Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Steve Gerber is emblematic of a certain time at Marvel Comics, one in which, even in the bog-standard superhero books, it was more than possible to get away with stories that were weird, completely in their own world, and on occasion, oddly personal. I have (with tongue ever so slightly in cheek) called this the Magical Cocaine Unicorn Party era, as the mythologising of this period, like the early 1970's period of film making in Hollywood, is lionized as a moment when geniuses were allowed to roam free and then the corporations came in and Ruined It For Everyone.
This is, of course, largely nonsense, as both periods, however creative, are more distinguished by rampant self-indulgence more than anything, and a body of work perhaps best justified as being done in-between bong hits or something. Nevertheless, of the writers working back then, Gerber's work is as close to fulfilling the promise of the times than anything else.
Whilce Portacio, on the other hand, is emblematic of another time , a time when artists were in ascendancy at Marvel and their every whim was catered to. Mind you, this still didn't stop Portacio and a number of other hot artists from breaking away to form Image Comics a bit later, which forever excoriated them as money-grubbing primadonnas who left the welcoming arms of Marvel to do their own thing and get a bigger slice of the pie. No, seriously--this is what people were saying.
Thankfully, before all this happened, Gerber and Portacio collaborated on the two-issue miniseries LEGION OF NIGHT, and I'm rather glad they did, because it's certainly a singular piece of work, both for the artist, the writer, and the company itself. In many ways, well before the advent of Marvel's MAX imprint, it's almost a Vertigo book.
It's also going to be damned hard to review, as it's rather . . .elliptical. Let me demonstrate by trying to summarise it. Nominally, the story is this--a cult resurrects Fin Fang Foom (or a demon posing as him, because heaven knows, Fin Fang Foom's reputation must be preserved), who then proceeds to . . .suck the world into his dream, and the world will end if he's awake and also he has to get this girl pregnant, and the nominal "hero" of the book gets shot, stabbed, and takes a header out of a 30-story building and spends the rest of the story being not dead and also turning into Omen, who is the leader of the Legion and generally drives the story forward.
It's . . .very confusing.
Nevertheless, if one is willing to get into the spirit of it, there's an intriguing story here, full of familiar things for the longtime Marvel reader (even moreso if you're a Gerber fan--the Legion is largely made up of supporting characters from various books he's worked on) lover of satire (Gerber has few good things to say on the subject of cults) and the aficionado of generally weird stuff (More than once, the reader is subjected to some very odd and disturbing images, not least Baby Fin Fang Foom) it's helped immeasurably by Portacio's art, which is in full Jim Lee-by-way-of-Bill-Sinkiewicz mode, which gives the whole thing exactly the right kind of edge.
I can't exactly recommend it--it's more a curio than something You Must Read. But it's an interesting, strange artefact of several different times, possessing none of what usually distinguishes either creator's output, and it's certainly not the kind of thing one would expect the parent company to publish, mired as it was in the apex of its "play it safe" days, but perhaps, paradoxically, because of all of these things it's worth seeking out.
Certainly, there's nothing like it before or since.
Monday, March 30, 2009
It's a thread that runs through many of his work, perhaps even more concentrated in his collection of resume cover letters, Overqualified, now out in convenient book form and, amusingly, printed on resume paper.
Overqualified's basic conceit is that Joey Comeau has come unglued slightly following the loss of his girlfriend and the death of his brother, and in searching for gainful employment, has begun to share perhaps a little too much in his cover letters. The juxtaposition between the intensely personal ramblings of the possibly unhinged in the most facile and homogeneous of documents leads ultimately to the (often very black) humour.
I'll let Comeau say it, as he can get his point across better than me:
"And then one day a car comes out of nowhere, and suddenly everything changes and you don't know if he'll ever wake up. You get out of bed in the morning, and when you sit down to write another paint-by-numbers cover letter, something entirely different comes out.
"You start threatening instead of begging. You tell impolite jokes. You talk about your sexual fantasies. You sign your real name and you put yourself honestly into letter after letter and there is no way you are ever going to get this job. Not with a letter like this.
And you send it anyway."
Initially, Comeau actually sent these letters out to companies, and those can be read here. The novel takes some of those letters and welds them into something of a coherent narrative (well, in a sense) which is no less hilarious, just slightly less anarchic than the web version was.
If you're one of the uninitiated, or if A Softer World's humour doesn't appeal (there's an absolute deadpan earnestness to it that doesn't scream "this is a joke" from every corner) it's a hard sell to make. On the other hand, if you do like that kind of humour, or (and this is the level at which it worked for me) if you hate writing cover letters so much that you often fantasize about doing something similar, then this is the book for you.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
FACT 2: Nostalgia exercises in comics are usually dreadful, excruciating things. Roy Thomas, especially, is notorious for this kind of thing--in later years, his work was characterised by characters who were dragged into present day continuity for scarcely understood reasons, and all of these characters spoke in dialogue meant to constantly remind you that these characters were from the 1940s or 50s because that's all they would talk about. That I need glasses today probably owes to the fact that I've rolled my eyes over many a story such as these.
FACT 3: Owing to Marvel's 2000-era stance of pissing all over their past for short term gain or revamping them into God knows what, the idea of doing a six issue miniseries about characters from the late 1940s, early 1950s--before there was even a proto-Marvel Comics as we know them, seemed . . .very odd, indeed, for current-era Marvel. It's the kind of idea, as Paul O'Brien once said, that Bill Jemas would have shot out of a cannon.
With all these facts on the table then, let's have a look at Agents of Atlas, a book that I am surely the last person on Earth to both read and enjoy. Sorry y'all--takes me rather long to get on the bandwagon these days.
Agents of Atlas is, at its heart, and attempt to make What If #9 ("What If The Avengers Had Formed In The 1950s?") into a workable, long-term premise. The whole 1950's Avengers thing ended up having a long shelf-life, despite being negated in both the original What If issue and later on in Avengers Forever. On some level, fans (or fans who later became creators) just like to see disused 50's heroes that didn't catch on at the time gathered together as a team to fight evil.
Comics--the only place where anachronism can be an asset.
Agents takes the position that the 1950s Avengers existed and didn't get negated--they simply went underground and worked together for a few months, then disbanded, going their separate ways and ending up in the rather curious circumstances. Jimmy Woo is now a SHIELD agent and now very brain-dead after leading a disastrous raid into one of the bases of his old foe, the Yellow--excuse me, Golden Claw. It's his journey, which is back and also forwards, that is the spine of the miniseries and the heart of the writer's approach as well, and it's worth quoting writer Jeff Parker in full here:
The Second Chance is the common link that runs through each of our main characters. Gorilla Man gets a second chance at being where he belongs and feeling useful again. Venus learns about her past and even when confronted with a shocking truth, finds the will to go on. Marvel Boy--er, Bob--doubly alienated from Earth and his adopted home, finds a place to belong again. Namora gets a second chance at life, as does Jimmy Woo--in their case, literally. By the end of the book, everyone not only has had their second chances (in some cases, third or fourth) but the book ends with a new sense of purpose that not only sets up a new series (man, lucky how that worked out, eh?) but infuses the entire book with a real sense of promise and new potential.
In short, it makes the book less of a nostalgia exercise as it's less about establishing how The Past Was So Great and more about establishing these characters and their history in the present and providing them with an interesting future direction (and really, one that gives the team a tangible reason to continue to exist, which is more than you usually get from these kinds of stories) that I'm intrigued enough by to give the ongoing a chance.
Mind you, it's not perfect--the eye-rolling dated references have been replaced by eye-rolling woefully puerile stuff about Venus making everyone horny and Namora wanting to bang her cousin, which is all rather silly and doesn't add very much to the proceedings because we get it, already, thank you. But it's a minor blemish, and considering how badly things could have gone, it's a minor miracle that that's my sole complaint.
That's enough about the story, I think--I'd rather not spoil all of it as much as encourage you to read it. Marvel hardcover of Agents of Atlas is quite a treat--not only, do you get the complete miniseries, no only do you get all the promo stuff and design sketches that led up to the mini series, but you get the most copious and thorough amount of reprints I think I've ever seen, especially given the relative obscurity of these characters. In brief:
Marvel Mystery Comics #82--From 1947, the first appearance of Namora, during a time when distaff female characters were being tried out in features of their own. It's your standard Golden Age story, which means it's ropey and somewhat crazy, and Namora doesn't help her case as being an empowering role model for girls by getting captured very quickly, but Sub-Mariner gets knocked out by a mook with a slapjack, so really, no one comes off that well here.
Venus #1--From 1948, the first appearance of Venus and the beginning of a very odd (if not outright batshit crazy) comic. Venus is deeply bored with the whole goddess thing and decides to go stand in a busy New York Street. Wouldn't you know--a magazine mogul just happens along, decides she's nuts but gives her an editing job anyway, and the romance comic-esque engine of this comic starts, which later on in the run ends up as a horror comic. God knows why. Weird and all over the place as Golden Age stories tend to be, these post GA, pre-Silver Age stories tend to be even more nutty.
Marvel Boy #1--Marvel Boy comes to Earth from Uranus and flashes bright lights in people's eyes as they giggle relentlessly when he tells them where he's from. This is a pretty odd story, hinging on a very obscure point of law involving instant continents, that then turns into a battle with pirates and subterranean aliens who Marvel Boy inadvertently pisses off and has to fight. Marvel Boy doesn't really distinguish himself here--the whole story resolves itself while Marvel Boy acts fairly passively, to be honest. Also, I find his short pants disturbing.
Men's Adventures #26--Never let it be said that "comics aren't for kids" hasn't been a meme for, like, ever. This is the first appearance of Gorilla Man, which is not to be confused with the 18 other Gorilla Men they had around this time. Ken Hale goes into the jungle looking for the mythic Gorilla Man that continues to haunt his dreams, and in a shocking twist (and by "shocking" I mean "you could see it coming a mile away") learns that deep down in our hearts, we are all Gorilla Men. No, actually that's not what happens. It's a typical Atlas-era horror story, which depends on the twin tactics of a Twilight Zone ending and Stan Lee's overwrought purple prose (written in second person--the keystone of all quality prose) to work.
Menace #11--The Human Robot (not called that) makes his first appearance in another twist-ending extravaganza from the purple pen of Stan Lee (again doing the second-person narration thing) and some uncharacteristically moody artwork from John Romita. Basically, a robot takes his orders a bit too literally, and wacky hi-jinks ensue. There's not much to say about this one, except that Lee seems to have a nervous breakdown trying to sell the ending as something Very Frightening Indeed.
Yellow Claw #1--The first appearance of Jimmy Woo, the Yellow Claw (who is absolutely positively not Fu Manchu, because Atlas would have had to pay someone for that), and a whole mess of genteel racism from bygone days. Notable for its time because comics where the titular character was a villain were fairly rare and that our hero is Chinese himself, Yellow Claw is and otherwise forgettable attempt to blend the Yellow Peril stuff of the Fu Manchu stories with the equally didn't-this-turn-out-to-be-a-bugaboo spectre of Communism, and why in the name of GOD is every Chinese person coloured such a weird shade of canary yellow, but the artwork by Joe Maneely is quite amazing in terms of the level of detail, though his Black Knight run is a little more my speed.
Finally, the reprints end where it all began with What If #9, which started the whole ball rolling, as it were. It's not a story that's aged particularly well--Alan Kupperberg and Bill Black make every attempt at a likeness frightening and wrong and Don Glut's scripting is terrible in a late Roy Thomas kind of way--3D Man makes '50's references the whole time in case we forget when the story's supposed to take place and Gorilla Man is a stock Ben Grimm "bitching about what a monster I have become and fighting with everyone" type and no one else has a particularly engaging personality, and the whole thing gets retconned at the end. Nevertheless, I'm glad it's here, if only because a) I finally get to read it at last and b) it was the jump off point for Agents of Atlas and was so much what I feared it could be and was very thankful it wasn't.
(I should also add here--it has an appearance by 1950's Soviet super villain Electro, and holy cow . . .that the Soviets decided to create an agent who is:
2) Wears a big red pair of y-fronts
3) Has big red EVIL EYES
4) Wears a . . .fez?
. . .was a fearsome enough foe is pretty much everything that is goofily awesome about comics)
All in all, this was a surprise, and gets my highest recommendation. Hopefully when I check out the ongoing here soonish, it'll continue in a like vein.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
It's also one of those things that when I try to explain it to people their reactions are usually blank stares and utter confusion. This isn't something wrong with them (Humour is subjective, after all) it's just that Dinosaur Comics is rather unique.
Here, let me have a stab at describing it:
Dinosaur Comics features the same six panels over and over again with the same pictures of clip art dinosaurs every day since 2003. The gag is that while the pictures may be the same, the dialogue is always different, covering such diverse topics as the origin of superheroes, considerations of philosophical approaches, and perhaps the most awesome and simultaneously stupid novel idea, ever.
. . .hmm, yeah--you're probably better off just looking at the links.
The book is, as you might have surmised, a "best of" collection of the early years of Dinosaur Comics, from the first few relatively simplistic strips and is quite a fat little collection (250 pages, give or take) and that may be a bit daunting for the neophyte reader, because a cursory flip-through will only yield that it's the same art over and over again. It's really only by actually reading through the strips and coming to appreciate the completely bent and frequently unpredictable style that the author brings to it that it will either win you over or deter your utterly.
There's something to be said for the fact there's no middle ground there, I reckon.
In any case, I found it to be a book well worth reading, and perhaps you will as well!
Friday, March 27, 2009
The X-Men are a curious property--when originally launched, they were one of the few Marvel launches that didn't catch on, and they tried pretty much everything--new team members (The Mimic, who probably failed because he was another milquetoast white dude in a team of them except he had all their powers and was a serious asshole besides) a long, over-arching storyline (Factor Three, which has to be the one continuity backwater no one's tried to mine again, possibly because it was completely asinine) hot-shot deaths (Professor Xavier, killed by a cave troll in the subway) breaking up the team, getting the team back together, two crossovers with Avengers, a Spider-Man guest shot, and, when all that failed, two issues by Jim Steranko, presaging the tactic of dropping in hot artists to revive a flagging title.
None of it worked. There's a lot of theories as to why this is--the scripting vacillated between Arnold Drake's lifeless and leaden writing and Roy Thomas' then-frequent habit of writing everyone as a whiny hysteric, the lack of any credible villains leading to never ending Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants--a lot--and somewhat also it was meant to parallel racism and address the issues of discrimination with a cast of well-to-do honkies in a fancy prep school, which sort of undercut the message slightly.
But no one thought to cancel the book--at least not yet--so X-Men kind of thrashed along, working through its growing pains in public, occasionally succeeding, often failing, and sometimes having the X-Men fight bad guys dressed as grasshoppers.
It is, I should add, my favourite period of X-Men ever.
Perhaps it's morbid curiosity.
Anyways, Essential X-Men Classic Vol. 3 (geez, what a title) covers the end of the original X-Men run, which ended up being a bit on the bittersweet side. It begins with a few dreary issues from Drake and Roy Thomas and Don Heck, who gamely try to convince us simultaneously that the Living Pharaoh is at all an interesting villain and Cyclops' heretofore unknown brother Havok is interesting despite being written entirely in Stan Lee Angstese. They're redolent of the plodding kind of storytelling and lack of characterisation that got us here.
Things pick up substantially (kinda) three issues in, as the stories Roy Thomas/Neal Adams runs begins. The story itself is still rather dull--the Living Pharaoh's alternate identity, the Living Monolith, isn't any more interesting--and it's full of the genteel racism of bygone years (watch as Cyclops calls Arabs "camel jockeys!") but the art's real nice to look at (in some places, looks a lot better in black and white) as Adams was really feeling his oats back then and packed every page with dynamic layouts and very kinetic action that all too often seems barely contained by the panel borders, and sometimes not even then.
The old urban legend is that Adams wanted to work on Marvel's lowest-selling title when he jumped from DC to Marvel, and I've always wondered if that was by design--working on the lowest-selling book, it didn't matter if what he did didn't work, because the book was pretty much on the block anyway, so he was free to cut loose.
The Thomas/Adams run is fondly remembered, and Adams has remarked--not unfairly--that pretty much every successive X-Men creative team has run through the same subjects they would--Sentinels, the Savage Land, Magneto--often in the very same order that they'd occurred in the Thomas/Adams run. If you look at Claremont's early run with the newer X-Men of the 70's you'll see he's not far wrong.
Of course, some of the Thomas/Adams run doesn't work today, and has been mostly abandoned. The Living Monolith, for instance, has rightly been put on the shelf, more or less. Sauron, yet another in a seemingly endless line of villains with hypnotic powers (seriously, they were a dime a dozen in Marvel in the 60's) fares a little better in that he's fondly remembered at all, but again, as he basically Ben Casey MD who turns into a Pterosaur who wears cutoffs in his off hours and no one remembers who the hell Ben Casey is anymore, he's fallen into disuse. And the less said about the Z'Nox story which closes out their run (wherein the most potentially devastating and astoundingly boring invasion force is defeated by a great big beam of love, as Paul O'Brien says) the better.
The Sentinels, the Savage Land, and the Magneto stuff plays a bit better, and these went on to become the major tentpoles of the franchise, really--even if the Savage Land stuff is a curious artifact that was bolted to X-Men continuity because Stan Lee felt like it that day.
In-between the Adams issues, Don Heck makes a yeoman's effort to draw very much like him in a story that introduces future X-man Sunfire and good God, talking of the genteel racism of bygone days, read this and cringe cringe cringe. To be fair, Sunfire is one of those elements from this run that hung on--he's one of the charter new X-men, after all (and, to show us how far race relations have come in the 5 years since X-Men was cancelled, he is less "Japanese villain" and more "inconsistently characterised asshole" and he quits real fast anyway, so. . .yeah.) it's just that the issue introducing him is . . .well, very problematic.
Then, X-Men ends with a very confusing issue involving the Hulk. But fret not, True Believer--there's still several hundred pages in this volume.
Our first stop post-cancellation is an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, wherein Iceman fights Spider-Man because Spider-Man has been set up (yet again) as a bad guy. It's a very middle-of-the-road story (it reads more like Iceman's wandered in to ASM's ongoing soap opera by accident) but, funnily enough, formed the basis for a Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends episode back in the day, which is probably the most current reference I will make in this entry.
From there, we stop in at Incredible Hulk, wherein, on the run from the damn US Army for the 90th time, the Hulk fights Havok while Havok tries to decide whether or not to go back to the X-Men (spoiler: he does) It's a fairly pedestrian issue of Incredible Hulk (I do not for the life of me know how they got so many issues out of the Hulk vs. the Army storytelling engine) livened up by John Severin inking longtime Hulk penciller Herb Trimpe's pencils, giving it a grittier than usual feel.
From there we go to Amazing Adventures #11-16, featuring the Beast.
There's not much to say about this--Beast gets a job at the Brand Corporation (for you old school continuity wags, you will recognise Brand as supplying disposable villains for more Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One issues than one could shake a stick at) turns grey and furry and then kinda bitches and moans about it in typical Marvel-esque "Oh God, what kind of monster have I become" gibberish for awhile, as Steve Englehart tries everything to make this rather stunted premise work (Patsy Walker, pre-Hellcat, even shows up. Why, I do not know) and Tom Sutton does a pretty good job with the art, but really. It's an unworkable premise in the long run and Englehart, like so many fans who'd become creators is writing too much like Stan Lee and aping the surface tics without the style or energy Stan brought to Marvel's formative days.
It also contains my least favourite fans-who-became-creators tic, wherein Englehart writes himself and a bunch of the Marvel Bullpen into one story wherein they give Beast and his girlfriend a ride so he can fight Juggernaut. This stuff stops every story I've seen it used in stone dead and I'm glad the practice is largely gone now.
There's a brief detour in-between Amazing Adventures issues, wherein, the X-Men pop in to an early issue of Marvel Team-Up and fight Morbius. Nothing of consequence happens, except an attempt to re-launch the X-Men fails and Spider-Man kisses Jean Grey because he's got a thing for redheads and their book's in reprints anyways, so nuts to them.
Beast's run in AA finishes off with a reprint issue, wherein Beast fights El Conquistador (and his sidekick Chico!) and we tie up a loose plot thread in an issue of Incredible Hulk, wherein the Beast gets dragged to Canada because the Mimic could potentially kill everyone on the planet. Englehart and perpetual Hulk artist Herb Trimpe demonstrate a rather dodgy understanding of Canadian law enforcement (I'm virtually sure Mounties don't all dress like Dudley Do-Right in these modern times) and bring off the rather odd trick of having an issue of Incredible Hulk wherein the Hulk's appearance is kind of an afterthought and really only happens because the story required that the Mimic die, and the Hulk was the easiest way to make that happen It's all a bit ropey, as the Beast feature in AA wasn't particularly successful (Beast's character renaissance would come in Avengers) and the Mimic's most current appearance had been in one of the reprints X-Men was running at the time, so the whole issue feels a bit . . .pointless, somehow.
The volume finishes out with a gallery of covers from the reprint run and some original art, and well, the whole mess with the X-Men finally rises like the Phoenix (see what I did there?) in Giant-Size X-Men #1, wherein the new X-Men, a more diverse and vital team that more accurately reflects the book's innate concept . . .totally failed again and is barely remembered today. These days, it's all pirate comics.
I kid, I kid.
Despite the fact that I'm very hard on the issues contained here, it's because, objectively, most of the stories in this book are rubbish. Those that aren't rubbish are very dated, and those that aren't rubbish or dated don't appear in this collection. The real value of this book is its existence as a record of just how Marvel evolved, re-evolved in the 70's and the dead ends they ran into as things developed. That, some pretty awesome Neal Adams art, and the fact that some of those dead ends lead to extremely goofy fun (God bless them for actually calling a story "DO OR DIE, BABY!") that can be had if you're in the right mood for it.
Continuity A La Carte--Term which describes the action on the part of the reader wherein, rather than obsessively trying to juggle multiple decades of often contradictory continuity, readers simply pick and choose what seems consistent and makes sense to them and lets the rest kind of fall away to nothingness.
Adherents of this condition are characterised by extreme well-adjustment, lack of stress when companies announce Big Changes and how Things Will Never Be The Same Again, aversion to retcons, and . . .well, let's just say they probably pick up more trades than singles now.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
(You have to scroll down a bit, but it's well worth it. Highlights below.)
"Lemme get this straight. After four seasons, during which Ron Moore and the other writers have all prattled on about how the show is genuine hard science fiction, no alien races or trad space opera or like that, and "down to earth" except for a handful of technological advances, it all turns out to be warmed over anti-technology "back to the earth" (literally) hippiefied twaddle by way of the Bible belt?
The end message: forget science and put your faith in nature and the supernatural, because God (though he doesn't like to be called that) loves you and will provide.
And this bit is also funny:
"The problem of bringing God into it is the problem of bringing God into anything proposed as "destiny." In terms laid out by the conclusion, the entirety of the series can be seen as the machinations of a "loving" God to bring 38,000 some-odd humans and assorted Cylons to a new promised land. That's fine, but it involves a cosmic mechanism so detailed as to require His hand going back at least decades, at least as far as the Final 5 contacting the Cylons and Starbuck as a little girl receiving the benediction of The Music from her father. If you conceive the series as God's rescue following the destruction of the Colonies, that's one thing. But all the machinations means God willingly turns a blind eye to the horrific deaths of hundreds of millions of people – their society as presented doesn't exactly smack of Sodom and Gomorrah – in order to "save" 40,000. Even if the ultimate goal is the creation of a new species – us – no God capable of juggling that many balls and guiding that many events would need to go to all that trouble. If it all comes down to God's will, then God is either rather cruel or something of a dope."
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
This one comes to us from Greg Burgas, of Comics Should Be Good:
"Brian Michael Bendis, Ruler of All He Surveys, has written many, many, many, many superhero comics since he started his coup of the Marvel Universe. So why, pray tell, isn’t he any better at them now than he was five or seven years ago?"
If anyone listened to anyone on the Internet, you could almost call it speaking truth to power.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
I got to thinking a little bit today about that, in terms of how people's creativity tends to evolve. If our (okay mine) evolution was anything to go by, it goes something like this: You start out soaking up all this stuff around you--in movies, TV, the comics, whatever--and that begins to fire your imagination. Things reach a kind of critical mass and you start putting things down on paper.
Usually, your first efforts (like ours were) show their influences that they're pretty much derivative works in all but name. The rise of fanfic, of course, has made it possible to create true, derivative works (this is not necessarily a Good Thing) but back in the day, speaking in comics terms, you usually created a character that was a lot like the character you liked and wanted to write (witness the profusion in the annals of the Big Two of characters from another company changes slightly--like, say the Squadron Supreme) with the serial numbers filed off.
Mind you, this kind of thing is more or less frowned upon, and it's one of those things one is expected to grow out of. Very seldom does something that is so much an assemblage of influences and little else gets out into the public consciousness. Even if it does, it's almost never successful.
Except . . .
One of those things that was happening in the culture that grabbed my attention in my formative days was the rise of anime. We were just starting to get the tapes over here--$30 for maybe an hour, and subtitled only. On VHS. To know where to get them--or indeed, afford them-- was quite a feat. If you were lucky, your local video store had stocked them, not really knowing what they were or even better, putting that "NOT FOR KIDS" sticker on them, which really only made you want them more.
Most of those titles they came out with at first, if they're remembered at all, it's as kitsch. But there was one in particular that hit, and hit hard, and still has a following today. What's more amazing is that every girl I knew who was into anime, loved it.
The anime in question is Bubblegum Crisis.
Bubblegum Crisis is a curious animal in that it's a total syncresis of every single thing the creators were into at the time--there's a bit of Blade Runner here, some of The Terminator there (quite a lot of Streets of Fire, but really, who'd catch that?) and very few original ideas of their own.
It shouldn't have worked, and not just for a dodgy start--the show actually doesn't really go anywhere. Huge plot points that the viewer is expected to know aren't made terribly plain. The plot doesn't really have a lot of forward progression. Characters (apart from Priss) aren't developed overmuch. We never even learn what the hell "bubblegum crisis" is supposed to mean.
And yet, it works.
Partly it's because it's the ideal anime to watch when you're 14 years old--The heroes are badass alienated rebels who do whatever they want and kick all kinds of ass against the system and have cool suits of armour besides. That's a big advantage. That our heroes, the Knight Sabers, are all women is another bonus (both for the innate fanservice if you're a guy and the novelty of such a richness of identifying figures if you're a girl) the fact that so much of the show is propelled by music is also a great hook--it's almost a rock opera in places.
So there were a lot of hooks to make up for the shortcoming of being a gestalt of cool stuff taken from other places. And it's stood the test of time--it's still well regarded, long after it's been declared defunct (it never ended as such) long after the creators shrugged off their amateur adolescence and moved on to other pursuits, this is what's remembered.
I think one of the main reasons that it's looked on so favorably is the same reason I look back on my high school comics days with such fondness--it's all about the energy that's being brought to bear that just crackles through the whole thing. In our case (hopefully) it propelled everyone to continue to create stuff. In BGC's case, it helped to launch a genre and create a die-hard fanbase, which is not bad, considering.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Only the circumstances are a bit different. When we last passed this way, Marvel was busy fouling its own nest in a vain effort to figure out what the hell to do with every character they had that wasn't an X-Man, and more than a few that were.
The X-Men line, meanwhile, was having a pretty good time of it. 1995 had been pretty good to them, all things being equal. Their big crossover event--The Age of Apocalypse--had been fairly well-received, both critically and financially (having a baker's dozen comics to buy to get the whole thing certainly didn't hurt with that) and they were riding high--they were the most successful line at Marvel and the editors in charge of the books were some of the most conservative and hard-nodes there ever were. Many a writer knew what it was like to be roasted in the depths of the X-Editors slore, I can tell you.
And it is such a writer of today's curiosity, X-Men #53, written by Mark Waid, that brings us round to the point of today's remembrance, as it were. 1996 dawned, and two things were clear:
1) There was going to be a crossover among all the books in the summer.
2) No one was quite sure exactly what it'd be. Age of Apocalypse had been pretty ambitious--they'd canceled the X-books for four whole months and relaunched them as something else, after all--and it was going to be hard to top that for sheer chutzpah.
One writer in particular had the following idea (text borrowed from Paul O'Brien's terribly useful indexes at The X-Axis):
"Lobdell's big idea was that the X-Men hadn't had a real cosmic level threat to fight since Dark Phoenix over a decade before, so he created one."
It was a good enough idea--Dark Phoenix is one of the most fondly-remembered X-storylines, and something with that level of scope and tragedy would certainly create a memorable, affecting storyline, if all went according to plan.
Tragically, this was not to be. Partly because there was no plan, so far as I can tell. Dark Phoenix had been conceived by two people--one writer, one artist--on a book that was a cult success and had only just recently earned the sales to go monthly. This storyline was going to expand, covering not only all the x-books, but Avengers, Fantastic Four, and so many others. Dozens of writers and artists had their fingers in the pie and well, Marvel's interoffice communication was quite where it needed to be to carry this off.
The result was, well . . .I'll let the estimable Mr. O'Brien pick it back up:
When Scott Lobdell created Onslaught, his concept was a simple one. The X-Men hadn't had a big cosmic-level villain since Dark Phoenix, and wouldn't it be nice if they had one? Well, yes, it would. And that's about the last stage at which Onslaught was a good idea.
The character lumbered gamely into print in a variety of oblique hints and subplots long, long before anybody had really worked out who he was or what he was trying to achieve. Larry Hama, then writing Wolverine, reported that he had been asked to use Onslaught - but the editors could not tell him anything about the character at all. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a load of impenetrable and irreconcilable hints which were never satisfactorily explained. This issue makes a feeble attempt to wave them aside by saying that everything we know about Onslaught was suspect because he was the source of information. That's not so much an explanation as a disguised admission of failure."
O'Brien puts it far more diplomatically than it deserves--the final result was a disaster of epic proportions, a muddled, inchoate mess that sadly sold very well. I should know--I bought most of them. Unfortunately, Marvel being Marvel, the wrong lesson was learned and 1997's crossover was even more poorly thought out than this one.
Initially, all the "clues" about who and what Onslaught was (early on, the reader didn't know too much about Onslaught except he was almost certainly not the leader of the Combaticons) pointed in one main direction--he was the evil side of Professor Xavier, the founder of the X-men. Provocation after provocation and failure after failure had begun to wear on the X-men's saintly founder, creating anger that he struggled to repress for the good of all (considering Professor X was powerful enough to hear a stray thought on the other side of the globe at the time, the pressure for a telepath to keep his talents under control would certainly, one assumes, lead one toward a repressive personality) anger that, unfortunately, was coalescing into something big, something powerful, and something very dangerous.
That Onslaught looked so much like Magneto, his longtime friend/foe, wasn't surprising--often people project their internal flaws onto an external target as a way of putting them at some remove. The fact that Onslaught's first big "moment" in the X-Books was knocking Juggernaut (Xavier's asshole stepbrother) halfway across the continental US further buttresses the idea that Onslaught-as-evil-Xavier theory.
This issue, likewise, seems to reinforce that. Jean Grey is off minding her own business and trying on dresses when Onsalught yanks her into the astral plane and they proceed to talk to each other for the rest of the time. Jean continually asks who Onslaught is, and Onslaught answers her, but in such a way that Jean doesn't quite get it.
Onslaught doesn't seem to think much of humans or the X-men, but none of that bad noise seems to convince her to join him, so Onslaught decides to prove a point and generally squick her out by revealing something she Never Knew (but we did as readers, as it's a little-ignored--justly--continuity remnant.) The revelation is . . .well, why spoil the feeling o utter squick you'd get when you see it? Suffice it to say, it costs Charles Xavier a lot of respect points and generally freaks our favourite occasionally dead redhead right the hell out.
Nevertheless, even in offering Jean the chance t approach Phoenix-level power again, all he really does is piss Jean off, causing her to demand, once again to know who he is. Onslaught answers with a badass villain monologue and psychically burns his name into her forehead, because that's just how he rolls.
You want to sell your new villain for the summer, have him crush the Phoenix effect in his hand, declare himself a god, and leave Jean a hysterical wreck (she gets over it next issue, more or less) and there's your cliffhanger.
So. Seems like a servicable enough bit of setting up, dunnit? What went wrong?
Well, in the issue of Wolverine that came out next week, it ended up that Magneto had implanted some kind of soul-goblin in Xavier that ended up being the germ for Onslaught and, well, things got rather more silly from there . . .
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Basically, because I'm very cool on the finale specifcally and BSG in particular (I like it, but it's frustratingly inconsistent) I'm going to offer the following for consideration, because really, how much more of a man without a country can I be?
When all the talking is done about the quality of BSG as a series and how very necessary that something like it existed to move SF TV out of the doldrums it had been left in when the Star Trek franchise quit trying around 1999, it wold behoove that for all the good it did and for all the occasional good it was . . .
. . .It wasn't perfect. Far from it.
If "Daybreak" is remembered for anything, it should be that BSG half got where it was going, although for every "bold" and "daring" thing they did, they did a dozen things that sabotaged themselves (the lack of coherent forward led to bits both "ropey" and "embarrassing") and the fact that not all that much of a price was paid in the immediate term and in terms of the potential future, for all the talk of "breaking cycles"--he said, trying to avoid major spoilers--everything was presented as inevitably unfolding again and again, which kind of makes you wonder "well, why bother?"
And c'mon--the robot montage at the end was wrongheaded and incredibly stupid.
So remember BSG as being good--because on its best days, it was. But also remember how it could disappear up its own rear end whenever spiritualism (human or Cylon) came to the fore, how it seemed very ad hoc and sloppy at times even when we were assured They Have A Plan, how the creators of the show introduced the now-chic notion that even if an episode is edited into a less than coherent package for broadcast, it'll all be OK if you watch the DVD cut, the deleted scenes, webisodes and consult the commentary (This is, perhaps the single most destructive thing wrought on serial TV in general, as it liberates the creators from having to put what should be in to be understandable in the first place because hey, they'll buy the DVD anyway and we can fix it then. Maybe.) and for all its alleged "edginess," for all the "chances" it took, for all it went the opposite way from "traditional" SF television . . .
SPOILER: The cute kid ended up being the most important character at the end of the show. They just didn't have a robot dog this time.
And there's nothing particularly "daring" about doing something that hackneyed, is there?
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Today's entry comes straight from this fortnight's podcast from the fine folks at House To Astonish, in which Al Kennedy says the following about Watchmen, and why it's ultimately self-defeating to adapt the comic into the film. I will attempt too transcribe it, but it's best if you just go ahead and listen yourselves.
Anyways, here's the quote:
"Al, you can't build a house out of baked beans, and I would go away and build a house out of baked beans. and I would say 'look, I've done it!' and you'd go 'yeah, but it's be rubbish.' It's technically do-able but you wouldn't wanna live in it."
And so, with a little finessing we arrive at:
House Of Baked Beans--Any idea that is blown up to be daring and unprecedented and unexpected, but it's less because it's a brilliant idea that somehow no one thought of before and really more because no one else would be stupid enough to think it's a good idea. To paraphrase Chris Rock, I could drive a car with my feet, but that doesn't make it a good fucking idea.
Examples of this would be Dr. Doom wearing armour made out of his girlfriend's skin, Tony Stark being turned into a living Bluetooth device, Dr. Light becoming Goatee McRapeypants, Infinite Crisis, Superman 2000, All-Star Batman and Robin, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and the entirety of Chuck Austen's run on Uncanny X-Men.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Comics: Running from acceptance like Frankenstein's Monster runs from torch-wielding mobs.
Origin Artifact--Term given to any element of a character's original origin story which has long since outlived its usefulness to the storytelling engine but, because of the influence of creator-fans and fans who insist that EVERYTHING MUST FIT TOGETHER AND NEVER BE FORGOTTEN that is clumsily inserted into a character's current status with no adequate justification save "This was the way it always was."
For instance--it's not essential that Spider-Man be unmarried and a loser in order to tell good Spider-Man stories, nor does Iron Man need to have a damaged heart to artifically induce storyline drama, or the the X-Men be locked forever into Permanent Early Claremont to tell Good Stories, what is required is simply the will to tell Good Stories without wastng everyone's time running the clock back with some half-ass and half-baked excuse.
Chances this simple lesson will be lost on the creator-fan's making comics: 100%
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The TvTropes term for this is the Myth Arc.
The Myth Arc is nigh-impossible to pull off in superhero comics--so long as a new Spider-Man or Superman comic has to hit the stands every month, building to a definitive end where a price is paid and Nothing Is The Same Again is tricky when the next guy can reverse it all in one issue.
On Television, the Myth Arc is hard to pull off on television without compromises--always you will hear from people who say "what if someone comes in in the middle and doesn't know what's going on?" Usually, as a sop to this line of thinking, various "standalone" episodes will get sprinkled in to a season in such a way as to provide a good jumping on point for these potential new viewers. This is pretty much what Star Trek: Deep Space 9 did. It's certainly one way to do it.
The closest thing to a full-blown Myth Arc on TV in my time has been Babylon 5, even though it started with a number of standalone episodes, gradually the big arc took over larger and larger amounts of episodes until every episode during its 5 seasons was an arc season (until Season 5 got bungled and they needed to stretch to fill it, but I'll save that story for a big Babylon 5 write-up some day) It's another way to do it--it's not as accessible this way, but the people who like it and stick with it will feel rewarded enough to where they're Your Audience for Life (Or until you hit them with Legend of the Rangers and The Lost Tales and--nope, saving it for the B5 entry to come) It's what they used to call building a "cult audience."
What "cult audience" means in this day and age when every audience is so sectioned off is something for another entry.
Anyways, back to the Myth Arc. Reading the various commentary about BSG and those people who wish things were a little more planned out, the common rejoinder seems to be boiled down to "Well, what do you want? A tightly-planned out arc where nothing is really left to chance?"
This is a straw man argument of course-it's not like the Ten Commandments. Until it's on the air it's not written in stone--the arc can always be changed, or flexed or whatever, because life is change. If it's a TV show, actors come on and off the show, they may give notice and have to be written out, the show gets axed earlier than you thought, or sometimes you just have a better idea than before. These things have to be dealt with. Part of the process of writing Big Stuff is managing change.
This is Completely Wrong, and to refute it, I'm going to have to do something I'd hoped never to have to do here (as it is obnoxious and self-serving and I apologise in advance), and that's talk abut the things I write.
Because the two big projects I'm working on now both use Myth Arcs, but use them in different ways. Myth Arcs are long-term things, and occasionally some of the immediate excitement that seat-of-the-pants storytelling has is lost. What you have instead is a longer ramp-up for the bigger moments and hopefully the payoff will justify the buildup.
The trick is to make the trip not seem like a trip. Kind of like how parents would give you comics or activity books or play the radio or whatever they did to distract you on long car rides.
For the the projects I have going now, one is done in a very traditional Myth Arc kind of way--SEVEN SPHERES LEGEND (the newer version more than the original 1996 version) works in a pretty standard way--our characters start on the periphery of the main story, knowing very little and the reader follows along as they learn more and become more involved in the main plot.
It's slow work sometimes, and takes a bit of planning, but considering that I'm putting more forethought into it than I did when I wrote the original, it's no surprise. The cast is larger, I'm trying to open up the vistas I hinted at in the first version and generally inject a little bit more "epic" into it. We'll see how it goes--I'm still on the initial arc, but that's the plan.
GUNMETAL BLACK was something of a reaction to finishing the first version of SEVEN SPHERES LEGEND. At first it was less a Myth Arc than a concept. I had a character, I had a few associated characters, and a general idea of the things I wanted to do, but I didn't sit down and say "Right, I've got these things, let's play around with them and see what happened.
At first, it was more an attempt to tell stories in a different style and with a different voice, and somewhere along the way I found GUNMETAL BLACK'S Myth Arc. Upon finding it and beginning to work it all out, I wanted to continue to give it a different voice than the previous story, so I decided that this Myth Arc would work on a different model--rather than start at the outside of the story and work their way in, my characters would occasionally intersect with the Myth Arc, through various sub-arcs, and ultimately culminate in a situation wherein in the final novel, the Arc is satisfied and you know everything you need to know, but it hasn't been a let-me-hold-your-hand-and-walk-you-straight-through journey. It's been more elliptical. I didn't want it to seem like y'know, homework, this time.
As I'm still working on that one as well, time will tell how successful it all had been.
But hopefully from my two examples you can see how mutable and flexible the idea of planning out a Myth Arc is. It's not written in stone, until the final draft (an issue of a comic, a TV episode) hits the streets. The idea that it's some kind of Manichean choice that, once made, can never be gone back on, is ridiculous.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
As with rather a lot of things, the ultimate success of the show isn't something we entirely see eye to eye on--she finds its spontaneity to be fresh and exciting and never predictable, I find it to add a lot of energy to the show when they work and a lot of unfocused rubbish when they don't.
One of the cornerstone's of the show's success is that it eschews the notion of random episodes that may or may not move the over-arching plot forward (as the 1970s series did and s/f television as a whole has done for pretty much all of its lifespan) or a tightly-plotted arc wherein every episode serves the function of chapters in a novel (as occasionally experimented with on Babylon 5 and, occasionally, Star Trek) BSG apparently just goes with whatever feels right at the time, even if it doesn't make a terrible amount of sense or require lots of bending over backwards, plot-wise to justify later.
Sometimes it just about works, and it does add a layer of unpredictability and excitement that's more immediate than a more planned-out arc would be. TV Tropes has a name for it, just like they have a name for everything:
The Shocking Swerve.
The Shocking Swerve comes to us, as so many things surprisingly do, from the world of pro wrestling, wherein, in an effort to keep things fresh week in and week out, it becomes necessary to add excitement and unpredictability into things.
Wrestling is pretty simple storytelling when you get down to it--to write it, all one needs to do is provide a sufficiently compelling reason for two people to have a fake fight that other people will pay to see or watch on television.
At a basic level, this is accomplished by dividing your personnel into good guys ("faces") and bad guys ("heels") In the last 15 years or so it's become fashionable to stake out points all along the line--your heroes act a bit like villains and villains are allowed to be not totally irredeemable bullies or cowards or whatever.
This, ultimately was the petri dish from which the Shocking Swerve spawned.
Here's the ideal form of the Shocking Swerve. I will be using the characters from the old NES Pro Wrestling game because I stopped maturing around 1988 or so:
King Slender is mad at his longtime tag team partner, Star Man. Star Man, apparently has been holding him back and King Slender is ready to strike out on his own. They very nearly come to blows multiple times during the course of the show, necessitating the making of a match that will serve as the Main event for the night, which will have Fighter Hayabusa as the Special Guest Referee.
The match begins, but King Slender and Star Man seem to be unwilling to tie up and begin the match. Words are exchanged between the two, perhaps some shoving. King Slender, frustrated, slides out of the ring and grabs a folding chair (folding chairs, despite being the most dangerous things in the pro wrestling universe, are plentifully available around ringside--it has always been so) Slender slides back into the ring, raises the chair above his head, ready to clobber Star Man . . .
. . .and waffles the HELL out of Fighter Hayabusa. Star Man and King Slender both put the boots to Fighter Hayabusa and once he's well and truly out, they embrace and pose in the ring, the clever heels who put one over on everyone. Never mind that neither of them had a feud with Hayabusa at all so their animosity comes from out of nowhere--we've managed to shock the audience.
It might be thrilling, it might even have been awesome, but the "awesome" buzz only lasts as long as it takes to hit the men's room or, if you're lucky, the arena parking lot. Perhaps a little of the blanks can be filled in on subsequent installments of television, but for the sake of a quick shock, you're really punched a hole in your long-term plotting.
So, as you see, the Shocking Swerve is a two-edged sword that breaks as much as it fixes. In other places I've likened the Shocking Swerve to a nitrous booster in an engine--useful for quick bursts of speed, but using it all the time will destroy the engine beyond all repair.
Unfortunately, there are many examples of use
For an example of this in wrestling, I give you World Championship Wrestling. For those of you who find Wikipedia a little dry, here's a snippet from my favourite disaster novel The Death of WCW, which is well worth your time to read, if you stories wherein things with every advantage and expectation of success fails with the vigor and determination that is usually only seen in successes:
"Wrestlers retired forever . . .and then unretired days later. Matches ended when wrestlers who weren't in the original match pinned other wrestlers who also weren't in the match."
WCW, you see, loved the Shocking Swerve and used it ten times an hour . . .in three hour long shows. Imagine if you will the resultant catasto-fuck that ensued. I don't have to--I was watching at the time, and I assure you the authors of this book are being far more charitable about the quality of the programming. I remember it as being so excruciatingly awful that I wanted to injure the people responsible.
So the Shocking Swerve is something I'm not big on, or at least, I'm not big on its overuse. There's a certain fallacy that planning out a long, involved arc that will be the spine of the story that leads you towards its logical conclusion somehow locks you into a certain plan that cannot be deviated from, and really, that's just not the case. It does help to have a vague idea of where you're going when you set out, as it keeps you from getting lost. You'll still be able to make all your pit stops and interesting detours, but you'll be assured of getting there in the end, also.
Monday, March 9, 2009
We are all agreed--those who've read the book, at the very least--that Rorschach is NOT the hero of Watchmen, right? That despite all the "kewl" things he does, he's obviously a raving nutter with some deeply ingrained personal problems who somehow manages to be even crazier despite dressing it up as "scrawling his design on a morally blank world," right?
Everyone understood that Rorschach was a figure of pity (if not horror), not epic badassery, right? Right? Everyone did get what Moore was going for in his characterisation, right?
*reads several message board postings declaring how "awesome" Rorschach is, decides to make his own "THE END IS NIGH" sign and take to the streets.*
Thursday, March 5, 2009
"Watchmen" had a major impact on comics and the way they portray violence, turning the industry toward something grittier. Is that what you intended?"
"I don't think we knew what to expect. We thought we were just doing an interesting twist upon the superhero story and it was only around about issue No. 3 when we suddenly realized that the way that we were telling the story was becoming very interesting and multilayered with a lot of new things that we had never done before. At that point perhaps we did start to have high hopes for what the book might achieve -- maybe naively we thought, "Once everybody has seen 'Watchmen,' this will open the door for other people to free their imaginations up and do equally progressive works that will take the medium into countless other directions."
But that isn't the way the culture tends to work. You'll get something like Harvey Kurtzman's excellent "Mad" comics that, while being wonderful in itself, will condemn the humor comics genre to 50 years of magazines that are named after some form of mental illness and which feature stuff that is pretty much the same as "Mad." But I guess that is always going to happen. You've just got to keep hoping for these kind of influence breakthroughs and the stuff that follows on from them is probably only of secondary consequence, you know. I mean, if "Watchmen" hadn't come along, something else would have come along that would have been as violent or as dark and that would have done much the same thing to a lot of the comics. I'm more or less just beating myself up about it."
Very good, if fairly standard for Moore, interview here. I especially like the later bit when he talks about "realism" in comics and what's really driving it.
Sadly, he doesn't get called on the fact that Lost Girls is SO slash-fiction that someone illustrated and published, but you can't have everything, I suppose.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Kind of like TVTropes. But only done by one guy.
This time, the term that inspired this whole feature:
Permanent Crossover--Term used to describe . . .hell,every comic from DC since 2005 and every Marvel comic since 2006. To be clearer, it's the term that describes the state wherein comics lurch from one crossover to another, and the whole sorry business finally blends into a long slog wherein nothing really happens, stories never really move forward because nothing ends with any sense of finality, and the finish of every crossover is little more than a bait and switch for the next. Repeat until it all feels like you're listening to a record that skips on the same song all the time. Repeat until it all feels like you're listening to a record that skips on the same song all the time.