Archive for the ‘Super-heroes’ Category

Helter Skelter

June 7, 2012

So, it’s now official: I’ve “joined” the Manson family. I have my own bio as a “contributing writer” and everything. Oh, the unspeakable horrors of their initiation rites, how horrible and unspeakable and initiatory they were, what with the rites and the initiations and the horrors, and oh, speak about unspeakable!

Naturally, I’m sworn to secrecy about the exact nature of those rites, but let’s just say the phrase “Now that your Mom’s gone, you have to be the chihuahua” will be forever burned into my memory, as well as my — well, like I said, sworn to secrecy.

Of course, this means I’ll have to step up my douchebaggery to a whole new level. On the CID-Scale (Comics-Internet-Douchebag Scale), writing at HU (even irregularly) ranks only just below posting comments about fuck-Kirby’s-family-what-did-they-ever-create or male-superheroes-are-objectified-too, so it’s time for me to troll up and flame on.

***

Did somebody say troll up and fuck Kirby’s family?

You may have noticed a lot of chatter lately about comic creators getting screwed. It’s just one of those crazy little things that come up every now and then, you know how people love to complain on the internet. Anyhoo, Tom Spurgeon’s been making this kind of point a bit, and I just wanted to elaborate on it a little.

So, consider this. The guy who drove the van that delivered the catering to the site for secondary photography during the postproduction process of the future DVD making-of feature of the popular movie The Walt Disney Company’s Marvel Entertainment’s The Avengers probably made a lot more money out of The Avengers than Jack Kirby ever did.

And that’s no slam on that guy — he probably did a really good job driving that van; if you were in that van you’d probably be all like whoa dude you took that corner so smoothly it was like being tongue-kissed by a lace doily knitted by God Himself. (Ladies, gents, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about). Or even if that guy wasn’t, you know, a veritable William Blake of the catering delivery industry, even if he was just basically what you’d expect — some dude driving a catering van — he probably did an okay job, and he deserves to be fairly recompensed. Let’s send him a nice royalty cheque.

But, you know what?

Let’s send Jack Kirby a much fucking bigger one while we’re at it.

I don’t know, is it partly an American thing? I mean, there are arseholes the world over, but it seems to me, at least in this late stage of capitalism, to be a distinctively American kind of arsehole who will defend to the death the right of Goliath to beat the shit out of David as long as there’s a buck in it and no laws are broken and besides he’s got a goddamn sling why doesn’t he defend himself for Yahweh’s sake?

It makes me wonder: in the world of The Simpsons are there bloggers who pride themselves on being all hard-headed and tough-minded and realistic, able to cut through all the the namby-pamby, sheltered-workshop hand-wringing of the Lennys and Carls of the world? Guys who write long blog posts and message-board comments about how of course it’s perfectly morally acceptable for Mr Burns to build a giant shield to block the sun from falling on Springfield ever again, or to flay the cute widdle puppies of Santa’s Little Helper so he can make a vest out of their skins?

No one put a gun to your head and made you live under Mr Burns’ giant sun-shield. You knew what you were getting yourself in for when you were born in Springfield

Do they write paragraph after paragraph justifying Mr Burns’ decision to dump extremely hazardous toxic waste in the grounds of Springfield Elementary on the rationale that, hey, he’s the one who’s undertaken all the risk of actually putting the waste into barrels and having it driven to the school, so he’s morally entitled to a fair return on his investment? Why do Lenny and Carl hate America? Class warfare! Job-creators! Work-for-hire! Sign the back of this cheque to get paid and thereby validate our legally dubious claims of ownership!

Who am I kidding? Of course there would be people like that.

In the world of The Simpsons, however, the plebs sometimes riot in the face of injustice. Actually, they’ll riot at the drop of a hat, but sometimes it happens to be a hat of injustice, and so they’re kind of rioting in the face of injustice, a face made of hats. Hm, I kind of lost a grip on my metaphors there, but you get my point.

It’s time for a motherfucking riot.

Capturing continuity II: This time it’s personal

February 10, 2009

Last time I wrote about fictional universes, and how we know all sorts of facts about them that we’ve never been explicitly told. We know, for instance, that in the DC universe Pythagoras’ theorem is true, even if it’s probably never been stated.

(Although, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gardner Fox had used it as a crucial plot point in an Adam Strange story)

I said that we should think of reading a comic (or any other narrative, for that matter) as though we were making a big list of all the facts that are true in the world described in the comic. First we write down all the facts that are true in our world: e.g. 2+2=4; elephants are big; Superman Returns was arguably the best Superman-as-Jesus movie ever made. Then we add the facts that the comic explicitly presents to us: e.g. the Blue Beetle got shot in the head; Guy Gardner has a stupid haircut; Superman can, like, fly and punch through walls and stuff. Then we subtract any of the earlier facts that are inconsistent with these new facts: e.g. there was a Superman movie; Superman is a merely fictional character; there’s no such planet as Krypton. The result is the fictional world described by that comic (or novel or whatever)

Now I want to ask a stupid question: why bother with that third step? Why not just imagine a fictional world where it’s true both that there’s a guy called Superman who can fly around and all that jazz and that Superman is a merely fictional character?

The answer to the stupid question is, I hope, obvious: because such a world would be crazy! Or, rather, it would logically inconsistent, and we can’t imagine such a world. What, on the one hand, in this world Superman is flying around, saving the world, but at the same time he doesn’t really exist in that world? That doesn’t make sense!

So there’s an important constraint on creating and understanding a fictional world. To wit, a fictional world has to be logically consistent. When we, as readers, try to picture the world that the creators are trying to describe, we can only understand logically consistent worlds. And that means that we have to ferret out inconsistencies in our understanding of the world. For instance, if the story says there’s a guy called Superman, then we infer that, in this world, Superman is not a fictional character.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and that a “great soul has simply nothing to do” with consistency. In which case, we’re all little minds when we read, because consistency is exactly the one thing we all care about when we read, or watch a movie, or otherwise think about a fictional world.

And we don’t just check for consistencies between story-facts and real-world-facts. The story as a whole has to be internally consistent. You can’t tell me on page 1 that the butler did it and then, on page 22 that the Joker did it—unless the butler is the Joker. Just as we have to throw out some real-world facts if they contradict story-facts, so we may have to throw out some story-facts if they contradict other story-facts.

And, lo, continuity is born!

The shared universe, with characters interacting and stories intersecting, is just an extension of the single, self-contained story. And so is “continuity” as superhero readers think of it just an extension of the internal continuity of a single story. If we read a single story about Superman, we expect it to be consistent from start to finish. If Lex Luthor shows up on page 2 with a broken leg and then again on page 21 with no broken leg, there had better be an explanation for it. The same goes, by extension, for continuity across stories and even across different series. If Lex Luthor shows up in Action Comics with a broken leg and in Teen Titans with no broken leg, then there’d better be an explanation for that too. Maybe the Teen Titans story happens before the one in Action Comics. Maybe he invented a broken-leg-healing ray. Maybe there’s really two Lex Luthors, and one of them is an evil counterpart from another world—nah, no one would ever believe anything as stupid as that. But one way or another, if these events are all happening in the same world, there has to be a way to reconcile them with one another. Otherwise we’re being asked to imagine an impossible world, and that’s something we simply can’t do.

So have I reclaimed continuity? Is the message: forget about the image of continuity-hound as Comic Book Guy and the ridicule of popular culture (not to mention Emerson)? It’s okay to wallow in your continuity-porn?

Hell no. Find out why next time.

Capturing continuity

January 24, 2009

Freud used to say that the repressed returns. In today’s comic book marketplace, you don’t even have to be repressed. Indeed, scientists predict that, at the current rate of reprinting, every single comic book ever published will have been reprinted by March 2016. At which point the entire surface of the North American continent will collapse under the combined weight of unsold copies of World War Hulk: Frontline, The Essential Star Comics: ALF, and Bazooka Joe: The Classic Years: Volumes 1-37.

One of the odder reprint projects in recent years has been the decades-old continuity handbooks. Marvel has Essential-ized its Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and DC was at one stage planning to Showcase its equivalent Who’s Who. DC has already reprinted Michael Fleischer’s quixotic Encyclopedias from the 1970s which exhaustively, and exhaustingly, indexed every Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman story up to the 1960s.

These volumes are doubly redundant nowadays: first, because they’re out of date but, second, because of the internet—and wikis in particular. Pretty much every obscure detail of continuity is available somewhere online, if you’ve only the patience to find it.

So let’s have a trivia quiz about facts in the DC universe. We’ll start it off with an easy one:

1) Who is the alter ego of Superman?

Okay, you probably didn’t have to look up anything to answer “Clark Kent”. So try this one:

2) Who is the alter ego of Chameleon Boy?

I admit, I had to check that on wikipedia. What about this one:

3) Which of the following two cities has the higher latitude: Paris or New York?

Your first reaction might be: well, hang on, what? That’s not in the Who’s Who.

But, if you think about it, you’ll see that it is a legitimate question about the DC universe. In the DC universe, there’s a place called Paris, and a place called New York. So there’s got to be a fact about which city is northernmost, even if it’s never been explicitly mentioned in any DC comic [although perhaps some eager reader will direct me to an obscure panel from an old issue of JLE].

A bit of searching on the internet shows that, in our world, the answer is “Paris”. So it’s probably true in the DC universe, right?

Now, how about this question:

4) What is two times pi, to two decimal places?

Again, not something in Who’s Who, and probably not something that’s ever been explicitly mentioned in an issue of Booster Gold or whatever. But, in our world, two times pi is 6.28. So that must be the answer in the DC universe too.

This shows something important about fictional universes: their authors never tell us all the facts about them. As a matter of fact, they couldn’t possibly tell us all the facts, since there are indefinitely many of them. So how do we know that, in the DC universe, Paris is north of New York and twice pi is 6.28, if no comic about the DC universe has ever told us as much?

Here’s a simple answer: when we are told a story, we assume that the world it describes is just like ours. When Siegel and Shuster drew their first Superman stories, they didn’t need to tell their readers that physics and mathematics worked pretty normally in their fictional world, or that America had fought a bloody civil war in the nineteenth century. Their readers just assumed it, in the same way that we just assumed that Paris and Washington are located in roughly the same positions on DC-earth as they are on real-earth.

But clearly the simple answer is too simple. Consider the next two questions:

5) Is Superman a fictional character published by DC?

6) Do lots of people know that Superman is Clark Kent?

In our world, the answer to both questions is “yes”. But in the DC universe, the answer is “no”, of course. In the DC universe, Superman is a real guy and very few people know his secret identity (that’s why it’s a secret identity).

Here’s a slightly more complicated answer, then: when we are told a story, we assume that the world is just like ours—except when it’s not. So what do you do when you read a comic or watch a film? Think of it as writing out a list of all the facts that are true in the world that’s being described. First you assume that it’s just like our world, so you write down all the facts that are true in our world (of course you couldn’t literally do that, but it’s just a metaphor). Then you start adding facts that the authors tell you: all right, there’s this guy Superman. And he’s really strong. And he comes from some planet called Krypton. There’s three additional facts right there, additional to the facts in our world. Once you’ve added all the facts explicitly given in the story, then you cross off any of the earlier facts that contradict these new facts—so you cross off the fact that Superman is a fictional character, that no one has superstrength, and that there’s no such planet as Krypton.

And that’s what happens when you read a comic. What does this have to do with continuity? Find out next time, because this post is…to be continued.

Batman and the Monster Men, or, Year One ruined comics

February 20, 2007

The internet’s self-professed Hate-monger has called me out for my no-post post yesterday, which he reckons was a non-no-post post. All right, “Dick”, it’s on. Just wait until the shocking reveal, when the world will finally see the man behind the mask.

And now, a review.

Batman and the Monster Men, Matt Wagner, Dave Stewart and Rob Leigh. DC, 2006. $14.99, 144 pages.

Frank Miller has a lot to answer for.

And not just the sub-noir narration, casual sexism, the goddamn Batman, and Holy Terror. No, Miller’s greatest crime against comics remains Batman: Year One.

By itself, Year One is a decent slice of semi-sophisticated super-heroics, detailing the first time Batman wore his underpants on the outside. The subdued tone of Miller’s scripting was nicely matched by moody, European styling from artist David Mazzucchelli and colourist Richmond Lewis. Originally published in serial form in 1987, Year One was an obvious and heavy influence on Christopher Nolan’s film Batman Begins. This influence ranged from several scenes and set-pieces, which the film reproduced wholesale, to the focus given to noble-but-flawed Commissioner Gordon.

But if the influence of the book on film was generally positive, its influence on comics has been disastrous.

Comics aficionados often acknowledge its bad influence, lumping it together with Miller’s other big Batman book, The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These books heralded a dreary age of “grim and gritty” writing, or so the common wisdom goes. Legions of lesser talents tried in vain to ape their “dark” surface, while ignoring everything that was actually interesting about the books, namely the thematic and formal depths beneath that surface.

The common wisdom is mostly right, but that’s not the worst of Year One‘s influence. The worst of its influence has been that every second Batman story since then has been set in the character’s past.*

Seriously, look at the DC solicitations for titles coming in May 2007. Of twelve books in the “Batman family” (including Robin, Catwoman and so on), five of them occur in the “past”. Sure, some of that is due to the relisting of several Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale books, but the point holds generally–especially of the countless spin-offs, graphic novels and mini-series published alongside the continuing Batman series.

Since Year One, we’ve seen the early days of Robin, the early days of Batman and Robin, the early days of Commissioner Gordon, the early days of Catwoman, the early days of the Joker, the early days of Two-Face, and no doubt also the early days of Bat-Mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, the utility belt, and the aftershave Batman uses when he’s out on “patrol”.

And now, thanks to Matt Wagner, the early days story we’ve all been waiting for in Batman and the Monster Men, the early days of Hugo Strange.

Hugo who?

Well, exactly. A stock mad scientist figure, Hugo Strange was one of Batman’s very first recurring villains. They fought a couple of times in the 40s, after which Strange didn’t reappear until the 70s, in the fondly-remembered run by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin.

To his credit, Wagner at least seems to recognise how unnecessary this book is, a tale of the first battle between Batman and this fourth-tier villain. In fact, it’s even less necessary than that, it’s a re-telling of their first battle.

There’s a nice two-page gag early on, demonstrating Wagner’s attitude to the material. The first page is a sequence featuring a shadowy figure in athletic training, complete with hard-bitten, Miller-esque narration boxes: “I am a product of this city. My early childhood scarred by trauma” etc. We naturally assume this is Batman himself, until we turn the page to find that it’s actually Hugo Strange, a little bald geezer with glasses.

The message is clear: this is not the portentous dreck we usually get from Batman stories, particularly the Year One variety. There will be no brooding on vigilantism, hearts of darkness or urban ennui, no laboured parallels drawn between Batman and his foes. This is pulpy fluff, pure and simple, with no greater pretension than to entertain.

That it does, well enough. Wagner’s work here isn’t spectacular, but his Toth-influenced clean line propels the action competently. And the script doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence too much–given that she’s reading a book called Batman and the Monster Men in the first place.

Dave Stewart’s colouring scheme, by contrast, is a curious choice. Most pages are washed-out monochromes, in which one colour prevails, typically faded greys, blues, greens and browns. It’s not obvious what effect Stewart is going for–homage to Lewis’ colouring on Year One? General visual cue that this story takes place in the past, like a faded photograph? Whatever the intended effect, the actual effect is to dull the action, and action is everything in a book like this.

For what it’s worth, Batman and the Monster Men mostly delivers what it promises. Batman meets Hugo Strange, fools around with Julie Madison, fights some monster men. Faces are punched, batarangs are thrown.

The problem is, that ain’t worth much. This is six issues re-telling what was originally, what, a throwaway ten-page story with a decidedly minor villain? What next, a ten-part series revealing what happened between panels 5 and 6 of the back-up story in Detective Comics #136?

On the other hand, I would totally buy Bat-Mite: Year One.

*Granted, there was always a market for “untold stories”. Hence all those goofball silver age stories where Bruce Wayne’s dad, in bat costume for a fancy dress pretty, foils a robber, or where we see the origin of the Batphone, or whatever. But there wasn’t as much of this stuff back then as there is now, and they generally didn’t just retell still older stories

Recommended? Not really, unless you’re really jonesing for an adequate, meat-and-potatoes retelling of an old Batman story. Then again, given how bad most super-hero comics are these days, maybe you are.

IYL: Batman: Year One, competent super-hero stories

Compare and Contrast: Top 10, old and new

February 13, 2007

In comics circles, Alan Moore is as well known for his distinctive physical appearance as for the books he has written. Even before he decided to become a 10th level magic-user, Moore was cultivating the look of a wizard. By now, his flowing beard is so majestic it makes Gandalf the Grey look like a 13 year-old who forgot to shave for a couple of days.

But if Moore’s beard is big, his feet are simply enormous. They must be; just look what happens when other writers try to fill his shoes. For instance, the joyless spectacle of all those super-hero books that ape the superficial realism of Watchmen, Marvelman and The Killing Joke. Or the lousy film adaptations of V for Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

So the creators of Top 10: Beyond the farthest precinct, a 5-issue series collected in this volume, had a tough act to follow.

The original Top 10 series (1999-2001) was Moore’s attempt at writing a super-hero team book, modelled on tv cop shows like NYPD Blue. Literally modelled–the characters were all cops, and the plot a sort of police procedural. And formally modelled–the expansive cast was a true ensemble, with every character given their moment in the spotlight, via concurrently running plots and subplots.

Oh, and the cops all had super-powers. And so did the criminals. And so did everyone else in Neopolis, where the book took place.

The result was one of the most fun books Moore has written. Insanely detailed art from Gene Ha and Zander Cannon only added to the book’s unpretentious, cartoony joy. Ha thoroughly sold the reality of Neopolis, while cramming every panel with visual puns and easter eggs. If it was tough to follow Moore’s scripts, it was just as hard for anyone to follow Ha’s and Cannon’s art.

So the question is: how do the new creators compare? The answer is disappointing, but unsurprising. Their efforts don’t live up to the original, but they’re an entertaining enough diversion in their own right.

First, the script. Science fiction author Di Filippo does a respectable job without blowing anyone’s mind. He doesn’t have the luxury of the original twelve issues, and he already has an established cast and setting. So Beyond the farthest precinct is a dense read, re-introducing the original cast and setting, while wedging in a few new characters and neighbourhoods.

The plot is basically driven by one main story, involving a terrible apparition that appears over the city, and the police investigation that results. It’s never quite explained why people would freak out over one measly apparition–given that everyone in the city has super-powers–so the investigation never really feels that urgent. Part of the problem is that the apparition itself is badly designed, a cyborg skeleton with a hoodie and visor, more lame than menacing. But that might well be the point. For, around this macguffin, Di Filippo builds a story of official over-reaction and political subversion, with fairly obvious implications for the contemporary USA.

In any case, he acquits himself pretty well with the script, given how unwieldy such a large cast is. There’s a fair amount of entertainment, suspense and comedy for the reader. The only other real mis-step in the script comes in the denouement, which relies too heavily on two dei ex machina from the first series. First one character shows up for some info-dump, and then another old character is revealed as the face behind the apparition. The choice of characters will seem gratuitous to fans of the original, and probably puzzle new readers.

As for the art, Jerry Ordway is a natural for this sort of eyeball soup, with its cast of thousands and throwaway gags. Ordway cut his teeth on densely-populated team books like All-Star Squadron and that paragon of Where’s Wally cross-overs, Crisis on Infinite Earths. So Ordway can handle the demands of the art in a book like this.

At the same time, he gives the book his own distinctive visual stamp. Ordway’s line is thicker than Ha’s, especially when he’s inking himself as he does here. And, as usual, Ordway lays on the hatching to give depth and definition to his figures. In consequence, his characters are heavier and more solid than Ha’s. By contrast, his backgrounds are much less finished, and his figures generally less finely detailed. The art looks at once more real and less real than in the original series.

Finally, the easter eggs are still a main attraction. Among them: Funky Flashman selling real estate agent. The Question and Spider Jerusalem as political activists. Granny Goodness running Danvers Orphanage, looking after wards like Sluggo and Nancy and Sugar and Spice. Freddy Lombard and Tintin sharing a drink at the “Clean Line Cafe”, while three generations of DC’s Manhunters bicker nearby. Maggie and Hopey fixing squad cars in the precinct garage. And so on and so on and so on. The eagle-eyed Jess Nevins has an exhaustive list here. Ifyou got the references in this paragraph, you’ll probably enjoy the book for the allusions, gags and visual pans alone.

Recommended: For fans of the original who want more of the same, only less so. If you haven’t read the original, I’d recommend starting there first.

IYL: Ensemble police procedurals like NYPD Blue or The Wire, or ensemble books like Legion of Super-heroes

The skinny: Top 10: Beyond the farthest precinct, Paul Di Filippo, Jerry Ordway, Wendy Broome, Jeromy Cox, Johnny Rench with Randy Mayor, and Todd Klein. Wildstorm/DC, 2006. $14.99, 128 pages.