Friday, June 16, 2006

You Ain't Never Had A Friend Like Me.

One of my favorite, and one of the strangest, reactions to this whole Spider-Outing thing is the one where fans get all paranoid about the idea that this is just taking the long way around to fixing Joe Quesada’s infamous “Second Genie” at Marvel, Spider-Man’s marriage. For those who have somehow, luckily, managed to escape this whole discussion, it goes something like this: Joe Quesada, editor in chief at Marvel, had long spoken about two Genies at the company that he wanted to “put back in the bottle”, without ever explaining what they were. After last summer’s House Of M mini-series ended with the illusion of cutting down on the number of mutant characters within the Marvel Universe (while doing the opposite to the number of mutant books, launching four spin-off mini-series and one one-shot special), Quesada announced that the high number of mutant characters – as opposed, again, to the high number of mutant books – was the first of his Genies, and one that had been successfully rebottled. The second, he went onto explain, was the fact that Spider-Man was married.

That’s around the part that I get lost.

I don’t get the hostility towards the idea that Spider-Man is married. Quesada isn’t the first one to have such a problem with it, either; part of the impetus behind the Clone Saga in the ‘90s was to have a Spider-Man that was swingingly single again without the mess of killing or divorcing Peter Parker, after all, so it’s fair to say that there have been Powers That Be trying to undo the wedding for the last decade or so, and the character’s not even been married for 20 years yet (It was, I think, 1987 when he got married; I remember my sister, of all people, being the one who picked up the Annual where it happened. She was in the middle of one of her periods of reading comics, although she was more fascinated by the fake forced Americana of books like Archie and Betty and Veronica than superheroes at the time. We were Scottish, you see, and there was something reassuringly exotic about those books to us). The common complaint – certainly the one that message board posters the internet over are using as their main talking point now that they think that they should be upset about this – is that it somehow breaks the character, and destroys his status as a young guy whose secret identity is all about bad luck and things going wrong.

These people either have never been married, or have impossibly good lives.

Marriage, at least in my first- and secondhand experience, does not solve every problem in your life. Yes, it solves the romantic problems (well, unless your romantic problem is “I must sleep with everyone in existance, how do I do that?” in which case marriage may not have the best option for you), but really, that’s about it. It’s still up to you and your spouse to deal with money worries, job worries, family pressures, and everything else that life throws at you. If Joe Quesada is really of the opinion that being married somehow frees Peter Parker from all of his problems, then the solution is much, much simpler than trying to work out how to get rid of Mary Jane without pissing off the fans too much: Just get better writers. Oh, okay, for those who moan, “But Mary Jane is a rich supermodel-slash-actress, she takes Peter out of the street-level world he’s supposed to be in, and fixes all their money problems,” then the solution is this: Just get better writers. Make Mary Jane’s celebrity star fall somewhat and show how she deals with that, and you create problems for the couple that don’t resolve around soap opera “Do they love each other? They’re fighting!” antics, but the more realistic – and more relatable for the majority of Spider-Man readers these days – problems of how a young couple manage to make ends meet in tough situations without tearing their own, or each other’s, hair out.

(The idea that being married makes Spider-Man old is much weirder to me – Do only old people get married? Maybe I’ve missed something here, because I’ve known people who have been married since their early twenties, and considering Peter Parker’s out of school and, you know, has jobs and stuff, doesn’t that mean he’s probably in his early twenties, at least?)

What’s amusing about this latest rash of people who are upset about the Spider-Marriage is that, well, where were they the last time it was “dealt with”? Mary Jane was killed, after all, a few years ago, and I seem to remember the fan reaction was much more along the lines of “She’s not really dead, is she? Get them back together!” than “Well, it was contrived but thank God we’ve finally put that problem to rest. Wow, that Spider-Marriage idea sucked.”

Anyway, now we have a Spider-Man who’s just revealed his identity to the world, and I’m wondering if Joe Quesada has some kind of psychological condition that blinds him to all of the Genies that get created under his own watch. I won’t go into a massive rant about why I think that the idea of a Spider-Man who has no secret identity kind of misses the point of the concept that Peter Parker represented an everyman who was shat upon in his normal life but found the ability to deal with this and be more true to himself in his second identity, because it removes the “everyman” and “second identity” parts of the character altogether, because – hey – you’ve probably heard that a lot this week. But nonetheless, this is only the latest in a long line of moves that Marvel have made while Joe Quesada has been in control that have taken Spider-Man further and further away from the traditional concept. Consider the following:

It was no longer an accident that a radioactive spider bit Peter Parker; Parker was fated to receive his powers from a magical Spider Totem source thingy.

Uncle Ben came back from the dead to tell Peter that he should not feel guilty over his death. For that matter, Aunt May had already told Peter that she was the one responsible, because it was her fault that he was wherever he was when he was killed.

Peter Parker is no longer living paycheck to paycheck, nor is he a photographer for the Daily Bugle. He’s now working for the Marvel Universe equivalent of Bill Gates. If Bill Gates fought crime, which for all we know, he actually does.

Spider-Man is no longer a public outcast, having been asked by the cool super-heroes to join their gang, and in fact, he and his family have moved into the cool super-hero clubhouse.

By this point, the Spider-Man world is lousy with Genies, if the concern is that people have strayed too far away from what the character was originally about – he’s literally been stripped of almost all the bad luck (and for that matter, responsibility; Gwen’s death had nothing to do with the fact that she was Peter Parker’s girlfriend anymore, because now we’ve been told via retcon that the Green Goblin was mad because he slept with her and then ran away to France to have his kids. So, those two deaths that defined the character? Neither of them are his fault anymore, apparently. “With great power comes great… eh, who cares?” Interesting to note, though, that if you go with Aunt May’s confession that she is responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, then both deaths are now the fault of the women in Peter Parker’s life) that was the character’s schtick. No longer was he the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time; now, he’s the guy who was magically chosen to be a super-hero, and who happens to be surrounded by people who make bad choices.

Fans fear that Peter Parker revealing his identity is going to result in a story where his wife gets killed by someone looking to piss off Spider-Man. I wouldn’t put it past the creators to go for that easy move, just as I fully expect the “shock revelation that makes comic history” to be swept away within a couple of years just like Superman’s death. Nothing’s really permanent in comics, after all. They’re all just Genies, waiting to be rebottled, and if you wait long enough, everything gets reset to the way it was when it first started.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Airport Angst, or Infinite Sadness revisited.

So I’m sitting in San Francisco International Airport, reading Scott Pilgrim and The Infinite Sadness, realizing that Scott Pilgrim in general and this book in particular is a romance book disguised by video game references and influences from all over the place and promising myself that I’ll try and cut down on the “Scott Pilgrim is the cool comic version of Harry Potter, soon fans will be turning out to stores on the days when the books are launched trying to dress up like Wallace and Stephen Stills” thoughts that go on in my mind every time I think of the series, and more than anything, I think about being in an airport in Aberdeen, in the north of Scotland, eight years ago.

I was waiting for my then-girlfriend to come back from three months in Germany, where she’d been studying abroad. I was reading a Kurt Vonnegut book, although I don’t really remember which one because this was in the middle of my last big Vonnegut kick when I’d just devour novel after novel after novel of his – I’d read “Breakfast of Champions” around this time, and found myself almost throwing it across the room in despair a few times before his epiphany towards the end of the book, and once I reached that point, wondering if the whole thing had been written around that epiphany and was all some kind of strange literary hoax – but I remember that it was entirely the wrong book to be reading for that moment. It was full of “big ideas”, and my mind was already churning with all of the big thoughts that come to get you when it’s been months since you’ve seen your girlfriend and she’s been in Germany and giving increasingly distant telephone calls.

(In San Francisco Airport, I’m waiting for my dad. He’s visiting from Scotland for a couple of months, as he tends to do in the summer, and despite the lack of brain-churning big questions, I’m reading Scott Pilgrim at this point partially because I’d wanted something that I thought was going to be light and enjoyable, and not likely to fill me with any kind of existential dread about the nature of my plight as a human being on this essentially pain-filled planet.)

When I was waiting for my girlfriend to come through the doors, watching monitors that announced that her plane had already landed and that the people on said plane were in customs, I was the same age as Scott Pilgrim in the latest book, which is kind of strange to think about. Mostly, admittedly, because my life wasn’t as full of bands and robot arms and extra lives as his; nonetheless, that isn’t why I’m remembering all of this at this point. When my girlfriend appeared, she was very obviously wanting to tell me something – She was withdrawn, she was quiet, and by the time we’d gone back to her apartment and put all of her luggage down, she was breaking up with me.

This is the point where you can all feel sorry for me.

It wasn’t anything resembling a clean break-up, or even a particularly healthy one; there are some times in your life when you have to make mistake after mistake after mistake just because, well, you’re dumb and it’s the time in your life when you’re supposed to be dumb and fuck up a lot, and this was definitely that time for me. I’m not going to tell you why she broke up with me, apart from to say that those three months in Germany definitely didn’t help matters (Not that this means that I have anything against long distance relationships, I hasten to add, all readers who happen to be in long distance relationships right now. My wife Kate and I were in a very long distance relationship – across continents! – and everything worked out fine. It’s just that this wasn’t a particularly good example of a long distance relationship). There’s a scene pretty early on in the Scott Pilgrim book that I was reading where we flash back to Scott just after he’s been dumped by his girlfriend, and he’s lying on the ground, stunned, melodramatically saying “Oh God… I’m so alone…” That was me, back then. In a metaphorical sense, at least. The only differences were that I just had much worse hair, and far too much post-break-up-sex-with-my-ex.

The “Infinite Sadness” that the title of the new Scott Pilgrim book refers to, I guess, is the perpetual reliving of Scott’s break-up with Envy, and the effects that it still has on him, years later. It’d been in the series all along, played somewhat for comic effect – Scott’s lying on the ground, unable to speak after Envy called him in the second book, for example – but this third book moves it to the forefront, giving us flashbacks to Scott and Envy getting together in the first place and the slow dissolution of their relationship, as well as the aftermath that it’s had on everyone involved. That it manages to do this without losing the playful feeling of the last two books is pretty impressive, and as much as I had reservations about other parts of the book (the telegraphing of the Deus Ex Machina ending and other self-referential comments throughout were funny, but also felt as if Bryan O’Malley wasn’t confident about what he was writing…), it made me completely convinced that I was definitely going to pick up the next book in the series to see what would happen.

Like I said, I’d picked up the book as something light and ultimately non-emotionally resonant to read while killing time. But sitting in the airport, remembering what it felt like to be just like Scott, dumped and depressed, I’m thinking that I guess Scott Pilgrim was a better book than I’d been giving it credit for.

I’m also thinking that Scott’s lucky that Envy didn’t go to Germany. Odd things happen to girlfriends in Germany, it seems.

Friday, May 19, 2006

All the News that's fit to print. And then some.

With people talking about the upcoming relaunch of Wizard Magazine’s website, and what that means to the comics internet, I find myself free-associating about comics news online. It’s something that I couldn’t help myself from doing, unfortunately.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Wizard Magazine and all of its sister publications like ToyFare and FrankChoBoobHeaven all have one promotional website, wizarduniverse.com. Currently, that site isn’t used for much more than advertising the current issue of each magazine by previewing articles, images, and then having a similar sentence to “For the full story, pick up the latest issue of Wizard!” somewhere towards the end of the text. All that is due to change at the end of the month, apparently, as WizardUniverse gets a revamp that is rumored to turn the site into a more content-heavy portal, including a lot of web-exclusive content. Another of the rumors about this upgrade is that a lot of the contracted exclusivity that Wizard has with the big companies - where they get to break the big stories for Marvel and DC or else – will crossover onto the site, which will make it the official “place to go” for anyone looking to hear the latest superhero mainstream news first.

I’m in multiple minds about all of this. On the one hand, this feels as if it’s something that Wizard should have done years ago, literally; with Comic Book Resources celebrating its ten year anniversary this year, surely the people in charge of Wizard must’ve been aware of the audience that was online looking for this kind of thing, and it’s not as if they didn’t already have a website… Why did it take them so long to come up with a more coherent web strategy, and why did it come a few years after everyone was so obsessed with content being the holy grail of the internet?

(I’m sure there are a million and one sarcastic responses to that question, but I’m going to stay away from that for now…)

What I’m becoming more and more focused on, however, is what any of this actually means. If Wizard does do what they’re expected to do, is it really going to have the effect that certain people seem to be thinking it will? Is Gareb Shamus Superboy Prime, pulling Newsarama’s Oa away from the center of the comics internet universe to cause some kind of Infinite Crisis where Wizard will rule supreme? Is that the most geeky sentence I have ever written, even with my tongue in my cheek? And if Newsarama is Oa, does that mean that Matt Brady is a blue midget with unthinkable powers, or a super-sexy Hal Jordan-type who looks good in tights?

Okay, I’ll stop now.

But my point, such as I have one, is that the received wisdom on the Wizard upgrade is that, purely because of the deal it has with DC and Marvel that allows it to break certain news stories about new titles and creative teams and “events”, any website that they run such content on before it’s released in print form will eclipse the existing news sites like Newsarama, The Pulse, or CBR… I’m just not so convinced that that will be the case.

The idea of online comics journalism is, to be honest, not the strongest one in the world. The Comics Journal ran a multiple-part story in their print magazine about this last year, before somewhat snootily concluding that there was no such thing, because no-one matched up to their (admittedly, fairly random-seeming) standards. One of the complaints seemed to be that online news sources were less concerned with breaking news stories themselves than they were with linking to already broken stories or running interviews or press releases. And, while there’s a certain truth to that, I always felt that something that TCJ ignored was that… Well, there just aren’t that many genuine news stories in the world of comics, if you ignore things like new creative teams and/or new titles (Things that generally get released in press releases, and nonetheless, are not even really news, as such. Does anyone really see something like “Ethan Van Sciver to be artist on Superman/Batman” and think that it’s a massive news story?).

If I were to think back over the last few months and try to remember real, honest-to-goodness news stories from the world of comics, I can only think of a handful: The Danish cartoons controversy, the Gordon Lee case, Speakeasy crashing in spectacular fashion, the perilous success of the New York Comic-Con, distributor Red Route closing, and the Taki Soma / Charles Brownstein incident and fall-out. Accepting that my memory isn’t the finest thing in the world, that’s still probably all of the major stories, and that takes in, what, the last four or five months or so?

(Of course, mentioning the Soma/Brownstein thing reminds me of the Newsarama poster who commented, grumpily, that that wasn’t comic news and shouldn’t be reported, because it didn’t have anything to do with a specific comic book. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and yadda yadda yadda.)

Two things about the above news stories seem obvious to me. Firstly, there are so few that it shows why the existing news sites run all of the press releases and interviews and other things that TCJ criticized them for; because, otherwise, there would be nothing new on the site for incredibly long periods of time (Constantly updating content being something that a periodical print magazine like the Journal doesn’t have to concern itself with, allowing them to have the high ground, of a sort, in that regard). And secondly, none of those stories had anything to do with anything that Wizard magazine has under an embargo.

If/When Wizard relaunches its website, things will probably change for a lot of online fans – They’ll have an additional site to go to for certain news stories (That one particular Newsarama fan will probably be very happy). But when some genuine news story happens, however rare that may be, the Wizard site will be on exactly the same level as everyone else, if not a lower one due to the lack of experience and faith from readers that they’ll be able to cover real stories appropriately.

In other words, this is probably just another example of the only truism in comics being Stan Lee’s; that it’s not about change, just the illusion of change.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Which Side are you... Oh, never mind.

This whole Taki Soma/Charles Brownstein thing almost has me wishing that I was doing Fanboy Rampage again, I have to admit. Not because I want to comment on the actual allegations themselves, because those are something that I want to stay far away from because, you know, it’s none of my business and it’s already so much of a mess, but all of the online activity surrounding it has been fascinating to watch, from the purposefully irresponsible tone of the original column by Ronee Garcia Bourgeois (Never mind the inflammatory coyness about the accused that led to Jim McLaughlin having to make a public declaration of innocence, it’s things like this that stand out for me: “I understand that this is quite the sensitive topic and that this all has to be handled with kid gloves and we need to be careful and blah blah blah… I am personally going to make sure this stays in the public eye. I just want this organization and the man behind all of this to be warned. This WILL come out and I am gunning for him.”) to the reactions to reporting on Newsarama, to the reactions to those reactions… It’s like the comics internet’s very own Civil War, and Nitro’s just blown up a bus full of kids!

This latest batch of self-righteousness wars is the result, as everyone knows, of the naming of Charles Brownstein and the emergence of various points where Bourgeois and Soma’s version of events seem to be contradicted. Matt Brady’s coverage and analysis of the story at Newsarama offered the chance for both sides to sort through the contradictory information calmly and rationally:

“This man needs to be immediatly FIRED and possibly castrated. Theres no way in hell I believe him at all. If it takes TWO PEOPLE to remove a man (Ken and Soma) then theres no way it was a bad prank or a feignt. I hope she sues this putz and bankrupts him.”

“All of the new information either supports Brownstein's version, cuts down Ms. Bourgeois, or questions whether the FOL should be involved in these sorts of matters. It just didn't feel balanced.”

“[A disclaimer at the end of the article admitting Brady’s friendship with Brownstein] doesn't change the slant of the article, in the way that it really does paint Taki as a ‘lying whore.’"

Of course, with Brownstein’s identity made public, Matt Brady wasn’t the only one with a connection to Brownstein offering commentary. Image’s Jim Valentino and Marvel’s Joe Quesada were amongst creators offering something resembling solidarity to Brownstein and pointing to the larger issue. Valentino:

“I have known Charles Brownstein since he was sixteen years old. In over a decade’s worth of conversation on nearly every subject imaginable (including women), I know that he is neither mauler nor rapist, nor sexual predator. While the incident in Ohio was unfortunate and unacceptable (and, yes, I royally reamed my friend for it) it was, upon close scrutiny, a drunken indiscretion. Does this excuse it? No. Should this have happened? Absolutely not. But, did it warrant the furor created in its wake by an irresponsible, unethical and inconsequential blogger? Again, no. Many innocent individuals and both involved parties had their reputations hurt as a result of its poorly written, poorly researched over-emotional tone.”

Quesada:

“What we have here is a situation in which two people are being directly hurt and going through more stress than any humans need to go though, all due to a modern day witch-hunt that would have the good ol’ folks from Salem Mass. gleefully admiring us today. Seems nothing has changed… However, what is truly shameful is how this went from being an incident that was strictly between two people and now has been tried in the court of public opinion by ill informed bloggers and posters way to eager to burn someone at the stake! Sometimes I wonder if we should have to apply for licenses to be able to type on the Internet.”

That larger point, however, was somewhat lost on Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, the editor of the original columns at Buzzscope that brought the issue to light:

“I'll be addressing the situation on Buzzscope (PopCultureShock) later this week, as soon as my own investigation is completed […] As some have alleged, Buzzscope (PopCultureShock) bears no ill will towards Brownstein or any of his well-intentioned, level-headed supporters. While Ronée has definitely been extremely passionate in her coverage of this story, to the point of inadvertently causing a few innocent bystanders to have fingers pointed in their direction (for which I, on behalf of PCS, apologized directly to the one party I'm aware of who contacted us about it), she has been no more or less irresponsible than the average TV or newspaper pundit with an op-ed platform. Debate the quality of her writing until you're blue in the face, but don't let the message get lost because you don't like the messenger or how they delivered it. Unlike the TCJ article and, presumably, this one, her coverage was never represented as news and those who say there's no difference are either being naive or disingenuous. Mostly the latter, in my opinion.”

Heidi MacDonald picked up on the interesting first sentence from the above quote:

“Well, it's nice that five months after Buzzscope has perhaps irrevocably harmed three people's careers, jeopardized a marriage, and shaken all three of comics' biggest non-profit organizations, they are finally investigating. Thoughtful, even. They really cross those T's and dot those I's… Folks, I think it's time to cut Buzzscope loose. I really do. They're in the cornfield. If Gonzalez had an insight into actual journalistic ethics, he wouldn't be going around making these jaw dropping statements that are digging him deeper and deeper into the hole he seemingly can't see through his smug-colored glasses of sophisticated higher purpose. And the saddest thing of all? The person most hurt by all of this is the person they were purportedly trying to help.”

Again, Guy misses the point and jumps to a fascinating conclusion:

“When the wagons start circling, they don't waste any time in firing up the Howitzer, do they? Heidi MacDonald, a highly respected blogger who's known Charles Brownstein since he was 15 years old, has now set her sights on Buzzscope and me… Good thing I've never really been interested in breaking into the industry because it certainly sounds to me like the beginning of a blackballing, yes?”

Follow the above link for Mark Waid’s response to Guy’s last line, which is well worth reading. It should be pointed out that Guy’s been playing the “This was never a news story, so it doesn’t matter about Ronee’s wild accusations” card for awhile, now (“…While Ronée was definitely sloppy with her original column -- and I think that distinction needs to be made repeatedly, that she is a columnist, not a journalist and has at no point filed a "news" article about this story…”), along with the “We alone are brave and standing up alone against a tide of apathy and evil” card every now (“You think the guy who did this isn't sweating out his precarious situation a little more with each blogger he sees talking about this, especially influential ones with influential audiences, like Spurgeon, MacDonald and Riggs? You think he's not relieved a bit by posts like Riggs' that shakes its head in shame while effectively saying she won't be doing anything about it? Or Spurgeon, who didn't even deign it worthy of a specific mention? Or several other bloggers who jumped on the story in the beginning but have so far remained silent since Taki stepped forward.”) and again (“I also want to see the spineless men in the industry who stood on the sidelines when this story first came out -- the ones who knew about this guy and his reputation, and stayed silent because, for them, it wasn't that big a deal, or there was more to lose than gain -- I want to see them stand up now and publicly declare their support for Taki and for the Fund, and to let HIM know that he dodged a bullet this time, but that from here on out he's being watched, and the next time he disrespects a woman in any manner, he can kiss his career goodbye.”).

What comes from all of this for me is, I think, something close to Joe Quesada’s comment about needing a license to post on the internet. It’s not just that various fans aren’t able to process events outside of “Civil War rocks Infinite Crisis sucks oh my God”, it’s that the simplistic fan binary mentality of “Which side are you on” being a valid question instead of just an advertising slogan feeds into almost every part of internet conversation, from sites reporting serious events on down. It feels like a turning point, something that might even force the comics internet to grow up a little. Who knows?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

My baby's got a secret (Lilys' version, not Madonna).

One of the stranger things about becoming involved in “the industry,” even to such a small extent that I am – somewhere off on the edge of wherever the real industry professionals live, where they can look out with their jewel-encrusted binoculars at people like me, and watch as we dance as they throw us scraps of news or spoilers like Comics’ Own Dian Fossey – is that you hear things. Not voices, because that hasn’t happened for years, and I’ve never seen dead people no matter what anyone says, but little tidbits. Gossip. Rumors. Secrets.

Knowledge is power, of course, especially in a fandom like this, where people like Rich Johnston and whoever’s doing All The Rage this week are treated like celebrities not because of what they’ve done, but because of what they’ve heard from someone who knows someone who used to intern at Marvel. I’m not necessarily putting down that kind of behavior because, God knows, I’m as bad as most of them if not worse, but still… There’s this unusual emphasis put on secrecy and insider knowledge and “I know something you don’t know” in comic fandom that just seems to be taken as a given, these days, and it’s something that you suddenly become aware of when you know something that other people don’t.

First of all, when you realize that other people don’t know what you know – which isn’t always obvious, because sometimes you find out these things in such an offhand way that you only realize that most people didn’t know when it suddenly becomes public knowledge and causes uproar weeks later – then it’s not unusual to suddenly become overwhelmed by the incredible urge to go and tell lots of people just to show off. It becomes a potential status symbol, whatever this pearl of wisdom is, and there’s no use in having a potential status symbol that no-one else knows about. What kind of status does that give you? What use is that?

(There is a comic creator who is infamous for telling people secrets of upcoming big event comics, including his own. He sends emails to friends with art and scripts and plots even though he knows that he shouldn’t, because his publisher wouldn’t want him to let everything out of the bag, but still. It’s like he’s compelled to do it, to show how in the know he is. Those people who receive the emails with art and scripts and plots that they shouldn’t have but do send them to their friends, or at least send out more emails, hinting at what they know and what they’ve been told, and their friends get those emails and want to know more and feel jealous that they’re not as cool as their friends because they don’t know this comic creator and don’t get emails like that all the time. I mean, I’m jealous of those people because I don’t get emails like that all the time, and I don’t even really like the comic creator I’m talking about.)

(And there, I’m doing it already. Hinting at what I know, this rumor about the comic creator that I’m not mentioning on purpose because I don’t want everyone to know what I know. Well, that and the fact that I don’t think said comic creator would like the attention if I mentioned his name, and that doesn’t seem like a good way to suddenly appear on his radar… But I digress.)

The worst thing is having the greatest gossip and not being able to share it for whatever reason – Normally, in my case, because it wouldn’t be great for the person who shared it with me in the first place. Whenever that happens, I always read the rumor columns for weeks afterwards, waiting for the story to appear, for someone to spill, just so that I can say “Well, I knew that ages ago…” with a tone of practiced boredom. Before I started doing Fanboy Rampage!!!, back when I was entirely out of any kind of loop, I had this idea that Rich Johnston was somewhat psychically attuned to each and every piece of interesting gossip that had any comic-related interest at all. In my head, no matter what happened and where, he’d magically know about it and put it in a column for me to get my fill of semi-celebrity juice. Imagine my disappointment, years later and with my little pure heart twisted into something cynical and black, to go through Lying In The Gutters every week and fail to find the stories that I thought everyone knew about creators having bar fights with editors, or Machiavellian moves from creators trying to swindle and talk each other out of work. In cases like those, I always like to presume that Rich still knows about all those stories and more, and doesn’t share them to protect the innocent. Or his mates. It’s small lies like that that help me get up in the morning and make it through the day.

The sad thing about the secrets of the comic industry is that the ones that are genuinely secret are pretty dull, in the grand scheme of things. They’re the ones that rely on your fannish nature to be of any value at all, because otherwise you wouldn’t care about what happens at the end of Civil War or who the creative team on Action Comics is going to be. The truly amazing rumors and gossip don’t really count as secrets anymore, because they’re so good that everyone already knows them: which comic creator likes to engage in hand-to-anal activities with prostitutes dressed as his own characters, for example, or the so-infamous-they’re-almost-back-to-boring-again IM chats of certain other creators. They’re the truly successful rumors, the ones that don’t require a knowledge of certain comics continuity or backstory to understand, but in an industry and community as small as comics, they’re also the ones that just can’t be kept secret for too long because there just aren’t enough people or lines of communication for something like that to go around without it covering everyone sooner rather than later. It’s depressing and comforting, at the same time. I mean, it shows that, despite any and all divisiveness that you see online or hear about in hushed tones at cons, people all want to hear the same old shit. But at the same time, it also shows that I can’t lord it over anyone by telling them about underage hookers and men with beards who wrote the comics they grew up reading.

Life is so unfair sometimes.

And all of the above is what I do on the day when I find out something that I’d really like to share, but can’t, because it wouldn’t be great for the person who shared it with me in the first place. Well, I had to do something to keep myself busy.

True Believers

So, Ian Brill and I are talking about DC Nation, the new version of the promo page at the back of DC’s superhero books which is centered around a weekly column by Dan Didio where he tries to sound enthusiastic about everything that DC’s publishing and make people excited to buy a book called Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters which is, admittedly, no small fear, and Brill (who I shall refer to with his last name for the rest of this column, because his last name is Brill, and I’m jealous. Although if my last name was Brill, I’d be too tempted to add an exclamation point at the end for emphasis) makes a comment about Dan Didio being the new Stan Lee.

Now, please know that Ian Brill is a very intelligent man. He writes not only his own blog, but also for such publications as The Comics Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, which means that many people are not only aware of Brill’s intelligence but are willing to pay for the ability to use said intelligence for their own nefarious ends. Brill gets sent free comics by lots of publishers because they want to read what he has to say about them, because publishers also recognize his intelligence. I have very little doubt in my mind that one day Brill will be running some comic company of his own, having gone from critic and journalist to being co-opted by the publishing machine that he shall then carve out his own niche within, and that niche shall grow until he gets to be The Man, but a good The Man, who makes good comics that shall be loved by many, because Brill is a man of insight and taste as well as intelligence. But nonetheless, for Ian Brill to say that Dan Didio is the new Stan Lee, can only mean one thing.

Ian Brill is high.

(High on life, of course. I have no knowledge of his experience with jazz cigarettes or any other type of intoxicant, and really I have no desire to have any knowledge along those lines.)

It’s a strange thought that Stan Lee, of all people, needs some kind of critical re-evaluation. But these days, it’s as if what he’s become best known for is being the official Marvel shill and the man behind such catchphrases as “Excelsior!” “Nuff Said!” and “True Believer!”. Anything that ends in an exclamation point, in fact. When we see Dan Didio or Joe Quesada act like assholes for the sake of selling comics and getting people to talk about their company’s latest shock-horror stunt and grab for mainstream media attention, it gets defended as somehow being in the spirit of Stan Lee, as if that was the man’s greatest contribution to comics.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time, way before the internet and controversy and fanboys like me having any kind of public voice outside of trade magazines and fanzines, when Stan Lee was officially considered The Creator of Marvel Comics. People – fans and pros alike – had problems with that idea, of course, and made noise to bring attention to the enormous contribution that the artists had made to the whole shebang, what with the infamous “Marvel Method” of writing and all… But now it’s as if the pendulum has swung too far in that direction, and we’re losing sight of what Lee brought to everything in favor of giving Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita and others their due and then some.

Sure, Stan Lee was a salesman wherever possible, and a fan of hype that went so far overboard that it actually went over, under the entire ship and then back onboard again on the other side. Yes, he was given to hyperbolic statements at the drop of a hat, and liked to write in a somewhat hyperactive style not unlike a man who’d just discovered a thing called “alliteration”. But he’s also kind of one of the more important people in comics because of his creative work. His recollections of how everything came about may differ wildly depending on when he tells the story, but without him, there would be no Fantastic Four or no X-Men. No Spider-Man. No Marvel Comics at all, which I’m sure some would not really have a problem with, but still: You can’t imagine a world without Marvel Comics, never mind just a comic industry without them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Stan Lee was one of the greatest comic writers who’d ever walked the earth. I’m not even necessarily saying that Stan Lee was that good of a comic writer (although I like him, personally). I’m just saying that his comic writing is infinitely more important a contribution to comics than his work in the hype industry. Dan Didio can’t be the new Stan Lee; he’s just an editor. Joe Quesada’s claim may be somewhat stronger – He works for Marvel, after all, and he is a creator himself – but even so. He has worked, for the most part, on other people’s creations – with the exception of Painkiller Jane and Ash, I know, but he abandoned those for the possibility of playing with other people’s toys – and hasn’t shown the manic, desperate, creative drive that Lee had at his best. Both Didio and Quesada are great at what they do, yes. It’s just that what they do is something else.

If I had to make a claim for the new Stan Lee – and it’s my column, so why not? – then I admit that I’d have to choose Larry Young, of AiT/PlanetLar fame. He’s a creator and a salesman, with a love for both positions and – perhaps more importantly for this particular comparison – a reputation for both, as well. He’s someone who understands what it takes to effectively sell your own work to an audience that isn’t already eating out of your hand, which alone makes him different from the heads-of-comics-juggernauts mentioned above (and similar to Stan Lee, way back before he was “Stan Lee” with a trademark after the name), as well as someone who isn’t afraid of a little self-mythologizing along the way. Give it ten years, and he’ll be doing voiceovers for the Saturday morning cartoon version of Astronauts In Trouble and some younger comic pundit on whatever the internet of tomorrow is will be arguing that whatever Editor In Chief of the latest indie publisher is the new Larry Young.

They’ll be wrong, of course.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Don't bother showing or telling.

Say what you like about Infinite Crisis (and you will, I know. Don’t give me that look), but at least it was impossible to get bored with it ahead of time. Oh, sure, you could get bored of all the hype, and of all the Countdown to… miniseries that theoretically led into the series itself, but still, you couldn’t actually get bored of Infinite Crisis, because no-one knew what the book was actually about until the end of the second issue.

(There are, of course, numerous problems with keeping everything about the book so secret that even those who read the first issue of it still have no idea what the true plot of the series is going to be, not least of which the fact that people who read the first issue would be perfectly within their rights and common sense to read the first issue, put it down and think “Huh. So that made no sense. I don’t think I’ll both coming back for the second issue.” Retailers, too, were screwed by this way of doing business, in that they were ordering more or less blind when it came to gauging potential interest in the series. All they had to go on, and the readers of the first issue as well, for that matter, was the hype, which was more than slightly misleading. Yes, each of the lead-in storylines, from The OMAC Project to the JLA arc Crisis of Conscience tied in with the overall storyline in some respects, but none of them really went more than a small part towards showing the bigger picture. It wouldn’t be entirely off-base to consider each of those lead-ins as a series of misdirections and red herrings to stop people from guessing just what was going to happen in the actual Infinite Crisis book itself.)

(Now that I think about it, while it may have been impossible to get bored of Infinite Crisis before it debuted because no-one outside of DC actually knew what it was about, it was more than possible to get frustrated with it for being so coy and for giving out so many misdirections. Hmm.)

(Too many parentheses, do you think?)

By contrast, Marvel’s summer event book, Civil War – it’s not a crossover, as Marvel will repeatedly tell you, despite the three tie-in miniseries that accompany the run (Civil War: Frontline, X-Men: Civil War, and Runaways/Young Avengers ), or the two oneshots that tie-in (Civil War: Opening Shot, Civil War: Daily Bugle ), or even the tie-in issues of various regular books, including seven issue arcs in Amazing Spider-Man and Wolverine, and a five issue epilogue arc in New Avengers. Because all of those are tie-ins, and not crossovers, you understand? – is something that I am feeling really bored with already, and it’s not out until May. Because I already have seen preview pages from the first issue, last month. And I’ve already read several million interviews where the plot is explained, and the creators congratulate themselves on the real world parallels to the current political climate in America while explaining that such parallels can be ignored if you’re a Republican who doesn’t like to mix politics with your superheroin’. It’s gotten to the point where not only do I feel like there’s any point in reading the actual comic book, beyond a voyeuristic interest in the mechanics of the whole thing, because I know exactly what to expect, but that I feel as if the comic book came out a couple of months ago already.

I know, I know. This isn’t a new complaint; both Joe Quesada and Dan Didio are known for complaining that spoilers are ruining the comic book experience, and that it’s getting harder to surprise the fans these days and trades are killing comics and yadda yadda yadda. And, you know, it’s true, but still, that’s not what I mean. What I’m more concerned about is that the publicity that the publishers are putting out for the books is doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do; my apathy for Civil War isn’t based upon any spoilers from fans or rumor or gossip, but the very things released to get people excited about the damn thing.

I’d feel comforted if I thought it was just me. I have no problem being contrary, and I’m not uncomfortable feeling weird, as Elliott Smith once warbled. But looking on sites like Newsarama and Millarworld, a large part of a fanbase that would normally be going crazy for this kind of book are seemingly left cold by it, complaining that it’s yet another book in the mold of Avengers Disassembled, House of M, Infinite Crisis, Identity Crisis and whatever comes next in the effort of the Big Two to outdo each other and grab more market share. Meanwhile, DC’s current strategy of hyping up books by setting them up as mysteries – What is Infinite Crisis all about? What happens in all of the One Year Later books? – seems to be paying off, with Infinite Crisis maintaining its level of success even midway into an increasingly confused run.

Maybe that’s the next step: Media blackout marketing. As the market reacts negatively to seeing what’s coming up, the next big thing becomes telling people that something is important while also telling them that you can’t tell them why it’s important. Give people not the story of the issue, but the story of the tease, and see what happens next. It’s not a sure thing – Marvel tried it with X-Men: Deadly Genesis, but no-one apparently believed them, leading both writer Ed Brubaker and Joe Quesada to reveal more and more of the plot to try and convince people that it was a book with plot ramifications for other books in the future, but that perhaps speaks more to the credibility of Marvel hype than anything else – but if nothing else, it avoids the feeling of “Seen it already” that spells doom for a project that is still months away and is the cornerstone for the publishing plan for your company for the next few years.

Now, of course, watch as all those people who are claiming to be underwhelmed by Civil War rush out and buy both variant editions of the first issue, and it becomes the largest-selling book in comic history. Because, in some part of the back of your head, we all know that it’s going to happen.

The Wonder of Boilerplate Responses (or, Why did I bother?)

Date: Wed, 22 Feb 2006 12:53:00 -0800 (PST)
From: "Graeme McMillan"
Subject: Comics altruism, or what DC's website needs
To: Dan Didio

Hi. I'm Graeme McMillan, one
of the men who apparently can set the industry on fire, according to some random people on the internet
. I used to be one of those random people on the internet, doing a blog called Fanboy Rampage!!! that embodied everything that is bad about the comics internet without meaning to do so. If you ever read it or heard about it, I'm sorry. If not, forget I mentioned it. Anyway, presuming that (a) this email got to you, and (b) you're still reading, I'd like to introduce this random concept to you:

The DC Comics website needs a blog. A *good* blog.

Now, please understand: I'm not saying that I want to write this blog. And I'm not even saying that anyone I know should be writing this blog. But I have an idea of what this blog should be like, and I wanted to share it with you purely to GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD. Seriously, for no reason whatsoever, I've had a model of what kind of blog DC should have in my head since before Wondercon - when I would've grabbed you and babbled this out to you in person, but you were always either in panels or disappearing into shady corners with Greg Rucka - and I just want someone in DC to see it and shoot it down so that I know that it's not a good idea gone to waste because I never mentioned it to anyone.

Okay? Okay.

ONE BLOG LATER

(Or: How to do a DC Comics blog to replace Crisis Counselling with something more original content-heavy that may direct traffic to DC's site and/or DC's comics)

Imagine DC in Demand, but with a different conversational tone - less huckster, because people online don't react well to that, especially when the same information is available elsewhere, without the patronising "Hey! Ion is going to be the BOOK OF THE SUMMER!" schtick - and a different purpose. Part of the mission of the blog would be to spotlight upcoming books and offer exclusive preview art/covers/news - Imagine if the six new books spinning out of Infinite Crisis could've been at least teased on DC's site before the Newsarama story? - in the same way that DC in Demand does right now. But it's the other parts of the mission that would make the blog a site that people go to.

I don't know if any of you watch Grey's Anatomy on TV. Or, for that matter, Battlestar Galactica (If not, then you should; both of them are well done serial dramas, and occasionally feature people exploding). Something that both of those shows are good at doing is promoting themselves online through show blogs written by the show's writers. It's the Grey's Anatomy model that I think that a good DC blog should follow: http://www.greyswriters.com/

Each week, following the previous night's show, the writer of that episode goes online to write something about the decisions made by characters/plot/writers the previous evening. It can be something direct - talking about why a character had to die – or something abstract - why the writer doesn't like the choice a character made, but realized that it was integral to the story. It's a neat trick, something that makes the fans feel like they're getting something extra, while also letting the writers deflect criticism by answering it before it's been properly made. Imagine something like this for a book like 52 - each week, one of the creators writes about a particular story thread, or why they used a particular character, or whatever. It potentially increases the drive for fans to pick up the book, to know what the writers are talking about, but also continues the buzz for those who have already bought the book on Wednesday - "What will Mark Waid have to say about Booster Gold's death?!?" or whatever.

(Alternatively, imagine this for every single One Year Later book: Why a new Catwoman? Why Green Arrow in legal office? Why take Batman out of Gotham for a year again? Why new Birds of Prey, and how were they chosen? etc etc etc...)

The third thing that a DCU blog could offer is backmatter, to use the Warren Ellis term: The kind of thing that appeared at the back of the Villains United trade, where each and every character was identified. Or to give backgrounds of semi-forgotten characters such as those who're being said to populate 52. Or to link to positive reviews or DC books, or to answer questions that've been emailed in... The kind of things that letter columns used to do, way back when, in other words. Bonding with the readers, in a way.

The tone of writing I'm imagining for this theoretical blog would be humorous and somewhat snarky, but with a somewhat reverential tone to the source material. Imagine Dave Campbell – from http://daveslongbox.blogspot.com - writing, perhaps, or someone similar. Ideally it'd provide a personality that the DC site currently lacks, and that personality would be something approaching nerdy but lovable, and with teeth when needs be. Something intelligent, and non-insulting the online fanbase; less lowest-common-denomenator, if I could only spell that last word (As much as I love Alex Seguira, his Newsarama column is pitched too "Gee Whiz, COMICS!!!" for even the Newsarama audience, I think).

Like I said, the reason I'm sending this to you is because I'd like to read it, and because it seems like something that'd fit into the current DCU brand, such as it is. And, you know, to get it out my head... Whatever you do with this, is up to you. But if you read this far, then, hey. Thanks. I'm surprised you did, mind you...

Thanks,
Graeme


Date: Thu, 9 Mar 2006 08:37:05 -0800
From: XXXX XXXX
Subject: RE: Comics altruism, or what DC's website needs
To: fanboyrampage@yahoo.com

Dear Graeme,
Hi there, my name is XXXX XXXXX and I am Dan DiDio's assistant. Dan asked me to send you a note as he is busy. Thank you for taking the time to share your opinions about a blog with us. We have shared your email with the good folks in marketing and the online folks as well. We appreciate your dedication to DC Comics and we hope you enjoy what we have in store for 2006.

Best,
Jann Jones

Friday, February 17, 2006

Run Away. Run.

So there I was, standing in line last Saturday to get into Wondercon, and it seemed as if half of San Francisco was there with me. I was already trying to slink into the background and be invisible due to an accidental attempt to get into the Moscone Convention Center through a door on the wrong side of the building, which ended with multiple security guards running towards me as if I had a bomb in my hands: Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Go around the building and find the other door, they shouted, and I looked at them, embarrassed and wondered if I’d have to spend the entire day being looked at suspiciously as the person who’d tried to sneak in for free when there was a block and a half-worth of potential paying customers on the other side of the building all forming a good and orderly line instead.

There were other reasons for me to try and slink into the background, admittedly, most of which could be considered the other people in line. I’m not really talking about the people who went out of their way to dress up in some amazing and outlandish outfits, here, although there were more than a few of those, ranging from multiple Nightcrawlers (You could choose from the classic Dave Cockrum version to the movie version to the new outfit that he’s wearing today, if you wanted your pick of little blue elves with oddly-erect blue plastic tales) to manga characters that I couldn’t recognize but apparently followed some unspoken manga dress code that decided that any woman’s outfit must (a) be latex and (b) not contain enough skirt to appropriately cover her ass completely. In some interesting decision-making process from the organizers of Wondercon, it seemed as if almost all of the volunteers helping out at the event were dressed as Imperial Stormtroopers, from the various Star Wars movies. You could see them before you even got into the building: Overweight Biker Scouts marching up and down the line, checking to see that no-one’s getting unruly. Short stormtroopers chatting to each other, using headset intercoms just like the movies so that you heard the crackle before a flanged voice said things like, “Yeah, this costume makes it impossible for me to bend down or anythin’. I’m dying in here,” just to ruin the effect. At the front of the line, a Darth Vader stood, silently, his hand raised over those entering the building, like the nerd Pope giving everyone a blessing.

But it wasn’t really those people who were making me want to hide away from anyone I knew who might be passing and see me in line, as weird as it was to see someone dressed as Hal Jordan look angrily at someone dressed as John Stewart, as if he’d stolen his idea. It was other fans. Namely, the fans immediately behind me.

I have no problem with evesdropping, normally. I think that being nosy has a fine and distinguished history, and it’s one that I’ll proudly follow if I find myself with nothing else to do and surrounded by people who just happen to be talking too loudly anyway. I mean, come on. It’s as if they want you to listen to what they’re saying, right? The three people behind me when I was in the Wondercon line were no exception. Their voices were raised as if they’d decided that they were the lives and souls of the party, if by “party” you meant “unusually long line that we’ve all been waiting in for the last 30 minutes to get into the building,” as they passed comment on everyone around them. They weren’t being snarky as such, because that suggests that there was some kind of humor behind their comments; instead, the comments kind of bounced around the areas of “Look at him, he’s a fat geek dick” and “She’s hot.” Which was somewhat unexpected, as it became obvious that the threesome behind me consisted of two men, and the brand new girlfriend of one of the men. So brand new, in fact, that it sounded as if they were still at the second date period of their relationship, or thereabouts. Two other things also became very clear very quickly: The man was taking this woman to Wondercon to try and convince her how cool he was, and the woman had less than no interest in comics, comic culture or anything remotely geeky.

Their conversations went like this. The man on the “date” would point someone out in the line dressed up as some comic character, and explain to his date who that character was in way too much detail. The woman would feign interest (although her convincingness faded the longer he went on). The second man would make some cheap shot at the person dressed up, along the lines of either (a) having gotten the details of the costume wrong, (b) being physically unlike the character, or if all else failed, (c) saying that choosing that particular character was “gay”. The first man would then respond in kind, and there would follow some weird laughter that sounded not unlike pigs squealing during an asthma attack.

This kind of thing went on for, say, twenty minutes, before the woman made some kind of comment about how she didn’t know that her date was “so into comic books,” with the obvious implication that she was not impressed. The man grunted in surprise and then gave the following reply: “Baby, at least I’m not a fuckin’ geek like these guys. Look around you! I’m the best option you got here!”

Surprisingly, this did not send her running away from everyone in tears, sobbing as she realized how hopeless her situation was if that were true.

I stood there, listening to all of this, and fighting the urge to turn around and explain to the man that, despite what he may think, if you wait half an hour in a line surrounded by elves and people dressed up as clones from the Empire to get into a convention where they sell comic books, then, yes, you really are a fuckin’ geek. I also fought the urge to tell the woman that, really, her date for the day couldn’t be the best option she had, because I’m sure that that was statistically impossible given the number of people in line around her. Instead, I stood there silently, wondering why it’s the first urge of every comic nerd to make themselves feel better by putting everyone else down.

And then, my train of thought was interrupted by a man dressed as Captain America trying to shake my hand.

“Hi, I’m Captain America,” he boomed, “Ultimate Avengers! Premiering today!”

Fuckin’ geek.