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.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I do wish Willingham would keep his mouth shut and carry on with "Fables", which, curiously enough, bears all the hallmarks of that better model for superhero comics: you have lasting change, characters who are essentially good stuck in a crappy situation and coping the best they can, and the world(s) may be in bad shape but they're not inherently bad, which... somehow both DC and Marvel ended up there, and they don't even know it, and in short bursts that sort of thing can work out well in terms of dramatic potential, but... you know, eventually it wears thin.

Mind you, not too long ago we had perfectly viable alternatives such as the Timm/Dini Animated Universe, and to some extent that still exists with "The Brave and the Bold", although... I don't know, that hasn't won me over the way the old Batman/Batman Beyond/Superman/JL (pre-Unlimited) milieu did.

And let's not forget Willingham also did that run on "Robin" where he killed up Tim's girlfriend with a drill to the face or whatever, so, yeah, not the best person to take a stand on morality.

Kazekage said...

I have read so much crap with Willingham's name on it, sadly, I've never read Fables. Nevertheless, from your description, it sounds like a pretty good way forward, all things considered--as I said in another post, the surrounding world can get more morally muddled and more complex, but ultimately your protagonist has to do good. Or, at least try. Otherwise, your heroes are shown up as completely ineffectual and, y'know, why bother?

And, even better, the Timm/Dini stuff was accessible to someone who didn't have a degree in Advanced Comics. I really liked the way they struck a balance between providing a deep fictional universe full of breath, but it never bogged down in minutiae.

As for Brave and the Bold . . .I kinda like it, but more because it's trying to tell a different Batman story than what we're used to, and it's basically Marvel Team-up featuring Batman--everything cool about the DCU, presented as un-intimidatingly as possible. It's a fairly different remit from The Timm/Dini stuff, but . . .it's Batman. He's enduring enough an icon, I think that he can be a vehicle for multiple kinds of stories.

And Elementals, which I have never quite understood why it as so lauded. Viewed in hindsight, it was a blueprint for everything that shouldn't have been carried over to the Big Two books . . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

See, that's the truly weird thing about Willingham: despite his horrid reputation (based on what he did in "Robin", it's probably well-deserved), "Fables" still stands head-and-shoulders above most of Vertigo's current output, especially now that it's no longer competing with "Y: The Last Man".

I'd go a step further: it's all right for your hero to lose, to fail, but if your grand narrative of the last five or six years has your heroes failing over and over again, constantly trumped by villains... yeah, that's just not the way to go.

Not until they revamped "Justice League", anyway. After that, things got seriously weird with the cameos and the random team-ups and the absolutely bizarre storylines.

It probably helps that he already has been used in everything from Haney-era comedy skits where he frames Superman for witchcraft while visiting 16th-century Salem to those quasi-Miller angst-fests of the early '90s. And the films have their own versions too: Burton's Batman isn't Schumaker's, and Nolan's is another creature altogether.

Never heard of Elementals; how'd he screw the pooch on that one?

Kazekage said...

If I can sample Fables in such a way as where I don't have to lay out a bunch of money for it, I'll try to give it a fair hearing. Mind you that's a lot of goodwill for Willingham to earn back.

Yeah. At some point, to borrow another term from pro wrestling, your faces have to go over at some point of you kill all interest in the product.

I kinda liked the "Unlimited"-era Justice League most of the time, but oh lordy when they failed, they failed hard. That Batman Beyond retcon was the stupidest stupidity to ever stupid the stupid.

But of course, it doesn't hurt the perception of the character to have alternate stories exist at the same time (or close to the same time) as you're trying to promote another image in the comics. Comics themselves, of course, are determined to hammer every iteration of the same character into the same general shape.

Elementals, in a few words, is basically everything DC comics has been doing since Identity Crisis only they did it to a bunch of generic characters and the whole thing read like it was written by Alpha Flight-era Bill Mantlo. It gets a lot of good ink for being "groundbreaking for its time" but oh lord, I remember it just being shite.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Well, there are ways... ;) I think I was lucky because the first Willingham book I read was "Fables", so it's a lot easier for me to focus on that and just ignore whatever else he's doing. Readers who were burned by his more dubious works would understandably be more reluctant to give his alleged masterpiece a chance.

Which is happening right now, only the cheese-for-brains editors aren't seeing it.

Tell me about it. I thought Terry was an amazing character, not least of all because he wasn't like Bruce. Except, hey, guess what! He is! Groan-worthy.

Of course not - played right, it can even be refreshing to see familiar characters in different contexts. But Joe Quesada doesn't like alternate universes (I suspect "doesn't like" is a euphemism Marvel often uses rather than "doesn't understand", which is far more likely) so apparently every Spider-Man in the Multiverse ends up rehashing the same stories and the same angles. Bo-ring.

Well, the big problem with Identity Crisis was that Meltzer had bolted on some really horrible stuff to a period of League history that ran counter to the whole grim-and-gritty phase. I imagine that, without that baggage (and maybe we could leave out the Tiny Footprints In Her Brain), Identity Crisis might have made for an interesting skeleton of a story...

Kazekage said...

Hence the nut of my problem. I'm gonna find a volume of Fables in my bookstore sometime soon and read the whole thing, I think. Then leave without paying. That's how I got a taste of Umbrella Academy.

Yeah, and more's the pity. I was thinking the other day how 10 years ago the editors on the X-Books were a law unto themselves that chased off untold creative teams. Now they're completely neutered. Weird.

Never mind they'd highlighted the difference in Return of the Joker wherein they all but spelled it out. That retcon . . .man. If you're going to do something like that, it better be more beneficial than damaging. This . . .was damage.

Quesada's understanding and mine must just be on different wavelengths. When I wonder why he does things that don't make any sense, I have to stop and remind myself "Wait, dude--to Quesada, Azarael's costume design actually made sense. You are operating on different bandwidths in the spectrum."

Maybe, like Northstar, Spider-Man's some kind of eternally reincarnating screw-up.

"And when I saw one row of tiny footprints in her brain, that was when Jesus carried me through the hard times" The real problem with Identity Crisis is that it's completely unworkable as a Justice League story--conceptually, it just can't carry the subject with any credibility. You can do a murder mystery with superheroes but . . .not that one. For one thing, it needs to be reasonably coherent and have a logical payoff.

IC's even more unworkable as a blueprint for the DC universe--like it or not, trying to imprint Crime At Its Most Awful Writ Large just doesn't work in the DC Universe.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

That was quite a surprise, wasn't it? I mean, I heard "Gerard Way" and I thought "Uh-huh, here we go." And he turned out to be quite good at it.

I wonder whether you'd really need editors if the writers were good enough - Vaughan, Carey, Brubaker and the like don't strike me as requiring someone hanging over their shoulder offering ways to improve their work.

How weird is it that DC's need to tear down legacy characters extended all the way to the Animated Universe?

And unfortunately, his bandwidth is the one that steers Marvel's creative direction. I think "Oy" about covers it.

I can just see Galactus or Eternity or the Watchers or whoever it is that Presides Over All The Omniverse According to Marvel going "Hmm... Peter Parker #458314 is having a good day. Can't have that!"

Classic genre dissonance: hell, you probably could do a murder mystery with the Justice League - but not the bloody BWAH-HA-HA Justice League. I gather there were enough versions of Crapsack Team in a Crapsack World, why darken the only well-remembered period where the team actually had fun?

That goes back to Busiek's distinction between the Big Two, because... well, here's an interesting thought experiment. What if Marvel had done "Identity Crisis" and DC had done "Civil War"? Thematically, they seem rather compatible... it would've forced DC to finally question the iconic (and therefore static) positions of their heroes, and Marvel's exactly the sort of arena that could sustain a Look How Flawed The Old Guard Really Was theme.

Kazekage said...

It did take me by surprise that I found myself, even tangentially, enjoying anything related to My Chemical Romance.

Well, part of being a good editor is knowing just how much authority is necessary in a given situation. Just because Brubaker doesn't need an editor gainsaying his every plot point doesn't mean that some desperately need it.

It doesn't surprise me. DC's been aiming a loaded pistol at its head since the turn of the millennium, at least.

I'm kind of glad my brain doesn't share that bandwith, honestly. I do wish his didn't have a whole comics company promulgating it, however.

I think, when it comes to cosmic entities and Spider-Man it's like Lucy and the football, innit?

Well, again, rightly or wrongly, superhero comics don't do stories about rape all that well (unless, it's dressed up as something else, see Ms. Marvel and Rogue) Too many questions are asked by the reader, too much realism seeps in, and the connective tissues of the genre start falling apart.

Hmm. . .that's an interesting question. I'm not sure Civil War's political dimensions would translate quite as well to the DCU--something the people writing the DCU seem to ignore--but it would be an interesting switch.

Again, though, I'm not sure you can do either story at either company without doing real damage to the genre's underpinnings, though. In a self-contained work? Maybe. In an ongoing? Not so long as a new issue has to hit the stands next month.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

That was a humbling moment for me, because I went on record equating it with that whole Jenna Jameson thing over at Virgin Comics, and... well, who could've guessed he'd do so well?

I'm just imagining an idealized Marvel where the talent is so uniformly skilled that editors are redundant. Let me have my dream! :)

I just wish they'd pull the trigger and get on with it. This is the most protracted death scene since Tony Montana.

Yep. No Pigskin For You, Come Back One Year.

And not to invoke the spirit of WFA, but there are very few male writers in the business who can credibly pull something like that off without seeming cheap, insensitive and opportunistic.

They did have that whole bit with President Luthor, though...

Well, Paul O'Brien is convinced there's a bigger game plan at work, that "Civil War", "Secret Invasion" and "Dark Reign" serve as a mega-arc and the final act, in which the heroes rebound and save the day, is right around the corner. And I'd like to believe that, I really would, but that requires more confidence in the higher-ups than they've earned with me.

Kazekage said...

Well, how were we to know, really? Considering when people cross over from other media the result is usually 1) garbage and 2) often devolves into a weird sadomasochistic relationship wherein Creator A abuses Company B and Company B absolutely loves it, we're really not set up for when these things actually, y'know, work. :)

Uh . . .yes. I hope you brought enough dream-ponys for everyone, since Unrealistic Wish Fulfilment is on the menu. :)

Well, that's just it. Their suicidal urge conflicts greatly with their inability to actually hit anything.

Or just forget all of it when the E-I-C says so. :)

Well, it does have the virtue of being true in this case. The staggering inability of writers who rape/brutalise/whatever a female character and them deny her the chance for revenge on her attacker or any other way for said character to regain their "heat" worries the hell out of me, in much the same way as the fact that people want Superman to screw with Lois' mind until the end of days.

And did pretty much nothing with it, really. Superman ground his teeth and made frowny faces for awhile, then Jeph Loeb decided to put him back in the power suit and that was that.

Wellll . . .my problem with that is that even mega-arcs need time limits and the whole SecretCivilDarkWarInvasionReign has dragged on and on and can we just shut up and get on with something that doesn't involve puerile stabs at political subtext that are, at best, grievous insults to the intelligence of say, the common sea cucumber?

Because I'm ready for that. Been ready for awhile now.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Yes, past examples haven't given us many reasons for optimism, have they? Although I like to think there's some karmic justice for the worst offenders (ie: Kevin Smith).

There's a "tastes so good" joke in there, but I'll leave that to Randy Milholland. :)

Much like Stormtroopers, they just shoot blanks...

And that's... well, I hope it's not integral to the medium, but it's not something I see changing anytime soon. A necessary evil of the genre, I suppose, though I do my very best to steer clear of the more blatant examples.

That's the same problem I had: even if Paul's right, and the current Crapsack World will eventually give way to something resembling sanity again, it's not going to happen any time soon, and you can bet the restoration will take just as long. And unless you're deeply invested in the Marvel Universe as a world (as opposed to being invested in specific characters within that world), why would you stick around for that?

Kazekage said...

I dunno, Batman:Cacophony may mean the joke's on us yet again. Although I very much hope not. I keep hoping that when enough of these Hollywood carpetbaggers fall on their face it'll thin out, but I have a feeling I'll be waiting quite awhile for that.

I'm saying nothing to that one. ;)

Or that they shoot live ammo, just that they miss the mark by . . .oh a continent or so.

Well, it doesn't have to be integral to the medium if comics would just grow out of it already--I mean, we finally stopped with racist caricature to a large extent, surely that means other hurdles can be cleared with a little effort.

I think he's right. The problem is--every month where it doesn't happen is another month when things gets a little more depressing, a little more broken, and a little more desperate, and the question then becomes "what, if anything will be left to salvage?" And unfortunately I'm not invested enough in either universe to stick around as they continue to foul their own nests.