Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Should Auld Aquaintance Be Forgot.

There are certain things that you just have to do, when you write columns like this. You have to attempt to stay topical, you have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to avoid cliché. Luckily, I have failed at the first two all along (and really have no way to be topical this time – I’ve been offline for the last week and have no idea what’s going on in the world of crazy comics internetsville beyond the headlines. For all I know, Brian Michael Bendis has finally closed up Jinxworld and retreated to some retreat where he’ll work to atone his sins of writing Secret War), so it seems time to fail at the third, as well. With that in mind, it’s the last column of 2005! Let’s think about the last year for a second, shall we?

The problem with my attempting to do a Best of 2005 retrospective is that I can’t really remember what’s happened in 2005 and what hasn’t. I mean, I’m tempted to say that Or Else by Kevin Huizenga was the best new title to launch this year, until I think back and realize that it actually launched in late 2004 (something I know purely because I can remember reading the first issue in my last apartment – Kate and I moved at the start of this year). Oh, sure, I know that DC ruled the War Of Online Buzz this year, with all the Infinite Crisis, All Star and Seven Soldiers books (If it made Marvel feel any better, they definitively won the War of Online Derision with the over the top hype for the disappointing House of M, which was, of course, going to break the internet in half twice, once with the return of Hawkeye and then with the reduction in mutant characters if not mutant books), but there’s more to comics that DC and Marvel slapping each other over market share, you know. Not much more, admittedly, but still.

Maybe the thing that marked my 2005 for comics was a return to optimism; things like All-Star Superman, Scott Pilgrim (Yes, I’m heavily behind the curve, I know) and even Infinite Crisis actually delivered what they promised, and new books like Local, Flytrap, Nat Turner and Smoke and Guns offered pleasant surprises, being even better than expected. It’s a strange state of mind for me to be in, actually feeling positive about the comics industry – especially as publishers like Alias and Speakeasy seem to be in some kind of a race to see who can implode first, taking with them a raft of promising new titles and creators (in Speakeasy’s case) and Mike Miller (in Alias’s). Actually, perhaps that has been comics legacy for 2005 – watching publishers fuck up their PR. Besides Alias’s losing affiliated studios and creators, missing shipping dates for their entire launch line, having public spats between themselves on Newsarama and the entire sick pleasure I get out of seeing things like that happen – as opposed to the somewhat awed “They’re doing what now? Are they insane?” feeling I get with each new Speakeasy announcement, for example, there was also that whole series of incidents where Tokyopop’s OEL contract details started getting leaked, causing some creators to be concerned, other creators to be exceptionally defensive, and Tokyopop to look like the money-making company they are, as opposed to the altruistic Savior of Comics that some had been portraying them as.

But where was I? Optimism? That’s right.

I have my love for comics back, somehow. I’m actually excited to read DC’s weekly 52 series, even though I’m sure that it’s probably going to be a trainwreck that’ll miss ship dates within three months, purely because the idea of the Writer Supergroup (and unlike many online pundits, I’m a fan of all of the writers involved, to varying degrees) trying to tackle a weekly soap opera of great scope is something that I find bizarrely interesting. I’m excited to read Kevin Huizenga’s new Fantagraphics series, Ganges, so much so that even the extortionate price (something like $8 per issue) doesn’t scare me off. I’m beyond excited for the launch of First Second Books, because their launch line includes brand new autobiographical work by Eddie Campbell (painted, no less), which is along the lines of Jack Kirby Coming Back To Life To Work On A New New Gods Series With Grant Morrison in my eyes (and beyond Campbell, their line-up is really strong – I worry that the Direct Market isn’t going to be interested in them, because it’s definitely not aimed at them, but the creators who are doing work for them is so close to my dream line-up as to give me goose pimples. Nick Abadzis is doing new work for them! Nick Abadzis! I’m such a Nick Abadzis fan that, if you were here dear reader, I’d be gripping your shoulders by now and screaming Nick Abadzis, do you understand?!? in your face like a madman). I have friends who are working on comics that I can’t wait to see. I am working on comics that, if I can get past my performance anxiety and collectable fears of success and failure, I won’t be able to wait to see. The idea of 2006 containing all of this comics goodness is a somewhat disorientating one that has me cautious about what’s around the corner to karmically balance all of this out.

(The answer to that question is potentially Marvel’s Civil War event, which looks like what happens when Marvel realizes that the “huge mega event crossover” approach of DC’s over the last couple of years has really worked for them, and then tries to apply a tacky Real World Analogy to it: It’s Best Friends With Ideological Differences like Infinite Crisis that tears apart the superhero community, like Infinite Crisis, but it’s really about 9/11 and the Patriot Act! And written by Mark Millar! That said, the 9/11 Spider-Man book sold well for Marvel, and Ultimates does gangbusters, so I’m sure it’s going to be a success for them, but I’m not sure it’s for me…)

But, yeah. 2006 looks like it’s not only not going to suck, and may in fact be filled with all manner of good and great things to read. Considering that I entered into 2005 with the feeling that all that is comics was doomed, doomed and further doomed, something must’ve gone right in the last 12 months to turn me around. So here’s hoping for more of that next year, as well as whatever New Year Resolutions that you’re all promising yourselves.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Christmas meant annuals.

This was in Britain, when I was a kid, of course. In America, annuals are a summer phenomenon, and one that’s generally always a disappointing, overly long story that offers little besides a fill-in team trying to pad out a fat comic, something that still seems somewhat unusual to me. Because where I come from, when I come from, annuals were something else altogether.

You’d normally see the covers for the first time in mail order catalogs like Kays or Littlewoods, at the back of the book after the clothes and the electrical appliances and the toys and the slippers and everything else. There wouldn’t really be that many books in general, but those that were there were mostly coffee table books, things about golf or wildlife or other subjects that bored the shit out of me, years before I would’ve ever said anything like “bored the shit”. But the point was, they were books for grown-ups, expensive and glossy and hardcover. And then, at the bottom of the pages of those books would be the annuals.

The ones I was interested in were reprints of American superhero comics. They’d always be hardcover, they would be on cardstock paper, and they’d reprint three or four issues of whatever the title character was for that year. Every year there would be a Spider-Man one, usually there would be an X-Men, and one year through the magic of licensing, Marvel UK even put out one for DC’s Super Powers series. But they were these beautiful things that we didn’t realize were beautiful, because they were there every year and we were kids and you’d just always expect that they’d be there. They’d pull things like Neal Adams’ run on the original X-Men and put all of the Sentinel stories together, editing out the bridging material so that everything read as one story, graphic novels before we knew what graphic novels were.

I wouldn’t even get these annuals for Christmas – If I got them at all, it’d be later, seeing them for sale cheap as remainders somewhere. But the catalogs where I saw them for the first time, the fact that they existed, all of it seemed as if it was a sign that Christmas was coming and we should all get ready.

**

Years later, when I was getting into American comics proper, Christmas meant random issues of things rolled up and pushed into oddly-shaped wrapping to disguise whatever it was that I was getting that year from my parents. Those were the comics that I’d end up accidentally destroying, tearing the covers in half as I tore the wrapping off much too eagerly: things like The Official Handbook to The Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, Millennium, Batman books. Things like that, chosen at – I guess – random by people who didn’t really have an idea what I wanted, because it all looked the same to them. Each series I’d collected would have an issue where it looks as if it’d been mauled to paper death by an angry dog at some point.

For most of the day, I’d forget about the comics, because there would be bigger, better, more exciting presents and family visiting and brussel sprouts to be eaten due to threats of what would happen if plates weren’t cleaned. But at the end of Christmas Day each year, everyone would collapse after the big meal and start watching television shows with canned laughter and whatever the big movie premiere of that year would be, except me. I’d be on the other side of the room, leaning against the window, hiding behind the tree, reading comics with torn-apart covers.

(There were many other comics that I’d end up destroying by accident, but they would normally be able to survive at least a day before I’d accidentally stand on them or spill something on them or whatever. I’ve never really been a Near Mint kind of person.)

**

Later still, I’d go to beat-up little stores in the middle of Glasgow that sold secondhand books with broken spines and folded-back covers. On the counter, they’d have these tall, perilously-positioned stacked-up piles of old comic books from the ‘70s and ‘80s that someone had dropped off and not thought twice about, all priced at next to nothing because they just wanted rid of them. Normally, I’d visit these stores and just buy things without any rhyme or reason, but somewhere in those piles, there would inevitably be the holiday issues of the run, where Superboy would accidentally discover a world where the Nazis had won the war and outlawed Christmas, or the Legion of Super-Heroes would go looking for the Christmas Star (But it’s a myth, they’d say, before finishing the story with, Or is it…?), and I’d viciously hunt those issues down at this time of year, knowing exactly what I’d be getting. Critical parts of my mind fail at Christmas – I read or hear or watch things and know that they’re cheesy and full of forced sentimentality, but I don’t care for some reason, anticipating the awkward resolution where everything is okay and everyone gathers to wish each other good cheer.

I’d read these issues going home for the holidays on the train, or the bus, and let all the schmaltz wash over me and give me all these expectations of what to expect, knowing all the time that real life was something less tidy and easy to sort out in twenty-two pages. No matter what mood I’d start the journey in, I’d slip into the genericized traditional holiday mood by the second issue.

**

The last time I was home for Christmas was a few years ago, now. I’m trying to remember if anyone gave me any comics, but I don’t think so. I remember bringing large quantities of comics that I’d left with my parents back to San Francisco, so I know comics were involved somehow, but I don’t think that there were any comics that were especially Christmassy amongst them. Maybe that was for the best; by that point I could tell anyone how to write their own superhero Christmas special – first things first, have a character that is named after a well-known Christmas figure, and bonus points if you manage to have references to both Jesus and Santa on the same page – but, still. Something was missing, somehow.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The value of typography and fortune telling.

There’s something very telling about the logo to Essential X-Factor. If you’re a graphic design nerd like I am, it’s very obvious: The logo is broken. Behind each letter, for the most part, there’s a shadow letter – The X has another X, the F has another F, and so on – with the exception of the last two letters. At first I thought that it was some kind of strange design decision, a way of saying that something in the image is closer to the viewer than everything else, but upon further investigation, I realized that, no, the logo is just broken. It’s exactly the same on the spine – Two of the drop shadow letters are missing for no reason. If I had been in my right mind yesterday, when I picked up the damn thing, I would’ve recognized it as a bad omen and run screaming from the store as any sane man should.

I bought Essential X-Factor, you see, for all the wrong reasons. It was a book that I’d picked up way back when I was eleven years old, and even then with all my unformed critical faculties and naïve view of the world, I knew that it was an utterly flawed book. I remember reading each issue, thinking “What is the point?” and then promising myself that I’d only pick it up again next month if it looked as if it was getting better. Sadly, I was incredibly optimistic back then, and always managed to convince myself that it was probably getting together. But it was in this spirit – The idea that this was a book so bad that even the eleven year old me felt as if it shouldn’t exist – that I made the decision to buy the Essential collection of the first year (and a bit) of the series. Maybe, I thought to myself in some diseased sick corner of my mind, maybe when I read it now I can analyze just what was so bad about it.

Looking at it now, with the benefit of hindsight and cynicism, X-Factor seems like the point where the X-Men franchise ceased to be anything other than a money-making exercise. It wasn’t the first spin-off from X-Men – by this point, New Mutants was coming up on four years old, and there had been a couple of Wolverine miniseries, as well as things like X-Men/Alpha Flight and X-Men/Micronauts – but it was the first one that you can tell was solely unmotivated by any kind of creative impulse. You can tell by the fact that the series actually started with a crossover between Avengers, Fantastic Four and its own series (No Uncanny X-Men, interestingly enough, but perhaps Chris Claremont’s alleged strop about Jean Grey’s resurrection had something to do with that), or – if that wasn’t enough for you – by the fact that the original creative team had entirely vanished from the book by issue eight. And that’s not even going into the fact that, within a year of the series’ launch, the original premise of the book was being criticized by the creators through the characters in a way so blatant as to make Geoff “Superman of Earth-2 hates today’s comics” Johns blush.

X-Factor broke the X-Franchise, even as it made it into the X-Franchise that we know and make cheap jokes about. Its entire premise was enough to give that away: “Remember the death of Jean Grey, which has powered the majority of X-Men storylines in one way or another ever since it happened? Yeah, it didn’t happen. It was just someone who looked very like her. Okay?” I mean, it’s one thing to pull that kind of cheap stunt if you’re going do something with it, but it’s really clear from the first issue alone that poor Bob Layton, never the most dynamic of Marvel’s 1980s writers at the best of times, clearly had no idea what to do with the character now that she was back from the dead. Not that that was that unusual, as the series showed the longer it went on. Never mind destroying any dramatic impact that the original Phoenix story had had in the first place (or, for that matter, destroying any dramatic tension that could be made from life-or-death situations by showing that, hey, death isn’t actually that final after all), X-Factor then went after most of the other characters with gusto, offering up dramatic changes: Cyclops abandoned his wife and son to be with his no-longer-dead lover! Beast gets de-evolved from blue and furry into his original mutated form! Angel attempts suicide after losing his wings!

(Iceman got left alone, for the most part, because – well, he’s Iceman, and what can you do with him?)

X-Factor was where soap opera finally took over. At least for the first year or so – Louise and Walt Simonson had better luck turning the book into something more interesting starting with issue #10 – it was a book that read as if someone was trying to outdo the emotional melodrama that, conventional wisdom at the time had it, was the secret of Chris Claremont’s success. Emotional misery was piled upon emotional misery, but for no real reason, and with no real intention beyond giving characters something more to be angst-ridden about. There was never any lightness or humor in the book to balance things out or give the impression that the characters were anything other than the writers’ punching bags. As a result, none of it rang true to the reader, and any and all emotional connection they had with the characters was lost to the unintentional comedy of the whole thing. Who cares that Cyclops is having an emotional breakdown and hallucinating floating Professor Xaviers this month? Next month, everyone’ll have forgotten about him when Angel’s plane blows up! Huzzah!

Reading the stories now, disturbingly almost twenty years later, was both nostalgic for all the wrong reasons – Reading as the series got retooled with new creators and a new purpose on a monthly basis was interesting; these days, the book would’ve been cancelled for two months and then relaunched as New X-Factor with a new #1 – and just kind of sad. Terrible “Let’s resurrect Jean Grey” idea aside, the series was still a mass of wasted ideas and potential lost in the rush to have a book on the stands starring all of the original X-Men to cash in on the potential hungry market for it. I know, it's kind of strange to feel sad about this kind of thing, but if there was one point that I could point at where all of the X-Men books went off the rails, and took all the rest of Marvel, and then DC and everyone else with them, I think there's a case could be made for it being X-Factor.

The logo was an omen, I’m telling you.