Tuesday, June 28, 2005

All things considered, Joanna Lumley was better.

What it was about New Avengers that kept me coming back, month after month, after finishing each issue and thinking to myself, “Well, that wasn’t very good” and thinking that maybe I should spend my money on something that I actually enjoyed instead, wasn’t anything about the book itself. Instead, it was the strange want of completion and giving the series a fair hearing that led me to own all the issues published to date. And with the (delayed) release last week of the sixth issue, the conclusion of the first story arc, “Breakout!”, I have to tell you all something: New Avengers? Not very good.

The problem, in a way, is that it’s not actually bad. If it was bad, the way that, say, the same creative team’s “Avengers Disassembled” was bad, then it would be much easier to drop it and not give it any further thought. But, despite the sloppy artwork, uncomfortable dialogue and unusual pacing of “Breakout!”, New Avengers still somehow represents a large step forward from last summer’s awkward “Yes, nothing may make sense and everyone may be acting out of character, but that’s the point, don’t you see?” self-conscious event (A trick repeated by Bendis for this year’s “House of M”, interestingly enough – If nothing else, it’s an interesting way around the claim that you don’t write characters in the same way that their fans expect them to be written). And that, maybe, was another reason that I (and other fans, judging by the online reaction that I’ve seen) stuck with the book for so long; I kept convincing myself that it was going to get better.

Saleswise, of course, there’s no reason for anyone at Marvel to think that there’s that much room for improvement. The title has been a best seller since its launch, helped no doubt by the fact that every single issue so far – and for the next four issues as well, for that matter – has had a variant cover for the completists and Marvel Zombies amongst us, and one of the most talked about Marvel books of the year. To Marvel, the book is a smash hit success, and in a way, it’s hard to argue with that. It achieves its aim, definitely, which seems to be purely to sell very well; certainly, there’s nothing within the content of the series that suggests that the all-star line-up of Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Wolverine have any reason to team up to fight crime, making it seem all the more obvious that the book’s core cast were decided as cynical sales grab as much as anything else.

The odd line-up of the team is addressed, in strange fashion, in an exchange between Captain America and Iron Man in the sixth issue. Explaining his invitation to Wolverine to join the team, Iron Man says “Cap, you said this team came together by… fate. Your word. Just like the original Avengers… Right? Yes. Well, the original Avengers didn’t truly come together… until that one last ingredient came into the mix. We needed one last ingredient. And then when we found youYou were that one thing. But for this situation, in this world… He is you. He is our missing ingredient.” Now, ignoring the odd… Odd? Yes. Odd speech pattern that Iron Man seems to have developed – truly, Bendis’s dialogue stylizations have devolved into self-parody by this point, something painfully obvious in both Captain America and Jarvis’s dialogue in the series, as both characters were two of the few Marvel characters to have recognizable voices, as broad brushed as they may have been – what’s striking about Iron Man’s speech is that it doesn’t make sense in the context of the story. Captain America was the missing ingredient in the original Avengers because he was the one that stopped the other characters’ in-fighting, took the leadership role, and dedicated himself to the team when the others wouldn’t. Wolverine, by contrast, hasn’t done anything with the new team other than fight with them. In reality, all that they have in common is that both were sales boosters who appeared in each series’ fourth issue. But that’s enough, right? Or, rather, “that’s enough… Right? Yes.”

Storywise, New Avengers feels oddly stilted, trying to rush the story at points while still feeling decompressed at others. Plots are introduced and then abandoned – perhaps, one feels, looking at the Spider-Man: Breakout mini-series already in progress, for the purpose of spinning them off into new books for the faithful to faithfully spend their dollars on – or resolved in ways that border on the goofy, which jars with the tone of the rest of the book (A jail full of supervillains all turn stool pigeon when bribed with donuts, for example). The main thrust of the book, which only really appears at the end of the first story arc, has a flimsy and fairly obvious political bent. Someone in SHIELD – which, we’re reminded more than once, is “a world-order, peacekeeping task force” just like the UN - is involved in shady dealings, illegally stockpiling banned weapon materials as well as supposedly dead supervillains for reasons yet to be explained. The new Avengers are the only ones who know this, and vow to get to the bottom of this conspiracy as the 90s return in full effect: Trust No-One! The Truth Is Out There!

Of course, perhaps this nostalgia in the story is inspired by artist David Finch’s work on the book, which reaches back to the halcyon days of Image and brings back all the wrong things: The paper cut faces? Check. The bad anatomy (Check out the cover to the fourth issue)? That’s there, too. And – maybe most distressingly – the entirely inconsistent look of the central characters returns, as well. One of the more amusing by-products of Finch’s lack of attention to detail comes from wondering where Luke Cage’s goatee disappears to in certain scenes (It’s clearly gone at the start of the third issue, despite it having been evident at the cliffhanger at the end of the second. Luckily, though, it returns in the second half of that issue. In the fourth issue, it appears on the second and third panels of one page, but is gone by the fifth panel). When your attention starts to wander, you can spend some imagination in that direction and make your version of the book infinitely more entertaining. For those who may complain that a goatee beard is a small thing to keep consistant and should be overlooked, there’s also that scene in the third issue where Captain America isn’t wearing a mask for the first and third pages of a conversation, but is for the second. Maybe his cheeks got cold suddenly. And then he felt too warm again. Suddenly.

There’s something in the art mistakes like that that speaks to the quality of the book. Like I said, it’s not bad, it’s just… not very good. It feels as if it needs an editor (which is unusual, as Tom Brevoort, whose name runs on the front page of every issue is normally as much of a stamp of quality as Marvel has) to curb the flat dialogue and the heroes’ facial hair problems. It feels as if it’s a book that’s been rushed out to meet a sales projection, without that much care, and that translates into a book that is hard to care about.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Crossing Over, with John Edwards.

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to stand up and be counted for what they believe in. History, I think you’ll find, is littered with such times, albeit ones much more honorable and important than this particular time, and the cause of such stands were also more important and less personally embarrassing than mine. But nonetheless, I feel like I have something terrible that I should admit to all of you.

I believe in The Crossover.

No, I’ve not gone all Left Behind on you; I’m talking about the massive superhero crossover, the type of which we’re apparently seeing a revival of with series like House of M and the soon-to-be-released Infinite Crisis. I know, I know. It’s the latest in-thing to hate crossovers and think that they’re responsible for the death of the industry, the artform and also the little baby Jesus. I get that, really I do, and I don’t even really disagree that much with the logic behind that argument – Certainly, the crossover format does nothing to combat the inbred nature of mainstream comics and the strength not just of the superhero genre, but also the Big Two publishers. Definitely, there’s a case for saying that Crossovers Are Bad.

But.

But I love crossovers, at least in theory. I can’t help it; I always have, ever since my first one: Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars, way back in, what, 1984? 1985? Something like that. I loved the whole corny meeting of the heroes scenes, and the way that the characters talked to each other by always mentioning each others’ names in bold type. I loved the fact that my favorite characters all teamed up to fight some ridiculous menace, and along the way there were all these new characters for you to try and keep up with as well (I found some of my favorite characters in crossovers; it was in DC’s Legends series that I was introduced to Darkseid and the whole Jack Kirby’s Fourth World cast for the first time, years before I was really aware of who Kirby was and what he had done). When they’re done well, crossovers feel like taking the whole superhero thing as far as you can – The stakes were always higher, the villains always more (seemingly) invincible, the odds always more against the heroes. When the inevitable triumph over adversity happened, it seemed greater, because the fate of the world – if not all of existence – was in the balance.

My favorite crossover – and this is purely from nostalgia, as opposed to any critical eye, I should explain – is DC’s Millennium, from the end of the 1980s. It was the first weekly crossover book, and also one of the first books that relied heavily on the various issues of whatever series happened to crossover with it that week, both of which seem like Beginnings of the End looking back on it now, but at the time, I didn’t care. I was completely hooked by the story, by the concept that – gasp, shock horror – each DC hero had a friend who was secretly a villain in disguise all along, by the idea that nothing will ever be the same again (In my defense, I was thirteen years old at the time).

These days, of course, the idea that “nothing will ever be the same again” is meaningless in mainstream superhero comics; anyone who’s been paying attention for long enough knows that there’s always a revamp around the corner from a creator who promises to take the character back to their roots. If you stick around long enough, everything will be the same again, eventually. But it’s still a threat that gets wheeled out today, with a slightly different meaning than before.

A large part of this new meaning comes from superhero comics’ adolescent self-consciousness, the need to pretend that they mean something more than they really do. It’s not good enough to just have lots of heroes team up to fight a giant bad guy threatening the nature of reality anymore; there’s no “emotional resonance” to that story, and in this day and age of Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore, stories have to have their emotional resonance. That’s why today’s crossovers are centered around tearing down superheroes to not just our level, but somewhere lower: Identity Crisis saw the Justice League of the past lobotomize villains because they were scared of what might happen otherwise, needlessly “explaining” why Silver Age villains didn’t want to kill and rape everyone. The many Countdown to Identity Crisis series then build from that retcon, slowly unveiling a plot set in motion by a paranoid Batman who’d rather spy on his friends than talk to them. Avengers Disassembled saw the Scarlet Witch suddenly insane over a long-resolved-and-forgotten plot and, in her insanity, kill her teammates; apparently she’d been insane for a long time and no-one had noticed. House of M then follows on from that with the Avengers and the X-Men arguing over whether to kill the Scarlet Witch because she’s insane and dangerous (There isn’t, of course, any other option because any other option wouldn’t be “realistic” enough and would deny the cheap melodrama of the concept, which cries out for a Silver Age style cover blurb: “She’s my best friend… But she must die so that the world can live!”). These days, nothing will ever be the same again, because the stories of your youth are getting retrofitted with the same leaden seriousness and unnecessary “realism” that today’s mainstream comics are suffocated by.

Nonetheless, I still believe in The Crossover, in principle, and I’m still paying attention to the various Infinite Crisises and House of M and whatever other letters might have houses afterwards. There’s still something of a goofy thrill in the idea of a threat so big that everyone has to put aside their differences and come together for a common good. If only the stories themselves would allow themselves to acknowledge the goofiness of it, and take themselves less seriously every now and then.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Us, You and Me, River, Sea, Ocean.

So, I’ve just finished Everything Bad Is Good For You, by Steven Johnson. It’s not a comic; it’s a book-length essay (actually, two half-book-length essays that form one argument, but that’s just quibbling) about what Johnson calls The Sleeper Curve – essentially, a theory that suggests that popular culture has been getting smarter for the last few decades, and because of this, the general populace are getting smarter as well (Shame on you who saw the word “Sleeper” and thought of Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ recently concluded series). One of the reasons Johnson puts forward for the growth of intelligence is that the culture that we consume has become more interactive… That with the growth of things like video games, email, the internet and even reality shows where the audience not only gets to decide who gets voted off but has to pay attention to the multiple narratives of each contestant and the (implied) relationships the contestants have with each other, we have ceased to be at the point where media is something that we consume passively, so much as react to and shape actively. This, of course, got me thinking about comics.

Comics, you see, have always been one of the more interactive forms of media in my mind. I’m not talking about that in the sense of “Anyone can make a comic and join that conversation”, although that’s a perfectly good argument to make (Minicomics being seen as more artistically valid than, for example, vanity press prose or cable-access TV. Not that I mean that in a “Well, minicomics suck” way, as much as a “There is probably value in vanity press prose and cable-access TV that gets ignored because of the stronger insider/outsider structure of those media” way); instead, I’m thinking about comics fandom and the strange incestuous relationship it has with the comics establishment. Letter columns, APAs, fans-turning-pro (Roy Thomas, for some reason I always consider that particular thing to be your trailblazing, although I’m sure that many went that route before you)… When didn’t the fan have a voice with publishers and creators? It seems as though comics have always had a history of being more receptive – or at least, giving the illusion of being more receptive – to its audience than any other form of mass market media. I’m fairly sure that this isn’t exactly the case, if only because I’d bet good money that television and movie creators are all television and movie fanboys made good, every manjack and womanjill of them, but there’s something oddly transparent about the process in comics.

(There are multiple possibilities for this – the periodical print format of comics, for one, combined with the content. Television shows, to use another example of mass media fiction, hopes to encourage the audience to empathize and befriend their characters, but they lack the prepackaged right-to-reply that mainstream comics offer in their letters column. Such columns, of course, aren’t exclusive to comics, but the average reader of Time or Martha Stewart Living doesn’t get invited to share in someone else’s ongoing soap opera month-in, month-out. Another possibility is the nature of the comics market, where the celebrities (creators) are more accessible and, in many cases, looking for interaction with their fans as ways to get feedback on their work, feed their egos or somewhere between the two.)

Nonetheless, there is the comics internet, where the nature of fan contact with creators and “the industry” seems to have gotten somewhat out of control. Newsarama posters rant and rave and seem to believe that their opinions should somehow magically change corporate decisions just because. Creators start message boards and lose touch with reality as starfuckers descend and kiss ass in a variety of new and amusing positions. A million blogs pop up (and mea culpa on this one) with a million opinions and it feels, occasionally, that everything just becomes noise, with less and less signal available, never mind being able to be easily found.

I was recently referred to by someone as an internet pundit, and I had this strange, ambivalent reaction. On the one hand, I guess that I am; Fanboy Rampage definitely gets a lot of hits, I suppose, and more than a few people seem to know what it is, and who I am, even if it’s just as “that guy who does Fanboy Rampage”. But on the other hand, I feel as if I shouldn’t be a pundit. Who am I to be listened to? I’m not a creator (well, I am, but only one thing has seen print by this point. I’m hardly Warren Ellis, Steven Grant or any of the many “real” creators, or retailers, or publishers, or people who make their living in the industry who have columns or blogs online). I don’t have any real inside scoop or gossip on the inner workings of DC or Marvel or whoever. I’m just this random guy who writes a lot of shit about comics. The same with a lot of online personalities who are seen either by themselves or others as some kind of voice of authority on comics matters; we’re just fans who talk loudly. None of this is to be taken as a condemnation of any particular blogger or columnist or even fan blogs, columns and websites as a whole; my Favorites list is full of people like Jog, Ed Cunard, Johnny Bacardi and far too many other comic blogs. But they’re all just fans, you know? It’s a hobby, an obsession, sure, but not a livelihood. They write well, they’re enjoyable and often more entertaining and educative that the comics that they’re writing about. But they’re not insiders, not that that’s a bad thing.

My point is, I think, that I think comics have somehow passed some point where the medium has become so interactive that there’s no clear demarcation between Us (the fans) and Them (the industry) anymore. Which, again, is not necessarily a bad thing (although I’d argue that the strange sense of entitlement that some fans seem to have because of the blurring of the lines, is. But that’s just me). It is, however, an interesting thing, and something that I’m fascinated to see where it goes next. Comics anarchy? Comics utopia? Absolutely nowhere?

Your guess is as good as mine, which is kind of my point.