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.

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