Friday, November 21, 2008


Some discussion over in the comments here on whether or not Mark Millar is a satirist - seemingly echoing this dicussion from a while back.

Millar is a low-norm satirist, but I don't think that alone makes him special. I agree with Bill Krohn agreeing with Northrop Frye that we live in the age of satire. It's hard to find any piece of fiction that doesn't have some satirical element to it.

Is Millar a precise satirist? No. Is his satire especially thoughtful? I don't think so. Is it effective? Well, that seems to vary pretty wildly from work to work, but more often than not it's obnoxious rather than enlightening.

Coincidentally, I've just been reading some early Charlie Huston-written issues of the current Moon Knight. While this is definitely not a series for the ages, I think it works pretty nicely as a sub-Frank Miller send-up of macho super-heroic posturing - David Finch even functions in a sub-Jim Lee capacity. It's a bit like a Millar version of the Brubaker/Fraction Iron Fist: a satisfying elaboration of the character's mythology, with lots of outrageous/in-questionable-taste (low-norm) satirical moments scattered throughout.

And writing about Moon Knight reminds me I had a few more things I wanted to say about the Avengers. First, I should highlight something I tried to get at in the comments: that Stan Lee really figured out how to make the Avengers series work when the line-up turned into Captain America, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. Lee gave a raison d'etre to the team book by focusing on how the relationships between the characters change based on whether or not the characters are getting what they want and/or need from each other (i.e. Hawkeye getting the respect he wants from Cap, Cap getting - or not getting - a substitute for Bucky from his new teammates).

Second, instead of turning the New Avengers into Marvel's JLA or just another Avengers line-up, I would have liked to see Bendis make the New Avengers a completely "street level" super-hero book. We'd have Spider-Man, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jennifer Jones, and, of course, Moon Knight, with Captain America acting as the unofficial liason between this new group and SHIELD/Tony Stark/the other Marvel U authority figures.

This would have (a) played to Bendis' strengths - Daredevil and Alias, his low-rent, noirish super-hero books, are two of the best Marvel comics of the last twenty years, (b) marked a significant change from earlier runs of the Avengers title, and (c) been more of its own thing, not just Avengers Featuring Spider-Man.

Punisher, Cloak and Dagger, Ghost Rider, Shang Chi, and the Black Cat would show up every now and then and it could have started off with a sequel/homage to the 1980s Gang War story from Amazing Spider-Man.

And speaking of 1980s Amazing Spider-Man: the current creative teams working on this series seem to be making a return to the mid-80s DeFalco/DeMatteis era (i.e. before things got all McFarlaney and Cloney). I'm all in favor of this creative direction and not only for nostalgic reasons.

You know, when I heard about the concept behind the "One More Day"/"Brand New Day" sort-of-reboot, I thought that it sounded like another Clone Saga fiasco in the making: a radical change to continuity that would annoy current readers and do nothing to build a new audience interested in sticking around for the long haul once the novelty wore off. But, while you can certainly argue that maybe the change wasn't necessary, the proof is in the pudding: post-"One More Day" Amazing has become a solidly entertaining super-hero book, while the Straczynski run was pretty dire near the end (and, IMO, redeemed only slightly by fine work from guys like John Romita Jr. and Ron Garney). So, while it's something I might be against in theory, in practice it means Spider-Man comics that (a) I actually want to read and (b) (so it's not all about me) Spider-Man comics that are objectively better than they were before the change by just about any metric you want to use to determine what makes one super-hero comic better than another.

And, speaking of Straczynski...

I don't think he's actually a bad writer, in the sense that he has a firm grasp on how to execute his ideas. But he has some pretty awful ideas about what belongs in a Spider-Man comic. I like some of his other work, - Babylon 5 and Supreme Power, for instance - but the basic Spider-Man concept seems to be completely at odds with his m.o. of elaborate world/mythos-building.

Finally, more Marvel-related stuff in this entry from a new chat blog I'm doing with my friend Nick.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Plague War by Jeff Carlson

Plague War suffers from the same problem as John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigade: it's a sequel that isn't as immediately gripping as the first book in the series. Plague Year hooked me after the first sentence, but I stalled out after about 30 pages with Plague War. I had put the book aside for a few months while I devoted most of my reading time to comics and picked it up again yesterday because I liked the first book enough to want to give it another shot.

I'm glad I did: while the first 30 pages dragged a bit, the next 250 flew right by. Part of the issue is that the action starts up immediately after the events of Plague Year, so instead of dropping us right into the middle of an obviously desperate situation as in the beginning of Plague Year, Carlson has to spend some time reintroducing us to the characters and the world before we can really grasp all the dynamics of what's going on. It all feels a little repetitive, but eventually it does take off.

It still isn't as solid as the first book. Plague Year gave us characters who, in true Romero fashion, often made the wrong choice for the right reason, while in this book the protagonists have turned into more conventional action/adventure heroes, and they're able to get away with things more often.

In my favorite apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, the characters are faced with situations where all the options available to them are undesirable in some way. No matter what they choose, they're faced with losing something. (Early episodes of Battlestar Galactica work this way, for instance). Here, though, there are too many situations where the true costs of the heroes' actions don't seem to be taken into account: Carlson is too focused on the benefits.

This is part of a larger, general problem with adventure fiction - especially serial adventure fiction: the tendency of creators to be overly protective of their characters. Not just protective in the sense of "keeping them alive", but also keeping them from doing things the audience might not find appealing. I understand why creators feel they need to do this: serial fiction is generally character-based - rather than situation-based - so protecting the characters - keeping them healthy and likable and attractive - is seen as being necessary to ensure longterm commercial success. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that the last few years have given us critical and commercial successes like Lost and The Walking Dead that gain a lot of their oomph from not treating their characters with kid gloves, while similar shows that tried to keep everything "just the way the fans like it" (like, say, Alias) stumbled.

On the other hand, Carlson has a pragmatic p.o.v. towards romantic attraction which gives the developing relationship between the lead characters a real edge. This is definitely a refreshing element as too often even the hardest-nosed adventure fiction is slips into the most obvious Hollywood sentimentality when it comes to romance.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Avengers #1-21

The dominant, recurring narrative technique in this series is a two-page spread of a busy - to the point of being cluttered - action scene, framed by smaller panels giving us close-ups of the heroes and their commentary on and/or reactions.

This gives the comics a feel of lurching from one crisis to the next, with characterization pushed to the margins, and pages of exposition littering the valleys between the bursts of spectacle. What's missing is any sense of Bendis and his collaborators building their story panel-by-panel: there's no pacing, no development and choreography of the action. It's frozen spectacle, where the genius of Jack Kirby and the less-than-genius-but-still-compelling Marvel House Style he inspired hinged on the combination of spectacle and movement. (Not that we have to go back to the 1960's to find super-hero comics that have this kind of dynamism: check out just about everything John Romita Jr. draws.)

My guess is this is Bendis' attempt to "solve" the problem of doing a team book, because (a) it shows up in these issues regardless of the artist* and (b) it isn't as heavily used in Bendis' single character books, where the pacing - the panel-to-panel flow - is much more assured.

In terms of subject matter, there's nothing all that new here. The storyline about the Sentry recalls better comics by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, the House of M follow-up recalls better comics by Chris Claremont, the "Ronin" arc recalls better comics by Frank Miller, and every time Luke Cage said anything, I was reminded of a better comic by Bendis himself. Even from a marketing p.o.v., there's really no novelty here, since the idea of putting Marvel's "big guns" - Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Captain America - in the same team book is essentially what Morrison et al. were trying to do for DC with their JLA run.

The fact that there are a lot of even worse super-hero comics out there doesn't make these issues any less depressing. Bendis is pro enough that there are still scattered bits of effective/entertaining business.

*Well, almost: Frank Cho's issues don't feature this technique. They do have these really obnoxious full-page pin-up-style drawings of the female heroes, though, which are probably my least favorite thing in the entire comic.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Inspiration message of the day...

From Tom Spurgeon:

By the way, the thought that no one will have anything funny to say about a new president is deeply stupid, in comics or in other media. Not only do opportunities reveal themselves, you don't have to mock somebody to make them the focal point of humor. That SNL sketch from the 1970s where Jimmy Carter talks someone down from a bad acid trip is worth every single piece of easy savagery in which that show's wallowed in the last several years. The heart of comedy is revealing truth, not expressing contempt.

Monday, November 3, 2008

5 Best Comic Book Series I'm Reading at the Moment

1. Promethea (1st time, about 12 issues in): I read the first issues of all of the original ABC books, but Top Ten was the only one that hooked me in. I eventually caught up with all of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (except for The Black Dossier) and a lot of Tom Strong and Tomorrow Stories, but kept putting off reading Promethea. I decided to give it another chance because (a) the series is praised to high heaven by the likes of Jog and (b) the TPB collections are available at the library.

So far, I think it's pretty great and I'd like to say that I'm not sure what I was thinking when I decided way-back-when that it wasn't for me, except that I remember almost exactly what I was thinking: that turning into a super-hero by composing and writing a poem was an extremely lame idea. That's really the only bit that stuck with me, though: I had completely forgotten all the pulp sci-fi trappings - no memories of the Five Swell Guys, for instance - and the book's sense of humor - like the stuff about the MPD mayor).

While a lot of this reads like a lecture, what makes it work, IMO, is that Moore and J.H. Williams III make the lecture work as comics. If I have one complaint it's that in a TPB collection it's harder to read some of the two-page spreads: they really need to be laid flat to be properly appreciated.

2. All-Star Squadron (re-reading, 3 issues in): I don't know if this is my favorite Roy Thomas comic, but it is the first "favorite Roy Thomas" comic I ever had.

I really like that it isn't decompressed! I know it has become pretty common for old-school comics fans to complain about the lack of story/plot in newer super-hero comics, but it wasn't until I started re-reading this series that I realized my problem with decompression wasn't just that it spreads out 22 pages worth of story over six issues - I now think it also leads to lazier comics. I mean, in All-Star Squadron you have a large team of super-heroes, you have big fight scenes, and you have a fair amount of exposition/backstory/positioning to get across. But because you don't have all the space in the world, the individual panels take on a lot more weight. It becomes much more important to get as much expressiveness out of each panel as possible, while still avoiding having the compositions becoming too cluttered, muddied, or incomprehensible. It can be refreshing for creators to work without restraints, but I think "compression" was one of those constraints that spurred creativity rather than reigned it in.

I also like Roy Thomas' project here, in general. Talk about working within constraints: I can't think of anything else quite like this, except for Don Rosa's Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck comics. Rosa's work is an interesting comparison, IMO, because the Barks work Rosa is drawing from is among the greatest American comics ever made, while Thomas is working with far more uneven source material. In a sense, this puts All-Star Squadron in the better position vis a vis its "original" than Life and Times: Rosa's work ends up being a footnote - albeit a beautifully done footnote - to Barks', while All-Star Squadron is interesting and worthwhile for completely different reasons than the original Justice Society stories in All-Star Comics. The pleasure of those stories for me is in their anarchic, anything goes nature and primitive, circus-spectacle art. The pleasure of All-Star Squadron is in (a) watching Thomas put his stories together like a "negative" puzzle - i.e. he has to try to fit things in to the empty narrative spaces left by the original comics and (b) how Thomas more consciously weaves real world WWII-era history into the fiction.

3. Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan's The Question (re-reading, 3 issues in): Inspired by 52, I went back to these comics. Would it surprise anyone here if I said I think they're much better than anything done with the character in 52? For one thing, O'Neil doesn't write him just like another masked vigilante. O'Neil walks the tightrope of giving the character a distinct personality without having it turn into (merely) a unique shtick. I like O'Neil's approach in general: he has genuine old-school pulp roots, which sets him apart, IMO, from a lot of the other guys writing super-hero books. (I'd like to do a longer compare/contrast essay on this series vs. Miller's Daredevil, which makes use of a lot of the same pulp tropes but uses them in a more superficial manner).

4. The Walking Dead (1st time, 13 issues in): Good stuff! Not sure why I waited so long to read these comics, but I'm glad I now have a bunch of them to read all at once. I eventually would like to write a longer, essay-style appreciation, that would talk about (among other things) the importance of the various places in which the survivors take refuge and how I think Kirkman (and his collaborators) are thinking like classical Hollywood filmmakers in this regard.

5. The Boys (1st time, 13 or so issues in): Okay, so it isn't as good as Brat Pack. It isn't as good as Ennis' various Punisher comics. I haven't read enough Transmetropolitan to know if it's not as good as that. And I don't even think Robertson's work is as good here as it was on his Wolverine run. Still - I think this comic has something that a lot of the other nudge-nudge, wink-wink "takes"on super-hero comics don't, which is a raunchy, nasty spirit and a refusal to play both sides of the fence. I.e. there isn't much in the way of "traditional super-hero comics pleasures" here, as opposed to something like Nextwave or X-Static. (And, so far at least, the jokes don't revolve around how goofy various super-hero tropes seem if you think about them in "real world" terms). This is last on this list for a reason: I'm less sure of this one, both in terms of being less sure I'll be sticking around for the long haul and less sure that I won't look back on even these issues less fondly in a year from now. But right now this is (a) a nice corrective to the "straight" super-hero stuff I'm reading (I wish the Boys would pay a visit to Bendis' New Avengers) and (b) a nice way to get a regular Garth Ennis fix.