Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another Year

New Year's Resolutions:

  1. Write more.
  2. Write more for money. (Also for food and drink; also non-alcoholic.)
  3. Blog more.
  4. Read more.
  5. Read more comics.
  6. Shave more.
  7. Get haircut.
  8. Don't get shot in San Francisco.
  9. Maintain charming good looks, but not at any cost.
  10. Find love of my life.

Thank you for reading, and have a safe 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Odds and Sods

Comic Book Resources has started a new series of articles, titled "Best 100 Comics of 2008," which vividly illustrates the hazards of a mostly genre-focused outlet attempting to compile a comprehensive list. Please believe me that I'm not trying to be snarky here. This really is what the list says so far.

In Part 1, we learn that Green Lantern Corps is better than Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole. Also, G.I. Joe: America's Elite beats Matthew Loux's Salt Water Taffy. New Avengers is better than all of the above, but not as good as Jason Lutes' Berlin or Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's Local. Justice League of America and Green Arrow/Black Canary are much better than the latter two, on the other hand.

Part 2 goes on to establish that Dave Sim's Glamourpuss is better than Tiny Titans, but not as good as The Walking Dead, and all three are inferior to Marvel's Nova. Ed Brubaker's Captain America and Brad Meltzer's DC Universe: Last Will and Testament are superior to Hope Larson's Chiggers, John Pham's Sublife and Terry Moore's Echo, on the other hand. Kramers Ergot Vol. 7 is better than The Amazing Spider-Girl, you'll be relieved to hear. But the finest, the absolute best among all those comics listed to date, is Punisher War Journal.

Again, I'm not trying to be snarky. That's what the list says. You can place your bets right now that Blue Beetle is going to kick Kramers Ergot's ass.

(Edit, December 31: See, I was right. Also, Secret Invasion and Final Crisis: Requiem are superior to Ganges.)

In related news, the online department of German newspaper Die Zeit has demonstrated that polling your audience can produce similarly astounding results. In December, they asked their readership for the best records of the year. When the poll closed a week later, they had received a sobering 230 replies that favored 137 different records. And the three winners weren't TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend or Santogold, but Thomas Godoj, Daniel Küblböck and Fady Maalouf.

Now, if you haven't heard these names before, that's because they're all participants in Deutschland sucht den Superstar, the German version of American Idol (or Pop Idol, if you're British). Evidently, the article says, the poll was hijacked by fans of the show.

Admirably, the author, Rabea Weihser, puts a good face on the proceedings and explains all this patiently before dutifully going down the list. (Runners-up are Portishead, Sigur Rós and Fleet Foxes, in case you were wondering, so it seems there were some people who took the poll seriously, at least.) Given the tiny number of participants in the poll and the botched results, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole affair had just been quietly swept under the rug.

Denial and Other Rivers in Egypt

Is there a policy at Comic Book Resources against interview questions that might be misconstrued as coming from a journalistically tainted perspective? Or is it one of the conditions imposed by DC Comics on fan sites seeking to talk to talent through official channels that no such questions be asked?

In an article posted today, CBR's Kiel Phegley talks to writer Ian Edginton about the WildStorm Universe series StormWatch: PHD.* As usual, the plot is discussed a lot, as are Edginton's long-term plans for StormWatch. "We'll get there by my twelfth or fourteenth issue," he says about an upcoming plot point. Phegley closes the interview observing that, "with so much going on, nothing seems off the table for the future of Stormwatch: PHD."

Now, that's all good and well. The piece might as well have been produced by DC's marketing department, of course, but that's hardly a new development for the big comics news sites.

Even so, I'm still baffled. With all this talk about the book's "future" and what's going to come up nine months down the road, not once does the question of sales arise. From the look of things, plainly, StormWatch: PHD won't be around nine months down the road. The November issue sold an estimated 6,824 units, and at the present rate of its sales decline, literally no one would be left reading the book in a year's time.

I'm not suggesting that this is something Edginton should be grilled about. But surely, he must be aware of the situation. Surely, this is a point of concern if you're even remotely interested in the book. Addressing the big white elefant in the room would at least give its writer the opportunity to share his thoughts on how it affects his approach to his work. Cheerfully talking about all kinds of possible future storylines while it's very plain that the next issue might as well be the last just strikes me as bizarre and morbid, in this context; not to mention insulting - not only to the website's audience, but also to Edginton himself.

)* I should clarify that you can't tell whether it really was a conversation, though, thanks to CBR's tendency of running quotations randomly interspersed with paraphrasing by their writers, instead of straight-up question/answer pieces.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Weekly Chain Reaction: December 24, 2008

One of the advantages of living in the United States is that I get to go to the comics store and buy new comics there every week. So, for the duration, here's a new capsule review column, for your perusal.

* * *

Batman #683, by Grant Morrison, Lee Garbett, et al. Kick me silly, it's the Kurt Vonnegut Batman! "[W]hat I am doing," Morrison said on his "Batman RIP" story back in April, "is a fate worse than death." In an eponymous 1982 speech, Vonnegut pondered "Fates Worse Than Death," and the only thing he came up with was crucifixion. And what do we get now, in this comic here? Crucified Batman. Told you so. Well, kind of. Batman looks kinda crucified, but it's more of a Kirbytech brain-drain kind of thing: one of those stories where the hero has to relive his greatest tragedies and comes up all the stronger for it. Morrison does the routine reasonably well, but, hey. It's still a routine, right?

(DC Comics, 24 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Captain America: Theater of War: America First! #1, by Howard Chaykin, et al. Howard Chaykin writing and drawing the 1950s Commie-Smasher Captain America? Sign me up. Good news: The artwork is fantastic. Bad news: The story is trying too hard. "How many political prisoners do we have to pull from the Gulag, dress as yankees, and kill in the crossfire before I'm satisfied?" Gah. And why is McCarthy called McMurphy? Does he still have fans, or what? The 1950s reprints are fun, though. In the first one, the Red Skull wears a cape. In the second one, Chinese characters are all colored yellow, and it ends with Captain America being heroic by not telling a guy that his twin brother just jumped off a roof, face forward. Unfortunately, Marvel neglected to include credits for the reprints, although one seems to have been drawn by John Romita.

(Marvel Comics, 44 pages, plus 12 pages of reprints, $ 4.99)

Grade: C

* * *

Daredevil #114, by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, et al. Here's a question: If Matt Murdock doesn't want anyone to think that he's Daredevil, why the heck are his glasses tainted red? Isn't that, you know, counterproductive? Is it his way of giving them the middle finger? "I deeply resent your insinuations that I am secretly a vigilante clad in red. To let you partake in the depth of my resentment, I shall wear glasses which are tainted red." I don't get it. Anyway, hats off to Mr. Brubaker and friends for giving us the twenty-eighth Frank-Miller-style Daredevil vs. Ninjas story and still making it seem fresh and entertaining somehow.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B

* * *

Thor #12, by J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, et al. The Asgardian Goddess of Hell lives in Las Vegas, apparently. I've never been to Las Vegas, so I don't know what to say about that. Then again, I've never been to Detroit, either, and that would have been my first choice. Like in this short story called "The Disappeared," by Charles Baxter, where this guy from Sweden comes to Detroit and it smells like something's burning and then ... no, Thor. (If you're in Detroit: Sorry! Just kidding!) This issue has "set-up" written over it so large that it makes me want to make little felt patches for the characters, just to stop the loud clicking noise as Mr. Straczynski moves them on the board. Oh, and we get Emo Loki, his fingernails painted green and everything. Très extravagant.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #2 of 6, by Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. Speaking of Emo. (Har har har.) Let's call it Pinteresque: At a diner, two guys in business suits wearing big-honking, primarily colored funny-animal masks are maniacally fond of the pie. In a cheap hotel room, a six-year-old boy in an old-fashioned, blood-stained sunday suit takes sips from a glass of whiskey, maniacally staring at a monkey dressed up as Marilyn Monroe who, slowly and hypnotically, is shaking his (her?) hips to the tune of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." This is a superhero comic.

(Dark Horse Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: A

* * *

Sunday Linkage

o Alan Moore gets the chuckles:
[...] Judge Gary A. Feess has ruled that 20th Century Fox “owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the Watchmen motion picture." [...] [I]t appears that, if the judge’s ruling stands, Fox could get an injunction preventing Warner Bros. from distributing the film, if Fox so desires.
More at Icv2.com.

o Sean T. Collins, circa 2005, takes measure of Warren Ellis:
Warren Ellis wants you to take him seriously. I don't. Partially it's because he [...] noisily stormed away from the [superhero] genre in a rage to try his hand at the wave of the future he dubbed "pop comics," [...] and is currently the author of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the "Ultimate Galactus" trilogy (!) and JLA: Classified. Partially it's because this supposed anti-establishmentarian could not write a comic that didn't feature a select group of badass illuminated Übermenschen using their secret knowledge of the world to shape it into a better one for the good of the sheeplike plebes [...]. And partially it's because his mobile-podcast-Delphi-forum digital-revolutionary comics-activist persona, his relentless touting of (say) Godspeed You Black Emperor! accompanied by diatribes about how (say) Avril Lavigne is bullshit, his name-dropping of his fetish-model friends and his close pal "Bill" Gibson, and his desire to utilize the Internet to cultivate groups of people who think and act exactly like he does [...].
And once that's off his chest, there's a pretty good review of Planetary, too.

o Harold Pinter, the man responsible for Brian Michael Bendis in the same way that Watchmen is responsible for Youngblood, is dead.

Newsroom Blitz

London's Times Online got in a last-minute bid for the most historically insensitive headline of the year today:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Agents of Yawn

A few months back, senior Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort complained about the boring and repetitive questions creators working on his books tend to be asked by the people writing for Internet magazines.

Has anything changed since then?

Well, judge for yourself. Here are the interview questions Newsarama's Vaneta Rogers asked Jeff Parker, the writer of Marvel's upcoming Agents of Atlas series:
So Jeff, your first issue of Agents of Atlas ties into [Marvel's latest blockbuster event] Dark Reign? How did that come about?

Why do I get the feeling that the Agents of Atlas are going to be [Marvel Universe major villain] Norman Osborn's worst nightmare?

For people who aren't familiar with the critically acclaimed mini-series that introduced this concept, what is Agents of Atlas about?

What is the story in the first issue of the new Agents of Atlas ongoing?

[Fellow Marvel series] Guardians of the Galaxy may have a talking raccoon, but you've got a talking gorilla. Really - is there anything better than a comic with a talking gorilla?

Seriously, though, this character has really captured the attention of readers. What is it about Gorilla-Man that makes him so endearing?

Introduce us to some of the other characters in Agents of Atlas.

The mini-series kind of functioned in its own little corner of the Marvel Universe, but the way this comic is starting it, it looks like Agents of Atlas is going to really interact with the rest of the Marvel U. Will that be the case going forward as well?

What can you tell us about the artwork you're seeing from Carlo Pagulayan and the visual tone of the comic?

Anything else you want to tell people about Agents of Atlas?
Now, it wouldn't be accurate to describe these questions as "superficial," granted, since they never so much as touch the surface. Rather, it's fair to say that anybody who looked at the five-or-so lines of promotional preview copy released by Marvel would have been grossly overqualified to compile this questionnaire.

So, in order to further streamline Newsarama's process and render their efforts ever more efficient, here are two humble suggestions on how to approach creators in the future, using the example of Jeff Parker and Agents of Atlas:

Suggestion No. 1: "Dearest Jeff: Please outline the concept, the plot of the first issue and the main characters of Agents of Atlas, elaborate on the group's role in the Marvel Universe and gush a little about the artists. (Also, please leave an opening or two for impromptu gags, suggestions welcome.) Hugs and kisses, Newsarama."

Suggestion No. 2: "Dearest Jeff: Please write us a 1,500-word essay promoting your new Marvel Comics series. We can proof-read it, if you like. Hugs and kisses, Newsarama."

See? Isn't comics journalism easy? Everybody can do it.

Sgt. Pepper's Litpop Comics Club (2)

Before I continue moving (mowing?) down the list of creators mentioned in response to earlier posts (here's Part 1, and here, um, the Prologue, or something), perhaps I should clarify again that the point of the exercise is not to dismiss (or approve, for that matter) any of them as valid candidates for a "serious" Best-Comics-of-2008 list.

Rather, it's a purely selfish, self-indulgent exercise on my part, meant to hone my tender critical faculties and give me a better understanding of what my own "standards for greatness" are and how they work. The best way of doing that I can think of right now is to hit these standards with whatever names and works I can come up with, and try to figure out whether I find they make the grade, and why. Of course, this is all bound to terribly rushed and superficial here. The next step, then, after separating the wheat from the chaff, would be to go back and examine the individual works more closely.

And I'd still like to strongly encourage everybody else to chime in and do the same for themselves, using their own standards. I love what Dick Hyacinth is doing over at his blog, for instance (though he clearly needs tags, so you can get all the Meta-Best-of-List craziness with one click); because the lists resulting from his survey (here's the one for 2007, by the way) are intriguing, certainly, but more so because of the discussions generated in the process.

What comics still emphatically lack, after all, is a sturdy canon. In part, this is because there aren't quite as many great comics yet as there are, say, films or novels or plays or short stories or poems. But it's also because we don't have a good idea of the required standards yet. What makes a good comic? More significantly, what separates a "good" comic from a "great" comic that future generations should be nudged towards? It's still a relatively young form, and it will probably be a while before comics are a permanent fixture at high schools and universities the same way prose, drama and poetry are. But the sooner we start talking about standards, the better, surely.

And few people seem to be doing that, unfortunately. I can see a lot of Best-of and me-likey lists out there, but nobody seems to be talking about their standards for these things. So either people don't consciously think about standards, or they don't share them - both of which is fine for the time being, but neither of which is likely to get us better comics, or a better understanding of comics and what we want from them, in the long run. So, whoever you are, if you are reading this and are in the business of doing Best-of lists or reviewing comics in general, I'd love to hear what your standards are, no matter how broad or narrow your focus is.

Aaand... I guess that's all for today, then. Next up: less theory, more practice. Scout's honor.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cocked-Up Crisis Mystery Shocker Resolved?

"Why Has DC's Final Crisis Been So Cocked Up?," Tom Spurgeon asks, wondering "why DC Comics let their Final Crisis comic book event be executed as if it lurched out the door, clutched its chest, set itself on fire and then rolled around in broken glass." (Props for good imagery.)

Well, I don't really believe it's that great of a mystery. I talked about what I think is at the core of the issue back in July, and while there are a few other things playing into the supposed blockbuster event's woes, I think my essay still holds up nicely - as does this one from June 2007, for that matter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sgt. Pepper's Literary Pop Comics Club (1)

In response to Friday's post on the quality of superhero comics, a few names were brought up. And it's not a bad list at all, actually. In fact, you're going to find most of them on my own upcoming Best-of list for 2008.* Still, are they really good enough to fulfill the criteria?

To restate the challenge: Are there any pop comics writers whose recent work you think was so good that it's up to literary standards? So great that it absolutely has to appear on any self-respecting Best-Comics-of-the-Year list? Are there any recent pop comics works that weren't just entertaining, but also offered genuinely profound truths and insights? In other words, are there any recent works that transcend their given genre, like, say, The Sopranos or The Shield or Deadwood do?

(Of course, this begs the question whether the non-genre books that are on those lists fulfill these criteria. Since I didn't read any of them, I'm the wrong guy to be talking about that, though. Maybe next year. More well-read and thoughtful critics and reviewers like Dick Hyacinth or Douglas Wolk or Sean T. Collins or Tom Spurgeon might be able to answer that one, though.)

Now, before I'm going through the names that are mentioned in the comments section, I should say I'm aware that I was talking about superhero comics last week; those were the subject of the Blog@Newsarama essay I was responding to. On reflection, though, I guess it makes sense to expand the discussion to "pop comics" (or "genre comics," if you prefer) in general. First up, it's obviously not like superheroes is the only pop genre that seems to be absent from most "serious" Best-Comics-of-2008 lists. Second, for all intents and purposes, the people who make crime, espionage, sci-fi, horror, etc. comics largely seem to be the same ones that make superhero comics, anyway.

But now, let's look at some of the names that were dropped.

Grant Morrison: Well, yes, he's the one I was referring to - the one writer working in North American pop comics I could think of to whose work I would assign the adjective "literary" without hesitation. Not all of his work, mind you. I'm really only talking about All Star Superman here, as far as 2008 is concerned. And before that, maybe Seven Soldiers? As far as Final Crisis and Batman are concerned, I'm reserving judgment until they're done. "Batman RIP," at any rate, really did have a rubbish ending (if any ending at all, so far), so it's out of the race as a separate story.

Peter Milligan: When he's on form, Milligan comes close, probably. I think some of the better Human Target and X-Force/X-Statix stories might make the grade. The only things I've read by him this year, however, are a few issues of Infinity Inc. and the Moon Knight: Silent Knight special from a couple of weeks ago; both of which were much better than the average dross, granted. But they're also pretty light stuff and not free of flaws, either. I wouldn't insist they deserve spots on any general Best-Comics-of-2008 list by any stretch. Am I missing something more substantial Milligan's done lately?

Garth Ennis: My exposure to Ennis was limited to Dan Dare this year, and while I liked that book tremendously, it's not what I would call profound. I didn't follow The Boys or The Punisher or anything else he did this year, though, so maybe those were better. Overall, though, I don't recall reading anything particularly insightful from Ennis recently.

Ed Brubaker: I consider Brubaker the most consistent, most polished genre writer in American comics right now, and I can't think of any other comic besides Daredevil or Criminal or Captain America of which I enjoyed more issues more thoroughly this year. Even so, I would shy away from asserting that those books offer the kind of literary insight I regard as obligatory from anything on a general Best-Comics-of-the-Year list. Thinking of Brubaker and "literary," I can only come up with Sleeper. But hey, that's something, I guess. (Yes, I've read Brubaker's Uncanny X-Men. The less said of that one, the better. The Immortal Iron Fist is on top of my stack - hopefully I'll get around to it in time for my own Best-of-2008 thing.)

Warren Ellis: No, no, no. I don't think so. Doktor Sleepless has been Ellis' most ambitious comics work this year, probably. But, honestly, it's not his best by a long shot, and it would need to be to make the grade, where I'm concerned. Black Summer and particularly Thunderbolts were fun, but certainly not literary. He was on a roll last year with Nextwave and Fell and Thunderbolts and Crécy, where good pop comics are concerned, but this year has seemed like a retreat for Ellis, and his output not what I consider prime-list material by a long shot. But then, I didn't read everything he's done. Did I just miss the good stuff? No Hero, maybe? Or Newuniversal? Aetheric Mechanics? Ultimate Human? Any good, any of them?

Matt Fraction: Casanova comes very close, I have to admit. Call me crazy, but I genuinely think it's the best thing to happen to Anglo-American comics since Watchmen. I still find it too rough and haphazard for a genuine masterpiece, however; the ingredients are all there, but they're not refined enough. And, unfortunately, since Fraction's priority right now - much like Brubaker's - seem to be solid but largely unambitious things like Invincible Iron Man, I wonder whether he'll ever fulfill the promise inherent to those first fourteen issues of Casanova. I can understand why it's happening: A lot of these guys have families to support and Marvel offers a solid paycheck. I would do the same, probably, under the circumstances. It's still a bit of a shame, though.

Jason Aaron: Wolverine, Scalped, Black Panther - all very solid and entertaining genre work, certainly, but not more. Which is almost disappointing in the case of Scalped, by the way, since everybody keeps hyping it like it's the second coming of Christ. Is it a good crime series? Absolutely. Is it as good as, say, The Sopranos? Well, not exactly, so let's all calm down for a second. Aaron's Ghost Rider - yes, let me say that again, because it's so weird and unusual for me to speak these words: his Ghost Rider! - I just love to pieces for the mad, cocky, blasphemous hellride of a comic that it is. But, you know, to be perfectly honest? I'd much rather see Aaron come up with something that builds on his 2007 trailblazer The Other Side. Once he does, let's talk again, okay?

Okay, this is getting longish, so I'll have to come back to it later this week. In the meantime, I'd like to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments; they're much appreciated.

* Which, I hasten to add, will not presume to be anything but a list of the best new pop comics I have read this year, so put away the knives.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Pow! Bam! Boom!

Here's a dirty little secret: Most comics writers wouldn't know a proper story if it kicked them in the nuts with hard-nail boots.

And here's another one: In the United States, most of those people write superhero comics.

As I'm sure you've noticed if you have been following this blog for any length of time, I rather like superhero comics. I think, in fact, that the overall quality of what's being offered in the North American superhero market has grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten years. I honestly believe that superhero comics, as a whole, have never been better than they are nowadays.

But what does that mean in practice?

It means there are many writers now who have the genre down pat and are capable of constructing solid, sturdy, engaging and very polished narratives with identifiable characters that at least give you the impression that they weren't produced with a target audience of complete morons in mind.

It means that we've got a very respectable number of superhero writers right now who accomplish dazzling experiments with not only the genre, but frequently the form of comics itself, as well. While working on superhero comics, they deconstruct the genre and put it back together and think about where it comes from and where it's going.

It means, in other words, that - for the first time in history - we can actually claim right now to live in a decade where the average superhero comic is at least broadly on par with the average mainstream television show or Hollywood film or genre novel. That's certainly an achievement, and it's not something that I think was true ten years ago.

It also means, however, that, just like the average mainstream television series and the average Hollywood film and the average genre novel, the average superhero comic is still not particularly good.

In part, that's due because there's still a whole lot of crap on the shelves, of course.

More importantly, though, here are a few questions for you to ponder: How many writers are there in superhero comics whose work combines and generates originality, authenticity, empathy and urgency?*

How many are there whose stories have a depth that genuinely goes beyond what's flat on the page, and whose work rewards repeated readings? How many are there who know precisely what it is they want to achieve in a given story from the outset, and who subsequently have the internal and external resources to bring exactly that story to fruition? How many superhero stories have you read recently in which every single plot element, line of dialogue, character moment, anything, are accruing meaning and adding up to a particular point which the author knew he wanted to make before they ever started typing? How many superhero writers have you come across recently that have left you with a nugget of honest-to-god truth or insight that you didn't have before?

In short, how many superhero writers can you list of whom you are, without any qualifiers or reservations, convinced that they stand up to, well, literary scrutiny?

Don't duck the issue with some nonsense about all that being subjective - use your own standards. If you're reading this, chances are you know what you consider a good superhero comic and what not.

In recent memory, I can come up with one such writer who at least generally meets these standards, personally, and 2008 hasn't been his best year, overall. If you think there are more than five, you're facing a real uphill battle if you want to convince me you're right, but don't let that discourage you.

This isn't to say that superhero comics necessarily need to have meaningful, insightful, proper stories, mind you. If you're just reading them for the fisticuffs and explosions, the mad ideas and the nostalgia and the puzzles, the flashy artwork and the thrill of finding out what happens next to characters you've been invested in for ages, more power to you - so do I, a lot of the time. But then let's at least be honest enough to acknowledge that we just like to kick back and enjoy some solid, well-written pulp fiction every now and then. There are quite a few Best-of-the-Year lists for that sort of thing, too (such as the ones I make, for instance).

If it's your genuine opinion that superhero comics are being short-changed in critics' Best-Comics-of-the-Year lists, however, then put your money where your mouth is and try to convince me. What are some superhero comics you think are up to the standards for greatness established above and deserve to be rated among the Top 10 in 2008? I'd like to know. Or, if those standards above don't work for you, more power to you - what are yours, then? Surely you've thought about that before you filed your complaint, so tell me what they are - seriously, I'm interested.

Why am I typing all this? It's in response to this Blog@Newsarama essay by a chap named Lucas Siegel, of course, which probably wouldn't be half as noteworthy if it hadn't generated a lot of feedback in the comments section, as well as commentary from Dick Hyacinth and Heidi MacDonald (and in their respective comment sections).

So, while we're at it anyway, let's talk about it. I'm working on a Best-of-2008 list myself, and I'm genuinely curious about this stuff.

* Disclaimer: When I say "originality," I'm not referring to plot. When I say "authenticity," I'm not referring to realism. When I say "empathy," I'm not referring to images of Superman weeping. And when I say "urgency," I'm not referring to cliffhangers.

I'm referring to stories which attempt to do something different from what we've read a thousand times before in content and form; which make me buy into the world they create; which allow me to genuinely feel with the characters and have a good sense of what it is they want and why it's important for them and the overall story.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ClusterRIP

DC Comics editor-in-chief Dan DiDio explains to Newsarama why Grant Morrison's "Batman RIP" has a rubbish ending:
[B]ecause we live in the world of collected editions, we needed a conclusion in the Batman series, so that we could collect it properly within Batman, without having to bring in segments of Final Crisis to complete the story.
So there you got it. "Batman RIP" has a rubbish ending because we live in the world of collected editions.

Or, in other words:
[T]his is reflective of the world that we live in now – the world of collected editions. The "RIP" story was always meant to play through to the end of Final Crisis - always. The thing is, we had to come up with a very complete story in “Batman RIP” as it existed in its title. The reality is that the “Batman RIP” story does not conclude until Final Crisis #6. There are also issues #682 and #683 of Batman that feed directly into Final Crisis #6, and we’ll have a big finale to the Batman storyline. That’s how it plays out.
Or, in other words:
NRAMA: So – fundamentally, “Batman RIP” did not end in Batman #681?

DD: Correct. We have the two parts that we’re in the middle of now, and they lead us into Final Crisis #6 which gives us a definite conclusion to the Batman story. That’s how Grant designed the story from the start, and that’s how the story plays out. So, the people who are looking for the big finale, the stuff that Grant was talking about – he knows how big an ending he has, because he wrote it in Final Crisis #6. That story has been so planned out that it reflects events from the pages of Final Crisis #1 in order to pull it all together.
Or, in other words:
NRAMA: So Final Crisis #6 is like when you’re driving on, say, I-40 and it merges with another for a while, and you get the road signs telling you that you’re on two highways at the same time…and you follow another highway out other than the one you went in on.

DD: Exactly. And Batman #682 and #683 are reflective of things that took place earlier in Final Crisis as well.
Or, in other words: Grant made the ending of "Batman RIP" a bit rubbish because it is in the world of collected editions that we are living, right now.

So DC made a 51-part series called Countdown to Final Crisis that was not, in actuality, a countdown to Final Crisis of any sort. And they made an 8-part series called Death of the New Gods that came out immediately before Final Crisis when, blimey, how can we now kill the New Gods in Final Crisis when those goll dang New Gods have already gone goll dang deadened in Death of the Goll Dang Dead Gods.

And now they made a story called "Batman RIP" that has a rubbish ending, and it is rubbish - the ending - because we live in the world of collected editions.

Let's be serious, just for a second: What is Mr. DiDio saying here? I see three possibilities.

(1) Our readers and retailers are a cowardly and superstitious lot. They cannot possibly be trusted to be given in advance such sensitive information as,

"Dear retailers, dear readers:

"Please note that the comic titled 'Batman RIP: Conclusion' is not actually the conclusion of 'Batman RIP'. Instead, it has a rubbish ending.

"For the real, non-rubbishy kind of ending of 'Batman RIP', please refer to this other comic we've been making that people thought was kind of rubbish and may or may not be out sometime next year. Once we've released it and you bought it, we'll apologize profusely if that comic has a rubbish ending, too.

"Because we live in the world of collected editions."

(2) We don't have a jolly dang clue what we're doing. It's a world of collected editions, and we just live in it.

(3) La la la la, you can't see me if I dance for you real quick in my pretty pink new dress.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dork Reign Begins Here!

When I picked up my comics this week, they came wrapped in a "Special Dark Reign Edition" of Marvel Previews. It's a 30-page pamphlet that "reveals" the hitherto "classified" solicitation text and images for all the books connected to Marvel's "Dark Reign" from December through February. Newsarama has an online version for your perusal.

The thrust of it is that, in the wake of Secret Invasion, Iron Man loses his position as the head supervisor and administrator of the United States' now strictly regulated superhuman population. The job is then handed to somewhat reformed arch-fiend Norman Osborn, formerly known as the Green Goblin, who's been in charge of the Thunderbolts since Civil War.

As they've done with past crossovers, Marvel are using "Dark Reign" to launch a whole slew of new titles. In theory, that seems like a smart approach, since it grants the new launches more exposure than they could otherwise expect. But in practice, the good sales never stick for more than a few issues.

For one thing, that's because there are already many more superhero books by Marvel and DC out there than the market can support, so I doubt that adding ten more to them - not counting all the "Dark Reign" one-shots, more on which later - will increase the chance to really gain traction for any of them.

Somewhere in limbo, Heroes for Hire, The Order and New Warriors are agreeing with me. More recent crossover launches like Skaar, X-Force, Cable, Young X-Men and Captain Britain aren't setting the charts on fire, either.

Marvel are also evidently looking to tie their line of books more closely together, which is puzzling. If there's one thing they've done much better than DC over the past eight years, it's that they've been taking care to keep their books self-contained and accessible. With "Dark Reign," though, that seems to be changing, and I don't think it's a very smart idea at all.

Don't get me wrong: They've got a lot of promising new titles coming up - I absolutely applaud Marvel for hiring fresh voices like Jonathan Hickman, Andy Diggle, Jeff Parker and Matt Fraction. But then again, I'm not very interested in reading material from them that plays a supporting role to what feels like the nineteenth monthly Avengers title cooked up by Brian Michael Bendis - especially a Brian Michael Bendis whose creative faculties seem to be in a recession so deep as to rival that of Iceland.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's tackle the "Dark Reign" launches and makeovers one by one.

o Dark Avengers, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato Jr. This is the big one, obviously: the flagship book for the Avengers line, and of the whole "Dark Reign" event. And, well, it's a little disappointing, isn't it? "Dark Avengers"? Is that the best they could come up with - another Avengers book by Bendis, only now it's "dark"? Wow. They could at least have bothered giving it a proper title - what's wrong with "Avengers: Dark Reign" or just plain "Dark Reign," for instance?

Conceptually, this seems to be the Thunderbolts, with some new characters like Daken (over from Daniel Way's Wolverine: Origins) and Noh'Varr (from Grant Morrison's Marvel Boy) thrown in for good measure. If it were by someone who can write more than one type of character, I might even have been interested.

Also, Dark Avengers is evidently Marvel's first high-profile mainstream series with a regular cover price of $ 3.99. So far, when using the price point, they've always tried to justify it with more content or, at least, like in the case of Secret Invasion, with slightly higher production values, such as cardstock covers. But this time around, it's just a plain old 32-page package (including ten pages of adverts, presumably) for four bucks, with no apologies. I'm interested to see how it goes.

Personally, I have no intention of ever buying a standard-sized 22-page comic for that kind of money - unless it's written by Grant Morrison, perhaps, although I should point out that Morrison's Final Crisis has been clocking in at a very fair 30 pages of content each for its $ 3.99 tag. If 22 pages of content for $ 3.99 becomes the new standard format, however, I guess I'll find myself with a pretty manageable set of periodicals by 2010.

o New Avengers, by Brian Michael Bendis and Billy Tan. The solicitation copy promises that issue #49 brings "the first major roster change since the very first issue!!" I guess the one where Doctor Strange and Iron Fist joined didn't count. I've been following the book out of curiosity, but after eight dreary and mostly pointless Secret Invasion tie-ins, I'm not really interested anymore. Bendis is horribly miscast on this franchise, and Billy Tan's bland and frequently poor artwork doesn't help.

o Mighty Avengers, by Dan Slott and Khoi Pham. Slott is hit and miss, and it looks like the book will mainly serve as a counterpoint to the two Bendis titles, so: not really interested. If the reviews tell me that it's good and works on its own merits, I might buy a collection.

o Thunderbolts, by Andy Diggle and Roberto De La Torre. Contrary to some other folks, I don't really consider Diggle's The Losers a classic - it was a fun action book most of the time. Nor, for that matter, did I read any of his DC Universe books. Still, judging from The Losers, he seems like an intriguing choice for Thunderbolts, and I've read good things about De La Torre's art. I'll watch out for the reviews on this one.

o War Machine, by Greg Pak and Leonardo Manco. I haven't been impressed by anything Pak has written, but then I haven't read a lot of things he's done except that god-awful X-Men miniseries drawn by Greg Land a few years back. And the notion of Leonardo Manco drawing a big shiny battle armor armed to its teeth with things blowing up left and right is tremendously appealing to me, I admit. Another one to keep in mind until the collections start coming out, then.

o Invincible Iron Man, by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca. Yeah, I know. It's not Casanova, unsurprisingly. It's not even The Order, in fact, in terms of being innovative. Still, I've enjoyed Fraction's take on Tony Stark so far - he seems to be the only writer besides Joe Casey who ever got the character, and he knows how to build a good spy-tech thriller around that. My only reservation right now is that it seems like the "Dark Reign" nonsense is cutting the book and its set-up off at the knees. In any case, I give Fraction the benefit of the doubt. I'll be sticking around.

o Punisher, by Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña. I don't have much of an opinion on Remender's writing - it seemed serviceable on the two Fear Agent issues I checked out, and awful on the one issue of The All-New Atom I read. The Punisher War Journal series launched after Civil War had two major problems, at any rate. One was that Matt Fraction didn't get the Punisher, at least in the first five issues before I dropped the book.

The other, though, was that pitching the Punisher against super-villains comes with a whole range of conceptual problems. So relaunching the book with what looks like the exact same premise seems questionable - I mean, it's not like the Punisher is ever going to kill Doctor Doom, Norman Osborn or the Sentry, as the previews of the first two issues are teasing, or is he? So why not use a set-up that allows the writer to build, you know, tension instead?

o Deadpool, by Daniel Way and Paco Medina. The reviews on this one have been surprisingly positive so far, but it's going to take a lot more than that to make me consider picking up a Daniel Way comic. Maybe he's gotten better in the last few years, but everything I've seen from him so far suggests this guy wouldn't know a story if it bit him in the nuts.

o Black Panther, by Reginald Hudlin and Ken Lashley. More dumb and clumsy attempts at being provocative, I presume, only now the title character is a girl. I'm not sure what Marvel see in Hudlin, to be honest. Okay, Bendis can't write, either, granted - but at least his name sells comics. What's Hudlin's excuse? And what is Christopher Priest doing these days, anyway?

o Secret Warriors, by Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman and Stefano Caselli. A Nick Fury series by Jonathan Hickman sounds fantastic, in principle, but Secret Warriors has three strikes against it: (1) Superheroes, (2) Secret Invasion, and (3) Brian Michael Bendis.

I'm also skeptical whether Stefano Caselli's style particularly lends itself to what I presume is going to be some gritty espionage series or other, although I concede that this apprehension may turn out to be entirely unfounded. Overall, though, I'm afraid I'd rather not bother, at this stage - I'm open to be surprised by reviews telling me Secret Warriors is the greatest thing since sliced bread, in which case I'll line up to buy a paperback collection, post-haste.

o Agents of Atlas, by Jeff Parker, Carlos Pagulayan and Benton Jew. This is the one I'm most curious about, really. I liked last year's Agents of Atlas miniseries by Parker and artist Leonard Kirk, a delightful pulp story starring a secret agent, a spaceman, a mythical heroine, a mute robot and a talking gorilla, but since it didn't sell at all, I understand why Marvel decided to plug the concept into "Dark Reign," to a degree.

Although, at a second glance, while the story apparently uses the Marvel Universe's new status quo as a launch pad, the solicitation copy actually name-checks neither "Dark Reign" nor Secret Invasion. To be perfectly honest, I don't have much faith in the book's long-term health, but I think I'll consider reading it, at least.

o Ms. Marvel, Avengers: The Initiative, Wolverine: Origins, by various. These may be perfectly decent genre serials, for all I know, but I've got no interest in, or opinion on, any of them, really.

o Robin & Mockingbird and Skrull Kill Krew, by who knows. Oh, no, wait: That's "Ronin & Mockingbird," actually; was caught up in the bird theme, for a moment. Which is not only a much crappier title than "Hawkeye & Mockingbird" would have been, come to think of it, but also makes me wonder whether Marvel have jumped the shark, big time. Do we really need their version of, um, Green Arrow/Black Canary? A rhetorical question, if there ever was one.

I can see the appeal of a Skrull Kill Krew book, though, if they let someone like Fred van Lente, Matt Fraction or Jason Aaron run batshit crazy with it. Neither series has been solicited yet, though - they're just mentioned in the solicitation copy for Dark Reign: New Nation. Speaking of which.

o Secret Invasion: Requiem, Secret Invasion: Dark Reign, Dark Reign: New Nation, Marvel Spotlight: Dark Reign and Dark Reign Files, by various. How many variations and combinations of "Secret Invasion" and "Dark Reign" can you come up with? Well, five, evidently.

The five one-shots are celebrating the transition between the two events, if you're so inclined. I'm not, since I read a few of the similar specials they released after Civil War and they weren't worth the paper they were printed on - not to mention that Civil War itself, for all its faults, is actually a proper story, which Secret Invasion is not. The cake for the most egregious cash-grab among the bunch goes to Secret Invasion: Requiem, by the way. It's eight pages of new material stuffed out with two reprints, for $ 3.99.

So, all told, things are looking rather bleak for Marvel, particularly considering the appalling quality of Secret Invasion proper. It seems they're putting too many eggs in one basket, not unlike DC did with Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis.

(Of course, even if "Dark Reign" should turn out to be a commercial dud, Marvel will still be better off, because they still have the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises.)