Friday, November 30, 2007

Complaining about people complaining on the old complainosphere


Civil War/Death of Cap is still dumbest story this CENTURY, CLone Saga is dumbest story EVER, but this whole Ooops Another Day thing is yet another cake made of turds delivered on a Fuck You platter by Joey the Q.

Way to go, pork-vacuum, you managed to make Marvel 100% in a single 18-month period. Not only did Joey the Q ruin *new* Marvel for me, but his recent shit has so tainted Marvel for me that I can’t even read the decades of old stuff I had. HAD. I got rid of ALL of it.

Stupid fucking crap.

-someone using the tasteful pseudonym Quesada, Quesadilla, Same Shit, Different Name.

Ah yes. I mean, I'm not sure whether or not to take the comment literally--it seems highly unlikely that (a) someone would actually sell all their accumulated Marvel back issues based on two stories. But then again, I find it incredibly hard to believe that (b) someone would feel that every Marvel comic ever had been ruined by these two aforementioned stories. If (b) is true, then maybe (a) is true as well. I don't know. I don't have a background in aberrant psychology.

I'm genuinely surprised that anyone that easily set off by two discrete events would have any accumulation of comics anyway--stupid shit like this happens all the time (just look at the other comments on that thread!). Of course, it's also possible that this is a 15 year old kid for whom these are the first in a lifetime worth of moments of disillusion with Marvel/DC comics, in which case YAY COMICS ARE ATTRACTING AN ENTIRELY NEW GENERATION OF PEOPLE TO MAKE FUN OF JOE QUESADA'S NAME!!! It's a great sign for the overall health of the industry, clearly. Unless this dude* is just downloading stuff. Actually, that makes a lot of sense--it's probably much easier to clear a hard drive knowing that you can just re-download it all again when you've calmed down. This might be the third or fourth time this has happened, even.

Having said all that, this does sound pretty stupid. Which is kind of the status quo for Spider-Man. Is there any other superhero comic with as yawning a chasm between the quality of the peak work and the quality of everything since? I'm not talking about zenith vs. nadir here, but zenith vs. the non-zenith mean. The Stern/first DeFalco era was pretty good, largely due to the Hobgoblin as a mystery villain, but nothing else really stands out. Post-Gwen Stacy death, is there really anything worthwhile besides the introduction of a new costume and a couple of new villains? Fantastic Four has done much, much better by comparison.

*Meant in an entirely gender-neutral way, naturally.

-Also worth noting on the Comics Should Be Good comment-leaving front: some guy somehow manage to get all worked up by Greg Burgas' annual take on Wizard's year in review type issue. Or maybe that's sarcasm. I have no idea. It's either sarcasm or ad hominem, and either one seems pretty likely on the internet. One thing I can rule out: it's not a teenage kid, considering this guy apparently is associated with Platinum. (Yes, I Googled the name. No, it didn't help me determine whether said comment was a sad joke or a regular joke.)

(I though Burgas' post was pretty funny, FWIW. I haven't read Wizard in years, so it's good to hear a detailed description of an issue's contents, just so to confirm that I can continue using it as a symbol for a certain type of fanboy mentality. Also, it's interesting to see that so many people basically found 300 as boring as I did. The film's politics are so horrifying that it's easy to forget that it sucked in a variety of other ways as well.)

-Also worth noting for fans of reactionary goofiness: this.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Excuses, excuses

Yes, this is another apology-for-not-posting post. My birthday was earlier this week, so I'm entitled, right? What if I told you I got Mass Effect for my birthday? Would that make this absence more understandable?

I'm working up something about the idea of naturalism in comics, but I don't really have that whipped into shape yet. And I haven't really finished anything from my big pile of recently arrived comics, partly because of the aforementioned game (and also Metroid Prime 3, which I recently finished--and by "finished," I mean "gave up on the final boss battle so I could go ahead and get started on Mass Effect"). And there's Rock Band as well. So no new reviews, either. But potential good news: there's supposedly an ice storm headed this way, so maybe the power will be knocked out and I'll have nothing else to do but read all those nice new comics currently piled up on about a foot away from me. Then, should the power still be out, I can write some reviews and send them all to you via courier. Now I just need to find my signet ring so that I can seal the letters with the Hyacinth family crest (a walrus impaling its tusk in a hearty block of tofu, if memory serves; admittedly, it doesn't look very good embossed in wax, but what are you going to do?).

Okay, here's one comics-related thought: will there be fewer reviews of crappy Marvel/DC books by non-comics shop employees, given all the recent Z-Cult hubbub? Or has the blogosphere figured out that bit torrent is basically for suckers?

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's really officially cold now

-We still have plenty of pie left, several days after Thanksgiving. I'd offer you a piece if file sharing technology were advanced enough to include foodstuffs. Maybe one day, if the Pillsbury people ever learn that pastries want to be free, man.

And in one other piece of non-comics related news, I think I've moved up from "terrible" to "mediocre" on the drums in Rock Band. Still can't handle those songs with sixteenth note beats (I think) alternating between snare + tom and snare + bass. Those are haaarrrddd.

-Over the holiday, Tim O'Neil posted about a problem in a recent comic (follow-up here). I didn't catch it myself, but I think he's basically right--the writer (Matt Fraction) neglected a pretty central element of the character (spider sense). And no, it's not a terribly obscure point--it's something that anyone who's ever seen any of the Spider-Man movies would know. And after three movies and countless television broadcasts, that's probably about half of the total US population. Okay, I guess that maybe only a quarter of those people were paying enough attention and have a good enough memory to recall "spider sense." And maybe 10% of those people would be on the ball enough to recognize this error. That's still nearly four million people in the US alone. So we're not talking arcane knowledge.

So I started thinking--maybe we should think of these character/continuity errors on a sliding scale. Here's a rough draft of that scale:

Isn't His Costume Supposed to Be Red? Level: An error which is so obvious that even my mother (who, to my knowledge has never read any superhero comic in her life except those she read to me or my brother in our preliterate days) could pick it out. Examples: any comic from before 1990 where the colorist was overworked, underpaid, and/or drunk.

Big Gulp Level: Error contradicts a fact about a character that one would know by reading the brief bio on the side of a "collectible" plastic cup depicting said character. Examples: the spider sense snafu mentioned above.

1965 No Prize Level: Error contradicts a facet of the character established relatively early in the character's history (and thus, presumably, fairly integral to the character). Please note: I'm using 1965 just as an example. If you're more of a Claremont X-Men type, you could call this the 1978 No Prize Level. Examples: Captain America talks about watching Sgt. Bilko or voting for Adlai Stevenson.

If You're Not Using Wikipedia, You're Not Making a Good Faith Effort to Understand This Book Level: Error contradicts something alien to the core concept of the character, possibly from an era largely forgotten by today's readership. However, the error will be obvious to anyone who read comics featuring said character from said era. Examples: the Hulk's brief career working as an enforcer in Las Vegas, the brief existence of a branch of the Justice League headquartered in Detroit, Thor's brief residence in Oklahoma (I'm using my crystal ball here).

Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe Level: Error contradicts some aspect of continuity minute enough that one would need to fact check it against an encyclopedia in order to assure oneself that one's claim was justified. Examples: Cyclops misidentifies his place of birth; Wolverine incorrectly states his weight.

And Yet I Can't Remember My Spouse's Birthday Level: Error contradicts a fact obscure enough that the writers of Who's Who or OHTMU found worthy of omission. Examples: I have no idea.

Late 90s X-Men Continuity Level: Error may or may not contradict some aspect of continuity that is in doubt due to multiple instances of time travel, parallel earths, or clones. Hence, the claim is largely a matter of conjecture, thus making complaints about the hypothetical error even more pointless. Examples: Anything involving DC continuity in the last year or so.

It's a slippery slope, isn't it? I have no sympathy for anyone whose comics-reading experience is ruined by contradiction of obscure facts, like Aunt May's maiden name. Still, at what point do writers get to ignore stories written 20 years ago by burnouts and hacks? Answer: NEVER! Those were the formative years of my comics reading, goddammit! Those stories are sacrosanct, you're raping my childhood, etc, etc.

-If Bill Reed is going to do a series on great inkers, he'd better mention Tom Palmer at some point. I mean it, dude.

-Why did nobody mention that those Fourth World omnibuses look so nice underneath the dust jacket? Or is it only the first volume that looks that way? I'm tempted to just toss out the dust cover.

Other thoughts on the treasure trove of birthday comics I just received:

Phoenix volumes 10 and 11 are probably the wiser investment than MW for those seeking recently-translated Tezuka. The story is much more bizarre, entertaining, and thought provoking; the art is absolutely stunning; and there's still an element of cross dressing for espionage purposes.

New Engineering
is larger than I expected, and very nicely packaged.

I accidentally received an extra copy of Chance in Hell, if anyone needs it and wants to trade for something of similar value. I still have that extra copy of Pyongyang, too.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Video game drums > comics-related blogs

Hey, this is the first day this week I've been able to get on the internet for any length of time. Not because of technical issues, but because I've been busy--running a ton of errands on Monday, playing Rock Band on Tuesday. Yes, we bought Rock Band, and it really is a ton of fun playing the drums. I still basically suck though. Thankfully, there's a separate difficulty setting for each instrument. Also thankfully, my wife still prefers the guitar (she passed me in Guitar Hero proficiency long ago). The guitar, BTW, is very nice, much larger than the GH models and with kind of crisper fret buttons. The strum bar is a little different, but I didn't have any problems with it. (It does not work on Guitar Hero, however, a condition realized with no small degree of disappointment yesterday.) Oh, and singing seems to be very easy. Or maybe it's just easy to sing songs by the Clash, the Ramones, and Mountain. Anyway, Guitar Hero kind of feels obsolete already, especially knowing that downloads of "Bang a Gong," "Rockaway Beach," "Ever Fallen in Love," and "Queen Bitch" await.

I'll be busy tomorrow doing the cooking for Thanksgiving (a holiday controversial in the former Confederacy in the early days of Reconstruction, as some felt that it was an excuse to force scurrilous Republican propaganda on a proud defeated people whose only crime was buying and selling other human beings, and then forcing them to pick cotton for 14 hours a day). Some of you might remember my vegetarianism, which brings up the specter of tofurkey (or however it's spelled). I actually have eaten that marvel of modern food science once in my life, and I thought it was okay with my wife's cranberry sauce over the top. But there's a big difference between "eat it if it's presented before you" and "spend $10-15 on it, cook it, and eat it over the next few days." Besides, I never liked turkey in the first place. Or chicken, for that matter. Becoming a vegetarian might have been an easier process for me than the average person, actually. In any event, here's the planned menu for tomorrow, all of which will be made from scratch (except the pie crusts, because I really hate making pie crust from scratch):

Baked macaroni and cheese
Sauteed green beans with shallots*
Mashed potatoes
Yeast rolls
Apple pie
Blueberry and blackberry pie

*Assuming there are any green beans left at Trader Joe's when I go there later today. If not, we'll have twice baked potatoes topped with gruyere. We'll also remove mashed potatoes from the menu and substitute mashed sweet potaotes. But hopefully I'll be able to find some green beans.

Oh, and one comics related note. My in-laws have bought a bunch of comics for my birthday, basically everything I feel I need to read to make an informed best of 2007 list. So maybe that will come sooner than later. Meanwhile, reading on The Black Dossier is going at a snail's pace. Hopefully I'll finish it before next March.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I was just cleaning up my newsfeeder today, eliminating all the blogs which make me feel bad about reading comics, and worse about reading blogs about comics. I'm not sure whether this marks a turning point at this blog or not; I would tend to say it's not. I've been deleting these kinds of blogs from my feeder for a few months now, so it's not like this is a sudden narrowing of focus. Besides, I'm hardly finished with mocking stupid shi analyzing comics-related internet discourse. In the future, though, I'll probably limit such analysis to subjects that matter to me, rather than things said about comics which really only exist in an abstract kind of way in my world (eg, comics written by Chuck Dixon--I believe such things exist, but I lack any first-hand experience with them and they're basically irrelevant to my life). The best place to find ridiculous, ill-informed rhetoric re: comics stories of interest to me is in the reader responses to various ultra-popular blogs with broad readerships (ie, The Beat, CSBG, Blogorama). You probably get a wider range of stupid opinions that way--the number of people leaving comments on subjects of interest to me on aforementioned blogs seems to dwarf those blogging about similar subjects on their own blogs. So yeah, I do still hate your blog, in all likelihood, but that doesn't mean I want to read it.

But before we leave this world behind, I want to say a little about my complete lack of understanding of the superhero-fixated comics reader. Or at least the superhero-fixated comics reader who incessantly complains about things on the internet. I've read a lot of these complaints over the years, and it seems that they fall into several major categories. In ascending order of prevalence:

Advocating on behalf of creators: Probably the most noble sort of complaining, but it's tragically rare to find this kind of empathy on the comics-related internet. This category would include discussions of creators' rights, ill treatment of creators by editors, questions about the material well being of creators, and the like. I have no problem with this kind of stuff, and I wish we saw more of it. In fact, if I were a better human being, I'd do more of it myself.

Complaining that a comic is poorly crafted: I'm talking in the most context-neutral terms here. Does the plot make sense? Does the script suggest that the writer is familiar with the way human being talk? (If not, is this an deliberate stylistic choice? If it is deliberate, does it work?) Is the storytelling easy to follow? Are the pencils compelling in any way? (Side note: one of my pet peeves against online superhero fan culture is the frequent charge of "unrealistic anatomy." I think the real question is whether the artists' rendering of his/her characters works in the larger context of what the artist is trying to do; there's not a whole lot of "realism" in superhero comics, so why should the anatomy be any different?) I stumble across these conversations less frequently than I might hope.

Discussions of stereotypical or demeaning portrayals of specific groups of people: I use the term "discussion" sort of broadly, since civility flies right out the window pretty quickly once one of these "discussions" gets going. Said "discussions" would probably be more marginal if they didn't inspire legions of furious naysayers to defend the honor of whoever or whatever fucked up this week. I still think the most logical response to the instituionalized insensitivity of Marvel/DC is to quit buying their comics, but I think it's pretty clear that such a thing isn't in the offing. At least for now.

Economically-motivated complaints: These usually fall into two large categories--"crossovers are bleeding me dry" and "decompression means that you don't get much story for your money." I'm sympathetic to the former, especially when the complaint is motivated by a crossover rendering a favorite title essentially unreadable for its duration (see: recent complaints about X-Factor). The latter...I think it's pretty obvious (or it should be pretty obvious) that there's a legitimate artistic purpose behind slowing down the pace of a story. This approach doesn't play well with serialization, unfortunately. (Frankly, I also have trouble following densely plotted books month to month; I tend to forget some crucial detail a bit too easily. I really need those recap pages these days.) Unfortunately, we seem to be in a period of transition where the needs of the existing readership aren't always being met by publication strategies. I can generally understand this kind of complaining.

Fan ownership of corporate owned intellectual properties: The aforementioned complaints are all pretty legitimate, logical reasons to be frustrated. And they all could be acted upon in one simple way: abandoning the offending comics. But superhero fans' sense of ownership forestalls such actions. It seems to me that the most vocal online fans are the ones who feel the greatest attachment to specific characters. So you get a lot of complaints that Intellectual Property X is written out of character, or that Storyline Z violates some musty story from the complainant's youth. In its more extreme forms, criticism informed by such notions of ownership seems like nothing more than cross checks against the fan's preconceptions of how the character(s) "work." If the comic meets these expectations, it's good. If not, it's bad.

I'm always shocked to see this type of complaint infect the criticism of smart people who I respect. I often hear objections to Marvel/DC stories couched in terms of "I can't believe they're doing this to such a valuable cultural icon." I'm baffled by this argument; I'm much more interested in judging a comic on its own merits. The devaluing of Iron Man as a marketable intellectual property didn't make Civil War a bad comic--the complete lack of forward plot momentum and whimper of an ending made it a bad comic. I mean, I do want Marvel to continue to make money. I know the Direct Market depends on a healthy Marvel, and I want the DM to persist because it's still the best system for providing me with the comics I want to read every week. But (a) that seems like a separate issue from actual criticism, which should privilege aesthetic concerns above pecuniary ones; and (b) I'm not sure that what happens in comics read by 200,000 people will affect a movie that will have to sell millions of tickets in order to be profitable. In other words, I doubt that Jon Favreau is too worried that you think Iron Man is an asshole.

The thing that I find most irritating about fan ownership is not its deleterious effect on online comics criticism, but that it seems to bind fan and character together for all of eternity. That's absolute insanity. It's what allows Marvel and DC to keep a stranglehold on the Direct Market against all logic. Of course, in the 90s they nearly lost it; neither company was doing a good job at maintaining the prestige of its oldest, most famous characters. Image took advantage of this weakened bond between reader and intellectual property by enticing readers to follow creators rather than characters. This would be a better industry today if they had capitalized on this initial success. Marvel and DC would have to rely more on the quality of their comics rather than their fans' attachments to their intellectual property; creator-owned properties would fare better in the marketplace; readers disgusted with editorial policies would be more willing to abandon DC/Marvel for books published by more progressive companies. (IT WOULDN'T SOLVE ALL THE PROBLEMS IN THE INDUSTRY PLEASE DON'T ACCUSE ME OF SAYING SUCH A THING THANK YOU.)

When I was compiling my list of favorite Marvel and DC characters, I was making my decision based on specific issues or runs of issues.* Spider-Man certainly hasn't been a compelling character for his entire existence. Even if all the writers and artists who had worked on Spider-Man over the years had been competent (which they haven't), Spider-Man would still be a completely broken character simply because he's appeared in hundreds and hundreds of comics over the last 45+ years. But I wasn't thinking about any of that when I put Spider-Man at #1; I was thinking about the classic Lee/Ditko years (and, to a lesser extent, the classic Lee/Romita years). The Thing had a period of time where he wore a bucket on his head. That could still be going on today, for all I care--it doesn't make the Lee/Kirby years any less magical. The only way I can possibly appreciate Marvel/DC comics is to evaluate them on a case by case basis. Otherwise you're overwhelmed by the crap, and it's better to avoid the crap.

But that's apparently a minority viewpoint these days. I can't relate to the people who see things differently, and I don't want to read their complaints. So goodbye and so forth to those blogs which are more invested in characters than comics--I'm sure you won't miss my hits.

*This is less the case for the DC list, as several characters are on there mostly because they have cool costumes. Which probably says something about the quality of DC comics vs. Marvel comics over the years. Not in an aggregate sense, where I think the quality averages out to about even, but in a peak vs. peak sense. In other words, DC has never published anything remotely approaching the quality of Lee/Ditko Spider-Man and Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A game you can play in the comfort of your own home

-Those best-of lists keep rolling in. Today, ADD joins Publisher's Weekly and Amazon, and there will surely be more to come in the weeks ahead. This is making me feel woefully behind on my reading, even though I've thought ahead for once and have been keeping a running list of my favorite books of 2007. There's still so much I haven't gotten around to reading--Alias the Cat, the new Scott Pilgrim, The Black Dossier, Exit Wounds, all of Gilbert Hernandez' recent work, The Salon, Parasyte, and god knows what else. I was worried that I would be forced to leave I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets off my list, cause I was lame and waited and waited. And nobody else did, apparently, since the first printing sold out. But now there's a new printing, so I'm fairly confident that I'll be able to read it soon. I am a little shocked that it didn't show up on the PW list, especially considering some of the other stuff that did. I'm sure we'll see it on plenty of lists soon enough.

Anyway, what's kind of amazing about these lists is how little they overlap with my preliminary list. Which is weird, cause I figured my list would be a fairly conventional, middle-of-the-road kind of thing; there aren't too many curve balls on it. But that's not the case. In fact, in my working list, there's only one book in common with any of the three lists above.* I think part of this incongruity might be a question of format. As one would expect, Amazon is sticking to things which one can purchase from their website. PW seems to be sticking to graphic novels (by which I mean squarebound things you can buy at a chain store), which also makes sense. Looking over my list, there aren't a lot of comics in that format--only about half of them. Maybe there's something to be said about the continued viability of pamphlet-style comics or the rising quality of webcomics, but I'm not the one who's going to say it. My other thought is that there sure are a lot of quality books to choose from this year and it's getting harder and harder to make best of lists and gee, that's a great problem to have and that I sure hope you kids appreciate how good comics are these days compared to a few years ago. But I go on about that stuff all the time, and the actual books say it better than I ever could anyway.

I'll have more to say whenever I get around to publishing my actual best of list. Which might be sometime in 2008. (EDIT: I accidentally published it a few minutes ago, so if it got through to the RSS feeds, you might get a sneak peak.)

*It's not Alice In Sunderland, it's not Shortcomings, and it's probably going to get bumped by one of the books I have yet to read.

-Here's a goofy exercise. Most people have much nicer collections of comics than me, spanning multiple bookshelves (which themselves are nicer than the stark white/black ones I have). I have one ramshackle bookshelf holding most of my larger comics, and a smaller, even more ramshackle one for my digest-sized books. I'm talking books laying on their sides, stacked two deep, etc., etc. So no, I'm never going to post a picture of my bookshelves, unless maybe one of my cats does something amusing in one.

What I am going to do, however, is try a rather clumsy game. I'm going to look at each of the shelves and decide what my five favorite books from each one is. I'm going only on immediate, gut reaction: no re-reading, no equivocating. Just a harsh, summary judgment. Here we go:

BOTTOM SHELF: Mostly oversized and/or heavy comics. Lots of thick hardcovers.

1. Robert Crumb-The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book
2. Harvey Kurtzman, et. al.-The Complete First Six Issues of Mad (I know it sound stupid, but that's the name on the spine)
3. Jim Woodring-Frank, volume 1
4. Bill Blackbeard and Dale Crain, editors-The Comic Strip Century (technically a two volume set; consider this cheating if you must)
5. Jaime Hernandez-Wig Wam Bam

SECOND LOWEST SHELF: Lots of those cheap B&W reprints

1. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko-The Essential Amazing Spider-Man, volume 1
2. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-The Essential Fantastic Four, volume 3
3. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko-The Essential Amazing Spider-Man, volume 2
4. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby-The Essential Fantastic Four, volume 4
5. Dan Nadel, editor-Art Out of Time

MIDDLE SHELF: Various 80s/90s alternative/underground comics, most of my landscape formatted comic strips collections, several really, really tall books

1. Peter Bagge-The Buddy Chronicles (a book club edition reprinting the first two Hate collections, plus the Bradleys collection, which I bought for like $2 about 10 years ago)
2. Richard Sala-The Chuckling Whatsit
3. Larry Marder-Beanworld, volume 1
4. Walt Kelly-Pogo, volume 6 (from the original Fantagraphics reprint series)
5. Matt Groening-Love is Hell (expanded edition)
(This, I might add, was the hardest of all the shelves. I left out all kinds of great stuff, like Watchmen, Popeye reprints, Krazy Kat reprints, Palestine, all the Bone collections, and the oversized Drawn and Quarterly anthologies. I might also add that this is the shelf where Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde normally resides. If it were on hand, I'd probably have it about fourth on the above list.)

SECOND HIGHEST SHELF: Most of my color superhero books, plus some other things that wouldn't fit anywhere else.

1. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell-From Hell
2. Jack Kirby, et. al.-Jack Kirby's New Gods (this is from the grey-toned reprint series of the 90s; I haven't bought any of the recent color omnibuses, as I am a man of modest means)
3. Jack Cole-Jack Cole and Plastic Man (the biography/collection edited by Art Spiegelman)
4. Kevin Huizenga-Curses
5. David B.-Epileptic

HIGHEST SHELF: My smallest books which are still too big to fit on the digest-size bookcase. This is also where I've put everything from the Ignatz line, as well as some pamphlet-format comics that I want to have handy. I have included none of these, however, since I don't want to try to guess which issue of The Nimrod or Hate was my favorite.

1. Seth-It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken
2. Dylan Horrocks-Hicksville
3. Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb-Bob and Harv's Comics
4. Alison Bechdel-Fun Home
5. Gipi-Notes For a War Story

I'm not going to do the digest shelves, since I also don't want to try to figure out where individual volumes of Dr. Slump rank compared to individual volumes of Cromartie High School.

Anyway, there sure were a whole lot of good comics published last year, huh? I count three, and Dupuy and Berberian's Get a Life barely missed the list for the top shelf. Truly this is a golden age we live in, etc., etc.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Good junky comics

-Saw this on Blogorama: a preview for Aqua Leung, which looks like a much less lame version of Aquaman or the Sub-Mariner. I've always been a little confused as to why underwater superhero comics have never been very good (Sharkman excepted, of course). I shouldn't damn with faint praise--this actually looks pretty good, and I'll be happy to pick it up when it comes out next year. Never heard of the artist, Paul Maybury, but his art looks to be in the same general area as Bryan Lee O'Malley, except his inking is much denser (lots of nice feathery brushwork). So good for Image for publishing another interesting comics.

And speaking of Image, that company sure is putting out a lot of nice, art-driven titles these days. Rocketo, Killing Girl, The Nightly News, Pax Romana, the Popgun anthology, Hawaiian Dick, Lucha Libre, Suburban Glamour, Special Forces, Elephantmen/Hip Flask, whatever the Luna Brothers are working on right now, and surely a whole lot of other things I'm forgetting. Not all these books are to my tastes--in fact, looking over that list, very few of them are--but it's a welcome trend. And it's one that builds on Image's legacy as an art-driven publisher in a very positive, pluralistic way. I'd say there are lessons to be learned here, but what do I know?

-Sort of related: I'm glad I waited for Marc-Oliver Frisch to do the heavy lifting.

-Reviews of recently-read comics:

MW: It's one of Tezuka's lesser works, right? Cause that's what it read like. Which is to say, I'm not sure if it was exactly good, but it was worth reading because it was Tezuka. It compares unfavorably to another lesser Tezuka work, Ode to Kirihito. The latter was also goofy, but the wider scope gave it a sense of drama I never felt with MW, which was more like The Jew of Malta minus the antisemitism. And no, I don't think the book was entirely homophobic. I do think Tezuka was using homosexuality in an exploitative way, in order to shock and revolt the reader. But several characters assert that Japan is behind the rest of the world in its acceptance of homosexuality, and there's at least one scene in which Tezuka portrays gay characters in a very positive, sympathetic light. On the other hand, he seems to be banking on his audience's homophobia. One might be especially offended by the thematic proximity of homosexuality and bestiality, but I consider this more like Tezuka's attempt to characterize Michio as a Caligula-like figure. Plus sex, regardless of who's participating, is always depicted as a type of weapon, so you might also accuse Tezuka of being puritanical.

So it's really messy and problematic, but that's not the biggest problem with MW. The biggest problem is that Michio, the book's villain, isn't charming or interesting, just brutal and unpleasant. In a book where all the "heroes" are effete or incompetent, you really need the villain to be so seductive that the audience almost cheers for him/her. That wasn't the case here.
I also should add that MW is, as one would expect, a great showcase for Tezuka's cartooning. However, it's not quite the tour de force Ode to Kirihito was. That book had some kind of interesting formal or illustrative technique on practically every page--dropped out panel borders, exaggerated anatomy, unexpectedly expressionistic rendering, etc. This has a little of that--Tezuka plays around with using a wolf/dog as a symbol for Michio, for instance--but it's not as daring. And when you're talking about the lesser works of a great artist, you really want more of those moments. MW is okay, but those unfamiliar with Tezuka should probably start with the classics. Those already familiar with Tezuka will find it interesting but deserving its relative obscurity. Of course, Tezuka at his worst is considerably better than most cartoonists at their peak. So if it's MW or nothing, I'd pick MW.

Brave and the Bold 7: More than anything, this reminded me of an episode of the animated Justice League cartoon. Wonder Woman and Power Girl form a superhero odd couple, each favoring a crimefighting tactic in apparent diametric opposition to the other. So it's an extended character study with lots of punching and interesting scenery and a fairly fresh villain (I sure haven't read a Dr. Alchemy story in a long time). Notable by its absence is any discussion of Power Girl as either a symbol of stunted fanboy sexuality or as a pawn in an epic game of Continuity Chess. That said, this is a comic for people who like superheroes; if you don't, then you won't like it. I do like it, because I like superheroes and this is a very well-crafted superhero book that doesn't demand anything of the reader beyond what the comic itself can provide. It helps that George Perez' artwork doesn't make me want to stab myself in the eyes.

Batman 670: I'm as surprised as anyone, but Tony Daniel is actually a step up from Andy Kubert. That says more about Kubert than Daniel, though, since there's a clumsy storytelling sequence within the first couple of pages involving a shopkeeper and a tipped vase. The return of Ra's Al Guhl is a fairly mundane sort of Batman story, but Grant Morrison establishes a fairly compelling tone and plot hook (grandfather vs. father!). Unfortunately this story will be told across several books which I have no intention of reading. I'm a little unsure about how well this title will read by itself, but I'm willing to give it at least a month if it's as good as this issue. Morrison has set up Damien as a pretty interesting character, one who can't be easily categorized as hero or villain. That shouldn't be a big deal, but it is--characters with ambiguous morality almost always turn into heroes in comics (or practically any other serialized medium). We've all seen countless variations on the "raised to be evil, exposed to good, now torn by conflicting loyalties" story. Still, given Morrison's track record with these kinds of primordial stories, I'm eager to see how this plays out. Especially since it should be easier to tell what the hell is going in the post-Kubert era.

Hunter x Hunter: I hate to say it, but it gets way better once you have no choice but to read the scanlated chapters. Well, I guess you do have the choice to wait for those volumes to come out in the next few years, but that requires greater skills of self-abnegation than I possess. The series really picked up steam with the Greed Island story (current logo taken from said storyline), but it's the Chimera Ants story that pushes the series into the realm of the most imaginative of all junk fiction. I'm most taken with the introduction of Morau (see also here), a senior hunter who looks like a cross between Neil Young and Terry Gordy, wears a shirt and tie, and carries a 10 foot long pipe. That pipe is the source of his special technique, Deep Purple. I mean, come on--Deep Purple. And there are several other interesting characters introduced for this story, including one of the best villains to appear in the story to date.

Great characters, great design, mystery, danger, action--these are the sorts of things that hooked me on superhero comics in my childhood, and they're abundant in HxH. I thought the series started out slow, and I probably would have stopped reading if not for the badge hunting chapters during the initial storyline. From there the series kind of starts and stops, with the expository sequences about the nature of the characters' powers being the absolute dullest. Thankfully, there's less and less of that as the series progresses, with very, very little in the Chimera Ants story. Instead of wasting my time with a bunch of nonsense about auras and Nen manipulation types, Yoshihiro Togashi concentrates on showing those powers in action. Which, needless to say, is much cooler. It's just too bad that those early chapters are so weak in comparison--if the whole series was as good as the current story, there would be a lot more buzz about Hunter x Hunter. Disillusioned superhero fans should check it out.

-Reviews of recently bought food items from Trader Joe's:

Marinara Sauce: This is their two pint, 99 cent marinara sauce. I tried it in two applications: as a sauce for the TJ gorgonzola walnut tortellini (which I don't think I ever reviewed, but trust me when I say it's delicious). It was actively bad in this context, to the point where I was trying to remove it from every bite of tortellini. Secondly, I tried it as a sort of dipping sauce for a smoked mozzarella grilled cheese sandwich. Here it mostly served to get the sandwich wet, adding very little in the way of taste. The texture of the sauce is watery, yet it's also kind of acidic in a vaguely unpleasant way. It's hard to detect any tomato or garlic taste. This marinara sauce might be cheap, but it's every bit as bad as your least favorite supermarket brand.

The Emperor's New Coves: I've had bad luck buying garlic from my regular grocery store lately; it all seems to be withered or moldy. I mean really moldy. Not just a few flecks of green-blue on the bottom of the bulb, but an actual moldy smell emanating from the crate. So I've been buying this oddball product. It's a basket containing six bulbs of garlic, each of which is comprised of a single clove of garlic. It's pretty convenient, not too expensive (about $2 a package, if memory serves), and they taste fine. Maybe a bit milder than I like, but I'm sort of a garlic fiend.

Soy and Flax Clusters, week two: I've decided I kind of like this cereal. It's not quite the bowl of Colon Blow I expected, and it's actually kind of tasty once your jaw muscles have been trained to handle its, uh, assertive texture. Best of all, it's very filling. Maybe it's all the soy protein. Maybe I really have been protein deficient all these years!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Does Geoff Johns still suck?

I have a confession to make. Like so many comics readers, I have a history of giving up on the medium for long stretches of time. I've done it twice: a few years in the middle-late 90s, and a few more years in the first half of this decade. When I started reading comics again a few years ago, it was partly prompted by working with some people who were really into comics. My life was in a strange transitional period, and I turned to comics as a sort of security blanket. The people who I worked with were big fans of Geoff Johns' JSA, so that's where I started. Which, in retrospect, is kind of strange, considering that the last comic I had bought before that was either an issue of Magic Whistle or Atlas. But JSA is what they had at Barnes & Noble, so that's what I bought.

I guess there was something I liked about those JSA trades, because I kept reading comics, reading blogs about comics, getting enraged by blogs about comics, and then eventually blogging about blogs about comics. And gradually my taste in comics more or less reverted to what it was c. 2000, when my comics reading dropped off dramatically. So I read a lot fewer superhero comics now. But I remember those early JSA trades being a bit more self-contained (didn't Greg Hatcher say something about these being good trades to give to young readers?) and certainly a bit less preoccupied with its place within the DCU and all that junk. In retrospect, they remind me of solid, workmanlike shonen manga--something that rewards readers in fairly conventional ways, but at least does so consistently. The prototypical 2 1/2 star series, if you will.

Since then, Johns has earned a reputation for doing a very different type of comic. He seems much more concerned with how his comics relate to the overall DC mythos (sorry, Jones), or with patching continuity. Plus there's his greater reliance on graphic violence--particularly dismemberment (which actually makes his work more shonen-like) (and I should also note that ADD noticed this trend long before it became a running internet joke). Maybe it's his elevation to being DC's go-to guy that has wrought this change--everything has to be big, important, and above all else iconic. So instead of modest adventure stories involving people wearing spandex, you get characters standing around talking about what they mean to the rest of the planet. Or even worse, what they mean to each other.

So anyway, as the months went by I returned to reading a greater range comics (both superhero and not-superhero) and decided that my time and money was better spent on things which promised greater rewards. And Johns quit offering even those modest rewards of the early JSA trades, so it was an easy decision to quit reading the comics he wrote. Meanwhile, in the wake of Infinite Crisis, Johns became one of the industry's major whipping boys. Not that everyone disses him--you can tell a lot about how somebody views the superhero genre by whether they hate Mark Millar or Geoff Johns more. If it's Millar, the superhero fan hates decompression, the pernicious influence of Hollywood action movies, and long scheduling delays. If it's Johns, the fan probably hates the exaggerated importance of continuity, the blandness of traditional superhero writing, and possibly the grotesque and humorless fusion of nostalgia with "adult" situations (eg, corny Nazi-themed supervillains dismembering people at a picnic).

If you couldn't guess, I'm probably more in the Johns-hating camp. Millar at least seems to be looking towards the future a bit more, and I'd take his stupid action movie tropes over Johns' queasy superhero solipsism. Most importantly, I think Millar better takes advantage of the strengths of comics as a medium and superheroes as a genre--no active writer does action better than Millar. Or to put it in completely unfair terms: let's say someone was planning to institutionalize me for reading comics, and I was forced to plead for my sanity using only the works of Millar and Johns. I'd most definitely pick The Ultimates, Wolverine, and Civil War over The Flash, Green Lantern, and Infinite Crisis. And then I'd get myself fitted for a straight jacket.

Still, I haven't read anything by Johns in quite some time, and lots of smart people seem to be going crazy for this Sinestro thing he's doing right now. So, in the spirit of fairness, I decided to read a couple of Johns' comics this week: Action Comics #858 and Justice Society #10. Here's what I thought:

Action Comics 858:
I've never thought Johns was a master of characterization. He's the one who played up the Flash being a car aficionado/amateur mechanic, which is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard. The dude can run at the speed of light (or something like that), right? Why the fuck would he give a shit about cars? In this case, however, Johns' characterization is going to be a secondary concern, since I've never liked Superman. Growing up, he always seemed like the vanilla ice cream of superheroes--better than no ice cream, good with apple pie (ie, Batman), good as the base for a sundae (the Justice League/Super Friends), substantially worse than chocolate ice cream (Batman again). I can't say these feelings have dissipated as I've grown older. Superman just isn't a very compelling character unless put into situations with other superheroes--in which case he probably works best as a villain, or an ambiguous sort of figure. Kind of like in J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank's Supreme Power.

Which is kind of a natural comparison to make here, since Frank drew this issue. Part of what made Frank so effective on Supreme Power was the way he drew the human face: his people are bug-eyed, buck-toothed, jowly idiots. This was a perfect style for Supreme Power, as it gave the book a somewhat subversive tone--you kind of start to feel like Hyperion or Princess Power when you gaze upon the vacantly grinning/sneering faces Frank draws. But it might undercut Johns' intentions when the Legion of Superheroes look like they're auditioning for Deliverance: The Comic.

Hey Superboy, you got a purty mouth.

As for Johns' story, it's about...time travel! Which I guess is unavoidable, this being a story about characters living 1000 years apart. The basic theme is this: when he was a teenager, Superman had to disguise his powers so that he could blend in with humanity or whatever. His encounter with the Legion of Superheroes was a chance to let his true self out. Now Superman is an adult, but he still has to pretend to be a huge nerd. Coincidentally, a member of the Legion (Brainiac Five) arrives in the 21st century to ask for Superman's help. Superman then goes to the 31st century to help, where he might expect to relive those bygone days of his youth, hanging out with his pals the Legion of Superheroes. Except the future Earth is unexpectedly a xenophobic dystopia, with a red sun! So Superman isn't really Superman, but just an average 21st century barbarian living in the infinitely more complex 31st century. You can't go home again! Or something like that.

This isn't the worst thing I've ever read, but it's impossible to read it without thinking of it as some kind of story about What Superman Means To Us and What is Going On In the DC Universe. That's partly because I'm familiar enough with what's going on in DC comics to know that the scene with Clark Kent, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen rings false--in fact, Johns (and Kurt Busiek) wrote a multi-part One Year Later story which portrayed a depowered Clark Kent as a happily-married, accomplished journalist who lives a rich and full life without his Superman alter ego. In this issue, he's a wimpy, bumbling social outcast, just like in the movies. Normally I'm not a stickler for this kind of thing--a character as old as Superman is going to be inconsistent, and there's no use whining about it. But we're talking about a story co-written by Johns from about a year and a half ago. This makes no sense. I guess I would like the story better if my impression of Superman came from those (long, dull) movies, but it kind of doesn't. So I can either take it as an attempt by Johns to appropriate some of the lingering nostalgia for those movies, or I can wonder if there's some kind of larger "characters are changing before our eyes!" type story at work.

Normally I'd guess it's the former, but (a) this is DC, the Crisis Company, and (b) Johns clearly wants you to read this as a story about continuity. Brainiac Five has to restore Superman's memory of the Legion, thus suggesting that someone or something is blocking it. With his memory restored, Superman remembers that his time with the LSH came to a close with "the crisis." Well, there you go--Johns is directly telling the reader that this is a story about splicing old continuity into new continuity, so read the rest accordingly. It's also a continuation of the JLA/JSA crossover that everyone seemed to hate so much, and which I studiously avoided at all costs. If I didn't know these things, I might have read the comic differently; I would have been confused by all that stuff, but I think the issue would have worked just as well (or better, since I wouldn't have to worry about which version of the Legion this was and all that kind of crap). But I'm guessing that next issue will be more of the Countdown to New Continuity Bible stuff.

Justice Society of America 10

Oh boy, more Superman! And this one is about the Kingdom Come Superman, which is even better, considering that I really hate Kingdom Come. And this is all about Kingdom Come, specifically the parallel Earth where the events of Kingdom Come really happened, and which is apparently always rendered by Alex Ross. And there's also a whole bunch of What Does Superman Mean to Earth again, with some What Does the Justice Society Mean to Earth thrown in for good measure. So this comic is basically guaranteed to annoy me on multiple levels.

The art, at least, is okay. Not as good as Gary Frank's, but appropriate for the sort of somber reflection on the somber importance of superheroism that this comic wallows in. Dale Eaglesham does best with those sorts of scenes, but his storytelling and timing seem a little off:

How fast is Cyclone talking, anyway?

Cyclone (the figure in the left panel) says an awful lot of words, probably about ten seconds' worth. In the bookend panel, Stargirl says one word--probably less than a second long. The two panels are of equal size and shape, forming a quasi-symmetrical triptych with the middle panel. By cramming so much dialogue in the first of these panels, Eaglesham destroys this sense of balance. This is troublesome because Cyclone's pose doesn't really fit what she's saying by the end of the word balloon. We're seeing an expression that suggests Cyclone introducing herself, but by the end of the panel this expression is no longer appropriate for what she's saying. The panel wouldn't work regardless the composition of the other panels, but it's especially bad because its identical size and shape to the others implies a similar amount of time has passed. Which is impossible, given how much dialogue there is in that panel. This dialogue should either be split into smaller panels (which, in turn, could reveal Cyclone's changing expressions) or into a panel larger than the two following it (which would imply a greater passage of time). I'm not sure if it's Johns' script or Eaglesham's layouts which are to blame, but this is a really clumsy sequence. But it's still better than Ross' art, which alternates between overly muddy and overly busy. Nobody makes superheroes look lamer than Alex Ross.

There's not much else to say--this is something purely intended to please fans of Kingdom Come, and I'm definitely not in that camp. KC Superman demonstrates his heroism and prowess, and some subplot (related to previous issues, I assume) churns along in the background. But mostly, KC Superman talks about what superheroes should and shouldn't do. Several of the regular characters get to play off this, but this issue is mostly dedicated to somber reflections about What Went Wrong in the Nineties. If that sounds like fun to you, then you probably already own this. You might even be preparing an angry comment which questions my intelligence, or accuses me of not liking anything produced by a "big company."

So I justified in continuing to dismiss Geoff Johns as a guy primarily interested in a bunch of nonsense about continuity and mythos (sorry, Jones)? There's no doubt in my mind. These are comics written for people with bookshelves devoted to superhero toys and sculptures, people who think Kingdom Come saved comics in the late 90s, people who get Superman tattoos on their backs. Action was significantly better than Justice Society, though, and I think this indicates that Johns is still capable of writing solid-if-not-spectacular stories about superheroes and supervillains yelling at each other and occasionally fighting. Honestly, I think Johns' continuity porn is less annoying than the superhero hagiography. There was always a healthy dose of What the Justice Society Means to the World in JSA, but I never felt like it got in the way of the story. That's no longer the case, unfortunately. I'll flip through the Sinestro trade when it comes out, but Johns must be a completely different writer on Green Lantern if it's as good as people make it out to be.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Best time-waster of the week (so far)

-Tom Spurgeon goes into some of the reasons why the early development of Image was a tragic era for the comics industry. I kind of hinted at this the other day, but I really think Image was a lost opportunity for the comics industry. The speculator bubble was bound to burst, no doubt about it, but a healthy Image would have softened the blow. Instead, the bubble busting coincided with the moment when consumers lost confidence in Image mark 1. There were too many late books, too many books farmed off to other people (under work-for-hire arrangements, as Spurgeon points out), and generally not enough quality. Instead of working towards conditioning the market to follow creators rather than intellectual properties, too many of the Image founders were more concerned with establishing their IPs as launching pads for multimedia empires. Which isn't to say that they owed the industry anything--many people would have done the same thing if in their position. Plus hindsight is 20/20 and all that.

Still: in 1992/3, I thought we were on the verge of a total revolution which would open up the comics industry to all kinds of publishing opportunities.* I don't think the industry is impervious to change, but the things changing it now are more nebulous, like the role of bookstores or the internet. There are opportunities there, to be sure, but there isn't the same sense of malleability. The Image founders had the opportunity to shape the industry, and they passed it up. I don't know if that kind of opportunity will ever present itself again. And that's Image's biggest legacy, more than crappy Michael Turner art.

*I was 16 or so at the time, but still.

-Mark Evanier posted a link to this jam poster of most of DC's biggest intellectual properties, c. 1987. I'd never seen it before, but it's kind of my personal ideal of an afternoon time-waster, in that I can't figure out who drew what. I mean, some are obvious: Kubert drew Hawkman, Gibbons drew Rorschach, "Bob Kane" drew Batman and Robin. And others are immediately recognizable due to style, despite the artist having no direct association with the character (eg, Gilbert Hernandez drawing Hourman) But there are a few others for which I have no idea. Doesn't help that I can't read the signatures very easily. Anyway, here are the ones I can't figure out:

Bill Sienkiewicz-I have no idea. The position of his signature would indicate perhaps Enemy Ace, but I'm guessing that's actually Dave Stevens' work. Ragman would be another possibility, but that has to be Keith Giffen. That leaves...Plastic Man? Is that plausible?

Steve Rude, Jaime Hernandez, and Jim Steranko-Their signatures are all bunched together. I'm guessing Steranko drew Mr. Miracle, since he was supposedly the real-life inspiration for the character. And I'm pretty confident that the GA Flash is Hernandez' work. What, then, did Steve Rude draw? Robotman? Did he have any connection to that character? Or did Steranko draw Zatara (I think that Zatanna is Grey Morrow, right?)? If so, Rude probably drew Mr. Miracle.

Gene Colan-I can tell which character he drew (the one between the Spectre and Robotman), but who is that?

Steve Lightle- One would assume a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, but I don't see any of them. Unless I'm missing Jim Aparo's signature, I have to think that Michael Kaluta drew the Spectre. Jan Duuresma almost certainly drew Arion. Who does that leave? The Ray? Lady Blackhawk? Robotman, assuming Rude didn't draw him? Actually, Robotman looks more like Lightle (or what I remember Lightle looking like) than any of those other characters. Is it possible that Rude drew Lady Blackhawk?

Related: why aren't there any Legion members in this poster? Or are they there and I'm not seeing them?

P. Craig Russell-I assume it's the chalk white woman who I would have assumed was the 1987 version of the White Witch had I not decided that Russell was the artist. Now I'm not sure who that character is, but I'm pretty convinced that it's Russell's art.

Anyway, great fun and whatnot. I await humiliation in the comments, as I slap my head in realization that I missed something obvious.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I guess I'll put up with discussions of which Green Lantern is toughest if it means more of this (though that causality is kind of questionable)

You guys know about Leif Peng's Today's Inspiration, right? Blog devoted to illustration art, mostly from the middle part of the 20th century? Eddie Campbell is a fan, and it's his linkage that made me aware of Peng's incredible public service. Sadly, I tend to get behind on reading it because I don't want to skim through it (I also tend to get behind on Campbell's blog and other intellectually dense blogs--it's something I want to read when I'm thinking clearly, not when I'm bleary-eyed and trying to eat my hemp flakes). A few illustrations stood out when I was catching up on recent posts (which is really saying something, considering how jaw-dropping most of the art featured there is), so I thought I'd bring them to the attention of people who read this stupid blog but have missed out on Peng's, for whatever reason.

First, there's this incredible illustration by Phil Hayes (Flicker set here):

That's just an absolutely stunning use of color. I keep staring at this illustration in awe.

I also really liked this illustration by Robert G. Schneeberg (Flicker set):

Sort of in the same general neighborhood as Richard Sala, what with the unnatural perspective and murder and whatnot. Or maybe I'm nuts. Regardless, a fine illustration.

There's a lot more to be found at Today's Inspiration, so do go spend some time there. It's certainly time better spent than reading some webcomic about vampire nuns on the moon or whatever. I'm not sure if I agree with Eddie Campbell's assertion a figment of my imagination posing as Eddie Campbell that we should consider illustration art to be a type of comics (or graphic novel or whatever you want to call the medium). In fact, I'm not sure I completely understand his argument. Like, is this something that applies to any illustration? Is NC Wyeth a cartoonist? I know that, back when I first discovered Wyeth (in an issue of National Geographic), his paintings immediately appealed to the same part of my brain which governed my comics reading. Of course, these kinds of questions are precisely the ones which seem to make Mr. Campbell bristle, so I'll stick to his larger point: these are works of art which readers of comics should appreciate, and we should be thankful to Mr. Peng for bringing them to our attention.

(Brief aside on Campbell's taxonomatophobia, just because I can't help myself: I think it's pretty self-evident that there's a time and place for extensive/intensive categorization, and that such preoccupations are not unique to comics culture (such as it is--maybe a taxonomically-oriented column would liven up the next issue of Comic Foundry). For most artistic pursuits, however, that kind of preoccupation is reserved for the academy, where experts debate categorization in order to create the most accurate possible history of a particular movement, medium, or whatever. It's also prevalent in the more serious types of criticism, partly because it helps establish a shorthand for talking about very complex subjects. Responsible critics/academics somewhat regret such categorization, because one always runs the risk of reifying the categories. This, in turn, might run contrary to the artists' intent, color audiences' interpretation of the work in question, etc. Of course, some academics/critics like to argue about this stuff for no good reason other than self-aggrandizement or semantophilia or something. Either way, it's mostly ivory tower bullshit for the majority of those who view/read/whatever the work in question (unless we're talking about something really obscure, in which case questions relevant to taxonomy might be the only reason people pay it any mind in the first place).

This, as you probably know, is not the case for comics, where ordinary fans have interminable, soul-destroying conversations arguments about which specific issues signal the start/end dates of the Silver Age, who exactly qualifies as a mutant, how to interpret adjectives when filing one's comics in alphabetical order, and so on. This isn't unique to comics--I think it's a general nerd culture phenomenon, the kind of thinking that leads people to argue that hours of Wikipedia research are part and parcel of consuming a video game/comic/whatever. I think this mentality probably originates in early days of fandom, back when sickly young men traded letters about science fiction stories. In fact, I kind of think this mentality is an inevitable product of nerd culture, in that this culture tends to fixate on cultural artifacts intended to be consumed, then disposed of and forgotten. Since regular people have historically viewed such art with contempt, nerdly obsession fosters a sense of group membership, or even superiority by virtue of consumption of the derided product. This, in turn, inspires an incredible degree of insularity within the subculture, rewarding further contemplation of the artifact over non-nerdish pursuits (LIKE DATING OR SHOWERING, HA HA HA). Which, of course, encourages exhaustive cataloging (which, at long last, necessitates exhaustive categorization).

Another thing: since these cultural artifacts were disposable and often produced for children, the original authors gave little thought to their internal logic. So it fell to the obsessed fan to weave some kind of internal consistency from a great tangle of hastily-produced junk. And since there were so many contradictory scraps of information, that led to (a) ever more convoluted tapestries of "continuity," (b) the notion of "canon," and (c) interminable, soul-destroying debates over how to interpret things intended for children and slow-witted adults. That is what I hate about comics fandom. What I like, for the record, are people who can look at an obscure piece of art and determine, with no hesitation, who inked it, what company produced it, etc. That's useful, non-solipsistic information. Nutty fanboys: I will like you better if you start concentrating more on actual art and story rather than the fictional characters who inhabit these comics. If you're reading this, you're too old to get into arguments about how long Batman can hold his breath, especially if this is part of a larger debate over which superhero can hold his or her breath the longest.)

Er, where was I? Oh yes: there's lots of good, free stuff on the internet, much of which compares very nicely to the comics you have to pay actual money for at your retail outlet of choice. I'm not talking about webcomics, really, but all the blogs where people are posting great comics which predate my existence by multiple decades: Mike Lynch, Karswell, Pappy, Scans Daily (I mean, not everything there is worth the effort to roll your eyeballs across the monitor, but sometimes someone posts something like this), Golden Age Comic Book Stories, Michael Sporn (lots of animation there also, but that's no reason to complain), Alan Holtz, the inconceivably great ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive (which also contains some incredible illustration and animation work)--this is a treasure trove of great comics. And that's just what I've assembled from my newsfeeder and various links in Journalista over the past few days. Ten years ago, I would not have believed that I would have the opportunity to purchase all these wonderful comics, let alone read them for absolutely free. The presence of these terrific sites sort of balances out the unfathomably positive reaction to those hideous Heroes TV Guide covers. People who like those TV Guide covers: click on some of the above links and decide once and for all if your taste is as bad as I fear, or if you just haven't been exposed to the good stuff yet.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Angry, angry, angry

-Least likely development of the last week: furor over Wizard. It's hard to believe anyone can get worked up about a magazine whose relevance is nil for anyone with an internet connection. It's never been the periodical of record for North American comics, simply because it's never approached (or even aspired to) comprehensive coverage of North American comics. It's not event the voice of Fanboy Nation anymore--the internet has allowed for the dissemination of wildly divergent, frequently unhinged opinions about superhero comics, so Wizard's voice is easily lost in the cacophony. Not only that, Wizard's take on superhero comics (from what I remember) is rather meek by today's standards. Flocks of bloggers and message board posters take their opinions to extremes, drowning out Wizard with unearthly shrieks and screeches. And with Marvel/DC resorting to a variety of shock tactics to make their voices stand out from this murderous racket, Wizard's various "whose boobs are these?" features are rather quaint and humble. It almost reminds one of a simpler time, when the Big Two superhero publishers provided the cheesecake, and the socially retarded fan culture did the rest. Oh, for those halcyon days of yore....

I just can't get worked up about Wizard unless viewing them from a historical context. When the magazine was at its peak of influence, it was inimical to the entire comics industry--not just the superhero publishers or their devoted fans, but everyone from the shop owner to the comics creator. It helped fuel the speculator boom, instilled the zero-attention span mentality which still applies to comics fans today, and helped forge the Image founders' self-image (PUN INTENDED!), which led to them basically abandoning a movement which might have revolutionized the industry.* And that's not even getting into the issues raised by this contemporary piece of vitriol (via Dirk Deppey). Viewed from this historical context, the "magazine for men" blurb is like a footnote to a footnote.

*Though to be fair, this probably had more to do with the obscene amounts of money the Image founders raked in. The number of toy manufacturers and Hollywood studios interested in exploiting their intellectual properties may have been just as important.

-That manga reviewer at Comics Should Be Good is really something, huh? Really puts that Tezuka in his place.

-Speaking of reviews, Abhay Khosla's roundup of Zuda's current offerings covers a lot of what I find annoying not just about the Zuda stuff (which I hadn't bothered to look at until following the links in his review), but many independent comics in general. I'm so sick of lower primates, ninjas, pirates, robots, various monsters, and cynical-yet-infallible nerds (oh wait, that last one is a webcomics thing). Which serves to remind me that the effectiveness of these hackneyed cultural touchstones largely depends on the skill of those manipulating them. That kind of goes without saying, but it's still worth repeating. At this point in my life, if I see some new comic which depends on ape-based comedy (or whatever), my first inclination is to dismiss it out of hand. So the cartoonist(s) have to work extra hard to win me back over, just because they're relying on archetypes I associate with the worst kind of hackwork. I would say that using played out shit like cowboys and zombies is counterproductive, but maybe comics featuring cowboys fighting zombies sell better than the kind of shit I actually want to read.

Anyway, the real reason I brought this up is this one particular comment in reaction to the review:

If you dona.t [sic] want to like anything a big company does, that's your perogative [sic]. But, at least be honest about it.

This, my friends, is the state of online comics discourse. I'm not sure how much we can blame Wizard for this state of affairs, though I wish we could. Also irritating, from Brian Wood's Lucca Festival guest blog:

This trip is the perfect balm to the last several weeks of horrible deadlines, endless (and pointless) online conversations/arguments about Vertigo sales numbers, stresses related to launching a new series, etc.

Jesus, dude, leak some numbers if you're not satisfied with the way these discussions are going. Although you might not be happy to find that the current discourse seems to be moving away from systemic distribution/marketing problems and towards "their comics suck now." Or, since nobody's really singling out DMZ for condemnation, maybe it passes muster. Anyway, sorry to contribute towards making your trip to Italy necessary, Mr. Wood. If you see Gipi again anytime soon, tell him I liked Notes For a War Story.

EDIT: WAIT WAIT WAIT! J. Longo, creator of the universally-panned (and, trust me, genuinely bad) This American Strife shows up to defend his good name:

Thanks for your detailed hatred regarding my comic. I wish I could tell you that it bothered me. . .but it didnt [sic]. Instead, I'll thank you for the extra added attention you've helped my comic receive. Couldn't have done it without your help.

I look forward to seeing your comic being posted on Zuda. Thanks, buddy.

J. Longo thus sets a torrid pace for Asshole of the Month. Who will match this incredible effort? More importantly, who will admit to actually liking his terrible comic?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Entertaining crap > boring crap

-Well, I tried reading Phonogram, and had to stop midway through and put on a Team Dresch album as some sort of cleansing ritual. Then I went back to reading the card collecting video game story in Hunter x Hunter. Really, as much shit as I give to DC and Marvel, I'd rather read something like Nightwing or whatever the Marvel equivalent is in terms of quality (Ultimate Fantastic Four?) than try to read another tepid alternative mainstream thing. I'm not talking about this, which I like, or this, which looks pretty cool, or this, which I've never actually gotten around to reading, but which looks good enough that I wish I had, or even this, which I'm woefully behind on but thought was pretty entertaining when I wasn't behind on it. Maybe what I'm saying is that I can't believe how many independent comics take the dullest, most stultifying conventions from superhero comics, dress it up with a few cusses and dudes with piercings, and then expect anyone to give a shit. That might not be fair to Phonogram, which reads like a collaboration between Tom Tomorrow and some weirdo on Usenet whose main influences are Transmetropolitan and NME, c. 1995. Okay, I've said enough.

-Hey, speaking of tepid pseudo-alternative comics, Chris Butcher has some thoughts on the ongoing Vertigo discussion (and I can't tell if he's referring to "Village Green Preservation Society" in the title of his post). The comments are particularly interesting: Abhay Khosla shows up to ask a question similar to the one which immediately sprang to my mind. Butcher claims that, when you look at sales in terms of dollars rather than units sold, the OGN Sentences did as well as Vertigo's selling-too-well-to-be-canceled titles, such as DMZ and 100 Bullets. Khosla suggests that perhaps we should consider that Sentences, had it been serialized, would have been 5-6 issues, which translates into pretty poor per issue sales. Butcher restates that he's talking about dollar figures, but I still think there's a bit of an error in his way of thinking.

Sentences sold 1700 copies at $20 a pop, which comes out to $34,000 net. Based on Khosla's figures, I think it's safe to assume that it would have been about 6 issues in serialized form. For the sake of this exercise, let's assume that Sentences would have ended up averaging about 4000 copies sold per issue--not all that unreasonable given the typical disparity between GN sales and individual issue sales at Vertigo. That's 24,000 total copies. At $3 per issue, that's $72,000 in total sales--more than twice what Sentences did as an OGN. You could make the counter-argument that since the OGN only sold 1700 copies, that should be the average we work with for single issue sales. I think that's kind of nuts--1700 is probably closer to the baseline for what the final issue or two of the series would have sold, with 1st issue sales more in the 8000 range (with major dropoffs after, of course). But even if we work with 1700 as the average sales per issue, we come up with $30,600. Not that far off from the actual OGN figures.

Now there are all kinds of other variables to consider, like the cost of production per issue vs. the cost for an OGN, the trouble in racking a bunch of single issues vs. racking an OGN, the discount on OGNs vs. the discount on single issues, etc. I was actually going to try to make this kind of comparison in one of my recent Vertigo-centric posts, but my ignorance of Diamond/DC's discount rates persuaded me to avoid dollar sales and stick to unit sales. I actually tried to do this with The Other Side, had calculated the total dollar sales for single issues and compared it to the upper level of Vertigo's OGN sales, and found that the serialized version was a far, far safer bet for Vertigo. But then I deleted all that, and I don't really want to add it all up again, so you can trust me, run the numbers yourself, or just ignore this point. Oh, okay, here it is again: total unit sales for issues 1-5 was 45,628, adding up to $136,884. Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (Vertigo's best selling OGN) sold 15,289 copies at $20 for a total of $305,780. That's over twice what The Other Side did in pamphlet form, but who in the hell thinks that The Other Side would have even approached those numbers? 5000 sold is a much more reasonable expectation, and at $100,000 that would still be less than aggregate single issue sales. Especially if you add in The Other Side's admittedly modest GN sales, worth another $30,000 (for a grand total around $170,000--and that's net, not gross). All things considered, it seems like an obvious choice to me. In fact, I wonder why Vertigo bothers with OGNs at all.

This is where Butcher's dialogue with Stuart Moore becomes relevant. Moore pops in to remind everyone that Vertigo's page rates limit what the imprint can do (a point he made at this very blog re: the potential for anthologies). Butcher suggests that Vertigo might want to abandon up front page rates, presumably in favor of the independent model of giving creators a percentage of the total sales (which, if you add in an advance, is also the mainstream publishing model). I have no idea how feasible this recommendation is; I suspect it's more complicated than Butcher is suggesting. I can't imagine that Vertigo's freelancers would be happy about it, especially with sales going the way they are. I mean, if one really does want to see more comics creators making a living wage, then one should probably support Vertigo's current model.

I, however, might be interested in seeing Vertigo move more towards the model Butcher suggested, just because I think it might increase the odds of Vertigo actually publishing something I want to read. Vertigo has had success with four basic types of comics. Everyone knows about the magical/mythological stuff (Sandman, Fables), and everyone also knows about the adaptations of existing DC properties (Doom Patrol, Shade the Changing Man). I would add two more categories: shonen and philosophy. I'm using "shonen" as a synecdoche for quest-oriented manga where a single male protagonist works his way towards some ultimate goal with the help of his friends. This more or less describes Preacher and Y the Last Man, right? As for philosophy, I'm talking about comics where the narrative serves to inculcate the writer's world view--stuff like Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, or Testament.*

I don't much care for the philosophy category, but I'm open to all the others--in theory. Still, I'd much rather see some comics which don't easily fall into any of these categories. Hell, what I'd really like to see are a few projects driven by art as much as writing. Or projects in which the art is not some derivation of British/American adventure comic art. In other words, less Mike Carey/Jim Fern, more Jhonen Vasquez. Not that I especially like Vasquez' comics**, but surely Vertigo can make money selling things he writes and draws, right? Or maybe even Ted Rall or Lloyd Dangle. Rick Veitch is a step in the right direction, but it seems like Vertigo could have found someone with a more obvious constituency (like teenage goths or angry liberals).

Regardless, I don't think Vertigo is prepared to go into the OGN business anytime soon, simply because it doesn't make any sense for them to do so financially. Furthermore, lost in this discussion (but present in Hibbs' original post) is the idea of serialization providing a sort of advertising, a way to keep up the buzz about a book so that people don't forget about it. You could say that's a failure of marketing, and that it's a resolvable problem, but I think we're still a few years from DC/Vertigo cracking that nut (which they will surely do by smashing it with a large computer). In the meantime, Vertigo's upcoming slate of revamped DC properties suggest that the imprint is going through a conservative period. I start to wonder if the Vertigo label is really more of a hindrance than people realize (I actually expected the American Splendor miniseries to be a compromised version, for no real, legitimate reason), but that's really just idle speculation. Maybe the answer is to give Neil Gaiman several large bags of money so he can "show run" a weekly series exploring the Vertigo universe?

*Yes, Vertigo has published many other titles which don't fit into these categories, but these are the most successful archetypes in the Vertigo library.

**I did like Invader Zim.

-Trader Joe's Reviews:

Soy and Flax Clusters cereal: I bought this by accident; my wife and I usually refer to this kind of cereal as "hemp flakes" (possibly because my father seems to like the stuff). The box proudly informs the consumer of its high protein and fiber content. As a vegetarian, I'm always worried that I don't get enough of the former, but I'm exceedingly confident that I get plenty of the latter. There's also Omega 3 acids or whatever, but I'll worry about that once I start to have visible gray hair. (Actually, maybe that's not such a great idea--my hemp flakes-loving father is about to turn 60, and he has fewer gray hairs than Dr. Strange.)

Anyway, this cereal was mildly sweet and nutty, just as the box promised. It was also crunchy. Severely crunchy. Kind of traversing the border from "crunchy" to "hard," truth be told. The flakes are coated in flax seeds, which are alarmingly dark in color. There are also a lot of soy nuts just kind of hanging out in this cereal, not attached to any flake or cluster. I wouldn't say that eating it was a challenge, but I was more actively aware of the process of eating than I might normally be. And I'm a little worried about how well those additional six grams of fiber are going to play with the large quantity of beans and corn meal still lingering in my system. I did kind of feel like all the liquid had been removed from my body after eating a bowl of this stuff, but that might have more to do with (a) the cup of coffee I drank with it, and (b) the fact that it's about 85 degrees in here, owing to the comically outdated heating system in my building. I do know this--the next time I'm shopping for cereal at Trader Joe's, I'm going to make sure that I actually read the boxes rather than rely on my memory of the box's color scheme.

UPDATE: I think that the hemp flakes might not get along with other food. I had quite the stomach ache last night after a pretty typical lunch (see below). Will update after more data is acquired.

UPDATE TWO: I had another bowl this morning, and it seems to be behaving itself in my stomach. I haven't eaten lunch yet, though.

Balsamic Vinegar: This is supposedly nicer than the cheap stuff, which everyone says is basically grape juice. Mixed it with olive oil and tried it brushed on a grilled cheese sandwich, but couldn't tell the difference. Tried dipping my finger in it and tasting it, and it is does have a much mellower taste than the cheap stuff. Also a bit more syrupy. Don't know if that's worth paying quadruple the cost of the cheap stuff. I've never bought a bottle of the legitimately good stuff (that's money that could go towards comics), but I'm pretty sure no one's going to confuse this for that. I'll be making a salad dressing out of it soon, so I'll update if anything notable comes to light.