Monday, December 31, 2007

2007: The Year in Comics (1)

The first thing that comes to mind whenever I consider doing one of those end-of-the-year thingamalists is that I haven't read nearly enough comics to claim that the "best" of anything was among them. Consequently, I'm going to take a more subjective approach.

What you get here is nothing definitive, comprehensive or objective. It is, quite simply, in alphabetical order, a list of comics that I've enjoyed reading in 2007, and that I remember fondly enough to recommend. I'm sure I'm forgetting some, and, yes, I'm aware that some of this stuff didn't even come out in 2007 at all. I don't really care.

* * *

Jason Aaron, Howard Chaykin, et al. Wolverine. Well, the one issue of it there was, at any rate, which was #56. The double-sized one-shot tells the story of Wendell, a hired goon whose job consists of a shift's worth of shooting "The Man in the Pit" with a machine gun every day - that man being Wolverine, of course, who's the prisoner of some inconsequential bad guy and is constantly kept under fire due to his superhuman healing abilities. Based on this gloriously over-the-top high concept, the creators manage to deliver a neat little character study, as well as the best Wolverine story I've read in a very long time. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Jason Aaron, Cameron Stewart, et al. The Other Side. In a nutshell, imagine every good Vietnam War film you've ever seen rolled into one and done as a comic, and you'll have an approximation of The Other Side. The book isn't shy about its influences, but it also firmly stands on its own two feet as a smartly crafted, well-researched exploration of humanity, by way of two soldiers fighting the Vietnam War on opposing sides. It doesn't need to hide from any of its cinematic ancestors, certainly. Based on this work, I'm very much looking forward to reading Jason Aaron's Scalped, which is somewhere in my stack. (DC Comics/Vertigo, paperback)

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, et al. Daredevil. This is still very much Frank Miller's Daredevil. There are numerous twice-told tropes to be found here - the differences are cosmetic, really, and all the basic ingredients remain the same ones that Miller brought to the table 25 years ago. Fortunately, Daredevil also just so happens to be a good comic right now. Brubaker and company are pretty much the best caretakers you could find for superhero stories with film noir and pulp fiction influences these days, and it's tremendously entertaining to watch them making the material sing. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples. Criminal. Sure, it's great fun to read these ugly, coarse, splendidly told pulp sons-of-bitches of yarns about crooked people driven by creed, guilt and revenge - there's no doubt about that. What they usually don't tell you, though, is that it's really those little, sparse moments of kindness, love and redemption that bring stories like this one home. After all, if even the evil cocksuckers in Criminal can manage to find some ragged shred of happiness in their fucked-up lives, if only for the briefest of moments, then perhaps it's not so hopeless for the rest of us ... right? Bang. You're dead. (Marvel Comics/Icon, periodical)

* * *

Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, et al. Astro City: The Dark Age. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson are still successfully conning us into thinking Astro City is one of the best superhero books in the market today, when in fact it is, of course, a most profound expedition across the length and breadth of the human condition. Astro City is a North American city with a particularly high population of superheroes and super-villains. The 16-part epic The Dark Age chronicles its history throughout the seventies, as seen through the eyes of two regular human brothers - one a cop, the other a crook. The book has been coming out at snail's pace, unfortunately, but when it does show up, it still delivers. (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical)

* * *

Kurt Busiek, Carlos Pacheco, et al. Superman. I'm not very fond of either Superman or DC's mainstream line in general, but the ten-part "Camelot Falls" arc was well worth my time this year. It's got a neat premise, for starters: A time traveler shows up from the future to inform Superman that all of his good deeds in the present only strengthen the "tide of darkness," and will ultimately lead to humanity's destruction. The time-traveler's solution: Superman has to stop doing what he does immediately, letting millions of humans die now for the long-term survival of humanity. So, what's he going to do? Admittedly, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, but it's still one of the best traditional superhero stories I've read lately. (DC Comics, periodical)

* * *

Mike Carey, Chris Bachalo, Humberto Ramos, et al. X-Men. Paul O'Brien said it best last week: "Mike Carey has been doing great work on the X-books lately, and shows a better understanding of the characters than many of his contemporaries. He's able to work with continuity and use it to his advantage, but he recognizes that this is not what the characters are ultimately about." Mind you, if you're not already familiar with the X-Men, now probably isn't the best time to delve into Carey's run, since the book is entangled in a big whopping crossover with the other X-Men titles. Come February, though, it's going to be revamped and renamed X-Men: Legacy. Unless something goes horribly wrong, I'm optimistic that it's going to be a good book. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Joe Casey, Charlie Adlard, et al. Rock Bottom. What a strange beast. The protagonist is a man who literally turns to stone - not the convenient kind that allows him to walk around and become a superhero, mind you, but the real deal. On the one hand, Rock Bottom passes muster as a weird-science character study. On the other, it also has to offer a few worthwhile twists on the superhero genre, and as such fits in quite nicely with Casey's body of work. It's a flawed but intriguing comic. The book actually came out in 2006, but I didn't get around to it until this year. (AiT/Planet Lar, paperback)

* * *

Joe Casey, Tom Scioli, et al. Gødland. Protagonist Adam Archer is a cosmically powered superhero whose sidekick is a wise, old talking dog from outer space. Imagine a comic picking up where Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey left off, and spinning forth the story as a Kirby-styled over-the-top superhero epic involving swinging super-villains, Freudian destroyers, angry space gods and the origin of the universe. Gødland is like the mad cousin of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman - not the best superhero comic out there, perhaps, but probably the most fearless. (Image Comics, periodical)

* * *

Alright, that's it for today. There'll be more in 2008, as soon as I'll be willing and able to see and touch my keyboard again.

Thanks very much for your time, and have a happy new year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cause and Defect

Let's have a look at some quotes and see if we can spot a common thread.

[Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man] has only been the book I wanted it to be since issue 11. Up to now it's been a little bit frustrating, but I can't blame anyone at Marvel because, like I said, I knew the job was going to be dangerous when I took it.

-writer Peter David, January 2007


I think my Marvel time is winding down. That's not to say there are no properties, but right now, everything is so connected that I can't get my head around it.

-writer Joss Whedon, March 2007


I think [the "cohesive universe" approach is] restrictive. Personally, I think it’s been going on for too long, but that’s just me. I think at the end of the day, you have to tell the best story you can, not to do as many stunts as you can. I think when you keep building everything the way Marvel has done and the way DC is doing you make the books obtuse. You make them impenetrable and you generate this false sense of hype.

-writer Greg Rucka, November 2007

(Providing a degree of contrast to the "Creator X Exclusive with Publisher Y" press releases that have become so frequent lately, Rucka recently announced that he was not going to renew his exclusive contract with DC Comics.)


In the current storyline, there's a lot that I don't agree with, and I made this very clear to everybody within shouting distance at Marvel, especially [editor-in-chief Joe Quesada]. I'll be honest: there was a point where I made the decision, and told Joe, that I was going to take my name off the last two issues of the ["One More Day"] arc.

-writer J. Michael Straczynski, December 2007


I've got stories I want to tell there, and I'll get to them if Marvel gives me half a chance.

-writer Mike Carey, December 2007


When you're working on a big crossover like [Amazons Attack], a lot of the plotting is just connecting the dots in a way. This is going to happen here, we'll deal with this here, and then over in Teen Titans this will happen, and then we'll deal with this, and then we'll deal with that. Readers may not like it, and in some ways it can be a pain to write, but that's what a lot of modern comic books are. The big ones that sell and the big ones that people seem to like are the ones that have crossovers crossovers crossovers. When you're writing it, the object is to hit those plot points. As a writer you try to work in those human emotions and twists and surprises and fun and action along the way. But you have to hit point A, B, C, and D because in another book, somebody's going to be hitting it.

-writer Will Pfeifer, December 2007


No, again, this was [executive editor] Dan Didio. And [coordinating editor] Jann Jones was in on this one too. They called me up and said, "We have an idea. Hear us out." All of these projects that I've talked about with DC have come from them. They're all DC calling me up and asking me if I was interested.

-writer/artist Keith Giffen, December 2007


With Countdown, we went very vocal about how it was going to bring everything together, therefore, the fact that everything was tied together overshadowed what was going on with the characters in the story, and that became the focal point of what all the discussions were about, more so than whether or not these stories and these characters appearing in them were engaging.

-DC Comics executive editor Dan Didio, December 2007

On Dealing with the Devil

There were some raised eyebrows recently when it was reported that popular writer J. Michael Straczynski (Marvel Comics' Amazing Spider-Man and Thor) spoke candidly about his discontent with the creative direction he's been saddled with by his publisher.

Straczynski aired his disagreement on 2004's poorly received "Sins Past" storyline, as well as the current "One More Day" crossover running through various Spider-Man titles, whose conclusion is widely expected to reset the title character to a more palatable version by undoing his 1987 marriage to love interest Mary Jane Watson.

To his Usenet community, Straczynski writes:

In ["Sins Past"], yes, I wanted it to be Peter's kids, Joe [Quesada] over-rode that, which is his right as [Marvel Comics editor-in-chief]. I got the flack for that decision, but them's the breaks.

In ["One More Day"], there's a lot that I don't agree with, and I made this very clear to everybody within shouting distance at Marvel, especially Joe. I'll be honest: there was a point where I made the decision, and told Joe, that I was going to take my name off the last two issues of the OMD arc. Eventually Joe talked me out of that decision because at the end of the day, I don't want to sabotage Joe or Marvel, and I have a lot of respect for both of those.

Now, a few things spring to mind.

First up, Straczynski seems to believe that "Sins Past" would have been better - or, at least, more favorably received, perhaps - if Spider-Man had been the father of the kids he introduced, instead of the Green Goblin.

The storyline, we recall, featured the hitherto unseen love children of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn (!), which Peter Parker confirmed by stabbing Gwen's grave with a big honkin' rod (!!) and comparing their DNA. Since time works differently in the Marvel Universe, the story also postulated that the pair had the appearance of teenagers due to a combination of Osborn's "Goblin formula" and progeria (!!!). Shall we say, I'm not quite convinced Straczynski's original idea would really have improved that story. (A follow-up story called "Sins Remembered," written by Straczynski protégée Fiona Avery, had Peter Parker doing his best Humbert Humbert impression and giving Gwen's twelve-year-old daughter a wet one - another dazzling example of Marvel's frequent sure-footedness when it comes to their flagship property.)

Second, I'm curious what prompted Straczynski to change his mind, as far as sabotaging Quesada or Marvel is concerned. Because that, of course, is precisely what he's doing by publicly disowning "One More Day." As Augie De Blieck Jr. points out, Straczynski has been both a professional writer and an established internet presence for a very long time now, so it's safe to assume he was well aware his comments would make the rounds immediately. So, is it the overwhelmingly negative internet reaction to "One More Day" that made Straczynski, with all his experience in dealing with vocal fans on the internet, change his mind all of a sudden and air his grievances in public, after all? I really doubt it. 

Third, it's kind of interesting to see how even an otherwise perfectly levelheaded industry observer like Paul O'Brien deems it necessary to acknowledge that Straczynski's message may be just another Marvel publicity stunt and a piece of misdirection. Such, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the legacy of Bill Jemas.

Finally, a few thoughts on the story itself, which involves Mephisto, who's probably as close to the Biblical idea of the devil as you're going to get in the Marvel Universe, offering Spider-Man to save his Aunt May's life in return for his marriage with Mary Jane. Right. Spider-Man? "Mephisto"? "Deal with the devil"? Smell any red herrings yet? Come on, folks. I know Marvel have a rather crappy track record when it comes to handling their flagship character, I but surely nobody honestly believes that Peter Parker's really going to take Mephisto up on his offer.

(If I had to guess, I'd say that the twist is Mary Jane accepting the deal behind Peter's back and taking a big bite out of that apple. Which probably won't go over well with the new "fangirl" front... but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Defense Reaction

So it turns out I was right back in September, when I speculated that idiosyncratic comics writer Joe Casey was working on a revamp of Marvel's old Defenders property. The book, which will debut in March, is a six-issue limited series titled The Last Defenders. It's being edited by Steven Wacker and set in the present-day Marvel Universe.

In a brief Newsarama interview, Casey acknowledges the concept's inherent major flaw: that, unlike with most long-running Marvel books - remember, The Defenders ran for more than 150 issues back in the 1970s and 1980s - there is no concept, basically. So when he says he's confident that he's found a way to make the Defenders work, I'm curious what it is.

Casey also makes the following, rather pointed statement:

I don't think anyone will be able to predict where this series is going (and consider that an open invitation for readers to try... that's where the fun is). It feels new to me, and I'd like to think I'm a decent barometer for this stuff. Not a lot of stuff has felt new lately, a feeling that I see vibrating through the readership.

Coming from most creators, a comment like this would seem slightly preposterous. But looking at Casey's œuvre to date, it's easy to believe him.

Also recommended, while we're at it:

Joe Casey and artist Derec Donovan's revamp of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood, published as an ongoing monthly series by Image Comics starting in January 2008.