the screen simultaneously. I don't think I ever made it past a few feet on the map for any level. It wasn't just hard, it actively worked against intelligibility.

This is, let's be frank, the worst video game I have ever played in my life. It gains added points in the field of soul-crushing despair due to the fact that it's based on a license that so many kids and pre-teens in the late 80s would have killed to see made into an awesome game. How many of these same kids rushed home from the store, unwrapped their copy of X-Men in a fevered rush, and proceeded to watch their fondest desires fade into the infinite abyss of gnarled purplish pixelated hell? There are few things that more define an asshole than arbitrarily crushing the hopes and dreams of children.


Monday, September 21, 2009

The World's Greatest Assholes

You know this guy. This guy haunts your dreams.

Street Fighter II is the best fighting game ever made. In fact, I've never played another fighting game that was anywhere near as fun. Mortal Combat was too dark and dreary, and the skill level necessary to pull off the combos was too high. I played Tekken once and it was just boring. Most of the others I've seen were either way too complex for the casual gamer to enjoy, or built in such a way that any clod could pull off devastating moves simply by pushing down on all the buttons simultaneously (I'm looking at you, Marvel vs. Capcom arcade edition).

But Street Fighter Ii? It was fun: no "fatalities", no twenty-button combos. You could have fun games with two average-to-mediocre players just bashing around, you could have a lot of fun with more advanced players as well. The fighters were cartoon characters and the violence was exaggerated - people weren't pulling out other people's hearts. I'm not a fan of real-life bloodsports, so the closer the games get to an "uncanny valley" of bloody fisticuffs, the further from some kind of pseudo-comic book fantasy, the less fun it seems, the more vaguely disturbing.

But this guy, this guy is the thorn on the rose bush of one of the SNES' best titles. To put it bluntly, Guile was an asshole, and anyone who picked Guile was an asshole. Why? Because if you knew how to play Guile, you could effectively put down any other player. All you had to do was sit in the corner and keep doing that backwards sonic kick thing and you were untouchable. Which is really frustrating: you're sitting down to play a nice fun game with some pals, and then the guy next to you picks Guile and the game sort of comes to a standstill. He keeps pushing the same combination over and over again, Guile keeps kicking, and anytime you try to hit him you get hit in return.

Why are you sitting here playing video games? Seriously, it's a good question. If you don't really want to play video games, if all you want to do is play in a disinterested, odious manner that frustrates the people around you, what is the point? You're an asshole, that's who, and Guile is an asshole for facilitating your churlishness.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Two Jakes

I didn't forget about the X-Men. I've actually been thinking about them for a while now, ever since I started writing about them infrequently. More than anything else I would like to thank everyone who had commented on the subject. I began the subject with a simple question - why are the X-Men no longer as popular, when for almost the entirety of the 1990s they were the industry's dominant franchise, and even more, one of the most dominant franchises in the medium's history? I had a few ideas about the subject which I spent some time exploring, but also a number of misapprehensions and suppositions which were subsequently refined or corrected by the comments.

My first mistake - and it's a common mistake, really, so I can't feel too bad about making it - is presuming some kind of continuity between the initial, long 17-year Claremont run and the subsequent years. It's obvious on the face of it that the books changed overnight once the adjectiveless X-Men began and Claremont left the ostensible flagship Uncanny. But the mistake I made was in asking why exactly the books continued to be popular after Claremont left, assuming that the dip in quality would have been obvious to anyone reading at the time - it was to me, certainly, and many others who enjoyed the Claremont run but had little to do with the franchise throughout the following years. The real question is not why people stuck with the franchise when it got "bad". The real question is why Marvel was stupid enough to screw over the franchise in the late 90s and early 00s.

Before 1991, the X-franchise was, while overwhelmingly popular, still not dominant to the degree it would be. There were only three main titles - Uncanny, X-Factor and New Mutants - with two peripheral titles, Wolverine and Excalibur. These last two were very obviously peripheral for one reason: they were printed on better paper and cost fifty cents more than the regular newsprint books. This meant that the books didn't get directly involved in crossovers. I don't know really why this was, but Baxter paper books (was it still called Baxter paper?), because of their price, were never vital components of crossovers or promotions. Perhaps this was one last holdover of the idea that the company's mainline titles should be readily accessible and affordable to the youngest readers. It would be interesting to know why this perception existed, but I know as a reader at the time I could discern a definite difference between the regular $1 Punisher book and the $1.50 Punisher War Journal - they were both Code titles, but the $1.50 books seemed to get away with a bit more than the newsprint line, and existed at a slight remove from month-to-month continuity.

In any event, this distinction disappeared altogether in the early 90s - printing standards rose dramatically, for one. They were already rising before Image started - Marvel had just recently dropped the universally reviled Flexographic process and even the mainline books looked dramatically better. But when the Image guys took charge of their new books and made $1.95 the standard intro price for the company's regular books, it was really only a matter of time before everyone else followed suit.

In the early 1990s, Marvel decided, with good reason, that since nothing sold as well as the X-Men, they would start making as many X-Men books as possible. I can't say how much of an influence Claremont's presence had on the line's relatively conservative growth up to then, but I have always suspected that he exerted a stronger presence than not. Consider that of the four ongoing spinoffs released up to 1991, he had personally launched three of them, and his displeasure over X-Factor created continuity problems that eventually resulted in the line's biggest-to-that-point X-over, 1988's Inferno. But whether or not correlation was causation in this instance, nevertheless, once he left the floodgates opened.

And the funny thing is, once the line started to explode in the early 90s, the fanbase did as well. It was popular before, sure, but the fans who came in with Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and the Saturday morning cartoon didn't care who the hell Chris Claremont was. (It didn't help that in the years immediately preceding 1991, Uncanny had been entrenched on a years-long "X-Men disassembled" storyline that featured the team dismantled, and whole months passed with only third-raters like Forge and Banshee as placeholders.*) Or maybe they knew who he was, but Wolverine as a character was more important than Claremont or even Lee & Liefeld as creators. This was the moment when the line really exploded, and oddly enough it also coincided with the moment when the line consciously pared away amount of influence any individual creator could exert on the line. Suddenly, things became interchangeable. There were a half-dozen top-shelf artists moving between the top titles, but none of them were ever in any danger of becoming marquee names. There were any number of competent writers, but no single writer could be allowed to develop any kind of long-term proprietary interest over the books.

The number one draw was the characters. From Marvel's perspective, the Claremont years were probably no less and aberration than the early 90s pre-Image explosion. Marvel didn't own Chris Claremont, but they did own Wolverine, and you don't get any credit for guessing which property they're more concerned with keeping safe and happy.

So here's what the X-Books were in the 1990s: one big giant ongoing soap-opera, of which no component was more important than the larger franchise. If you bought one, you were practically committed to buying most or all. Even when the titles floundered, even when the stories were ill-conceived, poorly drawn, badly written and even nonsensical, there were so many of the things being produced that momentum was never lost. Being a fan of the X-books was like being a fan of a sports franchise: you liked the X-Men like a Chicago fan likes the the Cubs. Sure, the Cubs never quite make it, but you enjoy the show all season anyway. Sure, some fair-weather fans may come and go as the home team waxes and wanes, but there's still a huge amount of people who stay committed through thick and thin. Sometimes, and this is something that is occasionally hard to comprehend for many, the franchise thrives despite the low quality of many of its constituent books. The reason for this is simple: people get loyal, and this loyalty takes buying X-Men books above the level of a simple capitalistic exchange of money for a good or bad comic and places it instead on the plane of loyalty to an idea. Ask any Red Sox fan circa 2004: there is nothing sweeter than a long-delayed victory, made even sweeter because of the turmoil wrought on the long-suffering fanbase.

In the early 1990s the X-Books were popular enough that even when they started to shed readers at a precipitate rate in the late 90s, the books were still popular enough to almost single-handedly keep Marvel afloat in its darkest hours. (People remembered the Age of Apocalypse, and the memory of how well-received that event was kept the books warm even through Onslaught and Operation: Zero Tolerence.) Seriously, the only possible reason why Marvel still insists on publishing so many X-books despite the general antipathy towards many of the secondary and tertiary titles is long-standing institutional memory - these books sold well during some very dark times, so it stands to reason they should always be remembered with pride by the company.

But if we can return for one second to the sports metaphor: when the fin de siecle hit, things changed. Even when the franchise was at its lowest nadir of quality, the perception of an ongoing, uninterrupted soap-opera narrative continuing without pause since roughly 1991 (or even 1975) remained intact. But then - well. Sports fans will stay with a team through even the most ignoble defeats and embarrassing scandals. They will forgive anything. But the fact is, with the notable exception of the Green Bay Packers, the fans don't own the teams. The owners take the fans for granted ,and with good reason. But there is one thing the owners can do too demolish this fanbase, one breach of absolute trust, one surefire method to demarcate the the end of one era and the beginning of a new, a clear and violent jumping-off point for even the most hardcore.

The owners can always move the team. It's their prerogative.

So, when Marvel decided to push the X-books back to prominence after a rather disastrous few years (despite Alan Davis' generally well-received run, it still culminated in The Shattering, the Twelve and Claremont's disastrous return), they didn't just revamp the line by putting better creators on the books and getting back to first principles. Or, er, they might have thought that was what they were doing, but it wasn't quite the same thing. They decided to do the equivalent of moving the franchise to another city: they set down a line in the sand between the "old" X-Men - you know, the books that regardless of any other considerations had been the company's lifeblood for the previous decade - and the New X-Men.

They could not have made their wishes more explicit: this weren't yer father's X-Men, this was something different. Whether or not Morrison's X-Men were any good is totally besides the point. It was a good book, but it wouldn't have been any less good if it had been a new series a la Astonishing or, contemporaneously, X-Treme. The point is that the "New" X-Men provided a convenient jumping off point for as many readers as it may have attracted. And the new readers jumping aboard with Morrison weren't the type of readers who were going to become fanatically attached to the franchise properties above all other considerations. Marvel's bread and butter in the 1990s was a solid core of fandom who had been trained to disregard creators and individual styles - which is not to say that these were ignored, just of secondary importance, even in the case of monstrously popular artists such as Joe Madureira. Suddenly, all the fans who had suffered through the worst of the 90s were being told that the stories they liked, the characters they loved, weren't going to be the backbone of the franchise anymore. Suddenly, the X-Men weren't the X-Men - the team had been moved. It didn't matter if the new owners pointed out how much better the team was doing in its new stadium across the country - for the fans, it just wasn't their team anymore.

* I have decided that Forge is my second-least-favorite Marvel character, behind only Morbius the Living Vampire. Why Claremont though this character was interesting at all is beyond me, and why he decided to devote a solid year of the book in the 80s to The Adventures of Forge and his Paddy** Sidekick Banshee is simply beyond me.

** I can say "Paddy", my name is O'Neil.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Happy Trails

I just read the last Scary Go Round ever. I'm sad about that. It has been one of my favorite comics for a long time.

John Allison showed up in the comments when I spoke about Achewood the other day, rightfully pointing out that comparing any living cartoonist to Charles Schulz is something of a canard. Well, yes, that it is, just like comparing modern superhero artists to Kirby doesn't do a lot for advancing that conversation either. I knew it was a red herring when I wrote it, but I still did it for a very specific reason.

One of the best things about cartooning is that, as an artform, it really offers a unique format with which to observe an artist's talent grow and mature. Sure, you can make these sort of observations with just about any kind of artist or medium - Pitchfork just did a whole week on the new Beatles' remasters, a series of reviews that drew specific attention to the ways in which the Beatles' sound and approach to musicmaking changed over the course of seven extremely busy and fraught years. This is an old story but still fascinating, not just because of the music itself, but because the frequency with which the music was made contributed to a fuller picture of the music and the musicians. They released so much music in such a short amount of time that it feels, at least in retrospect, like every moment of their creative maturation is recorded for posterity.

But really, no matter how much the most prolific musician might release, they've got nothin' on a strip cartoonist*. Day-in, day-out, they've got to produce a strip. If there is one thing the last few years of excellent strip reprint projects has taught me, is that there are few more edifying experiences in all of comics than sitting down with a two-year chunk of, say, Terry & the Pirates or Dick Tracy and swallowing it whole. Incremental change flies by in the time it takes you to turn the page, and before your very eyes you witness an artist mutating, growing and bettering himself, using the pressure of daily deadlines as a kind of crucible to constantly improve themselves. It's not just broad strokes but every little detail - little things like the kind of brushstroke Caniff used to draw people's cheekbones, minuscule details that might not have stood out when observed daily over the course of the decade but which, when seen together, add up to vast differences. A cartoonist who releases artwork on a regular basis gets to grow up in public in a manner not really analogous to any other kind of art**. Sure, a touring band will improve daily, but most people don't get the change to follow a young rock band on the road for the first two or three years of their existence in order to register the gradual change from scrappy young naifs to grizzled pros. In comics, you get to do that, and I have really sincerely come to believe that this sort of intimate experience is one of the true pleasures of comics as an artform, unique among others. It's not just that an artist improves, but that they leave concrete, verifiable traces of every step of the process, from the very beginnings to the present moment.

Look at the first episode of Scary Go Round, here. It could have been drawn by an entirely different artist that today's strip. Look at the first Bobbins, here. Pretty amazing, no? From an almost total cipher to one of the most influential webcartoonists extant - just ask Jeph Jaques or Kate Beaton - that's an amazing arc for just eleven years. He's not retiring anytime soon - he promises a new start with a new strip (with some of the same characters) in a week or so, but still. Every new chapter is preceded by the closing of the previous chapter.

So, thank you, John Allison. Thank you for providing one of my favorite strips for seven years running; thank you for having the stamina and perseverance to make yourself a better cartoonist and giving us all the opportunity to watch every step of the way; thank you for your funny characters and your willingness to follow every joke to its logical conclusion regardless of how preposterous it may have seemed; thank you for answering my fan letters about why Tessa and Rachel disappeared from the strip. No thank yous for setting them on fire, however, that was just mean.

* I wouldn't put it past Robert Pollard to start releasing a song a day, but it's not really the same thing.

** Perhaps in the 18th and 19th centuries, when prose fiction was released primarily in serial form, it might have been possible to observe similar effects - but since fiction is no longer received that way, that is an experience most modern readers will never have (some internet experiments notwithstanding).