Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mysterius #1 (of 6)

DC Comics/WildStorm, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Tom Fowler 
Colorist: Dave McCaig 
Letterer: Saida Temofonte

Jeff Parker ought to be sending out fruit baskets to Tom Fowler and Dave McCaig every time somebody says something nice about the characters in this debut issue. It’s Mr. Fowler’s stunning rendition of the protagonist that makes me want to read the comic. Mysterius, a medium for hire and former stage magician, is the gangly, pot-bellied cross between a latter-day Mick Jagger and the red-nosed caricature of prime-time Jean-Paul Belmondo, sporting a swagger to rival both gentlemen. I just want to watch this character do things on the page—it doesn’t matter what things.

Mr. Fowler’s faces and gestures are expressive and subtly nuanced throughout, and his characters and settings look real, three-dimensional and attractive in ways many of his peers can only dream of. Mr. McCaig’s colors add to the book’s visual depth and appeal; they’re just plain fun to stare at, and they’re always in the service of the story. Whatever else can or can’t be said about Mysterius, it certainly looks fantastic. A lot of the time, in fact, it seems more like a Franco-Belgian thing than something created for the North American market.

But let’s turn to Mr. Parker’s script. Mysterius #1 introduces the characters and the concept, tells its own little story and sets up a couple of longer-running threads. We meet Mysterius, we see him conduct a séance that leads to an encounter with his new assistant Ella, and the whole thing is framed by what I suppose is a set-up for issue #2. It’s all generally well-written, with a few very fun bits, even. It has a consistent voice and tone. It gets things underway, and it does so in a good, solid fashion.

What it doesn’t do, unfortunately, is to give me something that makes me want to come back next month. It seems this is news to a lot of creators out there, but what I’m looking for in my fiction, first and foremost, are situations and conflicts that don’t seem like I’ve read them a thousand times before. I don’t care what your story is about. I don’t care who your characters are. I don’t care that you’re a great craftsman.

What I really want from you before any of that concerns me is to tell me something new, something interesting. That’s why I’m giving you my time and my money. And if you don’t deliver, you probably won’t get it again, particularly if we’re talking serial fiction. The reason why a lot of comics fail, plainly, is that they’re just not bringing anything new or interesting to the table. (And, no, producing a work whose sole distinguishing element is that it’s “not superheroes” doesn’t cut it, either. Sorry.)

I have to apologize for making this point in the review of a Jeff Parker comic, really; what I’ve read of Mr. Parker’s work suggests that he knows what he’s doing, and Mysterius is certainly much better than the average genre comic. Which, on the other hand, annoys me all the more, frankly. Why not sit down, go that extra mile and come up with the one bit that totally goes for the reader’s guts and really takes things to the next level? It’s very hard to do, of course. But hey: That’s the job, right? Maybe the kind of situation or conflict I’m thinking of is still to come here. But if that’s the case, it shouldn’t be.

As I said, I like Mysterius. I’ll buy that next issue. It’s a well-written book with fabulous artwork and a protagonist who’s just a very fun character to watch. And Mr. Fowler and Mr. McCaig are now due another fruit basket each.

Grade: B-

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: January 21, 2009

I wonder how all these mediocre Marvel books ended up in my box. I’ll have to make a note: Cut down on mediocre Marvel books.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #584, by Marc Guggenheim, John Romita, Jr., et al. Spider-Man shot by the police: interesting! What happens next? Well, he loses buckets of blood, escapes from two police officers in an elevator shaft and evidently passes out for several hours in an upper floor of the same building, undisturbed by the police – or by any people at all, for that matter. After which he gets up, goes home and takes a shower. Or, in fewer words: Pffft. There are ways to drain the drama out of a good set-up, and then there are Marc Guggenheim stories.

(Marvel Comics, 23 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: D

* * *

Astonishing X-Men #28, by Warren Ellis, Simone Bianchi, et al. Regular readers will be delighted to hear that the X-Men have their personalities back. Mr. Ellis even manages to fool me here: Just when I’m wondering what all the sudden references to older stories are meant to accomplish, it turns out that the characters are play-acting to distract a hidden attacker. Overall, though, the story seems awfully formulaic. Also, I’m of two minds about Mr. Bianchi’s art; his drawings are gorgeous, certainly, but the panel-to-panel storytelling lacks, and everything is veiled by the mists of Avalon. Given that neither the Lady of the Lake nor King Arthur are likely to pop up anytime soon, that’s a bit of a snag.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

* * *

Dark Avengers #1, by Brian Michael Bendis, Mike Deodato, et al. Aha, so this is the book Brian Bendis was excited about while he was writing Secret Invasion. It’s not half bad, actually, if you’re into the shared-universe stuff. The plot consists of new Über-villain Norman Osborn assembling his own Avengers team. The group’s roster doesn’t come as a big surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with the Marvel Universe, but there’s certainly some good potential for conflict there. For once, Mr. Bendis even manages to give the characters convincingly distinguished voices. The one annoying thing about the comic is that Mr. Deodato keeps drawing the two Ms. Marvel characters like they’re dancing around a pole all the time, but maybe he just doesn’t know better. Apart from that, it’s a perfectly good, if rather predictable Marvel Universe comic - not good enough to make me follow the series at $ 3.99 a pop, certainly, but much better than I thought it was going to be.

(Marvel Comics, 32 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #2 (of 2), by Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke, et al. An evil god building a bridge into the Multiverse, corrupted Monitors, thought robots, the denizens of Limbo fighting not to be purged from memory – Superman Beyond has lots of meta-commentary, to nobody’s surprise. If you like that sort of thing, the inscription on Superman’s tombstone is a neat little twist. Mr. Morrison doesn’t break any new ground here, but the book does offer one of the more focused and story-oriented takes on his pet themes. There sure is a lot of defiance, explosions, rage, love and pain going on here. Mr. Mahnke’s art is plainly fantastic, even if, like me, you boycott the 3D effect that’s presumably responsible for the extra 50 cents. (No deep ideological reasons; the glasses just make me dizzy.) It’s a good comic, but you can certainly tell it was initially meant to be published as a one-shot special. It’s the sort of thing you can read ten times in a row and still discover new stuff. (Or just read once without going back to the first issue and be utterly confused.)

(DC Comics, 32 pages, 3D gimmick, $ 4.50)

Grade: B+

* * *

Ghost Rider #31, by Jason Aaron, Tan Eng Huat, Roland Boschi, et al. Um, I quite like Tan Eng Huat’s art, but this issue looks odd. Partially, that’s because colorist José Villarrubia is making some very bizarre choices here: bright orange skies? Bright green and yellow walls and floors for characters dressed in bright blue and purple?! Bright grey ground in the jungle?!? But mainly, it’s because Mr. Huat plainly doesn’t bother to draw proper backgrounds - or, more to the point, textures. I’m sorry, but with the best will in the world, a perfectly flat ground just isn’t something you find a lot in a jungle, no matter what tricks the poor colorist ends up pulling out of his hat to make it more palatable; and those are just the most egregious examples. Plotwise, we’re evidently at the point where lots of stuff needs to be set up for the story’s big finale, so that’s all we get here. It’s rather formulaic, and let’s be frank: People standing around talking isn’t why anybody reads Ghost Rider. It’s a rather weak episode, all told. The writing is too dull, and the art too bright, for a comic about a biker with a burning head.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

* * *

The Mighty Avengers #21, by Dan Slott, Khoi Pham, et al. I quite like the idea at the core of the book: Hank Pym, always a bit deficient in the self-worth and identity department, comes up with yet another costumed alias; he calls himself the Wasp now, after his recently deceased ex-wife. Hey, why shouldn’t gender be among the things he’s insecure about? But that story – the real story – only starts when we’re already halfway through the book, unfortunately. Instead of using Pym as a lens for his narrative, Mr. Slott decides to go with the most boring set-up scenario of them all. His main concern seems to be to make the plot bulletproof against such fascinating questions as, “Why didn’t they just call the Fantastic Four?” or, “Why didn’t they just call the X-Men?” or, “Why didn’t they just call Omega Flight?” No, sorry, that was sarcasm. (The “fascinating” part, not the “Omega Flight” part. The book does have Omega Flight in it.) I’ll try to make up for it with some honest advice: As a general rule of thumb, if you’re spending eighteen pages on a conflict that’s pretty clearly going to be resolved by some permutation of the infamous “cosmic reset button,” then that’s probably seventeen pages too much, unless it’s a reeeally interesting conflict. In this case, it’s seventeen-and-a-half pages too much. I like what Mr. Pham does with some of the facial expressions, though. It’s a shame he doesn’t have much to work with.

(Marvel Comics, 36 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: D+

* * *

Uncanny X-Men Annual #2, by Matt Fraction, Mitch Breitweiser, Daniel Acuña, et al. Didn’t Mr. Breitweiser’s art have a more photorealistic look to it a few years ago? In this book, it looks a lot more like John Paul Leon’s stuff, to the point where I first assumed the credits were wrong. Anyway, the book provides some backstory for Namor and Emma Frost’s membership in Norman Osborn’s new inner circle of darkly reigning bad guys. As such, it’s competent enough. There are some fun character moments, but also a few question marks. Shouldn’t Sebastian Shaw have some kind of defense mechanism against telepathic attacks by now? Why does Emma look like she’s on crack on the cover? (Yanick Paquette is the artist, I believe.) And, um, this little gem: “The power on the land that the Hellfire Club would allow you would be matched only by the prestige your presence would grant us.” I understand things can get hasty now and then in the monthly business, but surely, this is the stuff editors should straighten out a bit, before somebody loses an eye. 

(Marvel Comics, 38 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C

* * *

X-Factor #39, by Peter David, Valentine de Landro, et al. Mr. David had something going here, but he ends up botching it. Without spoiling the plot, a traumatic event occurs for two of the characters, and it’s not a bad idea at all, in story terms. In fact, it’s even a pretty good one, as these things go: a very simple, very effective development - one which absolutely makes sense, but which you probably didn’t see coming. (Well, I did, but only just before I turned the page.) When it comes to dealing with the fallout, however, all we get is meaningless chatter and some other reactions that, I’m sorry, just seem phony. I can acknowledge that the story at least tries to do something different here, but it ends up back on the well-trodden path, and it doesn’t even look like much of the cast’s dynamic will be changed as a result. While the artwork is an improvement over previous issues, the fact that Valerie Cooper suddenly looks like Cameron Diaz is one of those gratuitous little distractions that take you right out of the story.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

X-Men: Legacy #220, by Mike Carey, Scot Eaton, et al. Ah, back when they used to print credits in the comics – those were the days. On the one hand, I want to like this book, because Mr. Carey has clearly done his homework on the characters’ backstory and mostly succeeds at using it productively here, in terms of moving the story forward. But then again, while it’s all very neat and tidy, it’s also very plot-oriented, with little else in the way of thrills. Unless you’re already a hardcore X-Men fan, I can’t imagine X-Men: Legacy doing anything to win you over. It’s well-executed but ultimately formulaic genre comics, and it’s scarcely inspiring. I expect a little more from Mr. Carey, to be honest. And, please, can we cut the “ah”s and the “mah”s from Rogue’s dialogue?

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

* * *

I also bought the first issue of Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler’s Mysterius, but – fingers crossed – that one will get its own review in a couple of days, because I have a feeling that it might be good.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Immortal Iron Fist, Vol. 2: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven

Marvel Comics, 2008, 204 pages, paperback, $ 17.99

Writers: Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker
Artists: David Aja, Roy Allan Martinez, Scott Koblish, Kano, Javier Pulido, Tonci Zonjic, Clay Mann, Stefano Gaudiano, Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic, Howard Chaykin, Dan Brereton
Colorists: Matt Hollingsworth, June Chung, David Aja, Javier Rodríguez, Paul Mounts, Edgar Delgado, Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic 
Letterer: Artmonkeys Studios
Cover artist: Kaare Andrews

(The book reprints The Immortal Iron Fist #8-14 and The Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1, published by Marvel Comics in 2007 and 2008.)

Much of the reason why this book doesn’t work is summarized at the beginning of the fifth chapter: “I came here to fight in a kung-fu tournament,” Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, muses, “and instead I find myself in a revolution.” The line is so succinct an observation of what’s wrong with the story that it might as well be meta-commentary.

For one thing, there is little to no set-up for the “revolution” part that takes center stage in the penultimate chapter and serves as a vehicle for the big resolution. Up to that point, everything is about a big, cool kung-fu tournament between – take a deep breath – the Immortal Weapons of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, of whom Iron Fist is one. And, then, all of a sudden, the story switches gears and asks the reader to be invested in a world whose social and political situation is hinted at here and there, but never really explored. We don’t get to see any of the people living in it, other than as nondescript extras in the background of the arena matches. It’s never clear why anyone living in the place would want a revolution, for that matter. We’re told that the fate of the Seven Cities it at stake, but the story never attempts to make us care, or to explain what’s so great about the Seven Cities.

As if all of this weren’t disjointed enough as it is, the book takes a detour after the second chapter, for no other reason than because the pages of an Annual had to be filled that month. It’s mostly concerned with the past of Orson Randall, Danny’s immediate predecessor as the Iron Fist, who played a major role in the first volume. As such, it’s inoffensive enough; its connection to what’s going on in the rest of this book is flimsy at best, however.

What ultimately kills any suspense, though, is the fact that none of the characters amount to more than ink on a page. The contestants in the tournament are a bunch of largely indistinguishable, emotionally aloof delivery mechanisms for taunts and one-liners. The present leader of the city of K’un-Lun is evidently meant to be a despot, but unfortunately, he never gets to be overly despotic. In fact, he never gets be much of anything at all. He wears a mask, stands around and. Talks. Like. This. A. Lot. Beyond seeming a bit prickly, though, he remains a blank. His opponent, who’s disguised as a servant girl for most of the story, has a little more screen time, but not enough to be a real character. It makes no difference that she doesn’t have a name; I’m sure I couldn’t remember it anyway, even if she did. There are Lei-Kung, Iron Fist’s old mentor, and Xao, the big villain in the story, but neither of them gets room to breathe, and they remain one-note stereotypes throughout. What do any of these characters want, and why do they want it? Being told by the script is not a substitute for character development.

The story is populated by martial-arts types who first beat each other up because they happen to be in a kung-fu tournament, and then proceed to aligning each other on two sides because the plot requires them to fight out a “revolution.” And the protagonist is no exception to that, unfortunately. There’s no real sense of what anything in the story means to Iron Fist. He does this and that, goes here and there, as the plot requires it. But we never learn what he wants or what his motivation is. There’s a flicker of resonance when Danny exchanges a few lines with his girlfriend – one page out of over two hundred, which never pays off or goes anywhere.

The story’s disjointed quality is also reflected by the artwork. Individually, the artists can mostly keep up with the level of quality established in the first book, but obviously, there are a lot more of them this time around, and the division of labor doesn’t work quite as well here. David Aja’s art is exceptional when he actually draws the story, but his level of involvement seems to be decreasing with every chapter, and by the big finale he’s left the series entirely. Unlike in the first volume, where different styles were used to differentiate between present-day scenes and flashback episodes, in this book they are all over the place. In the first few chapters, there’s an attempt to continue the practice, but two thirds into the story, the various styles seem entirely random.

Still, there are some things the creators do well here. Thematically, everything seems to be about families and generational conflict; even though the story isn’t quite at the point where it says something particularly insightful about those things, at least it demonstrates a degree of focus by continuously hitting that point. And Danny’s foil Davos gets a complete arc, for all that’s worth – again, there is no moment that allows you to get into the character and what makes him tick, but at least he comes full circle, which is more than can be said for anybody else in the book.

The story’s bold narrative style and literal kick-ass attitude get the pop martial-arts spirit across, and the artwork is mostly very good and never less than serviceable. It’s the sort of book I want to like, because it’s unique and very energetic in its approach to the material. But when you get down to it, a lot of what’s going on here seems arbitrary rather than deliberate, and there is no substance to connect all the kung-fu moves, cool moments and artistic styles and turn them into something more than the sum of their parts. The ingredients all seem to be there, and you can see ways in which they could come together, in theory; but in practice, they never quite do. The whole thing still seems several steps removed from a proper story with proper characters.

Grade: C-

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Immortal Iron Fist, Vol. 1: The Last Iron Fist Story

Marvel Comics, 2007, 146 pages, paperback, $ 14.99

Writers: Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction
Artists: David Aja, Travel Foreman, Derek Fridolfs, Russ Heath, John Severin, Sal Buscema, Tom Palmer 
Colorists: Matt Hollingsworth, Dean White, Laura Martin 
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

(The book reprints The Immortal Iron Fist #1-6 and material from Civil War: Choosing Sides #1, published by Marvel Comics in 2006 and 2007.)

It’s not hard to see why The Immortal Iron Fist quickly gained cult status when it debuted two years ago. A revamp of Marvel’s 1970s kung-fu superhero by two critically acclaimed writers and an illustrious group of artists including promising newcomers as well as reputable old hands, the comic was on track to become one of those low-selling but critically acclaimed niche books right from the start, barring some unforeseen catastrophe.

And a catastrophe this certainly isn’t. Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction—no strangers to imbuing their work with elements from all corners of popular culture—eagerly embrace the trappings borrowed from 1970s martial-arts films, add some more of their own and crank the whole thing up. “My name is Daniel Rand,” the Iron Fist soliloquizes, “and my arsenal of kung fu is rich and deep.” He goes on to kick and punch his way through an army of uniformed goons in a vast, long abandoned Manhattan subway station.

As in every good kung-fu action piece, we also learn what, precisely, is in that arsenal. The “strike of the silkworm’s tooth,” the “tiger scratch (2nd stance)” and the “drunken wasp sting” are just three of many poetically charged moves to break goggles and jaws, send teeth flying across the room and thunder-kick opponents through the windows of an old train that’s conveniently parked close by. The environment created by the story and its locations is fully geared towards delivering those things, and the book is very good at doing that.

The creators have also added another component, one that wasn’t there before: Their Daniel Rand, contrary to earlier versions, is just the latest in a long dynasty of Iron Fists—“sixty-six men and women” in all, we are told. It’s another well-hung trope to add to a concept that’s fairly busy with them to begin with: Iron Fist isn’t just a well-to-do businessman who lost his parents under tragic circumstances and was taken in by the inhabitants of a mystical city in the Himalayas before beginning to moonlight as a masked vigilante anymore – now he’s also part of a long lineage of masked vigilantes, to boot.

That said, to the writers’ credit, the concept actually works reasonably well for Iron Fist. The book could have done without the scenes devoted to the 13th, 16th and 19th century Iron Fists, which don’t really add anything other than some cool images, but the introduction of Orson Randall certainly pays off. Daniel Rand’s immediate predecessor, Randall fought on the side of the allies in World War I, went missing in 1933 and now pops up in Daniel’s life with secret knowledge, a mission and hordes of shady villains in pursuit.

Randall, in contrast to Daniel, doesn’t just borrow a lot of pulp tropes; he is the archetypal pulp hero. He hails from a much grittier age, as a number of flashbacks demonstrate: One episode, set in 1916, has him jumping and running through a labyrinth of corpses in the trenches of the Western front; another, dated ten years later, shows him beating up a journalist while he’s doped up on opium in a French whorehouse; and in a third one, finally, he’s playing drinking games in a remote Nepalese gin-mill. Randall’s attire is functional rather than flashy, and he relies on automatic firearms as much as on his hand-to-hand combat skills.

Randall’s presence pretty much carries the book—which it has to, unfortunately, because its supposed protagonist remains a blank throughout. Who is Daniel Rand? Well, he’s the head of billion-dollar corporation he seems utterly clueless about; and yet, his ignorance and detachment when it comes to business matters evidently don’t stop him from arbitrarily dismissing major deals on a whim. He’s sometimes portrayed as an accomplished and disciplined martial-arts practitioner, sometimes as an immature slacker who doesn’t really know himself, much less his pedigree or the world around him.

That’s not to say that he couldn’t be all those things, mind you, but the story never makes any attempt to reconcile them or shape them into something tangible. Rand’s interaction with Jeryn Hogarth, who runs his company for him, and with his former partner Luke Cage, as well as the question what exactly his relationship to Misty Knight is, at least suggest some potential inroads towards a better definition, but none of them are explored.

The book’s big find is, of course, Spaniard David Aja, its principle illustrator. A comic that lives from rainy-night mass brawls on the rooftops of Manhattan, in office buildings and in a vast Victorian-styled subway station very much depends on an artist who can deliver on the martial-arts moves as well as on the lush backgrounds and the appropriate mood. Mr. Aja is more than up to the task. I’m not a big expert on kung-fu moves, as you are no doubt disappointed to learn, but they do look kinetic, fluid and credible here, and they are staged against backgrounds and from perspectives that are frequently breathtaking. The same can be said for Mr. Aja’s admirable grasp on body language and facial expressions; its tremendously fun and exciting to look at the stories told by his images alone, even in conversation scenes.

Still, The Immortal Iron Fist doesn’t quite live up to its laurels, as a package. It’s a hyperkinetic martial-arts superhero extravaganza with crisp dialogue and fantastic artwork, and it certainly deserves credit for aspiring—and largely succeeding—to stand out from the pack in a number of ways. But ultimately, it lacks substance. The supposed protagonist is all over the place as a character, and I don’t really care about anything he does or experiences. This lack of a strong leading man is somewhat compensated for by the introduction of Orson Randall, but it still remains glaring. The comic’s arsenal of kung-fu may be rich and deep indeed; its ch’i, however, is weak.

Grade: B-

Seaguy! Is! Back!


Coming up in April from Vertigo: Seaguy: The Slaves of Mickey Eye, a book I've been anticipating for five years.

Thank you, DC Comics.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: January 14, 2009

The store where I pick up my comics had a flyer this week reassuring people that they were going to get their copy of That Spider-Man Comic, at cover price. It also said that subscribers had first dibs on the variant-cover edition for $ 10.00 – which, I guess, is a fair price, given that it’s reportedly a pretty rare commodity.

So, say what you will about the actual story, it’s certainly done its job in terms of drumming up interest in the comic.

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #583, by Mark Waid, Barry Kitson, et al. Okay: Who are you, and what have you done with Mark Waid? Like Mr. Waid’s previous two-parter, which had Spider-Man lead a group of survivors of a subway bombing to safety while under attack by super-villain the Shocker, this done-in-one story hits all the right notes. It’s a funny, heartfelt exploration of the friendship between Peter Parker and Betty Brant. Unfortunately, the book also has a five-page backup story. I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but they’re charging me an extra dollar for it, so it’s part of the package. It’s that “Spider-Man Meets Barack Obama” thing you might have heard about. And, well, it’s not good. It’s writer Zeb Wells trying to high-five Mr. Obama, basically, and messing it up. It’s very pronounced in its awfulness, and it drags the book down considerably.

(Marvel Comics, 27 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess #1 (of 5), by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, et al. Straight away, I’m hooked. Three ominous guys in an underground waterway? Sign me up. They’re exploring a secret hideout that, it seems, was hastily abandoned decades ago. As they start rummaging through drawers and files, I can almost smell the musty air, hear that faint dripping that you always hear in those kinds of places. That, to a large degree, is thanks to Guy Davis’ skill with the pen. It’s my first issue of B.P.R.D., and it seems to be a perfectly solid series, as far as mystery and adventure stories are concerned. In the end, though, it can’t really hold my attention, because the characters remain a little flat; at no point does the story really work to endear any of them to me. Now, to be fair, this is really “number 52 in a series,” according to the small print in the inside cover, so what’s there on the page might mean more to regular readers than it does to me. And while the story doesn’t wholly convince me, Mr. Davis’ work certainly does give the book an edge over the competition. So maybe I’ll pick up a paperback sometime.

(Dark Horse Comics, 24 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Captain Britain and MI13 #9, by Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, Mike Collins, et al. The bad news: Captain Britain’s escape from the magical realm that offers him a fantasy of “his heart’s desire” as soon as he thinks of it turns out to be a bit of a cop-out. I mean, he just finds a door. How lame is that? The good news: The rest of the comic is cool enough to make up for that, with change to spare. “STEP AWAY FROM THE PENSIONER,” Pete Wisdom advises the bad guy. He’s British, all right. He’s also a refreshingly non-conventional and interesting character in Mr. Cornell’s hands, as becomes very apparent in a couple of places throughout this story. You think he’s the typical, gruffy English bastard with a heart of gold? Think again. And those last two pages? Bloody hell. That’s the most ruthlessly efficient introduction of a villain I’ve seen in a while. It just keeps on topping itself when you think it can’t possibly get any better. If you like good superhero comics, you should be reading this.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

* * *

That’s it for the week’s capsule reviews. I’ve also got a review of Final Crisis #6 up, which I guess ended up more of a response to Jog (“I beg to differ,” he snarled) than I initially planned.

I also bought some more Steve Gerber comics this week. I think I did this because, when Doctor Strange waves the Thing goodbye on the first page of The Defenders #21, he says “Farewell – and may Oshtur travel at your side.” I have no idea who Oshtur is, but that’s pretty cool. I also threw in a couple of Gerber’s Sub-Mariner issues and that Zauriel thing he did for DC in 2006, so this may be turning into a thing.

Final Crisis #6 (of 7)

DC Comics, 34 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: J. G. Jones, Carlos Pacheco, Doug Mahnke, Marco Rudy, Christian Alamy, Jesus Merino
Colorists: Alex Sinclair, Pete Pantazis
Letterer: Rob Clark Jr.

Look, I know.

I know it’s annoying that DC wasn’t up to the task of promoting Final Crisis properly. I know it’s annoying that the warm-up stories meant to support the series did nothing of the sort and even managed to outright contradict it in some respects. I know it’s annoying that Grant Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” story had such an anti-climactic ending, and that somebody at DC thought it was a good idea to tell people that Final Crisis would address all the questions left unanswered. And I know it’s annoying, finally, that the schedule was screwed up so badly, that six people get an “artist” credit for this issue when it should have been one, and that multiple key plot points from the yet-to-be-concluded spin-off series Superman Beyond, also written by Mr. Morrison, had to be sacrificed in the name of getting things done, in the end. I know, I know, I know. Believe you me. I know.

But, listen: None of that matters.

What matters is that, ten years from now, when, surrounded by your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you’re pulling your hardcover edition of Final Crisis off the shelf, you’ll say, blimey, what a shame Kirby wasn’t around to draw this, back in 2009. Because, in an ideal world, there would have been no other choice. Of course you can quibble that the book would have looked better if Mr. Jones had illustrated the whole thing, and so on and so forth. But, honestly, those other guys aren’t doing such a bad job. If there’s anything of substance wrong with Final Crisis, it’s that Jack Kirby didn’t draw it. He could have made it better.

Other than that, though? I’m hard-pressed.

I’m looking at how all the various strands of the story suddenly high-five each other; how every other page reads like a massive pay-off; how all of it keeps gaining traction somehow until it reaches critical mass; how everything suddenly slows down and comes to a halt when Batman fires that bullet straight at you, like a break in a musical performance; how, as Barry Allen puts it, “it all runs together and becomes one thing,” literally ending up on the same page; how Superman – furious, terrible, helpless Superman, just look him in the eyes – descends from the skies and right into the heart of the enemy, blowing it all to smithereens in his rage; and how he’s too late.

I see all that, and I wouldn’t know how to make it any better.

Well, let’s be fair. There are one or two plot points that could be viewed as lackluster, as Joe McCulloch notes in his review. But, you know, they’re plot points. Could Mr. Morrison have come up with some super-clever, heretofore unimagined way of defeating Mary Marvel that no one who’s been reading her adventures for twenty years could ever have foreseen but still would have been as clean and as smoothly efficient as the one that’s on the page? Probably. Could he have invented a way for Batman to be the cavalry that didn’t depend on Darkseid’s henchmen acting a little stupid? Likely. But come on. It’s silly worrying about this stuff, and this book has bigger fish to fry. Personally, I’m glad no pages were wasted just to make the story watertight against these sorts of complaints. Now that would have been bog-standard.

I find it more interesting that what’s beneath the decadent and destructive façade of the rampaging Mary Marvel is not some mature, cynical person who’s come to the conclusion that this is the way things are, but a helpless little girl possessed by some dirty old man from another plane of existence. The Marvel Family - children’s characters, you see – are holding their own and beating back the forces of decadence and destruction. They’ve got their own tiger, in fact, but just because he’s smartly dressed and well-spoken doesn’t mean he has no teeth. “Tawny bites!” we learn. What do these things say about superhero comics and pop entertainment at large?

Also, let’s take note that it’s not Superman who rushes in, beats Darkseid and saves the day in the end, but the guy without powers, who just keeps going. Batman endures everything the bad guys can dish out, puts his mind to work and then, when everybody’s already written him off, sneaks in to deliver the one blow that counts. And, what do you know, the big villain turns out to be a foul, cynical and perverse old prick who can’t really do any harm to anyone unless everybody else is too busy wallowing in their own guilt, fear and indecision to challenge his so-called Anti-Life Equation. And all that’s left to do, finally, is to save humanity from itself. Now isn’t that an intriguing development?

So, “a deeply formulaic plot-resolution-through-hitting piece”? “Bog-standard”? Did we read the same book?

Another complaint that throws me for a loop is the one about the book’s supposed inaccessibility. Look, I don’t know the first thing about Brainiac 5, about the Green Arrow and Black Canary thing, about the Marvel Family or the Flashes or Checkmate. I’ve never read Green Lantern or Crisis on Infinite Earths or Countdown or The Death of the New Gods, or what have you. Among people writing about American comics, I dare you to find someone who’s more ignorant about the DC Universe and its characters than I am. But do I find Final Crisis inaccessible, or reliant on any prior investment in any character or concept that I emphatically do not have? To my own surprise, no. I don’t.

I can look at that machine Brainiac 5 shows Superman and be blown away by the seven layers of meaning it adds to the story. I can feel the tension between Black Canary and Green Arrow in my gut when one of them has given up on love and life. I can get on the Marvel Family’s side in their struggle against the vile corruption that’s threatening to consume one of their own. I can cheer at the Flashes’ unflinching bravado as they set out to literally race death. And I can shiver when I get a glimpse of Checkmate’s plans along with Renée Montoya. I can do all that just fine without having any prior investment. And if I can do it, chances are so can everybody else.

The reason why all of this works is that the creators have succeeded in breaking their theme down to terms every human being can understand. It’s about pain and love and life, about choices and decisions. If you choose life, you choose love and struggle and pain, and you also choose a path that leads to further choices, further possibilities, multiple Earths and universes. If you submit to Darkseid’s Anti-Life Equation and give in to fear, doubt and indecision, your choices will slowly and steadily be eliminated, until none are left. That is what Darkseid stands for. He is humanity’s “dark side” personified - the end of all choices.

One of the features of a good work of fiction is that you can pick out pretty much any element in it and find that it’s somehow plugged into the work’s larger theme. And here, indeed, the theme is everywhere. It’s in the “God-Weapon” Brainiac 5 shows Superman, “a machine that turns thoughts into things” (Hey, kids: comics?). It’s in Lex Luthor’s choice of life over Anti-Life. (“You’ll never choose again,” the bad guy that’s even badder than him responds to his mutiny.) It’s in the Flashes’ – three Flashes’ – resolution to fight what seems inevitable, death itself. And it’s in Batman’s decision to face the Omega Sanction by confronting Darkseid, finally. By choosing “The Death That Is Life,” as readers of Mr. Morrison’s Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle know, Batman opens himself to a limitless supply of new possibilities.

I was predisposed not to like this. It’s the sort of thing I don’t like, with the sort of characters that don’t mean anything to me and in the context of a publishing line run by people whose sensibilities couldn’t be farther removed from my own. I shouldn’t have liked Final Crisis. It very much was going to be not my kind of comic.

But here we are, and it is. I thought the first issue was pretty good, and each subsequent one kept getting better. And now here’s a 34-page penultimate chapter that’s nothing but pay-off, one after the next, delivered with breathtaking care and precision, bursting at the seams with creative zip, and so rhythmic in the way it still manages to get in all the character beats, all the human moments, all the larger and the smaller puzzle pieces tying into the big, overarching theme of it all that you can dance to it. It’s the best superhero blockbuster comic I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful and intelligent and defiant, it’s got more heart and soul and brains than all the other ones put together, and it’s got the bells, whistles and fireballs, too.

Well, it still doesn’t have that Jack Kirby art. But, you know. You can’t have everything.

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shrink Wrap

The big news in Diamond Comic Distributors’ year-end data for 2008, it seems, is that while Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics and IDW Publishing all managed to increase their market share versus 2007, DC Comics and Image Comics both suffered losses.

None of that comes a surprise. Dark Horse continued to score with strong performers like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hellboy, Serenity and The Umbrella Academy, and IDW had its own hit with the Buffy spin-off titles Angel: After the Fall and Spike: After the Fall. And Marvel, of course, steamrollered the competition with books like Hulk, Thor, The Amazing Spider-Man and, above all, Secret Invasion.

DC dominates the Graphic Novel Top 10, meanwhile, where, profiting from related Hollywood films, the standalone books Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke and Joker took the top three spots for the year. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns also made the chart, as did two volumes of Vertigo’s Y: The Last Man and the latest volume of Fables, another Vertigo title. The chart is rounded off by two Image volumes, The Walking Dead Vol. 8: Made to Suffer and Wanted, and a Buffy volume released by Dark Horse. No Marvel books are among the Top 10 Graphic Novels.

The reason why DC’s market share still went down, of course, is that their big periodical blockbuster Final Crisis couldn’t hold a candle against Secret Invasion: The debut issue of Final Crisis is the only issue that makes the list of the Top 10 periodical bestsellers of 2008, charting at No. 9. The rest of the chart is filled out by Secret Invasion issues #1 through #8 and Uncanny X-Men #500, another Marvel comic.

You Need to Know All the Right Answers in Order to Check All the Wrong Boxes

NRAMA: [Y]ou had Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely beating down your door to do an Inferior Five project – given their fanbase and talent they bring to the table – how does that weight against putting them on something like the Inferior Five?


DD: It depends on what their interests are and how long we think we can support a series. Something like an Inferior Five is an interesting concept, but there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need for it. A lot of times, when the talent comes to us with a particular character, we can talk it through to see if that character warrants its own series, and whether or not we have enough story to support that series. If we come to the conclusion that there is enough to go on, then we’ll push it ahead.

- excerpt from a recent Newsarama interview with DC Universe editor-in-chief Dan DiDio

 

This year J. Bone and myself pitched an all-ages Wonder Woman book aimed at young female readers. In other words, I wanted to give them at least 12 issues of a Wonder Woman book that any parent could give their child. They [DC Comics] couldn’t have been less interested.

- writer/artist Darwyn Cooke (scroll down to “January 13th, 2009 at 2:13 pm” in the comments section)

 

Blood will run red when Superman and Batman face off against vampires and werewolves for the fate of the entire DCU!

- excerpt from advertising copy for a recent DC Comics series titled Superman and Batman Vs. Vampires and Werewolves

Davis Brewster 0, Barack Obama 1

DC Comics' 80-page election tie-in:


Marvel Comics' 5-page election tie-in:

Can you spot the difference?

Guess which candidate won the nomination. I'll spoil it for you: It was Obama. You know why? Because the other one doesn't exist.

I think this neatly sums up the differences between the two company's marketing and storytelling approaches.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monthly Issues

At Newsarama, writer Peter David talks about his Marvel Comics series X-Factor, and the resulting article is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

First up, David evidently refuses the usual question/answer game and gives quasi-interviewer Steve Ekstrom a mini-essay instead. In other words, my humorous suggestion in response to another recent Newsarama piece has now become reality.

David explains his reasons for rejecting the usual procedure:

Here’s the problem: I don’t want to give anything away. Nothing. Anything I would feel comfortable discussing would be so vague that it would ultimately be unsatisfying. As much as I want to get publicity for X-Factor, I'm not sure how to go about it without blowing key points. I can't discuss what happens with the baby without blowing the story.

[…] I'm not trying to be ungrateful here. Nor am I unaware of the importance of marketing comics.

This, of course, is just the symptom of two larger problems that David doesn’t address: One, the big comics websites have largely resigned themselves to delivering soulless hype pieces rather than journalism. And two, because of that, they largely tend to talk about plot, and nothing else.

David goes on to answer a question or two that Ekstrom might or might not have asked him given the chance, before making a vow you don’t hear (or read) every day:

My goal is nothing less than to triple sales before year's end. I want X-Factor to be a book for which waiting for the trade [paperback] is simply not an option: Readers have to pick up the latest issue. […] I want fans to get to the last page of an issue and they can't believe what they're seen.

Well, X-Factor currently sells around an estimated 35,000 units, so let’s say David is looking to get the numbers up to 100K before 2009 is over. Quite an audacious standard to set for himself, right?

Well, probably, but there’s one more thing on David’s mind:

Issues #39, #40, and #41 are a three step program to turn the book around creatively and sales wise. […] And my greatest desire, frankly, is for the internet to somehow develop the self-control to keep its collective mouth shut over the specifics. […] Blowing key aspects of stories don't simply spoil stories; they ruin them. Ruin them for the creative team, ruin them for the company, and they ruin them for the readers. I would love to see issues #39 through #41 be a Ruiner-free zone. I want to see fans exhibit the self-control not to ruin the stories for others, because fans who come into the books not knowing what to expect will, I believe, quite simply be blown away by what's coming up.

So, you see, he can’t do it alone. He needs the readers’ help. Aside from leaving a convenient back door in case the book’s sales don’t go up dramatically (“Well, somebody blew the big ending,” he shrugged.), this also speaks to one of the central aspects of serial fiction, of course: What Happens Next.

Now, while I can sympathize with David that it may well be heartbreaking for any creator to see a big plot point blown in a public forum, I’m not quite sure this concern supports the kind of significance David is trying to saddle it with.

First up, and most obviously, lots of big plot points of lots of works of fiction get blown all the time, but that doesn’t prevent many of them from being commercial hits. And second, anyway, is this really as widespread a problem as David makes it sound? I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the last time a big plot point from a Peter David comic was blown to me. (In fairness, I don’t spend a lot of time on message boards these days.)

Finally, I would think that the best way of insulating yourself against this sort of thing as a creator or publisher, surely, is to make sure that your work of fiction isn’t utterly dependent on shocking plot twists alone.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but, quite honestly, I don’t recall that learning a plot point ever prevented me from exposing myself to a narrative of any kind that I was sure I wanted to read or watch in the first place. Do people really say, “No, sorry, now that I already know Madrox the Multiple Man grows four additional arms at the end of issue #39, I don’t need to buy the comic”"? If they really care about the book, wouldn’t you rather assume the opposite is true? “Holy Moly, Madrox grew what? I can’t wait to get my hands on the darn comic!”?

If they don’t, at any rate, then I would probably be more inclined to wonder if four additional arms were really such a great idea to begin with, rather than to be annoyed that somebody dared to talk about it. But then again, I’m not Peter David.

Everybody’s Wrong Redux

Over at Robot 6, Chris Mautner offers his take on critical approaches towards North American pop comics and comes to the conclusion that – contrary to my assessment that they’re all horribly wrong – everybody’s right, after all.

I can get behind a lot of what Mautner says. A lot of my initial strong rejection of Tucker Stone’s argument stemmed from his comments here and here, for instance, which I read exactly the way Mautner suggests they weren’t meant: that pop entertainment, e.g. blockbuster movies or big-event comics, necessarily needs to be “dumbed down” to be accessible to a “mass audience.” Stone himself has since clarified that this is not what he means, and I’ll take his word on that; but, at the same time, I have to say that I’m still not sure what exactly he is saying then, given his comments.

That said, I still rather vehemently disagree with Mautner on one particular point.

Sure, there are problems in attempting to form hypothesis about whatever the mythical “mass audience” wants, but I think it’s perfectly valid to criticize a work in the larger context of whether or not it succeeded at its own modest goals, even its economic ones.

I’m with this all the way, right until the part at the end where the term “economic” pops up. Of course, any critic is free to acknowledge whether a given work succeeded or failed economically. And they might even speculate and analyze why that may be the case; I fully agree, after all, with Mautner’s point that no work exists in a vacuum. But that, I maintain, is as far as it goes. Once you find fault with a work for no other reason than because it didn’t succeed commercially, you’re leaving the realm of criticism. I agree that it can be part of the context, but I strongly disagree that it is, by any stretch of the imagination, a valid standard of critical evaluation.

Mautner goes on:

In the end, I think it’s extremely valuable to read an assessment like Stone’s on whether or not [Final Crisis] or what have you succeeds as product. Because let’s face it, DC regards it ultimately as a product (hopefully an entertaining product, sure, but product nonetheless). It’s just as valid to castigate a comic for failing to meet its demands for its intended audience as it is to praise it for its own particular set of aesthetic qualities.

And again, I strongly reject the notion that it’s a critic’s job to worry about any of this, unless, as I said above, their concern is to analyze why a given work was a failure in its given cultural context. That would be a perfectly valid approach. But considering that Mautner says it’s valid to “castigate” a work on the basis that it’s a commercial failure, he’s clearly talking about something else. To which I say: no.

As far as misunderstandings of what criticism means are concerned, this one is as fundamental and catastrophic as it gets. To “castigate” a work on the sole basis that it failed commercially is the work of bean-counters and hucksters, but certainly not of any critic worth their salt. If commercial performance were to be accepted as a valid critical standard, then lord help us all.

Critical Breach

A couple of things the “Best 100 Comics of 2008” series of articles at Comic Book Resources makes me wonder about, now that it’s finished:

  1. Does the fact that, say, Guardians of the Galaxy appears at No. 18 and, say, Bottomless Belly Button appears at No. 44 mean that anyone genuinely thought the former was the better book? Or is that just because most of the contributors read genre comics only? Does it make sense to compile a free-for-all “Best of” list when it’s obvious that only a tiny fraction of your staff even bothered with the non-genre material?
  2. Do genre books like, say, Criminal, Casanova and Northlanders get bonus points among critics and reviewers for being not-superhero pop comics? Are they really as good as the general consensus among Internet commentators would suggest, or do they just get a lot of slack because there are so few of them, compared to the superhero stuff? Are they really up to the standards we expect from our pop entertainment in other media?

I should say that I read a lot more genre comics than “literary” comics, personally, and I hold many of the non-superhero genre books in high esteem. Even so, I don’t think the best of them can hold a candle against the best TV shows or films out there.

Also, I have read neither Guardians of the Galaxy nor Bottomless Belly Button. Still, given their very different goals and contexts, the thought that the former could be the better comic, or even the notion of seeing them in competition with one another, just strikes me as bizarre and absurd.

That said, if anyone out there wants to take a shot at explaining to me why the CBR list is right and Bottomless Belly Button positively stinks in comparison with Guardians of the Galaxy, then please go ahead. I’d love to hear it. (“I love Rocket Raccoon!” doesn’t count as an explanation, though, I’m afraid.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: January 7, 2009

Given that there were only two new books I wanted this week, I purchased a few DC books that looked like I might be able to understand them without a doctorate in Multiversiology.

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #582, by Dan Slott, Mike McKone, et al. Oh, thank god, they cured the Molten Man. I’ve never had much time for the Molten Man. I mean, he melts. And walks around. And moans. “I’m burrning, Spiderrr-Man! Burrrning Alive!” this, “And you can all burrn with me!” that (emphasis the Molten Man’s). So, you know, he’s burrrning, and … whatever. The thing is, although I feel like I’ve read a thousand Molten Man stories at this point, I’ve never been quite sure what his problem is, beyond the fact that he was melting and burning and moaning a lot. Nobody ever tried to give the guy a personality, let alone something that would make me care about him. So, please, please, let’s leave it at this, okay? No more Molten Man, or other melting men. In other news, it’s oddly refreshing to see a superhero fight in suburban New Jersey. Also, Peter Parker, Harry Osborn and Liz Allan seem like real people when they talk to each other, with some nice, unexpected character beats between them. On balance, that’s not a bad performance, I guess.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B-

* * *

Black Lightning: Year One #1 (of 6), by Jen van Meter, Cully Hamner, et al. … in which DC went and made an accessible superhero comic, to the astonishment of all. Ms. Van Meter’s capable writing and Mr. Hamner’s rich and dynamic artwork show real people living in real places and struggling with real issues, and the Black Lightning – a.k.a. Jefferson Pierce, a husband and father, teacher and former Olympic runner from the archetypal black American neighborhood plagued by gang violence – appears to be a much more nuanced and well-rounded character than your average superhero. But despite those strengths, Black Lightning: Year One remains a thoroughly conventional affair, unfortunately, with not much in the way of surprises. Further, if the Black Lightning’s Wikipedia entry is to be trusted, much of what’s established here was already in place, so I wonder why DC thought this was a story that needed to be told again. We’ve got a potentially intriguing character in the hands of some obviously very skilled creators here, but ultimately, the story doesn’t rise to the occasion.

(DC Comics, 23 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Faces of Evil: Solomon Grundy #1 (one-shot), by Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, et al. What’s the reasoning behind releasing a comic that claims to be a “one-shot” special, then turns out to be an advert for an upcoming miniseries? If DC were banking on the irresistibility of the material, this would rather seem like a miscalculation, at any rate, because it’s not even a very good advert. The plot is that Solomon Grundy, who’s kind of a zombie, throws a hissy fit, The End. Now, I’m not one of those old-fashioned people who postulate that a story necessarily needs a plot, but I certainly think it needs something. And this, unfortunately, has nothing. There’s a faint whiff of morbidity in the air, but it’s dispersed by some pointless fight with, of all characters, the Killer Croc. Seriously: Who thought it was a good idea to publish this? Does any half-cooked old rubbish need to be inflicted on an audience?

(DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: D-

* * *

Invincible Iron Man #9, by Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca, et al. I need some help here: Is Tony Stark an active participant in that kiss on page 18, or is he just chewing lemons again, as he seems to be doing for much of the rest of the comic? It might be both, but the fact that I can’t tell is a problem. Also, Maria Hill’s handcuffs disappear at one point, only to pop up again a few pages later. Beyond Mr. Larroca’s hit-and-miss artwork, I’m not quite sure how the plot is supposed to work. In principle, turning Stark’s brain into a “hard drive” for all kinds of classified data and making Stark Norman Osborn’s most wanted man is an intriguing new direction for the series. But it never quite comes across what this means in practice. Will the rest of Stark’s brain be deleted along with the data, or won’t it? Does the process only work when he’s hooked up to his gizmo? And why is or isn’t that the case? Overall, Mr. Fraction has largely been able to use the “Dark Reign” crossover to his advantage, giving Iron Man a potentially interesting new handicap and building an intriguing rivalry between Stark and Osborn. But while the image of Osborn standing in his office, blood dripping on the floor from his busted knuckles after he’s evidently been pounding away at the window in a fit of rage (think Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino) is quite striking, it does beg the question why none of his underlings notice that their boss is, well, an outright nut. This isn’t one of the series’ better issues, I’m afraid.

(Marvel Comics, 23 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B-

* * *

Secret Six #5, by Gail Simone, Nicola Scott, et al. In one of the more intense and dramatically effective torture scenes I’ve come across in comics, Bane, one of the (superhuman) protagonists of this story, is chained to steel pillars while his interrogator is throwing bricks at him. The character’s unrelenting stoicism in the face of his ordeal stretches my belief, granted, and I wonder whether at least a tiny chink in his armor of enduring righteousness might not have served him better. What’s more distracting, though, is that the art isn’t really in tune with the script. While the narration talks about torn flesh, the art shows nothing of the sort; and whereas the narration – and, more crucially, the plot – require blood to run down Bane’s arms towards his chained wrists, he’s actually drawn with arms raised. The story’s big disappointment comes at the end, though, when, after first voting three to one not to rescue their teammate, the cast dutifully trot back to the beaten path of generic superheroism and have an epiphany in the end. That’s one perfectly good opportunity to be more interesting than the competition squandered, regrettably. Still, there’s a lot of creative zest here. In terms of how the action is staged and how the characters talk and interact, you can tell that the creators are trying to break from convention, and while the result may be flawed, they still do succeed a lot of the time. I like it.

(DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B-

* * *

By the way, I almost impulse-bought The Punisher #1, but then I saw the $ 3.99 price tag. The comic is quite a bit thicker than usual, granted, but that’s due to a vast back-up section recapitulating the character’s history – which is fair enough, but not really something I’m inclined to pay an extra dollar for, particularly when I’m as lukewarm towards the actual comic as I was in this case. To make matters worse, Marvel solicited The Punisher #1 as a 48-page comic, so this is the second time after Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes that they’re all but showing their audience the finger.

So, instead of buying an overpriced and probably mediocre Punisher comic, I went and grabbed a couple of old Steve Gerber Defenders comics, and I still congratulate myself on this exquisite decision.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

And Apple Pie

Am I getting this wrong …

In my run writing the Robin series (of Batman fame), I made sure both Batman and Robin were portrayed as good, steadfast heroes, with unshakable personal codes and a firm grasp of their mission. I even got to do a story where Robin parachuted into Afghanistan with a group of very patriotic military superheroes on a full-scale, C130 gunship-supported combat mission. And in my short run on the Shadowpact series I kept to the same standard (but with less success as several story details were editorially imposed).

[…] And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo.

… or is Bill Willingham throwing a hissy fit because DC wouldn’t let him turn their comics into Rush Limbaugh’s wettest dreams?

I’m probably getting this wrong.

(Is Willingham still writing Justice Society of America?)

Friday, January 9, 2009

2008: The Year in Comics (3)

Here we go, the third and final chapter of “The Best Pop Comics Frisch Remembers Reading in 2008” (part 1, part 2).

* * *

Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel, Ryan Benjamin, Lee Garbett, et al. Batman. “Why do I feel like a book that’s being read?” In Batman #683, his final issue for the time being, Grant Morrison makes plain his approach to Batman: The character is the book. The sum total of what we see in the comics is Batman’s identity, his life. As a result of what this does to his mind, as it says in issue #681, “Batman thinks of everything.” And even when a villain is sabotaging his very mind, as the Black Glove tries all throughout Mr. Morrison’s stories, Batman has a back-up plan – in this case, “a back-up human operating system,” in fact. This “emergency personality” of his own making, called the “Batman of Zur-En-Arrh,” is based on the Joker, who is Batman’s arch-nemesis because he is the one unpredictable factor in all his stories. “He keeps coming back … different,” Batman says in issue #682. “I think he recreates himself constantly.” And yet, the Joker knows that he can never win: “Every single time I try to think outside his toybox he builds a new box around me” (Batman #681) Similar to the Joker’s constant recreation of himself, consequently, the “Batman of Zur-En-Arrh” is a recreation of Batman that is capable of escaping – quite literally, in the final chapter of “Batman R.I.P.” - the box that was built around him. Now, while all that is good and well, I absolutely agree that the execution of this theoretical approach has left something to be desired; Mr. Morrison’s Batman has been marred by mediocre artwork, as well as by a conclusion that was anti-climactic in a number of ways. But even though it may be a flawed work, who else comes remotely close to attempting something as ambitious and sweeping as this in superhero comics? For all its faults, it’s got its share of smart, insightful and immeasurably cool moments, and it’s absolutely unique. It’s the Unified Field Theory of the Batman. (DC Comics, periodical)

* * *

Grant Morrison, J. G. Jones, Carlos Pacheco, Doug Mahnke, Matthew Clark, et al. Final Crisis, Final Crisis: Superman Beyond and Final Crisis: Submit. I realize I may be facing an uphill struggle in explaining why Final Crisis is really a fantastic comic. But what can you do. In the spirit of the work itself, I’ll try anyway. Here’s what it’s about: choices and decisions. The bad guys in Final Crisis are the people whose path slowly but steadily eliminates humanity’s choices and decisions. The good guys are the people who make decisions and don’t submit to all the negative feelings that tend to prevent you from doing so. Choosing to submit to Darkseid’s Anti-Life Equation means giving in to doubt, fear, despair. It means choosing inertia, indecision, being told what to do. Choosing a path that leads to further choices means choosing diversity, choosing struggle, choosing life itself. That’s the point of the 52 Earths, as well: They give you choices. So there you go, that’s how the DC Universe relates to our everyday lives: The Multiverse stands for the choices and the decisions that we do or do not make every day. If Darkseid wins, there’s no more choices, no more Multiverse, no more struggle, no more life. We’ll end up like the heroes in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1: “The music’s over: We’ve run out of Multiverse. We’re off the charts. The place we just arrived … is nowhere … We’re about as lost as anyone can be.” I know they terribly mismanaged this thing as an event, but in the miniseries proper (and in those spin-off titles written by Mr. Morrison himself), it’s there, on almost every page. Plus, of course, there are all those small human moments, the mad idea stuff, the large-scale battles and the big explosions, too. As far as big, sprawling superhero epics are concerned, it doesn’t get much better than Final Crisis. (DC Comics, periodical)

* * *

Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et al. All Star Superman. What do we learn from All Star Superman? That we don’t need a Superman. “Your work is done,” Kal-El is told by his father in All Star Superman #12. “You have shown them the face of the Man of Tomorrow. You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl … and curse … and finally … they will join you in the sun, Kal-El.” Trooper that he is, Superman will have none of that, of course: Lex Luthor still needs to be beaten, and the sun still needs to be repaired before he calls it a day. But does that mean daddy’s wrong? Mr. Morrison and Mr. Quitely deliver the answer to that question a few pages later in the same issue. When Luthor blames Superman for not being able to save the world now that his own Superman powers are failing, Superman points out that Luthor “could have saved the world years ago” if it really mattered to him. But Luthor didn’t, of course, because he was so hung-up on his hatred for Superman and on stealing his powers instead. But: He could have saved the world. So there you go: We don’t need a Superman. We clearly do need All Star Superman, though. (DC Comics, periodical)

* * *

J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, Marko Djurdjevic, et al. Thor. Gently and slowly, J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel keep rebuilding Thor and his cosmos, hitting all the right marks so far. Given the book’s commercial success, Marvel evidently made the right decision in letting the character rest for a while before allowing a solid creative team to bring him back in a careful and deliberate fashion, largely undisturbed by any of the big crossover events that have been going on in the meantime. And it doesn’t just work on a commercial level. By placing most of the action in Asgard, Oklahoma, and choosing an appropriately considerate pace, Mr. Straczynski has carved out his own little island of divine majesty in a market of increasingly hectic fisticuffs. All the while, Mr. Coipel’s art keeps growing on me; it doesn’t just look crisp and appealing, but also gives each character a distinctive face that doesn’t depend on hair or headgear for you to tell it apart from others – which is not exactly the norm, obviously. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Weston, et al. The Twelve. At first glance, the premise of The Twelve seems somewhat similar to that of Mr. Straczynski’s earlier work Rising Stars or, for that matter, to that of the mother of all postmodern superhuman fantasies, Watchmen. Like the former two works, it’s a story about a group of archetypal superheroes alienated from the rest of society, with a murder mystery at its core. That, however, is where the similarities end. Whereas Watchmen and Rising Stars are more concerned with making statements about the world at large, The Twelve stays more closely with the protagonists and their alienation – which, in this case, does not stem from being superheroes – because, obviously, there are plenty of superheroes already in the Marvel Universe – but from being displaced in time. And given that we’re dealing with a cast of twelve people - well, eleven and a robot – who spent sixty years in “suspended animation,” that’s quite a bit of alienation to deal with. In a way, the creators are delivering on what was one of the more interesting aspects of Captain America’s return back in 1964, but ended up being glossed over for the most part by Stan Lee and his collaborators. Densely and most expressively illustrated by Chris Weston, the result is easily Mr. Straczynski’s best comics work to date, filled to the brim with credible and diverse characters, intriguing plot twists and quite a bit of insight into the human condition. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, et al. Y: The Last Man. The final issue of Y: The Last Man – the only one published in 2008 – came out a year ago, at this stage, and I don’t have it with me right now, unfortunately. Despite the fact that I can’t say anything meaningful about it, apart from acknowledging that it was a wonderful pay-off to the entire series in all the ways that matter, it would still feel wrong to exclude it here, though. Yorick’s refusal to submit to his supposedly inescapable fate in the end is appropriate for the character, and, from one English major to another, it firmly puts him in the great American tradition of the Leatherstocking, of course, who also escapes from the end of his final book: always West, never rest. And when that little monkey died, I cried like a baby. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical)

* * *

Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, et al. Ex Machina. “This is WildStorm,” the label’s new advertising campaign for their line reads. In the case of the Ex Machina version of the ad, a more accurate slogan would be, “This used to be WildStorm.” You know, comics with innovative, ambitious, relevant takes on the superhero genre. Comics with unique creative voices and goals. Comics with genuine characters apart from the beaten path, instead of the usual generic mirror images of more popular properties. Comics that playfully subvert the usual expectations and accrue momentum and meaning through smart storytelling. Comics like, well, Ex Machina, among others. Right now, though, it’s the only one left of that sort at WildStorm, and it runs for ten more issues, give or take a special. So, “This is WildStorm”? You wish, folks. You wish. (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical)

* * *

Stephen Wacker, ed., Bob Gale, Marc Guggenheim, Joe Kelly, Dan Slott, Mark Waid, Zeb Wells, Chris Bachalo, Phil Jimenez, Barry Kitson, Salvador Larroca, Marcos Martin, Mike McKone, Steve McNiven, Paolo Rivera, John Romita, Jr., et al. The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s been a while since I enjoyed reading Spider-Man comics as much as I did in 2008. The creators taking over the title after its transition to the “thrice-monthly” format have done a remarkably good job so far. The book has been hitting all the marks in terms of rebuilding Peter Parker’s supporting cast, giving the character a sturdy environment in which to play off his strengths, inventing a whole string of the strongest new villains we’ve seen in decades and recalibrating the relationships between Peter and stalwarts like J. Jonah Jameson, Harry and Norman Osborn or Flash Thompson. There were a few misses - that ill-conceived Iraq War issue by Mr. Guggenheim and a mediocre fill-in by Roger Stern come to mind; and Overdrive is, shall we say, not a classic, as far as the new characters are concerned. But overall, The Amazing Spider-Man has been a creative tour de force in the past year. The work artists Chris Bachalo, Paolo Rivera, John Romita, Jr. and, above all, Marcos Martin, have been doing on this title is breathtaking, while writers Joe Kelly and Mark Waid have delivered some of the strongest, most nuanced work of their careers with their respective stories featuring Hammerhead (!) and the Shocker (!!). I don’t think I’ve ever read something as well-crafted by Dan Slott as the epic “New Ways to Die” arc, either. On a personal note, I was happy to see that it’s possible again for characters like Wolverine and the Punisher to just drop by in the book, without anybody turning the whole thing into an “event” or a miniseries. If you have a Spider-Man book, you might as well do it like this one. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. The Umbrella Academy. How do you deal with a rampaging monument of Abraham Lincoln? Easy: You conjure up a rampaging monument of John Wilkes Booth, “armed with a Derringer.” The beginning of The Umbrella Academy: Dallas promises more of the quirkiness and delight that made the previous miniseries, Apocalypse Suite, a commercial and critical surprise hit in 2007 and early 2008. Messrs. Way and Bá clearly have fun doing this book, and they’re very good at it, too. The Umbrella Academy is a clever mix of gorgeous visuals, a playful attitude towards genre conventions and outrageously fabulous scenes, images and ideas. If you know someone who’s never read a superhero comic before, this is the one you want to give them. (Dark Horse Comics, periodical)

* * *

Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly. Local. This is another one I won’t be able to say much about, because I don’t have any of the comics handy. What I said about it last year still applies, at any rate. In the final issue, Megan has made peace with who she is and where she comes from, and returns home after more than ten years. As a whole, the series seems a little too arbitrary, in a lot of ways, to be a real masterwork, but that’s also part of its charm. Of all the things I’ve read by Mr. Wood, Local seems like his most honest and generous work, in terms of the characters and what it says. If you’re into slice-of-life stories, it’s well worth a look. (Oni Press, periodical)

* * *

And that’s it for 2008. In 2009, I’m looking forward to more good comics from the people who made this list, as well as, of course, from people I don’t know about yet.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Everybody Is Terribly Wrong and I Don’t Really See Where Anyone Is Coming From At All

I’ve been meaning to sink my teeth into this discussion of critical approaches to genre comics for a few days, but as you can see if you follow the link and scroll down to the comments section, it’s rather lengthy, so you have to make time. Mainly, it’s a conversation between Sean T. Collins, Tucker Stone and Tom Spurgeon, but there’s commentary from a number of other people, including spin-off posts by Tim O’Neill and Dick Hyacinth.

In a nutshell, Collins argues that genre comics should be appraised as separate works of fiction that, first and foremost, have to succeed or fail on their own merits. When it comes to works set in a “shared universe” or “continuity” that may include other works with contradictory plot elements, then a critic - or any reader, for that matter – should pick and choose which of the two or more contradictory works is the superior one and just disregard the rest. Also, Collins says, a critical appraisal of any such work should not be hamstrung by parameters resulting from speculations on the target audience.

Stone and Spurgeon, on the other hand, say that it’s just as valid to include factors such as a given work’s position in the context of a wider fictional “universe” or “continuity” (i.e., Does it contradict plot elements from other comics? Is it bogged down by ancillary works of a lesser quality? How well is the overall publishing event of which it may be a part managed?) or its intended audience (i.e., Who is the target audience? What do or don’t they expect? How sophisticated are those readers?) in any critical appraisal. More specifically, Stone also argues that a big genre-comics event such as Grant Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” story, which is meant to serve as the flagship to an entire publishing line, should be geared towards reaching as many people as possible, and would therefore have to be considered as a failure by default if it’s too sophisticated and ambitious for the sensibilities of the target audience.

To make a long story short, I think they’re all horribly wrong, in one way or another. I’ll start with that last point made by Stone.

I’m sorry, but how am I supposed to take seriously as a critic somebody who makes their appraisal of a work dependent on what they decide the allocated intellectual capacity of the target audience is? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not interested in making accusations of “snobbery” or “elitism” here at all. What I find silly on more than one level, rather, is the notion that it’s possible to gauge the sophistication of the target audience, let alone that it’s desirable to do so when it comes to the creation of works with a supposedly broad appeal.

That kind of approach, from my perspective, is incredibly short-sighted, and precisely the reason why so much of our pop-cultural œuvre is still rubbish: It’s because executives presume to know how much sophistication they can risk to inflict on their target audience, and because marketing people – and this is not meant as a slam on Stone in particular, whose day job, I gather, is in advertising – are exerting too much of an influence on the creative process when they should shut the hell up and mind their own business (which, again, is marketing).

I should repeat that I’m only talking about sophistication and ambition here. Of course running any successful entertainment business will require a solid grasp on what kind of material the audience wants and doesn’t want to to see, read, play, listen to, whatever. But whatever gives you the idea that intellectual and emotional sophistication are the issue, rather than approach? Presuming to judge how dumb a given work needs to be in order to find a broad appeal is a notion that's of no value to anyone, even if your concerns are purely commercial – you’ll just end up gratuitously limiting the breadth of appeal of whatever it is you want to sell to anyone. Because it’s not a high level of intellectual or emotional sophistication or ambition that may hamper a given work’s accessibility, but a failure to relay that sophistication or ambition to the audience.

And that, in turn, is something that’s true for the dumbest work in the world as well as for the smartest. The level of sophistication or ambition, in itself, just isn’t something that enters the equation, on any conceivable level. It’s something that’s still often misunderstood among people responsible for children’s entertainment of any kind, for instance. Does making up stories for children mean that you have to dumb the material down, make it less sophisticated and ambitious? Well, no. It simply means you have to find a suitable delivery system for that particular target audience: a storytelling approach and vernacular that makes whatever it is you’re trying to say accessible to children. And it’s no different with any other target audience.

And if your concerns are critical rather than commercial, then it’s even more useless to get hung up on your own ideas of “what the audience wants” and chastise a work for being too demanding, not to mention intellectual cowardice. Let me make this plain: A critic’s job is to start from the work itself, from what and how it means - not from some preposterous notions about what somebody else might not be expecting from it, or might not be able to process or to appreciate. Context is important, of course, but certainly not in the sense that the objective to appeal to a broad audience dictates that a work “not demand a whole lot” of that audience, or any other such ghastly nonsense. Context can serve to shed light on a work, its creation, what it says, why and to whom it says it, and so forth. To use context as a straightjacket for what a work is or is not supposed to be saying and in what manner it is supposed to be saying things, however, is a perversion of critical principles, as well as hostile to creativity.

So if that’s your idea of appraising a text (and I use “text” loosely here; it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about comics, film, drama or whatever), then I don’t know what you are, but it’s certainly not someone I’m inclined to take seriously as a critic. You might be a market or a sales analyst, maybe, but as far as critical reading and textual analysis are concerned, I don’t think you’re of any use to anyone, let alone that mythical target audience with a low tolerance for sophistication you’re conjuring up, instead of bothering to back up your appraisal with critical standards of your own. I realize that this probably sounds harsher than it should, but I can’t think of any other way to put it.

That said, I agree that Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” (I’m really just talking about Morrison’s story, by the way; I didn’t read any of the tie-ins) ultimately fails, both as a commercial blockbuster and from a critical point of view. The reason for that is not that it's too complex or too sophisticated or too ambitious for anyone, though. It’s because it has a crummy ending that doesn’t pay off on anything, which is unsatisfactory by critical as well as by commercial standards. (I say more on what I think makes it a failure as a supposed blockbuster title in the “DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales” column for November, which should be up later this week at The Beat. But I say it with my “sales analyst” hat on, mind you, not with my “critic” hat on.)

Which brings me to the next point: Should a critical reading of something like, say, Final Crisis (the miniseries proper) necessarily be affected by the quality or the management of “Final Crisis” (the sprawling blockbuster publishing event at large)? I’m somewhat more sympathetic to people who say it should, in this case. Personally, though, I still emphatically disagree.

I can see how people would think otherwise, mind you. After all, North American comics readers have been trained for decades to regard the “continuity” and the “backstory” of a “shared universe” setting as something that is crucial to their enjoyment of most genre works. The appeal isn’t alien to me – I enjoy that aspect tremendously, myself, and I’ve got the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe writing credentials to prove it. I think it’s a lot of fun to have this big, sprawling, superconnected, hopelessly self-referential fictional place called the Marvel Universe, where all the characters live and interact with each other and accrue a common “history.”

However, I don’t accept that as an argument in favor of the notion that Grant Morrison’s miniseries Final Crisis somehow suffers as a text from, say, Jim Starlin’s Death of the New Gods because there supposedly were some contradictions or repetitions between the two supposedly works. I didn’t read the Starlin book, so I don’t know much about that. But I simply reject the premise here. Is it bad management on DC’s part if something like that happens? Absolutely. Should it affect anyone’s critical appraisal of either series that something contradictory or repetitive was established in the other one? No, it should not.

It does happen all the time, of course, because they’re set in the same “universe.” And to that, I say hogwash. As much fun as all the “shared universe” stuff is, it’s really just a marketing tool invented by clever hucksters and eagerly gobbled up by obsessive-compulsive hardcore fans. So if it becomes the subject of criticism, then it has to be with the understanding we’re not criticizing the work itself, but the way in which the publisher chose to market it. I maintain that any work – any work! – that’s unable to stand on its own two feet is inherently flawed and gets the “shared universe” aspect wrong in the worst possible way. And just because a large chunk of the target audience may have a high tolerance for that sort of flaw or even positively encourage it, that doesn’t make it any less of a flaw.

It’s not like I’m applying some illusory, unattainable standard here, either. I read 52 about a year after it first came out, for instance, and without being familiar with Infinite Crisis or any of the various spin-off books that were published during and after its run. The 52 paperbacks don’t even collect those “origin” backup stories that were in the periodicals, for that matter, and my prior knowledge of most of the characters was nil. Still, the book works for me, despite the fact that the DC Universe and all it entails are a very big part of it. I thought it was an engaging read with appealing characters that’s able to stand on its own perfectly well. And right now, I have a similar experience with Final Crisis. I haven’t read Countdown or any of the other tie-in books*, but that doesn’t matter: It works as its own beast, and it doesn’t give me the impression that I’m missing anything important.

Nor, for that matter, do I think those awful Chuck Austen and Chris Claremont comics that immediately followed Morrison’s New X-Men did anything to “harm” that body of work, even though they contradict or outright undo many of the things established by Morrison and make it very plain that those creators – and possibly their editors – either didn’t get what Morrison was doing or held it in high contempt, or both. But in the end, they are just bad comics. They don’t affect anything Morrison did at all. They only affect this strange and brilliant marketing construct called the Marvel Universe, which is of no concern to anyone but Marvel, because they need it to sell more comics. Personally, I can deal with Marvel putting out bad X-Men comics without tearing the few good ones they released to shreds, I think.

Going back to “Batman R.I.P.,” now, I agree with some of the criticism brought forward, because that story, unfortunately, does not stand on its own. And ironically, that’s not because of all the spin-off stories, but because Morrison and DC chose not to give it a proper ending. Whatever else I can say about “Batman R.I.P.” or Morrison’s Batman in general, both of which I actually quite like, I have to acknowledge it’s an inherently flawed run, because the big payoff – if it comes at all, of which I’m still skeptical – occurs in another work entirely.

Turning to the points made by Collins, there is one notion that I strongly disagree with: When Collins says that readers or critics should “pick and choose” which works in “shared universe” to give precedence over others, frankly, that’s something I can’t quite seem to wrap my head around. The thought of having to weigh one work of fiction against another just because the publisher wants me to be concerned about how they relate to each other in some artificial construct – the DC Universe - that’s otherwise of no interest to me is something I don’t understand.

Frankly, if DC want me to keep buying their comics, what they need to do to meet my minimum requirements, among other things, is to produce works that, as I say above, stand on their own. These days, the main appeal corporately owned properties have, to me, is the fact that you can get all sorts of different interpretations of them by all sorts of different creators, and in all sorts of different media. You can have the Frank Miller Batman and the Tim Burton Batman and the Christopher Nolan Batman and the Grant Morrison Batman - all at once, for all I care. The notion that one of those interpretations is somehow meant to be more valid than the others, or that the Grant Morrison Batman and the Kevin Smith Batman somehow need to be reconciled with another seems positively outlandish to me.

I think it’s time for DC to realize that different versions of the same character are not a flaw or a liability. On the contrary: They are, in the long run, DC’s best chance at remaining a healthy business. Their job as the caretakers of Batman and Superman and all those other characters is to create a framework which allows as many different versions and stories as possible to co-exist. I think the people in charge of Marvel realized that back when Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada began to run the show. Marvel know now – and I’m sure the realization was helped along significantly by the tremendous success of the X-Men and Spider-Man films - that their biggest assets are their characters and their continued ability to reinvent them and keep them appealing to the audience.

If you get a version of a character that’s broadly reconcilable with the traditional one at Marvel, it ends up in the Marvel Universe somewhere. And if it’s not, or is a little more out there, relax, they can still do it: at Ultimate Marvel, or at Marvel Adventures, or at Marvel Knights, or at Max Comics, or at Startling Stories. Remember The Ultimates? The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man? Unstable Molecules? Those comics all exist because Marvel managed – against quite a bit of initial resistance, by the way, in the case of the Ultimate books - to create a framework that allows them to exist without forcing the readership to “pick and choose” between anything.

Right now, Marvel’s management of the Punisher is a prime example of how to exploit this versatility: We’ve got, at this time, a largely sanitized Marvel Universe version of the Punisher that takes shots at the Sentry, plus the “mature”-themed Max Comics series, plus a Marvel Knights miniseries by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon that’s probably somewhere in-between – all completely different versions of the same property, all existing concurrently. If there has been any notable outrage or commercial disadvantage because people are confused by that, I’m not aware of it.

DC, by contrast, still exists in a world where the formation of the Justice Society of America and Crisis on Infinite Earths and what they did for the “DC Universe” are somehow more meaningful than the fact that they own Superman and Batman. Guess what: I’ve never read Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I don’t have the slightest inclination to change that. I did see The Dark Knight, however, and I thought it was a very good film.

I keep waving and pointing people who wonder what might be going wrong at DC at this essay I wrote in response to Steven Grant a few months back, where I go into more detail on the issue, so right now I will just say that I don’t believe it’s a great mystery what’s been going wrong at DC at all. Give it a look – I’m biased, but I think it’s still a pretty good assessment of the situation as it stands right now at DC, and why their line of superhero comics isn’t working as well as they might like.

So, anyway, I don’t really see where the “picking and choosing” enters the equation. As far as I’m concerned, if a publisher forces me to “pick and choose” between rivaling interpretations of a given story or character by not ensuring that each of those interpretations stands on its own, then they’ve already blown it.

That said, I guess I’m much more sympathetic to Collins’ perspective than to Stone’s or Spurgeon’s, after all. It seems to me that Collins - as a critic and as a part of the audience – largely applies the same critical standards to his pop comics that he’s also applying to other forms of entertainment, and I have a lot of time for that approach. Given how much of Spurgeon’s argument seems to be hinging on notions like “continuity” and such, I’m not sure the same can be said for him. And Stone’s imposition of a ceiling for sophistication just seems repulsive to me as a critical standard. Both of which I find regrettable, by the way, because they seem like otherwise pretty smart writers.

)* Well, that’s not true, actually: I did buy Countdown #51 and Countdown to Final Crisis #26 and maybe one or two other tie-ins for review purposes.

But once I’d written about them, I forgot them again, because one of the invaluably precious joys of growing older is the onset of selective memory.