Friday, February 29, 2008

A Discussion About Everything Hits THE SPLASH PAGE

Chad Nevett and I celebrate our fourth consecutive installment of's increasingly-popular SPLASH PAGE column by talking about what's good and what's bad in comics today. See this Godland cover? That's not mentioned, but the comic book is, and do you think it's one of the bad ones or one of the good ones?

The answer may surprise you.

Oh, wait. No, it won't. Even Judd Winick must know that Godland is good.

Read "Iron Fist, Joe Casey, and the State of the Art" today, on THE SPLASH PAGE!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Batman, More Batman, Kicking Ass, and Dick's Meta-List

Quick Reviews:

Batman #674: Just in case you didn't believe how important 1963's Batman #156 was to Morrison's run, this week's issue hammers the point home. He turns this page into a central part of Batman continuity and starts pulling all the threads of his narrative together, leading into the upcoming "Batman R.I.P." storyline. Guess what? It looks like the Black Glove will be involved. He's not only the mystery villain behind the Club of Heroes three-issue arc, but he's the "Ultimate Enemy" behind many of Batman's troubles. Perhaps he'll turn out to be Norman Osbourne.

All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #9: This series has caught up to All-Star Superman! In numbering, that is, not quite in quality, although this is the first issue that feels like what I expected All-Star Batman to be like. It features humor (yellow Batman drinking lemonade to taunt Green Lantern--take that, ring impurity!), brutality (tracheotomy time!), and a bit of heart (parental concern!). I was getting into the Goddamn groove on this title, and now Miller switches things up with something more sincere. What's up with that? (And, if you had given up on this title, which you were crazy to do, this issue might make you regret your hasty decision.)

Kick-Ass #1: Super-heroes in the real world. Millar claims they've never been done like he's doing them here, and as much as I assumed he was using hyperbole, I think he's kind of right. This issue doesn't feel groundbreaking, but Romita jr.'s art captures the right amount of awkwardness and courage required to pull of the conceit. It's like Bernie Mireault's The Jam (which, by the way, TOTALLY deserves the deluxe hardcover treatment. Are you listening, Image or Dark Horse?), but while Mireault brought in supernatural elements, Millar and Romita jr. keep it real. Harshly real. Ironically real. It undermines every romantic notion of super-heroics, but it doesn't do it in a Garth Ennis, "I'm going to piss all over the feces of your idols" kind of way. It does it in a pure, idealistic way, even with all of the suffering involved. I liked the first issue a lot.

Dick Hyacinth's Meta-List 2008: Who has not been eagerly awaiting this list? Come on! Who can resist seeing how everything adds up for 2007 quality? Not me. And what I'm most curious about, of course, is not just what seems plain wrong (not wrong mathematically, but wrong aesthetically: Buffy ranked so high? Really--is it such an amazing comic? And Shooting War in the Top 20? Doesn't the quality of the artwork count for anything? And Acme Novelty Library #18 NOT even in the Top 50? Even recognizing that it came out late in the year, come on people! It was a great book), but what I need to go out and read. Stuff I missed or haven't gotten around to reading yet, like Exit Wounds, Shortcomings, Alias the Cat (all of which in the Top 10, and all of which I really want to read, but I just...haven't), and Superspy, The Blot, Notes for a War Story, and Three Paradoxes, among other things I probably will never make time for.

What do you want to read from the Meta-List?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Justice League: The New Frontier vs. My Family

Last year, bursting with a need to examine something for more than one blog post, I decided to take an in-depth look at Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier as compared to James Robinson's The Golden Age. Since I spent this afternoon watching the animated version of The New Frontier with my kids, I thought I'd link back to those old posts and offer my family's take on the newly released dvd.


Installment #1, in which I discuss what I'm doing and why.

Installment #2, in which I describe what James Robinson gets wrong.

Installment #3, in which I describe what's up with the Camelot connection.

Installment #4, in which I comment upon Cooke's use of characterization in The New Frontier.

Installment #5, in which I talk about Dan the Dyna-Mite's wicked sweet haircut.

Installment #6, in which I explain why Darwyn Cooke is such a wicked sweet artist, and how Paul Smith, as wicked sweet as he is, has to distract us from the bad coloring job in his book.

Now, on to the Callahan family comments on the animated version of Justice League: The New Frontier

First, me: I loved it. The major story beats are still there (minus the Losers opening), and the animation is wonderful. It is a substantial movie, with plenty of historical resonance, and the dvd comes with an excellent documentary chronicling the history of the Justice League. The doc is about as good an overview of comic book eras as I've ever seen. A nice synthesis for people who want a primer on super-hero comics history that goes beyond a mere Justice League highlight reel.

My son says, "it was cool!" regarding the animated feature, but he hated the special feature doc (he's 7). In his words, "I want to know about the Justice League but those guys kept talking and talking." By "those guys" he mean people like Dan DiDio, Paul Levitz, Mark Waid, Stan Lee (!), and many more notable comics peeps.

My daughter says, "it was scary," regarding the feature (she's 4). When I asked her to name which parts were scary, she said, "all the parts were scary." Then I asked her who her favorite characters were, she said. "Wonder Woman. And Batman." When my wife returned home from work, my daughter said, "I got to see a movie with Green Arrow today." So there's that.

Justice League: The New Frontier--the best Justice League feature-length animated movie of the decade.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bryan Dietrich on Jor-El, Poetry, and Truth

I don't know if you're familiar with Bryan Dietrich, but you should be. He's written several books of poetry that, if you're reading this blog, you would probably like. His most important book is Krypton Nights, a cycle of poems based heavily on the Superman mythos. These are prize-winning poems, approved by the poetry community (whatever that's worth to you), and they're also really, really good poems. Trust me. Even if you don't think you like poems, you'd like these. Krypton Nights is out of print, but you can find it used around the internet. I was buzzing around Dietrich's website, seeing if he has anything new (and he does, a book of poems about the Universal Monsters), when I came across an interview section. I found this exchange particularly interesting (note: I've edited the transcript for punctuation, but not content):

Question: Out of your poems, I particularly enjoyed “The Mysteries of Azazel.” The question of what if we could know is intriguing. Would we want to know? And, if we did know, would it mean the destruction of life, as we know it? This is a dilemma we’ll never face.

My question comes, not from your poems, but instead from your intro to The Jor-El Tapes. As stated, the Jor-El Tapes comes from the “Transcripts of Binary Transmissions Recorded by the Very Large Array (Socorro, NM) - Originating in the Vicinity of Supernova 1993J.”

Was your use of this particular event in history intended for any particular purpose? The Supernova 1993J was discovered March 28, 1993. It has been estimated to have occurred 3.6 mpc away from Earth. As far as astrological distances go, an mpc=megaparsec. A single parsec is equivalent to 3.26 light years; a mega parsec is 1 million parsecs, or 3.26 million light years. Therefore, Supernova 1993J is located approximately 11.7 million light years from Earth.

As we learn, Jor-El has been monitoring Earth through a very sophisticated telescope/device, knowing events throughout history including more recent ones, such as Flight 19. It seems that, unless Jor-El had technology far beyond our mere comprehension, the area around Supernova 1993J would be too far to effectively view Earth or send transmission back to us. If he did have vast superior technology, it seems unlikely that we’d be able to receive his transmissions with our less advanced technology and equipment.

Dietrich: Okay, you caught me.

I will answer two ways, neither one probably very satisfying.

First, I'm a poet, not a fiction writer. Fiction bears a more burdensome responsibility of verisimilitude; in other words, in fiction, if you drop a hammer, it should fall. It should conform to rules of gravity. It may fall more slowly on a different world, but it will still fall. Fiction readers SHOULD expect this kind of attention to the "rules." Thus, in the film Outland (an old Sean Connery SF film), when the doctor draws blood from the top of the leg of a many-days-old corpse, and when the blood comes out liquid.... Well, even common sense should tell us that by this point the blood would be both congealed and resting in the bottom of the body. Both points are ignored by the writer and both points serve to further frustrate our tendency to want to suspend disbelief, particularly about a film taking place on Io, in space, in the future.

I don't know that poems--being more about philosophy and language, less about plot and character--need to conform to the same expectations. Nor most "literary" fiction. Do we really expect Gregor Samsa (the clerk turned giant pill-bug in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis") to follow the rules of the real world? If he were truly a giant bug, the size we are given in the story, he would collapse in upon himself via the inverse square law.

Now, though this is a problem for, say, "Tarantula" or "The Deadly Mantis" or even "Eight-Legged Freaks," it is a problem for these stories because ALL they have going for them is story. They are not about something else, at least not in the way that Kafka's tale is. Kafka's tale is not about the realistic portrayal of a giant bug. He is about the business of telling us our lives are like the life of a bug. The metaphor is important; the "laws" of nature aren't.

So, my first answer is I plead the defense of poetry. Ha, so there.

Now, for the second answer... Your question (and you are indeed the first to ask it, though I've long been waiting) is exactly why I put in the line "why not mind mites or temporal restrictions." I knew that the question would be asked, eventually, and I attempted to put a band-aid on it.

Evidently, Jor-El has knowledge we do not. He either has technology or he has understanding that surpasses what we understand of the speed of light. He may be using some form of "spooky action at a distance" to communicate, he may have harnessed Burroughs' 9th Ray, he may be sending the message via tachyon particles...I don't know. But he evidently believes the temporal restrictions WE understand to exist don't.

Yes, this is a little like the logic of, say, Star Trek V, but then...I'm a poet.

I love that the question is just like the type of questions asked by the geeks to Homer Simpson in the famed "Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie" episode (just imagine the Comic Book Guy saying, "are we expected to believe that Jor-El would use a supernova located 3.6 megaparsecs away from Earth as some kind of transmitter? Are you the creator of 'High and Lois' because you are making me laugh.") and I love Dietrich's attempt to explain himself by showing that he is a POET. I salute you, Bryan Dietrich.

(And I've just ordered a copy of his Universal Monsters book!)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Amazing Spider-Man #549-551 Hits THE SPLASH PAGE

Once upon a time, two of the world's leading comic book critics disagreed about the quality of three recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man. The epic battle raged for thousands of words. The world wept by the end.

Read the newest installment of THE SPLASH PAGE to see it unfold. Chad Nevett and I may never be the same. In fact, NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Immortal Iron Fist Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death

The actual title of the comic book, as indicated on page one, is The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death. I like to think that the colon's not there. The character should be thought of as The Immortal Iron Fist Orson Randall (all one word), even though I get that he's not technically immortal, while the Iron Fist power is. Or something. Eastern mysticism loses me at times.

By the way, now that I've finished all three volumes of The Essential Defenders, which I'll write about at some point (and yes, the issues did get a lot better once Steve Gerber took over, and I'm glad I didn't give up after the terrible first volume in the series), I'm going to dip back into some classic Power Man and Iron Fist action--I own most of the issues, and I've got the Essential book to fill in most of the ones I'm missing. Reading all of these Bronze Age Marvel comics makes me think my next book should be Urban Anxiety: How Marvel Comics Taught Us to Love New York. If anyone wants to pay me to write that book, let me know. I could fit it into my schedule. For the right price. (I'm just like Luke Cage, bitch. I don't work for free.)

You know what I like besides Bronze Age Marvel comics though? Matt Fraction. And the Nick Dragotta/Mike Allred art team. And Russ Heath drawing machine-gun bikini cowgirls, and obscure Golden Age characters, and Frankenstein. And Orson Randall, baddest of the bad--the Iron Fist with the gun-fu.

So, it's like this comic (The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death, which I will now abbreviate as Green Mist) was written by the tiny people who live inside my brain and feast off the thoughts I have when I should be doing something productive with my life. Those tiny bastards are smart, though, and they know how to take all the stuff I love (and forgot I loved) and mix it all up in a new, surprising way. It's kind of impossible for me to review this comic, since I'm so rabidly predisposed to like it, but I wanted to point out that it exists, just in case you are one of the tiny people who don't live inside my brain and/or you don't own this comic book yet.

I'm sure you read the monthly Immortal Iron Fist comic, since it was on my Top 10 list (and everyone else's--at least those who matter), and you have discerning comic book taste. But if your mind isn't the same as it used to be, you might have forgotten that Orson Randall is the pulp-era, gun-toting Iron Fist who may or may not be the grandfather of current Iron Fist Danny Rand. This Green Mist one-shot doesn't just retell a story from Orson Randall's past, which might have been expected. You might have thought, for example, when hearing about an Orson Randall-centric special, that we'd get some story about how he fought some weird guy back in the early 20th century and how the story somehow encapsulated the essence of the character, and therefore shed some light on his current relationship with Danny Rand. Okay, you'd be right if you thought that, but it doesn't just tell one story--it tells a WHOLE BUNCH of linked stories AND it's awesome AND it ties directly into what is happening in the current story arc in the regular monthly title.

So, in other words, you have to read it or it will be like that dream you had about showing up to middle school wearing just your underwear and everyone laughed at you because you were wearing fruit of the looms and didn't you know that everyone else wore BVDs and therefore you sucked. Except instead of a dream, it will be real.

That's what not reading Green Mist will be like, I'm sure of it.

Green Mist does have a flaw, that I feel compelled to point out just to prove that I'm not a mindlessly obsessed Orson Randall and Iron Fist fanatic. I appreciate the skill and beauty of all the artists who worked on the book (and it's quite a line-up, with not only Dragotta, Allred, and Heath, but also guys like LaRosa, Gaudiano, and Breitwiser, who are far more talented than you think), and I usually like the conceit of "hey, here's a different artist for each era. To give it, you know, a different vibe," but here the transition between artists (ESPECIALLY the transition between Heath and Larosa) doesn't work well. Fraction tries to provide word balloon-to-caption transition between the sequences, to provide a thematic link as we jump forward in time, but the shift in location and artist is too disorienting to be effective, especially when we see Orson Randall tending to a wounded compatriot and then shift forward in time (although it's not immediately clear how far forward) to see Randall carrying a completely different wounded compatriot, except we can't really tell it's a different wounded character, because the art is unclear and inconsistent from one artist to the next. I think the transitions could have been handled better, and because they didn't quite work, the story loses some of its thematic resonance (and narrative momentum).

I understand the irony as Orson says (via caption), "I just can't stand by and watch as everyone I love dies in my arms" to one character and we see Randall carrying yet another character in the juxtaposed panel. BUT, when I read it at first, I thought it was just the same character he was talking to in the panel before. That's my misreading, obviously, but it was based on the lack of distinction between injured character #1 and injured character #2 and the artistic differences in the way each character was depicted by different artists. Basically, I found myself saying, "wait--what?" a couple times as I read the story, and then I had to flip back and say, "oh, it was supposed to be THAT guy." So, yeah, I had to reread the comic. Big deal. Why am I whining about that? The comic is challenging, folks. I'll have to learn to suck it up. (But, seriously, the art is a bit problematic, so don't worry if you have to give it a second read through to see what's happening to whom--and if you do get all the pieces of the puzzle the first time through: nicely done.)

It's easier for me to complain about that tiny bit of non-greatness than it is to talk about all the things I did like about Green Mist. I listed some of the things I liked earlier, and the comic is surely full of pulp goodness, but my favorite sequence (and the cowgirls are, admittedly, pretty hard to top, and I can imagine Matt Fraction actively thinking about how he's going to top the Russ Heath-drawn ladies) is the Frankenstein's monster/Son of Frankenstein sequence in which Orson Randall stands tall against the fur-clad monster (who I remember vividly from my Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, because I always thought about how out-of-place the gawky, unkempt, unfashionable Frankenstein's monster looked amidst the glossy super-heroes). Randall, with a single line of dialogue, turns the monster from a shadowy, menacing threat into a giggling child. All of this happens before he find himself betrayed by the evil, prepubescent Son of Frankenstein (complete with goggles and buzzsaw).

And, of course, Fraction reveals more about the other title character, the Green Mist, who is also known as the Prince of Orphans, and also known as that obscure character Bill Everett created who kind of dresses like He-Man, except he's quite slender.

I liked The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death more than anything else I read this week (and I read pretty much everything on the shelf). Hell, it's the Comic of the Month--with only Jason Aaron's debut on Ghost Rider close to contention. But you know that Green Mist is good, because you've already purchased it, right?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Liked Cloverfield

Shockingly, my wife and I were able to sneak out of the house last night and actually attend a movie in a real-live theater (or, as the locals call it, a "multi-plex.") Did we see There Will Be Blood by my all-time favorite director Paul Thomas Anderson? No. Did we see Juno, featuring the great Michael Cera and the possibly even greater Ellen Page (have you SEEN Hard Candy? Her performance is amazing)? No.

We saw Cloverfield, as you have probably figured out by the title of this post.

And, since you are an astute reader, you can probably also figure out that I liked it.

I did like it. I liked it quite a bit. And before I discuss it further, let me say that Cloverfield's in very good company. As soon as the credits started to roll, the woman behind us (and there were only about six people in the whole theater) said, loudly, "that was the WORST movie I've ever seen!" I've heard that exact expression said in that tone only twice before. Once, at the end of Pulp Fiction during its opening weekend. And once, after opening night of Anchorman. (The guy who said it about Anchorman also added, "it wasn't funny AT ALL.")

So, the fact that Cloverfield is in the same strange company as Pulp Fiction and Anchorman should tell you that its doing something right.

Cloverfield is what the War of the Worlds remake wanted to be, but Spielberg didn't have the balls to pull it off. Spielberg went with sentimentality (the entire family is reunited at the end? Really? You're going to go with that, after everything you've set up in the rest of the movie?) and with faux heroism (all of a sudden, Tom Cruise the "regular guy" who has a transmission on his kitchen table becomes an action hero and helps figure out how the aliens can be defeated? Really?), while Cloverfield director Matt Reeves went with nihilism (you think the journey into mid-town was about love? It was about selfishness and misguided attempts at doing what's right. You want everyone to live happily ever after? Screw you!) And that second approach makes for a much better monster movie.

While Spielberg is incapable of making a monster movie without a few moments where the jaunty music of John Williams reassures the audience that everything will be all right (see Jaws and Jurassic Park for extra-jauntiness), Matt Reeves abandons a musical score completely (and appropriately), leaving the screeching and the screaming and the anxious panting to amplify the emotion which, throughout the vast majority of the running time, is intense.

Are there problems with the movie? Probably. Especially if you're looking to apply some kind of rational logic to the movements of the monster (the creature always seems to be right in front of where the protagonists want to go, except when the creature is RIGHT BEHIND THEM--gasp!), but really, it's a monster movie and as such, it has one job, and that is to thrill and exhilarate and make you feel the threat of the creature. Cloverfield does that as well as any movie ever made, and I liked it.

So, take that old lady sitting behind us. Go rent Daddy Day Camp or something. Obviously, Cloverfield is too much for you to handle.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Barthelme and Gaines

A couple of years ago, I had a subscription to Bookforum, the bi-monthly magazine of book reviews and literary essays. I stopped getting it not because the quality had diminished (it hadn't), but because it made me want to buy dozens of books that I'd never have time to read. As I've grown older, more responsible, and busy as hell, I've found that comics are perfect for me not just because I love the pretty pictures, but because I rarely have an extended stretch of time to focus on a single narrative. The brief, 10-minute dose of a comic book story fits my schedule, and my newfound attention span, perfectly. While I might read five or six comics in a row, it's rarely without interruption--the kind of interruption that would ruin the effect of a nice, deep literary novel. But that's my problem.

Anyway, I picked up the newest (Feb/Mar 2008) issue of Bookforum the other day because it had two articles I was interested in. And I figured that if I'm interested in them, then you might be interested in them, so let me give you a few slices from each.

The first, entitled "The Beastly Beatitudes of Donald B.," by James Wolcott, champions the greatness of Donald Bartheleme (in conjunction with the re-release of several Barthelme volumes--most notably, to me, Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews which I was able to track down online several years ago, and has remained one of the books I return to again and again when I think about how to approach literature and narrative, from both a critical and creative perspective). Rather than summarize Wolcott's essay, I'll provide you with some snippets that might make you want to explore the works of Donald Barthelme (which, by the way, are often very brief, and thus, still fit into my 10-minute attention span):

"...part of the original exploding-alarm-clock novelty of Barthelme's Pop fiction was the pristine context in which it was first presented--the modest decor with which it clashed."

"His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of [The New Yorker's] humor and fiction irregulars."

"His fan base probably will be a select band of aspiring wizards, and why should that be a cause for lament?"

"In 'The Sea of Hesitation,' reprinted in Flying to America, the narrator reflects, 'I pursue Possibility. That's something.' Barthelme did more than pursue Possibility--he enriched it, leaving the playground bigger and brighter than he found it."

The second section of the new issue of Bookforum that interested me was the excerpt from David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America. Those of us interested in comic books know all about Seduction of the Innocent and the fall of EC Comics etc., etc. But Hajdu's excerpt indicates that his book will go into fascinating detail about this transformative period in American comic book history. I was vaguely interested in the book before, but after reading the excerpt, I'll be sure to pick up the book when it's released in March. Some snippets:

"To enforce the law [forbidding the sale of crime comics], the [Cleveland] police department established a permanent detail of two officers dedicated to the comic-book beat."

"The Cub [Scout]s who had gathered the most comics would have the honor of applying the torch to the books."

"'We got a lot of mileage out of scheming wives and vengeful husbands,' Gaines said. In EC's horror paradigm, the true graveyard was the living room of the American home."

"Feldstein supposed that word of the hearings had spread around Little Italy, and Gaines was now presumed to be in with the Mob."

Interesting, no?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday Fragments

Some comic book-related things that have been on my mind lately, in fun, bite-sized form:

1. Mark Farmer makes John Byrne's pencils look absolutely top-notch. See the newest JLA Classified arc for examples. Regarding that arc, it's old-school fun that might be worth picking up.

2. Gail Simone wrapped up her run on The All-New Atom quite well, with a "shocking" revelation about why everything in town has been so zany. It's not actually shocking if you've been paying attention, but I kind of haven't been, and I also thought Simone was making stuff up as she went along without much of an overall story. I was wrong.

3. Rick Remender taking over the writing chores on The All-New Atom, however, is GREAT news. I think it's the perfect DC comic for him to tackle, and he's coming in at a time when I was just about to drop the title. Good choice, DC!

4. I know I'm a month or two late to the party on this, but The Incredible Hercules is actually quite good. I attribute this to the Van Lente factor, since Greg Pak has never written a comic that I really liked. His much-hyped Planet Hulk was a severe disappointment. Ven Lente, on the other hand, has not started out as strong as I would have hoped in some of his Marvel stuff (namely Iron Man Adventures, which is too wordy most of the time for a kid's comic, and MODOK'S 11, which started out well but ended with a whimper), but this Hercules comic is a lot of fun.

5. Kurt Busiek is an excellent comic book writer on Astro City, and the new, Barbie-tastic issue was an example of how well he can create a sense of character. His mainstream work, like his run on Avengers with Perez and his Superman comics of the past year, are weak. Do you supposed that's because he feels too beholden to characters he didn't create? The work is clearly inferior on his non-Astro City titles, right?

6. Nova Annual #1 reads like an episode of season one of Lost mashed with an episode from the current season of Lost.

7. Reginald Hudlin isn't the worst comic book writer in the world, but the newest issue of Black Panther features an alien planet which, under the guidance of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, will become a place of racial harmony. Isn't that a strikingly similar conceit as the one everyone laughed about from Bob Haney's Swingin' Teen Titans Elseworld Special? Haney used JFK. Hudlin uses MLK. Is Hudlin the Bob Haney of 2008? How much longer do you think Hudlin will be on Black Panther?

8. Tiny Titans #1 is a great comic for kids--my kids loved it--so don't listen to all of the childless bloggers who wring their hands about who this comic is aimed at. It's aimed at kids, and they get the jokes--don't worry.

9. At some point I will re-read the entirety of American Virgin and write an essay about how it as a contemporary update of the 1950s Romance comics. But the ending of the final issue probably still won't work for me.

10. Like many others, I was underwhelmed by beginning of the Millar/Hitch era on Fantastic Four. But in this case, I will reserve critical judgment until I see a few more issues. I think they are capable of creating a tremendously interesting run, even if the first issue seems to indicate otherwise.

11. I bought Punisher: Force of Nature because the cover showed Punisher vs. Moby Dick. I didn't expect that scene to actually occur, but I think it would have made a more interesting story than the stage-play we actually get, in which the Punisher giggles below deck as a criminal trio turns on themselves and talks a lot.

12. The Alpha Lanterns were created by Grant Morrison, or so he says. And Geoff Johns has made them into a terrifying spectacle. (Smart move, John Stewart, at not blindly agreeing to participate.) Yet the newest issue of Green Lantern Corps seems to drain all the life out of the concept. Why is that?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Susan Sontag on Salvation Run #4

I didn't want to have to resort to citing Susan Sontag's over-referenced 1964 essay, "Notes on Camp," but I couldn't help but think of it as I read the latest issue of my most guilty pleasure: Salvation Run.

I don't normally go for guilty pleasures. I love a lot of trashy, unreputable stuff, but I certainly don't feel guilty about any of it. But Salvation Run is the type of book even the original writer abandoned out of embarrassment. Bill Willingham might have used words like "over-extended" or "illness," but it was all code for "the book is such crap that I don't even want to cash that paycheck anymore."

Yet I'll tell you right now: I love Salvation Run. I know it's not good. I know Sean Chen can't draw a mouth that looks anything like even a cartoon version of an actual, human mouth. I know the book is an editorial mandate on a stick. I know all of that, and yet I love the abandoned little bastard. I love it so much that I dropped it after issue #2, saw issue #3 on the shelf, refused to buy it and, feeling regret, made a special trip to the comic shop a day later to purchase it after all.

This month, with Salvation Run #4, I embraced my guilty pleasure and read it on the day of release.

Which brings me to Susan Sontag. The word campy is bandied about more often than it's truly understood. Everyone says the Adam West Batman is campy, and the Power Rangers is campy, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show is campy, but camp isn't necessarily just bad special effects and people doing goofy stuff in costumes. Camp is a whole list of things. 58 things, if Sontag is to be believed.

So let's explore some of Sontag's 58 qualities of Camp, and I'll throw in my commentary on Salvation Run at corresponding moments:

1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization. Sean Chen's "figure drawing" and "facial expressions" are certainly stylized, and not thinking in terms of beauty will put you in the right frame of mind for Salvation Run, definitely.

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized -- or at least apolitical. While Civil War might have been a political allegory about the price of freedom in the post-9/11 world, Salvation Run is about a bunch of dorky z-list super-villains split into two warring factions, led by the Joker and Lex Luthor, respectively. That's the extent of the thematic depth and political message. Lex Luthor's guys fight Joker's guys. Plus, some renegades smash some shit.

5. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content. In Salvation Run #4, genius super-ape Gorilla Grodd BLUDGEONS GENIUS SUPER-APE MONSIEUR MALLAH WITH A BRAIN IN A JAR! That image on the cover is not a metaphor. Ape vs. ape. Many, many pages of Ape on Ape action with cranial catastrophe. That's probably the type of thing Sontag had in mind.

7. Nothing in nature can be campy . . . Rural Camp is still man-made, and most campy objects are urban. You know what else is campy? Hostile alien worlds populated by evil robot things that live underground. Hell yeah!

8. Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not. The sycophantic boy CarnEVIL loves Joker so much, he wants to cut him into bits. That's what Sontag means by "off."

11. Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. Ape battles are nothing if not epicene.

23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve. Sounds like the tag line for the Salvation Run trade paperback. DC, are you listening?

36. But there are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly. No need to feel guilty about loving Salvation Run, says Sontag!

39. The excruciating is also one of the tonalities of Camp. I was going to keep going, but #39 just about sums it up. Salvation Run: excruciatingly AWESOME. Did I mention that the premise of the comic is Lord of the Flies with super-villains on an alien planet? The Joker plays the part of Jack, Lex Luthor is Ralph, and Mallah is, apparently, Piggy. Also, about 900 hundred other, poorly drawn, far more obscure DC villains populate the series. And they're all dumb, grumpy, and evil as hell.

I can't wait to see what happens next.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Booster Gold #0 Hits THE SPLASH PAGE

Chad Nevett and I are back in action with another exciting SPLASH PAGE column at This week, we explore yellow goggles, time travel, Blue Beetles, metafiction, and continuity as we provide a close reading of this week's Booster Gold #0.

You can read the column HERE.

One comment I failed to make in my discussion with Chad is that the original Booster Gold series featured a dollar sign instead of an "s," symbolizing Booster's greedy nature, while this new series has an infinity sign instead of the "oo" in BOOster. Except the infinity sign looks more like a link of chain. Does this signify that Booster Gold is trapped inside the rigid chains of continuity, never able to affect the past, present, or future? Or does it mean that Booster has replaced his cash money with bling?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ghost Rider #20: This Sucker is Good

I expected Jason Aaron's debut on Ghost Rider to be strong. His work on Scalped has been phenomenal, and his fill-in issue of Wolverine last year was one of the best single issues I read in 2007. Aaron even made Ripclaw interesting during "Pilot Season." So I expected his take on Ghost Rider to be worth reading.

But I was wrong.

It's far more than just "worth reading." With Ghost Rider #20, Jason Aaron has planted his flag in the Marvel Universe and said, "I will kick your ass with greatness."

I've seen hundreds of writers take over hundreds of comic books, but only one other time have I felt this way about a new creator taking over after an initial, lackluster run by another. That time was 20 years ago, when relative newcomer (to American comics) Grant Morrison took over for Paul Kupperberg on Doom Patrol. I had been a fan of Morrison's work on Animal Man and I expected his Doom Patrol to be much improved over the tepid Claremont riff Kupperberg was doing on the title, but the way Morrison immediately made the comic his own was shocking and exciting.

I felt the same way about Ghost Rider #20. Aaron comes from a much different background from Morrison, obviously, and their approach to comic book storytelling is distinctly different, but they both have a strong voice, and strong personal interests, and their writing bleeds with passion and vigor.

Jason Aaron has recast Ghost Rider into what it always promised to be: a badass southern grindhouse rock opera with a demonic angel on a flaming chopper. He's thrown in switchblade nurses and ghouls on the road. He's escalating the comic into something great.

And you should start reading it, now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Nothing Says "America" Like a Machete to the Throat

I didn't address this when it was "news" a couple of months ago, but Ed Brubaker was repeatedly quoted as saying, "people forget that Captain America carried a gun a lot in World War II. Every three covers there was a shot of Captain America with a machine gun or a flamethrower - or an atom bomb." It was his way to justify the new, ex-Bucky, ex-Winter Soldier, Captain America carrying a sidearm.

Most comics fans with a sense of history agreed with Brubaker and scoffed at the unaware citizens who thought a gun-toting Cap was something new.

The thing is, though, Brubaker wasn't really telling the truth. Captain America was RARELY shown with a gun. If you look at the first 35 issues of Captain America comics (the bulk of the war-time run), Captain America is NEVER, not once, shown wielding a gun on any of the covers. Clearly, "every three covers there was a shot of Captain America with a machine gun" is not only an exaggeration, it's a statement that bears no resemblance to the truth.

But it doesn't really matter, because this new Captain America is the old Bucky and the old Bucky has ALWAYS been bad-ass. Look at this cover from Captain America Comics #40. Not only is Bucky carrying a gun, but he's leaping from a car bomb as he SLICES A JAP IN THE THROAT WITH A MACHETE.

Yeah, this new, shiny Captain America Brubaker's writing isn't your father's Cap--he's your grandfather's Bucky. And your grandfather could probably kick all of our pampered 21st century asses, couldn't he?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Not-So-Essential Defenders

I've been on a positive kick lately, praising the hell out of ClanDestine #1, talking up my crush on Brand New Day, listing the great, canonical works of American Comics and playfully defending it, learning that Matt Fraction's going to be writing Iron Man--just feeling good about comics in general.

Then, I decided to fill one of the gaps in my mainstream comic book knowledge by taking Essential Defenders Vol. 1 off the shelf. It's one of the few major Marvel series that I have never read, save for about five random issues near the end of the run.

Well, I'm halfway through the first volume, and it's just complete shit. Extended plots involving the Nameless One. Histrionics over nothing. The Hulk just wanting to smash while Dr. Strange shifts into astral form while Namor shouts indignantly while the Silver Surfer just kind of zooms around zapping stuff. I didn't expect genius, but I expected solid Marvel super-heroics. It's just not good.

Does anyone have any strong feelings about The Defenders one way or another? Should I give up on it entirely, or should I stick it out and watch it become something actually worth reading? Should I just skip right to the Steve Gerber stuff or what?

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Canon's Already Under Attack!

Yesterday I posted my declaration of the American Comic Canon, and the comments have been great. I fully expect my Canon to spark debate and discussion, and it already has.

For the record, here's what's been suggested as essential additions to the Canon, followed by my brief rebuttal:

1. Thomas Nast added to Early Comic Strips
--I say yes, although I know very little about Nast. From what I do know, he sounds like an influential pioneer, and that's important to have at the beginning of the Canon, at least for historical perspective. Perhaps he doesn't belong because he doesn't do sequential work, though. What do you think?

2. Teen Titans, Uncanny X-Men, and Squadron Supreme moved from Bronze Age to the Modern Age (and, Squadron Supreme was actually my own suggestion as an addition, but the request to move it to the later era belonged to a reader).
--I say no, because the Titans, X-Men, and Squadron Supreme are the logical conclusion to the promise of the Bronze Age. Squadron Supreme, in particular, takes the O'Neil/Adams formula and projects it onto a larger stage. It, along with the other two titles, are the perfect end point for the Bronze Age. (And, in retrospect, I think I should add Squadron Supreme into that Bronze Age category.)

3. Walt Simonson's Thor added to the Modern Age
--I say no, although Simonson is a wonderful artist. I just don't think this one makes the cut as a singular work, although some of Simonson's page layouts are innovative enough to make it a close call.

4. John Byrne's Fantastic Four added to the Modern Age
--I say no, it's not even close. In many ways, Byrne's FF is a mashup of Silver Age plots with Bronze Age characterizations, and it's not truly representative of the promise of the Modern Era

5. Frank Miller's Ronin added to the Modern Age
--I say no, because Miller is overly represented as it is. Ronin is clearly a transformative work for Miller and you can see him literally progressing to a new style over the course of the book. It's him shedding his Daredevil skin and preparing for Dark Knight Returns, and it's an essential link between the two, but I don't think it stands on its own as canonical.

6. Chester Brown or Seth added to the Modern Age
--I say yes, but I don't know which work(s) I would add. I seriously considered Clyde Fans, by Seth, as an original addition to the list, but it's incomplete. I think he may have a masterpiece that will yet emerge. Chester Brown is important, but what's his major work? I honestly don't know. Suggestions?

7. Cerebus moved from Bronze Age to the Modern Age
--I say yes, definitely. The best, most important Cerebus stuff was during the mid to late 1980s, and it was high Modernist in style and content. I only placed it in the Bronze Age as a kind of bridge between the Undergrounds to the Moderns, but that's not fair to Cerebus.

8. The Authority added to the Modern Age
--I say yes, for two reasons. 1) Even though it's not truly an Image book, it represents the logical outgrowth of the Image approach to super-heroes, and it's worthy of inclusion as a kind of pinnacle of that sub-era, and 2) the comic has influenced other super-hero comics ever since its release.

What do you say? What else did I leave out? What should be removed? How many is too many? Do you love comics as much as I do?

EDITED TO ADD: Abhay has joined the fray HERE.

Aim the Canon

Chris Mautner, at Blog@Newsarama, posted a piece about the existence of critics treating comics thoughtfully and about the existence of a comic book canon. I get distracted by my weekly mainstream super-hero comics and my rants about Brand New Day, but I like to think of myself as one of those serious-minded critics who treats comics the way a literary critic treats novels or a film critic treats cinema. I don't always take myself seriously, but that doesn't mean I'm not serious about my criticism. My entire career as a writer, such as it is, is based on "serious comic book criticism."

As a critic, I'm primarily a structuralist, as a reading of Grant Morrison: The Early Years will indicate. Even my upcoming essay for Teenagers from the Future involves my structuralist reading of Paul Levitz's Legion comics. But I not only enjoy identifying and exploring patterns within the works of a single author--I also like examining historical pattern and tendencies. I think, as Chris Mautner does, that there is a canon of great comics. I think of it as a pattern of influences and developments, moving forward through time. It's the way a literary canon works (although as I commented in response to Mautner's post, the literary canon doesn't exist the way it once did--it has been challenged and deconstructed in recent years, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to establish a comic book canon). In the literary canon (and this is a vast, abbreviated oversimplification, but that doesn't mean it isn't true), Sophocles' Oedipus Rex leads to Shakespeare's King Lear leads to Melville's Moby Dick leads to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury which leads to McCarthy's Blood Meridian. All five of these works are canonical (arguably, depending on whether or not you think the canon should be full of dead white males), and there is a line of influence connecting one to another.

The same is true for the comic canon, which I believe parallels the literary canon, and looks something like this:

The American Comic Canon
I. Early Comic Strips
Yellow Kid, by Richard Outcault
The Katzenjammer Kids, by Rudolph Dirks
Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Windsor McKay
Krazy Kat, by George Herriman
Flash Gordon, by Alex Raymond
Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff
Popeye, by E.C. Segar
Dick Tracy, by Chester Gould
The Phantom, by Lee Falk

II. The Golden Age
Superman, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Batman, by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson
Wonder Woman, by William Moulton Marsten and H.G. Peter
Captain Marvel, by C.C. Beck, Bill Parker, and Otto Binder
The Spirit, by Will Eisner
Captain America, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Powerhouse Pepper, by Basil Wolverton
Plastic Man, by Jack Cole
Archie, by Bob Montana
Donald Duck, by Carl Barks
Gasoline Alley, by Frank King

These first two categories, in the American Comic Canon, are the equivalent of the ancient Greek plays in the literary canon. They establish the basic rules of the form, but they are no longer widely read. Only students and scholars of the medium read these works with any regularity, but like the ancient Greek plays, much pleasure can be gained by those who attempt to read them.

III. The EC Era
Representative stories by...
Johnny Craig
Wallace Wood
Jack Davis
Reed Crandall
Bernie Kriegstein
Harvey Kurtzman

The EC Era is the equivalent of the early American Renaissance in the literary canon. The EC creators take the place of someone like Poe or Hawthorne.

IV. The Silver Age
Peanuts, by Charles Shulz
Flash, by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino
Green Lantern, by John Broome and Gil Kane
Superman, by Jerry Siegel, Edmund Hamilton, Wayne Boring, and Curt Swan
Batman, by Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Sheldon Moldoff, and Carmine Infantino
The Justice League of America, by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowski
Sgt. Rock, by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert
Enemy Ace, by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert
Challengers of the Unknown, by Jack Kirby
The Doom Patrol, by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani
Fantastic Four, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
The Incredible Hulk, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
The Amazing Spider-Man, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Dr. Strange, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

The Silver Age is the equivalent of the explosion of American literature in the 19th century. Much of it is still read with fondness, but the language is more stilted than we're used to, and the concern too simplistic at times.

V. Underground Comix
Zap Comix, by Robert Crumb
Selected works by...
S. Clay Wilson
Rick Griffin
Spain Rodriguez
Greg Irons
Skip Williamson
Art Spiegelman
Trina Robbins
Vaughn Bode
Jack Jackson

The Underground Comix era shows the first important divergent thread, much like the poetry of Walt Whitman, which took influence from what came before but headed in a bold, new direction.

VI. The Bronze Age
The Fourth World Saga, by Jack Kirby
Wonder Woman, by Denny O'Neil and Mike Sekowsky
Batman, by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams
Green Lantern/Green Arrow, by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams
The Amazing Spider-Man (non-code issues), by Stan Lee and Gil Kane
Daredevil, by Frank Miller
Warlock, by Jim Starlin
The Death of Captain Marvel, by Jim Starlin
Cerebus, by Dave Sim
Moon Knight, by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
The Uncanny X-Men, by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne
The New Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

Like the post-Civil War rise of Realism in American literature, the post Vietnam Bronze Age shifted comics toward a more "relevant" direction. Even outlandish super-hero operas like the Fourth World and the X-Men were grounded in contemporary youth culture and attempted cultural diversity.

VII. The Modern Age
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
Swamp Thing, by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch
Crisis on Infinite Earths, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller
Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Daredevil: Born Again, by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli
Love and Rockets, by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez
Nexus, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
American Flagg!, by Howard Chaykin
Grendel, by Matt Wagner
Elektra: Assassin, by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkieweicz
The Question, by Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan
"Here," by Richard McGuire
The One, by Rick Veitch
Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
Animal Man, by Grant Morrison and Chas Truog
Arkham Asylum, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
Sin City, by Frank Miller
Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse
Sandman, by Neil Gaiman and others
Bone, by Jeff Smith
Jimmy Corrigan, by Chris Ware
Eightball, by Daniel Clowes
100%, by Paul Pope
Scott Pilgrim, by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Black Hole, by Charles Burns
Fun Home, by Allison Bechdel
Casanova, by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon

An age of disillusionment and formal experimentation, the Modern Age in American literature produced creators as diverse (and divisive) as Hemingway, Faulkner, Joseph Heller, and T.S. Eliot. The Moderns chewed up the past (in both style and content) and spit it out in their own, vigorous way. The same is true for the Modern comic book creators as well. The era is marked by an ironic exploration of past icons, and it has possibly shifted into a Postmodern Age somewhere around the late 1980s. Of all the eras, this is the one most open for debate, as it should be.

That's the American Comic Canon as I see it. Challenge it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

2/6/08 Comics: How Much Do I Care?

In response to my enthusiasm over Brand New Day, local comic book reader and Danny Rand look-alike Marc Wrzesinski commented that he just doesn't "care about the 616 Peter Parker anymore." Which made me think, "I like Brand New Day, but I don't care about the 616 Peter Parker--did I ever care about him? Do I care about any comic book characters? Why do I buy comics if I don't care about the characters? Is there something wrong with me?"

The answer to that last question is clearly "yes," but I'm more interested in trying to figure out whether or not I DO care about some characters and not others, and why I buy the comics I buy.

So let's look at a selection of this past weeks' new releases, and figure out why I buy these things (by the way, some things I DIDN'T buy interest me, like Northlanders, but I've taught myself to start waiting for the trade when I can):

Jonah Hex #28: Do I care about the character of Jonah Hex? Nope. I buy this every month because I am interested in seeing how Palmiotti and Gray play with the conventions of the comic book Western, and I'm curious to see how they'll structure a single-issue story. I also like the tone of this series, usually, with its grim visions of redemption and vengeance. Plus, every once in a while the great European artists Jordi Bernet joins the fun, which is great to see.

The Boys #15: Do I care about any members of the cast of this comic? Nope. If any or all of them were killed in the next issue it wouldn't phase me one bit. I'd hope the series continued, but the characters are replaceable. I buy this every month because it pushes beyond the boundaries of good taste, it savages super-hero archetypes, and generally surprises me with the extremes to which it will go. I was profoundly influenced, as a younger comic book reader, by the Mills O'Neill Marshall Law, and The Boys treads similar territory.

Annihilation Conquest #4: I like the space opera genre. I like the war genre. I like the super-hero genre. I like them when they're mixed together well. I don't necessarily care about any of the characters in this story, but I do have a fondness for Star-Lord's new costume, and I like the new Adam Warlock as a concept. But I buy it for the Lensman-style action (as in the structure of the series in which bigger threats are revealed lurking behind what you thought were the biggest threats. The Phalanx is the big threat--no, wait, behind the Phalanx lies Ultron! Etc.). I buy it because it's a cosmic, plot-driven ride through Marvel's outer-space. Not for the characters.

Uncanny X-Men #495: I don't know WHY I buy this. It's certainly not for the characters, at least not how they're presented here. I do have a fondness for the X-Men, though. I like the characters when they are done well (i.e. by Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne, or Morrison, or Whedon), so I guess maybe I do buy this comic for the characters, hoping that the series will improve. I also buy it because Ed Brubaker is capable of writing excellent comic book stories. He hasn't done it on this series yet, but he still could. I'm also seriously considering dropping this one, even though it's the only comic on the list so far which has characters I kind of care about. Shows how little caring about the characters means when it comes to my comic buying choices.

Metal Men #6: I don't care about the Metal Men or Doc Magnus (although I find Magnus far more interesting than the title characters), but I buy this for Duncan Rouleau's art and for the sheer ambition of this series. This is a complex narrative, involving a vast array of characters, multiple time frames, and interwoven plot threads. I don't think it works at all as a monthly series (even a limited one), because of its complexity, but if you're willing to hold your breath and dive in, it's fun to immerse yourself in Rouleau's world. I can't wait until it's completed so I can read the whole story in one sitting and figure out what's actually going on.

Ms. Marvel #24: I do care about Carol Danvers a little, especially in this incarnation: she's a strong woman trying to be a better person. A flawed character who probably shouldn't be given the responsibility for leading a team, but she finds herself leading two of them. She has a military background but plenty of battle scars (more emotional than physical). I think she makes a wonderful lead character, and writer Brian Reed makes this book interesting each month. I buy it because of the writing, though, not for the art and not really for the character.

Scalped #14: I clearly buy this for the creative team. I'll buy anything Jason Aaron writes (he's getting me to buy Ghost Rider this Wednesday. Ghost. Rider.) and I'll probably buy anything R. M. Guera illustrates in the future. These two guys are top-notch creators. Do I care about Dashiell Bad Horse? I do. He's a character I do care about, because the creators have made me care. But that's a rarity, and it's certainly not the main thing I look for in a comic book. These guys just happen to be very good at making me care, AND at creating something which plays with narrative form and genre conventions. No wonder I like this comic so much.

Comics are my favorite medium. I love many of them passionately. And it's nice when I connect emotionally with a character, but it's not why I read comics, and I don't care if Peter Parker gets stabbed in the eye or loses his job or can't get a date, Brand New Day is still resulting in good comics--comics that have better stories, better art, and better pacing than anything that's come out of the Spider-Man comics in years. One of the joys of ongoing comics is seeing how new creative teams reinterpret the traditions of the past, and if it helps you get over the loss of Mary Jane, think of Brand New Day as "All-Star Spider-Man." You'd probably read an "All-Star Spider-Man" comic with these creative teams, wouldn't you?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Color Me BND

One full month in and I'm finding myself a HUGE fan of Brand New Day. Not so much the actual stories so far, although they've been good. But the acceleration of the series. The three-times-a-month and you-get-a-whole-story-in-three-weeks pacing. Every issue feels sped up to me, and maybe it's because Steve Wacker knows what the hell he's doing (he does) or because you know another issue is coming right out the very next week (it will), but I'm having a lot of fun reading Amazing Spider-Man and that is something I haven't said since that issue with the McFarlane-drawn Paladin on the cover.

Yet my local retailer tells me that sales are way down on Amazing. I scoffed at that information, confident that he was mistaken, or he was comparing it to the inflated "One More Day" numbers.

"No," he assured me. "Everyone dropped it. They're refusing to read it."

"But it must be selling better than a year or so ago?" I ventured.

"No, it's way down," he said.

"But...but it's really good now! It hasn't been this good in...forever."

"They aren't even giving it a chance."

Now I don't actually care if sales go up or down, really. But do you think he's right? Will the sales numbers eventually bear out the fact that this "boycott" has lowered sales even though the art and stories in Amazing Spider-Man are qualitatively better than they were a year ago? I highly doubt it. I can't imagine even the most stubborn fanboy saying, "I don't care if it's ten times better and highly accelerated. I'm still pissed off that those bad issues I didn't even really like anyway are not as important to continuity anymore."


By the way, EVERY super-hero series should be three-times-a-month from now on. Start drawing faster, kids!

Friday, February 08, 2008

ClanDestine #1 Hits THE SPLASH PAGE

Chad Nevett and I have begun a new weekly column at It's called THE SPLASH PAGE and it features fancy comic book chit chat that will make you smarter. This week, we tackle the Alan Davis-ness of ClanDestine #1. Check out our words of wisdom HERE.

Grant Morrison: Kicking Bat-Fans in the Face Like a Rabid Spider-Monkey?

The wise Marc Caputo commented on my last post, and I wrote a long response which somehow got erased the moment I clicked "submit." Since I think the issue Marc raised is worth talking about, I decided to promote it to feature status! Here's part of what Marc said:

"I can't help but wondering - who is he writing this run for? It can't be Batman fans and as we head into the release of "The Dark Knight", you know we're going to get some noobs in off the street (especially with FCBD right about the same time.) Is this for Morrison fans? I'm sure in part it is, although this really deviates from his usual rhythm on an extended run (which is fine.)"

And then he added:

"At this point, it's the scholars who are keeping this alive. Not being the biggest Batman fan, I wonder how the fan on the street (i.e., non-Morrison fan) is taking this. That opinion counts for a lot and I'm real curious since I don't know any who fit the profile."

I have NEVER wondered who a writer is writing for, honestly. The thought doesn't really occur to me. It doesn't matter who it's written for--all that matters is whether or not its any good. But Marc, and probably DC Comics, obviously cares what the "fan on the street" thinks about Morrison's Batman so let's venture a guess. One thing we know is that the "fan on the street" has poor taste in comics, since he didn't support Nextwave, or The Irredeemable Ant-Man, or The Order. Therefore, any opinions "the fan on the street" has regarding quality is suspect at best. Would he like Morrison's Batman? Probably not. It's unconventional (even as it builds upon classic Batman tropes), and therefore slightly challenging. I've read reviewers who wrote and podcasters who said that they "threw Batman #663 down" once they saw that it was filled with words. Note that they didn't say they read it and didn't think it was any good (though others have said that), the "fans" I'm talking about didn't even read it because it was FULL OF WORDS. Talk about closed-minded! So, once again, I don't hold out much hope for the fan on the street. He's dull-witted.

I also have to respond to Marc's other point, which is that Morrison's Batman run "deviates from his usual rhythm on an extended run." I disagree. Look at Animal Man, Doom Patrol, JLA, or X-Men. Inconsistent art, longer narrative arcs interrupted by shorter ones, forced inclusion of crossover bits, and a larger sense of pattern and theme. That description applies to his other extended runs AND t0 Batman. To me, Morrison's current work looks strikingly similar to his usual rhythm on a corporate super-hero title. By the way, I don't think Morrison's Batman is some kind of transcendent achievement, but it's comparable to the level of quality of his JLA. Except the fans embraced his JLA, and we don't know how they feel about Batman, because a bunch of them throw it down without reading it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Batman #156 vs. Batman #673

I didn't plan on weighing in on Grant Morrison's newest Batman issue, but Greg Burgas sent a bunch of readers to this site, and the least I can do is discuss sensory-deprivation Batman a bit (NOTE: I was planning on awaiting the conclusion of this current Batman arc before providing an analysis--I'm not as interested in guessing what will happen as I am figuring out how creators use patterns, symbols, and motifs to layer what did happen--also NOTE: I spent several formative years in the 1990s working at KB Toys, and I'm pretty sure "Sensory-Deprivation Batman" was one of those action figures you could find in the 3/$10.00 bin, along with "Lightning Vision Camouflage Batman" and "Laser Vision Coldsnap Batman.")

So, what's going on with Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel's Batman #673? Well, it's heavily indebted to Batman #156. A quick glance at the classic Silver Age cover will tell you WHY Morrison would find that issue from 1963 so appealing. Batman cradling a dead Robin? On an alien landscape? Sounds good to me.

Couple that with the interior story, in which not only does Ace the Bathound appear, but Batman dresses like a gorilla to infiltrate the aptly-described Gorilla Gang, and you can toss in an alien stone idol with four arms and an experiment in which Batman contributes to SPACE MEDICINE, and it's a story begging for a postmodern retelling, is it not?

Well, that's not exactly what Morrison gives us in Batman #673, but he does continue to pick moments out of Batman's forgotten past and tie it into present continuity, and the parts he picks out of Batman #156 seem to offer a key to how he can combine these strange and wonderful old stories into a world in which Batman has been awfully grumpy and "realistic" for decades.

First, though, I want to discuss what makes Batman #156 a Morrison-esque story on its own, even before Morrison cherry-picks from it for his own purposes. Click on that page on the left here. Check out those top two panels: "Eyes watching me..." "I know you're out there! Why don't you show yourselves? Why are you watching me?" That reads like it came straight out of Morrison's Animal Man run, and the hovering, watchful "eye" of the sun recalls the Decreator from Morrison's Doom Patrol. Then, the final panel, with a Batman-in-a-crucifiction-pose lying on the floor, hooked up to electrodes as scientists peer through the observation window? It's pure Morrison. It's like a parody of Morrison, more accurately. Except it was written when Morrison was still wearing diapers--written in all likelihood by Bill Finger (although credited to Bob Kane).

But clearly the story resonated with Morrison when he read it years later. He must have recognized the kinship.

Batman #156 moves from a bizarre space tragedy to a goofy costumed-crime story, using the reveal about the SPACE MEDICINE as a transition. The space medicine bit seems like a throwaway, a cheap way to explain the cover gimmick, but by the end of the story, writer Finger and artist Sheldon Moldoff tie the sensory deprivation after-effects into the story. The tale becomes ABOUT the way the sensory deprivation has deranged Batman's mind--how his ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy has become compromised, and THAT aspect of the issue is what Morrison borrows most heavily in his own retelling 45 years later.

Even Tony Daniel's cover to Batman #673 seems to recall the "Robin Dies at Dawn" cover. The effect is different, with the contemporary cover's darker hues and bloody context, but in both images the Batman figure occupies the same space and expresses a powerful grief. It's important to note that a few isolated tears drip down from Batman's cowl in the 1963 issue, while the hyper-tormented Batman of 2008 shrieks with pain (or perhaps its anger). The object of the suffering is different in both images too, though. 45 years ago, Robin caused his suffering, but now it's his parents death which brings out his emotion. I've commented about this in earlier essays about Batman, but essentially, EVERY Batman story is about his origin. The death of his parents is his story, even if not a single panel or bit of dialogue refers to the event. His origin is inescapable, more so than any other comic book character.

As this page from Batman #673 shows, Morrison literally recasts the events of Batman #156 as part of a larger pattern of hallucinations caused by Batman's heart attack at the end of the previous issues (and, perhaps, the sensory deprivation/cleansing which occurred off-panel in 52). Morrison pulls some of the exact dialogue from Batman #156 and places it on this page. It's important to note here that in Batman #156, one of the after-effects of the sensory deprivation is that Batman's hallucinations begin to infect the "real world," clouding his judgment as he attempts to patrol Gotham City. Morrison has constantly explored the relationship between illusion and reality in his comic book work, and he's often expanded that discussion to include the relationship between the different layers of comic book reality and our reality. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I'm not interested in predicting where a story is headed, but there may be more than a hint of metafiction in Morrison's Batman before all is said and done.

Ultimately, Batman #673, like all of Morrison's run so far, has been about re-engaging Batman with his forsaken past. The silly stuff that hasn't blended with the post-Neal Adams vision of the character has found its way into Morrison's interpretation of Batman, and whether the Black Casebook ends up as a journal of Batman's fever dreams or a true document of supernatural phenomenon, it doesn't really matter. Batman was affected by his voyages into the strange alien landscapes of the Silver Age, and in Morrison's cosmology, dreams and reality are different sides of the same Moebius strip.