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 MiƩville'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.