Thursday, December 25, 2008

Forager's 2008 Big List of Stuff

I usually don't get around to finalizing my annual "Best" lists until after I've had a chance to catch up with all of the year's releases. Going by past experience, that means my 2008 Best lists wouldn't be ready until May 2009.

Here's something different for this year: a big, fruit salad list of my favorite arts/culture stuff from 2008* that I've seen/read/experienced in 2008.

I wanted to annotate each of the entries, but I also wanted to make sure I posted this before I went on my Christmas vacation - so there are some "blanks" here that I might come back to fill in later.

No music here, because I've mostly given up on listening to new releases, although I did like the Coldplay album quite a bit. No novels here because I'm a couple of years behind there, too. No a(r/l)t comix either, for the same reasons: I'm always playing catch up!

I'm on Christmas vacation now, so I'm not sure when I'll get a chance to respond, but questions and comments are always appreciated.

1. Lost Season 4 - In certain RPG circles there's a recurring debate that goes something like this:

On the one side, you have people saying that Star Wars is cool because of all the spaceships, aliens, and powers, so an RPG about Star Wars needs rules for all of the cool spaceships, aliens, and powers. On the other side, you have people saying that Star Wars is compelling because of its underlying dramatic and thematic concerns, so an RPG about Star Wars needs rules to help address these dramatic and thematic concerns. People on this side of the debate tend to dismiss all the powers, spaceships, and aliens as "mere color"- i.e. trappings that you could get rid of and still have something that was Star Wars-like (i.e. something that had the same kind of pulpy feel and mythic reach).

I take a middle ground: Star Wars is compelling and cool because of the virtuous cycle set up between its unique sci-fi trappings (the specific spaceships, powers, and aliens) and its thematic concerns. I think all of the best fantasy and sci-fi manages to find this kind of "sweet spot" where the "rules" of the mythos (i.e., how the Force works, how the Republic is organized politically, etc.) creatively constrain and shape the action and themes.

Sometime during it's second season I started describing Lost as a series that moment-for-moment was one of the most entertaining shows on television, but on a larger, "seasonal" scale was extremely unsatisfying. In other words, they couldn't find that sweet spot. All the little bits and pieces worked, but they didn't seem like they added up to anything and it was frustrating because it seemed like they were supposed to add up to something. In his piece on the Season 4 finale, Sean argued that getting too concerned about the big picture was, perhaps, not the best way to watch this show. But it's hard not to get caught up in all the details of the Lost mythos, since they're interwoven so completely into the action. Anyway, I think it wasn't until the end of Season 3 and (especially) the entirety of Season 4 that the Lost team perfected the balance between micro and macro: moment-to-moment the show was as strong as ever and the slowly but steadily emerging outlines of the "big picture" helped to ground these moments and give them greater thematic resonance because of the way they fit into the mosaic of the mythos.

2. Profit motive and the whispering wind - I want to write something of my own, but for now read this.

3. Cartooning class with Matthew Thurber - Taking this course was definitely one of the best decisions I made all year. Matt is a very good teacher and the class was laid back and a lot of fun. Plus, I learned a lot and even ended up getting to make my own minicomic. I've been a comics/cartoons fan for just about as long as I can remember, but the last time I ever really tried to draw a comic was back when I was in the third grade. What's interesting to me as a guy who spends a decent percentage of his spare time thinking about/writing about comics is how much insight making even a pretty basic minicomic gave me into comics in general. It was an eye-opening experience. Like - I love that part in Donald Phelps' essay on Gould's Dick Tracy where he talks about the way Gould uses blacks, but it wasn't until I tried (and failed) to get a similar effect that I was able to grasp exactly what Gould had achieved.

4. The revival of Last Year at Marienbad at Film Forum - What a difference a print makes! Fred Camper, one of my favorite film critics, always emphasizes that if you've only seen a movie on video, you haven't really seen it. After having first seen Last Year at Marienbad, years ago, on a pretty lousy VHS tape, watching it on a beautiful print at the Film Forum was a revelation. On video, the image was cramped and fuzzy. The subtitles were barely readable and incomplete: I could comprehend French well enough to know that stuff was left out, but not enough to follow the twisty-turny narration. At the Film Forum, everything was clear. This is a beautiful, clever movie - and it's also pretty funny.

5. The Fold - A funny, super smart erotic, sci-fi thriller webseries (co-written and produced by my friends Ray and Polly, but I'd recommend . Erotic, not so much because it's made to turn you on (although it might), but because, unlike most fiction, it acknowledges that the part of us given to erotic fantasizing isn't completely compartmentalized from the rest our lives. It's filled with lots of smart, sci-fi-ish observations about the way Web 2.0 has affected our sense of the border between public and private life and how that, in turn, has affected those fantasies.

6. Burn After Reading - I wrote about this movie already, here.

7. Tim and Eric's Awesome Show Great Job Season 3 - I've written a little bit about Tim and Eric before, here. This season of their show had some of their funniest moments, but it's also probably their most inaccessible body of work, in that it's more self-referential than ever, more focused on exploring its own little world. This has a downside - guests and bits trotted out seemingly as "fanservice" - but it also allows for stuff like the "Jim and Derrick" episode, one of the best takes on MTV-style youth culture since Beavis and Butthead.

8. Wall-E - I like that A.O. Scott has to qualify his praise of Milk as being the best live action mainstream American movie he saw all year.

9. Slam Dunk Vol. 1 - I've gotten back into reading manga, but on most of the series I'm following I'm waaaaay behind. Slam Dunk is the only "new" manga I've started and Vol. 1 is the only manga I've read that was actually released this year. So this was the first year ever that the bulk of my comics-reading enjoyment came from manga, so I'll Slam Dunk stand in for all of the stuff I read and enjoyed.

10. Jason Statham - Almost singlehandedly keeping the action movie alive.

11. The "Brand New Day" and Beyond Era of The Amazing Spider-Man - I read some comics that I thought were better than these and a few comics that I enjoyed more, but I really dig what the writing/editorial team is doing with this book. Which is, as I've written before, trying to elaborate and expand on the John Romita/Stan Lee run without straying too far from what makes the character and concept work. In theory, I'm all for wild and woolly super-hero comics that make no sense to outsiders and I genuinely like those idiosyncrasies of super-hero comics that get filed off when they get turned into super-hero movies, but, in practice, the decisions made by the Spidey Team have led to better super-hero comics (in just about any way you want to define "better") than the weirder/more ambitious ones made by the folks over at DC or in Marvel's "Event Department".

Anyway, this has gotten me back in the comic store on a weekly basis, something I couldn't have imagined happening at this time last year.

12. Rambo - I want to write about this movie, but don't have time to do it justice right now. I'll just say that I think this movie is a kind of inversion of Saving Private Ryan, esp. in terms of how salvation relates to warfare and in terms of how it addresses the question "what good can come of the kind of mechanized violence that rips people to shreds". It's The Wild Bunch for the new millennium. (And this reminds me that I still need to see JCVD.)

13. The Happening - I wrote about this a couple of times.

14. Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp - I wrote about this comic already, here. I'm not as into their follow-up, No Heroes - it's #0 issue was really great, the next two issues were a bit of a let down - but I still think Ryp is one of the few guys drawing super-hero comics who'd be worth following no matter who was doing the writing. Frank Quitely would be one of the others. Luckily, they both tend to work with guys who know how to write these kinds of things.

15. All of the classic comic strip collections that I hope to either get as Christmas gifts or get for myself with any B&N gift cards I might recieve - Kind of cheating since these aren't things I've actually read. But it definitely makes me very happy that there's the distinct possibility that I'll be able to spend New Year's Eve pouring over that Scorchy Smith collection.

*More or less: I always allow for some wiggle room.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Don't Like

Here are some recentish movies I don't like:

Untraceable - like Saw for people who are too squeamish for Saw. But what's the point of that, really?

Cloverfield - Lots of imagination/thought went into marketing. Very little went into filmmaking.

Vantage Point - The point of breaking up a movie down by different characters' p.o.v.s is to evoke the sense that no one personal can ever know the complete truth. Here it's just a gimmick to try to trick us into thinking there's more going on here than in your standard episode of 24 (there isn't).

Surfwise - I hate it when documentaries massage their information to make a more conventionally shaped story. In this case, leaving out obviously damning info until the midway point to serve as a dramatic "gotcha".

The King of Kong - I hate it when documentaries massage their information to make a more conventionally shaped story. In this case, altering the facts and the timeline to make someone out as "the bad guy".

Tropic Thunder - No organizing intelligence behind the filmmaking. Plus, Stiller works way too hard at his gags.

21 - Morally and aesthetically repellent. It's ok to betray people to get what you want as long as those people were dicks to you first. WTF?!?! Also - it looks like a beer commercial.

In the Valley of Elah - Earnest and it's heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, the earnestness doesn't mesh well with the pulpy mystery plot.

Atonement - Works really hard to let you know that this isn't Masterpiece Theatre. In the process, defangs the book and turns it into a fairly conventional melodrama/romance.

Juno - Good supporting cast cannot save film from unbelievable central character and unbearable indieverse stylings.

Sweeney Todd - You can't cast someone who can't sing as Sweeney Todd, because you need to be able to sing effortlessly before you can give a performance while singing. Johnny Depp's little voice turns a giant character into a pipsqueak, which drains the horror from the story. Also - awful CGI version of London makes me long for MGM soundstages.

The Transformers - Likable enough, but, really, really badly made. Lots of boneheaded ideas like: two entirely superfluous subplots involving characters who are not Transformers, having the action shot so quickly we can't appreciate any of the robot design work that the filmmakers spent millions of dollars on.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters - Like 5 episodes of the TV show stuck together. Unfortunately, though the TV show can be genius, usually it's only genius about once ever three episodes.

Hot Rod - Just what you were waiting for: a bog standard SNL comedy shot in the "quirky" indie style of Napoleon Dynamite. I love to see independent voices get turned into easily marketable fashions. Yay capitalism!

Wild Hogs - A good idea - middle class dudes playing at outlaws - but executed without any guts while making all the easy jokes.

La Vie en rose - Mind boggling stupid. The central performance had 100% more acting than any other performance I've seen in the last year or so.

Evan Almighty - It's not just that there are "getting hit in the balls" jokes. It's that the "getting hit in the balls" jokes are handled in the most lazy-ass way possible. Also - it cost over $100 Million and it looks (in terms of design and cinematography) worse than many movies made for mere tens of thousands of dollars.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Action Movies, Part 3: Taxonomy!

Here's a brief history of the posts related to this conversation on action movies:

1: Movie Club discussion of T-2.

2: My first Gold Age of Action Movies post. Turned out to be the only one (the follow-up post on Speed remains half-written).

3: Sean's response is really worth reading. (That Speed post was supposed to address a lot of these concerns - honest!!! ;) )

4: Post on f/x and super-hero movies.

5: Sean's Bourne/Bond post and my response (check out the comments, too).

Which brings us (mostly) up to date... I'm going to use this post to regroup a bit and throw some more ideas out there.

I see two major trends in contempo American action cinema - two major branches on the family tree - and both are a response to the challenge of CGI-driven fx.

Branch 1: "Plastic Playsets and Comic Book Movies". These movies present stylized action in stylized worlds. The use of space in these movies tends to be expressionistic. There is an emphasis on self-contained settings and a decided lack of emphasis on creating the illusion of contiguous spaces.

(By which I mean: compare the opening of Speed - which goes to great lengths to show us the elevator shaft and exactly how the elevator shaft is connected to the rest of the building - or the entirety of Die Hard - where both the "geography" of the building and how the building fits into its surroundings are important - to the Matrix movies - where the major action scenes are set in places that are like closed-off levels of a video game (the rooftops, the hallway, the highway).)

This branch takes CGI and uses it to make movies more like comic books (once again, I'm following Bordwell), anime, and wuxia.

Major works include: The Matrix, the Star Wars prequels, Sin City, Kill Bill, 300, Beowulf, Speed Racer.

Minor works include: many videogame adaptations, 30 Days of Night.
Interesting outliers: Fight Club and Panic Room.

Branch 2: "Impact Impressionism". This is what I've been talking about in the Bourne/Bond post. There's a focus here on any number of techniques that read as "realistic" and are meant to give off a "you are there"-feeling. The illusion of spatial authenticity and integrity so important to "Golden Age" action movies takes a backseat to creating the illusion of integrity and authenticity of feeling. The videogame analogue here is the first-person shooter.*

Branch 1 uses CGI to create an intense fantasy experience, Branch 2 uses CGI (but tries to mask this use) to create an intense experience of realism.

Major works include: the Omaha beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Tony Scott movies, the Bourne Movies.

Minor works include: Mission: Impossible 3, Quantum of Solace.

Outliers (not fully action movies but indicative of the trend): Phone Booth, Tigerland, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later.

I tend to be more down, in general, on Branch 2 movies for a number of reasons.

One is that, as a practical matter, I think it leads to sloppier filmmaking, or, rather, it allows the filmmakers to get away with being sloppier than they otherwise might be.

Two is that - and this might be my crankiness getting in the way of my judgment - critics tend to talk about these movies in terms of greater realism, ignoring the fact that the realism is superficial. And that's partly the filmmakers fault, in that Greengrass, say, adapts the cinema verite style from his "non-fiction" movies when he's making the Bournes.

Related to this: I see the "Impressionistic" Style as part of a larger trend away from a kind of filmmaking where meaning lies in the shot and towards a kind of filmmaking where meaning lies more in the rhythms of the editing (see also: Michael Bay). I think that this is an interesting trend, but that talking about it in terms of realism obscures the issue.

That's also why I'm skeptical about observations like Tom Spurgeon's (from this comment thread):

Wasn't the fact that Bond was indistinguishable from his opponents in some of the fights in the second movie part of the point? His actions gain clarity as he gains moral clarity and is able to better distinguish himself against the people he's fighting.

The way the two films use the action to compare Bond to others -- including the woman in this latest film -- is the most interesting thing about the two movies.
It isn't just that I don't buy that theory in this specific case. After all, we can tell Bond and Mitchell apart just fine during the chase, but not when they get to the scaffolding - the part of the sequence that would be the most difficult to choreograph and edit for clarity. And, aside from the chase that happens at the opera, I don't think there's much that distinguishes the rest of the action sequences from those of many other contemporary action movies.

I do think these techniques can be used expressively. I think that 28 Days Later's final action works in the way that Tom is suggesting the Quantum scaffolding fight works.**

Three is that I can't shake the sense that in these kinds of movies the filmmakers are working extra hard to put something over on me. It comes off as frantic and desperate.

*Steve Sailer's point about No Country for Old Men is interesting here: he argues that the Coens figured out you have to slow things down to give a "real" FPS experience.

**I also think this is part of what Greengrass does in Ultimatum.

Punisher: War Zone

I thought there were a lot of great, little moments in Punisher: War Zone, but, for me, the best part was when I realized that they were essentially serving up a bat-shit, gonzo version of Tim Burton's Batman.

Like - Jigsaw's origin sequence. In Batman, it's an accident that Jack Napier falls into the vat of chemicals that start his transformation into the Joker. But Punisher drops Billy into the recycling machine - and turns it on - on purpose. (Blowback is one of the themes of the movie.*)

I don't think the movie ranks with the best Punisher stories from the comic books (the Ennis/Dillon "Welcome Back Frank", the Ennis/Robertson Born, the Ennis/Corben The End, the Grant/Zeck Return to Big Nothing, the best stories from Mike Baron's run), but I think it's a pretty good Punisher story and more faithful to the comics than the last Punisher movie**.

But I don't think there are many - any? - super-hero movies that manage to stand alongside their best super-hero comics counterparts. Even something as great as Tim Burton's Batman Returns pales next to Frank's The Dark Knight Returns. And no screen version of Superman has come anywhere close to Morrison's All-Star Superman or Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? let alone Siegel's "The Death of Superman". The Spider-Man movies are enjoyable, well-made action/adventure/fantasy movies, but the Ditko/Lee and Romita/Lee Spider-Man comics are among the greatest works of American popular art.

One of the reasons I balk at ideas like the ones Tucker proposes in this post is that super-hero movies already give us super-hero stories with all of the idiosyncrasies filed off.

*"Blowback" would be a good name for a Punisher villain.

**I like the last Punisher movie, too, but for different reasons. It a more of a standard, but well-done, action B-movie.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Action Movies, Part 2: Bond/Bourne

Some thoughts on the action sequences in Quantum of Solace inspired by this post from Sean (read it first):

1. The new Bond films - especially Quantum of Solace - are drawing from and responding to the Bourne movies - at least in terms of how they handle action sequences. The foot chase over the roofs in Sienna, which happens pretty early in Quantum, is a more cleanly (and conventionally) put together version of the rooftop chase in The Bourne Ultimatum, but, like the Bourne chase, it is edited and shot to emphasize - viscerally, impressionistically - the physical impact the action has on the pursuer and pursued.

2. Like the Bourne movies - especially the two directed by Paul Greengrass - the new Bonds have adopted a faux cinema verite camera style to give the action sequences a feeling of greater realism than a more conventional style would. Following David Bordwell, I'd argue that this "realism" is superficial and that these techniques - shaky, probing hand held camera work, with lots of reframing on the go - cover up the fact that the action is just as super-heroic and over-the-top as anything in a John McTiernan or James Cameron movie.

3. Speaking of James Cameron: the tremendous emphasis the impressionistic Bourne/Bond action places on visceral, physical impact comes at the expense of any kind of focus on exploring and navigating spaces. Compare the rooftop chases from Ultimatum and Quantum to the backyard foot chase in Point Break. In all three cases, the way the bodies move - the way they encounter and overcome the obstacles in their way (see Sean's point about the Bourne/Bond characters being physical geniuses) - is important. But in the Bourne and the Bond, those rooftops are reduced to being obstacles - the filmmakers aren't interested in conveying a sense of Tangier or Siena - while the chase in Point Break is as much concerned with taking us through a tour of a certain kind of Los Angeles geography.*

(The big exceptions from the Bourne movies are the kitchen fight scene from Supremacy - which really is about confined spaces - and the train station sequence from Ultimatum - which is more a suspense sequence than an action sequence, but I shouldn't split hairs.)

4. The Bond movies remain more conventional than Greengrass' Bournes in that they do not maintain the faux cinema verite style throughout the entire movie.** I would argue that this makes the Bourne movies more conceptually ambitious and accomplished, but also rather tiring. In fact, I got tired watching Ultimatum in the same way and for many of the same reason I got tired watching Michael Bay's Transformers. Bay and Greengrass have different reasons for getting to a place where the individual shot means less than the rhythms of a series of shots. In Transformers, this gives us special-effects that are happening too quickly for us to appreciate in any way. In The Bourne Ultimatum, this gives us action scenes where it's not important that we can parse what is happening or how it is happening, as long as we get that visceral sense of stuff is happening.

5. This leads to a sloppiness in the way the action scenes are put together in these movies. In Quantum, the battle between Bond and Mitchell on the scaffolding is impossible to parse in the conventional sense of being able to figure out who exactly is doing what to whom - i.e. it's shot and edited in such a way that you can't tell Bond and Mitchell apart at least until its over (Bond is the one who kills the other guy).***

Do we have to understand it? Not necessarily: we can still appreciate all the flailing around for the rhythms of movement and editing. But it seems to me that we've lost something important.

6. I'd argue that these impressionistic action sequences lack a sense of orchestration. Well, that's not quite true, but several kinds of "organizational patterns" that filmmakers can use and have traditionally used to orchestrate action sequences are thrown out the window in order to better focus on impact and rhythm. There's really nothing in these movies like the long sequence in Terminator 2 where we start off with a foot chase in a mall, it escalates into a car chase through the streets, and ends up in the L.A. river with the T-1000 in a Mack truck bearing down on Arnold. There's build in what Cameron is doing - a simultaneous ratcheting up of danger, scale, and pace, all the while getting the most out of his chosen locations. But in impressionistic sequences, everything is pitched at the same the level.

7. I think the Bourne and Bond movies are only, barely half-heartedly "abstract" in any meaningful and/or beautiful way. They don't go far enough. Their formal concerns are completely superficial: the more conventional "organizing patterns" they got rid of aren't replaced with anything, let alone the more rigorous action abstractions of Kinji Fukasaku's 1970s yakuza movies or Michael Mann's recent work.****

8. Actually, maybe that's the problem: the action sequences here are less than conventional. That is, they take the conventional "Golden Age" action sequence, throw out any concern for geography, pacing, and orchestration, and overuse all those "you are there" techniques that give off a visceral sense of impact. They are conventional scenes that are doing less, but they are doing less a lot harder (not to mention a lot louder).

9. I should mention that I do like these movies, even though I'm not blown away by the action sequences. I think Sean really gets at what makes these characters compelling and I'd have only good things to say about the acting. I also think these movies are interesting in terms of how they present the post-millennial secret agent.

10. And just so you know where I'm coming from, Rambo is my favorite action movie of the year, so far.

*In deference to Los Angeles Plays Itself, I'd be happy to amend this to something like "creates its own imaginary version of Los Angeles geography", but I'd add that this tends to be a different kind of L.A. than we're used to from the movies. I think Cameron's L.A. movies, in general, are pretty savvy about using the geography of L.A. in this way.

**Not that I expect many people to get this comparison, but Quantum of Solace : The Bourne Ultimatum :: Hot Rod : Napoleon Dynamite.

***See also: the car chase at the beginning of Quantum.

****I could also mention Akira Kurosawa and Seijin Suzuki.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Some discussion over in the comments here on whether or not Mark Millar is a satirist - seemingly echoing this dicussion from a while back.

Millar is a low-norm satirist, but I don't think that alone makes him special. I agree with Bill Krohn agreeing with Northrop Frye that we live in the age of satire. It's hard to find any piece of fiction that doesn't have some satirical element to it.

Is Millar a precise satirist? No. Is his satire especially thoughtful? I don't think so. Is it effective? Well, that seems to vary pretty wildly from work to work, but more often than not it's obnoxious rather than enlightening.

Coincidentally, I've just been reading some early Charlie Huston-written issues of the current Moon Knight. While this is definitely not a series for the ages, I think it works pretty nicely as a sub-Frank Miller send-up of macho super-heroic posturing - David Finch even functions in a sub-Jim Lee capacity. It's a bit like a Millar version of the Brubaker/Fraction Iron Fist: a satisfying elaboration of the character's mythology, with lots of outrageous/in-questionable-taste (low-norm) satirical moments scattered throughout.

And writing about Moon Knight reminds me I had a few more things I wanted to say about the Avengers. First, I should highlight something I tried to get at in the comments: that Stan Lee really figured out how to make the Avengers series work when the line-up turned into Captain America, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. Lee gave a raison d'etre to the team book by focusing on how the relationships between the characters change based on whether or not the characters are getting what they want and/or need from each other (i.e. Hawkeye getting the respect he wants from Cap, Cap getting - or not getting - a substitute for Bucky from his new teammates).

Second, instead of turning the New Avengers into Marvel's JLA or just another Avengers line-up, I would have liked to see Bendis make the New Avengers a completely "street level" super-hero book. We'd have Spider-Man, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jennifer Jones, and, of course, Moon Knight, with Captain America acting as the unofficial liason between this new group and SHIELD/Tony Stark/the other Marvel U authority figures.

This would have (a) played to Bendis' strengths - Daredevil and Alias, his low-rent, noirish super-hero books, are two of the best Marvel comics of the last twenty years, (b) marked a significant change from earlier runs of the Avengers title, and (c) been more of its own thing, not just Avengers Featuring Spider-Man.

Punisher, Cloak and Dagger, Ghost Rider, Shang Chi, and the Black Cat would show up every now and then and it could have started off with a sequel/homage to the 1980s Gang War story from Amazing Spider-Man.

And speaking of 1980s Amazing Spider-Man: the current creative teams working on this series seem to be making a return to the mid-80s DeFalco/DeMatteis era (i.e. before things got all McFarlaney and Cloney). I'm all in favor of this creative direction and not only for nostalgic reasons.

You know, when I heard about the concept behind the "One More Day"/"Brand New Day" sort-of-reboot, I thought that it sounded like another Clone Saga fiasco in the making: a radical change to continuity that would annoy current readers and do nothing to build a new audience interested in sticking around for the long haul once the novelty wore off. But, while you can certainly argue that maybe the change wasn't necessary, the proof is in the pudding: post-"One More Day" Amazing has become a solidly entertaining super-hero book, while the Straczynski run was pretty dire near the end (and, IMO, redeemed only slightly by fine work from guys like John Romita Jr. and Ron Garney). So, while it's something I might be against in theory, in practice it means Spider-Man comics that (a) I actually want to read and (b) (so it's not all about me) Spider-Man comics that are objectively better than they were before the change by just about any metric you want to use to determine what makes one super-hero comic better than another.

And, speaking of Straczynski...

I don't think he's actually a bad writer, in the sense that he has a firm grasp on how to execute his ideas. But he has some pretty awful ideas about what belongs in a Spider-Man comic. I like some of his other work, - Babylon 5 and Supreme Power, for instance - but the basic Spider-Man concept seems to be completely at odds with his m.o. of elaborate world/mythos-building.

Finally, more Marvel-related stuff in this entry from a new chat blog I'm doing with my friend Nick.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Plague War by Jeff Carlson

Plague War suffers from the same problem as John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigade: it's a sequel that isn't as immediately gripping as the first book in the series. Plague Year hooked me after the first sentence, but I stalled out after about 30 pages with Plague War. I had put the book aside for a few months while I devoted most of my reading time to comics and picked it up again yesterday because I liked the first book enough to want to give it another shot.

I'm glad I did: while the first 30 pages dragged a bit, the next 250 flew right by. Part of the issue is that the action starts up immediately after the events of Plague Year, so instead of dropping us right into the middle of an obviously desperate situation as in the beginning of Plague Year, Carlson has to spend some time reintroducing us to the characters and the world before we can really grasp all the dynamics of what's going on. It all feels a little repetitive, but eventually it does take off.

It still isn't as solid as the first book. Plague Year gave us characters who, in true Romero fashion, often made the wrong choice for the right reason, while in this book the protagonists have turned into more conventional action/adventure heroes, and they're able to get away with things more often.

In my favorite apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, the characters are faced with situations where all the options available to them are undesirable in some way. No matter what they choose, they're faced with losing something. (Early episodes of Battlestar Galactica work this way, for instance). Here, though, there are too many situations where the true costs of the heroes' actions don't seem to be taken into account: Carlson is too focused on the benefits.

This is part of a larger, general problem with adventure fiction - especially serial adventure fiction: the tendency of creators to be overly protective of their characters. Not just protective in the sense of "keeping them alive", but also keeping them from doing things the audience might not find appealing. I understand why creators feel they need to do this: serial fiction is generally character-based - rather than situation-based - so protecting the characters - keeping them healthy and likable and attractive - is seen as being necessary to ensure longterm commercial success. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that the last few years have given us critical and commercial successes like Lost and The Walking Dead that gain a lot of their oomph from not treating their characters with kid gloves, while similar shows that tried to keep everything "just the way the fans like it" (like, say, Alias) stumbled.

On the other hand, Carlson has a pragmatic p.o.v. towards romantic attraction which gives the developing relationship between the lead characters a real edge. This is definitely a refreshing element as too often even the hardest-nosed adventure fiction is slips into the most obvious Hollywood sentimentality when it comes to romance.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Avengers #1-21

The dominant, recurring narrative technique in this series is a two-page spread of a busy - to the point of being cluttered - action scene, framed by smaller panels giving us close-ups of the heroes and their commentary on and/or reactions.

This gives the comics a feel of lurching from one crisis to the next, with characterization pushed to the margins, and pages of exposition littering the valleys between the bursts of spectacle. What's missing is any sense of Bendis and his collaborators building their story panel-by-panel: there's no pacing, no development and choreography of the action. It's frozen spectacle, where the genius of Jack Kirby and the less-than-genius-but-still-compelling Marvel House Style he inspired hinged on the combination of spectacle and movement. (Not that we have to go back to the 1960's to find super-hero comics that have this kind of dynamism: check out just about everything John Romita Jr. draws.)

My guess is this is Bendis' attempt to "solve" the problem of doing a team book, because (a) it shows up in these issues regardless of the artist* and (b) it isn't as heavily used in Bendis' single character books, where the pacing - the panel-to-panel flow - is much more assured.

In terms of subject matter, there's nothing all that new here. The storyline about the Sentry recalls better comics by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, the House of M follow-up recalls better comics by Chris Claremont, the "Ronin" arc recalls better comics by Frank Miller, and every time Luke Cage said anything, I was reminded of a better comic by Bendis himself. Even from a marketing p.o.v., there's really no novelty here, since the idea of putting Marvel's "big guns" - Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Captain America - in the same team book is essentially what Morrison et al. were trying to do for DC with their JLA run.

The fact that there are a lot of even worse super-hero comics out there doesn't make these issues any less depressing. Bendis is pro enough that there are still scattered bits of effective/entertaining business.

*Well, almost: Frank Cho's issues don't feature this technique. They do have these really obnoxious full-page pin-up-style drawings of the female heroes, though, which are probably my least favorite thing in the entire comic.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Inspiration message of the day...

From Tom Spurgeon:

By the way, the thought that no one will have anything funny to say about a new president is deeply stupid, in comics or in other media. Not only do opportunities reveal themselves, you don't have to mock somebody to make them the focal point of humor. That SNL sketch from the 1970s where Jimmy Carter talks someone down from a bad acid trip is worth every single piece of easy savagery in which that show's wallowed in the last several years. The heart of comedy is revealing truth, not expressing contempt.

Monday, November 3, 2008

5 Best Comic Book Series I'm Reading at the Moment

1. Promethea (1st time, about 12 issues in): I read the first issues of all of the original ABC books, but Top Ten was the only one that hooked me in. I eventually caught up with all of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (except for The Black Dossier) and a lot of Tom Strong and Tomorrow Stories, but kept putting off reading Promethea. I decided to give it another chance because (a) the series is praised to high heaven by the likes of Jog and (b) the TPB collections are available at the library.

So far, I think it's pretty great and I'd like to say that I'm not sure what I was thinking when I decided way-back-when that it wasn't for me, except that I remember almost exactly what I was thinking: that turning into a super-hero by composing and writing a poem was an extremely lame idea. That's really the only bit that stuck with me, though: I had completely forgotten all the pulp sci-fi trappings - no memories of the Five Swell Guys, for instance - and the book's sense of humor - like the stuff about the MPD mayor).

While a lot of this reads like a lecture, what makes it work, IMO, is that Moore and J.H. Williams III make the lecture work as comics. If I have one complaint it's that in a TPB collection it's harder to read some of the two-page spreads: they really need to be laid flat to be properly appreciated.

2. All-Star Squadron (re-reading, 3 issues in): I don't know if this is my favorite Roy Thomas comic, but it is the first "favorite Roy Thomas" comic I ever had.

I really like that it isn't decompressed! I know it has become pretty common for old-school comics fans to complain about the lack of story/plot in newer super-hero comics, but it wasn't until I started re-reading this series that I realized my problem with decompression wasn't just that it spreads out 22 pages worth of story over six issues - I now think it also leads to lazier comics. I mean, in All-Star Squadron you have a large team of super-heroes, you have big fight scenes, and you have a fair amount of exposition/backstory/positioning to get across. But because you don't have all the space in the world, the individual panels take on a lot more weight. It becomes much more important to get as much expressiveness out of each panel as possible, while still avoiding having the compositions becoming too cluttered, muddied, or incomprehensible. It can be refreshing for creators to work without restraints, but I think "compression" was one of those constraints that spurred creativity rather than reigned it in.

I also like Roy Thomas' project here, in general. Talk about working within constraints: I can't think of anything else quite like this, except for Don Rosa's Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck comics. Rosa's work is an interesting comparison, IMO, because the Barks work Rosa is drawing from is among the greatest American comics ever made, while Thomas is working with far more uneven source material. In a sense, this puts All-Star Squadron in the better position vis a vis its "original" than Life and Times: Rosa's work ends up being a footnote - albeit a beautifully done footnote - to Barks', while All-Star Squadron is interesting and worthwhile for completely different reasons than the original Justice Society stories in All-Star Comics. The pleasure of those stories for me is in their anarchic, anything goes nature and primitive, circus-spectacle art. The pleasure of All-Star Squadron is in (a) watching Thomas put his stories together like a "negative" puzzle - i.e. he has to try to fit things in to the empty narrative spaces left by the original comics and (b) how Thomas more consciously weaves real world WWII-era history into the fiction.

3. Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan's The Question (re-reading, 3 issues in): Inspired by 52, I went back to these comics. Would it surprise anyone here if I said I think they're much better than anything done with the character in 52? For one thing, O'Neil doesn't write him just like another masked vigilante. O'Neil walks the tightrope of giving the character a distinct personality without having it turn into (merely) a unique shtick. I like O'Neil's approach in general: he has genuine old-school pulp roots, which sets him apart, IMO, from a lot of the other guys writing super-hero books. (I'd like to do a longer compare/contrast essay on this series vs. Miller's Daredevil, which makes use of a lot of the same pulp tropes but uses them in a more superficial manner).

4. The Walking Dead (1st time, 13 issues in): Good stuff! Not sure why I waited so long to read these comics, but I'm glad I now have a bunch of them to read all at once. I eventually would like to write a longer, essay-style appreciation, that would talk about (among other things) the importance of the various places in which the survivors take refuge and how I think Kirkman (and his collaborators) are thinking like classical Hollywood filmmakers in this regard.

5. The Boys (1st time, 13 or so issues in): Okay, so it isn't as good as Brat Pack. It isn't as good as Ennis' various Punisher comics. I haven't read enough Transmetropolitan to know if it's not as good as that. And I don't even think Robertson's work is as good here as it was on his Wolverine run. Still - I think this comic has something that a lot of the other nudge-nudge, wink-wink "takes"on super-hero comics don't, which is a raunchy, nasty spirit and a refusal to play both sides of the fence. I.e. there isn't much in the way of "traditional super-hero comics pleasures" here, as opposed to something like Nextwave or X-Static. (And, so far at least, the jokes don't revolve around how goofy various super-hero tropes seem if you think about them in "real world" terms). This is last on this list for a reason: I'm less sure of this one, both in terms of being less sure I'll be sticking around for the long haul and less sure that I won't look back on even these issues less fondly in a year from now. But right now this is (a) a nice corrective to the "straight" super-hero stuff I'm reading (I wish the Boys would pay a visit to Bendis' New Avengers) and (b) a nice way to get a regular Garth Ennis fix.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Grab Bag: John Bolton's Army of Darkness Adaptation

I suspect that movie adaptations are more likely to turn into period pieces than other kinds of comics, but, even so, this is more interesting as a pop culture artifact than it is as comics.

This is a pre-Spider-Man Sam Raimi, back when he the B-movie version of Joe Dante. (Poor Joe Dante: one of the great sins of modern Hollywood is that he's not directing movies like The Transformers or Tropic Thunder). Based on the Bruce Campbell scene and the dance interlude in Spider-Man 3 I suspect that Raimi would like to get back to his roots in more disreputable (or should that be "less reputable") movies. (My inner-Ambush Bug fan is a little bit alarmed that super-hero movies have become "reputable" in quite the way the have over the last few years.)

Plus, it's painted! Maybe it's just for the prestige value, but John Bolton's concept - undercutting a traditional heroic fantasy illustration style with Ash's smart-ass narration - almost makes it seem like it has genuine aesthetic and thematic purpose, too.

And if Bolton had made this story his own - had been able to rethink it from the ground up - this could have worked. But he doesn't - he's stuck with the Raimi Bros.' script, a good script, but one where undercutting heroic tropes is just one kind of gag or, rather, the pretext for one kind of gag. So what happens is that Bolton's concept ends up making sense (in that I can see what he's up to and why he decided to do it that way) but is still not true to the spirit of the material.

Army of Darkness - the film - is really just a collection of gags using characters and conventions of B horror and fantasy movies. It's loose and jokey, and anarchic. But "painted comics", if not by nature than by association, are the opposite of loose, jokey, and anarchic.

And it isn't just that Bolton's work misses the spirit of the movie, it misses the spirit of the lead performance. What Bruce Campbell does in Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is as central to making that movie work as what Jack Nicholson does in The Shining. In that movie Campbell gives one of the great physical comedy performances in contemporary cinema (up there with Steve Martin in All of Me): a definitive take on the body rebelling against the mind with equally hilarious and hideous consequences. Though his work in Army of Darkness isn't as inspired, it still builds on what he did in the earlier movie.

But, like I said, it's a physical performance: all about movement, about creating a character that behaves like a cartoon, which would be ideal for comics but not for painted comics. It's Bolton's depiction of Ash that really ends up sinking the book: he's too stiff and there's (overall) no sense of movement.

Since none of Ash's characteristics come through in the art, it all has to happen through the narration, and it just feels like there's way too much of it. In fact, because the narration is in something that's recognizable as Ash's voice, it makes the absence of character in the art all the more apparent.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Halloween Grab Bag: 2 Warren Ellis Horror Comics

In Fell Ellis is using his stock set of characters and themes and in Black Gas Ellis isn't doing much beyond recycling bog-standard zombie movie moments, but with Ellis I think that the specifics of any given book are more important that the generalities underlying all of his work. And by "specifics" I mean how Ellis and his collaborators turn his ideas into comics.

With Fell, I love how Ben Templesmith gives all his characters these shifty, squirelly eyes: everyone in Snowtown - the Feral City of the book's subtitle - looks like they're on the verge of having some kind of psychological or emotional breakdown. And for his part, Ellis has come up with the perfect setting for Templesmith's expressionism: this has one of the most effective "generalized-sense-of-unease-and-dread" vibe as any horror fiction I've seen lately* and, at times, it reaches the level of a genuine - if pulpy - moral vision of the world.

Blackgas is a lot less ambitious and wasn't nearly as satisfying to me as other "B-movie" horror comics I've read recently(like Girls or The Walking Dead). Ellis doesn't give Max Fiumara all that much to work with and most of what's here is conventional decompressed storytelling: there's nothing especially inventive or interesting thematically. But what Fiumara does have going for him are the explosions of graphic, gory zombie movie violence. As far as I can tell, these relatively few panels of violence are the raison d'etre of the series.

Well, that's not entirely true. It seems like Ellis is really trying to emphasize the idea that these "zombies" are people that the hero used to know: that they're his whole life and that having to kill them to survive is somewhat traumatic. But none of this is built up effectively. For one thing, all of the characters, all of their relationships, are stock B-movie elements. For another, we only have an issue's worth of "normal" behavior before it turns into Night of the Living Dead, which just doesn't give enough space to build any investment in these stock elements. While I enjoyed it as a piece of splatterstick, I couldn't help feeling that the book came up short.

*Up there with HWY 115.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Some thoughts on 52...

Before getting into my thoughts on 52 (which I just finished reading last night), I want to follow-up a bit on yesterday's post. In her review of Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #2, Nina Stone writes:

After reading this, I feel the fraternity vibe that I got out of that Baltimore panel more than ever. I'm sure their fans are very happy, and they probably should be. This has to be writing that's specifically for them. This is a comic book for DC fans, god, it felt like a love letter to DC fans. If I were to try and judge DC by this one comic book, this Mardi Gras of characters and confusion, they don't want new readers. They just want their current readers to stay, to have babies with them, to buy land. They aren't interested in pledges. Initiation is over. The club is closed.

I want to step back and do a bit of a "thought experiment" here.

Let's say I read chapter 5 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and wrote a review of it that made the same kind of point that Nina is making. I might say: "Based on this chapter, I get that sense that this must be written specifically for Harry Potter fans. I'm sure people who have been following Harry Potter for years are very happy with this chapter, but I don't get the sense that Rowling is looking for new readers. It's like if you haven't already read the other six books and the first 4 chapters of this one, chapter 5 is not meant for you."

Now, this isn't meant as a direct analogy. There are lots of differences between this random Final Crisis spin-off issue and this random Harry Potter chapter. But I think we can say that reading a random chapter from one of the last books in a long-running fantasy series is not the best way of engaging with that material. I'd go further and say that you'd be acting in bad faith if you were basing your generalizations about Harry Potter on that one random chapter, because - obviously - you know you're supposed to start a book series with the first book and a book with the first chapter.* And - equally obviously - the fifth chapter of the seventh book probably shouldn't be welcoming to new readers.** I mean, it might be, but I'd think that would start to get a little annoying if each and every chapter Rowling gave us enough info so that it would function as a stand alone reading experience.

Here's where we get to the differences, though:

If I want to get up to speed with Harry Potter so I can fully understand what's going on in chapter 5 of Deathly Hallows it is easy for me to do so. All I have to do is read the first six Harry Potter books (whose titles are conveniently listed at the beginning of the seventh) and the first four chapters of Deathly Hallows. I can probably pick them all up during a single trip to the bookstore.*** In Nina's terms, this would be an easy club to join.

With Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, things are a lot trickier. There is no "first book, first chapter", no easy reading list. In fact, even being able to figure out what books you'd have to read to understand what's going on it would take a fair amount of knowledge of DC super-hero comics to begin with. Aside from the completely impractical (not to mention insane) plan of reading all of National/DC's super-hero publications from Action Comics #1 on (and all of the publications from companies that National/DC would go onto to buy up and incorporate into their Mythos), there's no "official" set path to get from knowing nothing about DC super-heroes to being able to understand Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds. Not only is this different from Harry Potter, where there's only seven books and no doubt about what order to read them in, it's different from Star Wars and Star Trek, which despite all of the "expanded universe" fiction have a core canon that you're expected to start with and can safely stay within. (The same goes for Tolkien).

Nina puts this in terms of DC not being interested in anyone else joinging the club, but, as I suggested in my last post, I don't think that's quite it. While it's true that there's a higher barrier to entry here than with Harry Potter (or House), that barrier is a necessary part of these comics working in a different way than Harry Potter (or House) works.

What's important to me, though, is not that these comics take more work to appreciate - that they're more exclusive - but that everyone's initiation process is different and everyone's iniation process is "self-directed". I don't like to give out a "reading list" to my friends who are, say, interested in reading 52 or catching up with Final Crisis, because part of the fun of the DC Mythos is that you get to find your own way into it. For me that process included collecting a lot of titles featuring second-or-third string heroes (the '80s Blue Beetle and Blue Devil series, the Wally West Flash), following certain writers who resonated with me (Keith Giffen on Ambush Bug and on Justice League), reading my friends' copies of the big cross-over events, filling in the gaps in my knowledge with Who's Who, etc. I'm not sure at what point I was "in the club", but after a while, just by following a mostly random process, I had enough knowledge of the DC Mythos (and enough investment in it) that the more intricate, convoluted stuff really worked for me.

Which brings me to 52...

I had originally thought of posting commentary every six issues or so, but decided not to because (a) I ended up reading a bunch at a time and the details of the individual issues kept slipping from my mind and (b) I was also reading along with Douglas Wolk's 52 Pickup blog, which seemed to cover most of the ground commentary-wise. So what follows is my "big picture" take.

I liked this series a lot, up through somewhere in the mid 30s when I started to have serious doubts that they'd be able to resolve everything in anything like a satisfactory manner. And I think my doubts were justified: to build on James' comments on my last post, 52 starts out promising a broad - if not deep - exploration of the DC Universe, but ends up, Pokemon-style, doing little more than setting up a bunch of spin-offs. Now, these big even series are always concerned with creating successful spin-offs. I don't mind that kind of commercial motive - all popular art works under some kind of commercial restriction - but in the case of the last quarter of 52 the story starts working less in terms of character, action, and theme and more in terms of getting everything in place for the sequels. I got the sense of the creators running out the clock until the final issue, which tries to fit in about 6 issues worth of exposition/explanation.

Still, the early part of the series is really good and there are great moments throughout. Wolk's commentary seems pretty definitive to me, but I'd point out that reading it all in one chunk, rather than having an entire week to devote to 20-or-so pages probably made me a lot more forgiving of some of the storytelling fumbles. The unforgivable one deals with the reveal in the Elongated Man storyline, which (as Doug points out) is a total cheat.

Ultimately, I think I liked what 52 promised more than what it delivered, which is why I was more gung ho about it back in this post, when it was still making promises. Doug Wolk's Week 52 post really gets at the heart of why I was let down by the ending: most of the characters end up in the same place they started in. You can't say that about Infinite Crisis, which doesn't have as good a critical reputation as 52, but, IMO, is the better series. IC was all over the place (in a lot of ways), but it did, at least, provide a real ending and it never felt like the creators were just treading water.

*Unless you're doing some kind of surrealist take on reviewing fiction.

**Granted: there are lots of different kinds of serial fiction. Not all of it works like Harry Potter. But a lot does.

***It might be harder to track down books in an out-of-print series (I might have to go to exlibris or something), but it would still be pretty easy to know which books I'd have to look for.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Nina Stone has a thoughtful, outsider's p.o.v.-style review of two recent super-hero comics - Punisher #63 and Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #2. Her take on Legion is that it is busy, messy, and impenetrable. It got me thinking: even though I think Geoff Johns is one of the best contemporary super-hero writers, I can't think of anything he's done that I could recommend to someone who wasn't already really invested in super-hero comics. He doesn't do "entry level" super-hero comics.

Johns gives his super hero stories their narrative and thematic oomph by positioning and re-positioning various elements of the DC Mythos. But if you haven't already invested a fairly substantial amount of time reading DC super hero comics, most of what he's doing is going to look meaningless (at best).

And, as much as I like his work, I'm not sure that it would be worth doing the "grunt work" necessary to grok it for anyone who isn't still a teenager. For example, Green Lantern: Rebirth sounds like it should be a good jumping-on point for a newcomer to Green Lantern - especially since Johns intended it to be a lead-in to a continuing Green Lantern series which would focus more on the core elements of the Green Lantern Mythos*. However, Rebirth starts very far away from those core elements and Johns' attempt to straighten out Hal Jordan's extremely convoluted storyline won't resonate with people who don't know and/or care** about that storyline.

For me, that's not really a negative. I'm glad that he's writing these super-hero comics for hardcore super-hero fans. As I've said before, I think there's something unique about DC's mythos-centric stories that you don't find anywhere else, and while "unique" doesn't necessarily equal "good", when these stories are done well by someone like Johns, "unique" is definitely an added value.

And because I do place value on their uniqueness, attacking these kinds of comics because they don't work like other kinds of arts and culture stuff rings hollow to me.*** Part of what I enjoy about Final Crisis and other Mythos-centric super-hero comics is that it is a lot harder to get into by picking up a random mid-series issue than it would be to get into, say, House by watching a random episode from the middle of season 4. I don't think that every super-hero comic should work like Final Crisis, but I don't see it as a strike against them when they do.

*This is an excellent series, by the way. If you twisted my arm, it would be the one Johns comic that I'd recommend to non-hardcore super-hero fans.

**I'd note that a lot of the caring would come from people who think the whole Parallax/Spectre story was a completely awful idea and needs to be undone.

***This isn't what Nina is doing in her post, but I'm directing that last paragraph towards people who are making those kinds of arguments.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp

Juan Jose Ryp is a real cartoonist, which alone sets him apart from most of the artists working on contemporary super-hero comics. Their focus is on stylish and stylized figure drawing, but Ryp has a genuine style that expresses an all-encompassing vision of the world.

In big picture terms, what Ryp is doing isn't revolutionary. In the context of Eurocomics or even American horror comics, Ryp's work wouldn't necessarily stand out. However, Ryp drawing a super-hero comic is a bit like Gene Colan drawing a super-hero comic: because their styles are not conventional within the genre, they can give us a new perspective on the familiar.

Ryp doesn't fetishize figure-drawing. He gives background and characters an equal emphasis: major and minor details delineated with the same clarity. In his work, the human body becomes just another thing (which is what made him the perfect artist to draw Robocop), subject like every other thing to wear, tear, and destruction. The theme of the comic might be "things fall apart", or, given that this is a Warren Ellis super-hero comic, "things fly apart at tremendous speed with hell of a lot of violence and gore involved".

And the way Ryp draws gore is closer to the way Johnny Ryan draws puke than it is to the way other horror/action artists depict violence. His gore is specific gore: bits of flesh, splatters of blood, splinters of bone are all clearly differentiated, all carefully, clearly realized.

Ryp's style helps to give this comic an underground edge that it wouldn't have had it been drawn by Bryan Hitch, Gary Frank, or Steve McNiven. It makes Black Summer a counter-cultural super-hero comic. It's his style that makes the opening image of the Oval Office covered in blood, viscera, and barely identifiable bits and pieces of bodies more than just a provocation and into a nightmarish vision of wish-fulfillment.

And Ryp handles the more conventional super-hero comics elements with just as much skill. There's a extended sci-fi fight between the central villain and a bunch of fighter jets that beats anything in the Iron Man movie.

The story here is familiar: a riff on the super-heroes changing the world for the world's own good premise of The Squadron Supreme (a premise which Ellis has already explored in Stormwatch and The Authority and probably some other places I haven't looked). And, for people who've read a couple of other Ellis comics, most of his standard themes, concerns, and ticks show up. What's more distinctive to Black Summer is the way Ellis uses this set-up to question the idea of what Thomas Sowell dubbed "the quest for cosmic justice", as opposed to the idea of working towards specific, situational justice*. It's "wanting to help actual people" vs. "wanting to realize ambitious, idealistic goal" (or as one character puts it "to be big, to know everyone, for everyone to be good"). And Ryp's art - where the whole is created out of lots of little, specific details - perfectly complements this theme.

*Although I'd note that Ellis' take on the issue is closer to that of John Guare's in Gardenia and Lydie Breeze than it is to Sowell's.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Millennium #1 - "Over"

Writer: Steve Englehart
Art: Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, and Carl Gafford

After Legends, you'd think I'd want to avoid these DC crossovers, but I was actually looking forward to checking this out. Millennium has a pretty awful reputation, but I have fond memories of it for some reason.

Right off the bat, this is a lot weirder than Legends. Legends was botched in its execution, but at the concept level it had a respectable thesis and seemed to be trying to respond thematically* to the "important" super-hero comics of its era (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, The Squadron Supreme). Millennium, on a concept level, is much farther out: the Guardians - a race of super-powerful little nerdy men - and the Zamorans - a race of super-powerful Amazonian warrior women - have decided to use the energy created by them having lots of sex to propel humanity's evolution along . But the Guardians' former servants - the mutinous Manhunter androids - want to stop them.

The series' big gimmick, of course, is that the Manhunters have infiltrated the lives of all of Earth's heroes, so, like, we find out that Flash's father and Superman's girlfriend are really Manhunters in disguise. This element of the series really seemed to piss people off. Personally, I don't mind so much, especially since it turns out that Pan (you know, this Pan) is also a Manhunter. That, to me, encapsulates the way that the super-hero genre can thrive on mixing and melding incommensurate elements.

However, I can see why the seemingly drastic revelations might have turned off long time fans.

Joe Staton's work here is very nice: he can handle all the different characters and does a good job putting them in interesting poses for the big standinging-around-in-a-room-talking scenes.

*I.e., "swiped a number of plot point from"

Monday, October 20, 2008

Wolverine #66 by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

"Old Man Logan - Part One"

Inks: Dexter Vine
Colored by: Morry Hollowell

This is another comic Sean's Kick Ass review inspired me to pick up, in that I thought I should follow-up trying out a John Romita Jr. comic with trying out a Mark Millar comic. And I chose this particular Mark Millar for a couple of reasons:

1. I like the idea of reading a Road Warrior homage with Wolverine and other Marvel characters.

2. This story-arc looks like it stands apart from anything else going on in Marvel comics right now or what was going on in Wolverine prior to this.

3. I'm not usually a fan of Steve McNiven's work, but I flipped through the book I liked what I saw.

What struck me about the Slott/Romita Amazing Spider-Man issue that I read was that it seemed to me to be an example of the kind of book that various people on the internet claim doesn't exist: a straight-forward story about a major, franchise hero that builds on the character's core elements instead of on details drawn from the publisher's shared-world continuity.

This comic seems to be much closer to standard, contemporary super-hero fare. While the Slott/Romita Amazing Spider-Man should appeal to anyone who is interested in a Spider-Man story, this issue of Wolverine is aimed at people who have some knowledge of and/or investment in the Marvel U. A basic indicator of the difference: Wolverine doesn't show up in a costume and even his out-of-costume look here doesn't match up with his look in other comics or in the X-Men movies. A slightly less basic indicator: this story isn't building on Wolverine's "core elements", but instead is playing a "what if" game with those elements. Not only that, but there's a second layer to all of this: at this point, doing "future histories" of Wolverine has become a tradition in its own right. So Millar isn't just relying on our knowledge of the Marvel U: he's also playing around with references to other "what if" stories about Wolverine in the future.

The concept here is that we're in a 1980's-style post-apocalyptic future, where supervillains have beaten all the heroes and carved up the U.S.A. into their own kingdoms. Logan has given up being a hero, has a family, and is trying to eak out a living as a farmer, although it looks like some kind of ecological disaster has made that nearly impossible.

As I said back in reason #1, I like this idea. To drop the calm, collected voice I like to use here favor of the kind of AICN-style fanboy gushing I try to suppress: I think this idea is wicked cool. Wolverine is the perfect character to drop in the middle of Road Warrior pastiche.

A lot of the pleasure with this type of story has to do with seeing how my favorite characters are used.

Hawkeye shows up as an aging counter-culture-type (I kept thinking of Peter Fonda), who, though blind, still insists on driving his car himself. I like this take, even though it owes a lot to Frank Miller's Green Arrow from The Dark Knight Returns. Actually, in this instance, I like it partially because it is derivative.

As an observation, I think it's accurate to say that this is for relatively hardcore fans: people who already care about lots of little details and who will recognize all the layers of references. Given that, I think this is a nicely done super-hero comic and the story seems to have some potential.

Finally, a quick note on Steve McNiven's art:

One of the good things about the "what if" set-up here is that it frees McNiven from drawing a lot dudes-in-tights standing around talking, which is something that very few super-hero artists are able to pull off well. Instead, the concept frees him to do some effective sci-fi/action movie action. I especially like his redneck Hulks.

I should point out that from a sci-fi perspective there seem to be a lot of world building holes. I couldn't quite figure out how this post-apocalyptic economy is supposed to work (although I could say the same thing about our actual hopefully-extremely-pre-apocalyptic economy).

Bonus Question: do these kinds of "Imaginary Story"/Elseworlds-style stories have a name? They aren't completely unique to comics, but they are a pretty strange beast.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct by Paul Di Filippo and Jerry Ordway

Generally with these posts, my preference is (a) to try and figure out how these comics are put together and (b) to elaborate on how my own particular p.o.v. affects my capacity to do (a). I've been trying not to talk in terms of this-or-that "working" or "not working", because, IME, those kinds of judgments require making assumptions about how a given comic should work that makes it easier to miss out when a comic is working in a way that is new to me.

But comparing Paul Di Filippo's work on this series to Alan Moore's, what sticks out is not that Di Filippo's ideas aren't as good, necessarily, but that they're a lot more safe, like he knows he's playing with someone else's toys and doesn't want to break them. Or get too attached to them, for that matter: the way the characters are written makes them feel like actors going through the paces in a sequel they're just doing for the money.

So, Di Filippo has a Moore-like overarching A plot, a Morrison-like overarching B plot, and a number of TV cop show-like subplots, but they all feel pasted on. It ends up feeling like the whole thing is badly structured - with an ending that just sort of happens and a lot of scenes that don't seem to add up - but the problem is really that the plot just happens and it isn't grounded the characters or the setting.

And I really like Jerry Ordway's work - Power of Shazam was one of the few super-hero comics I consistently* bought on a monthly basis during the 1990s - but it's never rated very highly on the "sense of humor" scale. So here, while the background jokes are dutifully executed, they're not that funny. Ordway's take on the Top Ten universe is just too literal.

And the whole thing lacks the sense of wonder that made the original Top Ten work: even when it was poking fun at super-hero comics it understood the poetry and majesty of those crazy Jack Kirby images of spandex-clad gods.

*Most of the time in the 1990s I'd follow super-hero titles in bits and pieces and buy up a whole bunch of back issues if something ended up clicking. Ordway's Shazam and James Robinson's Starman were the ones I tried to follow month-in, month-out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Grant Morrison's Dr. Who #1

"Changes", the first story in this collection is a standard Doctor vs. monster story in two parts. It has nice art by John Ridgway that seems completely in line with (the relatively little I know of) the conventions of 1980s British sci-fi comics. Nothing makes it stick out as a "Grant Morrison" comic, although there is some clever dialogue that plays off the monster's shape shifting abilities.

The second story, "Culture Shock!", is a one-parter and, at first glance, seems more like filler. It also has a standard set-up: the Doctor shows up just in time to help some alien creatures in need. But Morrison's take on the creature and its plight - linking the microscopic to the cosmic by dissolving the conceptual barrier between them - is distinctively his own and anticipates some of the ideas that show up in Animal Man, JLA, and The Filth.

Bryan Hitch is the artist here and his work was the only thing that really surprised me in the entire comic. But that's only because I had forgotten that he used to be a real cartoonist. Hitch is very talented and I like a lot of the stuff he does, but while his current style seems to be pretty suited to an action-movie take on super-heroes - like The Ultimates - it feels out of place in a book like Fantastic Four that (at its best) has never been about "realism" of any sort. Dr. Who is definitely more on the Fantastic Four side of the spectrum, so it's nice to see a bit of "cartoony expressiveness" in his work.

From a completist's perspective, I'm glad that these stories are being collected. But even though I'm a reasonably big fan of both Dr. Who and Grant Morrison, I don't think anything here is essential reading. Neither story added anything new to the way I look at the Doctor or at Morrison's work.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Amazing Spider-Man #568 by Dan Slott and John Romita Jr.

"New Ways to Die - Book One"

Inks: Klaus Janson
Colors: Dean White

After reading Sean's review of Kick Ass I was reminded of (a) how much I like John Romita Jr. and (b) how little interest I've had in reading most of the books he's worked on in the last few years. But I saw this in the store yesterday and decided to give it a try. It helped that Dan Slott's name was on the cover, because his Spider Man/Human Torch series is my favorite (relatively) recent Spider-Man comic.

For anyone who can accept the existence of Spider-Man comics by people other than Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, this is a pretty good example of a well made Spider-Man comic. Nothing jaw-dropping from either Romita or Slott , but nicely handled all around. Romita's work is relaxed and assured and a little more stripped down than it was the last time he was on this book: he comes off like the genuine cartoonist he is.

I like the way Slott is weaving the workplace storyline - Peter leaving the Daily Bugle (now a tabloid called the DB) for Ben Urich's paper - together with the super-heroics - Norman Osborne bringing his team of super villains to NYC to hunt down Spidey.

Also important: it really does feel like a first chapter. I haven't read an issue of Amazing Spider-Man since sometime around the end of the J. Michael Straczynski run (when I jumped ship), but there was no head-scratching and I relieved that there was no smell of anything Secret Invasion-like.

I guess what's surprising is that I actually am surprised that this book is pretty good. Though it doesn't have as much personality as some of the more idiosyncratic second-or-third tier super-hero books, it's a worthy enough successor to the Amazing Spider-Man comics I grew up reading.

The problem, of course, is that this shouldn't be surprising. This is what the main Spider-Man comic should be like. I shouldn't be moved to blog about how cool is it that they got Dan Slott and John Romita Jr. to work on this comic because Dan Slott and John Romita Jr. are the guys who should be working on this comic. I shouldn't feel relieved that there's no tie-in here to some convoluted crossover event that will cost me hundreds of dollars to keep up with because children of all ages should feel safe that they can buy an issue of Amazing Spider-Man and get a pretty good Spider-Man story without having to worry about following the Super Skrull over to Captain Britain*.

I realize that this isn't an original complaint. And I also think that Todd's argument here (that stuff like Secret Invasion isn't supposed to work like an old-fashioned Spider-Man comic) is pretty interesting. But I'd recommend this comic to all the other people making this kind of complaint .

*A comic I would try out if it didn't have Secret Invasion on its cover.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Plastic Man Vol. 2: Rubber Bandits by Kyle Baker

The second volume of Kyle Baker's Plastic Man series isn't as consistent as the first. I got the sense from this interview that Baker was trying out different approaches to see if he could find some way to (a) connect with the existing super-hero comics-buying crowd and/or (b) find (perhaps create) an audience for his own kind of humor comic. And this experimentation shows in the book itself. Not that it ever feels like he's flailing around, but he doesn't always seem as comfortable with the material. For example, the two-part "Continuity Bandits" story feels forced in a way that the collection-ending Tom & Jerry tribute doesn't.

I think "Continuity Bandits" - in which Baker expresses his skepticism towards DC's going-on-30-years trend away from making super-hero comics for kids - falls into the same kind of in-between zone as those Nextwave comics I wrote about. It's like a MAD Magazine version of a DC comic, but the satire is blunted because it relies on a bunch of in-jokes. Like Nextwave, this seems to be pitched to people who read contemporary super-hero comics, but think most contemporary super-hero comics are kind of silly. I think this is a limited audience, which is not really a problem, but it's also a limited target. The best MAD Magazine parodies go beyond making jokes at the expense of the target and end up making more expansive cultural criticism. "Continuity Bandits" plays to its (imagined) audience, but that's all it plays to.

That said, Baker's cartooning is great throughout the book and he varies his technique and style on a story-by-story basis. "Continuity Bandits" really looks like classic MAD Magazine, while the Tom & Jerry story is done in a stripped down version of the animation storyboard style of On the Lam. That variety is part of what makes Baker's self-reflexive take on this character work so well: I could imagine him transforming the entire history of cartooning into a bunch of Plastic Man stories.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Selina's Big Score by Darwyn Cooke

There are lots of sequences made up of close-ups of faces in this book: sequences carried by little details changing from panel-to-panel - eyes shifting slightly, a poker face turning into a grin. It's a dangerous tack to take in a book like this - that is, a straightforward, almost classical action/adventure/crime story - and it takes a cartoonist as expressive as Cooke to pull it off. I think that Cooke's art is nice to look at, but it's his skill as a storyteller that makes him more than just a retro stylist.

What Cooke is trying to do here - weave Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman into a Donald E. Westlake a.k.a. Richard Stark-style heist story - isn't completely successful. Cooke lacks Westlake's black comic sense of humor, which, in the Parker novels, manifests as a brutal slapstick and a razor-sharp ironic p.o.v. towards all flavors of self-delusion. Cooke also doesn't have Westlake's flair for clockwork precise plotting. Without those things, its easy for that kind of story to turn into an overly romantic take on the independent, self-sufficient outlaw, which is more-or-less what happens here. "Less" only in that (a) we have two outlaws and (b) they turn out to be not as self-sufficient as they'd like to think they are.

Not surprisingly, it's part (b) that is one of the major themes of the Catwoman series proper, but Cooke isn't able to do much more than hint at it here.

So the pleasures to be had here are mostly in Cooke's cartooning: in the great "acting" of the close-up sequences and the staging of the elaborate heist scenes.

As a possible spiritual sequel to this book, I'd like to see Cooke draw a properBatman vs. Parker story from a Westlake script. (And if Westlake won't do it get Steven Grant or Mike Baron).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ultra: Seven Days by the Luna Brothers

I read this - the Luna Brothers' first series - right after I finished Girls - the Luna Brothers' second series. Looking at this as a warm-up to Girls - which I liked quite a bit and plan to write more on later - makes me want to cut it more slack than I would if it had been my introduction to the Luna Brothers' work. Nonetheless, this is an example of an extremely mediocre comic.

There are a lot of reasons a piece of popular culture might turn out to be mediocre. Sometimes, you get the medicority of competency: work made by professionals that aims to hit as precisely as possible the current, conventional standards of being "well made". Sometimes you get the mediocrity of unreachable ambitions, where a creator can't pull off what they're trying to do. Ultra is arguably more purely, purposefully mediocre than these two kinds of works. It isn't just that Ultra has a high-concept that seems safely different-but-not-too-different from standard super-hero fare. You could make the same claim about Powers. In fact, my guess is that Powers is the inspiration for what the Luna Brothers are doing here: doing a "super-hero world" version of a popular TV genre - police procedural in the case of Powers, primetime soap opera about beautiful, fabulous people in the case of Ultra. The problem is that while Brian Michael Bendis seems perfectly at home writing a police procedural, the Luna Brothers don't have that kind of grasp of the kind of chick lit-influenced soap opera they're attempting here. Because of this, while Powers feels like an attempt for Bendis to do the kind of thing he really loves - write crime stories - and still appeal to the super-hero crowd, Ultra feels calculated, as if the Luna Brothers were looking for a niche they could fill.

This is all speculation and supposition, of course, but for me it's the details that tell the story and in Ultra the details all feel second-hand, as if they were drawn from TV shows and not from life. There's a conversation between Ultra - a popular super-heroine - and a "normal" guy she's going out on a first date with that is indicative of the problem. The guy keeps talking about how weird and cool it is to be on a date with a super-hero and how he can't believe it. To me, that seems like it would be completely off-putting behavior, especially since it has been established that Ultra likes to draw aline between her day job and her private life. But the Luna Brothers seem to be deaf to these kinds of little inconsistencies, which add up over the course of the series.

Ideally, in a genre-mixing work like this, you want the genres to mix in interesting ways: where the conventions of one genre tell us something about the other or where the mixture provides some kind of satirical spark. But that doesn't happen here either. There's no commentary on super-hero comics and , despite the magazine parody covers, no commentary on celebrity culture.

But there are certainly worse ways to try and make a name for yourself, and considering what they would go on to do in Girls (which is neither middle-of-the-road nor impersonal) it isn't so terrible that this feels like such an exercise. Or, rather, reading Girls first I know that the exercise paid off.

This is true from a formal/craft sense perspective as well. A number of the techniques the Luna Brothers try out here - using a computer enhanced "out-of-focus" effect to mimic a rack focus with a camera - are used much more effectively (and discriminatingly) in Girls. And the stripped-down, bare-bones style of Jonathan Luna's cartooning is also a much better fit with the B-movie set-up and rural PA characters and location in Girls. With Ultra it seems a little skimpy.

Ultimately, I think the importance of Ultra and/or any interest in it will have to do with how it fits into our thinking about the Luna Brother's subsequent career and not for its intrinsic value.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Legends #5 and Legends #6

Writers: John Ostrander & Len Wein
Artists: John Byrne & Karl Kesel

I think there's something at least theoretically compelling about pitting Darkseid against the Phantom Stranger. Darkseid isn't just a bad guy: he's a philosopher-tyrant. The Stranger - an otherworldly, occult observer of mankind - should make a decent foil. But there's nothing actually compelling about the way they're used here, partly because there's a major disconnect between what they're saying is happening and the action itself.

So, the Phantom Stranger is telling us - I mean, telling Darkseid - that the heroes will win because the children believe in them (or some kind of garbage along those lines and, come to think of it, "because of the children" is a pretty out-of-character thing for the Phantom Stranger to say - even acknowledging that he doesn't have much character beyond "creepy occult guy" to begin with), but what we see is "the children" being used as a plot device/excuse.

(Oh yeah - Darkseid's plan turns out to have a huge hole in it: if your goal is to turn the people of Earth against its heroes then invading Earth with a super-powered army that only the heroes can defeat is not a good idea because it proves to the people of Earth exactly why they need their heroes.)

There's nothing wrong with these issues that isn't wrong with all of the previous ones: some decent top level thinking but fumbled execution. And, while I'm reluctant to place too much value on "goofiness", this series just doesn't even have that kind of spark to bring it to life. It reads like an assignment that none of the creators particularly wanted.

I started reading this as part of my ongoing attempt to work my way through the entire second volume of the Flash series and, I have to admit, these comics were the first time I really felt bogged down. Baron's work on Flash has its flaws and I think that he never really takes advantage of the benefits of continuity in the way that later writers will, but at least it's a consistent vision for the character and he supports this vision with lots of little details. Baron's Flash isn't as good as Baron's work on his own characters, but nothing about it feels like he doesn't care or didn't have time to get it right.

Quick comics reading auto-biographical note: picking up Legends must have been what got me into reading DC comics, because all of the DC comics I ended up following for any lentgh of time - Flash, Justice League, Suicide Squad - were Legends spin-offs.