Tuesday, July 31, 2007

More Commentary on Grant and Breyfogle's Detective Comics

A month and a half ago, I mentioned my interest in rereading the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle Detective Comics run from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Other diversions have popped up to push that little project aside, but I had a few minutes to look though some of those comics this past weekend, and here are some thoughts on issues #588-597 (originally published from July 1988 to February 1989).

1. Alan Grant seemed to get bored with Gotham pretty quickly. Within a year, Grant had Batman ditch Gotham in favor of a kind of world tour. The premise for Grant's whole series, at least in the early phases, was that it was supposed to be adventures from the "Batman Casebook." That way, the stories didn't have to tie into continuity as rigidly as they might have. So Batman could jump to England, Australia, and Cuba without having to explain his absence in the other Bat titles. The jaunts to England and Australia aren't particularly interesting, with Batman stopping a modern day Guy Fawkes in the former and a bunch of racists and a crazed Aborigine in the latter. The Guy Fawkes issue came out at the same time that DC was promoting the V for Vendetta series, but I don't know if Grant had that in mind as he was writing the story.

2. Bruce Wayne was notoriously absent from these stories. With a few minor exceptions, Bruce Wayne may as well not exist as far as these Grant/Breyfogle stories are concerned. They are all about Batman. And they don't really show Batman doing too much, except following clues to confront the bad guy. And by follow clues, I mean that he didn't even really do much detective work. He just noticed a clue, then noticed another clue, and it became kind of an obvious trail for him to follow. He didn't have to give these cases much thought.

3. Villains are tragic. Grant obviously wanted to tap into the core of the Batman mythos without actually using Batman villains, so his approach was to create a whole series of new, tragic villains. Many of them were just regular guys, twisted by fate or circumstance to commit evil deeds. Their defeat (or death) at the end of each issue was often followed by Batman's stern comment (to himself, in thought balloons) about "justice."

4. Dean Haspiel was quite a terrible super-hero artist. Haspiel, most famous for his work with Harvey Pekar, used to be the assistant to Howard Chaykin, and in the late 1980s he attempted to break into comics himself as a DC penciller. He was featured in at least two "Bonus Book" inserts around that time, one of which is printed in Detective #589. You can see the Chaykin influence, but it's just really flat, stiff, unprofessional work. He's improved tremendously since that time, and I'm sure he's not too fond of the style he used on the Bonus Books.

5. The best issues, BY FAR, are Detective #596-597 and Breyfogle didn't even draw them. In Breyfogle's absence, Eduardo Baretto drew two excellent issues featuring a unique (at the time) villain, in the form of a twisted videographer who got his kicks having his friends beat up on people and recording it. The story predicts future comic book scenarios like the recent "Film Freak" storyline in Catwoman, and it suggests the Bum Fight phenomenon along with the rise of YouTube. Baretto's art is elegant thoughout, and he draws a much sturdier Batman than Breyfogle (whose Batman is all motion and curved angles). The story explores the consequences of violence in a mature and thoughful way, and it also features a great scene in which the recovering Batman (who's in a hospital room), climbs out through the window as the Doctor shouts, "There's a door!" and then gives Batman his medical opinion: "No Batropes! You hear me? No Batropes!"

With that, I'll take a break from Detective for a while to do some of the writing (comic book scripts! Grant Morrison book number two!) that I should be doing (but that won't stop me from reading a huge stack of new comics on Wednesday!). When I eventually get around to posting more on this Detective run, I'll write about the giant Sam Hamm/Denys Cowan three-parter which lead into issue #600.

Monday, July 30, 2007

What Makes a Comic, you know, Actually Good?

After spending a couple weeks discussing ideas like "bad readers," "bad cartoonists," and "what should a good comic have," everywhere from Barbelith, to the Image message boards, to Sequart.org, I thought I had moved on to other concerns, but as I read Brian Cronin's recent post at Comics Should Be Good, I realized that I had discussed the topic but I hadn't actually reached a workable conclusion to the critical question: What Makes a Comic Good?

Here's what Brian posted:

After I recently named a CBR thread “Seven Standards,” everyone’s pal, Alex, posted what he felt (off the top of his head) were the


Alex’s seven were:

1. art that has an evident level of craft.
2. stories that move in meaningful arcs, linear or not.
3. characterizations that are not contrived (unless that is part of the characterization itself!)
4. a sense of design that amplifies the themes of the content
5. thematic depth, so the comic works on many levels
6. thoughtful use of the medium itself to communicate
7. Cohesion of the above

I’d really like to hear what you folks (and any of you comic bloggers out there) would pick as your seven standards for comic.

Here's my response (slightly edited from what I posted at Comics Should Be Good to provide a bit more clarity):

I think Alex’s list is a noble starting point to start the conversation about what makes a good comic, objectively speaking.

I don’t think my feelings or the question of “how much I liked or disliked it” is as interesting as trying to evaluate the qualty of a comic from an objective position. I think it is important (and interesting) to evaluate a work against a set of criteria, and see how it stacks up, but, then again, as I said in a Sequart column, I don’t think a work of art (comic books included) has any obligation to “be” anything.

So any attempt to come up with an absolute list of “standards” is an attempt to slap your expectations onto someone else’s work. In a way, any single “demand” of a comic is as silly as saying, “to be a good comic, it must have at least one fight scene.” (Which was surely an in-house criteria used by mainstream publishers for years, but it’s not a criteria that necessarily helped make good comics. It just helped make comics with fight scenes in every issue.)

Yet, even though I believe the idea of placing expectations on what a work of art should be is severly flawed, I’d rather base an aesthetic judgment on some set of criteria rather than just say, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” If your entire evaluation is based on thinking like that, then you might as well not say anything, because the automatic reply is, “well, that’s just your opinion.” And that doesn’t lead to much interesting discussion.

All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that I don’t believe that you can come up with Seven Objective Standards, but I’m going to list Seven Standards anyway, inspired by what Alex came up with, but reflecting my own aesthetic (not emotional) expectations:

To be good, a comic (and by comic, I mean the finished form of the work, which could be a single issue, but it could also be a trade paperback collection) should have:

1. Art which helps to tell the story (and does not detract from it or cause unwanted confusion)
2. Art which amplifies and accentuates the themes through visual symbolism
3. Stories which resolve in some way
4. Main characters who have more than one facet to their personality
5. Something to say about one or more of the Essential Human Ideas (aka themes)
6. Narrative consistency (in character, plot, setting, and theme–jumps from one setting to another, for example, should be explained or alluded to)
7. Something new to say (about the medium, the genre, the characters, or the world)

To me, it’s #7 that divides the good comics from the average ones.

That's where I stand on the topic as of today. Those are my Seven Standards. This week, I'll apply those standards to a few comics, and see what happens.

Readers, what do you think of those Seven Standards and which ones do you think need to be changed?

P.S. I also think those Seven Standards apply to prose literature as well, except I would substitute the word "Language" for "Art" in that case.

There's Always a First Time

I was looking at my bookshelves the other day, and this book cover jarred my memory, reminding me that the first thing I ever wrote for an online publication was a review of Consider Phlebas for the short-lived Grayhaven Magazine. I know some of the Grayhaven guys went on to write comics reviews for Aint It Cool News, but that's the last I've heard of them.

Anyway, if you'd like to read my very first book review, from about a decade ago, you can find it HERE.

Back in the day before I was setting the internet on fire.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Finale: The Golden Age vs The New Frontier

My week-long exploration of Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age finally CONCLUDES with a look at the artwork in both stories as I reach my final verdict about these two graphic novels. Check out installments ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, and FIVE for my previous commentary.

The best way to comment about the artwork in these two books is to look at two equivalent pages side-by-side and discuss the techniques each artist uses to tell the story. So here we go, a quiet scene from The Golden Age illustrated by Paul Smith and colored by Richard Ory on the left, and a quiet scene from The New Frontier illustrated by Darwyn Cooke and colored by Dave Stewart on the right (click on the image for an enlargement if you wish):

The first thing you'll probably notice, seeing the pages side-by-side like this is how similarly the pages are laid out. Both artists use a three tier structure and both artists alternate camera distance to create a visual rhythm (by the way, I'll use cinema-related terms like "camera distance" and mis-en-scene as a critical shorthand today, I hope you don't mind). One major difference that these two particular pages don't identify is that Cooke (on the right) uses the three-tier layout almost exclusively throughout the story, maintaining this three widescreen panel look on nearly every page of the book, while Smith (on the left) returns to the three-tiers regularly, but he changes the layout on many, many pages, sometimes going with two or four tiers per page. He also uses more panels to break up the tiers, as you can cleary see in the example above. The effect of the smaller panels is an overhwelming sense of constraint, of visual claustrophobia, perfectly suited for the story. In Cooke's case, his widescreen panels match his boundlessly optimistic tone and the panoramic scale of his narrative.

Also notice that Smith may vary the camera distance from medium-long-close up-medium-close up-medium (with background action in the last panel), but he maintains the same camera angle. Our point of view is waist high (to Johnny Chambers), or the level of the seated and haggard Ted Knight. It never changes , allowing us to stare into the eyes of the lost scientist and see Johnny as a heroic, looming figure. Cooke, on the other hand, radically shifts from a top down establishing shot, to a close up, back to a long shot. The establishing shot-to close up panel transition is rare in comics (and such a transition is rare in cinema, but it reminds us of Sergio Leone, who mastered the technique). The effect on the page of such a rapid shift in narrative distance is to speed up a relatively slow scene. It's just two guys standing and talking, but Cooke makes it dynamic with that transition. His story is literally about acceleration, and his two characters here, Ace and Hall, are two of the most fearless test pilots in the world.

Smith's mise-en-scene seems to be all about texture. The wrinkled, stubbled face of Ted Knight. The folds of the clothes, the sheet hanging over the chalkboard in panel two, the stacks of random papers in panel six. All of this adds to the grunginess of the story, capturing that sense of human-level drama and despair. Cooke's mise-en-scene is all about geometric shapes. The nearly perfect 45% angle of the plane in panel one, the straight lines on the character's faces, the stark, relatively empty background in panel three. Cooke's world is an orderly universe, and only Ace's trail of smoke seems unwilling to fit into a rigid pattern. Cooke's powerful graphic style is simple on the surface, but his compositions give his pages amazing weight and energy. And this story, about technological and social progress, about the machinery of man and the order of the world, belongs as a widescreen, geometric story.

Before I move on to the other sample pages, I need to point out the drastic difference in the use (and quality) of the color. In The Golden Age, Richard Ory was using a relatively new (for the time), hand painted technique, and either the reproduction is absolutely horrible or his color choices are absolutely rotten. Either way, the garish use of yellow, not only on this page, but throughout, and the attempt to provide surface highlights (like on Ted's face in panel three), distract terribly from Paul Smith's solid storytelling and fine linework. Ory seems to want to use the color to add to the book's ground-level "realism," but it just looks sickly. I would love to see this book recolored without all the fussy yellow highlights everywhere.

Dave Stewart is the best colorist in the business, so anyone would look bad next to him, but see how pleasant the colors are in the page on the right compared to the Ory atrocity on the left. And Stewart perfectly captures both the melancholy mood of the scene and the geometric design of Cooke's page. Everything in Stewart's work is balanced, clear, and beautiful, even the painted texture of the runway and the mottled sky.

Here we have two more pages, this time from the climax of each story, and, once again the three-tiered structure remains consistent between both. Even the camera angles are very similar in the top and bottom panels on each page. The major difference in page layout is that Smith (on the left) breaks up the middle action into a before-and-after sequence, while Cooke (on the right) shows us on simple action. In fact, Smith tells more story in his panels, with Dynaman smashing of Green Lantern with a tree, then punching him as GL is trying to get up, then recognizing the arrival of more heroes behind him. Three distinct actions. One per tier, with that extra panel in the middle thrown in to show the evil of kicking a man when he's down. Cooke only shows two actions: Martian Manhunter flying, and Martian Manhunter tearing a beast apart. Once again, Cooke story (both in content and style) is about acceleration, and this page is no exception. Smith's story (with writer James Robinson) is about brutality and "reality."

Which ties into the look of the violence on these pages. Smith makes the violence look painful! His villains stagger and have swollen features and slices on their faces. His heroes are torn ragged and punched into the ground. Cooke, alternately, makes the violence seem heroic. Martian Manhunter is covered in far more blood in that last panel than Dynaman is on his, but the blood pouring over Martian Manhunter seems like more "action-shapes," that the insides of the creature. Note we don't actually see where the blood is coming from, although we can assume it's from that flying dinosaur thing from panel two. But Cooke keeps the focus on Martian Manhunter's face (and notice how he did that establishing shot-to close up thing again), and we see the struggle of the hero (THEMATIC!), not the suffering of the monster. Smith shows us EVERYONE suffering--everyone pays the price for the actions of evil men in The Golden Age.

Ory's color (left) is less of a problem on this page, but it still muddies the image a bit too much for my taste, especially in panel one, which shows a brown tree in front of a brown background. The darker hues on the costumed characters works for the tone of the story, which is fine, but I much prefer the bright hues of Stewart's palette (right) as the Martian Manhunter's red eyes seem ready to burst some heat vision right out of the page. Also, Stewart's blue sky is much prettier. Which is nice.

Paul Smith and Darwyn Cooke are both fantastic artists. Smith, as proven over his long and varied career, is capable of a wide range of styles and artistic approaches, while Cooke sticks to what he does extraordinarily well, a bold, deceptively simple style that somehow combines the best of Jack Kirby and Alex Toth and then makes it even better. I think Smith does an excellent job with the material he's given by James Robinson, and I think Cooke is one of the greatest comic book artists in history. So even though both artists approach their stories with different illustrative techniques, they both do so fittingly.

So the art (at least the linework) is not enough to declare one work clearly superior (although the coloring might be--and The New Frontier wins that one hands down), but I do prefer Cooke's style, personally. He is one of the most exciting artists working in the industry.

So, the final verdict, after looking at The Golden Age and The New Frontier for a week: Not much different than my initial assessment after reading them both last weekend. The Golden Age is flawed because of its inconsistent narrative point of view and it's cheap, brain-swapping revelations. Robinson and Smith capture the disillusionment and paranoia of the time quite well, but it all amounts to nothing except a superhero slugfest in the end. It's 80% of a great work, and 20% of stuff that doesn't quite fit (including the optimistic ending, which seems unearned). As part of a larger, genre-wide trend to make super-heroes more "realistic," violent, and depressing, I'm not a huge fan of its influence.

The New Frontier is flawed, but it's a flawed masterpiece, and I can imagine revisiting the story many times in the future (and I can't say the same about The Golden Age). Cooke tries to include too much in the narrative, and the main threat of Monster Island isn't presented as well as it needs to be, but the book contains dozens of amazing sequences, and it features sharp, engaging characters who flash in and out of the story. The speed of the narrative demands that the book be read quickly, and it works best when read this way, not because it allows the reader to gloss over the weak parts of the story, but because The New Frontier is an overture, and can be best appreciated when all of its notes are heard in rapid sequence. I didn't love it when it first came out, in the completely inappropraite floppy installments, but I loved it after reading the Absolute version a week ago, and I love it just as much after studying it closely all week.

As one final thought: Both The Golden Age and The New Frontier tap so deeply into comic book lore, and I am so deeply imbedded in it myself, that I wonder if either of these works has any merit for a "civilian" reader. And I wonder if, perhaps, the darker, more "realistic" tone would be appealing to a non-comics fan, more so, perhaps, than the wide-eyed optimism (tinged with bits of darkness) seen in Cooke's work. Or would the non-comics fan find both stories completely useless and without merit? Are both works examples of the snake swallowing its own tail? I've already been swallowed by the snake of comic book geekery, so I can't answer that one.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Characterization in The Golden Age: Dragging Heroes to Earth

Today, my week-long exploration of Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age continues with a look at Robinson's characterization of the WWII heroes. Check out installments ONE, TWO, THREE, and FOUR for my previous commentary.

While Cooke ignores anyone else's retroactive continuity to graft archetypal personalities onto the early Silver Age heroes in The New Frontier, Robinson takes characters stright out of Roy Thomas's All-Star Squadron (like Johnny Quick on the left here) and Young All-Stars and sends them on a dark journey into the 1950s. Robinson does not reimagine these characters drastically, although he seems to do so with Mr. America (but that's part of his narrative ruse), instead, he takes their established characterization and expands upon it by adding seeds of self-doubt, paranoia, and despair as the characters face a world in which the villains are not as easily identified as they once were. Robinson misdirects the reader at first by pretending to adopt a simplified Watchmen approach, pretending that he's showing what these characters would have been like without costumed villains to fight or gangsters to punch, when, in truth, he's simply changed the nature of the evil to something more covert and less easy to spot. (Which might seem Watchmen-esque as well, except Alan Moore showed us that the heroes were the villains in that story, and here, Robinson ultimately reveals that secret villains with brain-transplant powers were behind the whole thing from the beginning.)

Here's a quick rundown of the central characters in The Golden Age:

Johnny Chambers, a.k.a Johnny Quick: Johnny not only provides the book-ends to the story, but as a documentary filmmaker, he provides the exposition which sets up the story context. One of the things Robinson does NOT do well here, by the way, is clearly distinguish between narrative voice (provided through whitle, rectangular caption boxes), and newsreel voice over (also provided by white, rectangular caption boxes), although perhaps the colorist was supposed to use different color cues for each and didn't. The CHARACTERS who narrate, like Johnny Chambers, each have their own style of caption--Johnny's are rounded and blue, as you can see in the image. Actually, it's not that it's so difficult to identify the narrative voice, it's just that there is an omniscient narrator who pops up every once in a while for no good reason, and tells us things about the story sometimes, while other times he sounds like he's trying to give us character thoughts but not really: the highly subjective "fingers...fumbling...focusing...trying to..." immediately follows the objective "a photographer lurks among the rubble." The photographer is the one who's fingers are supposedly fumbling as he tries to snap the photo, so why does the caption sound like a bad Batman internal monologue? This really has nothing to do with Johnny Chambers, but I just wanted to point out this major flaw in the narration throughout. With so many characters (Johnny being one) actually providing narration through captions, why does Robinson add an omniscient narrator also? It's jarring and ineffective. It's like he took the strategies of Watchmen with the multiple points of view, and then spliced the conventional narrator on top of it. It just doesn't work.

But a few more things about Johnny: He smokes, and he wears glasses. He still has his powers, but even though they would help him in his day job, he doesn't use them. And he's incredibly suspicious, which is the characteristic that makes him the character the reader most identifies with. He's also lost the woman he loves because he works too hard, although he gets her back in the end. In short, he's a slightly older (although he actually seems to get younger as the story progresses, perhaps symbolizing his return to heroic stature), slightly more sullen, slightly more flawed version of the character we saw in the comics produced in the 1980s (even though those stories were set in the 1940s). He refers to his costumed self as "That Jerk!" at the beginning of the story, but ends on a hopeful note as he describes a "new age...fresh and clear and bright...as sterling silver!" He's never really a cynic, but his pessimism and self-loathing turns to optimism in the end (even quickly dismissing the threat of McCarthyism to look ahead to the glowing future of super-heroics).

Paul Kirk, a.k.a Manhunter: If we play out the James-Robinson-is-trying-to-do-Watchmen-but-not-as-well game a bit more, we could say that if Johnny Chambers is the Dan Dreiberg analogue (the low-self-esteem voice of reason and calm) then Paul Kirk is clearly the Rorschach character. He's the crazy one who will surely upset the apple cart, yet isn't that what has to happen in order to get to the truth? That's his role, anyway. Unlike Rorschach (in his insane way), Kirk doesn't have a methodical approach to uncovering the truth. In fact, he's tormented by the truth, which lies buried beneath mind implants, exploding into awareness only through a series of horrible dreams. He seems deeply disturbed because of the War, but he's actually deeply disturbed because of the secrets he knows. He's another character, like Johnny, who seems to become more youthful and vibrant in the final Act, when he is able to unleash his demons through old-fashioned fisticuffs. Unlike Johnny, though, he visibly suffers for long time before he reaches the point of action. Here's a sample of his inernal monologue from one of his many tortured dreams: "Save the eagle. Save it. Save--n...no...nooooohhhh!!" Then he wakes up and thinks, "Still afraid." That's about the extent of his characterization. He's tormented, fearful, and knows he should be better than that. And "save the eagle?" geez, I wonder what in the world that could possibly mean in a book about corruption within the American government. Clearly, even though this book is directed at an older audience than the original Golden Age tales, Robinson keeps his symbolism quite simplistic.

Tex Thompson, a.k.a. Mr. America (on the left), and Daniel Dunbar, a.k.a. Dan the Dyna-Mite (on the right): These are the two characters most radically changed from their Golden Age counterparts. Mr. America was a whip-wielding patriotic hero and Dan was a kid sidekick who later, under Roy Thomas's writerly guidance, became one of the lead characters in Young All-Stars. In Robinson's story, Mr. America becomes a corrupt politician who seeks power by any means necessary, and Dan the Dyna-Mite becomes America's beloved Dynaman, the only active costumed crimefighter of the time. And, he snorts coke. And he's evil.

Neither of these two characters have internal monologues via captions for the reader, because that would give away the twist. Tex Thompson is not really who he seems, for he has the brain of the evil Ultra-Humanite (who has in previous stories adopted the forms of a gigantic white gorilla and a hot ex-starlet, among others). And Daniel Dunbar, who has fallen so far from grace in our eyes (a former teen sidekick with a drug problem whoring around) actually has the BRAIN OF ADOLF HITLER!

So there's not much to say about the characterization here, since these are two evil characters in the most simplistic way. What is interesting, though, is that (a) Robinson chooses one character, Thompson, who seems vaguely sleazy to modern readers anyway, what with that whip and the moustache, and when he's shown to be corrupt, we can buy into it, falling into Robinson's trap of thinking that it's just a regular dude becoming corrupted by power; and (b) Robinson's use of the pure and innocent Dunbar is also a good choice, because it is not only shocking to see him corrupted so extremely (before the truth of the brain-swap is revealed), but it's a nod to cultural expectations about former child stars, who, by the 1990s, were expected to grow up and become criminals or drug addicts or worse, at least by our tabloid-fascinated society.

Like a director who makes his film better through excellent casting, Robinson uses the right two ex-heroes in the apparent role of the villains. His bait-and-switch works, although I was personally disappointed that the threat turned out to be external (evil villains) and not the corruption of these characters from within.

Robinson uses other characters to show the corruption of innocence and loss of the heroic dream. Robotman, so noble in Roy Thomas's All-Star Squadron, has lost any humanity by the time of this story--he's pure machine, while Alan Scott, Green Lantern is conflicted about his duty as a business leader and law-abiding citizen and his passion for ring-slinging and butt-kicking. Hourman is shown to be addicted to his Miraclo pills, while the man once known as the Tarantula is an egoist with writer's block. Ted Knight, Starman, who Robinson would go on to write with great depth and sensitivity in the ongoing series about Jack Knight, is a mad genius who is trying to put the pieces of this shattered world together through science.

I should add here that Robinson, unlike Cooke, isn't drawing from the original sources as the basis for his story. He's adapting his characterizations from the work done during contemporary comics, as Roy Thomas provided retroactive characterization (and explanations) for the WWII-era heroes. Robinson is building on the layers which Roy Thomas built upon the layers which Gardner Fox (among others) built.

Overall, Robinson does provide a sense of disillusionment in his characterizations in this story, even if his narrative technique is sometimes sloppy or inconsistent. Cooke tried to add a bit of humanity to iconic characters in his work, but he was mostly interested in the icons of the era. Robinson drags his characters down into the muck and then builds them back up again, hoping to show how their inner humanity wins out (with all of its flaws) in the face of systematic adversity. Cooke's characters inhabit the skies, the stars. Robinson's characters live on the ground.

Come back tomorrow for my final verdict on both works, as I explore the artistic storytelling (comics have pictures too!) and pull all my thoughts together into an overall evaluation.

Grant Morrison's Final Crisis

This isn't completely shocking, since Morrison claimed to be working on the big crossover event for 2008, but it's been confirmed at San Diego.


Yes. That is very good news. Not just because that means I can look forward to a good story, but because Morrison isn't going to use the event to get rid of the multiverse (which he obviously adores) or add a dose of "realism" (which he hates).

Here's what we can expect: a fun, cosmic, apocalyptic, symbolic Silver Age-style imaginative romp, maybe with more than a bit of the Kirbyesque.

Here's what we can be safe NOT to expect: Superman crying, heroes slowly dying of cancer, pointless rape, governmental registration of super-heroes, bad dialogue, everyone turning out to be a Manhunter, neon green ink, stupidity.

I'm sure Morrison will have some things to say, at least some hints, this weekend, but for now, at least we can read what artist J. G. Jones has to say: Final Crisis should be good.

UPDATED TO ADD: This comes from Newsarama: "Morrison said it would have Anthro the First Boy on the first page, and Kamandi the Last Boy on the last page." Yeah, that sounds like a suitably epic time span. And, Kamandi!

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Unstoppable Force of Progress: Characterization in The New Frontier

Thus, my week-long exploration of Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age continues. Check out installments ONE, TWO, and THREE for my previous commentary.

Since both The New Frontier and The Golden Age reimagine comic book chronology through one part actual U.S. history, one part comic book history, and one part imagination, it's not surprising to find both Cooke and Robinson taking liberties with the characterization of these pre-Silver Age heroes. Both creators ask the question asked by any creator attempting to retell stories from the past: Okay, this is how they were portrayed, but what were the characters who did these things REALLY like?

I'll start by looking at The New Frontier. Cooke doesn't focus his story on one dominant point of view the way Robinson does (with Johnny Quick), but he tells his story through a few central characters:

Rick Flagg: Leader of the WWII-era Suicide Squad (and presumably the father, or grandfather, of the Ostrander-penned incarnation). Cooke presents him as a tough guy cliche. He's a Hemingway hero--he does what needs to be done and doesn't whine about it or waver in his determination. In Act III of the narrative, his position in the story is replaced by the similarly-characterized King Faraday, who also does what needs to be done, although he seems to have more internal conflict that Flagg. Faraday is a spy, after all, not a soldier. But both characters represent a government which has the best interests of the country in mind. If they hurt a few individuals along the way, that's a necessary sacrifice for the good of the many.

Hal Jordan: The man who would be Green Lantern is NOT portrayed as a cocky rocket jock, as he usually is in contemporary interpretations. Cooke turns his lack of fear into a self-destructive streak stemming from his face-to-face act of self-defense in Korea. In Cooke's universe, Jordan doesn't immediately become a hero just because an alien handed him a ring. It takes time for Jordan to learn that he deserves to be a hero, and that's a large part of what The New Frontier is about. He doesn't reveal himself in Green Lantern costume until AFTER he risks his life to save the world working as a pilot. The two-page "hero shot" of the characters walking towards camera (a la The Right Stuff) shows some costumed heroes, but Jordan is wearing a flight suit. Cooke seems to be showing that he needed to prove himself TO himself before he could accept his new identity, but his reluctance to use the power of the ring leads to Nathaniel Adam's death. (Adam is later reborn as Captain Atom in the comics, but that doesn't happen in this story, and as far as Jordan should be concerned, Adam is dead.) Cooke doesn't provide Jordan with any time for remorse, though, since he needs to use his ring to kick alien butt. The ring, by the way, is also shown as a symbol of destructive energy. When Jordan first uses it, he cannot control it, and it causes great damage. Cooke, then, seems to indicate that the ring might symbolize nuclear energy, and the subtext would be that Jordan's hesitance to use it led to another hero's death. Ultimately, Jordan is Cooke's symbol of the Kennedy era: conflicted, yet determined to bring forth a positive future--harnessing great powers for the good of the nation (and the world).

John Jones, the Manhunter from Mars: Jones says, "...this is a world where good and evil struggle in all levels of existence. I want to be a force for good." That's a simplistic view of humanity, but it's one seemingly shared by Cooke throughout this work. Good and evil may not be easily discernible on the surface, and Cooke gives us the threatening-looking John Henry (with a hangman's hood) as a hero and a little blonde girl as a villain, but the line between good and evil is absolute (and, in fact, John Jones assumes the role of a film-noirish detective so he can find the evil beneath the surface appearance of the world). Jones defines this ethical stance for the reader, and it represents the code of Golden and Silver Age comic books, which lacked anything but absolutes. Even though Cooke might try to provide some not-so-subtle shades of grey (Jordan as a murderer, Wonder Woman as feminist avenger, an undercurrent of xenophobia), his view of history seems to echo the simplicity of the comic book stories of the era. Individuals may not have always done the right things at all times, but it was an era of progress, and good triumphed over evil. The subtext could also indicate that governmental order triumped over chaotic nature, with the unified heroes, under the leadership of the U.S. government, destroying a threat that wasn't so much malicious as it was animalistic.

Even though Cooke's characterization of some of these characters, Hal Jordan in particular, might not match traditional representations of these individuals, I think it works in the context of the story. The characters serve the story and add a few layers to the text, but it's primarily a historical action spectacle, a celebration of progress over stagnation, and Cooke's characterization unifies the text. I don't think his characters have many hidden depths, but I think their lack of depth matches a story which is primarily about the grand force of history.

As one final observation: Cooke is actually better at small character moments with the minor characters than he is at developing convincing lead characters. The death of Johnny Cloud, Jimmy Olsen's eagerness, the sassiness of Carol Ferris, and several other character bits show Cooke's facility on the small scale, even if his epic narrative doesn't provide the opportunity for subtle nuances with the major characters.

Come back tomorrow for my look at Robinson's revision of the WWII heroes in The Golden Age.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Legion, Star-Lord, and All-Star Batman: Special Bonus Review Section--Number Three of Three

I couldn't decide which of these titles to review in this last slot (and I wanted to give myself a finite amount of review space so I wouldn't spend all day writing blog posts), so decided to go with some three-way action here today and cover Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #32, Annihilation: Conquest--Star-Lord #1, and All-Star Batman and Robin #6.

Unlike my last two entries on Morrison and Brubaker/Fraction which deal with self-contained flashforwards or flashbacks, my post here deals with three comics which are part of larger story arcs, and all three of which might read better if not read in isolation.

But how do they rate as chapters in larger serials? Flawed, all of them. But interesting.

I wrote about Morrison's Batman and Brubaker/Fraction's Iron Fist first, not just because I was most excited about those two issues (even though I was), but because I think both of those issues (and surrounding stories by those creators) belong in the top tier of super-hero comics. As disappointed as some people have been with Morrison's run on the title, I think, by the time he's finished, his tenure on the series will be considered one of the major Batman contributions ever. People will look back on this stuff in 10, 20, 30 years time. And the same goes for the Iron Fist stuff coming out now. It's some of the best stuff ever produced at Marvel (a company with relatively little top-tier work, once you get past the early stuff from Kirby and Ditko and Miller's Daredevil). If the current Iron Fist series keeps going as it has, it will be remembered as one of the great comics of all time.

These next three comics belong in the second tier (and my tiers are pretty large, as you can probably guess, but I do think of comics in this way--For example, I'd put Gaiman's Sandman in the top tier, his Books of Magic in the second tier, and his Eternals in the third tier.) These are some interesting comics, but they aren't anything I'd give to someone as an example of super-hero comics anywhere near their best.

Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #32 is a back-to-Legion-basics story by new writer Tony Bedard (featuring some strange, wildly inconsistent artwork by Dennis Calero). While the Waid/Kitson run featured a large cast of characters and an exploration into social dynamics and intergalactic threats of destruction (or oppression), this first part of a two-part storyline features a handful of characters on a much smaller "mission." It's reminiscent of the old 8 or 12 page Legion stories from the late Silver Age, and the content of the story matches that style, as Bedard brings back some of the classic Legion concepts like Lightning Lord and Validus. Calero's art, though, looks too rough in some panels, and too photo-real in others. Particularly jarring are the first panel on page 2, with Mekt Ranzz's bed-head, the two side-by side panels on the top of pages 7 and 8 which look as if Calero scanned the same exact pencils into the computer and then used it for two different panels but added different facial details and a different haircut on Mekt Ranzz, and the constantly shifting lightning design on the shoulders of Mekt's costume throughout the issue (why the Mekt hate, Dennis?). Calero does a nice job with Tenzil Kem throughout the issue, and I've enjoyed his artwork elsewhere, so I'm guessing he was rushed on this particular story. Nevertheless, his Mekt-related problems ruin the narrative consistency and distract from Bedard's story--which is quite good.

Star-Lord #1 doesn't actually have a cover that looks anything like this image, but I already showed the cover for this issue in my enthusiastic preview of this story, and I didn't want to put the same image up two days in a row. Plus, it's important to the new Star-Lord series that you consider how dorky he used to look back in the Bronze Age. He looked less like a Star-LORD and more like a Star-Speed-Skater. And he also killed thousands of people in an attempt to save millions. Such is the backstory given to us at the beginning of this new issue #1. I'm not a big fan of multi-page exposition to start a story, but writer Keith Giffen gets the backstory out of the way so he can show us a bit about Peter Quill's tortured past and his lack of eagerness about the future. The exposition establishes Peter Quill's self-depracating tone, at least, even if the narration goes on a bit longer than it needs to. The rest of the story is great. We're introduced to the members of Star-Lord's strike team, who will undertake a suicide mission against the Phalanx threat. These strike-team members are all Kree prisoners: a big tree dude, a Captain Universe, Mantis (from the Avengers), and Rocket Raccoon to name a few. Quill makes a Dirty Dozen reference, and that's clearly the archetype Giffen's drawing upon for this series. Sounds good to me! Although this series, coupled with the Wraith comic, which is also part of the Annihilation crossover and is clearly a homage to the "Man with No Name" Spaghetti Westerns, makes me think about what movies the other two Annihilation series are referencing. Here's my guess: Quasar is Thelma and Louise in space, and Nova is Rebel Without a Cause except James Dean gets replaced by a girl halfway through.

All-Star Batman and Robin #6 is finally here, and I'm not going to make any jokes about how late this series has been running, but it is rather difficult to even remember how the series first began those many years ago. This issue features a sensitive portrayal of two important female characters, Black Canary and Batgirl. Both characters have long been an integral part of the Batman mythos and Frank Miller and Jim Lee allow for enough tender moments to reward the close reading such a dense story requires.

Who am I kidding? You guys know that's all a total lie. All-Star Bats #6 is a ridiculous mess, and what does Black Canary have to do with anything? When she first appeared in the series, a few issues ago, she seemed unrelated to the main "plot," and now that her "storyline" has converged with Batman's, she still doesn't seem to fit. And now she's Irish too?!? I though Frank Miller was just being verbose with her speech on page 13 (or I thought he was referencing some bad film noir dialogue), but I guess that was his attempt at an Irish cadence. What's that about? And we get more close-ups on Vicki Vale's ass! Oh, and Batgirl appears! And there's some attempt to establish a theme of "youth, hope, inspiration" and then there are some swear words crossed out.

Everyone seems to have a theory about this comic. Some say it's Frank Miller taken to the extreme, some say it's his attempt to subvert his Dark Knight work, some say the whole thing's a satire of super-heroes. Here's my theory: Frank Miller wants to make Jim Lee draw stuff that makes my eyes bleed and he wants to make me even more thankful for the really great Morrison work on the character. Why else would he so strategically time the slow-release of this title to coincide with Morrison's run? Think about it.

I also lied about All-Star Bats being a "second tier" comic. It's not. It gets a tier all to itself. A very, very low tier. Right between Liefeld's X-Force and Bilson and DeMeo's Flash.

Batman #666: Special Bonus Review Section--Number Two of Three

Wheee! Comics are fun! First Iron Fist and now this! (Actually, I read them in reverse order--Morrison always goes to the top of the stack in my house, are you surprised?)

Batman #666 begins with a Golden Age homage to the origin of Batman, featuring the words "Who He Is and How He Came to Be" just like in that classic Bob Kane story. And because Morrison only has one issue to tell this tale--the story of Damian, the son of Batman, and how he took over as...BATMAN--he dispenses with the origin of this Future Batman in six terse panels and accompanying captions: "When the world's greatest crimefighter and the daughter of the ultimate criminal mastermind got together, there could be only one result" etc etc.

You can see that the tone of these captions recalls the straight-faced hyperbole of old television shows (or radio shows, probably, although I haven't heard any except some of the Lone Ranger episodes and maybe a Shadow excerpt), and by getting the "origin" of Future Batman over with quickly (and he's not called "Future Batman" in the story, obviously, because that would be lame; he's just "Batman"), Morrison can focus on the mood, the action, and the symbolism.

As I've said before and shown, extensively, in an entire book on the subject, Morrison revisits his favorite themes and motifs again and again throughout his career. Batman #666 is no exception, of course. You can see right on that cover image that he's playing with the old-fashioned apocalypse theme with the city on fire, and he's even got his costumed-dude-wearing-a-jacket-or-trenchcoat motif with Future Batman's FUTURE TRENCHCOAT/COSTUME. Nice. But in this case, Morrison seems to be using the apparel not to signify "coolness" as he did with Zenith, or embarrassment (as he did with Animal Man or Cliff Steele), or functionality (as he did with the X-Men), but, instead, he seems to allude to the pulp nature of Batman's origins. This Future Batman looks like an old-fashioned character (he looks very much like the Gotham by Gaslight or Batman/Houdini elseworlds incarnation) because Damian is a classic, old-school Batman. He blows up stuff and punches people first, then does the detective work later. I'm oversimplifying here, but Morrison clearly establishes Future Batman to be very much in alignment, as far as his ruthlessness, with Bob Kane's first year of Batman stories.

Sure, Morrison throws in some Tarot symbolism (the "Hanged Man" on page 8), literary allusions (to Yeats), and some doubling (the Anti-Christ Batman vs. Future Batman), like he usually does, but this story is filled with enough action and brilliant throw-away ideas: the wheelchair-bound Police Commissioner Gordon, Phosphorus Rex, the Hotel Bethlehem, an ape in a clown costume with a submachine gun--to turn the whole thing into a high-speed carnival ride. I love the way he layers the subtextual depth beneath the veneer of a classic super-hero thriller (and finishes it up in a single issue).

It's probably the most accessible and most enjoyable issue of Morrison's Batman yet.

It doesn't matter how this story fits into continuity (answer: it doesn't) or how it relates to the Kingdom: Son of the Bat story by Mark Waid (answer: it doesn't, although I'm sure a comparison would be interesting, but I'm not going to dig that one out of the longboxes tonight). What matters is that Morrison tells a great Future Batman story that illuminates the present.

Just like Brubaker and Fraction used a story of a past Iron Fist to add resonance to the Iron Fist mythology of the current Marvel Universe, Morrison shows us a glimpse into Damian's future to add resonance to the Batman mythology of today.

Batman #666. You don't have to like it, but if you don't then you're wrong. Because it's REAL GOOD.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Iron Fist #7: Special Bonus Review Section--Number One of Three

My look at The New Frontier and The Golden Age will resume on Friday, but I just couldn't wait to talk about new comics, so I'll post a few brief reviews today and tomorrow instead!

I've already discussed my Iron Fist love on this blog, so it's not too hard to guess that I was excited to see the newest issue on the shelf today. Issue #6 ended with Iron Fist entering a mystic portal to begin a massive kung-fu tournament, and this issue...doesn't continue that plot! Damn you, Brubaker and Fraction! If you lead up to a tournament involving a lot of kicking, you'd better deliver on the kicking, not give us some story about, gasp, A GIRL (and not even a scantily-clad one--this girl walks around fully-clothed--just look at that lack of exposed skin on the cover)!!! Come on! Well, I guess you want your careers to be totally ruined. Whatever. Losers.

Just kidding.

Iron Fist #7 brilliantly provides added dimension to the upcoming tournament by delving into the newly introduced Iron Fist mythology (they tell us that there have been sixty-six men and women who have carried the "mantle of the Immortal Iron Fist), and it tells a nice little, self-contained fable. In fact, speaking of fables, the story reminds me of something you might read in Bill Willingham's Fables, or the type of one-shot mythology-building story Gaiman used in his Sandman series. In issue #7, Brubaker and Fraction give us the origin of "The Iron Fist Wu Ao-Shi," the last female Iron Fist. Her story is one of love, duty, and pirate kicking. Plus, she shoots a bow with Iron Fist-powered arrows (something Orson Randall referenced with his "gun-fu" in a previous issue). When she inevitably turns up in the battle-of-the-Iron-Fists tournament in the next story arc, it's going to be good times (for us, not so much for Danny Rand, because she's, you know, b to the a to the d to the ass).

It's a really good issue, man. And even though David Aja's art is missing from the issue, the three replacement artists, Foreman, Fernandez, and Evans do some nice work. Foreman's been part of the art team all along, actually, and since his style has been used to represent the feudal past, it's appropriate that he kicks off the art for this old-timey story.

One of the things Brubaker and Fraction do so well in this series is balance the character moments with humor and action. And they do it here as well. My tendency is to credit Fraction with most of this quality, since Brubaker has never done anything that has impressed me THIS MUCH on his other super-hero titles (although I like his other work--it's just not as much fun as Iron Fist has been). Then again, Fraction has said that this is the series Brubaker wanted to do all along, and his other super-hero stuff has been a secret plan to get the Iron Fist stuff up and running.

But I don't need to convince you about the quality of this comic, because you've already read Iron Fist #7 anyway, right? You have good taste.

The New Frontier and Camelot

This is part 3 of my week-long look at The New Frontier and The Golden Age. If you're interested in getting up to speed, part one is here and part two is here.

While The Golden Age used the historical subtext to evoke currents of paranoia and doom in a super-hero story, The New Frontier approaches history with a different agenda. As Ultimate Matt pointed out in response to yesterday's post, The Golden Age is labelled an "Elseworlds" title, which not only grants it an exemption from DC continuity, but it allows more freedom for the creators to take the characters and setting in a fresh direction.

The New Frontier, however, is not labelled as an "Elseworlds." And yet, it strays far more from the currently accepted version of continuity than The Golden Age does. The key word there is "accepted." Darwyn Cooke, in his annotations, states that he approached The New Frontier with a set of rules:

1. The timeline is real and covers 1945 to 1960. Silver Age characters appear at the time DC started publishing them.

2. Retcons haven't happened yet.

3. No New Frontier retcons could contradict original continuity--they had to complement existing continuity or show a fresh point of view.

4. When the story ended, everything had to be as it was when the JLA debutes in Brave and the Bold #28.

5. Snapper Carr does not exist.

In other words, you should be able to pull out your original comics from that era (or the Archive editions) and read them concurrently with The New Frontier and nothing Cooke does should contradict what happens in those old comics.

The problem with the continuity is that the comics from that era didn't have any continuity. It was never explained how a character could be on the moon in one issue of his own comic, and under the ocean in the same month in his Justice League adventure. All Golden and Silver Age DC continuity is a retcon. So what Cooke did was create his own continuity--he made his own sense out of the various adventures as they were originally published, although the bulk of the book deals with the time between major events. Just like The Golden Age, The New Frontier is about filling in the gaps.

While James Robinson filled the pre-Silver Age gap with an almost allegorical tale of Cold War paranoia and corruption, Darwyn Cooke fills the gap with a sense of wonder and idealism, and he uses his attitude toward history to solidify that tone.

Cooke's approach takes three strands: (1) The Right Stuff-inspired history of that era, embodied by the test pilots and early astronauts, (2) The early promise of the Kennedy administration, and (3) The strange DC comics history as seen in the stories published during that time. Cooke uses the first two strands to illuminate the latter. He puts the Silver Age ascention into perspective as part of a generation of hope and achievement. He shows that the formation of the Justice League was not a random incident, but part of a larger historical movement which led (in our reality) to things like the Peace Corps and Apollo 11.

Cooke ties together such disparate elements as The War that Time Forgot, The Challengers of the Unknown, Dr. Seuss, and all of the characters who would join the initial incarnation of the JLA into a single narrative. And although it takes quite a while before the villain emerges and the heroes band together, the narrative is structured around the real historical forces that would have shaped the creation of these characters. John Broome doesn't wax poetically about the symbolism of Hal Jordan's career as a test pilot in the original Green Lantern run from the Silver Age, but Cooke takes the fact that he was a test pilot and places him in the actual context of such a man. He even includes a scene where the young Jordan meets Chuck Yeager.

That's quite a different approach to history than we saw in The Golden Age, which covers a very similar time frame.

Although Cooke didn't intend (according to his "rules") to change any of the original stories, his interpretation of "fresh point of view," allows him to add things which would have been more historically true even if they weren't addressed in the comics of the time. For example, he not only changes Wonder Woman into an almost plump, hawkish, zestful character (to signify her Greek origins and Amazon heritage), but he creates an entirely new character to illuminate the civil rights struggle of the time. Since he had no black DC characters to draw upon, he created a Silver Age analogue to Steel, the black Superman ally. The Silver Age Steel, unlike his modern equivalent, isn't a technological marvel. Instead, this earlier incarnation of John Henry suffers at the hands of the KKK before taking vengeance, and ultimately dying when he's betrayed by an uncaring white America (symbolized by a blonde little girl, who points out his location to his pursuers). John Henry never meets the Justice League or teams up with any heroes. His death doesn't affect them at all, really, since they didn't know him. But Cooke includes a scene where Edward R. Murrow mourns the fallen hero and laments the state of the country, bringing an actual historical personage into the DC story.

The civil rights subplot, although powerful, is overwhelmed by the exceeding optimism of the other plot threads. Cooke's America, as full of conflict as it might have been, is one of scientific progress and movement toward a brighter future. His villain, ultimately revealed to be Dinosaur Island itself--a sentient being who has unleashed monster after monster, is even more absurd than the Hitler-brain-transplant nemesis in The Golden Age, but because Cooke accentuates the fun and spectacle of the super-heroes (and, to be clear, his emphasis is on the men and women in the costumes, and the risks they take for their heroism), the absudity of the villain doesn't detract from the story.

Both The Golden Age and The New Frontier end with similar images (the first appearance of the Justice League banded together) and similar sentiments (hope for the future), but where James Robinson built that hope out of the wreckage of the 1940s, Darwyn Cooke builds it out of the dreams of the men and women who sacrificed for the promise of tomorrow.

Both books end with optimism for comic books and optimism for our country, but they took starkly different approaches to get there.

Come back tomorrow for my look at the portrayal of the characters in both works.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

James Robinson's use of History in The Golden Age

This is part 2 of my week-long look at The New Frontier and The Golden Age, part one of which can be read here.

One of the things that strikes me about both The New Frontier and The Golden Age is the way the creators weave American history into their stories. On the surface, such a technique might not be surprising, especially considering that both tales take place in the past. And while it may be true that a so-called "historical novel" or "period film" would be amiss to neglect the details of history which fit its setting, the same isn't always true for comics.

In comics, stories set in the past tend to take place in some vague memory of the past, without any apparent intent in locking the stories into a particular date or era. Take the typical origin stories, or "Year One" stories which DC Comics' creators have retold again and again. In such a story, whether it be Miller and Mazzuchelli's take on Batman, or Waid, Augustyn, and Kitson's take on the Justice League, the setting lacks a distinct time stamp. The characters are younger, true, but the setting lacks specific period detail. The reason for this isn't at all surprising, because locking the characters' past into a specific date would require some major explanations about their ages in the present. Had Miller time-stamped the date on Batman: Year One, and included captions saying "May 3rd, 1980," or whatever, then that might have worked for a few years, but even if we assume that Batman was only 23 when he took inspiration from that window-smashing flying rodent, according to that temporal continuity, he'd be 50 years old in the current stories. And he's clearly not.

So we expect stories set in the past to avoid any kind of specific references to contemporary history, at least in comics. A recent jarring exception to that can be found in Diggle and Jock's newly released Green Arrow: Year One, in which a yound Oliver Queen references the "Kevin Costner" Robin Hood. That means Queen must have become Green Arrow sometime in the mid-1990s, which might explain his age today (if he was 22 in 1992, he'd be 37 today, which might be right), but it also implies that his son Connor must only be a teenager today, and he's clearly older than that. Perhaps the reference will work better 10 years from now when the Kevin Costner reference will become part of the vague historical past, but right now it seems too current to make sense.

Anyway, the other MAJOR exception to the rule of not using historical references in comics is the case of stories set during World War II. Even comic books written at the time of WWII regularly included time-stamp references in a way that later comics tended to avoid. Yes, since then, Superman has met Kennedy, and you might see analogues of Bill Clinton or George W. in a story or two, but in the 1940s heroes came face to face with major historical figures (contemporaries to them) on an almost daily basis. Here's FDR! Here's Superman grabbing Hitler on a cover! Here's Tojo! Here's Hawkman enlisting in the army to fight overseas! Etc. Such close ties between "comic book reality" and real-life events never matched the heights of the WWII comics.

And that's why later writers, Roy Thomas MOST prominently among them--he practically invented the whole idea of historical nostalgia super-hero comics, felt compelled to weave actual historical events into the retelling of stories from the WWII era. Thomas's Invaders for Marvel and his All-Star Squadron for DC playfully fit the timeline of actual U.S. history into the fictional timeline of the past super-heroes. In his letter columns, Thomas would often explain (or justify, for the more contentious fans) how the chronology worked.

But, other than WWII era-stories, most comic book stories that take place in the past (unless they are time travel stories, which have their own rules) DO NOT USE SPECIFIC HISTORICAL REFERENCES. It's weird to imagine novels or films avoiding such references--they would surely be criticized for it--but in comics, it's commonplace.

So, in the case of both The New Frontier and The Golden Age, you have two rather significant violations of that standard "rule." And both of which seem deeply indebted to the type of approach Roy Thomas favored so much.

Let's take The Golden Age first, since it was published a decade before Cooke's work. The Golden Age seems like a logical off-shoot of Thomas's All-Star Squadron. It features many of the same characters, and Johnny Quick, a relatively obscure DC character from the past, would certainly not have been a suitable narrator for the story without the characterization Thomas provided in years of All-Star Squadron stories. James Robinson is clearly building on the foundation Thomas created. So, it's not surprising that he would, like Thomas, blend U.S. history into his story. Yet Robinson's approach differs in two distinct ways: (1) He doesn't seem interested in the exact historical details and how they fit into his timeline--he seems more interested in the general sense of historical forces of the time, and (2) Unlike Thomas, who was writing out of a Golden and Silver Age optimism and a belief in the American Dream, Robinson was writing from a post-Watchmen perspective, as a foreign-born writer, who could play with the cynical expecations of the time.

Thus, Robinson gives us coke-sniffing "super-heroes," corruption, brutality, and sex in a tale which features the "pure" heroes of the DC Golden Age of comics. Robinson's approach is not to use specific elements of McCarthyism or the Red Scare, (even though those ideas are referenced at least once), but to use the general sense of paranoia and panic, the cynical manipulation of the public for personal gain, and the looming threat of the bomb.

Ultimately, however, Robinson uses all of this as a backdrop for a traditional super-hero romp. The coke-sniffing "super-hero" turns out to be Hitler in disguise!!! (Well, actually the brain of Hitler in the body of a former kid sidekick--talk about a symbol of corruption!) And the hero-turned-power-hungry-politician in the form of the patriotic Mr. America turns out to be old JSA villain the Ultra-Humanite, who knows a thing or two about brain transplants. So, in the end, it's just a classic Golden Age story about punching Hitler and defeating an evil genius.

But it's Robinson's historical subtext which makes the story resonate. It's his use of those undercurrents of paranoia and despair which make this formerly perfect heroes of the past seem flawed and human. His story start dark and becomes darker, but by the end, Robinson's veil of cynicism falls away, and he reveals himself to be a humanist if not an optimist. His reverence for these Golden Age characters would not let them be truly corrupted--it had to be evil masterminds and Hitler all along.

And that, perhaps, is one of the failures of The Golden Age. The shock of the initial chapters is just a ruse, and as low as these characters seem to sink, everything can be explained by pseudo-science and comic book logic.

It's just another Justice Society of America story, ultimately, but it's a good one. And Robinson's use of the undercurrents from that era of history make it work, even if it never transcends its roots.

Come back tomorrow for my look at how Darwyn Cooke uses a different approach to history to shape The New Frontier.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Tale of Two Texts: The New Frontier and The Golden Age

I'm going to do something a bit different and take a close, week-long look at two major works from the DC Universe: Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier, and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age. If you're playing along at home, the texts I'm using are The Absolute New Frontier from 2006 and The Golden Age trade paperback from 1995.

First a bit of personal context: I didn't enjoy The New Frontier when it first came out, serialized in six quite expensive installments. I loved Cooke's art, I loved the use of some of the more obscure DC war characters, and I loved the characterization of the Martian Manhunter, but the narrative didn't work for me when read in small monthly doses back in 2004. I had read all of the full-length work Cooke had done up until 2004, and none of it had disappointed me at all. But The New Frontier seemed to read more like a tour through the 1950s and 1960s than an actual story. It wasn't until the final issue that I really understood what Cooke was leading up to, but then it was over, and I didn't have the time or the inclination to dig out the back issues and read the whole thing in one sitting. Even when I got the two-volume trade paperback collection a couple of years ago (in an ebay lot of trade paperbacks I bought off of none other than comic book scholar George Khoury), I still didn't bother to read it. To paraphrase Hemingway's Frederic Henry, we don't do the things we want to do.

So I never actually read the entire text of The New Frontier until this past winter, when I was able to sit down with the luxurious Absolute edition and dive into Cooke's illustrated world. I enjoyed it immensely, enough that I wanted to reread it again this summer, which is what I have just done, and now I want to talk about it. But I don't want to talk about it in isolation, and I'm interested in the connection between texts, so I'll also talk about its logical precursor: The Golden Age.

Like The New Frontier, Robinson and Smith's The Golden Age deals with the era between the 1940s and the 1960s. The era in which the comic book Golden Age grew into the comic book Silver Age. The era in which America was undergoing its own transformation, moving from threats abroad to suspicion at home. And just as I had difficulty enjoying The New Frontier as a serialized comic, I couldn't appreciate The Golden Age in that manner either. I only bought the first two issues, actually, back in the early 1990s, and then I lost interest, vaguely thinking that I might buy it as a collected edition some day (even though collections were not guaranteed the way they are today). I did buy it when the trade paperback was released, and because I had never finished it originally, I read the collection immediately. And I liked it. But I thought it was deeply flawed.

I reread The Golden Age yesterday, after thinking about it in regards to The New Frontier. It's not a surprising connection, after all. Cooke himself claims The Golden Age as an inspiration for his own work. But my memory of The Golden Age was a bit hazy, and I recalled it being a much more cynical view of the territory than what Cooke achieved in The New Frontier. My recall was pretty accurate--Robinson and Smith present a quite cynical view of the late Golden Age America.

Now that I've read both works back-to-back, I'm interested in exploring what each says about super-heroes, what each says about America, and how each achieves its (very different) effects. These are the kinds of things I'll be looking at over the next few days.

Come back tomorrow for a close look at how the creators of both works blur historical reality with comic book history to create a new super-hero context.

(On an unrelated note, both books also make me think about how stupid I am to buy these things when they're serialized. I enjoy them so much more as collections, and even though I might plan on reading all of the issues as a whole, I never get around to pulling them all out of the boxes. The trade paperbacks and hardcovers are just so much nicer to have. So why do I keep falling for the monthlies? I'm looking at you, Jeff Smith's Shazam!)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Looking Forward to Star-Lord #1

One of the great things about listening to the Panelologists podcast is that those two guys have such an infectious enthusiasm for comics that it helps to remind all of us why we read these things in the first place. Another great thing about listening to those guys (especially if you do what I did and listen to a years worth of podcasts over two consecutive days) is that you get to hear the typical pattern of excitement-anticipation-disappointment-rejection-excitement that all regular comic readers go through. It works like this: You hear news about an upcoming comic featuring your favorite character(s) or creator(s)--Excitement. You eagerly await that new comic and learn more about it as the release date approaches--Anticipation. Then you buy the thing, and it's not nearly as good as you'd hoped--Disappointment. You give it a half-dozen issues or so before you cancel your subscription, but you know that you should have given up on it much sooner, and you probably say stuff like "I'm not going to get suckered like that again"--Rejection. But that's okay, because a new comic has been announced--Excitement--that starts the whole cycle, and for every comic that turns out to be great, there's 5 comics that have suckered you back.

We all know that cycle well, and we can't seem to escape it.

So I'm just going to embrace it. And the newest title I'm excited about is Star-Lord, the new mini-series launching from within the Annihilation space saga. I've read all of the Annihilation stuff so far, and it has been quite fun. The first multi-part series featured Nova and company vs. Annihilus and Thanos, and it was truly an epic story. This new Annihilation series follows the first, and even though it's still a large-scale intergalactic saga, it seems much more personal as the evil Phalanx have infected the Kree and surrounding territories. Whatever. The plot is just a backdrop for cool character moments and some fight scenes. And I love it.

Star-Lord, in particular, looks to be a particularly cool entry into the Annihilation saga. It features a character I know nothing about (other than he was a miltary leader in the first Annihilation series and he used to be some kind of super-hero but he's kind of pissed off whenever anyone brings it up). It's written by Keith Giffen, whom I love, and illustrated by Timothy Green II, whom I know nothing about, except the preview pages look cool.

I guess Green was the artist on Rush City, but I didn't read that because it looked like a car advertisement, and I think it was. But his preview pages on this new book display a very different style from typical Marvel books (and a very different style from the other Annihilation books). He seems to draw heavily upon a European influence, and doesn't rely on the How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way Kirby by way of Buscema dynamic angles and gesticulation.

I'm excited about this comic, and I'm anticipating its arrival.

Plus, it's got Rocket Raccoon, so I'm not likely to be disappointed, am I?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Stuff You'll Like: Panelologists

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts all of a sudden, and the one I'm going to recommend most highly isn't one I'm affiliated with in any way. I haven't promoted my book on their show, or done an interview, or anything. But I did spend hour after hour listening to their back catologue today after listening to their "best of" feed on the CGS site. Unlike many comic book podcasts, these two guys, Matt and Jon (based in the U. K.), don't list a bunch of new releases, revel in obscure trivia, or even spend any time reviewing comics. Instead, they discuss the greatness of Rob Liefeld and his ability to draw lots of pouches, enthuse over anything Feedback-related, champion the return of the Green Lantern squirrel Ch'p, and look for hidden ninjas on every page of every comic book. If you like fun, and you hate not fun, check out their podcasts and listen along with me: Quiet! Panelologists at Work

EDITED TO ADD: Okay, I finally listened to ALL of their episodes, and it turns out that they do, in fact, promote my book in episode 22. They do a fake interview with "Timothy Callahan" that is quite brilliant.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Dr. Fate: Golden Age Greatness or the Most Amazing Comic Book Series Ever?

In my CCL interview, I talked to Chris about my preference for Silver Age stories over the Golden Age stories, which I characterized as "a lot of punching gangsters in the face." Well, this week, I received recently-published The Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives Volume 1 and I'm going to have to revise that opinion. When I read the All-Star Archives, I was always drawn to the strange Dr. Fate stories and their distinctive James Sherman artwork. Well this Doctor Fate Archives book is almost 400 pages of Gardner Fox and James Sherman stories, featuing ALL of Dr. Fate's solo stories from the Golden Age, all of which were published in the brilliantly named More Fun Comics.

Unfortunately, after the first year and a half of odd, supernatural, Lovecraftian Dr. Fate stories, the character becomes a much more generic super-hero who spends the majority of his time punching gangsters. But those first 20 stories or so are slices of unique genius. Here's a list of some of the highlights which might make the early Dr. Fate stories some of the greatest comics in the history of the universe ever (assuming you can appreciate severely odd brilliance):

1) Dr. Fate shoots lightning from his fingers. The lightning can basically do anything, although Dr. Strange describes himself as having "atomic power."

2) Dr. Fate flies around fighting supernatural evil and aliens with his girlfriend, Inza, under his arm. And for the first half dozen stories, she doesn't even know who he is because she's never seen him without his shiny helmet on.

3) Dr. Fate stops an alien invasion, leaving the aliens dead on the beach, and says stuff like, "Atomic power can be used for any purpose!" Click on the image for a closer look at the James Sherman art and funky scalloped caption boxes.

4) A flaming cloud-covered globe threatens to "break the orbital gravity of the Sun and Earth," so Dr. Fate flies back to his tower to retrieve an "atom shatterer" (a handy-to-have raygun which he says he found on "distant Uranus"--a reference to an adventure that must have happened off-panel!). He uses that gun to destroy the dangerous globe, then he traces the origin of the threat to an alien race, which he destroys by PUSHING THEIR PLANET INTO THE SUN, and THEN he finds out a scientist on Earth drew the alien menace to our planet, so he kills the scientist (between panels--all it says is, "the scientist dies for his world crime" and we see the scientist lying face down on the floor in front of Dr. Fate and Inza. This might be the greatest 6-page super-hero anti-alien vigilante story ever.

5) Dr. Fate battles the fish-men of "Nyarl-Amen" in Gardner Fox's homage to the Cthulhu stories of H. P. Lovecraft. Except, the supposedly hideous and monstrous fish-men are just dudes with carp heads, pink scales, and tridents. Either James Sherman was incapable of imagining the multi-tentacled Lovecraftian beasts or the DC editors thought they would frighten children, but the finished product is absurdly brilliant. It's great.

Notice the lack of gangster-punching!

The Golden Age Dr. Fate may be the most amazing comic book series ever or at least the greatest series published in the early 1940s. Avoid it at your peril!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pretty Great Week for Super-Hero Comics

This is quite a bountiful week for good Marvel and DC comics. I haven't had a chance to devour everything I bought yesterday, but here are some of my thoughts so far, along with some rhetorical questions:

Super-Villain Team-Up: Modok's 11 #1 is an excellent way to begin a mini-series. Multiple characters are established effectively and and the heist plot is firmly in place by the end of the issue. Plus, it not only has freakin' Modok, but it features Armadillo, Puma, Living Laser, Rocket Racer, and Mentallo (among many others). And it's written by Action Philosophers own Fred Van Lente. Question: Will Van Lente be able to overcome the kitsch factor of this concept to produce something mind-blowingly transcendent?

Brave and the Bold #5 was the first thing I read off the stack this week, and that's because it features the first interaction between the "Threeboot" Legion of Super-Heroes and the DC Universe proper. As Michael points out over at the Legion Omnicom, the Batman-related continuity doesn't make a bit of sense, but I say it's a great issue anyway because we finally get to see this incarnation of the Legion loosen up a bit and get involved in some old-school superheroic action. It's about time. In their own series, they've been shouldering the weight of the universe since issue #1, so it's nice to see them involved in some silly time-travel-hero-vs.-hero-battle goodness. Question: Why didn't Mark Waid approach the Legion this playfully when he wrote their own title?

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil #4 featured the shocking revelation of Mr. Mind's true appearance (now with a Britney Spears headset instead of an AM radio voice box) and a scene where a giant Captain Marvel punches bad stuff in the midst of a garden of skyscrapers. Now that it's complete, I'm curious to see what my wife thinks about the story. She's a big Jeff Smith fan, but hasn't wanted to read this yet because she can't stand waiting to find out how it's going to end. But I'm wondering if she'll like this or not. I'm wondering if it works well within the confines of the comic book readership who appreciates the context of a return-to-lighthearted-wonder, but if it perhaps doesn't matter to anyone else. We'll see. Question: Since this series has been selling the same number of copies per month as the Winick series, and it costs twice as much per issue, and it presumably will have a much longer shelf life in hardcover or trade form, can we all just erase the Winick series from our memories now, or do we have to wait another year?

The Order #1 is the best thing I've read so far this week, and I really liked all three comics I listed above. Fraction knows how to balance character and action, and he provides a few twists in the mix as well. A substantial amount of content for a Marvel comic circa 2007 and it starts the series with style. Just as Waid seemed to loosen up when he stepped away from the Legion, Barry Kitson has exploded with energy and dynamism on this series now that he's done with the Legion as well. "The Champions" would have been a MUCH more appropriate title for this book, but we're stuck with "The Order" because of legal reasons and I won't hold that against the series. It's a great start and another winner for Matt Fraction. Question: How long before Fraction replaces Bendis as Marvel's go-to guy?

Countdown #41 is yet another issue of Countdown. What more can I say? Unlike many of you, I haven't given up on this series yet, but this issue was literally a series of very brief "check ins" with each of the main plot threads, and each check in just provided a bit of exposition. "Yup, we're looking for Ray Palmer." "Yup, Mary Marvel doesn't know how to cope with her new powers." "Yup, Amazons are attacking." The Calero artwork is quite nice in this issue at least. Question: When will Paul Dini and company begin to realize that it's not effective to juggle a dozen plot threads and highlight each of them in every issue?

And that's just the metaphorical tip of the metaphorical iceberg this week. As jaded as I can be, I'm still looking forward to reading things like All-Flash #1, Justice League of America #11, Captain America #28, The Spirit #8, Catwoman #69, Annihilation: Conquest: Quasar #1, Ultimate Spider-Man #111, Checkmate #16, Army@Love #5, The Programme #1, Godland #19, and Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century #4 to name a few (but not all) of the comics still left in the pile o' goodness.

Question: Which will be the best of that bunch?

Question: Have "mainstream" comics ever been consistently better than they are now?

Question: Is everyone else as sick of looking at that Michael Turner Planet Hulk cover as I am?