The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posts Tagged ‘Supahero Comics’

Posted by Matt on October 29, 2011

From my rather limited knowledge of the actual media involved:

The more I think about these days, the more I come to like the character of Superman. I have often heard people argue that he is “boring” for one reason or another; he’s too powerful, he’s too nice, etc. This may come from the many cases where the potential of Superman were squandered by lazy or small-minded creators; it may also come from a rather skewed sense of what constitutes an “interesting” character, one that has somehow had it been hammered into their skull that nice guys aren’t real, and that purplish angst and brooding and suffering are the signs of a developed personality. Of course, if you have ever talked to another human being in your life, you know that’s shit.

The most recent observation I’ve had about Superman’s character is one that not only makes him stand out among the legions of copycat superheroes (well, that might be going too far; Superman started the genre and all the associated elements, but it’s a pretty broad category), and one that has appeal to me and my own writing tics: Superman is one of the few characters I know of that chose his or her life, rather than having it imposed on them by events beyond their control. Now, you could argue that the cataclysmic event that put Superman on Earth was beyond his control, which is true. But for the most part, the destruction of Krypton has very little bearing on Superman/Clark Kent’s choices in life, a few plotlines involving bottled cities and the like excepted, and feels more like a convenient excuse to give him superpowers. For the most part, though, it went like this: Clark Kent found out he had superpowers, and decided to use them to help people. It’s simple. But it’s also effective.

Compare to that to most other comic superheroes: Batman has dead parents (and the absurdity of the whole origin story is often underplayed because of bat-favouritism, especially when you pile up all the Bruce Wayne exploits they’ve revealed over the years; it’s silly enough that a kid with dead parents decides to punch gangsters in a bat costume, but he also decided to become a word-class chemist and get ninja training in the Himalayas?), the Hulk and Fantastic Four are all blasted by made-up radiation (and the event being beyond Bruce Banner’s control is integral to the Hulk character, it must be said), the X-Men are all born in a world that hates them (turning what seems like every non-mutant person into a mini-Torquemada, a rather hilarious bit of melodrama), Iron Man got shrapnel in the heart, Thor is banished to earth for being a dick, etc. The closest thing to Superman’s situation in another comic character is probably Spider-Man; but even then, his powers are from an accident, and his decision to fight crime needs to be prompted by personal tragedy. All of them, to varying degrees, do what they do because of something that happened to them. It doesn’t feel like it was their decision.

That’s not the case for Superman. Despite being an alien, it’s only the powers he successfully keeps secret that separates him from normal people. There’s no prejudice keeping him down, no dead relatives inspiring him to do one thing or another (well, at leas that WAS the case), not even a big monstrous threat that needs smiting (initially). He simply made a rational decision (or at least as rational as it can be coming with a bright red cape and underpants) to become a vigilante hero using his powers (and also a journalist, something that a lot of people seem to overlook – he’s fighting the good fight on two fronts). This, to me, is rather refreshing. I think we need to appreciate it in these simple stories when they actually show someone actually being proactive and taking what they’re given and going with it, which is surprisingly rare.

Of course, that “simplicity” may be part of the reason people call Superman boring. But to me, it just opens up possibilities – and that’s one of the things I decided I like about Superman, the sheer number of possibilities. A character with that level of power, that kind of background, that kind of mindset? You could do anything with that. When it comes to these long-lived media properties, that’s a real boon, isn’t it?

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This is indeed a disturbing universe

Posted by Matt on September 15, 2011

One of those curious features seemingly exclusive to genre entertainment is the idea of the shared universe (and the related concept of continuity), exemplified by Marvel and DC’s years of comic book world building. As far as I know, which admittedly is rather limited in many areas, they are the most successful examples of this concept; the expanded universes of popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which are fairly vast, feel more like throngs of officially sanctioned fan fiction that are tossed aside by the folks behind the “real” product. This is likely a byproduct of those two franchises coming from more expensive mediums and being “expanded” by books, comics, and video games, which will always feel disconnected from the central parts of the lines. No, Marvel and DC’s comics have always been comics and only follow the lead of other comics, so they really come together as a whole.

There is certainly an appeal to the concept of the shared universe. There is the idea that it makes each story feel part of a greater whole, even though that really only exists in concept and not really in practice. Although I find the idea of superheroes as the new mythology to be misguided at best, laughable at my most cynical, there are parallels to be drawn there. For me personally, I kind of like the idea of all these disparate characters and ideas just existing in the same space. It feels…like breaking the rules, I guess? Wizards and space aliens and robots and modern street toughs just shouldn’t all converge like that due to some unwritten rules of fiction, and so knowing that they can and will is a delight. For silly people with silly imaginations like me, that is.

But you can’t simply have these characters and stories be able to come over for a visit, oh no. There needs to be synchronization. Giving other creators the ability to compromise the integrity of another creator’s story is bad for everyone. This hasn’t stopped them from doing this (see: New X-Men), but again, in THEORY, the idea is to make sure all the stories “count” (by which I mean their individual meaning, as little as it may be at times, should be respected by the other creators), and that means some content policing if one is to be part of the universe of stories. That is where continuity comes in. Removed from the imaginary context of these stories, it doesn’t seem particularly necessary – why should it matter how one thing is references or one character is described, as long as it serves the story at that moment? The individual stories are rarely ever harmed by a lack of line-wide continuity. But, considering that a lot of these publishers may want you, the reader of Book A, to think about picking up Book B, making sure those books don’t explicitly contradict each other and confuse you is a reasonable goal. Continuity can be both a hindrance and a help, depending on when and how it is applied.

Continuity can be limiting on some of the stories possible within that line’s sphere of influence, especially in the case of often well-deserved satire. The people upstairs have been known to tolerate such things at times, but push it too far and they may fight back. Things like that, however, are simply the sacrifice one must make when taking part in a grand project like this.

The fictional universe is at its best when all that policing is done by genuinely creative people, all who respect each other’s work, and who take part in the concept to essentially help each other out creatively. To riff and homage each other, essentially. A real communal atmosphere, and one that seems to be sadly absent from most examples of universe-building.

It wasn’t always that way. It’s hard for me to say that the environment was really less corporate in the past, I really have nothing to back that up. But I think the thought processes behind it were different. In the 60s, when Gardner Fox created the JLA and Earth-2 and all the other things, he was paying homage to the comics created by him and many others during the 40s. When Stan Lee (or whoever actually came up with the idea, it’s really hard to tell with early Marvel for someone less studied in the history and evidence like myself) had his characters meet up, it was because the idea of these costumed people filling the streets of Manhattan, and little nods like Spider-Man trying to get a job with the Fantastic Four were amusing.

The creator’s ideal in the fictional universe and the goal of those who take part in it should be that of a toy box: you have freedom to use the toys already in there in whatever way you want (just don’t break them), but the expectation is that for every toy you take out, you add one for someone else to play with. Take a penny, leave a penny. Contribute to the greater whole, etc., etc. It makes more a greater creative environment, where you know that not only will the others respect your contributions, but they are willing to further them and give you more story opportunities.

Where the problems creep in is when the contributors to the shared universe become too reliant on the elements introduced by their predecessors or contemporaries, warping a story into a arcane, spot-the-reference bit of purposeless fan wanking. If bits of continuity are used for their own sake, rather than to enhance the current story (or even another one), they make readers feel like they should be either paying more attention (for all the wrong reasons) or buying the other books (for all the wrong reasons). The latter is something economically desirable for the publisher, sure, but how likely will it be that they’ll create a sustainable number of obsessives? These things should be able to stand on their own, and can possibly be enhanced by taking part in the wider context of the shared universe; they shouldn’t need to be decoded. Which is not to say that obscure fan service is always a bad thing; it can be a great deal a fun for folks in the know. But it needs to be earned, and it can’t make the thing unreadable to a whole segment of the audience.

So, I’m a little wary of this approach. On one hand, it can lead to some great stuff, where talented folks can work on each other’s ideas and make them even better; plus, it can be kind of fun. On the other hand, it can also be terribly limiting. The appeal is definitely there, which is why the comics have been able to implement it rather successfully over the last few decades. But it’s not easy to create, and definitely not easy to maintain. I would say it’s a high risk, high reward idea, but is the reward really all that high? It seems more like high risk for a unique reward, one that is rarely seen and a little spectacular when done right. That sounds a lot like genre fiction in general, really.

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Because that’s not a topic I haven’t talked to death about

Posted by Matt on September 2, 2011

Hey, how about them digital comics?

I think Dustin Harbin brings some good points to the fore. At the very least, it’s a lot more considerate of what the stores and publishers want than people like me with our “it’s obvious, you dumb idiots!” diatribes. The fact is, Marvel and DC (and even the alternative publishers to a lesser extent) probably have every reason to be scared of losing the direct market, because it’s the only market they have right now. Until digital is a sure thing, and who knows what will convince them of that, they will be cautious, and make their digital offerings overpriced and out of date. I’m not saying they’re not stupid for being so hesitant, but there are rational reasons why they aren’t pursuing this avenue.

Then I remember what Warren Ellis said not too long ago, and he’s also right. Even if these publishers do get digital comics going, until they actually start commissioning original stories (that actually take advantage of being on electronic screens connected to the Internet) to be sold on them, they will be second-class, an afterthought. It makes me wonder why, if they are so afraid of making their direct market books available online and hurting the specialty stores, why not make your digital comics new ones instead? I mean, if the quality’s there (well, relative quality for some of them), then it won’t take as long for initial skepticism and brushing off as “silly experimental side projects” (which will inevitably happen) to subside. So you can try out the digital format, and won’t have to undercut DM until you have to (which will also inevitably happen).

I can see why they might scoff at this idea, though. Aside from that initial dismissal, there might be problems finding creatives to work on them, and it would really need some Grade A talent to make people really take notice (or it could take finding some new talent that could pull off something new and amazing, but that`s far less likely). Second, since these would be different books than the `main` lines, some readers might think they are superfluous. Even if DC published a Batman comic digitally, if it wasn’t THE Batman comic, then it might get ignored. This wouldn’t be a problem if the comics were really new, but readers probably would ignore them anyway, as they do with most new concepts in print. Neither of these are problems for publishers who aren’t reliant on established properties and hype, but those same publishers can’t buy New York Times headlines and get the idea out there. I want the alternative press to pursue this option too, but unfortunately they can’t quite get the blogs talking, and I think that’s something that needs to be done to get the rest of the pack to come out of their glossy paper shells.

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All this digital/print comics derpderp really makes me appreciate my webcomics to-read list. They may just be scraping by a lot of the time, but they get to keep their integrity and avoid all the dumb bullshit the rest of the industry spews.

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In related news, DC’s starting their new universe now. In the first issue of JLA: not a whole lot happens. Oh boy.

They also apparently set up some Dame-us Ex Machine in Flashpoint, who reset the universe for some reason and is now showing up in other comics. Like they’re preparing for something. Or making an exit strategy in case they have to. Real show of confidence for your big change-up in either case, guys. Either you’re going back into big crossover mode, or you think there’s a chance that you’ll need to go back to your old horrible universe if your new horrible universe doesn’t pan out. Neither option is terribly inviting to new readers, now, are they?

I’m honestly surprised by the number of people apparently upset by the new status quo. They really need to explain what it was they were getting out of the old one that makes it so sad if it goes away. I mean, the retconning nonsense DC is doing is utterly nonsensical patchwork, but again…how is that different than it was before?

They probably have a point when they say that this won’t really do much good to attract new readers, at least past the first three months or so (especially if JLA is indicative of anything, pacing and general quality-wise). It will almost certainly end up as just another short-term boost in sales before they plummet back to the same levels as a few months before, just like everything else DC and Marvel do. So what was the point of it, then? Well, there probably is no point, although it’s nice to see them acknowledge some of the problems that they aren’t going to do anything about. Pointless or no, though, is doing nothing really better than trying something slightly (very very slightly) different, even if they end up with the same results? At least one shows a little bit of thought on the publisher’s part. And really, who gets hurt here? A tiny cult of lingering carrion feeders? And even to them, how many amazing wonderful stories set in the old DC continuity are they going to be missing because of the reboot (recognizing that several books had to have certain runs and story ideas cut off because of it)?

I’ve heard a couple of people suggest that DC should have made an Ultimate-style line. This is a bad idea because (1) DC has tried that about two or three times now, and aside from getting an all-time great story and a curious relic of Frank Miller’s descent into insanity, nothing came of any of them, and (2) look at what actually happened to Ultimate Marvel: hot shit for a couple of years, and now…god, I don’t even know (I think the new Ultimate Spider-Man kid is a great idea, though: if you’re going to have two Spider-Man comics, might as well make them as different as possible. Plus, I’ve been convinced that a black kid being Spider-Man just makes sense). It’s pretty much verbatim what I said in the digital comics part of this post: once you start dividing it into “the REAL X” and “the other X”, it’s the latter that will get short shrift eventually. The Ultimate comics are pretty superfluous now (even more so because the ‘real’ Marvel universe began to look more and more like it over the last couple years), and would be the same deal for DC (again). Plus, this is far more headline-grabbing, no?

Plus plus, who cares what happens to the DC universe, what with all its five billion Legion of Superheroes timelines.

So basically I point is that the old DCU was a wretched thing, and putting it down was the most humane thing DC could have done. But apparently they still think they should make sure they can dig up the corpse if they need to. If it comes to that, though, maybe they should fucking give up.

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Behind the Curtain: An Excuse to Post My Wikipedia-Derived Knowledge

Posted by Matt on August 27, 2011

So, there’s that call for a boycott on Marvel products since the Kirby case ended. In principle, I actually agree with it. But I guess I also have to agree with Tucker Stone in that most sane people shouldn’t be buying Marvel’s shitty product anyway. I know I wasn’t.

Well, that isn’t true. While I don’t read Marvel comics or see Marvel’s movies (the former out of apathy, the latter out of laziness) or buy Marvel-branded trinkets (because I’m an adult), I did buy one Marvel product in the past year or so laden with Jack Kirby characters: Marvel vs Capcom 3. And there’s a new one coming out in a few months. Oh criminy, my love of fighting games clashing against my respect for creator’s rights.

It got me thinking, though: how much influence from beyond the grave does Kirby have on this game? I thought it was nice in the first version when the end credits listed the individual creators of all of Marvel’s characters, albeit not specifying who made who. How much of the game’s roster is from Kirby? Counting the new Ultimate MvC3 characters, let’s see:

(All characters, unless otherwise noted, were co-created with Stan Lee)

Captain America (with Joe Simon)
Dr. Doom
Galactus
Hulk
Iron Man (with Larry Lieber and Don Heck)
Magneto
MODOK
Phoenix (sort of: Jean Grey/Marvel Girl was created by Kirby & Lee, with the Phoenix persona and design created by Chris Claremont and David Cockrum. The Dark Phoenix was created by Claremont & John Byrne)
Sentinel
Super-Skrull
Thor

So, 10 of the 25 Marvel characters (plus the final boss) were co-created by Kirby. Let’s also recognize the creators of the other characters in the game:

Deadpool (Fabian Nicieza & Rob Liefeld, with the character’s modern comedy persona established by Joe Kelly & Ed McGuinness)
Dr. Strange (Lee & Steve Ditko)
Dormammu (Lee & Ditko)
Ghost Rider (Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, & Mike Ploog)
Hawkeye (Lee & Heck)
Iron Fist (Roy Thomas & Gil Kane)
Nova (Marv Wolfman & Jon Buscema)
Rocket Raccoon (Bill Mantlo & Kieth Giffen)
She-Hulk (Lee & Buscema)
Shuma-Gorath (Steve Englehart & Frank Brunner, with the name/concept first appearing in Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard’s posthumously-published short story “The Curse of the Golden Skull”)
Spider-Man (Lee & Ditko)
Storm (Len Wein & Dave Cockrum)
Taskmaster (Dave Michelinie & George Perez)
Wolverine (Wein, John Romita, & Herb Trimpe)
X-23 (Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, who originally created her for the X-Men: Evolution animated series, and then adopted the character for comics a year later)

First thing’s first, I never noticed what a grand pedigree the new UMvC3 characters had until now. Thomas, Mantlo, Giffen, Kane, Wolfman, Englehart, and Ploog are all legends. That’s kind of neat. I also never noticed how prominent an idea man Thomas was at Marvel.

It would’ve been cool to do the same thing with Capcom’s characters. Unfortunately, video games, being more like film than comics, has many more people working on each title, so figuring who really was the brains behind the characters would be pretty difficult. I know the original Street Fighter team was also behind Final Fight (and thus Haggar). Shinji Mikami is the mastermind behind Resident Evil and all the characters you see in the game for the most part, Hideki Kamiya is the main man behind Devil May Cry, Atsushi Inaba the guy to blame for Viewtiful Joe, and all three combined to make Okami. Keiji Inafune was the co-creator of the Mega Man series, but was the main guy for both the X and Legends spin-offs, and thus essentially the man behind Zero and Tron Bonne. Inafune is also the guy who brought us Frank West and Dead Rising. Tokuro Fujiwara was the main programmer behind Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and also had a hand in the original arcade version of Bionic Commando (although Spencer in MvC3 has closer ties to the NES version of the game, and of course the American-developed modern remake). Shu Takumi is originator of the Ace Attorney series. But that’s about all I can say for sure.

But the point is, Kirby’s pencil marks are all over this game, alongside many others. Should I be a terrible person and make up some excuses to get my fix, or should I respect the creators who don’t get a cent from the use of their creations and abstain? Oh man, my morals are going to be put to the test come November.

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The Legendary Hero is No More

Posted by Matt on August 23, 2011

Dear Mr. Morrison (or Grant, if you prefer),

I was a late bloomer, if you will, when it came to comics. I didn’t grow up with the modern mythos, the adventures of Marvel and DC’s line-up with costumed crime-fighters, like you and so many other people did. What I knew about them was gleaned from the licensed products: the television shows, the toys, and everything else. I didn’t know about all the things, great things, those comics contained.

I was given a huge load of comics in high school. Quite the variety, really. Classic Lee/Romita Spider-Man, Watchmen, Claremont/Byrne X-Men, Gaiman’s Sandman, at least one example of Kyle Baker…works both classic and modern. But none, none, affected me quite as much as your with Richard Case (and numerous other great artists!) on Doom Patrol.

When I first picked up Doom Patrol, I was taken in by the weirdness of the characters, the Scissormen, the Brotherhood of Dada, Danny the Street, et al. What delightful fun, I thought. My appreciation of your work only grew the more I read; it opened my imagination to all the possibilities comics had, the limitless number of images, the infusion of Burroughs, the rebellion against a world determined homogenize everything, and the way it can make you connect with its characters. Your characters were people I cared about, people whose adventures I wanted to read about. All of these things culminated in your last issue in that series, which is one the most sad, beautiful things I have ever read.

Doom Patrol, more than any other, has come to be my personal high-water mark for comics. It is the thing that inspires me the most. Part of my motivation for attempting a career as a writer is to give other people the kind of joy you gave me in those comics, and all the subsequent series of yours that I’ve read. I just want to thank you for that.

With that, I come to my main reason for writing this: I think we’re finished as artist and audience.

I haven’t read any of your recent Batman work (although I have read Arkham Asylum and Batman: Gothic, both of which I enjoyed), or Final Crisis for that matter; I’m simply not interested. I could gather in your early work that you really do love DC Comics and it’s characters; they seem to be as near and dear to you as your comics have been to me. You’ve probably dreamed for years of becoming the architect of some of the world’s best known fictional characters. I do not begrudge you for this; I simply skip that part of your output that does not interest me, and wait for the next Seaguy.

No, that’s not my problem. What my problem happens to be is the side of you that these last few years have brought out in you. This is has been especially troubling in the last few months, as you have been interviewed about your autobiography (which I have not yet read, and with all that has gone on, may never read now). To be honest, in a lot of these interviews, you’re come off as full of shit.

Let’s take your recent Rolling Stone interview, for example. Specifically, your controversial statement about Chris Ware. Now, I’m not a Ware reader (not out of indifference or antipathy, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet), and to be fair, I think you sort of have a point. I think the critical corners in the comics world have spent far too much time setting up the world as the superhero crowd-pleasers at Marvel/DC with versus the lonely white boy stories told by Ware and others, as if those are our only two choices. They’re not, and the sooner we exit that dichotomy, the better off we’ll be.

No, where I have a problem is your calling them out on being “privileged American college kids”, and that this comes from your “Scottish working class” background. Maybe that would actually have been true when you were writing Zenith, or Doom Patrol, or The Invisibles, or maybe even New X-Men. But not now. Not when you own a house in Hollywood, get preferential treatment from a large corporation to keep their multimillion dollar trademarks in circulation, and get paid god knows how much to write movies about aliens fighting dinosaurs. You have no fucking right to criticize anyone else for being “privileged”.

Then there’s your statements about Siegel & Shuster in your book. You know, the guys who created the character you seem to think is so important, and are going to be writing about starting next month. You apparently don’t think their side of the story is very important, and that the half-century struggle for proper recognition and compensation for creating one of the best known fictional characters of the 20th and 21st centuries is trivial. Despite your attempts to convince everyone that superheroes are the modern mythology, you can’t make us overlook that Superman, Batman, and the rest were created by very specific people, and are now the property of another group of people who see them simply as a brand for them to sell. You can’t make them go away. The creator rights battle is a major part of the history of the so-called supergods, and I think people are beginning to realize that they may be the most important part.

You know, I don’t like to armchair analyze other people’s motivations, I really don’t, but all these things: the dismissal of people like Ware who aren’t big fans of superheroes, the dismissal of critical circles like The Comics Journal, the dismissal of the creators of the characters you write for, the dismissal of Alan Moore because he realized what a raw deal the superhero industry is and makes sure everyone knows it…it really sounds like your are trying to protect yourself from all the people that make you feel guilty for wanting so bad to be where you are today, the guy who gets to direct a superhero universe (under the auspices of the money men at Warner Bros). You probably need to make sure Alan Moore and all those other voices never get to you, because if they ever do, you’ll realize that, not long ago, you were one of them. Fighting corporate tyranny and it’s sadistic enslavement of imagination. You were once the solution to the problem. Now, you’re the problem’s willing servant.

But again, good for you for getting to live out your dream. I hope you enjoy it. I know I will continue to read and enjoy Doom Patrol, Animal Man, We3, The Filth, and all the rest. But I just don’t think I can take anything you write from now on seriously. Not like I used to. You’ve been compromised by the allure of the corporate superhero.

Thank you so much for all you’ve given me.

Now take your Batman comics and go to hell, old man.

Additional reading:

Dan Nadel at The Comics Journal
David Brothers at 4thletter!
Abhay on the Siegel & Shuster Thing
Comics Commentary

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Posted by Matt on July 31, 2011

Hey, that gender diversity in comics topic is still pretty hot right now, isn’t it? Better hop on the train while the hoppin’s good.

In short, hiring writers and artists of diverse gender, race, sexuality, and background is not simply that old affirmative action canard. It’s a about getting a wide variety of styles into the mix that could then appeal to a wide variety of people. Plus, it opens up the hiring prospects quite a bit, so not only are you not just getting white guys to make everything, but you’re also not getting THE SAME white guys to make everything. This isn’t some draconian feel-good rainbow concept; this is intelligent business for anyone in a creative industry, one that doesn’t plan on stagnating any time soon.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like that includes the biggest names in the comics industry right now.

Of course, I also buy into the counterargument that while there are quite a few female talents in comics (and there really are), there might not be as many female talents in comics who want to play in some big corporation’s multimillion dollar sandbox, where there every idea will be absorbed and exploited for profit by others, with the only credit they get being a ‘Created by’ sidebar on Wikipedia. It’s not like creator’s rights at the big comics companies hasn’t been in the news lately. Same goes for the black creators, or the gay creators, and all the others. So there’s that to consider, as well.

It’s one of those things in comics. A lot of people, myself included, would like to see Marvel and DC improve their publishing outfit, and that includes hiring more and better talent. However, we also have to recognize that the work-for-hire scenario they offer is pretty rotten, so unless someone is either (a) absolutely in love with Marvel/DC’s universes and characters and doesn’t care about the downside of working for them, (b) like Warren Ellis and Joe Casey, who take on books for mainstream publishers solely as a self-imposed creative challenge, or (c) really like money (but not a substantial amount of money, albeit probably more than the average independent will get on their own), why should we expect said people to WANT to work for them? There’s a hell of a lot more avenues to get your work out there now, so really, why bother? It’s not like being a Spider-Man writer or artist or inker or colorist will be much of an status upgrade; it’s going from a niche to a slightly larger niche.

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On a related note, here’s another observation culled from an addiction to trolling comment sections.

One of the frequent wrong ideas perpetrated by the masses in the world of fanservice-based fighting games (yes, I’ve seen it used for every. single. one.) is to lay the blame for the lack of diversity in gender/race (not sexual orientation, though. Gamers aren’t demanding proper homosexual representation. What a shock) on the developers of the game. Basically, if the game doesn’t meet some arbitrary quota of female characters, it’s a sausage fest. I mean, it’s clearly just the individual commentators trying to find the game’s character picks guilty of some social injustice so they can justify their whining about whatever characters THEY wanted not getting in, but let’s address another reason why it doesn’t hold up.

You see, the people behind games like Marvel vs Capcom 3, or Super Smash Bros. or Street Fighter x Tekken, are limited in their material. They set out to make a game that uses previously established characters, and like all fighting game developers, try to make the cast as diverse gameplay-wise as possible. Basically, they want to make the game interesting and fun, but can only use other people’s creations. So, that’s what they do: out of those creations, they choose the bunch that would include the greatest variety of gameplay styles, factoring in aesthetics and fanbases as well. This means that, unless they think it fills a particularly important gameplay or aesthetic niche, they will not consider that character’s gender or race or whatever, because that becomes secondary or tertiary when you bring in gameplay and giving the greatest number of different fans what they want. They’re just trying to do what’s best for the game with the material they set out. As some other commentators in the same arenas point out, there is no point in adding a character to these games if it’s just because they’re female.

Besides, the anger is completely misaimed. You want to see more women or black people showing up in these games? Ask the people who make the games these games pull their material from to create more diverse sets of characters. The world would be so much better if more games had a greater variety of protagonists and antagonists, anyway. So not only do the fanservice games get a wider variety of characters to use, but the games themselves would be more interesting. Everybody wins!

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Posted by Matt on June 11, 2011

Remember that time where I said Marvel and DC weren’t really that important? I stand by that, but I’m going to talk about one of them right now. A little armchair publisher can be fun every once in a while.

Well, we now know all 52 new comics DC is launching in September. There’s a bit to talk about, most of which has already been addressed by more capable bloggers. Even so, I’ve formulated a lot of my own thoughts on the matter since the whole process began a week ago. Chances are many of them are extended from sheer ignorance of DC’s publishing situation, but when has that stopped anyone before?

Now, let’s get some things out of the way: publishing 52 new debut issues in one month is a dumb idea. At that level, DC is competing against itself for shelf space just as much as it’s competing with other publishers. Plus, unless they have a real diversity of titles that will be able to build their own individual audiences without much bleeding into each other, then we all know what will happen: the devoted fans will pick up the titles with the biggest name creators or that seem the most ‘important’, and leave everything else to rot. You don’t need to be any sort of market genius to figure out most of these titles won’t make it past a dozen issues (by about 3 or 4, we’ll probably know how many “were really mini-series this whole time, guys”). Marginal books will become even more marginal with a lot of sexier friends sitting beside them, you know?

So, to do it right, they’d have to cut down a lot of titles. First things first, it would be wise to amputate the consistent low-performers: Flash, Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, stuff like that. I know many of them are supposed to be important characters, but as long as they’re on the Justice League, there’s no point in providing them extra adventures that no one is interested in, right? Besides, going a few years without comics devoted to those characters might actually mean there could be a demand for them sometime in the future. But that’s long-term thinking, and what’s the point of thinking in the long term?

Secondly, there needs to be fewer spin-off titles. How many people really want to read about Nightwing and Supergirl without Batman and Superman? Completists, and no one else. It might work better to instead use those long-running series like Action and Detective Comics to serve as an outlet for spin-off stories about the supporting casts of those major characters, either an anthology book or a series of mini-series under one banner like the Classified books (and another one of the 52 launches, DC Universe Presents). That way, not only do you save shelf space, but you could also gauge the actual interest of people in these characters or creative teams. I’d say that this could apply to the Green Lantern titles as well, but those are inexplicably popular at the moment, so nothing I say would likely persuade the money men not to milk that motherfucker bone dry. The same format could definitely apply to the marginal characters as well…so why they decided to publish books about Animal Man and Swamp Thing and Firestorm, even with talent like Jeff Lemire and Gail Simone behind them, instead of testing them out in a DC Universe Presents-type book is beyond me.

Then of course there’s the random Wildstorm relaunches, which are just baffling. Especially Stormwatch. Why would you put intentional Superman/Batman analogues/parodies in the same universe as Superman and Batman? That’s just silly.

The one observation about the relaunch I keep going back to, though, is what a missed opportunity it is for DC to try to diversify their line. They say they want to attract new readers? All well and good, but eventually they’re going to have to realize that not everyone wants to read about their superheroes, and there could be a fertile audience in this new arena of overpriced digital comics for new genres and creators. It’s not like DC has never had any success outside the tights genre, either; many books manage to find ways to reference DC’s genre-spanning history, and even cartoons like Justice League and Batman: The Brave and the Bold have gotten in on the action.

What have they got now? One western (because the minority readership of Jonah Hex would have been pissed if it got cancelled, and minorities are the only thing DC has at the moment), one book about vampires, one high-tech super spy book, and a few hybrids like Sgt. Rock and Demon Knights. The Grifter and Voodoo books are high-concept enough that they could go either way. That’s it. Why not throw in some straight-up fantasy books, like an Amethyst or a Warlord (or, *gasp*, an original idea!)? A mystery or cop series like Gotham Central? Something more science-fiction-y? Hell, how about a comedy book or two? (the fact that Dan Didio went out of his way to say they won’t be using Ambush Bug anytime soon may say a lot about that) Even Marvel publishes a few mainstream books that try to do something a little different. If DC is really serious about wanting to look attractive to new readers, why not try to attract people who would never think to pick up a superhero comic? You wouldn’t even need to go outside the DC universe to do it, plus it certainly would help your potential licensing options (the only reason the mainstream comics publishers do anything anymore). But alas, it is not to be.

It just seems a little odd that they’d be willing to go so far, yet get cold feet when it comes to one of the most obvious ways to make your books more attractive to a wider audience (not that it was their actual goal to do that, obviously, but one can dream). So instead, they’re just going to tweak costumes and origins in unnecessary ways (and finally give Wonder Woman pants, which is the best thing to come out of this, yes even better than another Grant Morrison Superman comic) and hope that everyone with an iPad will download them because it will be the trendy thing to do. Whatever. Your loss, dudes.

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Posted by Matt on May 22, 2011

…and while I’m complaining about television, I got another issue.

Despite being heavily based in genre fiction, in books, comics, games, and movies, I have a hard time getting into most genre television. Most of it is because of the length issues I talked about the other day (and although many are not so heavily plot-based, most series since X-Files have story arcs). There’s something else, though, something that I think is far more ingrained in today’s genre TV conventions.

I have never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for an extended period of time. I may have seen a few episodes here and there; in fact, the only season I have any real exposure to is the first one, which contained episodes about giant praying mantises and hyena people that I’m sure most fans are wont to forget (the only other episode I can remember watching? One that featured John Ritter as an evil robot. As far as I’m concerned, this is what Buffy is, a show about giant praying mantises and evil John Ritterbots). I do know many people who have seen all of it, and love it, and evangelize it. This audience kept a cult show on for seven seasons and a spin-off, and it has acquired a bit more cultural cache because of that. It has, really, become an influential force on the world of genre fiction. That’s where my problem begins.

Now, I’m not going to dismiss Buffy or its fans; I have no reason to, as I have not been presented with anything that says the show was particularly bad. But I have become quite aware of the show’s, and Joss Whedon’s, storytelling tics from exposure to fans and critics online. Since that awareness came, I have begun to see them everywhere. The show may not have been a cultural force, but it was a nerd cultural force, and so the nerds with a creative drive start getting their work out there, it’s influence spreads like a plague.

But what is this influence that haunts me? I think it boils down to the following recurring qualities:

1) General cheapness, with little or no desire to make up for it visually
2) Snarky dialog coming from all characters
3) A strong sense of ironic detachment

The first is more or less out of the creator’s hands; TV budgets are notoriously minuscule. Which is generally no excuse for lame direction, which is an epidemic among genre TV. Budget or no, bad action is bad action, and it’s not like its impossible to make something LOOK good on a small budget.

The second and the third are tied together, and this is what really gets me. It’s a nerd thing; they want to like the things they like, but they can’t look like they take that shit too seriously (even when they do), because well…it’s silly stuff. I know it’s odd to think of nerds having any sense of social awareness, but it’s there, every once in a while. What it does is when these types get a hold of entertainment, however, is make a contradiction.

Now, having an ironic, or less-than-deadly-serious take on genre conventions is not in itself a terrible thing. It can be done right, and has. The problem is that…everybody’s doing it now. You can’t have wizards or vampires or aliens in anything without at least one character who thinks the whole thing is a joke. But then the story plays it mostly straight otherwise, so any sort of commentary or comedic value is removed. It’s having your cake and etc., is what it is. These writers really do love stories with vampires and wizards and stuff like that, but they know that most people think that shit is stupid. So, they make this show that basically says “Here’s a monster, but just between you and me, this is really pretty dumb! Keep watching anyway” It feels a bit dishonest to me.

I think a lot of this comes from comics culture. I’m sure most of the people who write genre television was, at one point, a Marvel or DC reader. By the mid-90s, all the kids and teenage comic readers had vacated superheroes, leaving the long-time readers to hold the fort. Being adults, they knew that if other people found out they still loved stories about men in gaudy costumes punching each other, they would be ostracized…moreso. So they started that ironic detachment, mocking most of what had built the superhero comics up until that point: the silly adventure stuff, the world domination plots, the super pets. Then these same guys went on to be the writers of the comics, and they brought that sensibility to the books themselves. Superhero comics have yet to recover from that incursion of irony, and even the movies have yet to really capture the kind of grand cosmic weirdness that they were capable of 25 years ago (both Thor and Green Lantern seem to be getting closer, though).

In fact, it really seems that in the last decade, all the mainstream comics have essentially become genre television in ink form. All above features I listed above are there, in addition to things like a focus on ongoing story arcs, and even the contradictory desire to be both shocking (usually via character deaths) while maintaining the status quo (because change makes people feel scared). As I mentioned, some of this stuff originated in comics and comic readers, so it’s all full circle. It’s worth mentioning that many comics writers in the mainstream today either moonlight as television writers, or seem to desperately want to be (I don’t remember where exactly I read this, but I remember someone saying that Brian Michael Bendis, for example, seems to want to write crime or espionage thrillers, but life dealt him superheroes instead). So there really is no mystery to why all this is going on.

I just don’t really like it. It’s not the type of writing I can really enjoy very often. It gets tiring. You just want them to commit to an idea; either be a full-on comedy making fun of genre tropes, or just write a story using those tropes (hopefully in a creative way). The closest thing to it on my regular viewing plate is Doctor Who, which while not completely serious, is still pretty devoted to its sci-fi ideas, which I find enjoyable more often than not. The funny thing is, the original run of the show is one of the things that I think a lot of genre writers aspire to, but are forced to distance themselves from because of its (perceived or real) cheesiness. The new show embraces its past, but has still taken in what has changed within the world of genre TV within the past two decades, so it ends up avoiding the major shortfalls of both eras. It’s a nice balance, one that I hope to see more of.

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Thoughts on a Thing

Posted by Matt on January 18, 2011

What, I’m still allowed to make some fun posts every once in a while.

An expansion on this old piece of shit.

I still happen to think that the Green Goblin is a super-silly villain (so, pretty much on par with 95% of the Spider-Man rogues gallery) who was somewhat arbitrarily chosen to be a ‘Big Bad’. Norman Osborn makes sense as a major bad guy for Spider-Man, but there’s no real connection between his psychosis and dressing up as a Halloween-themed criminal, unless you are to consider that the norm in the world of Spider-Man. So basically you have a cognitive dissonance situation where the evil mastermind who is your best friend’s dad and threw your first girlfriend off a bridge is also a guy who dresses up in a D&D costume, carries a purse, and flies around on a bat-shaped flying wakeboard throwing jack-o-lantern-shaped explosives. I can accept this idea, but it just means I have a hard time taking anyone’s argument that Green Goblin as a major villain seriously.

But that was then. Let’s talk about now. I think GG/NO’s status as a major part of an influential story has hurt the character in the long run. Technically, there shouldn’t even be a long run for the character…he died at the end of ‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’, impaled on his own glider. And he stayed dead for a good long while, at least 25 years. From that, we got some interesting character development for Harry Osborn, leading to the semi-obvious conclusion of him donning the goofy Halloween gear himself. And then he died too, and that should have been the end of that. Hobgoblin and Jack-o-Lantern essentially stole all the Green Goblin’s gimmicks, so there was really no goblin-shaped void left in the Spider-Man mythos, either.

But then the Clone Saga happened. Most comics fans know all about that, but for those out of the loop, this is here for you to gain all you need to know about it, and lots you don’t need to know. In brief, it was an infamous overextended storyline that many think irrevocably damaged Spider-Man comics for years and years to come. One of the things the storyline did, basically as a way to finally kill it after the writers, artists, and editors got fucking sick of it, was to bring Norman Osborn back to life as the mastermind behind the events of the previous years of stories. They saw it as thematically sensible, but it started a downward spiral for the Osborn/Goblin duo that goes on to this day.

Norman Osborn works as a Spider-Man villain because he was Peter Parker’s best friend’s weird dad. If I’m remember the characterization of him in the first Spider-Man movie correctly, then that is what I imagine he works best at: sometimes he fills the father figure role in Peter’s life, sometimes he’s just a plain old jerk. But in the end, he’s a good villain BECAUSE of that personal connection; the Green Goblin is just a standard early-era Spider-Man villain with a twist, but that’s perfectly okay.

But once you start turning Norman Osborn into a conspiratorial puppet master, it takes what should be a somewhat smaller-scale character battle and makes it ridiculous. It gets worse: after his revival and into the modern Marvel era, Norman goes even further, becoming an insane evil genius who manipulates his way into a top position and then starts wrecking the entire Marvel universe. It just completely warps the character beyond any level of recognition. I thought he was just an unscrupulous businessman with a weird pastime; now he’s off-brand Lex Luthor? What’s the point?

Well, I think the point was that ‘Hey! He was the bad guy behind that important story! He should be central to the Marvel Universe in general, even when it doesn’t make sense!’ It’s a weird fanboy mentality that tries to translate the meta-importance and memorability of a character into importance and memorability within the fiction, regardless of what that actually means within the text. It’s the same point brought up by the recent Red Letter Media review of Star Wars: Episode III about Darth Vader: just because he’s an important villain to us as an audience doesn’t mean you need to turn him into the central figure of the story’s mythology. They were trying to do the same thing with Obsorn, essentially making him Marvel’s Lex Luthor AND Joker at the same time, which many of the creative minds behind it probably think is essential to such an IMPORTANT character.

Here’s the thing: it makes sense for Lex Luthor to have the level of importance he does. Not only is he the archenemy of the most famous superhero in the world, but his characterization from day one made it a possibility, whether he’s the golden age mad scientist or the modern corporate overlord. You could probably argue that the Joker has been overblown in much the same way as Osborn, but even so, he could still make sense within the wider context of DC’s superhero line. Osborn/Green Goblin, on the other hand, are so essentially tied to Spider-Man as a character, that it just doesn’t feel right to have him battle the Avengers. And it doesn’t even make sense for them to, either; Green Goblin would barely register as a second-string member of the Masters of Evil in terms of the kind of threat he would pose someone like Thor or Iron Man.

Now that Siege is long over (digression: I find it hilarious how quickly that supposedly back-to-the-basics approach represented by the ‘Heroic Age’ has been replaced by another dark crossover story) and Osborn is no longer the head of the most powerful agency in Marvel’s comics, I hope the creative forces at Marvel recognize some of these issues and can fix some of them. Of course, they’re probably not going to kill him again, so the central issue will remain.

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Posted by Matt on November 18, 2010

You know what archetype in fiction is really boring now? Serial killers.

A lot of creators just seem to think that making your antagonist a serial killer (or sometimes your protagonist) will automatically add weight. It’s especially bad in the case of antagonists, and ESPECIALLY in the case of antagonists in genre fiction. It doesn’t feel wrong for some crime fiction to still utilize them, although it’s still usually to the same effect: our bad guy is a BAD GUY holy shit (serial rapists are slowly replacing them, though). But in the case of something like a superhero comic? It feels overplayed and dull.

Every new villain now seems to be a serial killer, or almost one. Some older villains have been retroactively turned into serial killers. And you know what? In a genre that allows you to literally do anything, this just lacks scope. There as a time when mad scientists trying to steal all the diamonds in the city or take over space with robots was considered cliche. Now I want them back, because at least you didn’t automatically know what they were going to do.

That’s one of the problems I have with serial killers as antagonists: they are completely predictable. Let’s take a look at a prominent example: The Joker. The Joker started off as more of a traditional detective fiction killer, than drifted to become more or less a themed criminal, and today has basically gone through various phases of absolutely insanity (and overuse). It makes sense for the character to be made scary, because scary clowns are classic, and it’s a nice dynamic to have the good guy base his theme around something feared and his archenemy based on something benign. But while some may feel that The Joker is only scary if he’s a homicidal maniac who has caused more deaths than all the world wars combined, that’s not really true. In fact, what makes Joker scary is that he’s unpredictable. You never know if his gun is real, or whether he’ll rob all the party supplies stores in Gotham or fill the reservoir with poison. Only he gets his own jokes. Once you make him a crazy guy who will off you in seconds, he just loses what makes him frightening, and just turns him in another killer psycho in make up.

This is a problem that seems to have afflicted most of Batman’s villains, homogenizing them to the point of tedium. I was relieved to hear that the new Nolan Batman movie would not The Riddler, because I knew what direction they’d take him, being all dark and ‘realistic’ and all. The Riddler isn’t a villain I would see being a murderer at all; I think he works a lot better as a big-time thief. That may seem even smaller scale, but it’s good to pit the hero against different kinds of challenges, instead of just making them all essentially interchangeable, except maybe they use different kinds of knives or whatever.

All I’m asking for is a little variety in MOs, and therefor a little variety in the kinds of stories being told. Not everything needs to be gore porn, so you can stop with the serial killers now.

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