Wednesday, March 21, 2007

So, it's come to this...

I guess all that talk about "fanservice" isn't bunk. I guess the blogohedron really does have an effect on the output of the major comic companies. It's really the only possible explanation for the latest round of Marvel Solicitations, where they reveal that they're now making comics specifically for Chris Sims. The emphasis below is mine.

All she's missing is a car battery and a mohawk.IMMORTAL IRON FIST #7
Written by ED BRUBAKER & MATT FRACTION
Pencils and Cover by TRAVEL FOREMAN
Her name was Wu Ao-Shi, and she was known as the Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay...and that all came after she left K'un-Lun and took the power of the Iron Fist with her. Kicking her way out of the pages of THE IMMORTAL IRON FIST #2, this stand-alone issue tells the story of Wu Ao-Shi, from the moment she became the first woman to touch the heart of Shou-Lao the Undying, to her mysterious, controversial and epic ending. At long last, America: someone has combined pirates, kicking, girls, and Iron Fist into a single comic book. You're welcome.
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$2.99
Right down to the 'you're welcome' at the end. Congratulations, Mr. Sims.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"Could it be possible? This last son of Krypton has not yet heard anything of this, that Rao is dead!"

Does this make Wagner Lex Luthor?Or, Süperman, as written by Friedrich Nietzsche, responding to Erin's challenge. I think it could be better (and less obviously pulled from the first part of Thus Spake Zarathustra), but I'm not as familiar with Nietzsche's style as I'd like to be, and, honestly, it's just too good a comparison to pass up.

When Kal-El was eighteen years old he left his home and the farm of his home and went into the Arctic. Here, he enjoyed his father's spirit and his Solitude, and for five years did not tire of it. But at last he took up a costume, and his family's crest came over his heart, and one morning he rose into the sky, floated before the yellow sun, and spoke to it thus:
"You, great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine?
"So it is with me. For five years, I have trained in my Fortress. I would have tired of my solitude and my training had it not been for the people of Earth and the eagle and the banner of my homeland.
"And I waited for you every six-month-long morning, took my superpowers from you, and thanked you for it.
"Behold, I am weary of my training, like a balloonie that has inflated itself with too much Kryptonian air; I need to open myself up and release it.
"I would give away and distribute my power, until the fearful among humans find solace once again in their safety, and the weak in their defense.
"For that, I must descend to the streets, to live as they do and still bring hope and power to their lives, overrich as I am with strength and abilities.
"Like you, I must be a light for them, a beacon of truth and justice who shines while above them. And when I go down to walk with man, I must shine as you do by reflection, my example leading them even once I have descended.
"So bless me then, you yellow torch, that can shine upon an all-too-great hope without envy!
"Bless the battery that wants to be overcharged, that the power may flow from it golden and scarlet and azure and carry everywhere the reflection of your gift of life.
"Behold, this battery wants to discharge itself, and Kal-El wants to become man again."

Thus Clark Kent began to go under.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Inactivity

I'm sorry I've been so lax with posting. I mean, last week was my Spring Break, and I really should have had time to get more up than Thor's greatest hits. But the bulk of the break was spent sleeping, babysitting, and playing with my family's new cat, Spot (sorta-but-not-entirely named after Data's pet. This one's a boy, though). A recent death in the family and major increases in my workload for school have further eaten into my time.

And yet, I managed to crank out some of my best writing ever (in my opinion) on those Civil War posts, so you may want to check those out if you haven't already.

I haven't forgotten about the increasingly-late Black Comics Month posts, and I'll have at least one more up before the week is out. It's not the best, that's for damn sure, but it'll make me feel a little better about the project. I have something of a maxiseries waiting in my "to be read" box for one of the later posts, and I'm hoping to get that done pretty quickly.

If Marvel's desire with "Civil War" and Cap's 'death' was to make me long for better times at the company, then it worked. Within the next couple of weeks, the first volume of Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the first Essential trades of Captain America and the Avengers will all be coming to my mailbox.

I've had "Footloose" on the brain recently. My brother was in my old high school's production of the musical version this past weekend (which, incidentally, was a lot easier to watch than the film, despite having the usual problems with high school acting and singing abilities), and I've listened to the movie soundtrack a couple of times since then. I'm thinking about starting up a feature called "Holding Out for a Hero," but I have no idea what the content would be.

That's it for now. We return you to your regularly scheduled lack of programming.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Meme-ry! All alone in the moonlight!

Finally, some content, courtesy of Dave Campbell.

Thor gets relevant, though maybe a little confused
No, I'm Spartacus!

Does Thor love musicals, or is he a fan of Gwen Stefani?
Riiiii-colaaaa!

Here, the god of thunder pays tribute to the greatest band of all time.
Be excellent to each other.

Warning! The following image contains an abnormally high amount of metal. If you are pregnant, nursing, or have a history of heart problems, please consult a doctor before viewing this image.
Blond Nordic god? Check. Screaming? Check. Ronnie James Dio? Check. Okay, someone bring in the giant demon and the naked chicks!

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Spoil Sport

What's a surprise?Let me just say that I love this cover trend. The "spoil the big surprise that happens on the inside" trend, I mean. It's not common, but this issue of Manhunter and the issue of 52 that revealed Supernova's identity really hit it hard.

Retailers are complaining, and rightly so, about Marvel's treatment of them with the whole Captain America #25 fiasco. If retailers had known in advance (say, around solicitation time) that the issue would be the subject of a media blitz, would contain the death of an American icon, and would contain what many are calling the "real ending" of Civil War, they would have ordered far more copies of the book than they did. As of now, everyone is sold out, and the speculator market which has driven the price of copies on eBay over a hundred dollars will have all but disappeared in two weeks' time when the reorders arrive. Marvel apparently "had no choice" but to keep retailers in the dark, and some are rightly calling shenanigans.

The last time there was anything near this level of media coverage for a comic book event was with the Death of Superman (with little blips at Superman's wedding and the start of Civil War, and a somewhat bigger blip with Superman's power change). Retailers knew well in advance not only that Superman was going to die, but which issue would contain the death. When I heard about it, my dad took me down to whatever the local comic shop in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was in 1992, and we got put on a waiting list for Superman #75. As far as I'm aware, there were plenty of copies to go around (which didn't stop them from skyrocketing in value, for awhile), and there was still a huge amount of media attention on the event.

What would Marvel have lost if they'd told retailers "in this issue--Captain America falls"? It doesn't spoil the ending of "Civil War" (Cap could die in victory or defeat). It doesn't tell you anything about how he dies. It only tells you "hey, order more of this issue."

Well, that's a lie, or at least an oversimplification. I know that if I'd seen that in the solicits three months ago, I would have thrown up my hands then and said "that's it, no more Marvel, this is bull$%*!" as I more or less did yesterday. And I'm sure I wouldn't have been alone in that regard. But that's just a further consequence of this problem of the neverending event. Whether we discovered this yesterday or three months ago, it would have felt just as tedious and unnecessary. They've made themselves so dependent on The Event, that last-page twist, that it takes precedence even over the people buying comics, even over the need to attract more buyers, even over the goodwill of the retailers who distribute the product.

And that is what I so love about this cover-spoiler trend: it takes the focus, and thus, the pressure, off of that last-page reveal, that cliffhanger, that twist, that Event. But when you remove the immediacy and urgency from the Event, when you take that twist away, what are you left with? What fills the void?

Well, my friends, the same thing that caused me and countless others to head to their comic stores and purchase Superman #75. The same thing which led people yesterday to seek out a star-spangled superhero when they've not picked up a funnybook in years. The same thing which should take precedence in any and every comic: the story. I may know that Superman is going to be dead by the last page; what I want to know is how he got that way. The fun part of the Supernova mystery isn't the reveal, it's the months of speculation and deduction and guessing and second-guessing that led to it. The important part of Blue Beetle's return isn't that he's alive again, but how he got that way and whether or not it really actually truly is him. The important part of the Event is the story leading up to it. When the ending, the twist, the last-page reveal is the important part, it's the sign of an otherwise hollow, empty story. It's why M. Night Shyamalan films are so flimsy, why Marvel's output has been so creatively thin; yes, there's something to be said for the surprise, but The Empire Strikes Back is a good movie whether or not you know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. The destination's nice, but what's really important, as any fortune cookie or kung-fu sensei will tell you, is the journey.

There are two things to really admire about the cover-spoiler, then. The first is the sheer ballsiness of it: it says "yeah, there's a shock here. We could milk that, but we feel so confident about the story that we don't care about the shock value." It drips confidence. And the second is that it recognizes the harsh-yet-optimistic truth of comic book fandom: we all already know how it's going to end. When you pick up an issue from Marvel or DC, of some hero who's been around forever, you know that they're not going to die from falling off that cliff, you know they're not going to really leave their costumes in the garbage can, you know that the villain, laughing triumphantly on the last page, is going to get his comeuppance. Because deep in our hearts, we know the basic truths about shared-universe superheroics (one-shot stuff like Watchmen or Elseworlds can play with this a bit):

  1. The good guys always win.
  2. The bad guys always get away...eventually.
  3. Dead never means dead (except when it does).
  4. No matter what, the status quo is always restored (more or less).
And so on. We know when we buy Superman #75 that there's going to be a #76. And despite Joe Quesada's protesting too much, we know when we see Steve Rogers take three bullets to the gut that he's going to get better. The cover-spoiler recognizes that basic fact of superhero comics: we've seen it all before, and whether or not we acknowledge it, we know how it's going to end, in nearly all cases. Putting Blue Beetle or Booster Gold on the cover is the author's way of making a silent, understood deal with the reader. "Here, I know that you know how it ends," says the cover. "But come along for the ride. We'll have a blast." There is some truth to that dismissive "once you've read one superhero comic, you've read them all," but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The writers open up the toybox and say "here are the toys and here are the rules, and we're going to put them back in the box when we're done, but in the meantime we're going to have some fun."

This isn't to say that there's no innovation in superhero comics, nor is it to say that there shouldn't be. But to deny that we're working with a fairly well-defined set of conventions is ludicrous. Different superhero comics may look to uphold or defy or subvert or twist those conventions, but all are influenced by them, all must recognize them, in some fashion. Half the fun of reading superhero comics is seeing how they'll play with the conventions, how they'll twist things around and surprise you.

And the other half? It's seeing bullets bounce off of Wonder Woman's bracelets. It's seeing Batman descend, cape extended, from the shadows. It's seeing Wolverine say "I'm the best there is at what I do, bub." It's seeing Captain America bounce his shield off the heads of half a dozen Hydra soldiers. It's seeing Superman save the day. It's seeing exactly what you expect to see, exactly what you buy superhero comics to see, it's seeing the moments that make you want to tie a towel around your shoulders and wear Underoos. It's when all your critical faculties suspend and all your maturity experiences antigravity, and for a moment, you might believe that you can fly.

And those are the Events that really matter.

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More On Marvel (Pun Intended)

In the last post, I compared the death of Captain America to the Death of Superman storyline, but such a comparison bugs me, and I think I know why. See, since the start of Civil War, and perhaps before, the Marvel Universe has been characterized by two themes (besides what I talked about earlier):

  • Telling, not showing (and not telling what's showing)
  • Disconnected event syndrome
There's a bit in Marvel Team-Up #12, where the villain Titannus is telling his origin. It is one of the most brilliant uses of the comic medium I have ever seen (I think Kirkman used it in an issue of Invincible as well, to the same awesome effect, but I can't recall which one). We get Titannus's story in captions, but the panel images are a standard flashback, and we see that the images directly contradict Titannus's story. Kirkman and artist Paco Medina turn the classic flashback convention on its head by telling two complete, different, and necessary stories at the same time. It's really something to behold; the sort of technique you'd expect Scott McCloud to write about.
Well, that's kind of what Marvel's been doing these days, especially throughout Civil War. They say that neither side is the "right" side, but they show fascist Tony Stark manipulating his friends, overseeing the development of a secret prison, creating a cyborg murderclone of his Asgardian buddy, and releasing a team of murderers and psychopaths, under the command of an evil genius, to capture his friends. They say that Cap has lost sight of what's right, that his team is losing the argument, that the damage they're causing is weakening his point, but they show Cap's team winning every facet of the argument and battle until Cap wimps out at the sight of a couple of broken buildings. They say Speedball's transition to Penance was a natural consequence of his guilt over Stamford, but they show him consistently denying culpability until he suddenly decides to go emo and cut himself. They say that Cap's out of touch with America's values, but they show him being badgered by a cynical woman who thinks that MySpace and Nascar and new royalty and "scheming your way to the top" are more in line with America than ideals and freedom (I'd say that the whole Frontline issue is a commentary on the state of today's media--that they're more opinion than news, that reporters don't know how to ask questions, just to belligerently yell opinions, that the media has no backbone and kowtows to the whims of the government and the very rich, but I'm not sure I can give editorially-mandated Jenkins that much credit. Normal Jenkins sure, but mandated-Jenkins?)

And now they say Cap's dead...

There's a dissonance here, even without considering all the continuity gaffes and bad editing and all. The editors and the comics are telling different stories, the comics and the comics are telling different stories. Nothing seems to fit.

And nothing is clear just from the story. The characters have to tell us their motivations. How many times over the course of the crossover did we hear how many children died in Stamford? How many times did Tony tell Mrs. Sharpe that they were doing all this because of her? How many times did we hear that the New Warriors were to blame? Why did they have to keep telling us those things? Because we wouldn't have gotten those facts from the story itself. If you read Civil War #1, and if you have any knowledge whatsoever of who the New Warriors are, then you don't see the destruction as their fault. You see it as Nitro's fault. If they hadn't told you, would you know? If they hadn't kept reminding you of the Stamford Massacre, would you have even remembered it after the first issue? Or would you have remembered all the times Galactus and the Skrulls and the bloody damn Hulk have rampaged through New York City, and wondered what all the fuss is about? The only reason the readers see Stamford as an important part of the story is because characters keep saying "this is important." The only reason we understand why Robbie becomes Penance is because he tells us (and his tailor), certainly not because the story demonstrated it. The only reason we know why Cap surrenders is because he tells us, not because we got several panels or issues of Cap contemplating the rightness of his cause, seeing the destruction around him, and facing a genuine moral quandary. No, in this story, the only change is through epiphany (and the only epiphany is through violence). The only reason we see that Cap is out of touch with America is because Sally whatsername tells us. He isn't out of touch with the fans who have been rooting for him, and he certainly isn't out of touch with the foundational ideals of the superhero medium, the ones that every comic fan subscribes to in some fashion or another. Marvel's violating the cardinal rule of storytelling: show, don't tell.

And the resulting product is something like that Kirkman/Medina collaboration, only without the planning, without the brilliance. We have editors contradicting stories, characters contradicting stories, and everything contradicting 60 years of continuity. And the only reason we understand any of it is through repetition and direct statements of "this is important, this is significant, this is totally in-character."

As far as Disconnected event syndrome goes, the idea should be plain. "Civil War" as a story has very, very little substance to it. There are gigantic plot holes, virtually no consistent characterization, painfully obvious 'allegory,' and...well, and everything else that comic fans have been complaining about for the last year. What has made CW memorable, important, significant, whatever, are the individual shocks: the New Warriors die! Spider-Man unmasks! Thor is back! Thor's a clone! There's a new Suicide Squad Thunderbolts, working for the government! The heroes storm the prison! Cap surrenders! Aunt May gets shot! Cap dies! Hulk comes back! Oh, wait, not so much that last one, but we'll get to that. This isn't a plot, it's a series of events, and the only story to speak of is simply there to get from one event to another. There is no flow, no natural progression; nothing seems to follow. Actions and reactions are disconnected from the stories, then justified after the fact. Why did Spider-Man unmask? Why did the Pro-Reg side clone Thor? Why did Cap surrender? You don't get any of the reasons until after the events happen, and then you generally don't get them unless you read the supplementary material (comics AND interviews). It's event-driven storytelling in the purest sense.

And isn't that just a perfect description of all Marvel output for the last several years? The only story we get is the barest minimum necessary to get from one big event to another, from Disassembled to The Other to House of M to Planet Hulk and Annihilation and Civil War to Back in Black and Initiative and Fallen Son/Soldier to World War Hulk and Annihilation 2 and so on. What's the last Marvel comic you read that wasn't tied into a crossover? There are a handful of regular books which live off in their own little corner of the universe, but even Iron Fist commented on the War, even Runaways had to deal with the Act.

I'd like to say that this issue of Captain America was different, that it transcended the "Wait, Event, Rinse, Repeat" cycle of Marvel stories for the last umpteen years, and to a degree it did. Let it never be said that Brubaker doesn't know what he's doing. I read the issue after my first comments on it, and I see in it the germs of a fantastic story. If I weren't so disgusted with Marvel right now, if this weren't coming in the middle of an endless crossover, if this weren't pouring boiling oil on a would that's already been salted and soaked in lemon juice, I'd totally be buying this storyline. See, like I said, I compared this event to the Death of Superman from fourteen (fourteen!) years ago, and taken alone, it compares favorably. The Death of Superman had a longer lead-up, but then again, it needed one. Superman went down in a fight, and the only fight that's going to actually take him out is one that rages through eight issues and decimates the Justice League first. With the death of Superman, the death was the end of that story (and the set-up for another). With the death of Captain America, it seems that the kill is really just the beginning. There are all sorts of neat angles to explore--how did Sharon get brainwashed? Is the Red Skull really behind it all? How will Cap survive? (because he will survive. The man survived at least twenty and probably more like fifty years encased in a block of ice, he survived repeated beat-downs at the hands of a man in a mechanical supersuit, he's not going to be done in by a handful of bullets)--and I fully expect Brubaker to explore them all. I'm glad he already covered the "Nick Fury was going to use the Winter Soldier to spring Cap from prison" theory that floated around my last post. I'm still not totally convinced that Nick Fury isn't behind this, though I doubt that the Red Skull has a whole lot to do with it. But the codeword--"Doctor Faustus"--suggests a scientist or scholar or genius, and someone has sold his or her soul to the devil. Now, while I still suspect that Mrs. Sharpe is really Mephisto, and that the big major massive crossover after World War Hulk is going to be Hell on Earth ("Holy War"? "Unholy War"?), I don't think Tony Stark knows that. Even so, it's not inconceivable that he would identify with Faustus, that he's done terrible things to get to where he's at now, and that he needs Steve by his side to act as a moral compass. Which brings us right back to Steve-as-Tony's-patsy. But there's another scientist who, in light of recent correspondence and conversation, might feel as if he's sold his soul to the devil: Reed Richards. Add theory number six, which could easily dovetail into Steve-as-Ronin or Steve-and-Fury or any number of other stories.
You see how much story could come out of that? This is exciting. This should be Marvel's Death and Return of Superman, the story of the decade, the media event that the world remembers enough to suggest that comics are "still reeling from" it fourteen years later.

But that's not what this feels like. This feels like another drop in the bucket, another punch to the gut, another dark cloud in the hurricane that is the Marvel Universe. Through this endless series of big events, this neverending crossover, Marvel has overshadowed what could have been the biggest story of this first decade of the new millennium. The Death of Superman occurred in relative isolation; you didn't need to know what was going on in Wonder Woman or Batman to understand the story. It was years before I got the Justice League tie-in (and in fact, the first six issues of the battle), but I managed to understand it, and the majority of the following storylines. And the Death of Captain America could occur in just such isolation, especially depending on what overarching theory they go with. I didn't need to know much about Civil War to understand Cap #25. It could be a little better with the recap, but all the background for this story is in the first two Brubaker trades. Read those, and the only thing you won't know is why Steve's in jail.

But instead of letting the story continue in Cap's book and maybe a choice few others (after all, Superman had four titles at the time), they're milking it for everything they can. A miniseries, a one-shot, etc., etc., and it never ends. I have no doubt that Brubaker could spin a fantastic yarn about this, and in the end there would be some semblance of status quo restoration. But this is storytelling by editorial fiat, like every other major story Marvel has published since they decided it was a good idea for Wanda Maximoff to go a little bit loco. And in the context of Civil War and everything before and after, this doesn't look like a neat little Brubaker story with media recognition, this looks like Joe Quesada pissing on everything that came before he graced the House of Ideas with his glorious presence.

There's a real tragedy here. It's not that Captain America has died, because we all know that his death will be as permanent as a soap bubble. It's not that we comic fans have grown so jaded, so cynical, that the death of a major comic character doesn't faze us, that we know he'll be back and bright and chipper within the span of a few months. It's that this terrible excuse for "storytelling," which could be improved by leaps and bounds with even the most cursory editorial work (real, honest editorial work, where you correct mistakes and keep track of continuity and make sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, not this insane, inane showmanship and bombast and media fellatio that seems to have become the job of Marvel's editors) has persisted for so long. It's that solid story arcs have been replaced with a cheap necklace of colorful glass events, tied together with transparent, flimsy plastic string. It's that this story, the death of an American icon, the death of a symbol, with all the weight that carries, with all the potential for allegory and depth and conspiracy and suspense, with all the possibility of becoming one of "the great stories," that ill-defined canon of comic book works, feels tedious, and will only feel moreso as Quimby tries to squeeze every last drop of blood from this adamantium shield.

The tragedy is that in trying to make superhero comics exciting and cool, Quimby has sacrificed Marvel's soul, the ideals and values that make superhero comics worth reading. In return, they get an overdose of excitement until even genuine mystery and suspense feel cheap and boring. They get MySpace and Nascar and Guiding Light and press coverage and movie deals. And, like Marlowe's Faustus, the fruits of this bargain are empty, hollow shells. Quesada can continue on, sporting himself, playing pranks on the Pope and wooing his soulless Helen, but eventually the fans will tire of the game, the burn-out will settle in (if it hasn't already), and Mephastophilis will return to collect his payment. And what will Mr. Quesada have to show for all his events? What will Editor-in-Chief Faustus have to take the place of Marvel's soul?

I'll burn my books--ah, Mephastophilis!
--Doctor Faustus, 13:113.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

April 23?!

April 23!April 23?!

Damn it.

Well, looks like I have some extra time for the next few Mondays. Hopefully I'll be able to pick this up again. Sorry for all the delays.

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