Friday, February 26, 2010

The Wash: 02/26/10

o Cat Man Do

Christopher J. Priest, the writer of a seminal 60-issue run on Black Panther and its equally splendid but very short-lived follow-up The Crew, is alive and well and on the radio.

Well, on the Dollar Bin podcast, at least. There's not much in the way of new information in the first part that's not already up at Priest's Web site (which, by the way, is highly recommended for the many thousands of words' worth of insight into the comics industry it offers), but it's still a fun conversation.

Priest is one of my favorite mainstream comics writers, and I hope he gets around to doing more work in the field eventually. (A decent set of Quantum & Woody collections would be a good start.)

o Sense of Energy

Sean T. Collins looks at Jim Lee and Geoff Johns' Twitter feeds and notes that there's stuff going on that you miss if you just pay attention to the articles and interviews.

Indeed, as Collins points out, talent management seems to be one of the major problems DC's been having in recent years.

But while a "charm offensive" via social-media routes and high-level meetings by the new nice-guy executives may be a good start, a number of prominent creators who left DC in the last several years are directly attributing some of the problems to Dan DiDio, the former DC Universe editor-in-chief and new co-publisher, so I'm skeptical.

o Previously Unimagined

Ed Howard's Top 60 of "The Best Comics of the Decade" is one of those lists that make me want to hunt down every single comic that's on them that I haven't read yet, because the ones I have I completely agree on.

Also, at this stage I believe that there's simply no way anyone could possibly disagree with Howard's general appraisal of the 2000s:

"In making this list, I confirmed my impression that the artform of comics has reached a creative apex in recent years. The comics produced from 2000-2009 are varied and encompass a diversity and general high level of quality previously unimagined for an artform once considered pulpy trash for children."

(Via The Comics Reporter)

o Out of Your Pants

I review Scott Lobdell's Wildcats, a run of action comics that's bad in a way most good action comics of today could use more of.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wildcats: Street Smart

DC Comics/WildStorm, Wildcats #1 through #7, 1999 and 2000, 22 pages each, $ 2.50 each

Writers: Scott Lobdell, Joe Casey
Artists: Travis Charest, Bryan Hitch, Carlos Meglia, Richard Friend, Paul Neary, Carlos D'Anda, Anthony Winn, Scott Benefiel, Mark Irwin, Greg Scott
Colorists: Tad Ehrlich, Justin Ponsor, Matt Milla, WildStorm FX
Letterers: Comicraft, Richard Starkings, Wes Abbott, Saida Temofonte

Scott Lobdell is probably my favorite writer who I'm not sure has ever actually written anything that I would consider as being "good," and this brief run on Jim Lee's signature title from the turn of the century is a good illustration why.

Rather than to make life difficult for himself and his readers by putting complex things like characters, plots or themes into his stories, Mr. Lobdell takes a much more relaxed approach to writing: It's people shooting at other people, sometimes with their mouths but mostly with guns. The presence of a narrative can be confirmed insofar as it loosely connects and fosters various scenes where the shooting takes place.

The results are frequently quite fun, actually—my favorite being the opening sequence of issue #3, probably, where Grifter poses as an ice-cream vendor while on a stakeout and ends up threatening an obnoxious little boy with a machine gun.

"What part of 'Go away' were you unclear on, kid?" K-CHIK, goes the gun, PLOP, goes the ice-cream cone. Ah, the good old days.

Sure, a lot of the characters have the same personality, once you get past Spartan (the android) and Noir (the tech nerd), but generally, Mr. Lobdell (and Joe Casey, who gets a "script" credit in issues #5 and #6) seems to be enjoying himself, in a pull-it-out-of-your-pants-and-swing-it-like-an-axe kind of fashion. He reminds me a lot of Mark Millar, in retrospect, only he's more authentic and playful—and a lot less annoying—about it.

I mean, I haven't seen a lot of comics recently where the heroes shoot missiles at the Statue of Liberty from fighter jets and chase subway trains in Formula One cars, so there's a definite sign that something's missing from the landscape right now.

While this run of issues was one of the last ones to have that particular brand of distinctly '90s-style, laissez faire madness and carelessness that began with the Image founders in 1990, though, it also starts a tradition that characterized the '00s for WildStorm.

WildStorm's track record of botched relaunches, you see, didn't begin in late 2006, when Grant Morrison and Jim Lee kicked off the new WildCats [sic] title and never came back for a second issue, or in 2003, when The Authority returned as a bland Justice League rip-off after the end of the Millar run had been delayed, stretched, rewritten and redrawn for more than a year, until it finally stopped twitching and was deemed fit for release.

No, the tradition started with Wildcats, way back in 1999.

In his welcome message in issue #1, artist Travis Charest says that he hopes not to repeat the problems of his run on the previous WildC.A.T.s [sic, all right?] title, "such as totally blowing every deadline given me, which resulted in a string of fill-ins, half-issues and a generally rushed final product."

This time around, if you believe the credits, Mr. Charest drew two full issues of Wildcats, and then there was a string of fill-ins, half-issues and a generally rushed final product, and he left the series after issue #6. Mr. Lobdell also quickly lost interest, leaving after seven issues. The last one is a totally over-the-top bloody-and-gory fill-in story with art by the late Carlos Meglia, who draws facial and body hair like confetti sticking to characters' arms and chins here.

Still, it's often a great-looking comic, by which I mean that Travis Charest, whenever he can be bothered to show up with his pencil, doesn't seem altogether excited by the notion of sequentiality, but at least doesn't let it get in the way of drawing pretty pictures.

On a related note, it seems worth pointing out that Bryan Hitch somehow managed to draw issue #5 of this series, even while he was knee-deep in his 12-issue run on The Authority.

Seriously: This isn't "great" or even "good" comics by any stretch, but it still manages to be an enjoyable piece of entertainment far more often than it has any right to. As someone who basically learned English by reading (among others) Scott Lobdell's X-Men comics, most of which are of a very similar, very art- and idea-driven make-it-up-as-you-go texture, I still find it easy to connect with on a level that's missing from a lot of more recent—and better—material.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Wash: 02/24/10

o A Serious House on Serious Earth

Wired asked its readers for their "must-read comics."

The resulting selection of usual suspects—lots of Moore and Miller and Morrison, etc., plus The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, Fables, etc.—probably says more about the magazine's audience than about anything else.

But that said, it seems worth noting that, except for a brief mention of Powers in one contributor's also-rans and Sleeper in another's, the three guys who are arguably the most influential and significant comic-book writers in the direct market currently are completely absent. Shouldn't there be some Bendis, Johns and Brubaker comics in a prominent position on that list, given the demographic?

o Laugh at Your Own Jokes

The Guardian has polled a bunch of big-shot writers on their dos and don'ts when it comes to writing fiction.

From Neil Gaiman's list, I find the following particularly helpful:

"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

And here's part two.

o Everybody Is a Victim

Not comics: Ich werde ein Berliner has a great, very spot-on article on the cultural phenomenon that is Tatort, Germany's longest-running and most established crime-drama TV show.

Come to think of it, the decades-old title sequence, which they're still using today, looks like a Sean Phillips cover put on film, doesn't it?

(Discovered via BILDblog.)

o Are You Nathan Something Something Summers?

After re-reading and reviewing Darko Macan and Igor Kordey's fantastic run on Cable and Soldier X, I went and re-read the pieces Joe McCulloch and Sean T. Collins wrote on the series a while back, and so should you. Also, to get a glimpse of how odd this stuff seemed to long-term X-Men readers (of which I was one) as it was unfolding, check out Paul O'Brien's period reviews.

It seems the terms "weird" and "wonderful" come up a lot when people talk about this run, overall.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cable: Soldier X

Marvel, Cable #105 through #107 and Soldier X #1 through #8, 2002 and 2003, between 22 and 30 pages each, $ 2.25 or $ 2.99 each

Writer: Darko Macan
Artist: Igor Kordey
Artists, Cable #106: Mike Huddleston, John Stanisci
Colorists: Chris Sotomayor, Chris Chuckry, Matt Madden
Letterer: Randy Gentile

Cable, the gun-toting character imagined by Rob Liefeld in 1989 and since turned into a time-traveling warrior priest by a small army of writers and editors, is quite literally all over the place in this idiosyncratic, weird and wonderful little stack of comics by the Croatian writer/artist team of Darko Macan and Igor Kordey.

Geographically, the character shows up in Brazil, Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Egypt, Russia and India over the course of the 11 issues; chronologically, the Soldier X relaunch jumps ahead two years from the Cable series, to a framing sequence from which the story then proceeds to look back at what happened during the gap, before the final chapter skips forward another 2,000 years; and Cable's mindset is becoming ever more capricious—one moment he's determined, the next he's questioning everything he's been doing, to the point of developing a death wish.

Mr. Macan adopts the general tone of his predecessor David Tischman's stories, but quickly spins the series off into a more character-driven and "writerly" direction. While Cable is still trotting the globe and dealing with issues you wouldn't necessarily expect in an X-Men spin-off, the focus is now on the protagonist himself, rather than on current political issues. The general backdrop: Having defeated his archenemy Apocalypse, Cable is now a soldier without a war, a priest (of his futuristic Askani religion) without a church and a hero without a purpose.

To set up the relaunch as Soldier X, the creators gradually heighten the tension. In the three final issues of his eponymous series, Cable intervenes in a mutant arena fight in Rio de Janeiro, encounters arms dealers in Kazakhstan and attracts the attention of an enterprising Hong Kong billionaire. He finds himself increasingly more powerful—a result of recently losing the "techno-organic virus" that had been hampering him—and, at the same time, proportionally less in control of his mutant abilities.

While that trilogy of one-shots offers some pretty good and fairly unusual superhero comics, there's nothing that could have prepared people for what was coming at them in Soldier X.

Take, for instance, the opening sequence of issue #3.

"I realized then what the world needed.

"It needed to be taught the way of Askani.

"It needed hope.

"It needed me."

As far as stereotypical monologues are concerned, this one wouldn't have been out of place in an early-1990s Marvel book. Here, though, it's on a splash page showing Cable in run-down clothes, riding a stolen bicycle on a dirt track in rural Russia while a schnauzer is running along; the image rather puts the caption boxes in context.

This type of absurdity is a recurring stylistic device in Soldier X from page one, where an Arabic-looking man causes a mass brawl on a flight en route for New York City when he removes his shoes. Also on the plane: returning supporting character Irene Merryweather, a Daily Bugle reporter who botches one assignment after the next because all she cares about is finding Cable.

For two thirds of the issue, Cable doesn't even appear. Instead, the story patiently follows Irene, first to the Bugle, then to a sumo-wrestling match she's supposed to cover, where she chats with a friend before being contacted in the bathroom by two fairly ineffectual S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who are also looking for Cable, when the three of them find themselves threatened by a bunch of thugs with guns, who are then overwhelmed by a sumo-wrestling cosplayer who slips Irene a CD-ROM containing a message from Cable.

All of this takes 19 of the book's 30 pages, and to be quite honest, I'm still wondering, with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside me, how on earth this comic ever managed to get published by Marvel.

It's a thought you get used to, reading Soldier X.

It goes on in the recap pages, on which supporting characters break the fourth wall and address the reader directly ("For Marvel Comics, this is Papken Gharamanukian, from Krasnaya Polyana, Russia!" the fashion-victim Armenian gangster in full-tilt colorful track suit cheerfully ends his recap performance); it's in the kinds of characters Cable encounters (lollypop-licking Armenian mobsters in colorful track suits!); and it's in the kinds of things the characters do, such as the Pakistani soldiers in issue #7, who are throwing their prisoners—women and children—off a plane, without parachutes.

Then again, "absurd" may not quite be the right term for the latter.

I don't know if anyone's ever thrown living people out of planes, but I've heard of enough other things that have actually happened that would seem at least as absurd to me if I didn't know they happened. Which is the point Mr. Macan and Mr. Kordey are making here, of course. And what's with all the violence and the pointless fights in American superhero comics, anyway? Aren't there more imaginative ways to exploit the genre, at this stage?

Watch out: We're in deep Steve Gerber territory already.

Because, as absurd as some of these choices may seem, they're also something else: deliberate. The places and situations Cable encounters are reflections of his interior. In Hong Kong, he's lashing out when his independence is threatened; in Egypt, at the pyramids, his past is catching up with him; and in Moscow, his old mentor Blaquesmith sends him on a mission, which Cable eagerly accepts; of course he does—he's giddy to be told what to do, rather than having to figure it out for himself. "I wished there was someone I could ask for help," a caption reads, shortly after he's on his way. "Anyone to point me in the right direction." Cable isn't just talking about the address he's trying to find.

The most significant place, where the story spends most of its time, though, is the Russian village of Krasnaya Polyana. It's a place where religious and political ideologies clash and are taken ad absurdum; the culmination of that comes in issue #5, titled "The Siege of St. Lenin." St. Lenin, we learn, is "an old factory, where a mad artist used to work on blending Orthodox and Communist iconography." Don't try to imagine the visuals that come with the set, because you're going to fall short. This is the place where Cable ultimately comes to terms with who he is.

The major characters Cable encounters likewise serve as foils for aspects of his personality. There's "Mr. Singapore," a ruthless Hong Kong billionaire with a god complex, who wants Cable to be his messiah of change ("Out with the old!").

There's Magdalena, a 13-year-old girl living in the Russian heartland whose mutant healing ability is exploited by her parents, and who is about to be torn apart in a tug of war between the Armenian mob and thousands of sick and injured people who demand to be touched by her. At one point, she kisses what look like syphilis lesions covering an older man, which I think may be a first in a Marvel comic.

Finally, there's Geo, an obnoxious Communist, anti-Globalist terrorist and part-time superhero wannabe with a gigantic tooth gap, who keeps taunting and harassing Cable about being such a miserable whiner, given his vastly superior looks and powers—worse, since Geo's also got a metal arm (made for Soviet cyborg gorillas in the 1970s, he says), the Armenian gangsters think he's the one who's been causing them trouble at first, rather than Cable.

The unrestrained messiah, the exploited savior and the third-rate superhero: each of the three represents a path Cable could take if he decided one way or another—or has taken in the past.

The story's climax comes when Cable deliberately suppresses his telekinetic shielding and forces his powers to repair the resulting bullet wounds instead, although he isn't quite sure whether his mutant ability will be able to cope with the damage. It's Cable's way of regaining control over his powers, as well as his life:

"Now I know I am neither a soldier, nor a priest, nor a hero. [...]

"I am a man who knows there is no real hope for the world—but who hopes all the same.

"In a word, [...] I am a madman.

"A madman whose gift is limited only by his imagination."

This is the point where Soldier X reveals its kinship with Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes' Omega the Unknown, but also with Grant Morrison's Final Crisis. Like those works, Soldier X treats superheroes as a metaphor for the literal limitlessness of the human imagination—easily the single most compelling aspect of the genre, as well as, unfortunately, the single most overlooked one.

Unlike most writers working in genre comics, Mr. Macan approaches the story in terms of character and scenes, rather than plot and action. Each scene represents a complete unit, with a point that serves the overall narrative, and whatever happens and whatever's said is motivated by character.

There's more urgency, consequently, because the creators don't have to rely on the plot to move things along. The way the stories are constructed has a lot more in common with a high-end HBO show than with other superhero comics, in the sense that the What is a lot less important than the Who, the How and the Why—or, for that matter, the sense that there are a Who, a How and a Why, and that they play ball with each other.

Mr. Macan and Mr. Kordey aren't just ahead of nearly everyone else in terms of substance and craft, though, but also in terms of creative zest and instincts. There's a playful, madcap energy in the storytelling, a friction between Cable's self-important musings and the reality of what's going on at any given moment, between the bizarre characters and the creators' ability to make them into authentic, three-dimensional people with intriguing perspectives.

Each time you think you're getting the hang of things, the story throws you for a loop. A four-page sequence in Soldier X #3, starring S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Dragonfly and Jordan, serves as a prime example: At this point in the story, we're used to them as comic-relief types, but all of a sudden, it turns out there's quite a bit more to them, and the scene turns from blithe to tense in a fashion that's gripping and authentic. It's just one of many scenes in the book that attempt and accomplish credible emotional shifts—which is unconventional enough by genre standards.

Appropriately for Mr. Macan's more character-centered approach, Mr. Kordey's style is more expressionistic here than at the start of the David Tischman run, with rougher and fewer lines and less elaborate backgrounds. There aren't many artists in American comics that have such a stunning grasp on visual nuances and drama. Most of them would struggle with the verisimilitude of a conversation between two ordinary middle-aged men sitting on a bench at a train station in the middle of the Russian nowhere, let alone the excitement. Igor Kordey makes you wish the whole book was about them.

And if you can believe that Mr. Kordey's good at drawing two old Russians on a bench, imagine what he does with the sunny Caribbean island of a future vision in issue #8. Credit where credit's due, though: Matt Madden's coloring really brings that story home, with its beautiful lighting of day and night and dawn and dusk.

When I proposed Soldier X as an addition to Tom Spurgeon's list of the best superhero comics of the 2000s a while back, I realized that I hadn't actually read it since it first came out. After going back, though, I find that this material doesn't just hold up—it's actually even better than I remembered it.

It's not perfect, mind you; the final issue in particular hinges on a conclusion that's hard to swallow. Also, it should be pointed out that the series was, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, a complete commercial disaster at the time, driving off Cable readers by the truckload and getting itself canceled soon after the relaunch—you can tell from the eight issues that saw print that Mr. Macan and Mr. Kordey had a lot more plans. (There were four more by another creative team before Marvel pulled the plug.)

Still, Soldier X is one of a select few superhero comics that are striving to explore the genre's still largely untapped potential, rather than to restage the standards over and over again, and to do so in a fashion that stands up to literary scrutiny. Despite the adverse market conditions these types of books always seem to be facing, it actually ends up being more of a creative success than the aforementioned Omega and Final Crisis.

At this point, I'm just sincerely overjoyed (and baffled) that this stuff managed to get made and published at all—the editor was Andrew Lis, who midwived several other creatively delightful but commercially flimsy projects at Marvel, before disappearing from comics. Soldier X, like its hero, is way ahead of its time. It belongs into a slick hardcover collection, a heavy book with solid covers that demands effort and determination from those brave enough to lift it.

Grade: A

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Direct Market in a Sonnet

Sweet sales, renew your force; be it not said
Your edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allay'd,
To-morrow sharpen'd in his former might:
So, sales, be you; although to-day you fill
Your hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of sales with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad int'rim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where one contracted new
Comes daily to the bank, that, when he sees
Returns from sales, more blest may be the view;
Or call it winter, which, being full of care,
Makes summer's welcome thrice more wisht, more rare.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Wash: 02/18/10

o Reinvent DC Comics

As you may have heard, DC Comics is under new management, so here's a quick run-down of the money quotes.

From the joint statement by Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, the new publishers:

"[O]ur mission is to reinvent DC Comics to prepare it for the challenges and opportunities in this quickly changing world [...]; to better position DC [...].

"[T]here’s going to be some easygoing but frank, healthy discussion about how we can accomplish these goals, especially as we get into the specifics of what reinvention means."

From the statement by Geoff Johns, new chief creative officer:

"I’ll continue writing and giving my creative input as I have been in comic books [...] and use it to lead the creative charge on bringing it all to film, toys, television, video games, animation and beyond."

From the statement by Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment:

"Jim Lee [...] is fully adept and experienced at building a publishing program on his own, and will partner with Dan in doing so, but he also brings an affinity and passion for digital that will help the DC Comics business move aggressively into the future.

"Dan DiDio [...] knows how to manage the day-in, day-out mechanics of the publishing program [...] and he has great experience from prior to DC in adapting stories for other platforms.

"Geoff Johns [...] will be instrumental in establishing the tone and culture of creative risk and business growth that we intend for DC Entertainment. [...]

"From Neil [Gaiman] came the eloquently concise assessment that what I was talking about for the future of DC Entertainment was “no fear”. [...]

"And from Grant [Morrison] and [his wife] Kristan was the observation that we’re at the starting point of the next era for DC Comics and DC Entertainment."

I'd be willing to bet a not-small amount of money that this is the first time the terms "reinvention," "creative charge," "aggressively" or "creative risk" are cropping up in a DC Comics press release—certainly all of them together and with Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison standing ready as midwives.

Interesting times: ahead.

o The Needs of All Our Partners

Meanwhile, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort continues to say things that I wish he hadn't said. This week, a reader asks why it takes Marvel so long to add its new comic books to its established Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service. Brevoort's response:

"[W]e need to take the needs of all of our partners into account. As of yet, we haven't offered any of our regular titles through the MDCU until they've been on sale for more than six months. This is to give our Retailer [sic] partners sufficient time to be able to sell the books [...] without facing immediate competition from us with a day-and-date digital edition. I expect that, sooner or later, we're going to begin to experiment a bit more with getting closer to day-and-date, but never in a manner that jeopardizes the livelihood of our retailers. So there's always going to be a bit of delay between when the books go on sale and the soonest you'll be able to access them in the digital collection, I'm afraid."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't all of those comics already out there in good digital quality on the date of release, anyway?

I think they are, which is why Brevoort's stance seems fairly divorced from reality. The question is not—and hasn't been for years, at this stage—whether or not retailers will have to compete with digital distribution. The only question that remains is for how much longer that competition is going to be mainly illegal.

Seriously: Is this anything but Marvel knowingly acting irrationally in order to appease retailers? Is there any rational argument at this point against selling new comics digitally so the publisher can actually make a profit on them?

Marvel is the new DC, evidently, judging from their atrocious sales figures and sudden chickenheartedness.

o This Final Installment

Evidently, contrary to what Grant Morrison has said before, Batman and Robin ends with issue #12, if you believe the preview text.

I take it this means that the Morrison run will continue in Batman #700 instead; I suppose it's fitting, given that it will presumably have the return of Bruce Wayne, the original Batman.

That said, there are exactly five new comics from DC in May that I'm interested in, and four of them are written by Morrison. The fifth is I, Zombie #1, a new Vertigo $ 1.00 launch with art by Mike Allred.

o They're All Here

Not that it's much better at Marvel, mind you.

They've got lots of potentially interesting stuff, certainly, but with four-buck cover prices and the publisher's current everything's-connected attitude, I'm increasingly reluctant to spend my time and money on any of them. Maybe once they've been collected in reasonably priced editions. (Or hey, maybe not.)

Overall, Marvel seems to be adopting DC's strategy: If it doesn't sell, make more of them and hope for the best.

The one I'm getting, though, is Origins of Marvel Comics #1, written by Fred van Lente and Jeff Parker, among others:

"An all-star lineup of creators brings you the origins of Marvel’s greatest heroes! Short, accessible origin stories, all drawn by a roster of the hottest artists, including John Romita Jr., Leinil Francis Yu, Alan Davis and MORE! From the Avengers to the X-Men! From Iron Man, Thor, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to Hulk, Deadpool, Black Widow and the Punisher! They’re all here!"

Now that sounds like fun.

Oh, and speaking of reasonable collections: If I'd had any interest in a collection of the recent Psylocke miniseries to begin with, a 20-dollar paperback that reprints a 20-year-old X-Men storyline along with the new material would have killed it.

o Something That Matters

An essay riffing on some comments by Marvel editor Tom Brevoort.

o Thanks to My Ingenious Storytelling

A 1,500-word look at a classic of 2000s superhero comics: Cable, by David Tischman and Igor Kordey.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cable: The End

Marvel, 2001 and 2002, Cable #97 through #104, between 22 and 38 pages each, $ 2.25 or $ 3.99 each

Writers: David Tischman, Igor Kordey
Artist: Igor Kordey
Colorists: Chris Sotomayor, Avalon Studios, Arsia Rozegar
Letterers: Saida Temofonte, Randy Gentile

David Tischman and Igor Kordey's collaboration on Cable debuted September 19, 2001. In the eight-part run, which consists of two politically aware action thrillers in the mold of Three Kings, the gears are grinding—the gears of Marvel's tumultuous restructuring by the Bill Jemas regime, the gears of mainstream comic-book storytelling, and the gears of North American popular culture at large.

Even more so than the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely New X-Men or the Peter Milligan/Mike Allred X-Force, the series is emblematic of Marvel's then nascent effort to escape its economic woes by producing material that was relevant and cutting edge—and the complete disarray that ensued when the approach was undercut, almost immediately, by real-world events that forced people to radically re-assess the kinds of things that mainstream fiction should, or should not, be portraying.

Two months into the run, issue #98 came with an editorial by the artist. According to Mr. Kordey, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada had called him on the phone, being "upset about the possible psychological impact of page #12 of this issue (thanks to my ingenious storytelling), with a terrorist flying a jeep full of explosives into a financial building and blowing it up."

Mr. Kordey addresses those concerns in detail. After pointing out that the scene in question was drawn months before the September 11 attacks, he speaks with remarkable frankness about his beliefs on art and life in general. Mr. Kordey's piece, one of the darkest and most bizarre things that have ever been printed in the back of a Marvel comic, is accompanied by a picture of the artist—a Croatian national—and two other men wearing army gear.

The caption below the photograph reads:

"During the war in Croatia, my turn came to defend my country. This picture is from the Croatian highland, Lika, in spring of 1994 (that's me with the hat). I show this picture because there is a story behind it—one of 5,000,000 Croatian war stories. The guy in the middle shot the guy standing to his right (his best friend) during the watch in the dead of night. It was an accident that occurred because we were all scared out of our minds. I was able to save the man's life, because I was the only one in my squad who knew basic first aid. But the man remained an invalid. He was just a poor farmer. A poor farmer with a family of seven."

This is pretty strong stuff for a comic book that, two issues previously, had been a fairly conventional X-Men spin-off telling inoffensive sci-fi adventures with people in colorful costumes.

That's not all of it, though.

Within those eight issues, the title reflects a tempest of major and minor changes that Marvel was undergoing at the time. In the first two pages of Cable #97, a couple of American tourists are blown to bits in a terrorist bombing in Lima, Peru; beginning with issue #99, Cable has a small ribbon on the cover to commemorate the September 11 attacks; as of issue #100, the phrase "Stan Lee presents," or a variation thereof, no longer appear on the title page; longtime X-Men group editor Mark Powers' name disappears from the credits after issue #102; and Mr. Tischman's final issue, Cable #104, opens with a splash page showing the towers of the World Trade Center, right after the second plane hit them.

Mr. Tischman's run ended after those two storylines—much less material than he had planned for, as his introduction in issue #97 and the series proposal printed in #100 indicate. I don't know the reason why his tenure was cut short; the suspicion that the stories were simply hitting too close to home at this stage seems forgivable, under the circumstances. Then again, his successor Darko Macan's run wasn't exactly tame, so who knows.

In Mr. Tischman's first storyline, Cable takes on the Shining Path, a Peruvian terrorist organization seeking to overthrow the country's government. In the second, co-written by Mr. Kordey, the character intervenes in a conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Macedonia.

Issue #101, famously titled "How Many Albanians Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?," begins with a double-page splash showing NATO planes as they're bombing a village in Serbia. The exposition doesn't pull many punches:

"Serbian forces have been raping, robbing and systematically killing the region's ethnic Albanian minority. The Serbian government denies these actions, which the media refers to as 'ethnic cleansing'—a politically correct term for genocide.

"Americans, sitting at home in front of their televisions, are horrified—unaware that the conflict between the orthodox and the muslims has been going on for centuries.

"The United Nations has sent a U.S.-led 'peacekeeping' force into Serbia to help—as if a couple of smart bombs can alter the course of history.

"Especially when that 'peacekeeping force hits the wrong target."

Suddenly, Cable's opponents aren't ancient evil mutants, but terrorist groups bent on revolution and genocide, and driven by political and ideological agendas that actually exist. Suddenly, the book evolves around real issues in real places—the stories are filled with child soldiers and with characters sniffing coke, putting out cigarettes in other people's faces, or sexually abusing dead prisoners, with American (rogue?) secret agents showing up to exploit the situation; and a protagonist who doesn't mind killing anyone who gets in his way—sometimes accidentally, mostly less so.

The first issue introduces Cable reading the paper in a street café in Lima while on a stakeout; later on, it shows him in an average, economy-style hotel room with his suitcase and socks and copies of Time magazine and Playboy lying around. Instead of flashy costumes, the character now wears T-shirts, cargo pants, outdoor boots, lumberjack shirts and an army jacket; he looks like a backpacking globetrotter, in short. Instead of impossibly huge, pseudo-futuristic sci-fi weaponry, he uses regular guns—or ones that look like they might actually exist, at least. And the people he takes under his wings to teach them his "Askani" philosophy aren't North American superheroes, this time, but a Peruvian child soldier and a racist Serbian lab assistant.

All that is broadly consistent with how previous creators interpreted the character, but it also shows him from a fresh angle that serves to reveal new insights.

All of a sudden, the book is about characters and places that, a few months back, would have seemed more at home in a hardboiled international spy thriller than in an X-Men spin-off.

The shift is far from smooth, and readers have to wait until Cable #102 for the character to lay out his new outlook:

"The way I was brought up, I thought I could save the world—as I got older, I realized all I can do is help it as best I can. [...]

"It's the same thing as helping an old lady across the street, or putting trash in a garbage can.

"Right is right. It's not subjective. [...] If everybody did what was right, the world would be a better place."

So, after a period of being sanitized and made into a generally more agreeable hero than the gun-toting Rob Liefeld creation of old, Mr. Tischman and Mr. Kordey's Cable gets back some of his wild-eyed fanaticism, albeit now tempered by the kind of equilibrium and wisdom that aging, white-haired action heroes are prone to.

The key to the creators' approach, in all that, is authenticity. The people, places and agendas in these stories are "real"—some of them in a literal sense, certainly, but also in the sense that they're strong enough to bleed into the gutters of the page, and beyond. You can believe that these characters and places are headed somewhere. They neither begin nor end in these stories, but are merely passing through long enough for the audience to get a glimpse.

Much of the credit for that goes to the art, which creates some spectacularly elaborate and vivid figures and settings. The work by Mr. Kordey and his collaborators is teeming with life and movement, no matter what's in the pictures; the shadows the letters on a storefront window cast on a character's face and body, the wrinkles in their clothing, the way the paper is placed on the table or pieces of tape cover a crack in the window, or the poses and expressions of the people in the background—if there's another artist in American comics who is this good with composition and authenticating details, I'm not aware of them. The artwork alone is strong enough to propel the story forward at any given moment.

The script isn't entirely on par with that, unfortunately. Particularly in the first two issues, the storytelling is frequently choppy; at times, the material reads like somebody went in after the fact and added the kinds of captions that had been omnipresent in Marvel comics of the 1990s, spelling out the protagonist's background and abilities at least once every issue, no matter whether the information happens to be relevant or not.

This particular problem disappears after two issues, but a general over-reliance on caption boxes persists. Mostly they take the point of view of a given character, sometimes it's an omniscient narrator, and too often, they tell you things you already know, or things you don't need to know, or things that might have been better served by being shown, rather than told.

It's hard not to note some of the plot holes, too. There are a couple of characters capable of teleportation, for instance, but its application seems not so much dependent on any consistent logic other than what's required by the plot in a given moment.

Overall, though, I can't help being fascinated by a series that renounces escapism precisely one nanosecond before a lot of popular-cultural tastemakers decided it was a good idea to crack down on anything that wasn't pure escapism. Measured by those standards, this stuff holds up remarkably well.

The creators seem a very good match, at any rate. It would have been easy for the story to suffer from humorless soap-boxing or boring sermons, given the subject matter, but Mr. Tischman and Mr. Kordey find the right balance between the kind of over-the-top superhero stuff that comes with the territory and their desire to address some controversial issues in a storytelling vernacular that they couldn't expect the title's existing audience to be familiar with.

And, again, Igor Kordey's art here is just unbelievably good.

Grade: B-

Monday, February 15, 2010

Something That Matters

Last week at Robot 6, Sean T. Collins interviewed Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, who at one point manages to cram a lot of what's been wrong with Marvel and DC's editorial management in a few consecutive sentences:

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that DC began to have a lot of success around the time of Identity Crisis and its aftermath. Besides the fact that it was a big, earth-shattering story by a top-tier creative team, it was also perfect counter-programming for what Marvel was then publishing. You want a big, shared universe of super heroes? Then step right this way! So I don’t think we’re ever going to see the end of these sorts of stories—they’re simply too popular, and at a time when fans are more concerned than ever that their money is being spent on something that matters, event storylines tend to stand the greatest chance of paying off on that promise for the greatest number of people.

First up, Identity Crisis was not a crossover, of course; neither was 52, another title from DC's now remote-seeming period of great comic-book success in the mid-00s. People are forgetting that, evidently, because Identity Crisis is often wrongly lumped in with the bunch of sprawling crossover titles that followed.

Second, Identity Crisis wasn't so much an "earth-shattering" story as a character-driven one. I'm not saying it was a particularly good story, but it used characters as a starting point, not "universes."

Third, I'm questioning that "these sorts of stories" that Brevoort has in mind are very popular at all right now.

The best-selling ongoing Marvel book barely breaks 70k units in the direct market anymore, and, as Brian Hibbs just pointed out, all evidence suggests Marvel's core comics are stinking up the bookstores—which is where more casual readers go to buy comics.

A year ago, I would have said that at least Marvel managed to lure people into direct-market with shiploads of immediately understandable and accessible Civil War and World War Hulk comic books and collections. But that seems no longer true.

Where are those people now?

I don't know, but it seems to me that the point at which they started to leave was when editorial thought it was a good idea to turn the Marvel Universe into one big story and call it "Dark Reign."

Which is funny, because over at DC, the point at which the success ushered in by Identity Crisis began to wane was when the publisher abandoned the philosophy of creator-driven individual titles in favor of the big, sprawling universe-spanning stuff.

Remember: Superman/Batman, Supergirl, Teen Titans, Outsiders, Justice League of America and Justice Society of America used to be best sellers, five years back.

What happened? Infinite Crisis and the subsequent "One Year Later" happened—a highly publicized, sprawling "event" that sold very well, but ushered in a sales decline that lasted years. For Marvel, Secret Invasion and its follow-up "Dark Reign" have done the same.

Fourth and last, here's the most wrongheaded part of Brevoort's comment: "something that matters."

In the current direct-market climate—which both DC and Marvel have worked tirelessly to bring about, in a very systematic and deliberate fashion, over the last five years—the two publishers' only remaining trick is to try and convince their audience that something matters.

And the more they've been using that trick, the less effective it's become. At Marvel, the emphasis is everywhere; at DC, there's no emphasis except on "Blackest Night"—with predictable results.

Case in point: Siege #1—a book that, by Brevoort's definition, surely should "matter" more than any other Marvel comic since Secret Invasion—sold an estimated 108,484 units in January 2010, according to ICv2.com.

For the sake of comparison: In April 2008, Secret Invasion #1 sold an estimated 250,263 units. In May 2008, Final Crisis #1 followed with 144,826. January 2009 saw Dark Avengers #1 (118,579), June Batman and Robin #1 (168,604) and July Captain America: Reborn #1 (193,142). Also in July, Blackest Night #1 came out with estimated sales of 177,105—and none of the five subsequent issues of Blackest Night released to date have fallen below 135,000 units.

In short, the Siege number is far below the figures of any similar books of that type released by Marvel or DC in the last five years.

Now, of course, market conditions have grown more adverse lately, because of the economy, but all this means is that the audience is becoming more discriminating with every new major release; and evidently, Blackest Night and a couple of strong individual titles like Batman and Robin and Captain America are all the market is able to focus on right now.

Plainly, it doesn't look like Brevoort and Marvel have a very good grasp anymore on what it is that "matters" to their audience—they did with books like Civil War and World War Hulk and Secret Invasion, certainly. But last year's "Dark Reign," which effectively abandoned the kind of slow-burn focus that's paying off for DC right now, was a massive misreading of the market.

Neither Marvel nor DC have fully realized what time it is. Both publishers are still acting like it's 2005, seeking a kind of aggressive expansion that the market stopped supporting long ago. DC's recent Batman revamp was quite a success, for instance, right until the point where they got greedy and thought the momentum was enough to get a dozen secondary Batman titles off the ground, in addition to whatever was going on with Blackest Night; and now the whole bunch of them, except for the Grant Morrison main one, are sliding down the charts like there's no tomorrow.

Everything that's doing relatively well in the direct market at this time is not the result of expansion, but the pay-off of years' worth of steady growth and consolidation—Johns' Green Lantern, Brubaker's Captain America and Morrison's Batman: books that have been largely self-contained. "Dark Reign" and now Siege have been the opposite of that—even worse, they cut off Straczynski's Thor at the knees, one of the few strong Marvel titles of late that hadn't grown to a bloated quagmire of a franchise.

It's past time to trim those franchises back down. It's sheer madness to keep flooding the market with more JSA or Ultimate or Superman or Wolverine product at a time when the audience is less and less convinced that even one of each really "matters" to them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wash: 02/12/10

o Wolf Like Me

His appreciation of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram is the best thing Matt Fraction has written in over a year.

Please read it, and then please order a copy of the upcoming Phonogram: The Singles Club collection.

o Frankly Insane

Talking about digital comics to Peter Ha, critic Douglas Wolk says a lot of sensible things.

Excerpt:

I think it is frankly insane that DC and Marvel don't sell (most of) their comics on the day of release in a la carte, open-format, digital form. [...]

But of course the reason they're not doing it is that their grasp on the direct market is so tenuous, and if one of them fails, or Diamond fails, or more comics shops fail, the whole house of cards goes down.

o Death Metal Comics

I review The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, a comics novella by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. It's not pretty.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century #1: 1910

Top Shelf Productions/Knockabout Comics, 2009, paperback, 72 pages plus extra material, $ 7.95 or £ 5.95

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O'Neill
Colorist: Ben Dimagmaliw
Letterer: Todd Klein

You have to be grateful to Alan Moore that this story is such a shoddy piece of work at heart, because everything else in Century: 1910 is executed so perfectly and with such grim determination that it might make you want to throw yourself off a bridge if not for this one, big, fuzzy flaw to hold on to.

The previous three installments of Mr. Moore and Mr. O'Neill's period superhero adventure were far from cheerful, mind you, but Century: 1910, ostensibly the first chapter in a three-part series, really goes out of its way to harp on what a low and rotten species we are.

In the first of the story's two major strands, a new group of extraordinary gentlemen, led by familiar face Wilhelmina Murray, is seeking to prevent a great disaster that's about to befall London, as foreseen in a vague dream by one of her associates. In the other, the daughter of an old League member rebels against her parent and takes her chances by running away to the English capital.

Purely in terms of delivering the narrative, a better effort will be hard to find. With apparent ease, the creators demonstrate not just their impeccable instincts when it comes to what has to happen when, how and how long, precisely, and from which angle to show it, but also that they are more than up to the task of bringing it to fruition.

One of the book's standout sequences has two characters walking to King's Cross, while a third—a time traveler—approaches the same spot from the past, leaving for the future when the meeting is concluded. In another, near the story's climax, the creators turn in the comics version of a musical, having a murderer deliver his last words as a harrowing recitative, before intercutting scenes of widespread havoc and destruction with panels in which minor characters comment on the proceedings in song and dance.

In both instances, as well as several others, Mr. Moore and his collaborators demonstrate a sense of dramatic timing, pacing, movement and rhythm that legions of accomplished filmmakers would gladly trade in their souls for. The creators know when and how to use their nine-panel grids and their splash pages, how to light their scenes to set the right mood, which fonts to use and where exactly to place the word balloons that administer the carefully chosen words.

Kevin O'Neill's art excels at complex conversation scenes as well as at elaborate action sets, at period architecture as well as at drawing three-dimensional people in authentic clothing, at the mundane as well as at the extraordinary. His finely made drawings are highly detailed in ways you'd expect from a modern superhero spectacle, but their composition and delivery also come with layers that go well beyond that.

When it comes to sheer mechanics, this is, pretty much, as good as it gets—a consummately told comics adventure.

The story itself isn't nearly so innovative and ambitious as to merit this high concentration of talent, unfortunately.

"What Keeps Mankind Alive?," the title asks, and the answer is relentlessly bleak. Mr. Moore liberally employs graphic violence, some of it sexual, but fails to make it count a lot of the time, because he proves too timid and adolescent a storyteller to engage his characters; there are more violent works in Mr. Moore's oeuvre, certainly, but few where the violence is so pointless.

As the plot dictates it, a rape provides the impetus for the story's turning point, for instance, but the character who's meant to be driving the narrative at that stage remains a blurry husk throughout—worse, she's a stereotype who exists solely to advance the plot, in a very obvious and hackneyed fashion. Consequently, when the supposedly crucial event occurs, the subsequent change seems phony, first and foremost, as well as petty and shallow.

Evidently, the mere notion of experiencing rape is sufficiently profound and meaningful to Mr. Moore to justify the absence of just about anything that makes a fully developed character, and it requires nothing further to be said on the subject. As it stands, this isn't just a glaring error of creative judgment, but also a lazy and trite storytelling shortcut that more imaginative writers—writers with a genuine interest in exploring what, precisely, makes rape such a profound and life-changing experience to begin with—have long ago tossed on the garbage heap of literary history.

Some of the book's exhausted and gloomy atmosphere is intentional, certainly. Virtually all of its characters are, in one way or another, rotten remnants of a previous, supposedly "better" age, some of them one step removed from literal zombies. And, more substantially, Century: 1910 captures the almost tangible expectation—and not always dread—of an impending war that held much of Europe in its grasp at the time; in the context of Mr. Moore's story, World War I may be read as just another beat of the drum—a final, grim punch line.

But even if Century: 1910 succeeded fully as a story, all its creative energies remain in service of a fairly trivial and masturbatory harangue about nihilistic urges and petty revenge. The book holds all the scope, maturity and insight of an average death-metal album from 1993, with skulls and blood and busty virgins on the cover.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Wash: 02/10/10

o Marvel Teabagged by Fox News

You'll have heard by now of the bizarre kerfuffle surrounding an inconsequential art detail in Captain America #602, which has resulted so far in a bunch of people from the right end of the political spectrum claiming to be offended, as well as hurried explanations and apologies and blame-shifting from Ed Brubaker and Marvel.

Kevin Melrose at Robot 6 has a comprehensive round-up.

Personally, what I find most fascinating about the whole thing is Marvel editor Joe Quesada trying to explain to a right-wing pundit that it's really totally unfair to judge a character's dialogue based on the first chapter of a four-part storyline Before the Story Is Complete:

"[T]his is a four-issue series. So to really get a full picture of why [the Falcon] feels the way he does and what conclusions he comes to at the end of the story, you really need to read the whole thing and not just judge a story and its intent on the first issue."

Those political pundits and their puny understanding of made-for-the-paperback Marvel comics storylines.

o Imminently Exploitable

Tom Spurgeon follows up on last week's fluff-piece-gone-awry with writer Joe Casey, who seizes the opportunity to lay out some of his broader views on the comics industry that informed his earlier comments.

o Boxcars with Faces Like Rock Grapefruit

Tom Crippen reviews a couple of Superman comic books for The Comics Journal, with focus on the art, and though I haven't read the comics in question, I money-back-guarantee you that Mr. Crippen's 500 words are more entertaining.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Wash: 02/05/10

o Comics writer and filmmaker Ann Nocenti is currently in Haiti.

According to the article at Salon from January 15, Nocenti teaches film in the city of Jacmel, one of the country's cultural centers.

She's unharmed, evidently, and is co-organizing an effort by her students at the Ciné Institute to chronicle the aftermath of the severe earthquake of January 12:

"We don't just want to see stories of poverty and chaos coming out of Haiti," [Nocenti] says. "We want to see positive stories too -- and the story of our students and what they have accomplished is a positive story. Haiti is a beautiful country, a land of culture, music, art and agriculture. I worry sometimes that if people think it's all despair, they will throw up their hands and think that nothing can be done."

Jacmel, situated on the southeastern coast of Haiti and the country's fourth-largest city, was reportedly hit heavily by the recent earthquake; as many as 40,000 people are said to be homeless there as a result of the disaster, which reportedly killed between 300 and 500 people and injured an estimated 4,000 in the city.

Aid is still needed in Jacmel. In the Salon piece, Nocenti points to the possibility of making a donation via the Ciné Institute's homepage.

As a minor result of these events, Nocenti—and Molly Crabapple, who initially made me aware of the above, though I'm not sure if they were working on the same story—will not be contributing to Marvel's Girl Comics #1 (temporary link).

o Writer Joe Casey speaks frankly to Steve Sunu about his work on DC's struggling Superman/Batman series:

"Actually, I was shocked when I saw the printed comic and that ‘Our Worlds at War Aftermath’ trade dress on the cover [...]. I mean, come on... was anyone clamoring for a return visit to that story? I wasn't, and I worked on the original! [...]

"My poor editor was so swamped with other work, and had been struggling for months to try to make this book into something cool, something that would sell better, I think it was a case of grasping at straws to find a sales hook for a book that's clearly struggling by not being tied in to current events in the DCU."

Later on, Casey also sounds off about the way DC marketed his miniseries starring the Super Young Team last year, titled Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance:

"[T]his whole ‘Aftermath’ term that certain books–two that I've written for DC in the past year–have been saddled with as a marketing angle... let's put it on the scrap heap [...]. At the very least, replace anything with ‘aftermath’ in the title with a more appropriate word... like ‘hangover.’"

I love Joe Casey—certainly for his comics, which always succeed at being interesting, at the very least, but also for his refusal to bullshit-by-numbers himself through the comics marketing machine.

o Why on earth does Gene Colan need a fundraiser?

Look, I know the U.S. has no healthcare to speak of and is apparently proud of it, but this is preposterous. Colan has worked on some of the most recognizable characters of the country's biggest comics publishers for 65 (in words: S-I-X-T-Y F-I-V-E) years.

He's co-created Blade the Vampire Hunter, a character that, if I'm not mistaken, has made a little bit of money for all kinds of people in various films and TV shows.

If Gene Colan needs a fundraiser for his retirement fund, something's very, very wrong with this industry.

o Comics reporter Tom Spurgeon opines on the implications of rumored Watchmen (comics) sequels.

If I'm catching his drift correctly, Spurgeon suggests that no potential sequel comic could ever hope to be as offensive to the sensibilities and the creators of the original work by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as last year's Watchmen film by director Zack Snyder.

I think he's got a point.

o Writer Kurt Busiek explains why Batman doesn't have a Green Lantern power ring:

"The stories are the cake, and the shared-universe stuff is frosting. Things tend to go horribly wrong when people start to think the frosting is more important than the cake, and then get better when they remember that it's about the cake after all."

Busiek knows what he's talking about. I recall reading lots of complaints about how his 18-months-long "Kang Dynasty" storyline in Marvel's Avengers was somehow harming Marvel Universe continuity, because Marvel's other books didn't tie in with it.

Personally, I never understood that mindset. I just tremendously enjoyed the fact that Marvel and Tom Brevoort gave one of my favorite creators the opportunity to do this big, epic story all in one series and on his own terms, without having to worry about the usual small-minded continuity nonsense that was usually bound to bog this type of story down. Did I care about continuity? Certainly, but I just figured the story took place in-between the stories in other titles.

It's a shame that Marvel and DC still can't—or won't—do that sort of thing more often. If they were, I might even be able to find an Avengers or X-Men title that's entertaining to me.

o There's a lot of very detailed blood and gore in Siege.

The only thing that's shocking to me about this double-page spread from the comic is how embarrassingly unimaginative Brian Michael Bendis has become.

Then again, I'm below 40 and I like having sex with other people, so I'm probably just not the target audience.

Thank god for Grant Morrison comics.

o Diamond Comic Distributors' Top 100 chart of the best-selling North American comic books of January 2010 is out.

Marvel's Siege #1 claims the top spot. Mainly, I'm wondering whether that's because it sold really well, or just because DC's Blackest Night was on a skip month.

Also: Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy's Joe the Barbarian #1 sold around 25,000 units, evidently. Given that the book was two thirds a promotional freebie and retailed for $ 1.00, that's faintly depressing.

o Finally, welcome to The Beat 3.0!

Crashing the housewarming party as of today: DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales for December 2009.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Wash: 02/02/10

o Sean T. Collins reviews The Winter Men and reminds me that I want to track down The Wire on DVD.

I agree with everything Collins says about the comic—except for his take on the superhero elements; I don't just think they're crucial to the plot, but that the whole point of The Winter Men seems to be kind of an "anti-Watchmen."

I also think that's the least interesting aspect of the whole thing, mind you. (Here's my review from a few weeks back, for more on that.)

o At Newsarama, Troy Brownfield set out last week to lengthily dispel the notion that Marvel's "Necrosha" crossover and DC's "Blackest Night" crossover, both of which involve dead superheroes returning as zombies, are anything but coincidental.

To which I have to say: (1) How does this nonsense merit a 2,000-word article, and (2) isn't the idea of DC and Marvel coming up with the same storyline about dead heroes returning as zombies at the same time independently from each other kind of depressing?

o Lord, those one-liners in the first Losers trailer suck.

Still, looks like a delightful throwback to the days when action films were just big and dumb and like the A-Team (I caught the MacGyver reference, but c'mon, you're not fooling anyone) and you could safely switch off your brain and not worry about anything for 90 minutes.

I'll watch it, sooner or later.

o What is Gareb Shamus thinking?

Well, seems to me he's playing Monopoly. Like everybody who's any good at Monopoly, he knows that rather than to wait until you hit one of the big streets, you have to grab as many of the crappy ones as you can, to generate a constant cash flow and get enough bargaining power to rip everybody else off later. I'm joking, mostly.

o A belated Happy 50th Birthday to Grant Morrison. If you're looking for 50 reasons why Grant Morrison is the most significant Anglo-American pop comics creator of the 2000s, Matt Price has them.

o Coming soon: The Beat 3.0; please bookmark it now, if you haven't already. Congrats and all the best to Heidi at the new place.

o Quick Essay Time, brought to you today by Tom Brevoort and the Coen Brothers: Don't Believe the Truth.

Don't Believe the Truth

Tom Brevoort gets it right:

I feel like I keep reading the same scenes, the same exchanges and conflicts, the same false drama over and over again. It's time to set the bar a bit higher for ourselves. Time to rededicate ourselves to illuminating those truths of character, to digging down deeper, probing the characters, turning them over and over and figuring out what makes them tick, why we're fascinated by them, and then placing them in situations that reveal new facets-and, by extension, new facets of ourselves.

It's the point of fiction, you know; the "literary" thing that we keep talking and fretting about. When we get down to it, it's something as pure and simple as... truth.

Not some kind of absolute, objective Truth, but the truth of a scene, a moment, a character.

I'm convinced that everybody, deep down inside, has their own, very accurate bullshit detector for whether a scene in a piece of fiction rings true for them or not, whether they've thought about it a lot or not, whether they realize it or not.

And I think a disproportionate number of comics readers, critics and creators still fail to apply that bullshit detector a lot of the time.

Sure: Comics, as a storytelling form, has come a long way the last ten years or so in particular. In terms of craft, the majority of creators working in the field are leaps and bounds above the guys who were working in the field in 1995. People like, say, Ed Brubaker or Sean Phillips, to name the most obvious examples, have been a godsend in that regard. In terms of structure and panel-to-panel storytelling, the 2000s have been an incredible growth period.

But when it comes to the matter of truth, to having something to say about a given character and gearing everything towards saying it and making it seem like a true story—a story that the reader can believe in not just intellectually but also emotionally—then it seems a lot of people are still not paying attention, no matter whether we're talking about the creative side of things or the critical reception.

Case in point, I just saw A Serious Man.

Let me tell you, that's a pretty smartly constructed, ingeniously told film if I've ever seen one.

But the ending—

—an ending that hits you like a brick, so suddenly and with such raw, instant cathartic force that it literally has to be seen to be believed—

—that ending scene wouldn't have been half as poignant if the story that preceded it hadn't worked so hard at earning it, by being a true story about these characters and their lives that you believe in.

The thing is, I've read a few books and listened to a few songs and seen a few films and watched a few TV shows that have that effect on me; they're not many, but every once in a while, I can expect to find one which has this particular kind of truth.

In comics, though, it's still so rare an exception, evidently, that I can't name a single work off the top of my head that had the same effect on me as that film I just got back from the theater watching.

There are creators who get close, and there are people who know what to look for; but somehow, my impression is that we've still got a long way to go if we want to be any serious competition for other storytelling forms.