Sunday, September 27, 2009

Several Bald Men Fighting Over A Comb, Part 2

So this would be Web Kefuffle 2--The Rekerfuffling, I guess.

A couple weeks ago I was watching some Dr. Who DVD or other and going through (as I so often do) the bonus features (protip: despite mangling some of their archives beyond repair, the BBC is rather good about loading these things with documentaries and snippets from other programs, etc) and in the midst of a very long discussion of the Colin Baker era of the programme (a multi-year slow-motion trainwreck that saw the series get cancelled and then un-cancelled in short order, but that's another post) they laid the blame for the failure of the program to continue on a combination of rather obsessive "fan ownership" of it and those in charge of it catering to those same fans to the exclusion of anyone.

Fan ownership is a terrible, obsessive love that strangles what it exalts, but only after watching it die a slow, starving death on the floor in front of it. Despite the relentless, controlling obsession, it can be a surprisingly fickle. At the first sign of change, the fan will rip down the very thing they put on the pedestal in the first place. Because, metaphorically speaking, the fan owner sees a beautiful butterfly flying through a warm spring day and his first thought is how wonderful it would be to smother it in a jar, run a pin through it, and mount it on the wall.

Does that sound harsh? After all, comics fans' loyalty has perpetuated the medium long after changing fortunes should have consigned the whole business to the bin, right? For their loyalty and their investment (both emotional and financial) shouldn't they feel some ownership for the characters they've followed over the years.

Admittedly, yes.


The rather ugly tendency of late, however, is the sense of entitlement that fans own everything, and whatever means exist to perpetuate their awful need is not only allowed but encouraged, and their needs must override all others.

Witness if you will, the sorry reaction to Jack Kirby's heirs trying to get some amount of recompense from Marvel and Disney and be appalled. Page through post after post of people sweating bullets that Kirby's characters could be lifted out of the Marvel universe and carried somewhere else, witness the dismissal of any claim that the work was produced on a work for hire agreement (despite work for hire not existing as a concept for several years of Kirby's professional life--Steven Grant makes a game try explaining the whole thing, so I'll let you go there) and--and this is the most appalling thing for me--slagging off Kirby's heirs because they dare to ask for monetary recompense for all the work that Kirby did at Marvel (which, even if you rule out Spider-Man, is a fairly prodigious amount) money which has made untold billions for the company.

And comic fans best response to this (rather than "man, good for them, and retroactively good for him. He should have some lasting reward for getting paid shit to work in obscurity in what is, at best, a boutique medium. Hope this doesn't take as long as it did for him to get his artwork back.") Reading through the absolute sewage that's been blasted at this story on the Internet is enough to make one wish they had a button that would destroy the entire comics industry--past and present--instantly.

It shouldn't surprise me, I suppose, that for all the puffery that continues to blow around about how comics have grown up in terms of storytelling/quality of work/attention from the larger society (even though it's a mountain of bullshit) that comics fans can still be depended upon to act like the spoiled, entitled, children they are and make the entire medium look bad whilst the people who make the stuff they passively enjoy may as well not exist except to keep the gears turning in the big machine that gets the comics to the stands every Wednesday.

No big message here, y'all. Just a bit annoyed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Several Bald Men Fighting Over A Comb, Part 1

This is old news by now (as befits my usual timely fashion of addressing these things) but let's talk a bit about the latest kerfuffle between Alan Moore and the comics industry.

For those of you who don't want to wander through the link, let me sum up thus: Alan Moore, elder statesman of the comics industry/fringe nut laments openly that DC has strip-mined a few slight Green Lantern stories for the germ that would ultimately became Blackest Night. The source of contention, is, in his eyes, mere strip-mining of older material, with only the merest filing off of the serial numbers prior to its repurposing.

This has been taken by people who think he's full of crap that he's arguing against the idea of referencing past continuity at all, and for all it is possible for the layperson to understand the mind of Alan Moore, it's possible that yes, that's something of what he meant. Mind you, I and plenty have other people have argued against referencing past continuity for its own sake plenty of times (Is there any reason why in 2009 we need Toro, the Human Torch's sidekick back in continuity? Is there any benefit at all?) That said, the writer of Supreme (Wiesenger era Superman homage) League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Victorian-era literary characters in a Wold Newton-esque metastory) and Lost Girls (Fairytale character slashfiction/meditation on the artistic merit of pornography--whatever that means) doesn't really have a leg to stand on in arguing against it any more than Dave Sim could credibly write a column in Cosmopolitan.

But a closer reading gets to what he was really talking about, I think. In referencing Marvelman and Watchmen, he laments more that people have copied his style in those two stories all too closely and missed what his real approach was--to bring fresh approaches to comics in general rather than to hew everything to the Watchmen model or the Marvelman model and simply have that approach be the be-all and end-all of Moving Comics Forward.

Mind you, some of that does happen. Grant Morrison, when he's on, can take what's established on a concept one would imagine was hopelessly played out and expand the parameters of it in ways that show you more possibilities than you ever imagined and making the whole thing positively crackle off the page (All-Star Superman and New X-Men spring to mind as exemplars of this) and while it may reference continuity to some extent (one is surprised in re-reading New X-Men just how much of the stuff that had immediately come before Morrison was willing to use) it mainly tries to blaze its own trail. One would imagine that's exactly what Moore would like to see more of, but there's no telling, really.

That said, there's something slightly sad about the fact that Moore gives the same interview over and over here lately--he talks a little about Watchmen and Marvelman, why he won't work for Marvel or DC, he doesn't watch movies, how his bad mood 20 years ago marked comics forever, how he doesn't read comics, blah blah blah . . .honestly, for all that the industry takes its cues from Moore, he really has become marginalised with the rest of cranks, hasn't he?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

MAN TRUE--Dream Match Never Ends

Continuing my efforts to bring your attention to worthwhile posts from the blogger intelligentsia, I submit to you the following from the utterly swell Mightygodking, who, in the midst of a dissertation on the malaise he feels surrounding comics, makes a few trenchant observations about a couple things, most especially Dark Reign, excerpted here for your hopeful enlightenment:

"Firstly, the whole “Norman Osborn in charge of the world” premise is just stupid, no matter how much one tries to justify it (and Marvel’s stories have tried to justify it a lot). Norman Osborn is not Lex Luthor; he’s not a brilliant evil tactician and never was. Norman Osborn is a lunatic who was loathed by the public and who barely holds it together, and even if you give him magical meds to make him completely stable, he’s still not Lex Luthor. When every single comic has heroes and villains alike saying “welp, this ain’t gonna last,” you need to think about how plausible your starting premise was. (Henry Gyrich, for example, would have been a lot more believable in the Osborn role for Dark Reign, because he is A) sane and B) respected.)

Secondly, these comics are incredibly metareferential. Now, meta isn’t a bad thing per se, but just about every Dark Reign comic has to describe itself in the “gosh, this isn’t like back when the Avengers and X-Men would go beat up the High Evolutionary then come back and have a picnic and ride bikes” way that started out twee and got tired in a hurry. When every goddamned character feels the need to point out that this comic isn’t The Good Old Days, there’s a problem: the “new Marvel world” only exists as a oppositive description of the previous Marvel world, because the “realism” that Civil War (and everything after) brought to the table isn’t realism. It’s a desperate patch to make the Marvel Universe seem realistic in a real-world context, but it doesn’t work because the Marvel Universe starts from the “riding bikes” era, which of course makes no sense in a real-world context, but that was never the point."

It's well worth a read, whether you agree or not.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The conventional wisdom says that the X-Books went completely off the rails when Chris Claremont left. That any forward momentum in the story department had been sacrificed on the altar of the hot artists of the 90's who, ironically, almost immediately packed up and went to form Image, and proceeded to make lots of money doing terribly little.

The X-Books, meanwhile, in the hands on Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell (mostly) went in a more conservative and workmanlike direction. I've often wondered if the mostly status quo early to middle 90's for the books wasn't a reaction against what happened with the Image boys--perhaps handing over unchallenged power and profit to rising young stars who immediately bolted for greener pastures made them a bit gun-shy about creating new stars that might presumably follow in the Image founder's footsteps, and so Nicieza and Lobdell were seen as safe hands, handed the keys, and warned not to give away the farm or anything and off they went.

Not that this was a creatively flat period for the books--after all this was the time of Age of Apocalypse--but generally one could pick up an X-Book in those days and know what you were getting--able plotting that mostly kept all the big plots ticking over and character who were drawn to look like they were constantly in pain (Andy Kubert on X-Men) and characters who were drawn by whatever fill-in artist they could grab on short notice (Uncanny X-Men) For people who liked that sort of thing, they would find that it was the sort of thing that they liked.

Of course, as Lobdell's tenure was winding down, they were pushing against the grain somewhat. Onslaught was initially an attempt to bring some darker shadings to the previously saintly (more or less) character if Professor X before it was hijacked by Marvel editorial into something entirely else. Operation: Zero Tolerance was, initially and attempt to bring a little bit of jeopardy into the X-Men's world by stripping away some of the accumulated trappings like Shi'ar technology and fancy planes and shake up the team by introducing new characters. It never really came to much, but Lobdell did try to kick things into a new place on the way out the door.

But no one much worried. The replacement writers, Joe Kelly and Steve Seagle, had a tremendous amount of buzz from works elsewhere, and there was a real sense of anticipation to see what they'd do with a franchise that seemed resolved to play it safe whenever possible. Of course, that was more or less nipped in the bud by editorial and replaced with a bizarre, borderline incomprehensible storyline featuring Cerebro gaining sentience (this kind of thing happens a lot with X-Men tech) and creating his own team of X-Men who . . .look, it's really not terribly important. Suffice it to say, from 1998-2000 things will be, at best, a little confused for the books.

It's not all bad, of course, Magneto gets to take over Genosha (having long outlived its purpose as a rather obvious Apartheid metaphor, something had to be done with it) which leads to a great moment where the X-Men have an existential crisis, as having only a mansion to offer as a mutant sanctuary when the opposition has a whole damn country to offer mutants. But by and large, it's mostly just lurching from one thing to another. Paul O'Brien has a certain affection for the ascension of Alan Davis to writer of both titles, but I myself wonder if it wasn't just because things finally seemed to be on some sort of track and it wasn't just spinning wheels anymore.

Anyway, this all leads, more of less to The Shattering, a crossover that leads into another crossover (The Twelve) and is less a coherent story in its own right and a weird bit of sausage--half of it is occupied with the fallout of plotlines before (wherein the X-Men visited a planet full of Skrulls) and the rest turns on stuff that hasn't happened yet (Apocalypse is slowly gathering his forces in the background until about halfway through) Read as a whole, it doesn't make a terrible amount of sense, mostly because it's a deck clearing exercise. It would hardly be remembered at all (none of it's all that neccessary to understand The Twelve, which was a mess all its own, of course) That something like this would be published means almost certainly, other "barely there" crossovers like Dream's End (the 2000 crossover. A little footnote here--"Dream's End" was also the original name for this crossover, but it's now been renamed "The Shattering" because 1) this is all very confusing enough as it is and 2) "The Shattering" was on the cover of the first issue and hey presto, they had a title for this trade after all) and Eve of Destruction should be collected any day now. Lord, think of the poor trees.

Anyways, the Shattering features a lot of running hither and yon and some rather terrible artwork from Adam Kubert, who, it appears, was experimenting with drawing people as crosshatched gelatinous blobs, Alan Davis whose work is very reliably clean and pleasing to the eye, Brandon Peterson, who, it can be said, does the best with what he's got, as really it seems everyone is doing here.

To the extent that this mess can be termed to have anything approaching a coherent plot, it's this--Professor X is acting all paranoid and drilling the X-Men relentlessly, causing discord with the team. There's a guy named Death walking around killing people with a sword. Phoenix and Cyclops (in one of the few good things about this run of issues) begin to see the ship sinking and make arrangements to get off only to be dragged back in, Mikhail Rasputin shows up again for confused reasons (a leitmotif that's synonymous with the character, really) Professor X disbands the X-Men and Death kills Wolverine, who turns out to be a Skrull (the other good thing about this run--like the Thunderbolts thing, this was one of the few times Marvel managed to keep a secret successfully) and another ad hoc X-Team is formed so everyone can get together in time for the Twelve to start.

Ladies and gentlemen, if that sounded confusing, at least you didn't have to read the damn thing. Welcome, well and truly, to the nadir of the X-men as a franchise, wherein the powers that be will be so desperate that that Claremont returning to fix this mess will seem like a blessing (which creates yet another nadir, by the way) and finally, two or so years later, Grant Morrison comes in and makes something interesting happen.

I'm not entirely certain why Marvel collected this, short of to cater to the market share of people like me who enjoy page after page of metaphorical car wrecks and find a peculiar fascination in watching venerable franchises stumble drunkenly down blind alleys like this. It's odd that in a time when the Heroes Return stuff was exhibiting a flowering of creativity that the X-Books sort of imploded like this, but given how much of it can be laid at the feet of editorial mandates, it's surely the end result of too many cooks making . . .well, something that can be published 12 years later and marvelled at as a living example of just how wrong-headed things were back in the day.

In short, while this thick volume is ideal for propping up wobbly tables, I wouldn't recommend reading it, unless you find self-flagellation fun, or you're a comics blogger or some other kind of highly-evolved neurotic.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I Read This--AGENTS OF ATLAS (2008) #1-10

Back in the halcyon days of Several Months Ago, I posted in a long and rambling entry here (this assumes I make any other kind of entry save long and rambling, of course) at my utter delight in the miniseries Agents of Atlas and how surprising it was that it was an entertaining read that made me somewhat interested in the exploits of characters minted about 25 years before I was even born and seldom seen since their original runs. It managed to very deftly elude the usual pitfalls of "resurrecting older superheroes" stories (namely bringing the characters back in labored venerating plotting that brings characters long forgotten back with the sort of reverence best left to the return of Jesus Christ and doing very little with them afterwards) set up and interesting status quo for an eventual ongoing (basically, as some wag on the Internet said, "it was the Thunderbolts in reverse.") I was, surprisingly, rather excited by the prospects for an ongoing, and so resolved to sit down with a good size chunk of the first few issues and see how something that worked rather well as an self-contained unit worked when plugged into the ongoing ur-story of the Marvel Universe.

To spoil things out of the gate, the answer is "not well," as Agents of Atlas has already been kicked over into a backing feature, with an eye towards an eventual relaunch sometime later. Apparently, while a very well-regarded series critically, commercially it's not settling the world on fire.

And really, that's not a surprise, as however good it is, the book does demand that one get on board with the adventures of a group of characters first published in the 1950s, with scant appearances since then, working an unconventional plot angle somewhat at odds with the current tenor of superhero comics at the moment.

Not to say Marvel didn't try, of course. The first six issues of the ongoing series tie very heavily into the latest manifestation of the Permanent Crossover, Dark Reign. Dark Reign, aside from being a seminal album by Ronnie James Dio (or maybe Dokken) chronicles the utterly unconvincing rise to power of one Norman Osborn, a man who is posited as an utterly brilliant Machiavellian schemer able to bring Dr. Doom to heel, which is just fine, if you ignore the fact that Normal Osborn spent most of his extant years as a character tooling about in purple goblin booties and an elf mask and occasionally making blood sacrifices to goblin people, which is the kind of thing that utterly brilliant Machiavellian types usually leave to the completely stupid.

Dark Reign is puzzling, as it's not so much a story as a holding pattern dragged across nearly every Marvel book. It goes something like this: In every book almost Norman Osborn sits around looking sinister and pleased with himself for being such a great whopping bastard while his flunkies do all the work. Or, if you're lucky, Osborn puts on a suit of Iron Man armour only slightly more tasteful than his Green Goblin outfit (which he got . . .somehow--apparently Iron Man armour, like plutonium, is available at any corner store) and leads his intensely boring flunkies against people he doesn't like. Meanwhile, in as much of a main story as this whole nonsense can be said to have, Osborn leads a cabal of villains, all of whom are more accomplished than he is in carving out spheres of influence while they quietly wait for him to self-destruct.

And wait. And wait. The initial concept is so ridiculous (and a grand case of Zeitgeist Failure if ever there was one) one begins to wonder if this isn't some deliciously subtle parody of long-term crossovers which ask ever more demanding suspensions of disbelief played completely deadpan, which would almost make it worth it, except this godawful thing is, in all the unfortunate moments this awful, awful crossover has crossed my path, it is, apparently meant to be taken utterly seriously. Basically, it's yet another of these no-fun "superheroes as realistic manques commenting on our current political situation" things which have been strangling the joy out of comics for so long now I don't even like to think about it.

We're going back to Agents of Atlas, I promise. Mind you, this is the hottest thing going in comics right now, so slapping "Dark Reign" on anything is sure to move maybe a few more thousand copies than it would otherwise, in defiance of all logic and/or good taste.

This is a fairly old concept that occasionally mutates into new and more virulent forms. Multi-title crossovers, wherein each bit must be read in a specific order for the story to make any kind of sense are a fairly recent innovation in comics. Initially, the song and dance went something like this: while the story mainly went on through the core titles (say, the X-Men books) in an effort to give another title a bit of a "rub" a chapter will occasionally run through a somewhat unlikely title (say, Power Pack) in an effort to give it a bit of a boost, even if the plot running through the core books (hmm, how about "brutal mass murders") would seem an ill fit for a kiddie book like Power Pack.

That was then. It fell slightly out of fashion in the 90s, when, rather than tie things together in a big crossover (although that still happened) it was easier and on the whole preferable to just have Ghost Rider, Spider-Man, Wolverine or the Punisher show up in the early issues of a book for what is classically termed "faintly little reason," boost the sales, and then get back to what whatever they were doing before.

In between all this there are the distaff cousins of this approach--the launching a raft of titles in the wake of a big crossover, and Marvel's new favourite task, the launching a book in the heart of a crossover. An argument can be made against this approach that it is impossible for a prospective fan to get into a story that has been slaved to another purpose for 5-6 months, meaning that half a year at most has already gone before the book can even begin to carve out its own identity which, in this marketplace is 6 months it may not have the luxury of indulging, but whenever I bring up these points, I am often asked to wait out in the hall.

Anyways, now we finally get to Agents of Atlas proper. Basically, the first 7 issues of the book involve the Atlas Foundation puttering about in the plot structure of Dark Reign, first by trying to run a con on Osborn with some impressive but utterly rubbish weaponry, getting in fights with Bucky America and the New Avengers (now that that book has 60 issues, how can they still be "new," anyways?) This looks and feels completely at odds with the tone of the miniseries and stuff that's almost blatantly calculated to bring in newcomers. For those who were already on board we get a few flashback stories wherein the Agents meet Wolverine in the past (as apparently everyone did at one time or another and just never remembers until later--"Oh yeah, that abrasive guy with the weird hair and the claws. I forgot all about him.") and try to walk back the cat on a time loop/teleporter that may or may not have something to do with Mr. Lao, their dragon/advisor who seems to delight in being cryptic and may or may not be running his own agenda.

These first seven issues feel rather a lot like we're spinning our wheels. We know nothing's going to happen in Dark Reign-ville until the big switch has been pulled, so short of making the Agents looks like punks compared to Super Genius Osborn for several issues and conveniently pissing of the New Avengers, not much gets accomplished. What's more, the flashback story, so completely at odds with the tone of the main story, feels even more dislocated and disjointed, as it seems to have no real connection to what's going on in the main story (it will, but not really until issue 9). Since it's backstory to things involving the Atlas Foundation and the Foundation is in the background while Dark Reign blathers on, it's hard for anything from that story to really "stick."

Likewise another plot element for the book, the addition of Temujin, the Mandarin's son, to the Atlas Foundation (as a backup, should Jimmy Woo get killed in the line of duty) never really jells with what's going on either, and lay the blame for these plot elements not really cohering at the feet of this Dark Reign nonsense, which so completely smothers out the voice of the book that its hard for anything to feel especially consequential.

Things begin to gel a bit better in the seventh issue because we're actually dealing with things relevant to the book we're reading rather than some nebulous concept on the masthead. The Agents fight the Hulk as they try to shut down yet another Atlas Foundation project that's gone a bit rogue. Despite the fact that we're still shuttling guest stars through, this actually feels a bit more in tune with the book, as its done on the book's terms and in its voice, and things gel a bit better. It makes one wonder if perhaps they shouldn't have been doing things this way the whole time. It's a good done-in-one that clears the palate of the awful, awful taste of the Dark Reign business and sets up Issue 9, wherein things finally kick into gear for the book. (Note that things kick into gear in issue 9, rather than issue 1, which would have been the ideal time for things to kick into gear and grab someone's attention, but that's bloody Marvel for you)

In this, we finally start getting back to the core mythology of the book. This is a pretty exciting issue that answers a few lingering continuity questions left over from the miniseries and sets up a more interesting and dynamic conflict than the Agents vs. Norman bloody Osborn (which does neither of them any favours because Dark Reign is absolutely not going to end in the pages of Agents of Atlas, is it?) Had this actually occurred in the first issue, rather than the desultory 7-issue Guest Star Parade that did frighteningly little for the book either in terms of sales and certainly did it no favours creatively, we might be on surer footing for the book, but as its demotion to a backup strip has already been announced, well . . .that ship has obviously sailed.

In any event, better that the book is finally showing the promise the concept showed in the mini. Hopefully, with the future of the book more or less locked in, the powers that be will let it alone and give it the space necessary to establish its own mood and identity without yoking it to yet another dreary crossover that will drag it down more than it could ever possibly raise it up. As it stands, I like where it's beginning to go, I just resent having to grit my teeth over the Dark Reign BS that clogged the pipes up to that point.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

MAN TRUE--Nightmare Of Bilstein

Courtesy of the fine folks at Seebelow, in whose light I can only bask in admiration, Matthew Rossi sums up every damn problem I have with Dark Reign and dang old Norman Osborn, excerpted here for your edification:

"Frankly, I find the recent attempt at Marvel to build up Norman Osborn laughable. This is a guy who once impaled himself on a 'cross of tin', guys. Him and his 'New Avengers'... you might as well have Kraven the Hunter come back from the dead as the next villain, at least he unambiguously beat Spider-Man, he didn't just steal the dude's baby. You know what I see when I look at Norman Osborn? I see his bad orgasm face in that story where he knocked up Gwen Stacy with super-fast aging twins that looked like Gwen and Peter's kids because that's who they were supposed to be before Marvel editorial decided it would be better if I had to see Norman Osborn have an orgasm instead. And yes, I'll admit it may well have been the most evil orgasm ever committed to paper, but that doesn't make me scared of him as the prime villainous mover of a story."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Busman's Holiday

(Author's Note: This was going to be a Witless Dictionary post at first, then got too big for that--Ideally Witless Dictionary stuff is supposed to be short pithy and punchy, but this is, of course, utterly malleable--then seemed like it might work, then didn't, and then I decided I was just being wishy-washy and I should write the damned thing already and stop being wishy-washy. So here we go.)

First, some words from wiser men than I:

". . .why has Toro been brought back, and why is the Torch being brought back? What is the reason for this story? Why are these characters important or compelling or necessary? These questions should have been asked before this was commissioned, and if they were, the answers aren’t apparent."

Now, I come to you today with a modest proposal: It's time to put Hank Pym and the Scarlet Witch on the bus.

Yes, forever.

I don't mean kill them off, or turn them evil or any stupid stuff like that (this inevitably leads to books that end in ":Rebirth") I mean put them on the shelf and leave them where they are for as many years as possible.

One of the terrible aftershocks of the fan-as-creator movement has been an obsession with and desire to keep active the minutiae of the past around, long after they are interesting, viable, or in any way necessary in a storytelling sense. They possess no further story potential or room for further character development, they're just . . .kinda . . .there.

And it's been around forever. Roy Thomas was bloody notorious for it, peppering books like All-Star Squadron and Invaders with characters who did frighteningly little except strut about as if to say, "I certainly am from the 1940s!" And for period stories that took place in an at-the-time long past milieu, that was more or less OK--if you liked that sort of thing, it was there for you, if you didn't it, don't go in the sandbox and you won't get sand on anything.

The problem comes in (to return to the estimable Mr. Kennedys quote above) when you do things like bring the original Human Torch and Toro back into present day continuity for no other reason than, since they're the first Marvel superheroes (more or less) obviously they should be viable characters 70 years after their creation, after all, Sub-Mariner is, right?

Sub-Mariner remains viable (barely, at times) because he's an engaging character with multiple storytelling opportunities. Want to do gonzo fantasy stuff? Keep him in Atlantis and have him punch out oddly dressed blue people. Want to do tweener superhero stuff? Have him him team up with Dr. Doom and fight the Fantastic Four for His Own Reasons. Want to do something stupid with him? Have him join the X-Men.

The point is, there's enough that can be done with him as a character that when one approach has played out its string, another can be implemented.

Not so with the Torch. Save for one interesting role in the last decade (Heroes for Hire) Torch hasn't done overmuch to justify his existence. Not since he returned in Avengers West Coast --that is, when John Byrne hijacked the book for a stilted, tortured, boring-ass retcon full of gibberish intended to walk back the cat on whether the Vision was the original Human Torch (long after anyone but John Byrne gave a damn one way or another) that ended with the Vision the colour of sour milk, Scarlet Witch going loco, and the Human Torch returned to life for what turned out to be hatefully little reason, as little was done with him once he returned except that Roy Thomas had him gad about in red longjohns and spout 40's references. Shockingly this didn't work.

But why? Because the Torch was a product of the 40's, and had never developed much of a storytelling engine beyond "blunder into crime/Nazis, set criminals/Nazis on fire." And yet, he was brought back because fans of the character grew up to become comic creators, had fond memories of him, and brought him back, based on fond memories, but once they'd done it, there was little else to do with them.

And yet, the fans-as-creators declare (If you like, you can just pretend I dropped the pretense and said "Alex Ross" here) there are so many storytelling possibilities for them and in any case they should be recognised as the building blocks for comics today and . . .yeah, whatever. The argument seems to amount to "they're first, let's keep them around as museum pieces."

Not that being old is necessarily a hurdle. But you'll find if you look over the history of superhero comics the most enduring characters tend to be the ones that can work in a variety of stories with equal plausibility. Batman can work as a gritty noir crimefighter, or a science fictiony hero, or whatever. The X-Men work as slick action vehicle, but also (occasionally ham-handed) symbol for oppressed minorities.

The Torch was . . .one of the first. And that's it.

There are characters in the middle, as it were--those with a set amount of stories, that once run-through leave any arable storyline potential stripped out. The alternatives then become repeating the same few stories over and over again, turning the character evil, killing him off, or simply allowing him to politely exit without a lot of fuss and feathers.

Which brings us back to our bus-riders. Hank Pym was one of Marvel's first Silver Age heroes, an early bridge between the sci-fi/monster comics they'd been doing up to that point and the burgeoning superhero universe that would supplant it. He began his career as Ant-Man, and seem to spend a hell of a lot of time ruining communist's picnics and not getting stomped on, which, you would think would be hella easy to do to an ant-size dude in bright red longjohns.

What worked OK as a one-off riff on The Incredible Shrinking Man didn't work too terribly well as a superhero book, and its obvious from re-reading them that the creators struggled mightily to Make Things Work. Tired of the threat of being stomped on Ant-Man became Giant Man and did some stomping of his own. He got a partner in the Wasp (because in the early days of Marvel rather than jeopardize impressionable young wards, it was much better to jeopardize your girlfriend and make her wear a hat that looked frighteningly like a butt plug) and the he got replaced in his book, zooming over to Avengers wherein he did frighteningly little (save for being Roy Thomas' author surrogate and creating things that ended up trying to kill the Avengers) until . . .

He smacked the Wasp around. If one points to a moment, as when something achieves absolute zero and all molecular motion stops, this was the moment for Hank Pym when all character development (such as there had been) ceased. Because from this moment on Hank Pym would be the wife-beating loser who was always trying to redeem himself for slapping the Wasp around or generally being an underachiever/loser. Damn near every story he was featured in followed this exact same paradigm and it continues to this very day.

Mind you, the original Wasp-swat was more than twenty-five years ago. We have had variations of this story for nearly thirty years now. In the meantime, none of this constant looping around has made Hank Pym any more interesting as a character--in fact, one could argue that by continually rubbing the reader's nose in what a loser/asshole he is actively repels rather than redeems him.

Other than that . . .what? He's been in the Avengers more or less since the start so he should always be in the Avengers? Why? Who really cares? Would you miss him? Is there anything to be done with him? Is there an argument for keeping him around for reasons other than seniority?

If not, put him on the bus. Retire him. Let him sit on the shelf. Don't kill him off--God knows I need an Ant-Man: Rebirth series like I need to be shot in the kneecap. Don't redeem him--that horse's fossilized remains have been beaten longer than most of us have been alive. Just . . .let him go. If someone has a bold new idea for him, he'll be waiting there on the shelf, but until then, keep him on the shelf and for God's sake don't make a big production of it.

But he's not alone, no sir. Speaking of ballast we're better off without, I humbly submit the Scarlet Witch. For all Joe Quesada whined that Doctor Strange is a plot device, then what the hell is she? Let's see . . .nebulous powers that almost explicitly do whatever the plot requires, longtime member of the Avengers, longtime cipher who did little other than get possessed, turn evil, date a robot, or whatever, and none of these things make her in any way, shape or form and interesting character.

Let me ask you--would you read a solo Scarlet Witch book? Can you think of a Crowning Moment of Awesome for the Scarlet Witch? Yeah, me neither. Because she is ultimately a character defined less by what she is and more by who she is associated with. She's Magneto's daughter, Vision's husband, she's been with the Avengers forever and a day, and yet . . .what has she really done in the 40-some years she's been a viable character to justify being enduring?

Well, she was one of the first characters to do a hell-face turn and one of the second-generation Avengers. Well, so what? That's a benchmark, but all that required was being plugged into a role, which is oddly fitting. The characters history is only that of being plugged into various roles over the years, culminating with House of M, wherein she transcended into pure plot device mode by cutting down the number of mutants in the X-Books, for reasons that have become, five years down the road, as nebulous as the character who did it.

Oh, there have been game efforts over the years to make something of her--in fact nearly every story that doesn't subordinate the Scarlet Witch into some attachment for another character is occupied with the business of "making something from her," whether it's explaining her powers (a brutally torturous storyline, usually) or turning her evil and/or subsequently redeeming her.

Neither of which work, because none of them have stuck and we're left with a character who, like Hank Pym, is here because well, they've always been there, with no great explanation beyond that.

Again I ask--would you miss her? Is there anything she adds as a character to the Avengers ensemble, because honestly--I'm willing to entertain arguments on this. Is there a great Scarlet Witch story that has heretofore been untold that isn't the same 40 year old bullshit reheated and served again? If not, then why keep her around? Why not give that slot over to another character who might, if given some face time, add something new to the team dynamic and do something a bit livelier than take up space and wait for their fob watch?

Are there any other characters like this, who have stuck around long past their expiration date and yet won't go the hell away? Explain your answers in the space provided below.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Just Sayin'--My Obligatory Marvel/Disney Post

Well, as everyone knows by now, Marvel has been bought by Disney, and the comics cognoscenti have basically fallen all over themselves trying to read the tea leaves and work out what the hell it all means in between sky-is-falling polemics about how Disney will tear the heart from Marvel like Mola Ram on a three Kali-ma binge.

I will not be doing that, as I have very little to say about it one way or the other. Its definitely a seismic shift in things, as now we absolutely have a Big Two (in that both companies are one limb on a larger tree, with all the good and bad that entails) and it very likely means the chance of a Jemas/Quesada early 00's creative renaissance wherein a whole lot was thrown at the wall in the hopes that some of it would stick is pretty much impossible now (not that that era needed any more fodder for romanticisation) as that kind of experimentation happened in desperation and outside of a larger corporate culture. As part of a larger company, Marvel is likely to be given all the freedom they like . . .until they start posting big losses, when they will be brought to heel by the corporate culture.

Or maybe not. The comics could be tolerated and treated with benign neglect by Disney, looked at as mere loss leaders for the real money--characters that can then be marketed and merchandised with an avarice mercenary imperative that would shame Scrooge McDuck--and they'll be left to their own devices to get on with the business of creating the arable soil for dreams of lunchboxes and tote bags to grow in.

The point is, there's no way of knowing. All we do know is that now both major comics companies are subsumed in a larger hyperglobalmegaentertainmentcorp, and while I couldn't say what exactly it is, I'm left with the feeling that something's been lost that we perhaps never fully appreciated the value you of at the time.

Time will tell. Always does.