Friday, August 29, 2008

52 #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6

Inspired by my recent DC comics reading, I decided to finally catch up with this series.

First, I'm surprised at how engrossing the story is. 52 is the super-hero comics equivalent of a high-brow "airport" novel, like Foucault's Pendulum or those thick Neal Stephenson books.

But I'm glad that I'm catching up with everything "after the fact", so the high pressure aspect of the event (buy it every Wednesday to keep up or you will be left behind) isn't part of my reading experience.

I'm also having fun checking out Doug Wolk's 52 Pickup blog as I go along. Here's a great quote from his commentary on the first issue:

To expand a little on a slightly too gristly idea that I tossed off in my Salon piece this weekend: What [Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman] have in common, which other (DC) characters don't, is that they all represent in some way the idea of human perfectibility--and, to some extent, the weak spots of that concept. Superman is the perfect person, as the result of a combination of an accident of birth and his upbringing; he's also not actually human, and as Geoff Johns pointed out in IC, his existence is proof that the world he's in is imperfect. Batman has made himself as perfect as a person can; as a result, he has systematically sacrificed his humanity. Wonder Woman is a sort of prophet of human perfectibility, in the sense of self-help: her mission in the world beyond Themiscyra has been to present the world with her vision of what society and individual behavior ought to be. (She is, of course, the least human of the three, both in her personal history and in the sense that she wants to remold the world rather than simply protect it.)

Finally, I think Infinite Crisis is a comparable achievement to the original Crisis, but reading 52 alongside Legends it's amazing how much more sophisticated and ambitious 52 is on almost every level: in terms of production, marketing, and distribution, but also in terms of narrative complexity, thematic nuance, and how it makes use of the DC Mythos.

Middle of the Road Recommendations

I do a pretty good job of keeping up with what's new in "art comics" - Fantagraphics, Picturebox, D&Q, etc. And I keep up as much as I want to with what's new in Big Two super-hero comics. What I'm more or less clueless about are non-Big Two genre books: the contemporary equivalent of Matt Wagner's Grendel stories, Nexus, Zot!, etc. Any suggestions of good/interesting stuff to look out for? I'm especially interested in recommendations of these type of comics written/drawn by guys who don't have a Big Two presence (i.e., not Robert Kirkman, Warren Ellis, or Ed Brubaker).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Legends #3 - "Send for... the Suicide Squad"

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

In a comment on my post on the previous issue, Nik brought up the series' seemingly endless exposition scenes. In this issue, the exposition is cross-cut with the main action: at the bottom of every page we have a panel of Darkseid and the Phantom Stranger recapping everything that happened in previous issues. Then they finish recapping previous issues and start recapping this issue! Laying it out this way is a kind of half-smart idea that backfires: in some ways it's more interesting than a two or three page info-dump. I can even imagine that you could play the exposition to counterpoint the current action, which would be more than interesting and actually thematically compelling. But that doesn't happen here.

From a historical perspective, I can't help wondering about DC's editorial policy regarding this kind of recapping. I thought it was strange that the first issue of Flash didn't really give any background for a completely new reader - something I would assume you'd want to do in a first issue. But three issues into Legends - a comic book that will make no sense unless you've already read the first two issues of the series; a series that will make no sense unless you're already a fairly hardcore DC reader - all this recapping seems like a waste of space.


From a nostalgic fanboy perspective, I was glad to see the introduction of the Suicide Squad. Suicide Squad was one of the DC titles I collected religiously. In fact, looking back, most of the DC titles I got into - Suicide Squad, Flash, the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League - were Legends spin-offs. So, some anecdotal market research showing that these events can bring in new readers.

The stuff with the Squad is handled fairly well, even if they have to stretch it a bit to make Captain Boomerang's inclusion on the mission make sense. (Interesting also to see how many of these characters would end up playing some part in all the Countdowns and Crises of the last few years).

The big problem with this issue has to do with Darkseid's running commentary. Blockbuster dies in the Squad's attempt to take on Brimstone. Cool enough - it's the Suicide Squad after all. The problem is that Darkseid refers to Blockbuster's death as another "Legend" falling. That is, to put it mildly, stretching things. It would be one thing is a fourth string super-hero had bitten the dust, but Blockbuster is a fourth string Batman villain. Not a "Legend". I see this as another case where the writers' "Big Ideas" are just fine, but the execution is hobbled. I don't think this is because of editorial constraints in themselves, but rather because the writers did not (or did not have time) to work out the details of their plot (and the dialogue) with those constraints in mind.

In terms of making use of the DC Mythos, the Big Picture Good/Details Bad thing carries over to a comparison with Baron's Flash:

Ostrander and Wein have a better sense of how to use the DC Mythos to generate some thematic oomph through how they position the various characters. However, they flub a lot of the little narrative details, so the theme feels layered on and unearned.

Baron does not seem to be interested in using the Mythos in this way. IMO, he misses out on getting the most thematic oomph out of the Mythos. (The DCU-related aspects of his Flash series are the ones it inherited from Legends). However, his Flash series works pretty well on a detail level. Without that connection to the larger DC Mythos, though, there's not much point to writing about Wally West.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Legends #2

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

So - what's the point of Legends?

From a market perspective, Legends was supposed to help reintroduce some characters into the post-Crisis Mythos: Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, a new incarnation of the Justice League, the Wally West version of the Flash, the new Suicide Squad, and probably a few more I am forgetting.

From a theme/aesthetic perspective, the idea seems to be call into question our need for heroic storytelling. Well, not really call it into question, since, as opposed to things like Squadron Supreme or Watchmen, we already really know what the answer will be, but you know what I mean.

The writers put what could be words from a "serious" comics critics in G. Gordon Godfrey's mouth: "I feel the very concept of the hero has become trite and outmoded! Today's high-powered world is too sophisticated, too complicated, simply too dangerous for such an outdated notion as the heroic ideal! It's time we put all such childish notions behind us!" (In fact, I'm pretty sure that you can find these exact sentiments on this recent thread from the TCJ message board).

Of course, this is all part of Darkseid's plot.

Which reminds me...

The first issue ended with what I felt was a very effective moment: Billy Batson vowing to never again become Captain Marvel because he had accidentally electrocuted a giant Kirby-esque villain. That had some teeth to it, but here we find out that, no, Cap wasn't responsible at all. It was all part of Darkseid's plan: Darkseid had Macro-Man rigged with dynamite that would explode when Cap had his lightning bolt strike, which Cap was psychically induced by Darkseid's minions to call down.

This is a big problem with these kinds of "event" comics (at least until recently - I'm not completely up to date): the creators want to change things up and introduce new ideas, but, whoops, they can't really be too new and the can't challenge any of the givens of the "property".

But the bait-and-switch here feels a little like editorial weaseling. They want Cap to face a moral choice, but they want to make sure that the moral choice has no teeth to it.

Actually, after a little more reflection, I think the problem here is that Ostrander and Wein are fumbling the details. Darkseid's overall plan - destroy Earth's heroes by having the public turn against them - is solid enough. But writer's scene-to-scene execution of this plan is spotty at best. Darkseid should be able to come up with gambits that are a lot less clumsy than these. This gets back to the Fault Line Question: Kirby's Darkseid deserves to be much more than merely the Big Bad of the Week/Month/Year.

The rest of the issue features scenes of regular folks buying into Godfrey's message and turning on various heroes. Some of these scenes work, but most of them feel a little "off" in some way - somehow not true to the characters involved. For instance, an angry crowd turns against Batman and Robin. Not a bad idea in itself, but it isn't handled very well. For one thing, it just doesn't feel right to have Batman out in broad daylight in a mall. For another, it is almost a complete deal-breaker that Batman would abandon Robin to the mob, as he does here - leaving Robin to get beaten!

The similar scene with the Blue Beetle works much better.

The highlight scene might be the one between Reagan and Superman, where the Pres explains that he needs to call on all heroes to cease their activities in order to quell the growing tide of public distrust. It's interesting to see Ostrander and Wein try to bring elements of TDKR and Watchmen into a mainstream DCU title.

I should also note that the Phantom Stranger shows up hanging out with Darkseid and I have no idea where he came from. Was he introduced in one of the tie-in issues that I don't have? I'm not sure and there's no indication given here about where I should look for an answer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Legends #1 - "Once Upon a Time...!"

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

Since the second Flash series "spun out" of Legends, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at it. I'm glad I did! A lot of my recent theoretical/critical musings on DC comics have been based on half-remembered comics read long ago, so I'm never quite sure how well they'll stand up when tested against the thing itself. For example, I was looking for evidence of the benefits of writing Mythos-centric super-hero comics, but, so far, the Baron/Guice run on Flash has mostly shown the costs of this kind of writing.

So, on an admittedly self-centered level, I find Legends interesting because it confirms some of my ideas about the way DC's different "ages" break down in terms of (a) the relationship of the Mythos to the World and (b) the amount of self-reflexivity in the writing.

We open on Apokolips, with some pitch-perfect caption writing from Len Wein:

"Here, where even miles-high columns of flame spewed ceaselessly by awesome energy-pits fail to penetrate the eternal darkness, joy is unknown and hope is a capital offense..."

Hey - here's another theory:

There are a couple of what I'd call "Fault Line Questions" that creators (meaning writers, artists, and editorial) need to deal with when they're mucking around with the DC Mythos. These are questions that cry out to be answered, but attempts to answer them definitively usually end up creating some kind of rupture in the Mythos, which then needs to be addressed in turn, leading to a cycle of Perpetual Crises.

Maybe the biggest Fault Line Questions is "What do we do with Superman?" But coming in second is probably "What do we do with the Fourth World?"

I don't want to characterize the Fourth World as "Kirby's Last Gasp" (I think his work throughout the 9170s was pretty strong), but it was his last (or, arguably, only) chance of creating an entire "Universe" of his own. Unlike the DCU proper, which was made up of bits and pieces foraged from various Golden Age comics, the Fourth World was a coherent creation of a singular artistic vision - one of the strongest, and most singular in all of comics (and not just super-hero comics). And it also represents one of the last major "explosions" of creativity in mainstream super-hero comics (in order: the initial Golden Age boom, Julie Schwartz's Silver Age refurbishments, the Stan Lee et al.'s Marvel Age, and, finally, the Fourth World).

So, on the one hand, you've got this incredibly rich and evocative cast of characters and series of storylines. So rich and so evocative that they form the core of one of the major pop culture events of the last forty years. On the other hand, the Fourth World is palpably its own thing, or rather, Kirby's own thing. It is not quite compatible with the DCU, even though Kirby's attempt to make it so are among his most interesting comics.

With Legends, DC was trying to set up some overarching storylines and themes for a post-Crisis DCU and, following The Great Darkness Saga, they pick Darkseid to be the new Big Bad. Early into the first issue, he gives us a Title for the series and its Argument. Ranting about those accursed super-heroes of Earth, he says:

"To some these puny creatures are legends, the stories of their greatness inspiring others to greatness as well! Perhaps the time has come to strike at the core of the problem -- to destroy the very concept of such legends!"

So begins Operation Humiliation!

A quick comics-in-the-good-old-days note: Ostrander, Wein, and Byrne pull off some economical storytelling here. We get a quick set-up and then jump right into the action.

From a Flash-project p.o.v., it's interesting to see that a lot of the themes Baron has to work with are set up here. (How does that bear on the issues being discussed in these comments?)

We're also introduced to Glorious Godfrey, who has come to Earth in the disguise of media pundit G. Gordon Godfrey, speaking out against super-heroes. Anti-super hero punditry isn't a new development (see J. Jonah Jameson), but I get the sense that this particular incarnation is very much inspired by Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, which finished up a few months before Legends began.

The first issue ends with something that I had forgotten, but was like "Oh, yeah - I remember that!" after I re-read it. Captain Marvel is caught in the grip of a giant Kirby-lite villain called Macro-Man (John Byrne has drawn him so he looks like a midget Galactus). To escape, Cap yells "Shazam!", thinking that as Billy Batson he'll be able to wriggle free. But, alas, the magic lightning bolt fries Macro-Man to death! Guilt stricken, Billy vows never to become Captain Marvel again.

Though this sounds grim, surprisingly enough it's a pretty effective moment. Unfortunately, just around the corner in Legends, we'll get some narrative weaseling that will completely undermine any impact this had. (On second thought, James, maybe you're right!)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Flash v. 2 #5 and Flash v. 2 #6

Writer: Mike Baron
Artists: Jackson Guice, Larry Mahlstedt, & Jack Torrance

I use "On the one hand/On the other" formulations a lot in my writing not so much because I'm trying to see all sides of a work of art, but because I want my writing to convey the sense I have of working through art instead of passing judgment on it. If that makes me seem wishy-washy, well, then, so be it.

Anyway, the "On the one hand" operating here: it's in these two issues that everything Baron and Guice have been trying to do finally clicks into place. Wally goes up against Speeds McGee - a ragin', 'roid abusin' bad guy who seems like he could have come out of the darkest issues of Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme. There are quite a few good "spectacle" scenes that revolve around Speeds' lack of control of his super powers. Baron and Guice don't play this as slapstick, but rather as more sci-fi-ish detail.

The "On the other hand" is that the whole thing is kicked off by having Speeds beat up his wife, who is also Flash's girlfriend. That kind of thing usually strikes me as a bit of a cheap trick: an artificial way to ramp up the emotional stakes and an easy way to come off as serious.

Baron is on much firmer footing with his throwaway realistic details, like the idea that the town Wally just moved to can no longer afford liability insurance because of the fear that a super-hero's presence will attract attacks from super-villains.

And, though Speeds McGee isn't that original of an idea - he's another "Rival" Flash - Baron uses him pretty effectively. His 'roid rage and his lack of control make him a good foil for Wally.

It all leads to the best fight scene we've had yet, but, interestingly enough, it is, once again, somewhat anticlimactic: Flash doesn't defeat Speeds - Speeds just wears himself out through 'roid abuse.

These two issues definitely fit into the wave of "realistic" leaning super-hero stories from that time - Watchmen, the New Universe, the Wild Card stories, the Mike Grell's Longbow Hunters version of Green Arrow, and probably a bunch more. (I'll also mention Squadron Supreme, because even though it came out a year or two earlier, it's my favorite). Though Baron's work on Nexus and Badger probably helped to originate this trend, here he seems to be just riding the wave.

One of the reasons I started going back through my old issues of Flash is that I wanted to see what specific benefits creators have when working within the DC Mythos, especially since there are a lot of costs involved. However, so far, I don't get the sense that Baron is able to actualize much of that potential benefit. He obviously knows how to write super-hero comics, but, based on this series, it doesn't seem that he has a particular affinity for writing DC super-hero comics.

Flash v. 2 #4 - "Kill the Kilg%re"

Writer: Mike Baron
Artists: Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt

I love this issue's cover - the best so far - which strikes the right pulpy sci-fi-ish feel for this incarnation of the character.

What's interesting from a contemporary perspective is the way that Cold War paranoia has seeped into the storyline: they come up with a plan to stop Kilg%re - turn off all the power in the world - but the US government flacks balk because they're afraid the Soviets might use that as an opportunity to make a sneak attack.

The first action sequence in this issue is the first in the series that really flat out works, but there's still not much in the way of interesting use of Flash's super-powers.

I've also been going through the B&W first volume of Showcase Presents The Flash, as a kind of supplement to this exercise, and I can't help but note how inventive John Broome and Carmine Infantino are when it comes to figuring out different ways to show Flash using his powers. One of the premises of Baron/Guice's run is that while Flash is still really fast, he has lost a lot of his super-speed. He's not longer able to reach light speed or travel around the world eight times in one second. This is part of the overall move towards a more down-to-earth version of superheroics, but it also seems to have cut off opportunities for spectacular, flashy action.

The final fight is better, though: it's more of a chase and it emphasizes speed and motion.

I've been hard on Guice's work, but I should point out he's not at all a bad comics artist. He has a good sense of space and pacing. His figure drawing and characterizations are fairly expressive. However, four issues in, he hasn't yet shown that he's particularly comfortable as a super-hero comics artist and he hasn't been able to turn his discomfort into a virtue (a la Don Heck).

Overall, though, the book has recovered from the second issue's misstep.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Flash v. 2 #3 - "The Kilg%re"

"His finger."

Writer: Mike Baron
Artists: Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt

Baron opens with Wally getting a speeding ticket while driving his new sports car (remember the lotto win). The irony is a bit too thick for me, but the tone is back on track after the confusion of last issue.

After that, Wally finds out that Frances has moved out on him. Did all DC comics of the late 80s go for this quasi-PG-13 feel?

Guice continues to have problems - IMO - drawing Flash in costume. He still always seems too posed, especially when he's in the same panel as "normal" characters. Looking at the GCD, it seems that at this point Guice had some experience drawing super-heroes, but not tons of it. He is unable to successfully integrate Flash into the rest of the action: he's always popping out, as if he were a cut-out figure.

I'd also point out that the fight with Vandal Savage from the last issue was a pretty standard super-hero fight. There's no reason it couldn't have been Daredevil versus some Man Mountain goon. That is: neither Guice nor Baron have done much with Flash's superspeed.

That's always a danger with the day-in-the-life approach to a fantastic subject. The spectacle - superpowers in action - is part of the draw of the premise. But day-in-the-life works partly by muting the spectacle.

So far, the best visuals were in the first issue's cross country trek, which was also had an effective matter-of-fact, all-in-a-day's-work feel to it. But it's hard to hit this balance: Kurt Busiek managed it only some of the time in the early Astro City stories.

The bad guy in this issue fits in much better to Baron's overall take on the character: Kilg%re is a giant other-dimensional robot, trapped just outside of "now". There's some neat background commentary on our reliance on technology: Kilg%re praises the humanoids for terraforming their planet to fit his needs.

Why I like Kilg%re more than Vandal Savage as a villain in this series: Kilg%re is a neat, contempo sci-fi idea (he anticipates some of the monsters from Grant Morrison-era JLA) that fits in well with Baron's contempo sci-fi-ish approach. There are many super-hero comics where Vandal Savage would fit right in, but (so far) this is not one of them.

I should also note the introduction of Tina McGee and the possibility of some more PG-13-ish stuff in the form of an affair between Flash and a married woman!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Flash v. 2 #2

Writer: Mike Baron
Artists: Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt

Vandal Savage made his appearance last issue, but here he's the main attraction. I'm not sure, but I think this might have been Savage's post-Crisis reintroduction. The problem is that Baron can't quite seem to make Savage - or at least this version of Savage - fit into what he's trying to do.

I think that super-hero comics are always full of elements that "don't fit". One of the jobs of the super-hero auteur is to make it seem like they fit, whether through sheer force of artistic personality (the Jack Kirby-Frank Miller approach) or some kind of narrative sleight-of-hand (the approach taken by John Broome or Grant Morrison or Roy Thomas). What's a little strange about Baron struggling with this here is that he had licked this problem in Nexus and, it seems (I say seems because I'm just starting to read it for the first time), Badger. I'd like to know whether or not using Vandal Savage was something editorial forced on him or if Baron thought he could work some of that Badger/Ham magic.

But it never really comes together. Savage is a major villain, but he comes off here as a two-bit operator. That was often part of the charm of Bronze and Silver Age comics, but the gestures Baron has been making towards day-in-the-life-of realism aren't compatible with it. Baron lays on the mumbo jumbo and he seems to almost give up on trying to write evocative dialogue. Here's an exchange between Savange and Flash:

Savage: "I cannot die, therefore I kill."
Flash: "I don't understand."
Savage: "You do not live long enough to understand."

I don't like to pick on dialogue, especially out-of-context like this. Comics are a visual medium and the important question is always whether or not it works visually. But this little snippet sticks out because it is so much worse than any of the other writing in the series up to this point. I take it as more evidence that Baron just didn't know what to do with Savage.

I did like the final fight though, which features Frances Kane using her magnetic powers to TK a fork into Savage's face. You go girl! The fight and the issue end somewhat anti-climatically. Savage isn't really defeated: it's more like he had enough and decided to split.

Baron keeps up some of the motifs from the first issue: there's still a focus on Flash's health/biology/metabolism - he keeps going back to the hospital.

But in other areas, realism is completely hand waved. Like: Flash is supposed to be an ace hacker. I can't recall that this little element ever popped up again. (But I guess we'll see).

No commentary on this issue would be complete without mentioning that Wally wears the most Godawful ugly purple suit when he goes out dancing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Flash v. 2 #1 - "Happy Birthday Wally"

"I can feel the heart sloshing around on my back. What am I doing?!"

Writer: Mike Baron
Artists: Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt

There's something very stilted about the way Jackson Guice draws Flash when he's in his costume. He does just fine with Wall West in civvies and he doesn't do a bad job with the other costumed characters, but his Flash always looks uncomfortably posed.

Mike Baron sets up his central idea pretty quickly: Wally struggles at being a hero and is living in Barry Allen's shadow.

Interesting in that this is a first issue, but there's very little in the way of an origin story or a synopsis for new readers. It seems to assume you know who Barry Allen is, that he died, that Wally West used to be his sidekick, that until recently Wally was still going by the name Kid Flash, and that he's a member of the Teen Titans. All of this comes out in passing, but none of it is laid out for the reader.

I'm not sure that this assumption is a bad thing in and of itself, although it suggests to me that bringing in new readers either wasn't a priority or, if it was a priority, it wasn't something that was being carried out in any kind of methodical manner.

Baron adds a number of light science-fictional touches. Wally's superspeed is tied into his super metabolism, so him having to eat and sleep a lot becomes a recurring motif. The idea is: having superpowers has a real world cost.

Baron comes up with another neat idea related to Flash's powers: Wally is sometimes moving too fast to fully take things in. His double-take at Vandal Savange is pretty neatly staged.

More bits of "reality": Flash doesn't have an income, so he can't afford to be a complete altruist. He offers his services to a hospital trying to deliver a heart for transplant in exchange for health coverage.

Baron is explicit with this theme. He has Wally tell us that Barry "died owing thousands of dollars in legal bills... He left me his costumes. And a picture of what a hero should be."

What a hero should be and what Wally is actually able to do is the conflict here. While delivering the heart, he passes by an accident, leaves a man to die in the snow, and leaves Vandal Savage to the police. Baron is focusing on the idea that Wally has to make choices, has to sacrifice: he only has a certain amount of energy and choosing to spend it one way rather than another has consequences.

But Baron's approach isn't operatic: there's much more of an "all in a day's work" feel to the action here.

Finally, this ends on an interesting note: Wally wins the lottery. It isn't unprecedented for a super-hero comic to deal with economics in this way (there's that Fantastic Four story where the team goes bankrupt), but the lottery is a pretty bizarre touch. It's like a wish fulfillment fantasy put on top of another wish fulfillment fantasy that Baron has been poking with a stick.

We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Three Comics Notes


In a great post on dogs in comics, Jim Henley characterizes the original Crisis as DC's first "laborious attempts to 'clean up' and modernize their continuity, which they believe should always be done in full view of readers, over months (lately, years) of time, across all their books at once, which may seem like it offers all the excitement of watching stage hands set up props between acts but which goes on for a lot longer."

I think what he's saying is partially true, but I'm coming around to the belief that it's actually a good thing. Or at least a good/bad thing. To get the bad out of the way: it is nakedly consumerist. There's something a little bit off-putting about DC's huge, Mythos-spanning stories costing more per month than a high-end Netflix membership - especially when the quality of the books is uneven at best.

And I think that a lot of smart people who grew up with and out of DC's super hero comics tend to look at things Jim's way: that it is perverse and even fetishistic to expend so much time and energy on stage-managing "continuity".

But for me, the perversity of the endeavor - its uniqueness - is what makes it so interesting. There is simply nothing else like it.

Uniqueness doesn't necessarily equal aesthetic value, but, in this case, I think uniqueness does give the auteurs of these comics something they couldn't get anywhere else.

The exact nature of that something is still a subject for further research here.


Tom Spurgeon's post on the Siegel case is a necessary reminder that there are real world consequences and implications to all of this:

Comics is an industry built on exploitation. No amount of giving each other awards, or doing work of a noble sort off the books and behind the scenes, or reforming a system so that it becomes in some cases slightly less horrible -- none of it changes that basic fact. The level of discourse between DC Comics and Jerry Siegel should surprise only in that nearly every single creative professional sees in its talk of necessary abortions and unfit artists an exchange they've endured, a relationship they've suffered, a dismissal of idea or an ambition they've experienced. We are the only industry that so loves its Colonel Parkers and so distrusts its Elvis Presleys. That managers and makers have spent equal time this summer preening in the spotlight of appreciation brought by a world starved for idiosyncratic creation shows just how damaged we've become.

As an aside: I started thinking about the comparison between the way DC and the comics industry in general treated Siegel and the way RKO and Hollywood in general treated Orson Welles. In both cases, the treatment was despicable. But, building on one of Tom's points, Siegel was exploited by the comics industry, but (following the argument put forth in Jonathan Rosenbaum's Discovering Orson Welles) it was Welles who "exploited" Hollywood in order to get Kane made.

The cases become a little more comparable when we look at how Kane is held up today as an example of "Hollywood" at its best, even though, at the time, Hollywood did it's best to make sure no one saw the movie and would go on to ensure that Welles never worked with that kind of freedom in Hollywood again.

But, still, Kane didn't create Hollywood in the way that Siegel (and Shuster) created super-hero comics.

So, almost any way you look at it, the comics industry ends up coming out behind Hollywood when it comes to how it treated its artists.

How the exploitation of Siegel effects the way we respond to something like Morrison's All-Star Superman is also a subject of further research. (But for a start: (1) give Siegel the prasie he deserves, (2) avoid "blaming the victim", (3) remember that DC's concern for the bottom line has laways trumped their any corncern they had for ethical and aesthetic values).


Finally, in his review of Watchmen Sean writes:

Instead, what strikes me hardest here, what I don't think I ever thought about all that much before, is how much power the story draws from its uniformly engaging sad-sack main characters. I think it's here that Dave Gibbons's contribution is at its most valuable, with his all but countless shots of heroes and do-gooders worrying, frowning, furrowing their brows, being uncertain. It must be noted that this is worlds away from the Identity Crisis-style vogue for angst and selfish over-emoting. All the characters in those "you'll believe a man can cry"-type supercomics are just as 100% sure of their emotional experience as their relentlessly upbeat Silver Age counterparts used to be. Not so in Watchmen, where the primary mode of emotional interaction with the world is confused dismay. The mileage Moore can get out of this is almost inexhaustible. These aren't emo Batmen, they're Tony Sopranos and Seth Bullocks, idiosyncratic and troubling portraits of great physical strength and moral violence juxtaposed against tremendous emotional and psychological weakness. Their failures--and they spend pretty much the whole book failing--are hard to stomach, especially giving the truly impressive air of impending doom Moore creates out of snippets of current-events and vox-pop cutaways; we hope for their success even though the art and the script both do everything they can to show us without coming out and saying it that their failure is inevitable. I'll tell you, reading the book this time around, when Rorschach takes off his mask at the end and yells "Do it!" at Dr. Manhattan, tears streaming down his face, I nearly started to cry. To me now, it's almost as devastating as that line "I did it thirty-five minutes ago" and the subsequent reaction shot were 11 years ago.

This gives me yet another opportunity to get on my particular Dave Gibbons/Watchmen hobby horse. The failure, IMO, as represented through the figure drawing, is primarily a failure to defy gravity.

Monday, August 4, 2008


The evolution of an idea:

1. Sean Collins reviews The Great Darkness Saga collection, praises elements of the book, then writes:

Now, is this a great comic book? No. It's too rooted in house-style artistic aesthetics, expository dialogue, self-referential continuity, corny jokes, and everything else you'd expect from a basic superhero comic of the early '80s.
2. Partly inspired by reading the Silver Age criticism at Mike Grost's site (which, by the way, is an amazing resource), asked whether there are any comics that are rooted in house-style etc. but that are also great.

3. This question is in the back of my mind during my walks to-and-from work: keep thinking about Geoff Johns' run on The Flash and the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans comics, which are among favorite "conventional" super-hero comics.

4. Thoughts turn more generally to conventional super hero comics that deal with "real world" issues. Wonder why some I like (Geoff Johns on The Flash), some I really, really don't (Identity Crisis).

5. Out of fairness, re-read Identity Crisis. Maybe I was too harsh the first time around. Maybe I missed something.

6. Decide I didn't miss anything, but start trying to clarify my thoughts on the series.

7. Begin a blog post about Identity Crisis:

In the past, I've often fallen into the trap of trying to frame my dislike of a work of art as a principled objection to something inherent in the work's very conception, rather than as a [ed. note: sentence never finished]. Earlier this year, that's essentially what I was doing when I described my dislike of Identity Crisis to a film critic friend who doesn't follow comic books, but enjoys the occasional super-hero movie. My argument was that you can't deal with rape in a Justice League story: the presence of Silver Age characters like Elongated Man undermines the seriousness of the rape, the rape undermines the integrity of the Silver Age characters. The principled objection: this kind of realistic take on super-heroes is inherently flawed.

Using that objection as the basis for my case that Identity Crisis was a bad comic was a bit of posturing, because I had certainly read and enjoyed a lot of serious super-hero comics. But I had always been a bit, well, dishonest - with myself and with others - by playing that down. I liked the Marv Wolfman/George Perez Teen Titans comics and Geoff Johns's run on The Flash, but I wasn't going to talk about them as anything but a kind of guilty pleasure.

Part of the problem is that I had gotten into the habit of looking at super-hero comics from the point of view of someone who hadn't read them for much of his life: focusing on how they would come across to an "outsider". This would have been a reasonable enough thing to do if I had been talking about expanding the audience for super-hero comic books, but I am more and more convinced that it was almost completely useless for any kind of criticism.

This is all an elaborate way to get to this: I still dislike Identity Crisis. I still think it's bad super-hero comics. Not because it tries to mix Silver Age heroes with serious subject matter, but for much more nuts and bolts reasons.

The first issue opens with Elongated Man and Firehawk on a stakeout. This sequence really sets out Brad Meltzer's M.O.:

(1) A focus on second or third rate heroes who constantly make reference to their second or third rate status. Self-consciousness about status issues among heroes and villains is one of the recurring motifs of the series.

(2) Attempts to reframe whimsical/fanciful Silver Age remnants in the mythos into something not whimsical or fanciful, presented as someone giving the inside dope.

(3) [ed. note: never got to number 3]

What Meltzer is doing is familiar enough from comics continuing in the Neal Adams/Denny O'Neil tradition of placing elements from DC's Silver Age into opposition with elements from the real world. How Meltzer is doing it deserves more scrutiny.

8. Get tired of detailed analysis of a comic I don't like (major flaw as a blogger), but like idea of Adams/O'Neil opposing Mythos with "reality". Idea goes back to my criticism of Watchmen, which unlike most criticism of that book, tries to deal with what Dave Gibbons is doing.

9. More thought on walks to-and-from work leads to following theory about DC Mythos:

Golden Age: Mythos creation is ad hoc. Relationship of Mythos to "reality" not an issue. Power comes from seeming anarchy of the proceedings (see The Great Comic Book Heroes).

Silver Age: Mythos creation is part of the purpose of individual stories. How things fit into Mythos is a genuine concern and subject of stories ("Flash of Two Worlds"). Mythos has its own rules that are not those of "reality": per Mike Grost, the "logic" of the Superman Mythos. Mythos has internal integrity: relationship to "reality" is allegorical. Power comes from the intricacy/beauty of this internal consistency.

Bronze Age: Mythos placed in opposition to "reality". Explicitly so in Adams/O'Neil Green Lantern/Green Arrow (that's even the meaning of the "/") and late Bronze Age works like "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Power comes from unresolved tension between Mythos and "reality".

10. Posit that what comes next is a "Modern Age" that attempts to resolve the contradiction, but that this resolution leads to more problems. Crisis on Infinite Earths leads to an anti-Silver Age. Focus is on instability of the Mythos with regard to Bronze Age "infection" of reality.

11. Get idea that Grant Morrison somehow sidesteps all this. Compose previous post.

12. Start poll on Nerd NYC board based on ideas spun out of Morrison post.

13. Go back to thinking about Geoff Johns. Wonder if Infinite Crisis is different in kind from original Crisis or just different in magnitude.

14. Decide it is a little of both. Infinite Crisis makes revising/reinterpreting the Mythos the central point of the Mythos. Marks some kind of change from what Wolfman et al. were up to.

15. End up feeling deep down really should keep up with Final Crisis. Realize DC's fanboy-centric marketing did its trick. Damn American corporate consumerist culture. Where's Seaguy when you need him?