Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Decade in Comics: Katabasis
So, after all the recrimination and self-flagellation, what is left? My Decade is Comics, in hindsight, is a pretty weird place and time. Because, really, my decade in general was a weird place and time. Those who suffered through my Best Music of the Decade articles should have detected a pretty strong running theme throughout my picks for the decade: the music that stands out in my memory is in some manner cathartic, measuring an arc from disaster to redemption. Whether we're talking about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or The Woods or Kid A or Show Your Bones, these are all albums that begin in a place of despair and over the course of the following hour dig themselves out, towards the light, towards something resembling hope, or acquiescence, or maturity. Sometimes you have to be torn apart and burnt to the ground before you can rebuild. The Hurting recently celebrated its sixth anniversary, the third week of January. Sometimes when I'm in one of my more introspective moods I ask myself what the point of this blog is - not necessarily in the fatalistic way, just in a definitional way: I've been doing this for six years - longer than my marriage, for chrissakes - and I still don't really know what it is, exactly, that I'm doing. It doesn't really look like it's been around for over half a decade - I still use the same damn orange Blogspot default template that I started with, and have no intention on shaking that up so I can look "professional" anytime soon. I don't post daily, I don't have any kind of jocular blogging persona, I've never been asked to pitch a Spider-Man story, and I'm far too scattered to ever actually get a webcomic off the ground of my own initiative. And yet this blog endures: every now and again I wonder if maybe the whole thing has run its course, but that idea never lasts too long. It is what it is, I'm not trying to make a career out of this, I'm not trying to do anything, really, except maybe try to use this platform as a means of making sense of things that don't make sense, or articulating stray thoughts, or interrogating my own worst impulses through dialogue . . . with my audience, whoever sticks around, or even just myself. I'm stick with it, just like I'm stuck with myself. I'm spiteful, peevish, pessimistic, gleefully contrarian, phlegmatic and wrathful in equal measure. I resent the time spent researching even the most basic factual statements and, as Milo is always gleeful to point out, still am never quite sure about "its" and "it's." And yet, with all that, it's necessary, for me, to continue to do this in whatever capacity I feel like, just because I can, just because I need to. So when I start out by trying to sum up the Decade in Comics - well, it should come as a surprise to no one that this is my decade in comics. I start out by venting my most unpleasant, antisocial tendencies, then I pull back and vivisect those same negative impulses, and in the process of doing so we end up . . . here, wherever "here" is. We grow up. Is it wrong to expect my relationship to comics to be the same as it was when I was eight or eighteen or twenty-eight? Undoubtedly so. Is it right to conclude that my own personal misgivings about comics are due almost entirely to my own personal misgivings, period? Yes! But that's what this whole thing is about, really.
(Incidentally: coolest tattoo ever? I think yes.) I was never judging comics, I was judging myself. This was a good decade for comics, but a rough decade for me. it started well, it really did, bit it seemed to go off the rails very quickly. I made some bad decisions - I pushed away my family, pushed away my friends - partly out of remorse and partly out of shame - turned away from the "correct" path I was set down in my early twenties and instead went down a really weird and occasionally disastrous road. I got a divorce, I worked the night shift at a childrens' mental hospital, I suffered just about every kind of demeaning misfortune you can imagine without actually losing a limb. And then, somehow, someway, I climbed out of that really weird place - a place of alienation, depression and uncertainty - and painstakingly remade my life in a new mold. Six years ago I was living in a shack in the wilderness during the coldest Massachusetts winter in a decade, huddling around a space heater because that was the only heat I had. Now I'm waiting to hear back after sending out applications for admissions to some of the most prestigious PhD programs in the country. (And a bunch of not-so-prestigeous places too, don't worry!) Six years ago when I began the blog this was a lifeline, and now it's something else - it's about comics, yes, but it's about everything else. It's about mistakes and misapprehensions and about being wrong as often as you're being right, but it's always been about the idea that if you work hard you can think your way out of any corner. If comics don't fill the same place in my life that they did twenty or thirty years ago, well, whose fault is that? Mine. For not having the imagination or the patience to see past my own conception of comics, my own negative connotations and constrained worldview, my own long-established acceptance of comics as a passive component of my own identity, and not an active field with its own sprawling, diverse and constantly-changing identity. So it's time for a new beginning. A new decade, a new covenant with comics. If comics are so important to me, then shouldn't I be able to adapt, to fit myself to their new reality instead of wasting my energies in frustration that they are no longer what they were twenty or ten or even five years ago? I think a great deal of my problems stem from the fact that my own reading has been circumscribed by my own circumstances: I've been busy and I've been tired and I've been depressed in equal measures. I've been working hard, especially the last couple years - which is hardly a unique condition for anyone, but when your ability to read comics is primarily limited to your desire for escapist entertainment during long workdays, your perception of comics is warped accordingly. When you just don't have the wherewithal to read so much as a fraction of the "good" new comics released in any given week, you might get fatalistic, and you might become overly judgmental on the good comics you do read. Don't get me wrong: I'm not about to back away from my statement that many of the better-reviewed comics of this preceding decade are overrated, and that the medium's popular success has warped the critical faculties among a large percentage of longtime comics readers who are happy to see comics "accepted" by the larger world. Go Team Comics! and all that bullshit. But even if there's some truth there, it's a small truth, kind of a miserly observation based as much on sour grapes as anything else. Yeah, I've felt for a while as if comics had passed me by, but - to reiterate - that's my problem. I've missed out on a lot, but instead of throwing up my arms in frustration at my inability to master everything, and a sincere dyspepsia brought about by the profusion of popular works that can't all stand head and shoulders with Maus in the Klassic Comix Canon, well, maybe it's time to dig in and define the next decade of the medium for myself. And that's what this blog is about, and what it's going to continue to be about for so long as I feel like doing it. It'll be about everything else it's ever been about - the unfunny jokes, the long digressions into music and politics, the weird intimacy issues that make a 17yo Twi-hard's LJ look positively Proustian in comparison - but hopefully it'll be better, because that's all I've always wanted, was to be better, as a blogger, as a thinker and as a human being. With that in mind - what all this was leading towards - our next feature will be a countdown of the Ten BEST Comics of the last decade - nothing but the cream of the crop, a solid foundation in the past on which to build a newer, brighter future.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Decade in Comics:
Taking My Toys and Going Home

When I wrote the last post I knew that the next post would be, essentially, a rebuttal to my own ideas: I was trying to articulate particular, uniquely unpleasant associations I have developed in regards to comics over the last few years, associations which I framed in as universal a light as possible despite their avowedly idiosyncratic expression. I've been dissatisfied with comics for a while and I have had a very difficult time explaining why that is, especially to myself. Usually it's easier to just read a pile of crappy superhero pamphlets than to figure out why I just don't feel like engaging with something better and smarter. And then I ask myself the question: why? Why does it seem easier to give up? I've lived with comics for almost three decades now, consistently. It's kind of weird to realize for the large majority of my life, there have been far, far fewer days when I haven't read some kind of comic than those that I have. I can go weeks without watching a movie but even when I'm at my busiest I almost never go longer than 24 hours without reading some kind of comic.

So, as should be obvious to anyone, my dissatisfaction with comics has far more to do with my own inadequacies as a reader than with comics itself. It's been really frustrating to read all the encomiums for the past decade and realize that, all things being equal, most people regard it as a great decade, I've even seen some people refer to it as "comics greatest decade" or some such. And inevitably the list of truly great comics made during the last ten years grows longer than your arm, and the comics are good, and the people making comics can make money making comics, and they make more comics because people with money pay the people making comics to make more comics . . . etc etc.

And what does it all mean? It means comics is grown up. It's not just "comics" anymore, it's basically a huge thing that reaches all across publishing and the arts scene and entertainment and film - it's bigger than any one person. Jog intimidates the fuck out of me because he actually seems to be equipped to take it all in - he's the model of the type of omnivorous reader our new comics industry demands. But if you can't keep up with everything - and who can? - it's really dispiriting. Too much stuff. There's just too much, and I can't keep up with it anymore. Used to be that skimming through Previews on any given month, you could order every new, interesting book or periodical and not spend more than, say, $200 a month. Now, you can drop that money just on the new strip reprint compilations released every other week.

When I talk about how the comics industry almost died, well, it's partly wishful thinking. That must be the craziest thing I've ever said. But bear with me: through the darkest days of the comics industry, when stores were closing left and right, it seemed really apocalyptic. I used to travel around California a lot when I was younger, and I knew where the good comic book stores were in every city and town between Los Angeles and Eureka - Bakersfield, Palm Springs, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Chico, all points in between. And then at some point all these shops that I used to look forward to visiting on my trips just disappeared. We'd drive into town and there would be nothing left, just an empty storefront and phantom tumbleweeds.

No one read comics, there wasn't even anywhere to buy comics. In order to keep reading comics in the years following the boom and bust, you really had to love comics, and more importantly, you had to fight for the privilege. Mainstream comics were disappearing from grocery stores and 7-11s, comic book stores were fading into the night - even the few conventions I attended in the late 90s seemed like ghost towns. I remember seeing Rory Root at the 2000 Wonder Con and having a brief, depressing conversation about just how dead the whole place was.

That attenuated weakness was invigorating. No one cared, no one paid attention, the only people left in the room were people who had self-selected themselves as fanatics, people who had survived boom and bust cycles and horrible mainstream comics and spotty distribution for good comics and dusty head shops. Comics, or at least what survived, was ours, and it belonged to no one else. No one wanted it.

One of the singular features of the first generations of post-60s "alternative" cartoonists was a knee-jerk rejection of the supposedly commercial values of dominant "mainstream" books. Front and center was the singular focus on the demolished alter-ego: the prejudice against "alternative" comics as poorly-reasoned autobiography focusing relentlessly on the shortcomings and vicissitudes of demasculated protagonists begins here, with Crumb and Spiegelman, with a very real desire to stake out rhetorical space as explicitly differentiated from the steroid-bound muscle cases as possible. Of course, that wasn't all that non-superhero comics represented, or even a plurality. But it was as much a part of our wish-fulfillment landscape as the ultra powerful Kirby-esque demigods. Our self-flagellation was gorgeous.

And that was how we got by. I can't speak for everyone, but for me, personally, comics has for a long time contained an element of exquisite self-loathing - every comic read during my childhood was ten or twenty minutes taken away from doing something else - and over the course of a lifetime all of that "something else" eventually adds up to an alternate lifetime filled with regrets. Why were you reading comics when you could have been paying attention to the scenery on family car trips? Why were you reading comics when you could have been interacting with now-dead grandparents? Why were you reading comics when you could have been out dating girls? But these regrets, and the negative self-image that eventually got up and followed me everywhere I went, was part and parcel of the romance: I had sacrificed a great deal of my life, a great deal of what I could have been, because I got sucked into this damn world. I identified with Captain America when I was a kid and Chester Brown as a young adult, Dave Sim on my worst days - nowadays, I recognize I'm probably somewhere in between. But they're all in there.

So now, it all seems mediocre - there's nothing left there for me to identify with. The artform continues, but despite the supposed vivacity, it seems pallid. It doesn't help that so many of the supposed "great works" of the last decade have been seemingly designed for the specific purpose of alienating my sensibilities. Scott Pilgrim? I've personally rarely encountered a book as insipid, proffering up a familiarity with the rhythms of video games and nerd media as if it was some sort of justifiable postmodern stance and not merely an apologia for a lifetime spent skirting illiteracy. (Besides the fact that its retrograde attitude towards women makes Identity Crisis seem like a Betty Friedan tract.) Blankets? Mewling kunstlerroman based on juvenile identifications and facile sub-Fruedian self-analysis, glossed over by a surplus of admittedly decent craft chops. Black Hole? Even worse than Blankets - wow, how amazing is it that a misfit teenager can be saved by an idealized wet-dream icon of motherly sexuality? The fact that the art looks like a black-light poster conjures up memories of listening to Led Zeppelin IV on a beanbag chair with heavy cans on your head for some, I'm sure, but I never much cared for Zeppelin. Pandering to the collective sense of lost nostalgia of an aging twenty- and thirty-something demographic is hardly great art. Bone? I've never been able to get past the first book - achingly unfunny.

I could go on but really, what's the point? I just sound like a screeching old man, hopelessly out of touch, alienating what few readers are still around this far into such a poorly-thought out and researched slab of hate speech. Some of the best - or at least most well-regarded - comics of the aughts were the products of the 90s: Black Hole and Bone took over a decade each to finish themselves up before they could be compiled between two thick covers. Same with books like Jimmy Corrigan, From Hell, Louis Riel - books I like - products of years of toil. So it's not as if the previous decade sprang full-formed from the head of Zeus. All those good books and critical acclaim was, literally, years in the making. So it's not as if the success of this decade came out of nowhere.

But if I exaggerate how close the industry came to annihilation? Well, if it had died, or at least been cut down so low it couldn't have rebuilt nearly as well as it has - it'd still be ours. We wouldn't have to share it with anyone. We wouldn't have to admit that this thing to which we sacrificed the best years of our lives was really never ours to begin with - that it was just an accident of history that the comics industry grew so weak and emaciated that it ever needed anything so fickle as our undying loyalty to survive. Comics owes me, dammit . . . but then, really, comics doesn't owe me a God-damned thing.

Now if you walk through academia you see comics added to reading lists in English and Comparative Literature departments. Having returned to school some time ago, I've seen Persepolis, Fun Home, Black Hole, even the Luna Brothers, show up on syllabi. But really, Persepolis never impressed me - it strikes me as even more of a "dancing bear" than Corrigan ever was, only the remarkable thing is not that it's a halfway intelligent comic book but that it's a comic book drawn by an articulate Iranian woman with far more interest in communicating her story than ingratiating herself with the fanboy politik, either through open pandering or explicit rejection. She's just a cartoonist who happens to tell stories readily accessible by anyone with a fleeting interest in current events, who happened to hit upon a zeitgeist of interest in that specific region and ride a wave of success. Why do we (and by me, I guess I mean I) resent it? Because she didn't "suffer" - her kunstlerroman ends with a mature, fairly happy and well-balanced young adult who has gained some degree of perspective on her life and narrative - kind of like Blankets, Black Hole, Fun Home. But that's not the story! The real story is Rusty Brown. Happy people don't get to be in comics!

And then I wake up and realize how absurd it is to posit for one second that Marjane Satrapi didn't "suffer," just because she didn't grow up shaped by the dialectical conflict between Gary Groth and Gareb Shamus. She had bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Even if, honestly, I don't think she's anywhere near as good a cartoonist as David B., (and I'd still say the same thing about Adrian Tomine in relation to Daniel Clowes), she came by her story the hard way, and her success, much as I am loathe to admit it, is well-earned.

But it represents a paradigm shift nonetheless. What is comics? Does comics exist for its own sake only, filled with people who have sacrificed a great deal to join a club whose exclusivity is defined only by how much self-loathing you want to express in any given social event? There's this idea in my head of "pure" comics, unbound by any allegiance to any standard other than the ideal of the autonomous artist defined only by his or her own sense of responsibility - but when I take out these prejudices and look at them in the clear light, they make about as much sense as Clement Greenberg's claims that ab-ex represented the apotheosis of western art. Well, dammit, I still think that color fields are the best paintings in the world. When I was in San Francisco we went to the SF MOMA and I spent a good ten minutes staring intently at this canvas, absolutely hypnotically beautiful. But touting this kind of Olympian remove in the arts is kind of old fashioned. All the minimal techno I've cultivated over the last decade is starting to sound, well, dated in a way I would never have thought possible. Likewise, the self-abnegation of mid-to-late 90s alternative comics is probably a movement of its time.

Things are busy and fast now. People like comics, people read comics casually and without really thinking about it. It's probably the best environment in the world to be a cartoonist. But suddenly the clubhouse got crowded - different standards took over, standards that aren't beholden to having decades of familiarity and emotionally-charged history with the medium and particular schools of critical thought within the medium. Basically, books that people might actually want to read actually started getting bought by people who would want to read them for no other reason than that there was an interesting story therein. If it feels at times like the clubhouse has got too crowded, if the Android's Dungeon has been corrupted by outsiders . . . well, tough shit, I guess. There is no more clubhouse. It burnt down.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Decade in Comics:
Mediocrity Triumphant

The most important fact to remember in considering the just passed decade is that, by all rights, it should never have happened. The comics industry should have died during the 1990s, and in hindsight it was only through the sheerest of luck that it did not.

Anyone reading these words who was not around in comics ten years ago might be scratching their heads, or wondering why the events of twenty years ago should so strongly influence our interpretation of the past ten. It must be remembered that the industry - not the artform, obviously, but the industry - came within a hair's breadth of ceasing to exist in the late 90s. If just a few things had occurred differently, the series of catastrophic decisions and stock market machinations that ended with Marvel bankrupt and something like 2/3 of all comic book stores closed could have ended even worse, with Marvel in chapter 7 instead of chapter 11, and as a direct result many more stores failing. Even if Marvel's assets had been purchased by an entity with a vested interest in maintaining their publishing business and not just strip-mining the properties, any disruption in Marvel comics production at all during those fragile years would have put so many more retailers out of business that the system itself would have probably collapsed. (Marvel has always been the number one publisher by a disproportionate degree, except for a very brief period in the early 90s. Marvel's frantic overreaction to the formation of Image and the subsequent competition for market share was directly responsible for the bust of '93.) At that time, if the direct market had fallen, then all the smaller publishers who depended on the direct market as their primary means of distribution would also have fallen. Think about that for a second: decisions made by Marvel could have easily put Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, Slave Labor and every other non-premier publisher out of business. Anyone without a newsstand presence would have had to scramble to find alternate distribution channels - and while there were a fair amount of independent bookstores and record shops that carried "alternative" comics, there weren't enough to provide sole support for any small publisher. And a lot of these retail outlets went out of business in the next few years anyway, as Barnes & Noble, Borders and especially Amazon consolidated their grips on the retails publishing industry. Even Tower Records / Books, long a consistent supporter of Fantagraphics product, went out of business a couple years back.

When I think back to the first few years of the last decade, I think of an endless series of desperate fire sales on the part of small publishers who were fighting bravely to keep the lights on. It was dicey, for those imprints who had managed to keep the doors open during the late 90s, to keep the doors open during the following years, when just the fact that the industry had survived was considered so much of a miracle that people really weren't going to complain about the lack of market growth in absolute terms.

And then something happened: it didn't happen overnight, but the results were striking nonetheless. In my own mind, I think the first real sign that things were about to change significantly for the better was the publication of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan in collected form by Pantheon. It seems as if that was the last comic to gain mainstream acclaim in the old "dancing bear" mode of mainstream media comics criticism - you know, it doesn't matter how good the bear dances, just the fact that they can get the tutu on is an accomplishment in and of itself. But Jimmy Corrigan was a hit, and instead of being an isolated hit it seemed instead to be the first wave in a movement that refused to subside. Corrigan won accolades, but at the time it was still an atypical success, one of those apocryphal "comics for grown-ups" that crawled out of the woodwork periodically. But it was also the first sign that the industry had reached a tipping-point, not necessarily in the overall quality of the work being produced (that never changed, contrary to popular belief) but the ability of the industry to sell that work to an appreciative, mainstream (by which I mean real world "mainstream") audience. Soon after Corrigan, Kavalier & Clay became both a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Then after that - or around the same time? - came Louis Riel, the collected Bone, Persepolis, Black Hole, Fun Home, the American Splendor movie, the Sin City and 300 films - not to mention all the massively successful superhero action movies that clogged up the multiplexes. To say nothing of all the manga that flooded our shores. Shonen Jump, Naruto, Buddha.

Whether it was solely comics or larger comics culture, the subterranean movement that had been building for a long time finally broke aboveground - if Corrigan was the last "dancing bear," every subsequent serious comics work that would reach significant accolades was accepted that much moreso on its own terms. Fun Home was Time's book of the year, and the only notable thing about the decision, for people in the comics industry, is that it really wasn't that much of a shock. Not ten years before our industry had been on death's door, but in just over half a decade the publishing industry had thoroughly metabolized comics. It wasn't merely a legitimate publishing category (as opposed to the annex of the Dungeons & Dragons manuals stuck at the tail-end of the Sci-FI section at Barnes & Noble), it was was a publishing category that sold. Big-name creators were getting book deals with New York publishers that paid out real-world money. Smaller publishers were able to get their stable of artists into actual bookstores.

Another tipping point in a decade seemingly filled with tipping points was Fantagraphics' announcement of the deal to produce The Complete Peanuts series. For decades smaller publishers had been frustrated by an inability to get presumably saleable product into real-world bookstores - and even those that had met with some success, such as the early 90s iteration of Classics Illustrated, were often frustrated, or worse, victims of their own success. Suddenly, a company like Fantagraphics could announce a project whose primary audience was far outside the direct market, a book series that was practically guaranteed massive sales in conventional bookstores, and be confident that these books actually would find their way to an appreciative audience in the wider world. Fantagraphics had signed a distribution deal with W.W. Norton to ensure these things would happen. A far cry from needing to start a porn imprint to stay afloat.

But the question that has gone unasked in the flood of accolades over "comics' greatest decade" is, was it worth it? Team Comics won, right? Things are good now, aren't they?

In absolute terms, it is an unambiguous good that more cartoonists can make a living wage producing comics, and that they are able to get their work into the hands of a larger, appreciative audience. In absolute terms, it is an unambiguous good that so many great comics from the medium's history have been reprinted, that so many of the classic comic strips are now available in durable editions for the appreciation of new generations of fans and scholars, that so many great works from around the world can be feasibly translated and find an enthusiastic audience within the United States.

But I would posit that even though there are far more comics being published now, there are no more truly great comics being produced now than there were at the beginning of the last decade. If you discount the constant stream of reprints and international offerings, new English-language comics are about as good as they've ever been, it's just that there are more of them. In fact, because of the market's rapid expansion, actual average quality has plummeted. It's not a question of having abandoned critical standards in order to gain popular market share: comics never had critical standards. What we have done now is to adopt the standards of the larger book market. Earlier I was careful to distinguish between the comics industry and the comics artform: well, now that the comics industry has been absorbed by the larger publishing industry, we've been forced to adopt their standards, which are wholly commercial in nature. They're the standards of the marketplace, the standards against which every other popular entertainment medium in the world has had to conform or die. Which is great, for someone, I'm sure - but just the other day I saw that the first volume of the new Twilight manga is going to have something just shy of half-a-million copies in its initial print run. That's sure something. But what, exactly? Does it mean a damn thing to anyone besides Twilight fans? I daresay we've reached the point where a big print run like that can be safely dismissed as of no importance to "comics" as a whole, if ever there was a day when it would have mattered. It's a localized phenomena. Comics has fractured.

Comics is no longer "a thing," it's now become multiple things, a whole universe of worlds - far more than any one person can realistically hold within his or her grasp. It means so many different things now that it really has to struggle to mean anything at all. There's no point in being a fan of "comics," because there is no centralized notion of "comics," not anymore. It's so diffuse - and not diffuse in the old-school fake high-art Comics Journal vs. low-brow WIzard dichotomy. As fractious as that seemed, it was still just an internecine quarrel over scraps of the same commonly-held territory. In explicit economic terms, it was about a fight for the wallets of direct market retailers and costumers. Now, there are separate retail channels for separate types of comics - it's not just the same zero-sum direct market game. Art comics are being sold just like art books, and to art-book customers - everyone who cried fowl over Kramers Ergot #7 has obviously never paid attention to how high-quality art monographs are sold and marketed. Literary comics are solid like literature - they even have a volume in the "America's Best" series, so you can put it next to all the other middlebrow "America's Best" volumes designed to sit unread on yuppy coffee tables across the country. And even superhero comics have thrived, in their own way - the analogy I'd use would be that superhero books have grown into their niche as the artform's crass annex, in much the same way that fake sport such as WWE and NASCAR form a neon-colored distraction from "real" sports. But the only distinctions that matter anymore are marketing, now that the industry actually has marketing that doesn't simply consist of ads in Amazing Heroes and Wizard. We can go our own separate ways and never look back.

Think back to that list I made up the page of all the "really good" comics that have been published to wide acclaim and decent sales throughout the previous decade: how many of them are "really good," and how many of them are just mediocre comics that managed to sneak into a recognizable mainstream publishing category like "Memoir / Current Events?" The book industry knows how to sell first-person memoirs with topical subject matter; it knows how to sell underwhelming high-fantasy with a family appeal; it knows how to sell portentous, well-drawn but fatally vapid juvenilia. And that's our comics industry in 2010, or at least, the "good" parts.

I don't have any stake in comics anymore because it's just too big. For the first time ever, I can walk into a comics store and walk out with empty hands - it's not that there isn't stuff, but there's just too much stuff. With so much to choose from, it's far easier to choose nothing at all.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Outsiders #26

I realize at this point that Outsiders has become my fixation in the same manner as the late Nightwing Was for Tucker. That's OK: I freely admit this comic fascinates me. Why does it exist? Why does it continue to exist when there is no justifiable reason for it to do so? It doesn't sell. It changes creative teams every other month. It changes premise about as often. All it really does is tie-up half-a-dozen moderately recognizable second- and third-string characters who someone at DC thinks should be regularly featured . . . somewhere. But if this is really the best they can think of to do with Black Lightning, Metamorpho and the Creeper? Well, maybe they should just let them lay fallow for a while. And we're not even going to mention Katana, Looker, Halo and Geo-Force, who might as well change their collective name to "we have no popular appeal whatsoever."

(OK, I admit I actually like Halo and Looker. They're have identifiable personalities as well as some small potential - especially Halo in her current iteration - but contemporary DC doesn't have a great track record - in terms of taking underperforming characters and refurbishing them by plugging them into compelling ensemble casts - in the same way that Marvel lately has. Just look at Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: The Initiative for great examples of how to effectively and consistently rehabilitate Z-list characters. DC hasn't had anything like that since 52, and the lack of successful spin-offs indicates that even that series was only partially successful as a rehabilitation engine. End of digression.)

So here we are with another new beginning, another new creative team . . . and the result is strangely schizoid. On the one hand, the book actually does seem to have a new direction and a legitimate new tone - on the other hand, the new direction doesn't make sense and the new tone is just flat-out unpleasant. The new premise is that Geo-Force wakes up one day and decides he's become a joke and is going to become a more effective monarch for the little pissant imaginary country he rules, and in the process turn the Outsiders into an arm of Markovia's newly-muscular foreign policy and defense apparatus. (I think it's called Markovia? I can't remember and I can't be bothered to look it up.) So far so good, except for the fact that no one else in the book is Markovian - everyone else is an American citizen, except for Katana who is Japanese. So, um, why are they sticking around? There are even conversations in this book about the fact that multiple team members have no reason to stick around - so why are they going to stick around and be a part of this new iteration? Especially since their "friend" Brion is acting like a douchebag and in the process severing ties with Batman's extended family? The only reason the team ever existed in its current form was to pick up after Batman's sloppy seconds, so . . . why is Black Lightning going to stick around? So he can risk losing his American citizenship by fighting for a foreign government whose new national policy is overtly belligerent to that of the United States?

Does this make sense to anyone? It really is hard to avoid the impression that this book exists for no other reason than that it currently makes just slightly more money than it loses. But then there's the fact that this is the first issue to be written by DC EIC Dan Didio - which means, basically, that he has taken a personal interest in ensuring this comic does not fail. Again, why? Why is it so important that this comic succeed when it has been proven time and time again that there is nothing but a big pile of steaming consumer apathy where a loyal readership should be? The other option is that Didio really likes writing but couldn't justify giving himself a vanity project unless it was something as low-tier as a failing book like this, a dogsbody assignment that he could take over with little in the way of fuss? I don't actually think there's anything wrong with that: most people working in comics are there because they like comics, and this decade's tendency against having editors freelance on the side marks a very conscious break with accepted practice. Mark Gruenwald, Bob Harris and Tom DeFalco all produced some very fun and readable comics when they were occupying the top three spots in Marvel editorial, for example. Obviously Dan Didio is no Mark Gruenwald, but if he wants to put his money where his mouth is by putting his own work out for public consumption, more power to him. This is a rocky start, no doubt about it, but I live to be surprised.

Deadpool: Merc With A Mouth #7

Why does this book exist? Another good question, only this time there is a reasonable answer: for some odd reason, after having languished in low-selling purgatory for quite a while, Deadpool got moderately hot, so they decided to start pumping as much Deadpool onto the streets as they possibly could. This would be a bad thing, except for the fact that - um - this is actually a very good book.

I know, I know - what the hell? But bear with me: if you absolutely, positively had to have a Deadpool book, what should it be? Why, the most over-the-top, consciously, willfully absurd and exploitive action comic conceivable. Whereas Wolverine, for instance, is at least a nominally sober and self-serious figure (and his endless spin-offs are therefore comically self-serious and unreadable), Deadpool is comic relief, a joke even in his own book. All the people working on the new crop of Deadpool books seem to accept the idiocy of their premise and are proceeding accordingly: no one is trying to write any kind of "grim & gritty" Dark 'Pool Returns, not yet at least. This book here? It's got Deadpool (with his disembodied zombie head in tow) being shot around the multiverse and encountering alternate universe versions of himself, including a humorless hard-ass Nick Fury version, a female version, and even a Wild West version. In the process, we've got a seamless switch between the art of Kyle Baker and Rob Liefeld - yeah, bet you didn't see that one coming. It's positively moronic, and yet it works as sort-of a low wattage Ambush Bug - absolutely wallowing in the worst excesses of crass T&A action comics while at the same time mercilessly lampooning them. It actually seems as if the people involved in this book have put some thought into making Deadpool: Merc With A Mouth a fun, enjoyable comic book in the most unabashedly populist manner possible. I don't even mind the fact that Bong Dazo only shows up for three pages - he's my new favorite mainstream artists, just about, primarily because he seems to be having the time of his life with every page he draws.

How long can it last? I dunno: Lobo was funny, too, once upon a time . . . right up until the moment he wasn't. But in the duration, back when they were putting out massive quantities of Lobo spin-offs, one-shots and prestige-format books (roughly 1991-1994), some interesting stuff snuck out under the aegis of good creators who had some fun with the premise. Deadpool is a similar character who fulfills a similar function, story-wise, so maybe we'll see some similarly interesting results from this current commercial overexposure.

Brave and the Bold #31

I think at some point there must have been a bar bet between J. Michael Straczynski and someone in DC editorial that he couldn't possibly write a series so consistently bad as this - and every month as it gets progressively worse, he wins like, I dunno, ten bucks or something. Here we have the eighteen-billionth hero-has-to-save-the-Joker's-life story, only this time with the Atom. And the story actually begins OK, with a group of doctors telling the Atom that only he can save the Joker's life, and the Atom saying "Hell. To. The. No." The story should have ended there, with the Atom watching M*A*S*H reruns and falling asleep during Leno. But no, he eventually assents, goes in, saves the Joker's life even though he gets a headful of the Joker's memories in the process.

All of which adds up to - wait, wait a second. I thought the Joker didn't have anything resembling a canonical origin, and that this was part of the character's mystique? Now that Ray Palmer has seen the Joker's childhood and family life, with no caveats for it being a possible origin or a possible lie, that sort of changes the character's dynamic. "Hey, Bruce, you know all those times you tried to get to the bottom of the Joker's life and family? Well, have I got a story to tell you!" Seems like a big revelation for such an unimportant story.

But back to the crux of the action. The reason this story exists is due to a wrinkle in the makeup of contemporary super comics, wherein the heroes' moral code was formed in an age of sanitized children's entertainment, and became an absolutely inextricable part of their personality makeup, even as time passed in the real world and their villains' schemes metastasized into murderous, genocidal rampages. The only reason a character like the Atom has to save the Joker's life is his own personal ethical squeamishness, which doesn't even make any kind of sense - are heroes just so incredibly, overly sensitive to their own ethical development that they would lose sleep over passively letting a mass murderer die of an otherwise incurable disease? OK, let's see a show of hands: how many people would expend a lot of effort to deliver AIDS medication to Ted Bundy? I'm about as far left as you can get, I don't approve of the death penalty in 99/100 instances*, I'm 9/10ths a pacifist - but I'm not going to lose one iota of sleep over the life of a psycho serial killer. If you have a clean shot at at John Wayne Gacy? You take the shot. That's not something I think I would regret at all, you know? So when the Atom finishes by saying "I have to save his life, or I'll be no better than him!" it doesn't really make any sense. Or rather, it only makes sense if you consider that these books only exist as little passion plays put on for the sole purpose of testing the heroes' moral fiber. Which, I know, technically they are, and the endless citizen bystanders in these books are just lines on paper - but still. They might as well be admitting that no one else on the planet is as important as them, and that they see no ethical responsibility beyond the consequences of those actions for which they are directly responsible. The categorical imperative - who still does that? The Justice League, apparently.

The Joker? He should die because what is wrong with him is so far outside the spectrum of normal human behavior that his continued existence in any capacity is a threat to the safety of the body politic. And if you think it's wrong to compare real-life butchers with the Joker, it is, but that's the explicit comparison DC makes every time they put out a story with a mass-murdering Joker being held to fairyland ethical standards. Most people, if they saw someone like Albert Fish or Gacy or Bundy walking around on the streets, would not argue the ethics of putting them down like a rabid dog, and neither would you. If Batman has qualms about that, well, who the fuck elected him, anyway?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


ITEM! It's been a day, son. Been to California and back, but didn't see 'Pac.

ITEM! So, uh, Brightest Day? Really? Funny, that - just the day before I read that news I was absent-mindedly thinking to myself, "I guess that's what they're gonna call the sequel, but that's too obvious, it can't really be true." But I guess I can't afford to underestimate these people. So, is this going to be the story of Hal as a White Lantern? Is he going to go back in time and change the course of the Civil War?

ITEM! Honestly, I haven't minded Blackest Night so much - it's pretty much exactly what you could have predicted from the outset, and there's something to be said for a storyline that is very much about meeting its audience's expectations with an absolute clarity of purpose. Now that I've put some time between myself and the level of venom I expelled in my displeasure at Final Crisis, I think the major problem with that series was a fundamental question of expectations: a series called Final Crisis carried with it the expectation of being thematically, structurally and stylistically of a piece with all the previous Crises. it wasn't, and really, the manner in which it flouted the expectations of an audience (including myself) with a very clearly defined idea of what a sequel to the original Crisis on Infinite Earths should look still appears bafflingly combative in hindsight. (Not to single DC out here, Marvel did something similar a couple years back when they revived the Secret Wars brand for an event book that held no resemblance at all to the fondly-remembered original. [And yes, it gets a lot of flack, but the original Secret Wars is definitely fondly remembered by many current fans. ]) But Blackest Night reads exactly as you might have expected a story called Blackest Night to read: if you liked all the build-up in Green Lantern and its associated titles, if you liked the Sinestro Corps storyline, well, this is more of the same only moreso and with everyone else. It's stupid as fuck but damned if it doesn't provide exactly what is advertised on the tin. Makes you wonder if maybe they wouldn't have been better off having Johns write Final Crisis in the first place.

ITEM! Maybe it's a fairly silly qualm, but of all the revived Black Lantern zombies, I have to say the one I most thought would have the wherewithal to resist the ring's programming was Jonah Hex, for some odd reason. I know it probably wouldn't have fit in a one-off crossover book, but it would have been cool to have Hex say something like "I don't kill for free, and I don't wear no damn jewelry," before pulling the ring off his hand and crumbling back into stubborn dust.

ITEM! I've seen a few people express dissatisfaction with Siege so far, stating that for a story claiming to be the culmination of seven years' worth of Marvel stories, it's not really culminating anything so far. Serious question: was anyone expecting some kind of massively dense continuity-heavy saga with all the loose ends from Secret War, Avengers: Disassembled, House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion and Dark Reign tied up in a neat bundle? All that's going to happen in this story is that in the next-to-last issue Cap, Thor and Iron Man will reunite, yell "Avengers Assemble!" and clobber Norman Osborn at the big finish, before Steve Rogers gives up his uniform for Bucky in order to accept Obama's invitation to be the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Which will probably make Secret Warriors even more useless, but it's already a pretty useless book, I assume Bendis has a plan of some kind.) Then in a special epilogue issue, after Osborn is taken into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, he escapes, finds his last secret cache of Green Goblin gear, and can only be taken down by Spider-Man. See, I just saved you however many shekels.

ITEM! And boy, they sure miscalculated with the whole Hulk thing. Why do you think they're so pathologically insistent on keeping his family of books separate from the rest of the line? How cool would it be if Siege actually featured all of the founding members of the Avengers reuniting? As silly as it seems, the Hulk's absence from the Avengers is one of my little nerd pet-peeves. I'm actually quite fond of the Hulk and am enjoying the current Red Hulk / War of the Hulks storyline for what it's worth - but I can't help thinking it might not have been more effective for them to somehow fold the Hulk's story back into the big Avengers event, if only temporarily.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Sensational Character Find of 2010

Introducing - Hitler Cat.

And Hitler Cat's special arch-nemesis, Reverse Hitler Cat:

Really not impressed with Hitler Cat:

OK, taking photos of cat food bags on my MacBook, is this one of those "moment of clarity" type things?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

This Always Happens!

Just weeks after finishing up all the best of 2009 lists - for places like Popmatters and The Factual Opinion - I come across another 2009 release that would probably have shot to the top of my actual list if I had heard it in time. That release? Sainthood by Tegan and Sara.

I'd never heard them before, but I checked out the album with some Christmas money, based on a positive write-up of the band I'd read in SPIN. To put it mildly, I was blown away and listened to the album like twelve times in the space of a day and a half.

Am I a girl now? Seriously, I dunno. All I can say is that this is one of those rare rock and roll records that somehow manages to make you feel like a teenager again, if only for one deeply puzzled moment of wistful reflection - except it's not really teenage music, it's definitely a bit more earned and significantly less histrionic than most of what passes for teenage rock & roll these days. Grown-ups can write about heartbreak and desperation too, and although they may not look it these ladies are pushing 30. That freaks my mind.

If I could go back in time, this would be my pick for #1 on the Factual Opinion Best Songs list:

I don't really have anything too perceptive to add, except that if you like the rock and the roll, you really should seek this album out and give it a shot. Hell, I bet you spent more on Blackest Night tie-ins you didn't want just so you could get the purple and orange cock rings than you could find this disc for down at your local Best Buy.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

And In The End, Part Two

(Spoilers for last week's show, I guess.)

Even something as stupid as hanging around a council flat with Rose and her mother seems, in retrospect, necessary. It was a different kind of Doctor Who, but Eccleston was still recognizably the same Doctor - just having to face a different kind of threat than he had ever faced before. He actually needed people in a very tangible way. And sure enough, by the time he was ready to change into Tennant, he had changed significantly. He had healed quite a bit, and Tennant was - as a result - more confident, brash, downright conceited at times. These traits failed him as often as not, but this fallibility made Tennant a compelling character: he actually failed, because he wasn't always as clever as he thought he was.

One of the nice features of the BBC's general philosophy when casting new Doctors is that new Doctors are usually very different than the previous Doctors. The upside of this is, from a story perspective, it often seems as if new regenerations "correct" personality flaws of their previous incarnations. Pertwee was a genial, dapper swashbuckler where Troughton had been grumpy, disheveled and occasionally conniving. Tom Baker was forbidding and wry, so Davison was friendly, almost to a fault; the latter surrounding himself with an affectionate surrogate family, where Baker had traveled with single companions to whom he often visibly condescended. Colin Baker was arrogant where Davison had been warm; McCoy sly where Baker had been self-righteous.

Where Eccleston was emotional and hesitant, Tennant was self-assured to a fault. And certainly, this confidence - which had fatally curdled into conceit on "The Waters of Mars" - killed him in the end. Tennant was a good Doctor, and one of the best parts of his performance is that he wasn't afraid to make the character unlikeable. (Something similar had been done before with Colin Baker, but a number of other factors conspired to make Baker's tenure a failure, not least of which being substandard writing - at least until the generally very good "Trial of a Time Lord" series - and a truly horrendous costume that would have undercut even Sir Lawrence Olivier.) Sure enough, by the time the end rolled around, he had won but not necessarily through any fault of his own - he had stumbled into victory despite being on the defensive for the entirety of both episodes. He was overconfident and underprepared, and was saved in a moment of crucial indecision by the Master, of all people. And as a result of his failure, he put himself in a position of being undone by his hubris. He failed simply because he hadn't bothered paying attention to what his last friend in the world was doing - that is, being a hero when the Doctor was busy making the problem worse.

But that brings us back to the problems with the episode. In summation, all of these ideas are great, and a kind fan can see in outline all the ideas that Davies was trying to cover. Tennant was a good performer even when the script let him down. But the fact is, the script did let him down, repeatedly. That plot summary above looks great on paper, but I'm eliding the actual nuts-and-bolts of the narrative - with good reason, because there's a pretty wretched gap between conception and execution in this instance.

In thinking about the show over the last few days, the best analogy that came to mind in considering Davies' shortcomings as a writer was, to stay on a nerd tip, Brian Michael Bendis. Sure enough, Bendis is usually supremely sure-footed in terms of character-based drama (if not in giving each character a unique voice). Even his worst stories nevertheless usually have some kind of character-based through-line that makes them readable, even when - as is often the case with the larger crossovers - a little less character work would make for a much nimbler beast. (See "Avengers: Disassembled" House of M and Secret Invasion, all of which suffer more or less on the same account.) Bendis has trouble dealing with any scale and scope above the personal. Sometimes you just need the big panel of all the heroes sitting around a big room with identifying captions next to their heads while Reed Richards explains the story - and Bendis has always been chary about doing the scut work of plot mechanics above the minimum necessary to get from capital-M Moment to Moment. Watching "The End of Time," I was filled with a sensation not unlike that of reading Secret Invasion: I felt that I was watching a good outline for an eventually great story, except that the actual skeleton of the plot around which the nice character bits and grand Moments had been neglected altogether. Beginnings and endings are easy, I guess - it's what comes in the middle that's hard. There were lots of "Wow!" Moments throughout the episode, but shorn of a decent plot the effects were greatly lessened.

So even though the series explicitly tied up a pile of loose ends from across the last five years - and even raised a few new nagging twists that might never be properly addressed* - it somehow still managed to seem perfunctory. Maybe because they didn't have a whole season to build up the plotline properly, but the return of the Time Lords seemed rushed. The fact that the Time Lords initially lost the Time War because the Doctor trapped them at the destruction of Gallifrey in order to save existence itself was a meaty nugget, and certainly the next time I rewatch Eccleston it'll make even more sense to me that he was so scattered and downright bipolar in places. That the Doctor had to make the same choice twice - between the life of his race and the continued existence of the universe - made for good drama, even if the actual staging left quite a bit to be desired.

• So, OK, you're holding a gun to Rassilon, (presumably) one of the most powerful Time Lords who have ever existed, and he's wielding some Infinity Gauntlet-looking badass Power Glove . . . you're poking a British Army service pistol in his face and he's just sort of letting you do that? Was the Doctor too powerful for Rassilon to be able to disintegrate in the same manner he dismissed the dissenting council member at the beginning of the episode? Maybe a bit of dialogue to clear this matter up would have been nice.

• Additionally, the Doctor is standing there all that time and it takes him, what, five minutes to figure out if he just shoots the machine the problem will go away? I daresay even Peri would have figured that one out. I realize the point of the sequence was to make the Doctor's indecision look agonizing and to underscore the gap between his conceit and his abilities (just like on "The Waters of Mars") - but the way the scene is staged makes him look less humbled than merely stupid.

• And what about not just one but two very blatant and superfluous Star Wars homages? I don't mind the cantina scene - it's a genre staple at this point, even Trek has done them - but Xeroxing the scene in the first movie where Luke has to climb into the Millennium Falcon's turret to blast the Tie Fighters was just blatant and stupid. I mean, seriously, an old man and a civilian space junk dealer are going to be able to shoot off dozens of ICBMs? Really. I won't even bother asking why the hell a mining ship doesn't just have automatic firing capabilities far more effective than mere human reflexes, or why none of those ICBMs were carrying nuclear payloads.

• Or what about that deathtrap? Seriously, people: if you're going to build a deathtrap, you've got to make it at least slightly probable. Like, a magically shielded glass room that can absorb all the venting from an out-of-control nuclear reaction. Yes, OK. Assuming the Doctor wasn't just atomized instantly, why the hell couldn't he figure out a way to undo that lock? I know, I know - "not even my sonic screwdriver can help!" Just break the glass and pull the old dude free. Or, you know, use the robot from the end of "Waters of Mars."

• And while we're on the subject, why couldn't the Doctor just get some immediate treatment for radiation sickness? If he was still up and walking around, why couldn't he vent the regeneration energy like he did at the beginning of "Journey's End?" And it sure was convenient that he happened to live on just long enough to say goodbye to every single person he ever knew, save maybe for the guy who runs the BBC catering truck.

• From a purely mechanical standpoint, this was a horribly structured two-parter. How much of the first part was spent with the Doctor and the Master running around a junkyard banging on cans? It sure felt like forever. And considering just how massively important the real bad guys actually were, the revelation sure came out of nowhere (at least, if like me you had studiously avoided any spoilers beforehand). The last half of the story (barring the epilogue) was so rushed it almost seems perverse that the first half was so laconic and stuffed with purposeless red herrings.

• Speaking of which, just what was the point of all the stuff with Obama and Joshua Naismith? They could have accomplished the same plot bits without the extraneous exposition if they had wanted to, but as it is these two additions meant nothing.

I could go on but I'm feeling spent from this particularly bout of nerd rage. I guess, since we did one post on the past, and this post on the present, we have to do another on the future - and the prospects of Mr. Matt Smith. So, next!

* OK, I'll submit in a couple suggestions for possible fan-appeasing dialogue insertions for the DVD Directors' Cut:

"The Time Lords were mad enough to resurrect a dead god to lead them to suicide!"


">choke< . . . Susan!"

(preferable to ">choke< . . . mom!", considering that everyone knows Time Lords don't have mommies, they have looms.)

Monday, January 04, 2010

And In The End

Anyone who ever criticizes a fan for complaining too loudly and too often should take a step back and realize that, for many fans, that's the fun part of their hobby, and that they feel more involved and more excited the more they get to whine. S'truth. I suspect (without wanting to construct a Straw Man, this is just idle speculation!) that the people who complain that the complaining fans don't seem to be having any fun are probably just jealous because the people complaining - no matter how loud and vociferous those complaints may be - are still more engaged with and immersed in the object of their fan adoration than any casual fan without the necessary bit of self-identification necessary to see their own identity so tightly and inextricably wound up in the process. That's one of the reasons why die-hard sports fans resent fair-weather fans. It's been said before but it bears repeating: it's easy to root for the winning team, but it doesn't quite feel the same if you haven't also been on hand for ten straight losing seasons.

Fans complain, it's in their nature; sci-fi fans complain quite a bit; Dr. Who fans are perhaps the oddest and most dyspeptic sub-species of the latter group. Ergo: Dr. Who fans complain more than just about any other group of people on the planet except for, I don't know, Cubs fans. But they complain because they - we - love. So, anyone who wants to turn off at the inevitable fan complaints about "The End of Time" are probably justified in doing so, but for those who care, it's the Monday morning quarterbacking that makes up half the fun. (Sometimes even ¾.)

But the fact remains, it was a pretty bad episode, and a very poor send-off to one of the better Doctors. The fact that Tennant managed to come off so well despite being undercut by poor, maudlin writing at (almost) every turn really isn't that extraordinary: anyone who knows Doctor Who on more than a casual basis knows that at its best the show can still be pretty bad. Which does not mean that bad is the best to which the show can aspire, just that the reasons why we love it have little to do with "good" or "bad." Most of the old serials - and by "most" I really do mean most of them - are messes in one way or another. Anyone who's sat through a Pertwee or Tom Baker series on DVD in one sitting can attest that even the very best are horribly padded, filled with logical inconsistencies and downright daffy performances from many actors and actresses who should never have been allowed on a soundstage for a national television program (I'm thinking specifically of Peter Davison's companions, not just Adric but every single last one of them). But we love them all the same. Even a really, really good serial, like "The Green Death" or "City of Death" still drags on reevaluation. The villain is never anywhere near as smart or resourceful as their reputation leads the viewer to believe; the plot is overly complicated just to ensure that all the actors have something to do for four or six weeks; all the complications pile up one on top of the other in such a way that it seems less like a logical narrative progression than a particularly deadpan game of Exquisite Corpse. Still: it's great. It doesn't matter what cardboard-and-foam monstrosity the Doctor is facing this week, just seeing the Doctor outsmart bad guys and outmaneuver bad writing makes up for sitting through however many overlong scenes of badly costumed extras running around one of England's many abandoned industrial wastelands.

"The End of Time" was a poor episode not because it failed to live up to some imaginary sterling standard of science-fiction television excellence, but because it wasn't very good, period; and it wasn't very good in ways distressingly familiar to anyone who's followed the new Who closely. It was saved by good performances from good actors working hard despite a script that could have been written by an illiterate child.

But first, let's linger a moment on the good: Russell Davies leaves the show having accomplished a modern miracle, and he should get all the credit in the world for this. As bad a writer as he could be, he was a great producer. If they had brought back a new Who that felt like 1985 it would have flopped after one or two miserable, anachronistic seasons, but Davies was smart enough to know that in 2005, especially in a show now officially targeted at adults and families and not even ostensibly towards children as a primary audience, good TV is character-driven. Story-wise, he managed to change the Doctor's world without actually changing the Doctor himself, which is quite a neat trick: it wouldn't do to upend the Doctor's character and completely alienate the hardcore base, but he needed to be more a involved and more personable character to carry a prime-time drama. So - take substantively the same character but put him into a situation where he was uncharacteristically vulnerable and weak. Force him into a situation where he had to change, ever so slightly, in a way that would feel natural and unforced but made him slightly more identifiable and approachable for non-fans. Of all the modern relaunches of classic sci-fi properties, I would argue that Who has succeeded the best, way better than Star Wars, better even than Trek and Battlestar: Galactica. The reason why is that the show manages to feel simultaneously new and old - a brand new show conceived to fit snugly as an artifact of 2005-2010 pop culture, and yet exactly what Doctor Who should have looked like if it had never been cancelled in 1989 and had remained in continuous production for forty full years.

If you had told the assembled Who fans at the start of the decade that a relaunched Doctor would enter into intimately close relationships with companions, going so far as to actually meet his companions' families (gasp!) and leaning on them for (good heavens!) moral support and ethical guidance - well, they all would have howled to the high heavens. And sure enough, many of them did, but many more did not. And although I admit I disliked Rose (although not so much initially as I came to hate her later on when she just would not leave), found the endless scenes with Rose's mother and Mickey grating, and initially disliked Martha Jones for much the same reasons (even if Martha redeemed herself by being ever so slightly less helpless and cloying than Rose) . . . well, in hindsight, I can see where it was going. The Doctor that we met in 2005 was a hollow shell of the magisterial, imposing figure he had been in 1989 or even (shudder) 1996. He was chastened and shellshocked, for reasons we didn't fully understand until just this last episode. He was a changed man, and while certain elements of Eccleston's Doctor may have made the purists squeal, on the whole it worked because the characters were strong enough to pull it off.

Because he was only the Doctor for one year, Eccleston's Doctor was allowed to have an actual character arc: he changed and grew, came out of his post-war shell and reengaged with the universe. He was erratic and at times desperate, needy and even petulant - not necessarily conditions I would ever have associated with the Doctor before. But personally I was surprised by just how easily it all made sense once I started watching. I had initially dismissed the relaunch, and only relented to watch the first few episodes as a lark. (I distinctly recall them sitting on my DVR for a couple weeks before I got around to watching them out of nothing so much as a sense of resigned duty to another childhood favorite dutifully murdered by ill-conceived revamp.) But as soon as Eccleston walked onscreen and introduced himself as the Doctor, my reservations faded away. It just felt right in a way that, say, the new Star Trek movie did not. Perhaps it's not a good analogy, because in Trek's case there had never been a turnover in performers playing the same characters like last years' soft reboot. But still: I had expected the relaunch to be a misfire. It wasn't, and for all the changes the show experienced it was remarkable how much it still felt like the Doctor - the very same Doctor who had fought the Meddling Monk and the Black Guardian and Davros and worn a sprig of celery on his lapel - the same Doctor I grew up with and had watched every Saturday night at 10:00PM on the local PBS affiliate. It's hard to remember the skepticism now, but it was hard to imagine then that the new Doctor would ever fit so neatly in our imaginations as the logical and necessary continuation of the same old Doctor we all grew up with. That he does, with no reservations regardless of the new series' many faults, is as much or moreso a testament to Davies as Eccleston or Tennant.

Next: Why Tennant was a good Doctor, even if his scripts often failed him.