Saturday, October 31, 2009

Final Crisis Aftermath Aftermath Hits THE SPLASH PAGE: Part 1 of 2

Chad Nevett and I are back with another installment of THE SPLASH PAGE, this time on the finale of the "Final Crisis Aftermath" comics. Our last discussion prompted some heated debate, plenty of comments, a couple of follow-ups from Chad and I, and several responses from angry fans. Will this week's SPLASH PAGE provoke such reactions? Maybe I should interject something about Geoff Johns's awesomeness...

Chad Nevett:
Five months ago, Tim and I discussed the first issues of each of the four "Final Crisis Aftermath" mini-series that DC put out, each launching out of an idea or character featured in "Final Crisis," and we said that we'd check back in on the books when they finished. Well, the two that we both stuck with, "Escape" and "Dance" finished, so here we are. When I suggested the topic to you, Tim, you weren't sure there was anything to discuss. Why? What did you eventually think of "Dance" and "Escape"? Also, you buy everything... no "Run!" or "Ink"?

Tim Callahan: I stopped buying "Run" and "Ink" along with a dozen other comics that I no longer had any time to read. I found them just piling up in the "to read" pile, along with stuff like "Amazing Spider-Man," "Mighty Avengers," "Batman: Streets of Gotham," and some other mid-level comics. As my "to read" pile grew, and my time was filled up with more any more work-related and family-related activities, I just had to stop the bleeding somewhere. I did really enjoy the middle couple of issues of "Run" -- it turned into a crazy z-list supervillain romp pretty quickly, and I might finish the series eventually. "Ink" I just don't care about at all.

And, honestly, I ended up not caring about "Escape" by the end, either. I didn't think Marco Rudy was an amazing artist or anything, but I lost interest in the issues he wasn't drawing, and I don't even know what that series was even about in the end. What was it about, really?

"Dance" was the best of the bunch, but it faltered in the middle (because of the change in artists, probably), though it did finish pretty strongly. For me, it followed an inverse pattern compared to Joe Casey's other fall project: "Dark Reign: Zodiac." I liked the first issue of "Zodiac," LOVED the second issue, but thought the final issue was a bit disappointing. With "Dance," it was strong in the beginning, weak in the middle, and good at the end. I don't know if that means anything, but I found the contrast interesting. Though Nathan Fox's art trumps any page of "Dance."

Part of my lack of engagement in these "Final Crisis Aftermath" comics is that all my comics are in storage right now, awaiting our move to the new house (which should have happened by the time this "Splash Page" hits the interwaves), so I can't go back and read either "Dance" or "Escape" from start to finish. Maybe they are better than I remember them being. Maybe worse. What say you?

CN: What was "Escape" about? A lot of promise that doesn't really turn into anything that great. I know what you mean about the lack of Marco Rudy. His replacement, Cliff Richards, is on the same level when it comes to actual drawing skills -- their figures aren't that far apart -- but, man, Rudy was doing some fantastic layouts. Very inventive stuff that worked with whatever the idea/theme of that issue was. I loved the idea of having a page in the shape of a pawn from chess near the beginning of the issue and, then, an upside-down pawn at the end when things had gone south. That willingness to do a little more work made "Escape" a visually interesting series until he left. After, it wasn't as much. Although, Richards did some great work in the final issue.
Storywise, it was weird for the sake of weird it seems. All tests to prepare Nemesis (and everyone else) to be a member of the Global Peace Agency... except we never really learn that the GPA is about. I think Ivan Brandon set himself up to fail with those obtuse, surreal first issues that didn't really lead to anything. It was actually a very mundane story in the end, one that didn't approach the broad themes and ideas of Morrison's work as we thought it would. Maybe it will read better as a whole, I haven't had a chance to reread the whole series yet.

"Dance" also suffered from art changes, as you said, but was the best of the bunch. Joe Casey exploring the tropes and make-up of superhero teams, young superheroes, capitalist superheroes, and whatever else is always going to be worth three bucks each month. The end was stronger than I think most people realise since it was a subtle point about how wanting wealth and fame isn't the opposite of being a hero as many seem to think, that the Super Young Team can have both. Except Casey doesn't hit you over the head with that idea, he just hints at the question: what's the difference between Bruce Wayne/Batman and Tony Stark/Iron Man and the Super Young Team except that the Super Young Team doesn't take off the costumes? Not only that, it was a book that discussed these ideas and concepts while having an interesting 'coming of age' story as the main plot.

Now that the books have finished, do you think any of them are worthy follow-ups to "Final Crisis"?

Here's an anecdote for you: As I was cleaning up some loose comics and throwing them in boxes, I came across "Dance" #5, flipped though it, and realized I had somehow never even read that issue. So I stopped my packing and read the sucker. It was really good, and it made issue #6 even better now that I know the lead-in. Duh. Amazing how that works! But I just assumed that I'd forgotten the previous installment in the haze of getting ready to move and the general overflow of too many comics in my brain. No. I just hadn't read the penultimate issue.

So to answer your question, I would say YES, "Dance" is a worthy follow-up to "Final Crisis." Is it better than "Final Crisis"? Hell, no, but it's at least about something. And though "Run" might have turned into a fun romp, and it did -- though I don't know how it ended -- and though "Escape" may have begun as something cool and different, only "Dance" actually said anything interesting about the role of the superhero.

Maybe it's just that Super Young Team is the best concept coming out of "Final Crisis." Maybe it was hard to screw it up. (I know it would have been easy to screw it up, though, because I've read comics inspired by Grant Morrison concepts that have been pretty terrible. I won't name any names, but, well, they all have tended to be terrible if Morrison thought them up and someone else wrote them. Except "Dance.") I just love Most Excellent Superbat's mask and partial Superman "S" shapes on his costume that become pure abstraction when removed from the "S" shield context (so much so that the cover artist paints them as triangular shapes instead of parts of the Superman insignia). And I love how the whole team is just an analogue for the original JLA but so they represent the essence of a classic superhero team while being totally wired into the now. I love the exaggerated pathos and the playfulness.

"Dance" was good. Even if the art was annoyingly inconsistent.

What about you, do you think "Dance" or "Escape" were worthy follow-ups? Do you think they even work as follow-ups at all? Because the "Escape" tie-in seems less than essential.

To be continued at GraphiContent!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Warren Ellis vs. Geoff Johns HITS THE SPLASH PAGE (Part 2 of 2!)

I'm back! And with me, as usual, is Chad Nevett. We kicked off a discussion about "Cynicism vs. Sincerity" that turned into "Warren Ellis vs. Geoff Johns," and you can find the first part of that discussion over at Chad's blog. Read that, then come back here for the rest of the debate (as posted below)!

One thing I wanted to bring up is the recent idea that Geoff Johns is both mocking people who read his books while, at the same time, capitalizing on them. The end of "Legion of 3 Worlds" springs to mind immediately -- aka the end of "Wanted." Now, Ellis has an interesting relationship with his fans that can be combative in a friendly way (I think), but I can't think of an instance that shows such open disdain for his readers either. What do you think?

Tim Callahan: Wow, is that a way for me to segue into another "good readers vs. bad readers" rant? No? Well, then I'll keep it simple: The Superboy Prime stuff isn't about mocking the readers, it's about mocking ridiculous fanboy whining. That can't be wrong, can it? Sure, some of the readers are ridiculous fanboy whiners, but they deserve the mockery they get. Or maybe they don't but I find it funny enough to let it slide. That's probably more true.

And, as I have pointed out, Superman's rogues gallery has always been a critique of the reader! It's part of the tradition!

Here's my problem with most Ellis comics, and it's a critique I've heard about Grant Morrison's work, but I don't think it applies in that case -- I do think it applies to Ellis, though. His comics are more about the idea than the execution. His stuff tends to fizzle out because it's not usually tightly plotted and the initial idea, or burst of ideas, might be exhilarating, but the stories aren't capable of sustaining the ideas in any meaningful way. I'm thinking of the fizzle in the last third of "Planetary," the last half of "Global Frequency" (which was, at best, sustained by the variety of artists, not the writing), his "Astonishing X-Men" run, the "Ultimate Galactus" Trilogy. They all get worse as they go on.

I'm making it sound as if I don't like any of those comics, when I like them (in some cases) very much, but I do think his weakness is in his pacing and plot structure and character development -- aka the storytelling basics. And Johns is really good at those things, even if his concepts and ideas begin from a weaker starting point.

And, for me, it's that cynicism again. A cynicism that appears on a structural level in Ellis's work. You might say that "Ellis wrote a comic book where things were saved by love," but it didn't feel like such a comic when I actually read it. It felt like an intellectual exercise. A comic about emotion that was itself emotionless.

I can't believe I've put myself in a position to argue on behalf of an emotional reaction to a comic when I have spent much of my critical career arguing against such things. Crazy!

Chad Nevett: Ellis's stories often are about ideas. He's a very idea-heavy writer, one that researches things extensively and works that into his fiction. I disagree that it's more about the idea than the execution (at least in the general sense since that would vary work to work). Let's take a very recent example: "Planetary" #27 where people focused on the pages of technobabble and ignored that the issue was about Elijah Snow possibly ending the world to save his friend. It was character driven completely, fuelled by passion (as evidenced in numerous arguments characters had), and, yes, filtered through a lot of theoretical physics... but that's not Ellis's problem. What I keep getting the sense from people (not just you) is that they choose to read Ellis's work in a specific way, much like people go into Morrison's comics assuming they won't get it. They assume Ellis is the cynical idea-heavy guy with no heart and that's what they get, partly, because he is that in some ways and, partly, because he doesn't hit you over the head with the emotional stuff. It's not that it isn't there, it's just there in a way that doesn't scream "Okay, now you people out there should go 'Awww!' and feel warm and fuzzy inside!"

But, addressing your argument that his pacing, etc. is weaker, again, I disagree. I'm not even sure I accept your premise that Johns is good at those technical matters from the work I've read. Ellis's pacing is a lot clearer and straight-forward. His string of three-issue minis from Wildstorm show this off quite well. "Fell" is very tightly-paced and structured -- and I connect with the main character. From the work I've read from Johns, it's very choppy and all over the place -- as I said before, Johns tries to cram too much in, most of it unnecessary to the story in the hopes of hitting those 'character moments' except they don't add to the story. He reminds me of a more verbose, continuity-obsessed Mark Millar, obsessed with making fanboys cream their jeans instead of telling a cohesive, well-plotted story with interesting, engaging ideas.

TC: But in "Planetary," how was that supposed friendship established? We're told that they're friends, we're shown it a bit, but it's not earned. It's Elijah Snow saving his friend only because Warren Ellis says it is. I certainly didn't sense any real friendship between the characters. Johns, on the other hand, goes for the heartstrings. When Tim Drake and Conner Kent talk, their friendship is obvious on every page in their dialogue, their reactions to one another. It's palpable. With Ellis, it's just words. It's the concept of friendship without the hard work of establishing the friendship.

And, yes, Johns is taking advantage of years and years of continuity to bolster the friendship, but I haven't actually read those "Young Justice" or "Superboy" comics involving Tim and Conner. He sells their friendship in just a few scenes much better than Ellis does in a few issues.

And I wonder about the "verbose" concern. Surely Ellis is, on average, as verbose as Johns, if not moreso. We should pull out some random Johns and Ellis comics and do a word-per-page count and see. The difference, of course, is that Ellis's verbosity is usually spent with his characters explaining something he read in some culture or science article, and Johns's verbosity is usually spent describing aspects of the hermetically sealed DC Universe. (So you may not care as much about Johns's words, and therefore they seem more oppressive.) Also, I don't think "Blackest Night" #1 is representative of Johns's other work. I like "Blackest Night" -- I like its ridiculous conceit and the bombast -- but the first issue was more verbose and stilted in a Brad Meltzer kind of way than what we normally see from Johns.

What have you actually read of his work, by the way? Because if you're basing it primarily on "Green Lantern: Rebirth," "Infinite Crisis," and the opening of "Blackest Night," then I can see where the "choppy" and "continuity-obsessed Mark Millar" comments come in. But his "Flash" run was different. So was "Teen Titans." So is "Adventure Comics."

CN: The 'verbose' comment of yours is right. I guess the difference, then, is that when Ellis has characters talk a lot, I don't mind, whereas I do with Johns. It could be that I like Ellis's dialogue more.

I have read "Infinite Crisis," the opening of "Blackest Night," and then issues of "Green Lantern," "Teen Titans," "Justice Society of America," and bits and pieces from other places. Not nearly as extensive as your reading of Ellis, but that's because I've yet to read a Johns-penned comic that's made me want to read another. Honestly, what it comes down to is that I can see the man has talent, I just find him boring. Because I don't feel a strong connection to these characters, none of his work has any impact on me.

I also don't like his approach to superhero comics whereas I love Ellis's. Johns bases stories very much on what characters he likes, which ones he wants to push and place front and center. Ellis bases his stories on what will make for a better story. The lack of fondness he has for superheroes that people often decry makes for stories where the characters that you read about are there because they serve the story, not nostalgia or fan-obsession. I mentioned this elsewhere, but I've often considered Ellis as the example in mainstream superhero comics of the 'Professional Writer' who takes a job and does the best job he can because he's a writer -- Johns represents the much larger group in mainstream superhero comics, the 'Fan Writer.' And I don't want anyone to think that I'm calling that group unprofessional, it's just that their first goal, often, seems (key word right there) like it's 'honoring' these characters and the history rather than serving the story. That can sometimes lead to better stories, ones that build on the past and come off fantastic... or they can not. The same can happen to the 'Professional Writer,' of course, but that's the approach that I find clicks with me more often than not.

TC: Well since this basically evolved (or devolved) into Ellis vs. Johns, and because this all started with my response to one of your lists, let's end it with some lists, since I'm obviously not going to convince you to read any more Geoff Johns comics anytime soon, but you can always convince me to read more Warren Ellis.

But I'll list the Top 5 Geoff Johns comics, and you list the Top 5 Warren Ellis comics, and we'll let our readers decide who's the best!

Top 5 Geoff Johns comics, counting down:

5. Flash
4. Action Comics
3. Teen Titans
2. Adventure Comics
1. Green Lantern

Honorable Mention: JSA (pre-One Year Later)

CN: Yeah, I've given Johns plenty of chances to impress me and he hasn't (aside from "Infinite Crisis" #2 with the basis of the crossover being the previous decade of DC's output has sucked, I dug that idea -- and I enjoyed talking with him once for an interview, which makes disliking his writing always a little annoying/depressing/guilt-inducing). But, my Top 5 Warren Ellis comics:
5. Red
4. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.
3. Planetary
2. Transmetropolitan
1. Stormwatch/The Authority (as that's one run/larger story, of course)

Honorable Mention: Strange Kiss/Stranger Kisses/Strange Killings/Gravel (again, really one series divided up into numerous minis)
I want to end it on one final thought: if we were to make this a top ten list... who would have the easier time coming up with a complete list without feeling like they're throwing works in to fill spots? I know the answer, of course, but had to get that little dig in there. That said, we haven't gotten to the truly epic column: where you call me out on calling Ellis a better writer than Morrison.

TC: Ha! and double Ha! I could easily do a Top 10 list on Johns without skipping a beat, and do another one for Ellis just as quickly (and "Red" sure as hell wouldn't be in there). Maybe we'll save that for a special Top 10 Showdown! Right after you try to justify your sleep-induced declaration that Ellis is in any way better than Morrison.

CN: It was lack of sleep... and I stand by it.