Thursday, May 19, 2005

Why I should never be sent books to review

Here’s one of my problems with Firestorm #14, the first issue of a quiet relaunch of the book that sees one-time Vertigo and Marvel editor Stuart Moore take over the writing chores. The start of the book has Firestorm saving the day, which is always a good start for a book called Firestorm. In this short – 5 pages - sequence, there’s a relatively familiar set-up (Something that gets mirrored throughout the book, but I’ll come to that later) where a science experiment has gotten out of control, and Firestorm solves everything just in the nick of time. Huzzah! The only problem is, I’m not entirely sure what actually happens. I know that it involved transmuting magnets into ice and then blowing up a roof by using the flames on the top of his head like a cannon. But beyond that? Kind of vague.

Now, maybe I’m just being very old-fashioned and all, but isn’t it a good idea for readers to, you know, actually understand what’s going on? I’m not dumb, and I have the IQ tests to prove it, but if I didn’t have the anal memory for comics that I do have I would’ve been completely lost by this sequence. I mean, what are Firestorm’s powers supposed to be nowadays? I guess he can still do the transmutation of matter thing and all, but beyond that, it’s never actually explained in the issue itself (Even the transmutation thing isn’t actually explained, just mentioned in one line, in an offhand manner). Sure, we get an explanatory little blurb at the start of the issue (“Jason Rusch is an ordinary teenager - - except for in times of danger. Then his body glows with the power of an atomic furnace, and he wields the primal forces of the universe as… FIRESTORM” – As an aside, I saw a similar blurb in the previews of the new Green Lantern title as well. I wonder if this is a new line-wide thing for DC’s books, much like the way that the old Marvel Comics used to have potted histories of the characters’ origins at the start of each issue?) and Rusch himself offers hints in his narration – “Just a quick transmutation…” and “Given enough time, and practice - - I could do almost anything” being the main ones – but none of that really actually explains anything, you know? For all I know, that whole “the top of his head suddenly explodes like a cannon” thing is his main super power these days.

Thankfully, after that awkward opening sequence, things come down to earth and a more understandable story. If I was really Mr. Cranky Pants, I would complain that things come too down to earth, as after only five pages, the fantastical elements of the book disappear almost entirely until the last two pages of the book. Now, I understand that everyone and their dog wants their superheroes to be believable and have human faults and all, but I can’t believe that I’m the only one out here who’d like to see more, well, more superheroic stuff every now and again just to remind me that I’m not reading One Tree Hill: The Comic Book. Of course, I’d only say any of that if I was Mr. Cranky Pants which, of course, I’m not. So never mind. Moving on.

The main problem with Moore’s first issue of Firestorm is that it feels as if it doesn’t know who it’s talking to. In many ways, it feels like the first issue of a book – in fact, the last two-thirds of the issue is almost entirely devoted to setting up the new status quo and introducing new characters, doing so at such speed that it kind of feels a bit like the Expositionary Twilight Zone – but it doesn’t work for new readers because it continues to play off of unexplained references that only old-school geeks would get – Not only the lack of explanation as to what Firestorm can do, but also who “Ronnie” (Raymond, the original Firestorm, who guest-starred in the previous three issues of the series just after being killed off in Identity Crisis) is, and why it’s funny that STAR Labs would have a Detroit office in a strip mall.

Those Easter Egg injokes are wasted on old fans, though, because a lot of what Moore does in this issue will be overfamiliar to them: The stereotypical – although I’m sure that Moore’s going to play with that – new characters in Jason’s new apartment building, the shadowy villain who appears at the end of the issue to give such dialogue as “I can help you… harness your newfound power. But you have to accept something, first… Your old life is over.” Even Jason himself seems to be very familiar, a somewhat bland teenage superhero coming to terms with his new powers at the same time as coming to terms with what it means to be “a man”.

Despite all of the above, I didn’t really dislike the book; actually, just the opposite. The familiarity of it almost seemed nostalgic, and it feels like there’s a lot of potential in the new status quo that Moore’s building (Jason’s internship is at an office of STAR Labs, which used to be the default scientific think tank in DC’s comics, that’s being closed down soon because the jobs are being outsourced to India, giving the characters there a justifiably cranky dynamic that isn’t often seen in mainstream comics). The artwork, by Jamal Igle and Rob Stull, is clear and dynamic and seems to avoid the genericized faces that too many superhero artists fill their books with these days (David Finch, I’m looking at you). If Moore gets the chance to find his feet and decide who he’s writing the book for – not always a definite thing in this market, especially for a book like that that’s already being relaunched just after a year of its initial launch – then it has the potential to turn into something unusual and worth paying attention to. Right now, it’s an example of where the main character is at in his life: Unsure whether to try something new or just fall back into the easy old familiar patterns.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me.

So I was reading Nick Hornby’s (very enjoyable) book The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of his columns for The Believer where he writes about whatever he’s read that particular month, and I figured that it was an idea that I could easily rip off for this here column. Just read whatever I happened to read for a week or so, and then write about it in an offhand manner here. What could be easier?

The problem came when I didn’t read any comics at all this week.

It’s very rare that that happens – I wouldn’t call myself a complete comicaholic (although my wife probably would, before going on to complain that I have too many comics and that I should get rid of some of them), but I read a lot in general and comics are, more likely than not, part of that mix. In fact, it happens so infrequently that I can actually remember the last time that I didn’t read comics for this long: A trip to Maui with my wife and her family for New Year 2004, where it rained so hard and so long that I would have sold many of Kate’s family off if it had meant that we could either have gone home early or been given something to read, comic or not. Perhaps it comes from being away from home, and therefore the comforts of home, and therefore the comics that are amongst those comforts, or perhaps it’s that when I’m away from home that I generally find myself full of too many things to do that I don’t have time to read comics, but trips around the place seem to be when my comics habit gets broken for the longest times.

(There is, perhaps, something to be said for some weird cultural shame that I have regarding comics that I don’t pack any to take with me, although I do pack “real” books. Mind you, that could also just be the practical side of me, as a comic that would take as long to read as your average novel is usually physically much larger and heavier, and less attractive a prospect to fit into your carry-on luggage.)

Nonetheless, this past week I found myself in San Diego – well, Coronado, but who’s counting – at a conference for work, and at a loss for comics. So that whole sub-Nick Hornby thing just didn’t really happen. It’s not that I didn’t read anything this past week, just the opposite. Besides the promotional bumph that came from the conference itself and all other work-related things, I also managed to burn through the end of the Hornby book, two Sarah Vowell books (Take The Canolli and Assassination Vacation, both of which are highly recommended, although I should admit right now that I may be biased, having somewhat of a geek crush on Ms. Vowell) and the start of Paula Kamen’s book about a decade-long headache, All In The Head. Oh, and the latest issues of Entertainment Weekly and Time. Looking at that list of a week’s reading, I suddenly start to wonder if my comic reading is retarding my potential for more serious literary pursuits; if I can manage two and two-halves (which, theoretically should make three, I know, but the Hornby book is very short, and the Kamen book very long. They feel too mismatched to put together for some reason) books in the same week as a conference that starts at 7:30 in the morning and goes on until 7-ish each night, before special evening activities that focus on things like “team building” and cold pizza, then shouldn’t I be reading more books than I normally do every week? Is the time and energy spent on something like, I don’t know, Gotham Central, time that could be put to better use reading the latest Alan Lightman book? Are comics ruining some intellectual life that I wasn’t really aware of in the first place?

Wait, that last one’s probably pretty easy.

There are extenuating circumstances for this past week, of course. Travelling, in general, allows you more time than you normally have to read, as it’s not time you can spend doing much else. Especially when you have a return trip like mine, wherein my original flight got cancelled, so I was redirected through Phoenix, Arizona, only for the connecting flight from Phoenix to be delayed for three hours from its original time, meaning that it took me about nine hours to fly from San Diego to San Francisco; nine hours where the only thing I could do was read or wonder if exhaustion was the only reason why McDonalds all of a sudden seemed like a good idea (This was only the last of a long run of screw-ups from the trip; we arrived in Coronado on the Saturday afternoon to find that the hotel no longer had any record of our reservation, and checking into another hotel the next day, found that the corporate credit card was not allowed for payment there despite phone calls to the contrary, for example). Not only that, but being away from home even for work, allows you freedom from the practical everyday things that have to be done, like cleaning out the cat litter, cooking or washing dishes. So what little free time you have can be spent unwinding, and reading about presidential assassinations from the past.

But still: I read no comics this week, and I didn’t even realize until maybe Thursday evening. By that point, I was so heavily into the Paula Kamen book to be that bothered; as good as Sleeper is, I wanted to know whether Kamen would eventually find some form of treatment to make her headache go away. The strange thing was this, though: Even though I wasn’t reading comics, as soon as I was back from the trip I was reading the comics news sites and the comics messageboards again. At first, I decided that this was all because of Fanboy Rampage, which required such reading daily so that I’d know what to pull out of context and make fun of for the entertainment of others, but eventually I had to admit to myself that even without the blog, I’d probably be reading the same sites for the same amount of time. I just wouldn’t have the soapbox to vent my frustration at things like Marvel’s “this will break the internet in half” hype for House of M (because, what, that’s meant to be a good thing? I’m not even surprised, but it’s still depressing to see a solicit for a book that shamelessly screams “We’re doing this PURELY TO PISS PEOPLE OFF! Buy it or not know what everyone else is complaining about!”).

This is what intellectually retards me, I think. It’s not the comics themselves, but the need to keep up with what’s going on behind the curtain and see what fights and gossip and everything is going on. If I could wean myself off of Mark Millar’s latest faux-shock statements and the stir they create, I’d probably have the time and energy to write a book or two, never mind read some more.

It’s just that it wouldn’t be as much fun.