Monday, December 10, 2007

Justice League Unlimited vs. Aesthetic Criteria

One of the titles I buy each month for my son is Justice League Unlimited. (If you're curious, the others are Marvel Adventures Avengers, Marvel Adventures Iron Man, Teen Titans Go!, and his favorite: Sonic the Hedgehog--along with whatever Power Pack series is currently running.) I read these to him at bedtime, so the measure of quality for these books differs from what I'd want from comics that were just for me. Although sometimes the two standards overlap, as in the case of several All-Star Superman issues, and Blue Beetle, which we both enjoy tremendously.

The normal standard of quality for a read-at-bedtime comic are...

1. Clear artwork (and my son has definite standards on this--when artists on Teen Titans Go! are off-model, he refuses to look at the issue--and the Marvel Adventures comics often have coloring that is too-murky and difficult to decipher for a little kid)

2. Swiftly moving plot completed in a single issue. Cliffhangers are extremely disappointing at bedtime.

3. Dialogue that's funny or minimal at least. Marvel Adventures Iron Man completely fails in this department, and I'll probably stop picking it up because of it. Each issue has too much exposition, and too much technical jargon in proportion to the amount of plot. Teen Titans Go!, on the other hand, is really good at funny and appropriately spare dialogue. Sonic the Hedgehog is almost impossible to read out loud, the dialogue is so stilted and archly formal. Yet, he still says he likes it, but I think he's losing interest in that one too.

4. Familiar characters mixed with new faces I can explain to him. He likes learning about the Marvel Universe and the DCU, and these comics are his gateway when writers bring in supporting characters or "new" villains--new to him, or new to the youth comics, anyway.

5. Morality. This is a big one for bedtime reading, and I don't expect moral lessons in my "big-boy" reading. Yet, these Johnny DC and Marvel Adventures books (more in the DC stuff than the Marvel, BY FAR) have moral lessons to teach kids, and I appreciate it. It allows for some interesting discussions after the stories, instead of just talking about Spider-Man's jokes that he doesn't get or how cool Iron Man's steath armor looks.

Anyway, by these five standards of quality, Justice League Unlimited #40 succeeds, even though it's not what I would call a good comic. I have loved many issues of the series, with the summer's Question spotlight issue as an excellent example, but this particular comic, written by Ben McCool and drawn by Dario Brizuela, doesn't quite cut it for me. My son liked it, though, because it met all five criteria of good bedtime reading for a six-year old. The story, a Zatanna spotlight, basically, is cleanly illustrated, fast-moving, straightforward, moral, and contains more than a few "new" DC characters my son hasn't seen in a comic before: Golden Age Green Lantern, the Shadow Thief, and the Warlock of Ys to name three. Plus, we got to learn more about Zatanna's family history, and since my son's only exposure to the character was from the Justice League Heroes Playstation game and her few animated appearances, he didn't know that Zatanna's father had magical powers as well. (By the way, Zatanna is the most powerful character in that Playstation game--or at least the most fun--since she can turn all of the threats into cute little bunnies you can kick.)

But the story was a mess. The Shadow Thief was granted new powers by the Warlock of Ys (for no apparent reason--to distract the heroes, I guess--but why the Shadow Thief of all villains?), and Zatara, who hasn't been seen by his daughter in years (she tells us) appears as a captive of the Warlock (why? Because the Warlock wants to combine Zatara's power with Zatanna's. Why? It will somehow help him. Or something like that.) It's an illogical plot that turns on too many coincidences and underdeveloped threads, and even the resolution is fuzzy with Zatara springing off to some mystical dimension because it's too dangerous for him to stick around near his daughter. It's just not a story that fits with previous JLU issues, nor does it really make complete sense on its own (or as some kind of foreshadowing set-up--which it probably won't turn out to be anyway). And it's not zany in a Silver Age kind of way, either. Or, at least it doesn't feel as whimsical and inspired in its lunacy. It just feels pieced together and nonsensical.

So I guess what I'm wondering is if story quality matters in a comic like this. It does the five things my son wants it to do. It interests him in the characters and the superhero universe. At what point does inconsistent, underdeveloped storytelling matter? Do we expect a fully developed, logical narrative in Harold and the Purple Crayon or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? I think we do, even if the storytelling is just fulfilling a simple pattern.

What say you?


Marc Caputo said...

You're a bit further down that path than I (my girls are 4 and 2). The older one is getting to know her superheroes (we started with the DC) and she loves the Fleisher Superman cartoons. She's also a HUGE Disney Princess fan and when I took her to FCBD this year, of all things, she pulls a manga (uncharted territory for me as yet) off the shelf with Disney characters in it. I distracted her while my friend flipped through it (I know it probably wasn't a problem, but it doesn't hurt to check). I've also started to read some of the Don Rosa "Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck" to her and she seems to like it. Have you and your son read those?

Anonymous said...

I don't have kids, but I can only get the kids I know to read older comics. Most of the kids of friends of mine read more mature stuff, and they like the violence. Of course, they're in the 12-year-old range -- and they're all male. The only exception is a younger (8-year-old) son of a friend of mine who I've only been able to get into manga, since he loves anime cartoons. Even then, it's hard to compete with all the DVDs and the video games, which clearly are their main passion. I'm glad you're having success, Tim, but I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that 95% or so of all kids reading comics are reading manga, and even that is a far cry from the amounts reading comics years ago. The American comic book has long been an adult medium, reserved for those of us nostalgic enough to like 22-page pamphlets.

I used to read Superman Adventures when Mark Millar was writing it, but getting a kid to read something with the kind of cartoony, kinda crummy art and simple stories (no matter how poignant to me) those books had was just plain impossible. Maybe a bit older kids are picking up Halo or Dark Tower or Transformers.

Every once in a while, I do see a kid with his parents at a bookstore's comics section, universally picking up graphic novels realated to a recently-released movie, but it still makes me happy to see. But not once have I seen a kid in a comic store in the last fifteen years.

Timothy Callahan said...

"kinda crummy" art? No way, Superman Adventures and Justice League Unlimited have wonderful art, I think. It's clean and dynamic and perfect for the tone of the comics.

Yeah, I haven't seen any kids in a comic shop lately, either (besides mine--and my daughter LOVES Wonder Woman, by the way--she knows which hardcover is the Wonder Woman Archives just by the spine, even though she doesn't even know her letters yet--but she pulls that Archive off the shelf and talks about Wonder Woman's mom--That's what she calls the Golden Age Wonder Woman). But my son hates Manga, because it's black and white. He refuses to even look at it, even though he loves Anime stuff and Pokemon.

Comics are too damned expensive for kids (or adults!) anyway. That's the bottom line.