Saturday, January 31, 2009

Classicos De Sabado Kazekage #3--Careful With These Jokes--They're Antiques!

Doing a little something different this week, as this needed some fresh context to post it in. But first, a few miscellaneous facts:

--Busting on Rob Liefeld never gets old.

FACT 2--The 1989 shooter Zero Wing is remembered less for being a pedestrian shooter in the usual Toaplan mode and more for bringing to the world a frankly infamous meme.

FACT 3--My natural tendency when I find something funny is to push it to the ultimate degree. If something is x times the amount of funny, for instance, what would happen if I combined it with something else.

It was that line of thinking that led me to the following:





Friday, January 30, 2009

Way Back When--Thunderbolts #1

All this talk about Dark Avengers recently inspired me to start a new feature here at the Prattle--a feature wherein we take a look back at the comics of yesteryear, which, given the current strain of Ouroborsity in comics is more than likely having its serial numbers filed off and served to you yet again even as I type this. It is in that spirit that I present Way Back When, this week featuring the Dark Avengers from 12 years ago, the Thunderbolts.

Thunderbolts #1 (April 1997)

1996 was a pretty down time for Marvel Comics. The direct market was in the throes of melting down and a few creative gambles had come up lemons. The Clone Saga was sputtering along, long after any charitable person would have said the storyline potential had been exhausted, the X-Men had just blundered through the Onslaught crossover, which had started as a perfectly serviceable idea for an interior line-wide crossover that got had been hijacked for another purpose: Take out the Avengers and the Fantastic Four to get them available for Heroes Reborn.

(Man, Heroes Reborn. Remember when we all hated that and thought it was a stupid idea? Remember when they waited three years, called it the Ultimate line and we thought it was the greatest thing ever?)

First, a word or a dozen about why the Avengers were ripe for speedy deletion:

Earlier in the year, the powers that be had decided that the Avengers titles needed a shot in the arm. The standard operating procedure at Marvel in the 1990s was to take whatever the X-Men had done that was even a smidgen successful and map it onto their other properties whether it belonged there or not.

So Joe Madureria was asked over lunch to redesign some of the Avengers, and approached it with just about the same level of concentration and good design sense he brought to Ultimates 3. Remember Wasp redone as some sort of weird-ass bug lady? That was him. Of course, Madureria only designed the characters--as it took an act of federal law to force him to put down the N64 controller and actually draw, it was laughable even then to think he could handle two books--and remember, somehow his work ethic would get even worse in the decade and change that followed.

So, Thor began dressing like he-man and buggering about in some incomprehensible storyline Warren "Typin' For The Paycheck" Ellis wrote which was read by very few, understood by fewer, and cared about by even fewer. Iron Man became a murderer in the Hal Jordan mode, died (not in his own book) was replaced by a teenager, and then killed again (again, not in his own book--we will revisit this during Iron Man Week. Oh yes.) as his own book was slaved to Avengers, which became mired in a ghastly, incomprehensible storyline wherein, due to the tortured logic of the plot, characters acted wildly out of established character, a bunch of people died So We Knew They Weren't Fooling Around, time travel was involved, and ridiculously obscure bits of continuity were used to justify a story that did very little except piss most of its established readers and offer naked incomprehensibility to anyone new who might have been interested enough to check it out.

If any of this sounds familiar, you were probably reading Avengers in 2004, weren't you?

(I should add here that there was one bright spot during this time--Waid and Garney's run on Captain America, which was sadly cut short by Heroes Reborn and upon trying to re-establish their arrested momentum, fell far short of the mark the second time around.)

So it was decided that things were broken enough to where handing the Avengers over to Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld as a better idea than going forward with what they had. That's how bad things were, y'all.

Heroes Reborn I'll have to cover another time, but the point of this whole preamble was to set the stage thus--After Onslaught gets deaded (sadly, despite many playthroughs of Marvel vs. Capcom, Jin Saotome, Strider Hiryu, and Mega Man destroying Onslaught is not canon, I understand) he took the Avengers and the Fantastic Four with him.

This leads to a fictional and non-fictional conceit that, while it's not run with as much as it should have been, actually led to a couple interesting books during the Heroes Reborn interregnum. Non-fictionally, with the "big" heroes off the table (and the X-Men floating in their own isolated bubble, as usual) writers of non-HR books brought little-used characters to the fore and ran with them. The books weren't Great Art, but it did freshen up the line to a large extent.

Fictionally, the Marvel Universe took a different turn--with their most beloved and trusted heroes gone and those who survived (the Hulk and the X-Men) viewed with even more suspicion and fear afterward no one stepped up to the plate.

Enter, the Thunderbolts.

Citizen V, MACH-1, Meteorite, Songbird, Techno, and Atlas come along at exactly the right time--they're bright, personable, and spend most of the first issue getting into two big fights, one of which involves the Wrecking Crew at the Statue of Liberty. They're just what a weary, fearful public wanted--they may not be the Avengers of the FF, but there's something about them that captures the public imagination and they get anointed the New Avengers. No, not them. So they get swept up in enthusiasm. They get access to the Avengers files. They get fancy security clearances. People miss the Avengers, but these guys just might do OK after all.

There's just one problem: The Thunderbolts (in one of those plot twists that would be damn-near impossible in the Internet Age) are actually the Masters of Evil, or to be more specific the version that wasn't a punchline and starred in one of the best of the later Avengers arcs there is. And in what's an unusually sensible plot for world domination, the Masters aim to gain the trust of the world, then take over after they've entrenched themselves.

That, at least, is the plan, anyways. As time goes on through the book's first year, it becomes a tug of war between those members who still want to execute the plan and those who are beginning to like being thought of as heroes. And to further complicate matters, the long-thought-dead Avengers and FF return just as the last stage of the plan is about to be put into effect.

Thunderbolts was a curious title, and probably the best argument for Heroes Reborn one could have imagined. Only under those circumstances could a book with no big names (c'mon, you know if it were done today, Wolverine would have to be in it somewhere. Oh wait.) and a hook like this be allowed to find its audience and play out the way it played out.

It's funny, considering the knocks the 90's gets (justifiably sometimes) for being style over substance and full of ill-advised experiments, rarely gets credits for those rare rolls of the dice that actually worked.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Witless Dictionary #10--Third Alternative

Continuing again with a special double-shot of Witless Dictionary fun for the week and another term of art inspired by the Prattle's bestest friend, the superlative Diana Kingston-Gabai:

Third Alternative--Term (in relation to comics) used to describe anything that comes along in opposition to the Big Two companies who upends the stagnant binary structure and injects some life into things again.

The best example of this in recent memory would be the rise of Image Comics in the early 90's. While it may not have led to anything we would recognise as "good comics" (whatever that means now) the energy and vitality Image brought to the medium ended up, in general refreshing the entire genre of superhero comics.

I don't argue it was all for the good, mind you, but the rise of Image forced the Big Two to try things they might not have done otherwise and it allowed some new blood a chance to make their mark in superhero comics.

It wasn't all for the good, but it was necessary, it can be argued.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Witless Dictionary #9--Sod-Off Character

Continuing our . . .uh, continuing efforts to create a wider glossary for comics criticism. This week, the Witless Dictionary does something a little different--the two definitions for this week were inspired or directly requested by the illustrious Diana Kingston-Gabai, who exemplifies the phrase "blogger of note" in ways I can't even begin to approach.

Sod-Off Character--The opposite of a breakout character (or, if you must, "the Fonzie"), the sod-off character is a character whose exhausted both his responsibilities for his immediate storyline and any potential for further storylines, but who s nevertheless shoved in the reader's face despite being annoying, uninteresting, and, as previously stated above, having no real reason to be there and as you read along you just want the character to go the hell away already.

Or, if you'd like a more succinct definition, The Sentry.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Nexus Of Superhero Comics and Pro Wrestling

I'm sure someone, at one time or another, has queried Paul O'Brien's dual critiques of both (primarily superhero) comics and his incisive commentaries on pro wrestling. The implication seems to be that one is more or less valid than the other and the concept that one could like both is, apparently, quite unusual.

Only--and yes, I am aware that anecdotal evidence is poor justification for one's opinions--I know a lot of people who are fans of both wrestling and comics. And when you get right down to it, it's not hard to see why that is.

Superhero comics feature colourful characters, usually with muscled physiques and other quirks, usually solving their problems through violence in stories in which good, inevitably, triumphs over evil in what is, ultimately, a kind of catharsis for the reader.

Pro wrestling is a type of performance art featuring colourful characters with muscled physiques and other strange quirks, solving their problems with violence in pre-planned storylines wherein good inevitably triumphs over evil, and what is ultimately a kind of catharsis for the viewer.

In short--they're not that different. Even moreso when you look at recent trends in both.

To wit: After years of more or less adhering to the basic model with a bit of individual variation here and there and a sort of gradual evolution of the form happening in a slow but steady fashion, a variety of factors converged to alter the basic dynamic. Characters became more complex, the overall tone became darker, and the old black/white good/evil model was largely set aside for characters that worked more in shades of gray. While this worked at first and revitalised the entire genre to a large extent, as time went on, it became the very norm it was a reaction against in the first place and now, as the amount of stories possible under this paradigm cycle lower and lower until a new alternative is needed to refresh things. Unfortunately, none is immediately apparent.

Depending on what you're a fan of, here I'm speaking of either the 1980's in comics (wherein stuff like Watchmen changed the game significantly and became the primary blueprint for the future course of the genre) or I'm speaking about the 1990's in pro wrestling (wherein the rise of ECW broke storytelling out of a very stagnant place and because the primary blueprint for at least the next ten years)

That's not the only thing they have in common. If you'll allow me to use an example I use a lot. In wrestling, a storyline usually breaks down like this: Your good guy (the "babyface" or "face") is chased by, or chases the bad guy the "heel.") The reasons can be anything you like, but ultimately it comes down to good guy vs bad guy--everything else is window dressing.

The key element in crafting a wrestling storyline (and it is a craft, in its way) is knowing how long to draw it out. Too short, and it seems a bit rushed and not as fulfilling as it might be. Too long and you run the risk of losing the audience's attention before the end of the storyline.

It's all about precisely playing on the audience's expectations toward the ultimate catharsis. Too long and too many defeats of your good guy and whatever the result, it's not credible whatever the end result. Too many bad finishes and the whole audience deserts the product and everything collapses in on itself.

Sound familiar?

It's not hard, I think, to see the carryover when you hold both up to the light and compare them. There are finer differences, of course, but there are more similarities I didn't cover in this go-round. Maybe if I have an additional thought on the subject, I'll do a write-up on how the different comics companies' approach mirrors the distinct ideology of the old territory system in wrestling--don't worry if you don't don't get what I'm talking about, I'm not sure I do. However, I thought it was worth writing it up before the thought floated out of my head.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Janked From Sententia With Craven Impertinences

Empire Magazine has revealed its list of the 50 Greatest TV Shows ever.

1. Bold the shows you watch/used to watch.
2. Italicize the shows you've seen at least one episode of.
3. Underline the shows you own on DVD (or VCR tape).
4. Post your answers.

50. Quantum Leap
49. Prison Break
48.Veronica Mars
47. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
46. Sex & The City
45. Farscape
44. Cracker
43. Star Trek
42. Only Fools and Horses
41. Band of Brothers
40. Life on Mars
39. Monty Python
38. Curb Your Enthusiasm
37. Star Trek: The Next Generation
36. Father Ted
35. Alias
34. Frasier
33. CSI Las Vegas
32. Babylon 5
31. Deadwood
30. Dexter
29. ER
28. Fawlty Towers
27. Six Feet Under
26. Red Dwarf
25. Futurama
24. Twin Peaks
23. The Office
22. The Shield
21. Angel
20. Blackadder
19. Scrubs
18. Arrested Development
17. South Park
16. Doctor Who
15. Heroes
14. Firefly
13. Battlestar Galactica
12. Family Guy
11. Seinfeld
10. Spaced
09. The X-Files

08. The Wire
07. Friends
06. 24
05. Lost
04. The West Wing
03. The Sopranos
02. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
01. The Simpsons

I have this awful feeling my ignrance in certain matters will either be a huge disappointment or explain everything, and possibly both all at one and the same time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Classicos De Sabado Kazekage #2--Bedlam, Thy Name Is Bill Mantlo

(Continuing our look back at days gone by from the old comic blog, I present for you a little gem from the frankly awful year of 2006. For those of you who remember my perennial bouts of rage in regards to Alpha Flight--specifically Bill Mantlo's run on the book, this will be nothing new. The rest of yu--buckle in. This one's going to sting . . .)

Hi folks,
Not so very long ago, I did a detailed rundown of a little book called Alpha Flight, a book I followed as a younger man for quite some time. I suppose it was partly because the idea of Canadian superheroes--it was different and somewhat interesting. Hindsight has taught me that it had more to do with me being a brutally stupid child.

Not to plough over old ground here, but most of my growing disenchantment with the team could probably be laid at the feet of one Bill Mantlo, a man who, at the summit of his powers wrote utterly apeshit comics about motorcyclists, one of whom was named "Honcho." You are free to draw your own conclusions from there.

His tenure on Alpha Flight is a nadir of another, kind, beginning badly, flatering early on, crashing in the middle and finally ending in the kind of gut-wrenching disaster usually only seen when Zepplins crash.

Today we examine the point of impact. Alpha Flight #53

THIS ISSUE: A robot is pregnant with Wolverine!

I admit I modified the cover a bit to editorialise.

Were it not for the fact that all comics in the mid-1980s looked like utter shit (Flexographic printing had just been introduced and we spent the tail end of the 80's seeing and often feeling it's growing pains, hence the wretched quality of my scans here--all comics looked like that, even when brand new) you could say even the very ink on the pages revolted against what they were depicting. But you can't, so fuck that noise. Let's look at our cast of characters:

BILL MANTLO: Trapped writing a comic he didn't want to write and shuffled off the one he wanted, he'd by now hit upon the idea of systematically killing every single cast member in the book, perhaps in the vain hope that the book will be canceled from underneath him or he'll be replaced and he can go back to writing stuff he gave a shit about.

By the time of this issue, nearly everyone's been killed or shuffled off 3 issues ago, so guess how successful that was.

VINDICATOR: The leader of Canada's fighting-mad superheroes, Heather Hudson was the jailbait girlfriend of the original Vindicator and kinda stora blew him up. Spends an inordinate amount of time macking on Box right in front of everyone, which is probably bad for morale, but given the clumsiness of their technique, more fucking creepy than anything:

He's so totally looking right up her maple leaf

"Give good training." "Private workout." I get the feeling she means something else, but I'll be damned if I can work out what.

BEDLAM (The Brain-Blast): Canada, being hard-up for superheroes, decided, "Hey, we'll experiment on a multiple murderer and give him psychic powers that let him do pretty much whatever the plot requires. What's the worst that could happen?" Has some kind of dumbshit master plan to breed a master race out of the survivors of a donnybrook between Alpha Flight and the Derangers which is never made clear, possibly because it's total bollocks. Curiously dresses in gold armour and a blue cape and frankly adorable little blue booties.

'Bedlam the Lame-Ass' while more true, doesn't inspire the same kind of terror

JIM LEE: Somehow goes on to have a real career after this and now has more money than God. Nevertheless--seriously, Jim--Gold armour with blue booties? Were you late for lunch that day or something?

BOX: He's a robot named after cardboard, and in a confession more shameful than any I've said before, he used to be my favourite character. Started out brutally homely, became handsome because he's supposed to be sweet on Vindicator, and Jim Lee couldn't draw an ugly person if he woke up in bed with one.

SASQUATCH: Walter Langkowski was once a dude. And orange. Now he's a white furry part-time and a woman (a reanimated dead one!) the rest of the time who dresses very "flashdance-y" at least three years after that was in any way shape or form a good idea. This is actually a plot point in this issue. I hope anyone who ever rubbed one out to him/her is dead now, and in hell.

Also, comics can just go right to hell.

MANIKIN and the PURPLE GIRL (who is, in fact, purple): Just as generic as they sound. Really there to fill out the "minimum occupancy" rule every time Alpha Flight rides an elevator, Manikin can split into 4 people at various levels of evolution, and the Purple Girl (who is purple) can control minds, although it never seems to come in handy whenever it would solve the plot in 2 pages.

WOLVERINE: It was a common practice in the 80s to stick Wolverine into random issues of a book to fool people into buying it. Today, Marvel has Wolverine in 5-13 books every single week. Thank God since the time this book was published comics as a medium have progressed past that kind of cynical manipulative pandering.

THE DERANGERS: To call Freakout, Janus, Goblyn, and Breakdown ciphers is an insult to actual ciphers, numerical or otherwise. At one time slated to carry a book of their own, the Derangers were a team of mental patients, respectively a drug addict, schizo artist, an autistic and a battered wife, who, in their one appearance, are treated with the kind of compassion and respect you would imagine they'd get in a book like Alpha Flight:

That's right--they get brutally murdered in three pages. Except for Goblyn. As none of them have been given any characterisation in the classic sense, the weight of their sacrifice means about as much as a bean fart in an opium den.

Goblyn sticks around and becomes something of a walking plot point for the next year and change, but I don't care since I gave up the book soon after this and I NEVER FUCKING CARED ABOUT STUPID-ASS GOBLYN ANYWAY.

Oh yeah, I should add that the Derangers are in no way to be confused with Wildrider, Dead End, Motormaster, Drag Strip, and Breakdown, that team of mental patients known as the Stunticons who distinguish themselves by a) not dying 5 pages after being introduced and b) being able to combine into the giant robot known as Menasor, which is a kind of awesome that Alpha Flight will never know.

You may have noticed I'm doing an awful lot of stalling about the plot. Probably because there really isn't much of one and what there is is really dumb. Basically, Wolverine shows up at the remains of Alpha's Tamarind Island HQ and finds Box well into the throes of a nervous breakdown. Now, maybe it's because Bedlam decided, not understand the concept of a doorknob, to announce his terrifying blue-bootied presence by blowing a great hole in the place, but probably more because of this:

DEAR PENTHOUSE FORUM: I work on an understaffed Canadian super-team and I never beleived your letters were true, but. . .

"Wish I was doing it with you, Vindicator, instead of to you." The erotic subtext is spellbinding. Box is smoove.

The sad thing is, it works, or it would have, had Bedlam not cock-blocked our cardboard robot by attacking and kidnapping everyone by Box who turns himself into a Walkman or something and gibbers like a jackass until Wolverine finds him. Wolverine spends most of this issue, it must be said, looking very embarassed to be in this comic, as well he should.

Bedlam, as it turns out has spirited them to a cozy little pad in the Arctic Circle he made, like, just yesterday, and whilst he's got both teams trussed up like something out of the Overfiend movies, we get the following quick recap of Alpha's and the Derangers' origins, represented here because this is how people wasted an entire fucking page back in the day:

The senses-numbing origins of BOTH teams in confusing postage-stamp-o-vision!

Then Bedlam lays out his plan--The Derangers and Alpha Flight battle it out to the death and whoever's left standing gets to breed Bedlam's "Master Race." Because right after you've committed brutal murder in the course of trail by combat, well of course its "hey everybody--we're all gonna get laid!"

Exactly how one intends to create the Ubermensch combining middle-of-the-road Canadian superheroes with superpowered mental patients is never made clear, and if that means too sane to comprehend insanity, well it's news to me.

So they fight, and since one has not been given much of a reason to give a shit about the stakes in the conflict, it's pretty pointless, full of overdone violence (and blood flying everywhere that thanks to the Flexo printing looks like Tahitian Treat) and people beating on people and it's not even in a steel cage. Vindicator flies around and helpfully expands on the Derangers origins (rather than, y'know, helping or anything) until the following extraordinarily disturbing moment occurs:

Leotard-wearing trannies would fuck my brain up too.

Bear in mind, last week I ran an image of a naked woman standing on Satan's nipple. You tell me which one's more wrong.

What he/she says is bad enough, but what's up with that "Make yourself my man" stuff?

This endears us very little to Bedlam as everyone all of a sudden beats on him, but with his uber-stupid mind powers he holds all of them off for most of the rest of the issue, until Vindicator automates her suit (sorta--again, clairty is not our friend) and mercifully ends out pain:

Why didn't she do this before? Did she forget she could do this?

Nice that Bedlam, despite his super-brain, totally failed to see her hand glowing in the previous panel, and totally dismissed that she was pointing it right at his face. And he was going to lead the master race, too, remember? What an ass.

Anyways, after the Derangers have been cut to pieces and Bedlam's been decapitated with extreme prejudice, it's time for a happy ending. Standing amongst the corpses, they decide they'll chill at Bedlam's pad and get all chummy. Y'know, despite the dead bodies. Wolverine says Vindicator's a "good leader-lady," which is is totally off my bullshit scale.

OK, so the good guys won (by writer fiat more than anything) and the bad guys went down (because absurd ultraviolence=kewl) everything's wrapped up neatly, right? But what about Box? Did he ever tap Vindicator's Maple Leaf?


Magic 8-ball says: "Signs point to yes." Because it's not a happy ending unless someone gets laid at the end.

Surely Caddyshack has taught us that for generations, now.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Witless Dictionary #8--Marenghi Bubble

Part 8 of a never-ending series designed to create a functioning vocabulary for my unique brand of comics criticism. Or, to be more blunt about it, I'm just making this stuff up as I go along.

Marenghi Bubble--Filter on perception that usually results from having a reliable coterie of apologists around them that prevents any valid constructive criticism (or, indeed, criticism of any kind) from penetrating. Those in within a Marenghi Bubble will often justify dubious creative choices by citing high sales or an editorial mandate to shake things up or . . .geez, anything, really. This meme will be buttressed by his followers, who will continue to paint the person inside the bubble as a visionary and slag off anyone who doesn't get it.

Or, alternatively, those poor fools who walk around the Emperor with a big sheet so we can't see he bloody well has no clothes on.

Named for fictional construct Garth Marenghi, who, while meant as a parody, sadly has plenty of company in the real world who aren't.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Just Sayin': Dark Avengers #1

This could, I imagine, be construed as me getting up on my K-Box but . . .

So, all it takes for this whole Dark Reign tosh to be considered "awesome" is for Norman Osborn to go wanking off in a suit of armour that looks like Iron Man and Captain America pounded out a baby leading a bunch of faux-Avengers in a muddled rehash of Thunderbolts #1 and all of a sudden it's "awesome."

And comics are in better shape now as opposed to the 90's exactly how?

Please explain your answer in the space provided below. Remember, this counts as 20% of your final grade.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Witless Dictionary #7--Zeitgeist Failure

Back once again with another in an attempt to create a lexicon for comics criticism and, to paraphrase Von Clausewitz, criticise the current state of comics by other means.

Zeitgeist Failure--Term which describes any project released at exactly the wrong time and which totally fails to speak to the current social and/or political climate of the time and usually results in something as wrongheaded and almost quaint as, say, trying to credibly sell Norman Osborn as head of a vast government conspiracy that grinds on through every third Marvel book or something. Basically, we're talking a catastrophic failure to read the mood of your audience.

Or, to be more succinct (for once), this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oh, We Can't Have Nice Things

Man, I am getting so tired of writing abut stuff like this. Fortunately, I get to come at it from a different angle this time.

For those who came in late, last week Bill Willingham posts this long screed last week wherein the few good points he makes gets subsumed because the fandom saw the words "superhero decadence" and saw red. The general tone of their response (especially among people who hadn;t read the damn thing) was "burn the heretic." I talked about it last week at some length (just like always--now that we're two weeks into it, you may have twigged that Witless Prattle doesn't do the brevity thing very well) and was kind of hoping things had moved on sufficiently to where I could maybe talk about something else this week.

Then, Chuck Dixon weighs in on much the same thing. And, like Willingham, he makes some good points about the state of things in superhero comics and why all these constant stories about moral ambiguity and such might not neccessarily work best for every superhero. Obviously, there are some superhero stories where they works well, but we may just be into "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" territory.

Mind you, he does himself no favours by drowning it in snark, but there it is. Given everyone's (myself included) tendency to act like a completely jerkass on the internet, to make glean anything useful out of any of it, you have to dial that stuff down, like ambient noise.

And so, the responses come in. Never have so many gotten up on so many K-Boxes. And I'm "appalled." With two "'p's."

Because it's less a considered debate than 30% defensive whinging, 20% throwing Dixon under a train ("journeyman writer" and "out of touch") 25% accusing him of wanting the Silver Age back (hauling out stuff like "The Anatomy Lesson" and other good stories from 25 years ago to justify the lousy echoes of them we see today), 15% trying to work out which of his fellow creators he was throwing under the bus, and a whopping 10% who actually picked through the good points he made and wanted to talk about them.

But as to the rest, wow. It's like this fell through a hole in time or something from when Fanboy Rampage was still going.

I'm not going to go into great detail or anything, but what came to me in reading these replies was that people either sadly shook their heads and said "well, the market's shrunk a lot, so that approach really isn't valid, and it's not what's selling," (as if it were a Good Thing that comics have retreated to the Direct Market, curled up in a fetal position, and hoped everything would turn out OK in the morning) and "Well, superhero comics evolved as a medium when Alan Moore started doing them, so really, going back wouldn't be good."

The latter argument is rubbish, for two reasons:

1) Even Alan Moore would say the success of superhero comics comes from a multitude of voices and approaches.

2) Not everyone is goddamn Alan Moore.

I don't know. I really don't. If things are at such a sorry pass when we don't even consider there might be approaches that might appeal to more than the steadily dwindling fanbase and actually, I don't know, perpetuate the medium to a generation that's not pushing 40, we're in trouble. If we can't even have have a discussion about this kind of thing without pulling each other down like crabs in a barrel, if we're so selfish that we don't even think about the readers that might come after us . . .man, we're in Real Trouble.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Witless Dictionary #6--Ambition Collision

Continuing the every-other-day (or so) feature where we strive to create a vocabulary for the confusing and often damn annoying world of superhero comics.

Ambition Collision--An affliction often befalling multiple titles featuring a single character (OK, the Superman titles, especially circa the "Superman and the Legion of Superheroes" era, never mind the Batman titles of late.) this term describes the moment when every creative team on every book is jockeying to get across their Definitive Story for the character and the signal-to-noise ratio from all the pretension is so pronounced, one's mind shrinks from contemplating the massive puffery of it all.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Classicos De Sabado Kazakage 1: We Start At The Bottom

(And now, a short remembrance--Chris Sims, a far funnier person than I will ever be, has made a career, more or less out of mocking, mercilessly and brutally, Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose, Jim Balent's shining, towering vision of a world of big-hootered witches in increasingly ever-more-perverse adventures. Proving I too, had the poor judgment to read books like that back in the day, re-presented here for your Saturday viewing pleasure from 2006 is my review of Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose #11)

"I'm a horrible person for posting this, and will surely got to Hell for it. Behind the cut something not safe for work, Wiccans, dilaup, the young, the old, the doomed, the silly, the world in general, my friends in specific, or the moderately sane. Yes, it's here, I'm done threatening--it's Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose, and oh my God it's terrible."

Hi folks,

NOTE: I'm not usually this crude when referring to women's breasts as I am in the following article.

The material seems to demand it, however.

You know, I've mentioned some horrific comics here in this very LJ, but none have really prepared us for this moment, this hateful awful, godawful moment.

Yes, I'm talking about Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose #11.

Seriously, turn back now.

What's so terrible about this one, you ask? Well, for that, I need to delve into a little about the creator of this magnificent octopus, Jim Balent:

Jim Balent has been working in comics for quite awhile now, and in that time he's developed a certain and very blatant thrust *ahem*) to his artistry--he likes to draw women with big tits. Not a full bust, not a blessed endowment, I mean women with chesticles so big their spines would telescope if they were real people.

He made his bones, as it were, by drawing Lady Death and Vampirella for awhile (both books for people who like big-titted woman, but might be old enough to actually buy porn at the time) and drew about 8 zillion issues of Catwoman for a rather long stretch (he was actually the most consistent thing on that book--oh yes, and she had a massively threatening bustline then) The short explanation is this--Tits are this man's life, in ways gynecologists and plastic surgeon's can only dream of.

After that he decided to write draw and publish his own book. Tarot. And on that day the world changed, and not for the better.

Concurrently with this, Alan Moore is publish his big comic treatise on magic, Promethea. Night and day from Tarot, Prometheta is an almost scholarly work, featuring exhaustive research on magic and wild experimentation with the comic form.

Early on, one issue of Promethea was created as one long sustained panel, mapping the history of the world against the major arcana of the Tarot deck. Whatever you think of magic, Tarot, Promethea, or Alan "Looney Tunes" Moore--you can fault them for ambition.

Not to be outdone and not long after Tarot does a similar run-through of it. And guess what the overriding concept of that was?

Yeah, you guessed it, it's all about the major arcana of the Tarot deciding that Tarot has some huge fucking boobs.


Oh it's occasionally dressed up as the avatars of the major arcana giving her bits of wisdom (or rather gently suggesting to the tart to put some goddamn clothes on already) but even that is done in ways not unlike the following brain-melting snippet.

Y'know what? It's EXACTLY what you're thinking.

Subtle enough for you?

Imagine 22 pages of this, then just grab something heavy and bash yourself in the head with it 22 times. It'd be less painful than trying to comprehend this.

This issue's big crisis, is of course, when she encounters the avatar of the Devil Card. Now, as in every other damn time the devil shows up in comics, it's purpose is to tempt our hero or heroine to the dark side.

Well how to do that, you ask? Not with lies or deceptions--shit, not in this book, Steve.

The Devil decides to tempt our comely heroine by 1) undressing her and 2) dropping some demon thing down her panties.

I'll let that sink in.

Yeah, I know, had Milton dropped that into Paradise Regained it would put a whole new spin on a lotta shit, wouldn't it?

Anyways, in what's supposed to be (*snicker*) a big inspirational moment, Tarot declares herself not to be ruled by her desires.



The genius of Jim Balent, people. Soak. It. In.

You may have noticed in the midst of all this mockery I haven't made reference to much of an outside plot or cracked that many jokes. The former is because there really isn't one (or there is, but I'm blocking it out and I'm too tired of staring at enormous breasts to run over and look) and the second because this book is goddamn mockery-proof and can really only be experienced as this weird-ass gonzo thing that exists in defiance of all logic and/or common sense. If what little I've shown you here teaches you anything, it better be that.

I haven't even touched on the stuff in the back which is even more entertaining than the main story and at least twice as apeshit-crazy.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so! Courtesy of the far-funnier-than-I-am Chris Sims of the ISB:

"So, to review: In the mad world of Jim Balent, it's okay to show people having sex and other people having their intestines ripped out, but you can't actually say "fuck" or "shit." And that, my friends, is bat-sh*t f**king insane."

Preach it, brother, preach it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

More On "Gateway Books"

In the past few days, in relation to the whole Bill Willingham thing, I've been talking about the loss of what I call "gateway books," but didn't really go in depth with what, to me, defined what a "gateway book" was.

A gateway book is a book in which an established character introduces you to the far corners of his respective universe in a low-continuity way is a gateway book. Basically Marvel Team-up and Marvel Two-In-One were, in my eyes, the blueprint for a successful gateway book.

They weren't terribly sophisticated books in terms of story engines--In Marvel Team-Up's case, for instance, Spider-Man is swinging around town and stuff happens, guest star for the month is met and either a fight ensues or they immediately team up and it's all over, more or less, in 22 pages.

The plan for these books usually didn't involve furthering continuity points. No, it was just an excuse for popular characters who had versatile chemistry to introduce readers to other characters who may not have been well known, but, if presented in an interesting enough fashion, might capture a reader's imagination, if sold to them without a lot of continuity baggage.

Beyond that, they were disposable. Being intended as such, it's no wonder that every issue of Marvel Team-Up is more or less the same, just with a different guest star. It's not intended to be any more or less "deep" than that. That's why Marvel Tales reprinted them in no particular order for so many years--they were so self-contained it didn't really matter in the end.

If the "sale" worked, they could buy that character's title and then they'd be ready for the baggage they'd adopt when they started picking up the book, one assumes.

Nowadays, there's no need for gateway books, as the Big Two have pretty much abandoned any pretense of appealing to a neophyte audience. There's no need to create a continuity-safe bubble where people could check out a superhero universe in the least-intimidating way possible because the only people still around are those who know this stuff backwards and forwards and really, why waste any time fretting about whether the normals "get it" or not.

When a gateway book is tried, it's inevitably set up to fail, as it's either immediately yoked into burdensome continuity headaches, has to simultaneously introduce a new "rookie" character and service his storytelling engine in addition to the team-up model, never put in a venue a curious reader might find it (this is a big one--I sure hope one day we learn that everyone doesn't have a comics store within walking distance.) or generally starved at the breast until it's swiftly, and inevitably canceled, whereupon everyone pats themselves on the back and solemnly intones that team-up books don't sell and the market has changed like that's somehow a sign that "market has changed" is an equivalent statement to "market has evolved."

And then we wonder why the market shrinks a little bit every year and all it seems to support is one new Wolverine book. Like the proverbial frog in the saucepan, we can't seem to work out why it's gotten so hot all of a sudden and why death is near-imminent.

It could be argued, of course, that the current slate of movie and TV shows function in place of "gateway books"--that your appetite is whetted for the concept in one medium and hopefully it entices you to seek out the character in his or her native medium.

Time and logic, of course, proves this is rubbish. Ask the editors of X-Men at the time how well it worked out that people who liked the first movie found the comic and it was this ghastly, insular mess, featuring the utterly rubbish Neo. If you can't provide a persuasive argument for why your character is worth reading about without relying on the pull-through of a movie or TV show, then it's time to seriously re-think your approach. Just like movies and TV shows, creators should understand that they're competing for an audience and the best way to catch and keep it is to make the most of what comics can do that no other medium can.

That means knowing your medium. That means using the past as a resource, rather than a crutch. That means making the most of the length and breadth of the universe that's laid out for your characters to play in. And maybe, just maybe, making it cool to experience it, which means it might--just might--be worth considering that these constant downbeat endings or adolescent stabs at "realism" might not be the best way to sell a medium that primarily does escapist fare best, as "Realism" in superhero comics works about as well as putting ice on the sun and should be equally as welcome.

A Programming Note


Starting Saturday, I'll be re-presenting some entries from the older blog, amended slightly (as in they'll probably be spell-checked, finally) and updated a bit.

As they're from the older blog, they're pretty manic, which will either be a jarring break from the usually more dry tone or the kind of thing you'd rather read here in the first place.

We will see.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Addendum to Yesterday's Post

Steven Grant makes some interesting points re: the Bill Willingham thing I was on about yesterday.

I agree with some of his points, but the idea that "classic superheroes fell out of fashion because they stopped selling, period" I don't agree with. I think the people who'd buy classic superheroes stopped having the sold to them, at least in the realm of comics. Titles that serves as "gateway" books to the Big Two's respective universes were canceled, comics disappeared from supermarkets and newsstands (shady business practices and quibbling about profit aside, this was a definite nail in the coffin) and flowed exclusively to the direct market, which was an ideal petri dish for creating a culture of superhero comics written by and for the fans exclusively, which led us to the self-cannibalising, permanently down-and-in, masturbatory mess we're left with at the moment.

Witless Dictionary #5--Ouroboroisty

Because no one thought to stop it, here it is again. Another installment in a continuing series of hot and juicy definitions that, with any luck will aid you in your understanding of just what the hell I'm on about just about every other day.

Ahh . . .who'm I kidding?

Ouroborosity--Term used to describe the ever-increasing habit among writers of superhero comics to cannibalise older stories or even flat-out retell them to no real great effect. The overall effect of this, of course, is to grind any and all forward momentum for a character or his or her respective title to a halt as readers have to endure the grueling feeling of deja vu and general futility (after all, it is the comic equivalent of reheated leftovers) that ouroborosity inevitably engenders.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blue Blue Skies & Bill Willingham


This has been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere of late. For the tl;dr among you, the gist is that Bill Willingham, noted except-for-Fables-all-but-an-also-ran-in-comics announced on some conservative site that superheroes had lost their way and he was done with all that sleaze and stuff (note he took this bold stance AFTER doing his bit to muck up superheroes . . .I also notice the words "yeah, uh, sorry for all that guys," never shows up in this thing anywhere) in his words:

"Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned."

His prescription, at least as far as he's concerned is: "the superhero genre should be “different, better, with higher standards, loftier ideals and a more virtuous — more American — point of view.”"

Hot damn, the creator of the Elementals Sex Special is On The Case! Things should improve immediately!

After reading it, I immediately thought of these guys. However, I was more certain they were probably taking the piss.

I'm being sarcastic here, because while I agree with the basic idea [I'll get to where Willingham and I part company in a bit] Superhero comics have been a victim of what TV Tropes calls the Crapsack World to such a degree the joy's been ripped whole and bleeding from the concept, this kind of thing didn't happen in a vacuum. No one came in like thieves in the night and started making every nominal hero a loathsome jerkass or some other kind of highly evolved neurotic, there was no master plan that contrived plot twists so grindingly depressing that it wallowed in Mobius-loop futility, there was no concerted plan by a secular humanist cabal to make superhero comics suck as hard as they do now.

No, gentle readers, this is the bill coming due for years of bad habit among the creators of superhero comics. This was the accretion of every writer who wanted to regurgitate the same 5 Spider-man stories every one knows by heart, those hubris-fueled creators who were determined that Superman was totally the venue for their story about exposing Jesus as a tranny vampire, the writers who were determined to make their mark on the character they were working on and make them damn well fit into Their Vision if they have to rip everything to pieces, this is the end result of the Permanent Crossover, which robs any hero or villain from success or failure because nothing ever really ever ends.

As Chris Claremont said about a billion times (as Claremont is wont to do) they sowed the wind, now they reap the whirlwind. What wouldn't be in crappy shape under that kind of pressure?

If there's dissatisfaction among the creators of today's superhero comics, one would imagine they, not we would be in the best position to fix it, if only they'd admit their part in creating the mess in the first place.

I understand the certain hubris writers have. Honestly, I do--I write myself. It's necessary-- You have to have a certain amount of egotism to think that that people really give a damn what you think and what you do. I know that, and there's a place for that.

I'm kind of in the minority here, but I'm not entirely certain a 40+ year old intellectual property (at least) is the best venue for said hubris to run wild. On some level, with characters like these, one must keep in mind that, with any luck, there's a generation coming up after them, a generation that hopefully grew up with these characters and might want to explore their own ideas with them (after all, if they weren't versatile enough to flex with the times, they'd have joined the Challenger and the Thunderer and backbenchers like that on the ash-heap of history) and maybe as the current stewards of these characters it might be worth thinking about--just thinking, here--not busting them so much that their first order of business is not cleaning up the mess the last guy made. That's more what presidential elections are for.

It's a blow to the ego, I understand--no one likes to think their creativity is wasted basically on caretaking (which is probably now a word, now that I think about it) but there's a certain nobility in helping to perpetuate something that will endure. I think so, anyways. It may not be yours, but concepts like these are as close as we have to things like shared fiction nowadays so maybe there's some dignity to be found in being a thread in that larger tapestry. It's something to think about.

Now, lest you think I too am calling for a return to Willingham's rather simplistic view of comics . . .well, you're wrong. You can do stories where the character is basically good and trying to do good in a world that not only makes it hard but occasionally punishes you for doing the right thing. You can tell a story about someone who struggles with their own problems while they're trying to do good and sometimes need to be helped through the hard bits.

People are doing books like that--it's called Empowered and that's a friggin' parody of superheroes, but manages to be a truer, more fulfilling superhero comic than pretty much any other superhero comic I'm reading at the moment. And it's not an all soft-edges book--Empowered's superhero world is generally like a hellishly hyper pituitary version of high school. HOWEVER, Empowered usually ends up triumphant, and doubly so because her good intentions trump the world around her and justify the hope that the good guys can win, even if there aren't near enough good guys in the world.

So hey, you can do sophisticated stories without plunging headlong into Russian-Novel land or limiting yourself to a world of Nerf conflicts. And you might also, whilst you're exploring the possibilities of superhero comics, we can also stop repurposing older stories in new and not necessarily improved ways. Rely on your own faculties to carry the concept forward, use the past as a resource and not a crutch.

One more thing that got my back up before I wrap this up--I totally, absolutely and unequivocally disagree with Willingham's assertion that the building blocks of superheroism has anything specifically to do with America. The qualities that make up a superhero as a vital, enduring concept doesn't include nationality. Heroism, and ultimately superheroism transcends borders--it wouldn't be an international phenomenon (and believe me, it is) if a limiting factor like that were so essential.

I mean, Captain America is not a great superhero to me because he embodies my home country--he's a great hero because he doesn't quit, even in the face of a hopeless fight against an unbeatable foe, he doesn't give up. Wearing the flag has nothing to do with it.

So . . .yeah. I don't know if Willingham and I really agree beyond "yeah, there's a problem with superhero comics." I don't know if we agree on what defines a superhero, period, actually. While I laud him for coming out and saying "maybe there's another way to do this," to me, it proceeds from the same flawed ideology that got us into this mess in the first place.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Witless Dictionary #4--The Austen Event Horizon

Continuing on with my never-ending quest to create terms of art for comics, that don't exist, but should. They're kind of like Sniglets, only you have a slightly better chance of running into someone who knows a Witless Dictionary definition as opposed to people who would even remember Sniglets.

I lie, of course--sniglets are huge. Especially in Burkina Faso.

The Austen Even Horizon: Point in a book's creative run where the creator in question has so piled on the ideas that could best be described as both "stupid" and "utterly chickenheaded" (Exploding communion wafers, Romeo and Juliet with wings, mutant werewolves) that the book becomes completely insufferable. It cannot be enjoyed, it cannot be so-bad-its-good, it can only be endured. At this point, all creator-reader goodwill has evaporated and the only people left reaidng your book are only doing so for reasons owing more to obsessive-compulsive disorder than any other reason.

It's like a tornado plowing through your neighborhood, in monthly 22-page installments. All you can do is hide in the closet and wait for it to be over.

Named for the original originator, naturally.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Iconography, Or: Pornography With Graven Images

So, I was trying to explain to someone the one time where movies and comics can do the same thing, after a long conversation about how comics don't translate to movies and how Watchmen isn't going to work and wokka wokka wokka, and I got to talking and thinking about iconography.

If any genre is ready-made for iconography, really, it's superhero comics--after all, on some level the continuing superhero comic usually depends (and often must revert by necessity) to a baseline archetype, which, like DNA for a concept, contains all the necessary information to perpetuate the concept to the next generation.

So as a thought experiment, I tried to rack my brain to see how many clearly iconographic images I could find and why they worked. I'm doing a crap job of explaining it (as usual) but perhaps once we get down to cases, you'll see what I'm going for. Any pretentiousness can be laid at the feet of my English degree and should be treated as such.

Superman's the easiest, of course--you ever notice how every Superman movie is going to have Superman flying over Earth, usually with the sun coming up behind the planet? It's symbolic of his role as the Benevolent Protector--he watches over everyone like a guardian angel, but it's not sinister or Orwellian (well, depending on who's writing him)--it's a shorthand way of summing up his purpose and his mission.

Contrast this with Batman. It is said truthfully that one could not throw a rock without hitting the iconic Batman Pose--standing or crouching over the city, in the dark, brooding like a gargoyle. There's a good picture for someone to draw in extrapolating that out to Batman lording over Gotham City like the demon in Fantasia, but to my knowledge it hasn't been done yet. It's weird how similar it is to the Superman image, except in this case Batman is the Sinister Guardian (a meme that's pretty solidly undeviating from--rarely now do you see Batman, even when not portrayed in the Miller vein as in any way "benevolent")--nominally a good guy but rather than a protector, he's more a figure of fear.

There's a bit of that in Spider-Man's iconography as well, the two classic images of Spider-Man--the primary image is, of course, him swinging through the city, but it's the second that's more telling. The other one, naturally, is Spider-man crawling up or down the wall. This doesn't slide neatly into a two-word definition, sadly, but it does play to a salient point in Spider-Man's character: he sure does look inhuman a lot. That edge of creepiness adds another level to his character which I'm not sure anyone who's worked on him has really made that explicit. It's curious that since he's primarily such a "light" superhero (those who think Spider-Man is Charlie Brown in tights are Wrong--it's Spider-Man's ability to suffer reversals and triumph simply by continuing on, that makes him a hero. He just never seems to triumph, anymore) has such a creepy edge to him. You have to wonder how much of that owes to the Steve Ditko-ness of him.

One I actually hadn't thought of in terms of iconic images, but a little digging proved to have one, was Iron Man. I'd been talking with someone about what a hard sell Iron Man was because he wasn't a well-known character amongst the general populace. This isn't that surprising--Iron Man's a hard sell among even common fans for many reasons (why care about who's in the suit when anyone can wear it, he's not relatable, he's kind of a twat, etc.) but I wondered if maybe the fact that Iron Man's appeal didn't lend itself to one iconic image had something to do with his lack of impact.

Then I looked at my bookshelf. When I bought this trade many many years ago, I didn't think much of the cover, but the image had a certain power (owing a lot to Mark Chiarello's rendering of it) but, younger and more unsophisticated as I was, I didn't get the symbolism.

I missed it the other two times it shows up as well--the second season intro of the 90's cartoon does it and there's a scene in the movie that does it as well. And that was, as they say, when the penny dropped.

The symbolism is that Tony Stark is the character, Iron Man is just a creation, and extension of the person beneath. The idea that he creates his own superpower comes through in the image of him working at the anvil. You might say, actually, that Stark's creativity is his superpower.

So you can find iconography anywhere, clearly.

And this is where I open the floor to all y'all. What images do you consider iconic and why? What do they tell someone about the character simply from that image and nothing else? Do you think this paragraph sounds a lot like an essay question from your middle-school exams? Explain your answer.

It'll be fun to see what, if anything y'all come up with . . .

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Witless Dictionary #3--The K-Box

Once again I bring the flow with another in the focused totality of my peculiar idiomatic phrasing in an effort to make this "talking about comics" stuff easier to understand.

That's the theory, anyways. If it fails, remember--my intentions were good.

Now let's do this:

The K-Box [as in "Getting up on the,"]: Not unlike "getting up on a soapbox," the act of pontificating about comics (retcons, ill-considered plot turns, One More Day, etc.) that in the process of doing so causes any actual good points and reasoned arguments to be subsumed in what can only be termed self-immolation. Usually ends with some variation of the phrase "die in a fire."

In other words--no one can hear the good points you're making since the noise you're making while doing so it is drowning them out. And because it's on the Internet, it will probably be around forever.

Named after the original originator, naturally.

Author's Note: In the interests of full disclosure--I have all too often gotten on my K-Box in the past, so I'm just as guilty as anyone for throwing the fire and brimstone around. One of the reasons I started Witless Prattle in the first place was to see if it was possible to have thoughtful discussions of comics and the state thereof without it being necessary to whip myself up into a foaming froth.

Y'know, just for a change.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Time Stand Still

Depending on how you feel, this is either long-promised or long-dreaded or, more objectively, not long anything because I only promised it here just two days ago.

Anyways, 1986.

Superhero comics weren't doing completely awful in 1986, actually--you could still find them on newsstands, a comic selling 100,000 copies was in trouble and John Byrne was still relevant. More than that, there were 3 major miniseries of note that at the time had a tremendous amount of buzz behind them and would go on to be the cornerstones of the superhero canon.

In one case, it's richly deserved--Watchmen is unassailably quality work which uses the grammar of superhero comics to its maximum potential. Combined with a grittier, more realistic take on the mindset of the costumed hero (which postulates that dressing up and fighting crime requires equal parts perversion and mental illness) and views the idea of saving the world in a more sinister light than we'd seen in superhero comics thus far.

In a fairer world we'd remember the way it expanded the vistas of the art form ("Look! We can do this! We can do so much more than we thought!") It should have been the final kiss-off to the slavish devotion to replicating the stories of the 60's and 70's with not much change and bringing a little more intellectualism to superhero comics. If the medium has ceased finding newer, younger audiences to replace the old, this was certainly one way to go forward.

Unfortunately, the main lesson people seem to have taken from it almost 25 years after is "Man, Rorshach is KEWL." Ever since then, superhero comics have been host to a number of imitators, all of whom take the surface elements with no knowledge of how they worked so well or why and the net result is like having the chassis of a Lamborghini Gallardo but the engine of a Go-cart.

(As an aside, I should mention my favourite moments featuring Rorshach in Watchmen aren't the ones where he's breaking bad on people, but the very few moments of humanity he exhibits--apologising to Nite Owl, for one, and the last confrontation with the landlady as well. It doesn't humanise him, but rather those moments of humanity throw his basic inhumanity into sharp relief.)

This was, of course, only the beginning. Running along with this was The Dark Knight Returns, written by Frank Miller, who you might remember I not-so-subtly implied was mentally ill yesterday. Dark Knight doesn't exactly argue against that--read today, with the benefit of hindsight it's garish, loud and borderline obnoxious, and blazed its trail more because Batman didn't usually shove glass in people's arms or shoot them with machine guns and generally be Death Wish or Dirty Harry tarted up as a Batman comic.

(I realise this is not a popularly-held notion, but really . . .I just re-read this thing and it's aged dreadfully. We should have known, even then.)

The harbingers of Miller's obsessions are all there--strength is prized above all else, and how much ass you kick is the barometer of everything that matters. To object to this rather simplistic worldview that force is the ultimate authority is to willingly grab ankle and pucker up to a world of spineless sheep or weasely manipulators. By returning to the world and illustrating the value of the five-fingered justice system, Batman is venerated like a messiah.

Seriously. From the full-page shots of Batman looming over awed bystanders, Carrie Kelly's unquestioning devotion to Batman, the former mutants idolizing him a mere five seconds after the fight with the mutant leader, but MOST of all, Lana Lang's utterly ridiculous (and, from all evidence, completely sincerely meant) "There is a MAN out there and he has shown us we can RESIST" speech. I dare you to read it and not roll your eyes.

Intellectually, of course, all this is rubbish, assuming you're above the age of 14 and don't spend your time concocting revenge against people who bullied you in high school.

It's been suggested that Dark Knight is best read as parody, and had these themes solely been contained within this book, I might believe that. Bust seeing as how Miller has returned to this basic concept of ass-kickery uber alles over and over and over again (and is still doing it in All-Star Batman and Robin: Adventures Behind The Sim Meridian) I am left to assume that no, he Really Means It. Miller is not only obsessed with "giving Batman his balls back" (whatever that means) his thesis in his later works seems to be that the real problem is that everyone needs their balls back and if we just returned to the halcyon days of say, Sparta, everything else would work out. Also, Batman totally needs to punch out Osama Bin Laden so that the healing can finally begin.

Naturally, everyone in comics took the wrong lesson from this, and a story that, while impactfully told, really should have been weighed about as much as that book where Batman is a vampire or hunting Jack the Ripper or whatever, has become another part of the dreary template of superhero comics today. Sure it was a shot across the bow in terms of "comics aren't for kids!" but replacing it with "Comics are for socially maladjusted arrested adolescents" was hardly and improvement.

Oddly prescient as it turned out, but not an improvement by any means.

The third book, much less regarded than the other two but a trend-setter in its own right was Squadron Supreme. While it's not mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen or Dark Knight, we certainly wouldn't have had Kingdom Come without it. Unlike our two previous examples, SS doesn't push things forward in terms of content as much as it does in terms of subject matter. Squadron Supreme simply tries to be The Last Justice League Story and it succeeds pretty well in that.

For those of you who don't know it (or only know the 2000-era version) it goes something like this: The Squadron, basically a one-to-one analog for DC's Justice League has to save the world in the wake of an alien takeover. To do so, they establish order, seek to eliminate the threat of disease, and eradicate the threat of crime. In a word, Utopia.

Utopia, unfortunately, is paved with slippery slopes. Eliminating crime involves screwing with the minds of criminals, often against their will. This then becomes a can of worms that splits the Squadron apart when the "mind-changing" device is used by a member of the Squadron on another member.

And that's just the start of things. Squadron Supreme asks a lot of very intriguing questions about superheroes and just how attainable the idea of saving the world is. Is utopia worth anything if a group of elites hands it to the man on the street? Is utopia justified as an end if the means are, at best, morally questionable? If a utopia is only as good as those who create it, what happens when the creators are gone--can you really trust that the next generation will be as good as you have been? What are the limits of what a superhero can do. To further read about the themes explored in this series, there's a great article here that is well worth your time, as is the article here, that takes you through the series in a less academic manner.

It's not all it should be, as a book--while this is undoubtedly Mark Gruenwald's vision, it lacks the coherence of the two previous books (It's hobbled by the lack of no consistent art team and a number of fairly generic fill-in artists) it has, subtly, informed on the superhero comics that followed it--I mentioned Kingdom Come earlier, but The Authority also has elements of the themes explored here (though obviously not quite in the same ways) the 2000-era revisiting seems to be an in-name-only version, and departs both from the initial concept (It's an off-brand Justice League) and the themes addressed in the mini.

Unlike the first two, Squadron Supreme isn't quite as responsible for terrible antecedents, mostly because it's not as well known as our previous examples, except among people who were doing superhero comics or coming up through the ranks at the time. In hindsight it exists mainly as a curious bridge between the old-school Roy Thomas-esque superheroing of yore, but with a bit more thought behind it.

To sum up, the tragedy here is not that these books got undeserved fame 23 years ago--most of them, by virtue of quality or sheer audacity, deserved the excitement they generated at the time. The tragedy is that not only were the wrong lessons learned by those who came after, but even more, they failed to push the potential boundaries further after being shown how to do exactly that. And in the meantime, a whole generation of readers (potential and otherwise) came and went, finding nothing pitched to their interest or experience (more or less--like it or hate it, the Image stuff, at the time, did inject a lot of energy into superhero comics that came from another place than this) and look at the damn mess.

Almost as quarter century later, we're going in circles and wondering why we haven't made it very far.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Witless Dictionary #2--Sim Meridian

Continuing our ongoing handy guide to the peculiar idiomatic terminology of the guy what writes this 'ere thing in an effort to make the gibberish that comes out of my mouth somewhat understandable (fool's errand though that might be):

Sim Meridian: Point in an artist's evolution past where burgeoning mental illness finally overrides any inherent charity on the part of the critical consumer and even former giants of their chosen medium must be seen for what they are--namely, raving lunatics who are determined to make fools of themselves on the public stage and artists a distant second. Named for this guy, but not exclusive to him. No sir.

E.G. "About the time he did Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller crossed the Sim Meridian, and we're really not sure what the hell he's been on about ever since. I mean . . ."Love chunks? Really?"

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Often, Things Begin With "I Don't Wanna Be That Guy, BUT . . ."

It all started innocently enough.

We were sitting in a restaurant, having lunch. Whereas most people see lunch as that meal what happens between breakfast and dinner, for me, lunch is a moment to debate or pontificate on whatever is on my mind at the time.

In short, to not shut up for one more our of the 24 that I never keep quiet during anyways. My life=endless cacophony.

Never mind that, though. This day I was discussing the merits of 2008's two big superhero movies, Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Moreover, I was trying to explain why they worked as well as they did and trying to justify (even though I objectively admit The Dark Knight was the superior movie) why I still liked Iron Man more.

My initial argument compared the two movies to, of all things, Bond movies--Iron Man was like Goldfinger--cool and confident in what it's doing and so perfectly in tune with the genre and style it's going for that it all looks effortless. It's the same song you've heard before, but there's not a bad note in it.

The Dark Knight, by contrast, was the Casino Royale of comic movies--blowing up the formula while at the same time revitalising it by looking at it in new directions. There are heroes, villians, gadgets, stunts, and on the face of things, we've all seen that before, but the scope is expanded a bit more. There's more going on, and more to think about (something which I've only got on repeated viewings) and generally it feels like an expansion of what's come before.

And then I brought up Watchmen. Ken Lowery makes and excellent point here that The Dark Knight has pretty much made Watchmen as a film redundant, and really, I think he's bang-on. Dark Knight expanded the possibilities of the superhero movie in much the same way as Watchmen the comic book expanded the possibilities of the superhero comic (for better or worse--I'll try to explain better my lament that superhero books evidently stopped evolving in 1986 at a later date) and really, it's now been done for the superhero-on-film, which should be distinct from the superhero comic.

Because, really, Watchmen-the-book's strength for me--now that all the adolescent "ooh! How'd he get away with all that stuff?! That's edgy and kewl!" has fallen away--is more as an exercise in the grammar of the superhero comic. What can you do? What are the possibilities of working in this genre? That, to me, is what someone who has a fondness of superhero comics should have taken away--here's a textbook on what you can do, and it can exist as a living example (as opposed to a textbook) of the possibilities of the genre and the medium. Kind of like how Citizen Kane is often cited by film students as the template for the possibilities of film.

Unfortunately, everyone working in comics seems to have nicked all the "kewl" surface elements, and we've been spinning our wheels for 22 years ever since. Again--saving that for my thoughts on 1986 being the best and worst of times.

I don't think that movies can work in the same kind of narrative density as comics are capable of (maybe Berlin Alexanderplatz)--too much information gets lost in the constant forward progression of film, wherein in comics you're free to pause and review what you read previously (you can do that with movies with liberal application of "fast forward" and "rewind," but it always bounces you out of your engagement with the film--for better or worse, movies are meant to be watched straight through) Comics operate by different rules--narrative density (even simultaneous multiple narratives) are possible without being overwhelming, for one thing.

Much was made, previous to it actually being mooted, that Watchmen was "unfilmable," and honestly, it is. What makes Watchmen special is how it uses the full potential of it's parent medium to its maximum potential. Read it again, sometimes. Pay special attention to the 5 complete stories (or so) that run through it, and how you can follow them like individual threads that part of a larger tapestry at the same time.

Now think about how much of that could make it into the movie. What works on the page quite often looks ridiculous when blown up on a movie screen. The Dark Knight was able to expand the possibilities of the grammar f the superhero movie well enough. Possibly because it was conceived to work in its native medium, as Watchmen worked so well it its own.

I can't really see why we need a Watchmen movie. That ground's been broke, and broke without having to compromise an existing text to do it. And the advantages of taking Watchmen-the-book to the big screen don't justify the inevitable compromises and omissions, and the inevitable false notes that will be struck.

Never mind, that from all I've heard, the people making Watchmen, like the fans-who-became-pros who read the comic back in the day, seem to have glommed on to entirely the "kewl" qualities . . .well, it's all a bit disappointing, really. Doesn't give one high hopes for the final product.

Oh well. We got two good ones in 2008.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Witless Dictionary #1--Pull-Quote

Because I speak in what could charitably called "code" (or, if you're less charitable, "gibberish") I submit the following feature, designed to give you a leg up on understanding Kazekage's special brand of idiomatic language, the Witless Dictionary--explaining recurring motifs and phrases so I don't make the usual posts even longer.

Because really, no one wants that.

Pull-Quote: Parodying the traditional fawning quotes from critics you see on the back of books or DVD boxes, Kazekage's pull-quotes are inevitably glib, one to two sentence nutshell summation of his opinions, said for a laugh or to start a discussion.

E.G. "As someone who's read every issue of Iron Man from 1963-2006, I can safely say there's only 100-125 issues or so anyone should bother with. Burn the rest for fuel in the wintertime."

Monday, January 5, 2009


Hey y'all,

What most people don't understand about the creative process is that very little of it usually happens at the computer keyboard. Oftentimes, inspiration strikes in mundane moments like folding the laundry, hanging a clock in your bathroom and slipping and hitting your head on wet porcelain, looking at your toes in the bathtub, watching a bat smash through the window of your study, or discreetly scratching those hard-to-reach places in public--the actual business of typing it all out is just transcribing things you've already worked out in your head.

Funnily enough, this is a story of the one time inspiration actually did hit me at the keyboard. I was doing a raft of responses to the illustrious Diana Kingston-Gabai --whose blog is very worth your time to read, as she's quite a writer of note. I tend every now and again to visit her blog and end up posting long epics about comics and sci-fi and other stuff which inevitably end up busting the comment thread limit, meaning they're these great nightmarish multi-part epic replies and, well, I thought:

1) I should get a life (Most of you will agree with this, I'm certain. The rest I will persuade with subsequent posts)

2) I should open a blog of my own, and thus have an outlet for my blathermouthiness (which is not a word, let us assume that it might be) Mind you, I have a blog already--two, actually--but I wanted one I could show to people that wouldn't be full of rage, vitriol, and so many swears and cusses.

3) If I have a blog, she can return the favour and blow up my comment section for a change.

So, what will be on this blog? I described it to a friend of mine tonight as "The inevitable collision of my arrested adolescence and somewhat squandered higher education," which sums it up. Expect a lot of thought pieces (a post about iconography in comics and movies is planned) most of which will spin out of idle thoughts or discussions with folks I know.

Oh, and I will try to curb my natural inclination to be a frothing, cursing, lunatic in at least one place on the Internet. Because it's nice to have one place like that, but partly because it's the last thing anyone would expect from me.


[Y'know, I never know what to write in these introductory posts . . . ]