Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Aven Flock (Odyssey, 2001)

Another week, another underwhelming creature from Magic's first decade.

There's not really a lot worth saying about the card itself. It should go without saying that no sane person would willingly play this, at least in constructed. A 2/3 with Flying might be steep even at a cheaper price, and at a 4W it's just another piece of cardboard that might once have been feasible as part of a Limited pool but will almost certainly never again see the light of day.

This card came out during a period when I wasn't playing nor paying attention to the game. According to Wikipedia, the Odyssey block was a self-contained storyline set on the continent of Otaria and featuring a group of new characters and races scrambling after a MacGuffin called the Mirari. Which makes about as much sense as most Magic storylines - well, I kid. Magic is usually pretty good at story these days, they've got a hotshot creative team working behind the scenes and they've learned a lot of lessons from poorly-received blocks like Odyssey and Kamigawa, to say nothing of the clusterfuck that was the imploding Weatherlight saga. Which is to say: this was apparently a poorly-received set, at least partially because the magical quest storyline was at odds with the actual gameplay themes - graveyard focus, discard-heavy, an emphasis on ideas like insanity and dementia, alongside weird mechanics like Madness (something that even a dim-bulb like me can tell was probably never going to work the way they wanted it to). The game has gotten a lot better at making gameplay and storyline jibe, which partially explains its resurgence in recent years.

The first thing that jumps out at me about the card - yes, even more than the fantastic "Bird Soldier" in the type-line - is the art by Greg & Tim Hildebrandt. I hadn't given any thought to the Hildebrandts in a long time. If you're younger than me you might not even know who the Hildebrandts were, but for multiple generations of fantasy fans the Hildebrandts were absolutely definitive. They provided the authoritative looks for Tolkien's Middle Earth (and all the epic fantasy that followed in its wake) for many years, before even Rankin-Bass released their TV version of The Hobbit in 1977. Even if you don't know their names, you might still be familiar with their work - check out here, here, and here for a few of the more famous images. The Tolkien calendars in which these images first appeared are still popular. Chances are good that you can walk into any Barnes & Noble across the country and find their illustrations peering out of one or more editions of Tolkienana.

They didn't just do Tolkien, of course. They even did some Marvel art in the nineties, for a trading card set if I recall correctly. Even given the gimmicky nature of comic book trading cars in the nineties, they still produced some handsome images, like this and this (the latter being perhaps the most famous of their Marvel pieces, you still see it pop up here and there). That they did some Magic art is cool, even though I know that Wizards of the Coast hasn't historically had some of the most artist-friendly policies. (I have no idea what Wizards' current deals are, but considering the number of talented artists who work almost exclusively for the company I can't imagine it's not better than it was in the mid-nineties).

I didn't realize - or had forgotten - that Tim Hildebrandt died in 2006. That would explain their absence from the contemporary fantasy scene. Nothing can diminish their achievement in setting the look of epic fantasy for multiple generations of fans.

(Worth noting - even if you're not into fantasy, the Brothers Hildebrandt also created the iconic first poster for an obscure sci-fi movie you may have heard of at some point.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Banshee (The Dark, 1994)

Hello, Banshee! You're a terrible card from an awful set. You've also managed to be reprinted a couple times, which is something.

Back in the day when Magic was a completely new phenomenon, back before there were any other collectible card games with which to be compared, things were a little bit looser. And by looser, I mean completely out of control. The first sets were for a number of reasons so overpowered that they threatened to destabilize the still-nascent but already immensely popular game before it ever got off the ground. The expansion sets that followed the success of the first core sets were, if we're being honest, rush-jobs: they didn't know how to make trading card games yet, and they didn't understand quite how things like "power level" worked. So after the immensely overpowered Alpha and the still very powerful Arabian Nights, we got progressively less powerful sets such as Antiquities and Legends, and finally Fallen Empires and Homelands. The Dark is, from what I gather, often lumped in with the latter two as part of the game's nadir of weak game play (as opposed to the nadir of strong game play, which is probably Urza's Saga). Point being, if you don't understand anything about Magic, the early sets were often not very good because they simply had no idea how these things should be made, and it took them years to figure out how.

In hindsight, it's remarkable that the game survived its first couple years, based on how many things they did wrong. They weren't prepared for the game to become a blow-the-doors-off overnight success. They didn't know how important creating new cards at a consistent rate would become towards maintaining the game's momentum. And they certainly didn't know how quickly the game would be adopted by hardcore non-casual collectors who would be willing to spend a lot of money to amass as many cards as possible. This is important: the game was originally conceived as a casual pastime. Sounds weird, right? There are few more intense stereotypes in all of nerd-dom than Magic players: extreme tunnel-vision, devoted to rules minutiae, hyper-competitive, downright nasty if cornered. I've run into a few of those myself, and its one reason why I don't really play the game anymore, save for occasional bouts of weakness when I reinstall MTGO on my computer and lose a few weeks before realizing why I took it off in the first place. Ahem.

Anyway: the game was initially conceived as a time-killer for in-between role-playing games. The kind of thing you could do in five or ten minutes waiting for a bus or at lunch. You'd buy a few packs, put together a deck based on whatever you had or could trade within your play group, and be off. To a degree this makes sense if you're looking at your business model strictly as a subsidiary of the role-playing game industry. It's not as if there aren't collectible elements to Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk, but for the most part the game is pretty straight-forward in terms of purchasing habits. You buy books and maps and folders, all of which are readily available in stores for purchase. That's simplifying things immensely, because I know there are things like miniatures and models and out-of-print books and all that jazz - but it's not a market geared towards collectors as its primary constituency.

This isn't true for Magic. The most pernicious thing about the game is that it encourages gambling behavior in two different ways. In the first place, you've got the rush of opening packs and looking for the best cards, the cards you need or can trade or sell for others. That's akin to buying a scratcher ticket and seeing whether you win your money back or hit the once-in-a-lifetime jackpot. But then there's playing the game itself, which is more like poker or bridge in terms of the combination of skill and luck involved. While I do not know based on personal experience, I would be amazed if there weren't high-stakes Magic players somewhere converging in smoke-filled back rooms (to say nothing of the legitimate tournament players who play for huge pots of prize money.)

The combination of the collectors' mentality and the hyper-competitiveness of certain strains of gamer created a genuinely unforeseen set of circumstances, a "perfect storm" of dangerously addictive behaviors that quickly escalated into an entire industry. Powerful cards and strategies were exploited to their utmost by a rabid player base, a secondary market for valuable cards sprang up out of the ether, and any hopes that the game would be a casual pastime evaporated within just a few months of the first set's release. The rise of the CCG market - and Magic in particular - also stands as an interesting side chapter in the history of the collapse of the comics market in the mid-90s. Magic appeared in 1993, the year the comics boom began to go bust. Magic was such an immediate success that it became an important revenue source for many comics stores that also sold games, or even comics store who diversified into Magic as a way of keeping the doors open. But Magic experienced its own glut beginning 1995, when the company's print runs finally met with demand and overprinted sets like Fallen Empires began to clog store shelves alongside all the other waves of CCGs that had sprung up in Magic's immediate wake. The Dark wasn't very good but it was still new Magic from a period where Magic was the only real game in town, so it sold without even having to be not-terrible.

All of which brings us back to our friend Banshee here. This is a terrible card for a number of reasons, but the most important one is probably the fact that its ability is pretty useless and unnecessarily complicated. I'm no dummy but back when I first played the game in the mid-90s one of the things that bugged me was cards that seemed unintelligible on first, second, or even third glance. This isn't the worst offender from these early days - that would still be this, a card that gave me hours of joy back in the nineties trying to parse exactly what it does (still can't really figure it out). But this is still pretty awful. Four mana for a guy who can't even swing for one or block anything without dying instantly. He does damage to your opponent if you spend the mana, but just as much damage, if not more, to you. Say you've got three mana to spare and you spend it on Banshee's ability here. That means you do one damage to him and two to yourself. Fantastic.

The flavor text seems to have migrated in from a much better card:
Some say Banshees are the hounds of Death, baying to herd their prey into the arms of their master.
That's a fairly badass description of what a Banshee might do, except for the fact that this isn't what this Banshee actually does. More like:
Some say Banshees are completely miserable and useless creature who no one would ever play unless it was a dare.
Because the first set was so powerful that the game could not feasibly sustain cards of that power level without damaging long-term viability, the designers (a motley assortment of people Richard Garfield knew from grad school) overcompensated by making the next handful of sets massively underpowered, and unplayable for an entirely different set of reasons. Banshee here is a relic of a time when the game really didn't know what it wanted or needed to be, because no one had ever done this before. He's overcosted and underpowered, with a complex ability that has a steep drawback. He sucks, except for his art, which is pretty awesome. He looks like Isaac Hayes crashing your haunted house.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Hipparion (Ice Age, 1995)

I love cards that are just straight-up a normal animal who just happens to have fallen under the control of a shady wizard. This is why Grizzly Bears will always be the best card, and why you should accept no substitutes. I've seen the arguments in favor of replacing the Grizz with more "flavorful" versions of the same card, but my response is always the same: if magically controlling a giant grizzly bear isn't fantastic enough for you, you live a much more interesting life than I do.

And I think the same goes for our friend Hipparion, more or less. The Hipparion was apparently a real genus of horse that existed for 22 million years, before dying out somewhere around a million years ago. The problem here is that the hipparion skulls I'm seeing online appear to be significantly different than those of contemporary horses - more rounded, less elongated. Also, hipparion still had three vestigial toes. Although we don't see our boy's hooves here, his face looks more or less like what you'd expect a modern horse to look like.

He also looks pretty fucking spooked, which is something horses do quite a bit from my understanding. And why wouldn't he be? He's a horse. Some asshole wizard probably summoned him to do battle with a giant dragon or horde of zombies, and he's not very happy with the situation. And if you look at his ability, it actually captures a bit of the flavor of a recalcitrant horse: you have to pay more mana to get him to block a creature with power three or greater. Which means, if you're going to ask him to die, you have to pay more. I can imagine the horse's thought process:
What the fuck, I was just minding my own business chomping on some grass when this grody dude in a spangly muumuu summoned me to fight or something. I'm a god damned horse, I'm not a wyvern or merfolk. I like to eat grass, run around the plains, mount some sweet fillies. Sometimes if I'm feeling frisky I go around and kick some bros, that kind of thing. But now I'm facing down a field full of goblins for God-knows-what reason - I guess it's not so bad, I can stomp those guys pretty easy. That bear is pretty fierce but we just bounce off each other, so no worries. Wait, what? He wants me to block this thing? Fuck that guy, I am not getting crushed so this asshole can get one more turn to pray he pulls an Oblivion Ring before scooping. He's not even wearing any underwear under that muumuu, it's just swinging down there.
The flavor text for Hipparion reads, "Someone once said that Hipparions are to Warriors what Aesthir are to Skyknights. Don't believe it." This pearl of wisdom is attributed to General Jarkeld, the "Arctic Fox." General Jarkeld really does not look very intimidating. He does look like he spent a lot of time planning his outfit for the Cure show down in Pittsburgh. I also like how the flavor text is basically this dude slagging on the Hipparion. Like, really? The Hipparion are unreliable mounts who don't want to get killed? Great way to advertise how awesome the Hipparion is to people. "Play this card, even the made-up people in the game think it's stupid."

But I like Hipparion. Sure, he's basically useless, but he's also a horse, and horses are cool. He actually seems pretty upset about his lot in life, which - considering that he probably dies a lot, when he's not sitting in a box somewhere being unplayable - is pretty understandable.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Um, OK.

You just keep on keepin' on, Simon.

From West Coast Avengers #16 by Steve Englehart, Al Milgrom, and Joe Sinnott

Friday, December 13, 2013

Better Watch The Fuck Out

Tigra ain't taking your shit anymore.

From West Coast Avengers #10 (1986) by Steve Englehart, Al Migrom, & Joe Sinnott

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Masters of Sex

Masters of Sex is not a perfect show, but so far it's better than it had any right to be.

The series began with a number of obvious strikes against it:
1. A detailed period piece set in the late 1950s, uncomfortably close to the era of Mad Men.

2. It's on Showtime, a network with a history of mismanaging its prestige (or even just decent guilty pleasure) dramas. The twin collapses of Homeland and Dexter are harsh examples for anyone foolish enough to trust the network to shepherd a quality show in the same manner as HBO and AMC. (The only real counterexample, Shameless, remains strong as it heads into its fourth season - but also perpetually underrated, and if anything, poorly promoted by a network that otherwise has every right to be proud of the show's consistency.)

3. This isn't a fictional cast of characters, this is about William Masters & Virginia Johnson, real scientists whose real research had real repercussions across American society and the world. It's hard to overestimate the significance of Masters & Johnson's work, but that very ubiquity could well make it difficult for the show to avoid falling into the mode of breathless hyperbole.

4. It's about sex. Not metaphorically. It's right there in the title. The show does not - cannot, really - shy away from depicting the act in the plainest terms. There's no male full-frontal, but they give us just about everything else, including the view from inside a woman's vaginal cavity as she experiences an orgasm. Given the unavoidably prurient subject matter, and given America's extremely poor track record in ever discussing sex without falling to juvenile titters, the show must walk a fine line between maintaining its dramatic bona fides and succumbing to the temptation towards unvarnished exploitation.

I can't say that the show has successfully managed to circumvent all these potential stumbling blocks. It's not quite out of the woods yet.

But so far, so good.

Yes, it's a costume drama set in the years right before the beginning of Mad Men. To a degree I feel the show uses that to its advantage: whereas the earliest episodes of Mad Men lost a lot of time on exposition, simply explaining the context of the early 1960s for an audience primarily composed of people who had not yet been born (go back and watch those first few episodes - they really are a drag), Masters of Sex didn't need to spend near as much time on this kind of contextualization. Watching the first episodes, I feel as if the show took advantage of the fact that a large percentage of its audience could be assumed to be familiar with Mad Men: we already know the milieu. There are far fewer of those groan-inducing moments of Sally Draper wandering around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, or the children jumping around the inside of the car without a seatbelt in sight, to illustrate just how different the world of the past was. We get it.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this. It's no different, really, from the way in which new doctor shows assume the audience's familiarity with the hospital milieu - and the conventions of generations of previous doctor shows. The well-heeled, exquisitely detailed mid-twentieth-century period piece is a thing now, and I don't think Masters of Sex will be the last show to follow the lead of Mad Men. AMC has another new drama coming down the pike, Halt & Catch Fire, that sounds even more explicitly cut from the Mad Men cloth, if the advance hype is to be believed. All to the good.

What really elevates Masters of Sex, and the number one factor that makes me believe the show will outpace its potential shortcomings, is the acting. No flies on Lizzy Caplan (although, to be honest, I keep wondering how she gets so much time off from her catering job), but the show belongs to Michael Sheen. I don't really want to compare his work here to that of Jon Hamm, because that's a completely facile and obvious comparison, but for all that it's still an inevitable comparison. As different as Don Draper and William Masters are, both characters serve as the centripetal force that unifies a large and diverse ensemble cast. Both Hamm and Sheen (and Steve Buscemi too, for that matter) are very comfortable standing stock still and allowing the rest of the show to happen around them. They are the immovable objects around which the drama revolves.

The difference, however, is that Don Draper - for all his transgressive behavior - remains deeply invested in the status quo. One of the overarching themes of Mad Men, when taken as a whole, is Don's growing impotence in the face of cultural upheaval. For all his personal demons, he was really quite fond of his life circa 1960, and his frustration at being unable to move the clock back is perhaps the show's central narrative. William Masters could not be more different. Masters is not helpless in the face of cultural change: he is a force for cultural change. We as viewers know this is true because we know just how famous Masters & Johnson eventually became, and how many copies of Human Sexual Response were sold.

The problem with this kind of narrative is that it can be difficult to balance the needs of fiction against the needs of following the template of real-world history. This is the knife's edge that Boardwalk Empire has been walking for some time now: the introduction of Al Capone and the subsequent Chicago gang wars constantly threaten to wrench the narrative away from its (fictional) grounding in Atlantic City. The fact that we know Al Capone is a figure of historical import presents a challenge to the writers faced with the unenviable task of keeping Capone in the story without having Capone become the story to the detriment of the rest of the show's wide array of (mostly fictional) gangsters and goons. The singular importance of Masters & Johnson to twentieth-century cultural history is both the greatest strength of and greatest potential weakness facing Masters of Sex: we want to know how it turns out, even if we know how it turns out. We have no idea what happens to Don Draper at the end of Mad Men, but barring a strange Tarantino-esque left turn, we know that William Masters dies in 2001 at the age of 85, married thrice, with Virginia Johnson as his second wife from 1971-1992. (Sorry for the "spoilers.") This isn't the first television program to face the challenge of coloring inside the lines of history while remaining fresh, but it is a challenge nonetheless.

The great irony at the heart of Masters of Sex is that even though William Masters believes with confidence that his great work on human sexuality will change the world, he remains personally unable to understand just how these changes will effect the world immediately around him. The show portrays him as cold and distant, an extremely practical and precise clinician who is nevertheless compelled to risk his sterling reputation on a potentially ruinous course of research. So far, with the first season almost on the books, William Masters remains something of an enigma: we know a little bit about an unhappy childhood, we know he is extremely repressed (but then, so is just about everyone), and further than that, he is pathologically unable to express even the most simple human emotions. Certainly it makes sense that such a stolid individual would be drawn to the most seemingly chaotic, messy, and disreputable field possible. But at the same time there is still something missing from Masters that keeps the audience from identifying too closely with such a genuinely troubled (and genuinely brilliant) person. He's really not very nice. To be precise: he is consistently callous and distant, and often seemingly malicious for no reason other than simple caprice. He is dangerous and ruthless, and willing without a second thought to blackmail his closest friends in order to fund his research. He is attractive because of his confidence and his intelligence - and both attributes are well illustrated by Sheen's performance - but there is also something very essential absent from his makeup. We are consistently rooting for him to be a decent human being, and he consistently fails.

The closest we get to understanding Masters over the course of the season - to date - is a comment towards the end of the most recent episode. His wife asks him if, when his research is published and his findings are accepted and his genius is acclaimed, he won't then be content with his accomplishments. He replies to her, simply, "there's always something to prove."

The show has improved dramatically since its first episodes. The beginnings of great series are never quite as auspicious as we would like them to be, in hindsight: the first couple episodes of Mad Men are inert; the first episode of The Wire is ham-fisted and on-the-nose in a way the show would never again be; and the first truncated half-season of Breaking Bad was so boring it scared me away from the show for years afterward. True to form, Masters of Sex takes a while to get going. The show needed to move past the shock value of its own sexual content before it could settle in to a comfortable groove. There are of course a few inevitable scenes of 1950s yokels tugging on their proverbial collars and exclaiming "Gollee!" at the sight of a pretty woman. There's a terrible, terrible metaphor involving a completely period-inaccurate comic book story, at which everyone reading this will probably cringe. Not the type of bush-league mistake Matthew Weiner would ever make, not on his worst day.

But the show improves. The second half of the season makes a case for the show as a serious contender. Once past its earliest fumbles it begins to gather steam at an impressive rate. I think, if Masters of Sex continues on to become the show it could be, episode ten of this season, "Fallout," may come to be regarded as the tipping point: finally, the show managed to stick the landing completely. There's a distinctive tone here that could bode well in terms of the show being able to carve out an identity for itself outside the expectations of previous prestige dramas. You have serious melodrama (the question of who impregnated Masters' wife) overlaid by brief flashes of farce (the nuclear strike drill), mixed with workplace drama and serious character work, all built around a genuinely shocking fist-fight. But if, after this one season, we can identify a singular motif for the program, it's the continuing, repeated trauma of very unhappy people slowly coming to realize for the very first time that they actually are unhappy, and struggling blindly for ways in which to make themselves feel better. The moment Masters begins his sex study, things begin to change. It's the catalyst, the first domino that sets off a chain of completely unintended and yet also inevitable consequences. These unintended consequences comprise the show's narrative. "Fallout" is the moment when it becomes obvious for the first time, to the viewers if not to the characters themselves, that there is no way to put this genie back in the bottle. Under the unifying metaphor of nuclear annihilation, the show asserts the presence of a very different, and not completely malign kind of catastrophic change.

If Mad Men is the story of people profoundly unready for the massive systemic changes of the 1960s, Masters of Sex is the story of people desperate for change, who can see even the slightest glimmer of uncertainty on the horizon as cause not just for dread but for for hope as well. We can discuss whether or not certain of the individual storylines cohere or convince. I think, in this instance, that even if some of the notes across the different supporting plotlines are familiar, the sum definitely adds up to something greater than its parts. It started off shaky on its feet, but gained confidence throughout the season. I would not be surprised to see the program win a few Emmys right out of the gate. This is exactly the kind of show that you wouldn't think was being made anymore, to go by all those breathless post-Breaking Bad think-pieces about the decline and fall of quality television. It's good, it's thoughtful, and it obviously has the potential to become even better now that the first season kinks are well worked out.

The question remains as to whether or not it will be allowed to achieve its full potential. Showtime is the variable quantity here: if Masters of Sex were on HBO or AMC, we wouldn't feel the need to hedge our bets quite so fastidiously. Showtime has proven that they have no compunctions whatsoever about meddling with even the most successful formulas, with horrible results. The downfall of Homeland has already become idiomatic for precisely this type of creative implosion. With this specter haunting our thoughts, the wait between this coming Sunday and Fall of 2014 will be a very long year indeed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

There Are Two Silver Surfers

There are two Silver Surfers. There is the Surfer who appears occasionally in Marvel Comics to this day, the character who successfully headlined his own solo series for ten years in the late 80s and 90s, and continues to appear as a utility player in Fantastic Four, Thor, and most Defenders revivals. This Surfer has a new series set to premiere in March, from the creative team of Dan Slott and Mike Allred.

The other Surfer made only a handful of appearances in his brief career. This is the Surfer that originally premiered in Fantastic Four #48 (March 1966), the mysterious herald of Galactus who came to Earth and learned about humanity from Alicia Masters, who betrayed his master and was imprisoned on our planet for his transgression. This Surfer disappeared in the summer of 1968, when the first issue of The Silver Surfer hit stands.

The first Surfer was added to the art of Fantastic Four #48 almost as an afterthought by Jack Kirby (or so the legend goes). He was an especial favorite of Kirby's, but was soon thereafter unceremoniously taken from Kirby by Lee, who launched the character in a bimonthly, double-sized magazine whose increased scale underscored Lee's serious ambitions. Lee's vision for the Surfer, expertly enabled by John Buscema, was diametrically opposed to Kirby's. Kirby's Surfer was a cosmic naif, a blank slate created by Galactus to be a vessel for his power. Lee's Surfer was a man, Norrin Radd, from the planet Zenn-La, who sacrificed himself by volunteering to serve Galactus in exchange for Galactus sparing his homeworld.

Kirby did not take kindly to Lee's usurpation. The Surfer was immediately recognized as something special, a visually striking figure with great potential for future stories. The problem is that Kirby didn't run the company: he had no recourse when Lee decided to take the Surfer for his own and saddle the character with an origin and mythos Kirby had no interest in accepting or exploring. The split over the Surfer (or so the legend goes) was one of the deciding factors in Kirby's subsequent departure from the company. Kirby had believed the Surfer was his, the spawn of his visual inspiration and nothing else, but Lee had stolen the Surfer from under his creator's nose.

It is worth noting that in this instance the winners were able to almost completely efface all traces of the first Surfer from the historical record. The first Surfer, the blank slate Surfer who encountered every human custom as if encountering civilization for the very first time, who reacted like a petulant infant to conflict, who was for all intents and purposes a kind of holy fool, was soon retconned as a victim of Galactus' tampering. Through mercy or convenience, Galactus had tampered with Norrin Radd's mind, turning his herald from a noble and sensitive man into an unthinking automaton. His first few months on Earth (according to this retroactive rationalization) saw the Surfer slowly overcoming his amnesia, until by the first opening splash page of SIlver Surfer #1 Norrin Radd had regained all his memories, along with his native tendencies towards loquaciousness and self-pity.

All the differences between the first Surfer and the second Surfer were buried under the weight of a thoroughly comprehensive retcon. Kirby's designs for the character were effaced, as it were, without leaving so much as a trace.

Except that this is not strictly true. The trace remains: invisible, imperceptible, but ineradicable nonetheless. We see the modern Surfer, but anyone who knows the character's history cannot help but see the shadow of Kirby's Surfer floating behind, just out of vision, a character defined by nothing so much as the boundless potential of creative choices pruned before their time, a million roads less traveled. What would Jack Kirby's Silver Surfer have been, if Lee had given the King carte blanche for the character's solo debut back in 1968? We will never know, and so the alternate history of Kirby's Surfer remains a pure totem: a victim not merely of Lee's avarice and callousness, but a symbol of all the hypothetical possibilities curtailed by Marvel over the course of the company's long and bitter history.

Or so the legend goes.

I can't dispute these facts, nor would I. The Surfer was taken away from Kirby by Lee, and Lee's ideas - as they were the company's ideas - won the day. For many people, Kirby's Surfer is the only "legitimate" Surfer, in every way that matters, because every other Surfer was the product of original sin, the most basic original sin at the heart of Marvel's history. Substitute the Silver Surfer for almost any other character and you see the same story retold over and over again.

So we have two Surfers - the original Surfer, and the second Surfer, the illegitimate Surfer, the schismatic Surfer of the "Zenn-Lavian Heresy." And we have the moral weight of Lee's great betrayal pushing a thumb down on the right side of the scale, imposing an ethical burden on a character who has subsequently passed through the hands of dozens of worthy creators. Even readers who accept the second Surfer cannot quite dispel the phantom image of the first, like an blotchy imprint of the sun on the inside surface of their eyes. Which is the real Surfer? The Surfer who appeared in a dozen issues before disappearing forever, or the Surfer familiar to forty-five years of subsequent readers?

I knew and loved the Surfer for years before I was able to read his original appearances. I was intimately familiar with the Lee / Buscema stories before I read the original Galactus saga in Fantastic Four - which might seem obscene to some, I realize. I have always maintained that the Silver Surfer is my favorite comic book character, and I will continue to maintain it even as the character has lapsed into a long period of disuse alternating with misuse - perhaps not as badly misused as Dr. Strange, but still. The Surfer's personality has changed conspicuously depending on the needs of his stories: one month he's the character who spent decades on Earth and is a close family friend of the Fantastic Four, the next he's once again a disconnected and disconcertingly alien figure. At the very least, it can be said that there is already an established reason for his personality shifts, an excuse most other characters do not have: dating back to the origins of the "Zenn-Lavian Heresy," it is established that the longer the Surfer spends in close proximity to Galactus, and consequently the more Power Cosmic he is able to harness, the less human he becomes. Every inconsistency falls away.

All of which, to anyone unsympathetic to the character's second incarnation, may seem like so much useless window-dressing to rationalize the fact that the Zenn-La Surfer is a poor bastardization of the character's initial promise. From an ethical standpoint, it's hard to argue with this assertion. But from a practical standpoint, we're left with the fact that the Surfer I like, the Surfer I grew up with, is a completely different character from the Silver Surfer Jack Kirby created.

How do we reconcile these differences? How do we resolve the tensions between the Surfer we have and the Surfer we might wish we had? Can we keep the question from devolving into merely another iteration of the standard Lee vs. Kirby nerd litigation? Is it possible to accept both that the Surfer was stolen from Kirby by Lee and that Lee's produced his best non-Kirby and non-Ditko work with the character? Anyone looking to renew the indictment against Lee will note that even left to his own ostensible devices, he was still reduced to cribbing from Kirby's notes in order to achieve anything of lasting effect. But at the same time, I assert that Lee's Silver Surfer, especially the first six double-size issues, are the best things that Lee ever wrote by himself.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fun and Games with Dave

A little over a week ago I gave a presentation on Cerebus. It wasn't a major event - an intradepartmental colloquium, quite informal - themed around the department's yearly keynote address (given by a senior faculty member, followed by a reception and potluck, and the unofficial start of the department's social calendar). The themes of this year's keynote were serialization and gender, and a friend within the department suggested, since it is a poorly-kept secret within the department that I am expert in comics (even if I don't officially study them), that I present something on those topics relating to comics.

The first thing that leapt to mind was, of course, Cerebus. It didn't take much effort to work up an outline for a presentation. At this point, even if it's been a while since I've read the individual stories, I've spent enough time thinking about the topic that the format of the talk came without any trouble. In case you're interested (or are new to the blog), the bulk of my thinking about Cerebus can be traced to a series of articles I wrote two years ago, inspired by my contribution to the Hooded Utilitarian's Best International Comics poll from a couple years back:

1. Why We Will Read Cerebus
2. How We Will Read Cerebus I
3. A Word About Hate
4. How We Will Read Cerebus II

My presentation had to do a lot of things within a short amount of time, such that even though the talks were supposedly planned for 5-10 minutes in length I specifically asked to go last because I knew I was going to blow right over that limitation. I had to do the following:
1) Introduce Cerebus and Dave Sim to a group of people who had never heard of the series,

2) Summarize the history of the comics industry from roughly 1970-2003, including the fall of newsstand distribution, the rise of the Direct Market, and the beginnings of the creators rights movement,

3) At least mention Sim's debt both artistic and moral to Steve Gerber, Howard the Duck, and Gerber's conflict with Marvel,

4) Explain why Cerebus was once considered one of the most important comics of all time,

5) Explain the very sad circumstances behind why and how this belief is no longer widespread and,

5) How we go forward in an attempt to reconcile 4 and 5, putting Sim's ideas into their historical context while providing an outline for methods future scholars might use to approach the series without being overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of Sim's later career.
Doing this in the span of even 20-25 minutes might seem impossible, but I actually had a lot of fun boiling the basics of such a complicated subject down to its most basic components.

I had originally considered recording the talk on my phone, but on the day of the presentation I got cold feet. Now, I don't usually experience a lot of nerves when I have to talk in front of people in a professional setting, but I did feel a little twinge of foreboding once I realized (which I had known but hadn't really considered), that even in the context of a value-neutral scholarly conversation among friends, simply speaking out loud Sim's views (essential to explaining the series' history) can be, well, unpleasant. I actually had a brief conversation with the organizer's event (the same friend who had asked me to contribute), and laid my reticence at her feet - the whole thing was, after all, co-sponsored by the department's Women's Research Caucus. So I said, "well, I have a great topic, but it gets a bit dark in terms of the fact that this Dave Sim dude is the most rabid anti-feminist in the world." My friend reassured me that she was looking forward to my talk, and that even if the subject matter was unpleasant she had confidence that it would still be interesting.

So I was wary, in the moments leading up to the talk, and because of that I decided against recording. But I was wrong to be concerned. The talk was very well received. The audience - around twenty people, give or take - seemed fascinated by the subject, and curious at how something as sui generis as Cerebus could even have been conceived, let alone completed. The sections dealing with Sim's political and social views went over well. There's a slide where I list the gist of Sim's assertions from Cerebus #186 - all the "male light, female void," stuff, and the consequences of these beliefs - and when I brought up that slide there was a moment of stunned silence as I read out the summary. But then there were chuckles, and genuine laughs, and I realized that my misgivings had been misplaced: in the cold light of day, and among reasonably intelligent people (all academics, keep in mind), it's really hard to take Sim's views seriously, and even harder when you are trying to get your mind around the fact that these ideas have been presented in the context of a talking aardvark comic. By the time I got around to Dave's late-career religious conversion most people seemed fascinated not so much by the hatefulness of his ideas but by the sheer oddness of them.

More than anything else, this reaction gives me hope for the long-term viability of Cerebus as an object of continued scrutiny and study. We here in the comics industry have such a long and tumultuous history with Sim the creator that it's impossible - and probably inadvisable - not to take his views personally, not to see his downfall as a tragic reflection of some of the worst aspects of our community's longstanding issues regarding gender parity and conservatism. But to a receptive audience of feminist and feminist-sympathetic academics with no real experience with Sim and his toxic persona, the subject was simply fascinating. Outside of a very small circle, Sim's ideas are laughable. Even if the hate is real, the context and presentation render them hard to take seriously in mixed company. I think that this reflexive distancing from Sim's ideology can only mean good things for Cerebus the work. In a room full of people trained to balance and appraise aesthetic objects from across history that are inextricably bound to various kinds of oppressive and harmful ideological apparatuses (big ups, Ezra Pound!), Cerebus found a sympathetic audience.

I've never given a presentation that received such a positive reception from a crowd. People came up to me for a week to complement me on the talk, a few even saying they were inspired to go researching Sim online (and were subsequently amazed by just how deep that particular rabbit hole goes).

Anyway: as I said, the talk wasn't recorded. But I did make a PowerPoint that served as my only notes, and if you care to look through it you can download it here. I will say, for anyone who may have read the stretch from around 270-300 more recently than I, I have a little trouble keeping straight whether or not any of Sim's theological ideas are ideas he actually entertains and which are presented within the context of satire - I think I recall, for instance, that he genuinely believes that microscopic demons live in the sun and are responsible for perturbations in the quantum foam, or whatever the hell. He takes shit like demons seriously, after all, and was genuinely disappointed when, followning the release of Cerebus #289-290, he wasn't immediately acclaimed as a visionary for having permanently reconciled the differences between science and religion.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Top Ten Marvel Covers of All Time

Completely my own opinions, submitted without comment, off the top of my head.

10. Spectacular Spider-Man # 101 by John Byrne (April 1985)

9. Iron Man # 182 by Luke McDonnell and Steve Mitchell (May 1984)

8. Fantastic Four #4 by Jack Kirby and Sol Brodsky (May 1962)

7. Uncanny X-Men # 142 by John Byrne and Terry Austin (February 1982)

6. Captain America #200 by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia (August 1976)

5. Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko (Februrary 1966)

4. Daredevil #228 by David Mazzuccheli (March 1986)

3. The Mighty Thor #38 by Barry WIndsor-Smith (August 2001)

2. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #6 by Jim Steranko (November 1968)

1. Silver Surfer #4 by John and Sal Buscema (February 1969)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Low-Content Mode

In case you hadn't noticed, things have been pretty sparse lately. I've halfway considered putting the blog on hiatus again, an option I've exercised a few times over the years, usually when I've gone on trips. I haven't been traveling, but my attentions have been elsewhere - my preliminary exams are next month, November 18th to be precise, so I just haven't been able to justify sitting down and writing comics or music posts. But even if I go on low-content mode for a while, I'll be back after my exams - after all, we have a Tenth Anniversary to celebrate in January. (Ten Years of . . . what? Procrastination? Being a Wiseass? Underachievement?)

So I'm not saying I absolutely won't post something or other if the mood strikes, but I'll be mostly sticking to Twitter, and of course, updating my awesome Tumblr (which is awesome because it requires minimal effort).

Until then, I think I'll post a few songs.

I've been really digging this one, to the tune of listening to it on repeat for a few days now. I was wary at first because the band certainly carries the stink of Industry Machine about them - but they have the goods, I think, if the quality of their debut Days Are Gone is any indication.

Meanwhile, this is pretty awesome too, again in spite of the group's supposed status as current hipster cause célèbre du jour. The problem with their album, The Bones of What You Believe, is that it plainly suffers from the fact that it is a debut album put together by a group of musicians still unsure as to what their strengths are. This song is fantastic, and there are a few others like this on the debut, but there are also a few clunkers and a few songs where the group's egalitarian instincts fail them pretty spectacularly - to wit, the fact that they let anyone but Lauren Mayberry sing. When you've got a band whose strongest asset is a charismatic woman with heavenly pipes, it's hard to regard songs sung by the other members of the group as anything but an excuse for a bathroom break. Admirable idea, but ask yourself, how awesome would it be if Butch Vig had sang three songs on every Garbage record? I predict the next album will have corrected that ratio.

Au Revoir Simone are a group that have been bubbling under the surface for a long time now. They've all the ingredients of a fierce breakout, but are often defined as much or more by their characteristic reserve and devotion to understated mood than their songwriting. Move in Spectrums is the closest they've come to really nailing the dismount. It's still patchy, but there are definitely moments where it seems as if the band is finally starting to cohere into something more than just the sum of its pretty parts.

Finally, I present to you with no further comment Ms. Margaret Chardiet, AKA Pharmakon:

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Boardwalk Empire

I was late to the party for Boardwalk Empire, and yet I find myself appreciating the the show more with each passing episode. One of the reasons I like the show, if I'm honest, is its status as a kind of underdog in the perpetual "Golden Age of TV" sweepstakes: despite would should be a peerless pedigree, it is consistently overlooked and under-appreciated. It's overshadowed at every turn - who wanted to talk about the Season 4 premiere while Breaking Bad was gearing up for its blockbuster conclusion? It doesn't seem to have ever outgrown its reputation as "Sopranos-lite," prestige mob fare for HBO viewers, which now translates to "the drama that comes between True Blood and Game of Thrones" on the calendar.

All of which is completely unfair. And, in the spirit of that fairness, the show does have a strong and devoted fanbase. But even at its best it never seems to catch fire with audiences in quite the way all the other prestige dramas of the past decade have done. (It probably doesn't help that the cast is littered with veterans from The Sopranos and The Wire, which is surely the best way to win over skeptical audiences already inclined to see the show as off-brand.) But I've come around to the show. I'm not a big one for mob stories, but this manages to overcome my natural reticence with regards to gangsters through a combination of superb execution and deft inversion of expectations.
Which is, let's be honest, problematic. Inverting audience expectations is dangerous, especially in regards to such hallowed ground as mob ensemble dramas. One of the first complains I read about the show soon after it premiered was that Steve Buscemi was completely miscast as Nucky Thompson. (Let's set aside the fact that he looks about as Irish as a bottle of Soy Sauce, even though he does actually have some Irish in his background.) He's only miscast if you thought the show necessarily needed a domineering, dangerous, physically threatening figure at its center. You know, like every other mob movie and TV show ever. I really like the fact that Nucky is literally the least imposing figure in his world. He's not particularly physical. More often than not he manages to dominate a room standing stock still - in fact, Buscemi performance as Nucky is simply a marvel of economy. He only moves when absolutely necessary, and when he does so, he does with exquisite deliberation. He keeps his head straight his eyes alert, even when he looks exhausted.

That's the overarching theme of Boardwalk Empire, four seasons in: control. Not simply exterior control, control over the world around you, but interior control as well - control of your passions and your emotions. The gangsters on this show are mostly thugs: there aren't a lot (or any) of the standard avuncular goodfellas we're used to seeing, no tragicomedic Paulie Walnuts indulging in post-Tarantino banter with SIlvio down at the Bada Bing. The killers on this show are either silent and scarred to the point of near-catatonia (Richard and Van Alden/ Mueller), or - mostly - brutal, ignorant, and thuggish. That's pretty much precisely what Al Capone was, after all: dumb as rocks but dangerous like a snake. This is the guy, after all, who died painfully of complications from syphilis because he was afraid to get an antibiotics shot. There's nothing at all glamorous about that. The Sopranos, as supposedly committed as it was to undermining certain generic expectations of the mob show, was still intent on having its cake and eating it too, in terms of its portrayal of wise guys as generally swell guys whose jobs just happened to involve shooting people in the head. We never get those moments of empathic connection in Boardwalk Empire: we sympathize with Nucky not because he's a charming rogue, but because he seems to still have a scrap of human decency left, as opposed to everyone else he meets. We certainly sympathize with characters like Chalky White who experience the worst aspects of the nightmare racism of the 1920s on a daily basis, but his experiences have (understandably) rendered him so violent and reflexively hostile that it's hard to empathize with him in the same way, certainly, that we did Omar on The Wire.

The Sopranos was dedicated to exploring the interiority of its protagonists, so much so that the show's central motivating gimmick was the eight-year-long running dialogue between Tony and his psychiatrist. Boardwalk Empire doesn't do that. What I think I like the most about the show is probably one of the things that makes it opaque to some viewers: it's quiet. There's not a lot in the way of exhausting, performative speechifying. One of these reasons is pretty easy to discern: most of these characters aren't particularly bright, nor do they show any interest in improving themselves. Al Capone and his brothers and cronies are pretty much reptiles in terms of their thought processes: fight, kill, eat, usually exactly in that order. Rothstein is smart but his intelligence makes him overconfident; Chalky is perpetually angry because he has discovered that this is the only way to project the strength necessary to keep his grip on everything he's fought tooth-and-nail to acquire; Gyp Rosetti was an angry thug who came to a bad end because he was stupid enough to try to kill Nucky. I point out these characters shallowness not to spotlight a weakness on the part of the show but to highlight what I believe is the show's great strength: it's not a character piece, not really. It's a show about dangerous men whose egos are so completely invested in projecting the hardest and most merciless vision of their selves that they turn into caricatures of petty evil. Which is, you know, precisely how a lot of real-life organized crime works. It's a plot-driven show, even if it doesn't at times completely feel like one - we're given a lot in the way of mood and atmosphere, but underneath the hood all the characters are moving with a precision borne from their limited, unblinkingly vertical attitudes towards the world around them.

And then there's Nucky. Nucky has gotten where he is at this point in the show's history by being the smartest man in the room (which isn't saying much when you're in the room with Capone, but still). He knows how to play all the angles that need to be played, and how to walk away from unnecessary battles. He doesn't relish the worse parts of the job in the same way that some of the sociopaths on his payroll might: violence is a sign that the situation has moved beyond his ability to control through management. Early in this season there was a great, character-defining scene where Nucky essentially solved any lingering problems caused by last season's violent climax by paying off the injured parties. For any other gangster, such a payoff would represent a significant loss of pride and esteem, and possibly serve as a source of lingering resentment. Not Nucky: paying off his enemies to avoid a pointless showdown isn't just expedient, it represents a principled understanding that his ability to control the situation is far more important than any fleeting loss of face he might experience as a result of essentially buying his way out of his troubles. He is consistently underrated because he refuses to play the macho posturing games. He understands that it's all about the long game, and the person who wins the game in the long stretch is the person who can keep his head while surrounded by half-domesticated animals straining at their leashes to rip one and another limb from limb.

Which is why this season's latest development, the possibility of a serious capital investment in southern Florida, carries such significance for Nucky. Although he initially hated the fact that he was essentially being guilt-tripped by an old acquaintance to invest in a dodgy real estate scheme, after some consideration he comes to realize that a move to Florida might be the smartest thing he could do. Last season he lost control of the situation in New Jersey: it was messy and it was expensive, and even though he was able to regain control it came at a significant loss, perhaps not in terms of face but in terms of his demolished domestic situation. He doesn't like being reminded of that loss, anymore than he likes the idea of being beholden to Chicago for his salvation. Florida represents a chance to build something new, so far from significant competing interests that he doesn't have to feel bound to any man save for himself. The question remains, which will presumably be a central concern for the remainder of the season, how much potential there truly is in the idea. He spent most of the third episode painstakingly outlining every possible obstacle to building a distribution hub in the middle of a sinking Florida swamp (soon to be developed, no less) - the fact that he changed his mind, and is suddenly willing to (literally) gamble his reputation on the idea, points to an earnest and sincere desire to be free of the encumbrances represented to him by New Jersey.

The show is at its best at its most cynical: this isn't a program to offer an optimistic view of humanity. The mobsters are terrible people, and watching them battle amongst themselves has an appeal similar to watching a gang of scorpions trapped in a bottle. We root for some of them because they seem less disgusting than the others. And we root for Nucky because he seems more interesting than any of his rivals. Although he is obsessed with control, it's not pathological. He's smart enough to know that no sane person would be in his business. He has a realistic understanding of what exactly is at stake with every choice he makes. And that perspective makes him not merely a unique figure in the history of mafia stories, but one of a handful of truly extraordinary characters in the history of television.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Marvel's Greatest Moment

Punisher Armory #2 (June 1991) by Eliot R. Brown

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This Scene Better Be in Iron Man 4

Iron Man #223 (October 1987) by David Michelinie, Mark Bright, and Bob Layton

Friday, August 30, 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Check It Out

Last week was a very special week for me because I was privileged to be able to contribute to Andrew Weiss' excellent Ultimate Powers Jam feature. Even better, my entry was illustrated by the redoubtable Jon Morris, who was also responsible for probably my favorite UPJ entry so far (including my own!), the awesome Birdy Zero.

As I told Andrew, I was never much of a gamer as a kid - I had this thing which I only ever played a couple times because, well, I didn't really have any friends who liked superheroes. I played D&D a couple times, too, but it never stuck as something I really needed to devote a lot of time to. But The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe? Man, I had that old thing committed to memory. So when I first inquired about doing an UPJ, I thought of the kind of old-school Bronze Age character you'd see in Marvel Two-In-One or the pre-Byrne Fantastic Four - a massively (if ambiguously) powered cosmic hero who would have a few more appearances before shuffling off to the oblivion that was frequent cameos in Mark Gruenwald comics, and possibly a bit role in Civil War (because everybody had a bit role in Civil War). I pictured my creation drawn by someone like Sal Buscema or Ron Wilson at the height of their 70s glory, and sure enough that is exactly the vibe Morris delivered.

It looks fantastic. It was great to be able to contribute to the feature and I hope to do it again sometime. My thanks again to Andrew, my brother in blogging, who I even forgive for being a native of Massachusetts.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Context and Theft

Even though the comic has been out for over a year now, this disgusting panel from Kick-Ass 2 (by Millar and Romita Jr.) is making waves again. There's a new Kick-Ass movie coming out, you see, because the first one was profitable. I thought the first Kick-Ass, book and movie, had some redeeming qualities, especially as the movie had the wherewithal to excise some of the more reprehensible parts of the comic. I like that John Romita Jr. is making more money from these books than probably anything else he's ever done or will ever do, even if I have to wonder if he is completely satisfied with putting his name on these stories.

The panel reproduced above is reprehensible because it takes place as part of a violent rape. It looks bad in isolation, but comics panels (mostly) do not exist in isolation. Context is extremely important, and an examination of the page in question reveals that context does nothing whatsoever to ameliorate the content of the panel. Context makes it much worse.

There's little you can say to redeem this kind of story. If you're going to have rape in fiction - and obviously we will continue to have rape in fiction, much as we may wish that people who didn't know better would just shut up about the subject - then you should be responsible about the kind of violence you're showing, its consequences and its victims. Admittedly, this is a problem with most violence used in mainstream comics (and mainstream movies and music too, for that matter) that portray consequence-free violence of all types. But it's even worse in the case of rape because most men who write about rape don't seem to understand the factors that make rape substantially different than other kinds of violence. (And even a few who probably do, like Alan Moore, let their - shall we say - idiosyncratic ideas about sex lead them astray in some crucial and unsettling ways.)

But I'm not saying anything you don't already know.

What you might not know, or may have forgotten, is that this infamous panel, such as it is, wasn't even particularly original. In fact, the "punchline," if you can call it that, was stolen wholesale from another, far better comic. That comic was Preacher #49.

What's the difference between the way Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion use the line, and how Millar does? There is a world of difference, and that difference is context.

One thing you might not know from reading the page, if you've never read this specific issue, or Preacher before: this is a dream sequence. The series' protagonist, Jesse Custer, has spent four years in a quest to find God and come up completely empty, seemingly abandoned by his friends and alone in the world. Until this issue, that is: although the series still had a year and a half left, this issue is the first and only time Jessie actually comes face to face with God to hold him to account for His creation. Jessie takes some peyote and falls into a nightmare before God appears to him, and it is in this vision that he sees his best friend and lover corrupted by his evil brother.

Just to be sure, let's look at the next page for even more context:

There are many arguments to be had about the function of gender in Preacher. Although Ennis isn't perfect in his portrayal of women, I have always believed Preacher worked more often than not because of the way the entire series was structured as a long-form dismantling of some of the most noxious masculine stereotypes, in particular the ways men treat women. Even benign (and ostensibly heroic!) notions such as chivalry are examined and discarded over the course of the story. Part of what is happening here in this vision is that Jesse is learning just how short-sighted and offensive some of his notions regarding women, even supposedly flattering and romantic notions, actually are. And since it's his nightmare, this lesson comes in the form of his evil brother taunting him in the most offensive way imaginable.

For another illustration of this principle in Ennis, I'd take a look at this essay David Brothers wrote back in 2009 on the subject of the use of "nigger" in Ennis' Hellblazer, and how context makes all the difference with Ennis. Which is another way of saying that context usually does matter, and that even the more offensive elements of his stories (and there are many) usually carry some kind of meaning other than cheap shock. (Not that he's above the occasional bit of cheap shock.)

But this isn't about Ennis, and this isn't about Preacher. This is the fact that Millar obviously stole a punchline from one of Ennis' signature series. That's worth reiterating: this wasn't some obscure Avatar side-project. There's a good chance your local Barnes & Noble has a couple volumes of Preacher on the shelves. And if you look at the two panels side-by-side, it's really blatantly obvious that Millar stole this "joke" from Ennis. The only difference between the two panels is context - and in this instance, context makes all the difference.

Sunday, August 04, 2013


Trinity War

I'm not the first person, nor probably the twentieth, to make the point, but it bears repeating: DC in 2013 is cribbing pretty hard from the Marvel 1998 playbook. They've succeeded in leveling out almost all tonal variance across the line, ensuring the consistency of a recognizable house style across almost every book they publish. It's difficult for individual voices to gain traction, and there is every indication that this situation, rather than being accidental, proceeds in precisely the manner the company intends. Many talented creators have either left voluntarily or been effectively blackballed, with the majority of titles given to journeyman hacks or amenable veterans. You don't hear a lot of creators working on the Nu52 talking about certain books being "passion projects" or lifelong dreams come true - individual creator motivations appear almost entirely absent from the finished product.

Whereas Marvel seems very interested in building the careers of individual creators by matching writers and artists with projects best suited to their interests (and Marvel is consistently adamant that creators are never forced to work on titles or characters to whom they have a disinclination), there is a wide gap at DC between two types of creators: a (very small) handful of marquee writers and artists who get to shape the direction of the entire line, and everyone else.

Look back at DC in the late 90s: many good creators were given a lot of freedom to create distinctive and memorable series under the general auspices of the mainstream superhero line. The very best creators were pacified with creator-participation deals from sub-imprints like Vertigo or (later) Wildstorm - the real value of which, for the company, was never the books themselves (although they certainly liked having a number of bookstore ready perennial sellers like Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and 100 Bullets), but rather the good will gained by giving A-list creators the kind of selective carte blanche that meant they would also be motivated to stick around and craft more IP for Batman and the Justice League. Eventually the Powers That Be noticed the discrepancy between what the company received from creators in exchange for their loyalty and the benefits the creators reaped from their participation agreements, and Vertigo contracts were changed accordingly. Multiple sources have reported on Warner Brothers' unhappiness at learning that they didn't own the media rights to some of what they had believed to be their most lucrative properties. There is every reason to believe that this situation proved at least partial impetus for many of the corporation's recent, risible, and eminently logical decisions.

Even though Marvel has always sold more comics, in the late 90s DC sold smarter comics. WIth a few noble exceptions, Marvel in the late 90s was in piss-poor shape - years of ruthless downsizing and poor corporate governance leading up to bankruptcy had rendered the company afraid of its own shadow, locked into a series of conservative editorial choices that led to years of stagnation and diminishing returns. Now the situation is precisely reversed. It's not simply a matter of Marvel consistently making better comics than DC, although few would seriously argue that the median quality of the DC line comes anywhere close to Marvel's at present. Marvel is still Marvel, and their more creator-centric approach (or, to put it more precisely, an approach that offers the appearance of more opportunity for individual creative voices to influence editorial direction) is certainly capable of producing as many different types of stinkers as DC's suffocating top-down storytelling-by-fiat approach.

Look again for just a moment at Age of Ultron, as terrible an event book as you can possibly imagine, undercut by its obeisance to following its (very powerful) creators' every stylistic tic to its logical conclusion regardless of consequences. The best books in the Marvel line are so because the the company has allowed good writers and artists to craft books with distinctive flavors and tones apart from any considerations of a singular "house style." You'd be hard pressed to find any real stylistic commonality between (to pick three of the company's most lauded current titles) Jason Aaron's Thor, Mark Waid's Daredevil, or Kieron Gillen's Young Avengers, other than the fact that all three of these books present strong individual authorial voices. Age of Ultron did, too, and its abject creative failure also represents a kind of testament to the company's willingness to give creators as much rope is necessary to ensure they can hang themselves with alacrity.

Compared to Age of Ultron, or even what we've seen of the buildup to Jonathan Hickman's Infinity, there's nothing in Trinity War to mark it as being the product of any kind of specific vision or individual creative mandate. It is very much a crossover of the "old school." Or rather, let me correct myself again: the singular creative vision at the heart of the story is that of Geoff Johns, who - despite a fair number of personal thematic and stylistic hobbyhorses (of which more than a few are evident here) - remains firmly committed to perpetuating his modern interpretation of the sturdy, well-designed superhero storytelling with which he grew up. That is to say, a studied blankness of affect, a marked professionalism that indicates that the creator knows precisely how to tell the kind of story he has set out to tell. I am certain that Johns has committed the intricacies of every JLA / JSA crossover since 1963 to memory, and has probably left detailed footnotes on his well-thumbed collection of the Avengers / Defenders War to boot. So while some of the details may have changed, specifically the level of violence, the pervasive atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, and the constant recourse to characters comparing penis size in public, the overall structure of the story will be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the conventions of superhero team-up event comics.

But just because it's undoubtedly better-written than Age of Ultron doesn't mean it's any good at all. The problem with Trinity War, as with so much of the Nu52, is quite simply that the current incarnations of these characters and situations simply are not interesting. Few DC characters emerged from the line-wide reboot in any way improved by the ordeal. Superman, despite a handful of good stories in his solo books, remains naggingly indeterminate in a way that seems most troubling in light of the fact that Superman's personality should be the baseline around which everything else at DC must inevitably cohere. Wonder Woman appears incompetent and pugnacious in equal measure. The Flash, restored more-or-less intact to his pre-1966 status quo, remains as resolutely boring as ever. Green Lantern and Batman remain intact from their pre-Flashpoint incarnations, primarily because those two characters were and remain the company's flagship franchises.

DC was never really supposed to have the kind of shared universe Marvel built in the mid-60s. This is somewhat ironic: although Marvel gets the credit for being first to the post, pretty much from the moment "The Flash of Two Worlds" was published in 1961 the company set forth on a multi-decade project to ensure every property from every corner of the publishing line fit snugly into a (completely improvised) master plan of multiple earths and intricate timelines. This meant not only the mainstream superhero line in the 1960s (all of which, like the contemporary Marvel, were somewhat of a piece tonally and therefore had fairly little trouble fitting together), but every book and property winding back to 1938, as well as those properties acquired by National / DC in the course of their long and litigious lifespan.

This isn't a new story by any means, but its vital to understanding precisely how the Nu52 makes sense in DC history. Rather than a refutation of three decades of metastasizing consistency, Crisis on Infinite Earths was the apotheosis of the impulses first codified by Gardner Fox and Julius Schwartz in 1961. (It might be hard to see in hindsight, after fifty years of intense attention to continuity, but the original stories were most definitely not intended to represent paradigm shifts for superhero comics. Fox and Schwartz cut their teeth in the pulps and the "Golden Age" of sci-fi, an era where alternate universe stories were a common trope, and the original Flash and Justice League stories were attempts to apply similar motifs to comics while also appealing to the nostalgia of a handful of older readers, no more and no less.) The real problem here, one of the core problems of the Nu52, is one of tone. This tendency was already apparent after Crisis, and an argument could be made that the comprehensive leveling of tone was one of the first concrete indications that Crisis had succeeded in its stated aims. The mania to ensure that every property fit together into a single cohesive universe meant that it was that much harder for creators to maintain individual and distinctive milieus for every character in their own books. The default became simply generic, which explains the disconcertingly bloodless tone of many titles in the years immediately following Crisis.

Early stumbles notwithstanding, once they became more comfortable with the post-Crisis status quo this became one of DC's great strengths in the nineties. They figured out how to keep a consistent universe that nonetheless left a lot of room for idiosyncratic titles. Consider the fact that for a few years in the mid-to-late-nineties the mainstream DC line was able to keep as diverse a range of titles as Starman, The Power of Shazam, Hitman, Impulse, Lobo, and The Spectre on the shelves, all radically different, all ostensibly sharing the same universe, but none of them suffering appreciably from that fact. I very fondly remember a crossover between Starman and The Power of Shazam (1998's "Lightning and Stars") that worked to the benefit of both books by highlighting the tonal differences between the two characters' environments as a feature, an important theme of the story, and not a bug to be "fixed" and leveled. If you must have shared universes, then surely this is the model companies should aspire to emulate? The wide variety of books in this sample more closely resembles the contemporary Marvel line than DC.

For any number of reasons, this isn't the way DC looks now. There is a house style. There is a sustained focus on inter-title consistency at the expense of individual creator initiative. Readers have been trained by both companies over the last decade to reward titles that "matter" at the expense of those which do not: excellent and idiosyncratic titles like China Miéville's Dial H have no relevancy to the line's larger initiatives, and languish as a result. (Not coincidentally, Dial H was one of the last projects spearheaded by Karen Berger before her exit. It's important to recognize just how important Vertigo was towards establishing a publishing model not just for the "mature-readers" comics, but for the mainstream comics line as well. DC was very creator-friendly in the nineties, and Berger was one of the persons most responsible for establishing this climate.)

So now we have an environment where Shazam and John Constantine can share panels in a completely straight-forward and unironic fashion. The tone of Shazam's solo adventures is now vaguely mordant and grisly (in a sanitized way), which is also not-so-coincidentally the tone of Constantine's book. Both characters can interact on the same footing. But what is most unique about both characters has also been lost: Shazam (which is the name we're stuck with) is far too dark and unpleasant to reflect the character's appealing virtue, while the Nu52 Constantine is a watered-down, juvenile mess without any of the ambiguity, intelligence, or charm of the original. In trying to create a consistent, comfortable shared universe context for both characters, they have sanded away everything important.

The story of Trinity of Sin is wonky in the way only a DC crossover story can be. Whereas Marvel is fortunate enough to have a psychedelic cosmology assembled from a foundation laid by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko's strangest ideas, DC has always muddled along with a fictional universe built on explicitly Judeo-Christian foundations, with a heaping spoonful of Greek myths and leftover concepts from the aforementioned "Golden Age" of pulpy sci-fi (i.e., the parallels between the Guardians of the Universe and Doc Smith's Lensmen). Kirby's contributions to DC's mythology have had sustained influence, but the Fourth World sits uneasily next to the Spectre and Green Lantern mythoi. This may be simply a matter of personal taste, but as a connoisseur of the cosmic I do not believe that, with a few notable exceptions, DC does cosmic anywhere near as well as Marvel.

(The exception that proves the rule is, of course, the aforementioned Crisis itself, which I still adore.)

The original sin for DC is the creation of the Spectre. Yes, the same Spectre co-created by Jerry Siegel. The problem with the Spectre - and this is a problem that has been explicitly acknowledged by multiple creators over the years - is that once you acknowledge that you have a creature who is the incarnate wrath of God sitting side-by-side with Superman, your stories will either warp accordingly or cease to make sense on a profound level. This is fairly obvious as far back as the original Justice Society stories in All Star Comics, where you see the Spectre sitting across the table from the Atom, who in case you forget, was originally just a short guy who worked out a lot and wore a leotard. (Invariably the early Justice Society adventures, which were always split up with each hero having a separate adventure within the larger story, had the Atom going undercover at a gym or college campus, in order to beat up some thugs or Fifth Columnists - you know, while the Spectre was busy flying across space and time and fighting super wizards and demons.) The problem never really went away. As rich as Christian mythology may be, it takes the wind out of the sails of superhero comics when you know Batman has been to Heaven and seen his parents at the pearly gates, and Superman has been to Hell and heard the screams of billions of tormented sinners. (Both of these events have happened.)

And yet this is how the DC universe works. There is a God in Heaven, his angels oversee creation, and the devil is real - and yet it also somehow matters that a bunch of blue dwarves set up a massive law enforcement bureaucracy at the center of the universe, and that the Earth is home to multiple pantheons of immortal (small-g) gods who are not somehow all presumptuous demons committing blasphemy against the one true God, and that there is another group of gods in a pocket dimension who believe in an all-powerful Source and keep watch over the end of the universe, and that there's a kindly wizard bestowing the wisdom of a Biblical King of Israel alongside the powers of various pagan deities on random street urchins. It just doesn't seem to fit together very smoothly, and the problem is that making it try to fit together erodes the appeal of each individual concept. On his own, the Spectre is a cool character, but in the context of a shared superhero universe he is simply one giant storytelling problem after another. The question of God has always skirted around the edges of DC, as in the recurring motif of the grasping hand at the beginning of time that Krona sees in his forbidden portal. (Just please forget Infinite Crisis.) But ultimately all these explanations and prevarications point to the fact that the DC universe, such that it is, is an unmistakably theological narrative. You can't escape the fact that God is a concrete presence in these books. Marvel is much more ambiguous, preferring to couch its universal abstractions in Darwinian and Nietzschean terms.

So it turns out that the mysterious woman who was inserted into background shots of every Nu52 first issue is actually Pandora - the real, mythical Pandora, of Greek myth, who opened Pandora's Box and allowed evil to enter the world. She's wandered the Earth for thousands of years, cursed as punishment for her transgressions. She is one of the story's titular "trinity of sin" - the other two being the Phantom Stranger and the Question. The former has been completely revamped, given a confirmed origin as Judas Iscariot, and given a secret identity, a human family, and a talking dog sidekick; the latter has been revamped into a mysterious amnesiac ancient evildoer forced to live forever, walking the earth in search of the question (get it?) that will reveal his identity. It should not need to be said that both of these revamps commit unforgivable violence against the characters' original intent. Since the first cryptic announcement of the Trinity War, fans assumed that the trinity in question would be the familiar trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. I must give them some points for defying expectations, but in this instance the expectations would certainly have made more sense than what we got.

Oddly enough for a crossover involving two of the best-selling comic books in the country, the story actually picks up on a few plotlines from third-string titles like Team 7 (already canceled) and Phantom Stranger (not yet canceled but sells like shit, despite the fact that - notwithstanding the awful creative choices made in rebooting the character, J.M. DeMatteis makes the book at least somewhat readable). They've been very methodical in terms of laying the groundwork for this story. The plot begins when Pandora discovers that if a truly good soul reopens Pandora's Box, then the evils that were once trapped in the box will be reimprisoned once again. Like most sane people she assumes Superman to be genuinely good, but of course since this is the Nu52 he's not, so instead of opening the box and solving all evil it instead fucks with his head enough that he murders Doctor Light by blowing his head off with heat vision. Which is exactly what I want to see in a Superman story: Superman failing the moral paragon test and being tricked into killing people. The murder happens during the Justice League's big fight with the Justice League of America (controlled by the unappealing, amoral Nu52 Amanda Waller) in Kahndaq, after intercepting Shazam who has come to the country to spread Black Adam's ashes after killing him last month. After the fight in which Superman kills Dr. Light, the two teams come together in order to try to solve the problem with Superman. The teams split down the middle regarding the plan of action while Wonder Woman seeks out the Justice League Dark for their help, at which point Constantine tries to trick Wonder Woman into becoming his slave. (Which is just a fantastic thing to do, really.) But meanwhile the real villain is a character who (apparently) survived the destruction of the Flashpoint universe and, for some reason, is trying to rule the world by capturing Pandora. Or something along those lines, admittedly the story is still only halfway done. Phew.

It's densely plotted and well structured. All the marquee characters have something important to do and all the tertiary characters get nice moments. It begins with a big action setpiece, dots the middle with lots of little quests and distractions, and will almost certainly end with a big climactic slobberknocker after which Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again. Johns is very good at writing giant crossover stories: it's a massive balancing act that requires an enviable attention to detail - the kind of attention to a very specific kind of form and function that Bendis has never once shown an inclination to learn or apply. In many ways this is an exemplary crossover. The only problem is that the story itself is terrible.

There is something irreducibly square in the premise: everybody wants Pandora's Box, that's the MacGuffin that puts the plot into motion. Pandora's Box is something every kid knows from elementary school, but it's just not that compelling a hook - anymore than having the Seven Deadly Sins who were imprisoned by the Wizard Shazam on the Rock of Eternity come to life and try to kill Pandora for attempting to reimprison them. The idea of implying that Pandora's Box was designed by the Judeo-Christian God and not actually Zeus seems like Johns' attempt to pull a "surprise revelation" out of his back pocket regarding one of the formative myths of Western Civilization, which has a bit of a different ring to it than merely proclaiming that everything you ever knew about the Green Lantern Corps was wrong. It's just not that interesting, frankly. I may be just one lone voice in the wilderness, but I've never found DC's approach to the classical myths to be all that compelling, and whenever they try to pull some kind of syncretic bullshit with the capital-G God it never really flies like they want it to fly. (Why does no one ever raise a stink about the fact that these kinds of stories are incredibly blasphemous in a way that is probably deeply offensive to practicing Christians?) These things worked pretty well in The Sandman, which was always a DC Universe title regardless of what anyone else says, and Moore's Swamp Thing, obviously, but those were both far better titles written by far smarter men than Johns. This is just banal, like someone put a bunch of mythical and religious motifs in a paper bag and pulled a few out at random to base a story around. It's boring.

There's a part of me that feels bad for Johns. He's pretty high up in the DC food chain. He was one of the architects of the Nu52, and has been the single biggest commercial draw at DC for many years, not exclusive of Jim Lee. But he's a traditionalist. Despite his tendency to dismember these characters in gruesome ways, he's a fan first and foremost. And even though he created this new status quo, I have to believe there's a part of him, deep down, trapped in a little box and crying throughout the endless long dark night of his soul, that recognizes that these characters are just pale imitations of the real thing. This Justice League, this Superman, this Wonder Woman, this John Constantine - they are all off, every single one of them. The word came down from on high that the whole apparatus had to be rebuilt from stem to stern practically overnight, so he did the best he could to give the corporation what they said they wanted: streamlined raw materials, grist for the mill of the efficient IP farm Warner Brothers wants their comic book division to resemble. The problem is that these characters are ciphers, reflections of ghosts, with little to recommend them to readers who have access to the originals.

With two years' hindsight, it is more and more apparent that the true shift signified by the advent of the Nu52 was that individual characters no longer matter (to say nothing of creators). The most important brand is not Superman or Batman or Green Lantern and certainly not Shazam or John Constantine, but DC Comics - oops, sorry, DC Entertainment. The most important thing for them is that they have a cohesive universe that can be presented as a legible whole. The great triumphs of superhero comics have traditionally come as a result of the genre's strange, disreputable, tatterdemalion profligacy. But it's becoming harder and harder for companies to justify extending that kind of creative freedom in regards to characters who might each and every one of them (in the minds of Warner Brothers executives) end up as their next billion-dollar franchise. The cruel irony is that without being able to offer that kind of freedom and trust to individual creators, the stories become sterile and vapid, and the IP is degraded. Marvel for the time being have managed to figure out how to walk the tightrope between control and liberty, enough so that a not-insignificant percentage of their line is actually very good, and many more books are pleasantly readable. There just aren't that many DC books I'd stop to pick up for free off the street. Trinity of Sin is the best kind of crossover you could hope to create from this atmosphere: readable, if you can put aside the fact that every single stated premise is ineffably repulsive.

If you want a vision of superhero comics, imagine an overly-rendered red boot stamping on the reader's disinterested face - forever.