Sunday, 8 May 2011

Who Is The Mighty Thor, And Why Should Anyone Care?

In which the blogger samples the first issue of the new monthly Thor title, released to coincide with the character’s Summer popcorn movie and presumably designed to appeal to a whole new audience, many of whom might never have read too many comics before, let alone those staring the big blonde bloke with the helmet and hammer;

             
1.

As a general principle, I do appreciate the courtesy of the introductory page of text in the first issue of "The Mighty Thor". I think that it's as compassionate and laudable as it is commercially sensible for Marvel to try to offer its readers the background knowledge they need to enjoy the stories before them. I would, however, have preferred that that introductory text had actually made sense.

What most concerns me is that the weaknesses of the introduction have a great deal in common with the limitations of the story which it was designed to support, in that neither can be easily understood by anyone other than an experienced and unquestioning reader of today's superhero books. It's as if many of Marvel's editors and creators are aware that they ought to be producing work which is accessible to a broader audience, and yet they just can't seem to imagine how they might achieve such an end. And so, Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel's work on "The

             
Galactus Seed 1" is often bafflingly obtuse and opaque, as if they thought that the presence of an even more intense version of a typical modern-era superhero book would, by dint of the enthusiasm and genre commitment on display, appeal to the uncommitted and inexperienced reader of such comics. That a better solution to the question of how to sell more comics might have been to focus on producing transparent narratives with an obvious emotional appeal doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone, despite the presence of the Thor movie in the world's film theaters delivering exactly such a product.

Such a puzzling business can't be the consequence of a lack of ability or concern on the part of Marvel's editors and creators. No-one wants to alienate readers, no-one wants to appeal to little beyond a profoundly constricted niche audience. The very existence of a page of text designed to help readers make sense of, and thereby enjoy, "The Mighty Thor" # 1 tells us that the publisher very much wants to reach out beyond its title's core readers. Yet both the introduction and the tale itself are as unintentionally impenetrable and unengaging as they are quite obviously framed by good intentions. This is a familiar problem which can be regularly encountered in the superhero books of both Marvel and DC. We can only assume that there exists a common culture in the comic business which prevents many individuals grasping how their books might be perceived by those who are unfamiliar with their content and uncomfortable with their storytelling methods.

         
2.

Here, for example, is the second half of the supposedly informing prelude setting up the new reader for the experience of reading "The Mighty Thor" # 1;

“During battle with tremendous foes from beyond the World Tree, the Mighty Thor drew the powerful Odinsword from its eternal scabbard and split Yggdrasil in twain – the bridge of worlds was thus rendered permanent and fixed. A spewing geyser of strange light shooting upwards forever from the American - - and Asgardian – heartland ….

Some see it as a shining beacon. (*1)

Some see it as a warning.”

*1:- That's the second use in the intro of "shining" in 90 words, by the way. For professional editors, that's a worrying sign of a careless attitude to, yes, editing.

          
I’ve been reading comics with Thor as a presence in their pages for more than forty years now, although I jumped ship away from the character's most recent incarnation by J. Michael Straczynski because it was both poorly written and quite nasty in its no-doubt unintended sexism. Yet if I'm absolutely lost with what’s supposedly being explained in the above, then there's little hope that this introduction might assist anyone beyond Thor's existing circle of readers. Enthusiastic and well-meaning this introduction might be, but it's almost entirely unhelpful too.

Some of this confusion is rooted in the imprecise use of the English displayed in the text, where words appear to be being employed as vague approximations of meaning rather than as precise determinants of it. This is true on even the most basic level, for whoever produced this seems not to have had a clear idea of who it was that they were writing for. For example, if these words are supposed in any way to constitute a helping hand for readers who are new not just to Thor’s more recent adventures, but to comics themselves, then wouldn’t it make sense to place words in a way that reflects their most common general usage? “Tremendous”, for instance, can of course refer to an exceptionally great measure, but it’s more often used in a sense that indicates an excess of approval. As a consequence, the phrase "tremendous foes" isn't one which is immediately easy to process, which surely means that an alternative ought to have been found, and yet it's the least unhelpful of such sloppy choices on display. The following sentence, for instance, means absolutely nothing to the reader who doesn't already know the fine details of Thor's backstory, making it as redundant an offering as can be imagined;

"The mighty Thor drew the powerful Odinsword from its Eternal Scabbard and split Yggdrasil in twain --"

          
How many aspects of this sentence require explanation to any beyond the adept? Well, assuming for the moment that every name and term is essential for the reader's secure progress forwards, or why else mention these matters at all, then it might have been useful to have had a brief mention of who this Thor is, and of what his relationship with characters such as Odin, Loki and Sif actually is. However, perhaps we're going to assume that the basic facts about Thor are common knowledge. What surely isn't generally known is the meaning of terms such as "Odinsword", "Eternal Scabbard" and "Yggdrasil". I myself have no idea what Yggdrasil is, and though its implied that it's "the Bridge of Worlds", that neither explains the matter nor establishes why a "Bridge of Worlds" might be so very important, let alone why we might be concerned with it having been "split ... in twain". Reading onwards only adds more confusion. "The Bridge of Worlds", we're told, has been "rendered permanent and fixed". Well, what does this mean? Common-sense knowledge can't inform this impossible vagueness. Words such as "permanent" and "fixed" when applied to the concept of a "Bridge" would seem to suggest a solid structure capable of bearing the load that it's been designed to. Whyever would the neophyte reader be worried about a "Bridge" that both existed and would continue to do so?

The only conclusion that can be reached from reading this introduction is that those who wrote it, checked it and recommended its publication literally cannot imagine what it is to not be a regular reader of Thor. The task of informing the reader prior to the beginning of "The Galactus Seed 1" isn't, therefore, one of identifying the key information which is required for an innocent outsider to begin to make sense of the tale ahead. Instead, it's apparently been assumed that all that is needed is a checklist of terms which will, in themselves, and despite the vagueness of their use, re-awaken and inform a pre-existing understanding of who Thor is and of how his world works, as if by fanboy osmosis.

Everyone knows this stuff really, don't they? It's obvious, really.

             
3.

Complicating this linguistic imprecision and the counter-intuitive assumption of prior knowledge is the presence in the text of a mass of irrelevancies. Why, for example, is the audience which may know nothing of “the powerful Odinsword” being told of its “eternal scabbard”? There's no mention of either sword or scabbard in the 22 pages of "The Mighty Thor" # 1, and so it's hard to know why the 'eternal scabbard' is important to the neophyte when Thor's relationship to Loki isn't. Why, when so much in these sentences is vague or conspicuous by its absence, is that scabbard being mentioned at all? Why tell us that “Thor and Sif stand ready for whatever may come next.”, since that implies that all the other characters don’t, and that Thor and Sif stand actually in some kind of opposition to their fellows. Why inform the reader that Odin had “awakened from uneasy sleep”, a phrase which will baffle even occasional readers from recent years, who have known a quite different tale, while adding nothing to the understanding of the newcomer?  Why is the fact that Odin's sleep was 'uneasy' an essential piece of information to impart? Who, facing the prospect of reading this comic without knowledge of the stories which have preceded it, needs to know anything about the sleep patterns of Odin?

It's as if the writer of this can't grasp that there is a difference between keenly showing everyone what he knows and diligently informing the reader of what they need to be told. This, of course, is exactly the wrong attitude where the matter of creating an introduction is concerned. Even for a writer who doesn't seem to grasp that double-hyphens are completely unnecessary in any writing of any kind beyond that of the experimental or the outsider artist, the purpose of identifying a core of priorities and then explaining such in as clear a manner as possible must surely be the obvious starting point for helping new readers. 

Here it is, the Shining City On A Hill, with an All-Father on the throne too.
               
Yet there is, in addition to this great weight of the extraneous, a conspicuous absence of absolutely key information. And so, though it's helpful to be informed that Loki has been “resurrected as the young god he once was”, we're not told anything of what that means for his character, his memory or his motivations. The reader needs to know who Loki actually is, which isn't mentioned at all, and of how his present state compares to his previous existence. Without that knowledge, the part played by Loki in the following pages is exceptionally hard to make sense of. That doesn't mean that anything more than a brief statement of such matters is required, but it is needed all the same.

Similarly, there’s no specific mention of Broxton, Oklahoma in the introduction, or of the town's vital connection to Asgard. And so the new reader turning to the first page of the story will be immediately faced with the community affairs of a town which apparently passed quite unmentioned in the preparatory reading they’ve just completed! Worse yet, there’s nothing in the text of Mr Fraction’s script for page one of his story to explain how introduction and text relate to each other, of how Broxton and the American Heartland and Asgard are connected. Perhaps the presumption is that the mere mention of that “spewing geyser of strange light shooting upwards forever” in the prelude will enable the reader to link Broxton with the aforementioned "American Heartland". This is something of a long shot, and it relies very heavily, of course, on Broxton being shown close to a phenomena which is recognisable as a spewing, shooting light. Sadly,  the sky as shown in Mr Ciopel's panel at 1/1 shows no sign of any 'spewing geyser ... shooting upward forever', although there are some subtle indications of 'strange light' in the heavens above the only church in America which has a sign showing service times but no information concerning religion or denomination. In short, there's no way of understanding where the reader is on page 1 in connection to the events detailed in the introduction, because even that little information doesn't apparently match up with what's on the page. And so, not only are both prologue and story unsympathetically shaped for the needs of the more-casual reader, but they've clearly not been created in such a way as to effectively compliment each other either. All of this makes the whole purpose of the introduction seem more and more mysterious.The information it gives is almost entirely unhelpful. The data that the reader requires is almost wholly absent.
           
4.

It may be that some of the problems with the introduction stem from an attempt by its writer to evoke a comic-book Godly tone. Regretfully, the addition of one "thus", an individual "twain" and a single "rendered" doesn't create a sense of Asgardian-speak so much as that of a piece written by someone for whom English isn't their first language. Juxtaposing contemporary phrases - "There are some who will never forgive him." - with only partially cod-Shakespearean ones - "thus rendered permanent and fixed" - produces an effect which must surely had led some casual and literate browsers to decide that comic books really weren't for them, despite so much enticingly credible publicity to the contrary. Certainly, if this page really does reflect an attempt to mirror the speech patterns of Odin's people, then there's an absence of the glee and irony put to use by those writers who've most succesfully risen to the challenge of making ham-archaic speech enjoyable as well as informing.

But the problem isn't just a question of an unthinking selection of material combined with a thoughtless and inconsistent choice of tone. Some of what's on this page actually makes no sense at all, and by that, I mean not that it's full of references to the minutiae of the Thor mythos, but rather that its truly senseless. For example, what is meant by “strange light shooting upwards forever from the American - - and Asgardian - -heartland"? It's another one of those statements which requires prior knowledge to even begin to make any sense of, of course, and, as is typical, the essential relationship between the 'American Heartland' and that of Asgard is entirely unexplained. But it's that word "forever" which takes an obscure and unhelpful sentence and makes it an utterly confusing one. How does a light shoot up "forever"? Does this mean that the light will always be shooting up, or that it's somehow projecting through time, or does 'forever' refer to space instead? No, the mystery is impossible to solve. The writer and those who edited the piece were so confident that their own knowledge could be transmitted through such shorthand that they quite missed the fact that no-one else could possibly know the meaning of what was being written.

             
5.

Certainly, a touch of writerly restraint and a measure of editing might have freed up the space to explain what the likes of “Yggdrasil” might be. It’s as if whoever wrote this piece assumed that the audience possessed the ability to deduce the meaning of the details associated with Thor's recent adventures simply by casting an eye over a piece of text containing certain key headline words and terms. In this, the introduction seems to reflect an understanding of language which regards it as nothing more than a vague aide-memoire, a collection of flat symbols which serve to do nothing more than jog the memories already laid down by the essential experience of reading comic books. And so, words and terms which are useless to the new reader seeking the bare minimum of essential information are sprinkled through the introduction as if their presence was in itself a sign of virtue, a marker that the writer knows their comic-fan stuff, as well as an infallible way of getting the reader up to speed without having to actually explain anything. This, matched with what appears to be a lack of knowledge of little beyond comic books and the comic book fans who read them, means that the possibility for misunderstanding and even offense is always present, as indeed we've seen in so many unintentionally controversial books in the past 12 months. Both Marvel and DC are constantly being shocked to discover that their books contain material which others find offensive. The right can attempt to create moral panics over the depictions of the Tea Party and the issue/non-issue of Superman's citizenship. Liberals are appalled by the treatment of heroic

             
characters from a non-white background and the pathetic depiction of the 'realities' of drug abuse. And yet, the publishers don't ever seem to spot that trouble is on its way, don't appear to work to either proactively prevent problems or ensure that contentious stances taken are expressed in the most productive way possible. It would be one thing if Marvel or DC had set out to make genuinely purposeful and well-informed political statements in the incidents referred to in passing above, but it's usually obvious that the problems are caused by accidents and half-thought through stories. Such a lack of engagement with the detail and the broader meaning of their own product can be seen in the introduction which we're discussing here. Why declare that Odin is the “All-Father”, for example, an irrelevancy in itself, given that Asgard is also referred to in these few hundred words as “The Shining City”, a phrase precious to a great deal of American Christian and political ideology. To add 'All-Father' to 'Shining City' is to create the possibility for a charge of cultural insensitivity, given that it does raise the possibility of Marvel being seen to equate Odin with the Christian God and Asgard with Heaven. Now, Marvel may have decided that two such terms are unlikely to attract any unwanted attention, and I'd agree with them, but my point is that anyone who was paying attention to the language they were using would have spotted that "Shining City" isn't a phrase that should appear without it being deliberately chosen for a particular purpose. These are words and terms which have a specific meaning when placed in combination with each other. To use them respectfully or satirically is one thing. To appropriate them without any specific purpose is a sign that language means little to the writer beyond the barely-functional exchange of basic information.

Anyone who describes a comicbook kingdom of Gods as a "Shining City", especially given that Asgard does indeed appear in "Thor The Mighty" # 1 to have been built upon a hill, just isn't thinking. A minor matter in itself, no doubt, but an exceptionally telling example.

Look carefully; there is a spewing geyser of strange light shooting upwards forever in this panel.
6.            

Of course, it might be argued that these introductions don’t really  matter. A prologue is, perhaps, merely an extra page in a comicbook which doesn't count.. If so, why have an introduction? If its job isn’t so much to inform as to be seen to have made an effort to do so, why not add some crayon pictures or Rorschach tests with multiple choice questions attached? That at least would carry some measure of fun and interactivity, and a few comicbook terms could be scattered around the page to indicate enthusiasm and good will too.

But what a shame, that the editorial staff associated with a new comic starring the character which is proving so popular in this summer's movie box-office charts should have made no effective effort to welcome new readers to the book's pages.

In truth, the introduction to "The Mighty Thor" is no anomaly where much of Marvel's product is concerned. If it's notably incompetent, it shares a great deal in common with the work of  the creators of many of Marvel's books, who too assume that comic books are easy to read, that the details of continuity are more important than the construction of clear and touching stories, who regard effect as far more important than craft and substance.

All of this dreadfully poor writing can't be the result of people who don't care, and it certainly isn't a reflection of a lack of talent. Instead, what it seems to be is the product of a group of people who can't perceive that their common norms and values aren't those of the audiences which they're trying desperately to appeal to. The talent is there, the good intentions are obvious, the craft can often shine; but the culture is an obviously crippling one, for how else can we explain the problems which are so evident in so many of each month's books?

To be continued, with a look not at the editorial content associated with "The Galactus Seed 1", but, rather conventionally, with a discussion of Mr Fraction's story and Mr Coipel's art, in tomorrow's "The Campaign For Real Pop Comics V "The Mighty Thor" # 1".

Well, no shooting geysers, but there are some odd clouds and some floating blue balls.
                             
.

22 comments:

  1. One thing to bear in mind is that we are assuming this is aimed at new readers picking up the comic after seeing the film. However, I can't recall many spikes in comic book sales in connection with the films (I believe there was one with the Batman films). However, what you tend to see these days is that a successful film/TV adaptation does cause the relevant trade paperbacks to go straight into the top ten of the New York Times best selling graphic books list. Marvel have clearly got an eye on this trend as a year to 6 months ago they flooded the market with Thor comic books (there must have been 5 on the go at some points). This was mystifying to the average comic fan (Thor: The Mighty Avenger was critically acclaimed but sales were poor and it was drawn to a close after the first storyline with fans blaming the glut of titles, whereas a lot of "ongoing" series launched recently seem to be named as such to give them a bit of a boost and then get turned into limited series as the ink cools on issue #1) but makes sense if Marvel are playing the long game, making sure there were plenty of self-contained Thor 'graphic novels' on the shelves for the time the film came out.

    Now I'm sure Marvel would like to get a tonne of new readers on with this relaunched Thor book (and it is always going to be a good idea to help ease in the new reader anyway) but the big sales will be on the books, not the comic books.

    "The only conclusion that can be reached from reading this introduction is that those who wrote it, checked it and recommended its publication literally cannot imagine what it is to not be a regular reader of Thor."

    But they could always find someone to test it for them - someone must have aged aunt they can run it passed or a teenager more interested in computer games than comics. I was interested to read that Steven Moffat tests the Dr Who scripts on his own children to make sure they aren't too scary. I assume he makes sure it is comprehensible to the average kid too (although we could possibly argue about how average The Moff's progeny are).

    (cont...)

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  2. part 2

    "That's the second use in the intro of "shining" in 90 words, by the way. For professional editors, that's a worrying sign of a careless attitude to, yes, editing."

    When I'm proofreading anything for anyone (a script or a letter or a school essay or a doctoral thesis) this is one of the key things I always look out for (along with typos that word processors don't pick up - I seem especially prone to from/form). Repetition can be used for rhetorical purposes but that isn't how it is being used there. I'd have personally also flagged "tremendous foes from beyond the World Tree" unless you were deliberately going for some kind of wordplay (even then I'd be wary: "what do you think of my Norwegian firs?" "They are tree-mendous" is on a par with my Dad's groaners like: "I have a pain in my knee" "then it must be knee-monia", we just count ourselves lucky there aren't many circumstances that lead to a dick-theria joke, but thumb-osis is way too common. Now everyone knows where I got my witty and sophisticated sense of humour from ;) ).

    I do wonder if, rather than aiming at an exposition dump they were trying for a portentous opener that effectively says "big shit is going down here, better fasten your seatbelt," as other introductory texts I've seen from Marvel have been much more straightforward and fact-filled. However, it doesn't mean you can't have both - the Star Wars opening crawl both gives you an idea of the epic scale and fills you in on the key players, even though the filmmakers could be pretty confident someone turning up for anything after the first film will know what is going on (especially today with repeats and DVD boxsets making Star Wars part of our cultural landscape). And George Lucas is no mater of prose ;)

    Double hyphens though... there is no excuse for them, ever.

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  3. Not interested in reading anything by Fraction that isn't CASANOVA, but boy can that Coipel fella draw.

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  4. Yggdrasil is from Norse mythology, the World Tree (literally a tree) that all the Nine Realms are attached to.

    So:

    “The realm of Asgard To prevent the evil World Eaters from conquering all of the Nine Realms, Thor split Yggdrasil - the legendary World Tree that the Realms are bonded to - in half. Now, raw space-time gushes from the wound and lights the skies over Broxton."

    (Which still leaves "Nine Realms" unexplained but you can use the term "realm" early in the recap to indicate Asgard and Earth are realms, and that should get the gist).

    - Charles RB

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  5. Hello Colin,

    I do have at least a rough idea of what Yggdrasil is in Norse mythology, not to mention the bridge in question, Bifrost, and it just makes things more confusing. If you went in thinking Yggdrasil was just a nonsense word that someone had stipulated a meaning for, you might think they had something coherent in mind, even if they weren't really explaining it, but as it is ...

    Yggdrasil really seems to bring out the worst in writers. In the movie, Thor describes Yggdrasil as the tree that connects the nine worlds (and hence, you would think, rather resistant to Odinswording). Okay, though in context a little puzzling, since he also represents Asgard as having science well beyond Earth's, and he's acting as if he's telling the literal truth about how the universe is set up. Natalie Portman, portraying the least convincing woman scientist since Denise Richards as Christmas Jones, listens to all this with demur, only saying that she'll need some "hard facts" to convince anybody, which is even more confusing. (But maybe we missed the best part of the conversation, since it looks as if she's going to find a way to create a wormhole to Asgard, and you couldn't do that with just a picture of a tree, could you?)

    Not a bad movie, though, once you get past the Odious Comic Relief, and, in fact, nearly everything that happens on Earth. Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, and Idris Elba were very good, just to start with, and visually there was quite a lot of good stuff.

    Straczynski is credited with part of the story, and that's him as the first to find the hammer.

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  6. "Certainly, if this page really does reflect an attempt to mirror the speech patterns of Odin's people, then there's an absence of the glee and irony put to use by those writers who've most succesfully risen to the challenge of making ham-archaic speech enjoyable as well as informing."

    Yes, you've phrased it perfectly. I've been trying to figure out what has been so essentially different with modern Thor speech versus the Simonson work, and most of what I've concluded is a seriousness in the characters so that they don't talk as much, like they're embarassed by how they speak. But how they speak is my favourite part!

    I'm pretty sure I've got it on record on the internet somewheres that I'm not a fan of the Marvel intro pages, at least not in their current form. I enjoyed the version that gave character bios and a synopsis of what had happened, with accompanying panels. That was a production of an opening, and it's hard not to be impressed by the work they put into it.

    Unfortunately the intro page has evolved to be impenetrable as you say, while also acting as a crutch for the writer, an excuse, so they can convince themselves that they don't need to explain the story in story, that it stands on its own, because after all the INTRO page will get everyone up to speed.

    Even just a dramatis personae would be a welcome addition.

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  7. “One thing to bear in mind is that we are assuming this is aimed at new readers picking up the comic after seeing the film. However, I can't recall many spikes in comic book sales in connection with the films (I believe there was one with the Batman films).”

    I was more presuming that the ambition should have been there to attract such an audience regardless of the movie, but that the movie made such an ambition all the more pressing. But more importantly, the point is that the introduction only works for folks who already know all about what the introduction is discussing. This reflects a mind-set that cannot imagine what the needs of anything other than the adept fanboy is.

    I found this problem when I was teaching amongst a very large number of my colleagues. They were often so consumed by the content and perceived value of their own subjects that they couldn’t grasp (1) that students often didn’t share their taken-for-granted assumption that subject x was both interesting and easy to understand, and (2) that the basic skills needed to make sense of their subjects weren’t both easy to master and always already present in their students when the course began. And so, for example, in school after school, English Departments would be encouraging students at 6th form to write longer and longer sentences without realising that most of their students couldn’t consciously grasp what a sentence was in formal terms or exactly what a sentence is for. That sounds odd, but a sentence as a unit of an argument which contains a single clause and relates in sequence to that which came before it and that will follows; students didn’t grasp that. They just started writing and then finished writing and the very business of spewing their minds and hearts out was rewarded in itself. Hence generations – literally – of students who could write a great deal, who believed they were literate because they could do so, and who yet couldn’t SAY anything. The best teachers at any level always start with a skill audit; what must their students be able to do before they can perform competently at the level they’re to be tested at? (“Tested” as in the things they’ll be doing rather than necessarily being a concept relating solely to exams.) I wasn’t one of the best teachers at all, but I aspired to be and tried to be too. As a consequence, I spent most of my time teaching sixth-formers not the arcana of the social sciences, but basic English, memory techniques and organisational skills. The learning took care of itself if I spent two years teaching the basics, and though I sadly wasn’t a teacher who many students would think fondly of until after they got their results, those results were rather conspicuously good. I wish I’d been one of those teachers who immediately and lastingly inspired rose-petal showering love. Instead, I rather befuddled folks by pointing out, as kindly and consistently and compellingly as I could, that English must rather shockingly be MADE to make sense, that remembering material was the key to making SENSE, and that a consistent EFFORT counted where last-minute panicking was largely worthless.

    The ability to, as James Brown said, TALK LOUD and SAY NOTHING is a quality common in a culture that equates doing with being, meaning well to being virtuous, which sees knowledge not a matter of mastering a subject and using it appropriately, but of displaying good will and enthusiasm. I believe that that culture can be seen in a great deal of today’s media products, and it seems to me to be present in that front page of Thor. Lots of knowledge, lots of enthusiasm, no self-conscious control of language or of what the purpose of a language is. That’s why I believe that it’s no-ones fault that such work is so common, because it’s a culturally-rooted phenomena. But editors are the only folks whose role might allow them to step outside that problem and attend to it.


    cont

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  8. cont:

    "But they could always find someone to test it for them - someone must have aged aunt they can run it passed or a teenager more interested in computer games than comics. I was interested to read that Steven Moffat tests the Dr Who scripts on his own children to make sure they aren't too scary.”

    True. Better yet, they could just start by considering the sentence as a unit which has to make perfect sense in itself, both in terms of delivering at least 1 transparent and relevant piece of information and of serving as a clause in a clearly structured argument. Take that and combine it with an understanding of the audience’s needs and although ART isn’t guaranteed, clarity and utility is.

    "When I'm proofreading anything for anyone (a script or a letter or a school essay or a doctoral thesis) this is one of the key things I always look out for (along with typos that word processors don't pick up - I seem especially prone to from/form).”

    Yes, it’s an odd one, isn’t it? To what degree do today’s editors have the training, time, financial resources and general support to be able to encourage literacy in text and art? Some are obviously very, very good at the job. Others not. I don’t know much of the folks involved with Thor here beyond this book, so although the comics stands for me as representing problems common in the industry, I certainly couldn’t say it’s representative of their work in any way.

    ”I do wonder if, rather than aiming at an exposition dump they were trying for a portentous opener that effectively says "big shit is going down here, better fasten your seatbelt," as other introductory texts I've seen from Marvel have been much more straightforward and fact-filled. However, it doesn't mean you can't have both “

    If it was a ‘portentous opener”, it was, for the reasons stated above, poor. Inconsistent tone, poor sentence structure and so on. If it was an exposition-dump, well, why? Who does that help?

    ”Double hyphens though... there is no excuse for them, ever.”

    Ah, fair took me back to m’teaching days. The presence and absence of punctuation for an ill-defined but apparently worthwhile effect! Punctuation defeats most of us. I struggle constantly with it myself, and my control of tense is often shameful. We all have our own problems with English. That’s what an editorial chain of command is there for, of course.

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  9. Hello Mark:- CASANOVA is a book several kind commenters have recommended and I'm very pleased they did. Mr Fraction's work for Marvel has often been undermined by the current cultural expectations of what a writer's job is. The 5-part opening sequence of Iron Man was very promising, but it was only 3 issues of story and that's a problem which for me repeats itself throughout his work. The decline in quality in Agents of ATLAS seems to mirror the tendency of his work to become more and more typical of this era's norms.

    Mr Ciopel can certainly draw. Pretty, pretty, pretty. But on the evidence of Thor # 1, he can't tell a story. He seems here to be the comicbook equivalent of an amazing lead guitarist who can sizzle through the blues runs, but who can't play chords and can't manage rhythm guitar. Of course, you'll know far about his work than I do. But the storytelling HERE is terrible. Pretty, but terrible.

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  10. Hello Mark:- I think you illustrate why writing simple material is actually very difficult. Not only does the writer need to know their stuff, but they need to be able to reduce it to the simplest terms relevant to the task at hand. This is extremely challenging. Transparency is such a challenging business that most folks never even considering aspiring to it. Buzz-words are used instead of clarity, verbosity indulged in rather than brevity, a scattershot approach to prose used instead of making sure than the spine of an argument is there for all to see and understand.

    The key point is that language is the way that we communicate. Not the way that we show our good will, our enthusiasm, our willingness to put words onto paper, but the fashion in which we say exactly what we intend to. An impossible ambition, of course, but it should be one consciously held to. The writer should surely always have a clear idea of their audience, of its needs and of the most effective way to tend to it BEFORE ever putting fingers to keyboard. Well, unless that writer is an ARTISTE, of course, and self-expression considered more important than MAKING SENSE.

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  11. Hello Brian:- “Yggdrasil really seems to bring out the worst in writers.”

    I think the problem lies in the fact that writers seem to just assume that their understanding makes sense to others because it seems to make sense to them. There’s also a terrible tendency to regard such concepts as MacGuffins, meaning that they exist merely to move a plot along wherever a creator wants it to go. Now, this of course places a great strain on any willing suspension of disbelief, because inconsistencies and clear stupidities can throw a reader out of a story. The solution isn’t a mass of continuity and fan-boy anal precision, of course, but rather a matter of leaving as little in a script which can inspire those alienatingly “Wha?/Huh?” moments. If a term needs a great deal of explanation, then it needs to unpacked until each of the clauses necessary to grasping it are laid out clearly. Assuming that the reader or viewer will just go along with obscurity is fine until the obscurities start to built up and build up in number, as they did in the text piece we’re discussing. A joke, narrative misdirection, a clever trick of writerly skill; all of these can hide the presence of sheer unthought-through daftness in a script. But there’s a critical mass of “Wha?/Huh?”-ness which is created when a significant number of daft thoughts are put together. Given that most folks find it impossible to believe in even one impossible thing before or after breakfast, clarity is surely an important quality to aspire to, because the harder it is to believe, the harder it is to care.

    “But maybe we missed the best part of the conversation, since it looks as if she's going to find a way to create a wormhole to Asgard, and you couldn't do that with just a picture of a tree, could you?”

    Sounds like a Grant Morrison script to me, Brian :)

    ”Not a bad movie, though, once you get past the Odious Comic Relief, and, in fact, nearly everything that happens on Earth. Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, and Idris Elba were very good, just to start with, and visually there was quite a lot of good stuff.”

    I’m looking forward to it. Living out here in the sticks, the nearest movie-house is a fair journey, and sitting knee-deep amidst the mobile phones and the endless chit-chatting doesn’t entice me. But thankfully DVDs are released swiftly these days, and I will be buying it on the first day it’s out.

    ”Straczynski is credited with part of the story, and that's him as the first to find the hammer.”

    Well, he’s an able writer, although in comic-book terms, he clearly isn’t subject to being edited because of the credibility he brings and the sales he generates. As a result, he’s produced years of PAP and not POP. A shame, especially since both credibility and sales figures have been hit by that obvious lack of editing.

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  12. Hello Issac:- “I've been trying to figure out what has been so essentially different with modern Thor speech versus the Simonson work, and most of what I've concluded is a seriousness in the characters so that they don't talk as much, like they're embarrassed by how they speak. But how they speak is my favourite part!”

    My favourite Thor-speak is Stan Lee’s, though I do recognise that SL’s approach wouldn’t work in its uncut form today. I always enjoyed Mr Simonson’s dialogue for Thor, and the fact that it never ONCE threw me out of one of his stories is actually the highest compliment I can give it. The degree of self-consciousness in any culture’s speech is a key aspect of creating a convincing portrayal of it. You’re right there. If everyone in Asgard seems to be clearly constricted in what they say and how they say it, then a great deal not just of the fun but of the verisimilitude disappears. Mr Fraction does some interesting things with the godly-speech in this issue, and seems in places to be drawing off of Kirby’s dialogue in the New Gods more than any other obvious source. That’s only my first impression, but it is hard to find another recognisable influence that matches as well as JK’s does.

    ”I'm pretty sure I've got it on record on the internet somewheres that I'm not a fan of the Marvel intro pages, at least not in their current form. I enjoyed the version that gave character bios and a synopsis of what had happened, with accompanying panels. That was a production of an opening, and it's hard not to be impressed by the work they put into it.”

    I believe that those introductory pages are VITAL. To make them fun is a laudable business. However, to make them USEFUL is the priority. Some of the most designs weren’t very useful in making sense of what was to come, seeming to almost be an ironic comment on the idea that introductory pages were even necessary.

    ”Unfortunately the intro page has evolved to be impenetrable as you say, while also acting as a crutch for the writer, an excuse, so they can convince themselves that they don't need to explain the story in story, that it stands on its own, because after all the INTRO page will get everyone up to speed.”

    Editorship, editorship, editorship!

    ”Even just a dramatis personae would be a welcome addition.”

    I love the fact that you suggest that as a kind of default minimum option. Reading your words made me realise again that a dramatis personae actually is essential. Absolutely essential. When did the industry become so resistant to its products making sense? It should be such a source of GLEE to work on making these books as reader-friendly as possible. In fan-boy speak, which it’s so heartening to be able to avoid in these comments, “reader-friendly” means BOOKS FOR KIDS!!!! What a strange idea, to think that the adult form of the superhero book is an obsessively-complex and impenetrable mass of continuity PAP. Being adult is not the same, surely, as being obscure, as being unwelcoming, as being unclear.

    The fiction I’ve always most admired has been perfectly understandable in its own terms while being challenging in what it's saying. Comic books often say nothing beyond "Hulk smash!" and yet manage to be incredibly hard to read while doing so. The worst of all worlds!

    And so, as a general principle, yes, ADULTS would benefit from the likes of a DRAMATIS PERSONAE! And if there’s no space for doing so in the books, then why not have a page on the internet? Once its been set up, it’d only require a little updating for most months.

    If consumers think that the Big Two care a little more, then they’ll come back more often than they do.

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  13. Call me dim, but what would have been wrong with a simple "Asgard is the home of the Norse gods, connected to Earth by the rainbow bridge Bifrost. It is ruled by Odin, who has two sons Thor and Loki. Now read on..."

    I know, I know, they're not catering for ten year olds anymore. Heck of a lot easier to follow, though.


    cheers
    B Smith

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  14. Hello B Smith; isn't that exactly the point, Mr B, that we think it's stupid to explain the basics and so end up confusing folks with irrelevancies. I can't see how your summary wouldn't be a fine first part of an introduction to this book.

    The assumption that adults are people who immediately know the facts of any matter is a comment, I'm sure, on societies whose education systems typically convince students that there are only two classes of scholars, whether young or old; those who don't know, who should know and who are failures because they don't, and those who do, who are successes and beyond question.

    As such, the idea of learning as a process and knowledge as a sequence of fundamental principles leading one to the other gets quite lost. Instead, those that think they know don't think to explain, and those that really don't know at all don't want to ask, because, so it seems, THEY OUGHT TO!

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  15. The text from the intro page reads as though it were intended to be put onto a movie screen, one sentence at a time, fading in and out with a "DUM-DUM!" of war drums between each sentence.

    I'm a professional editor. Fixing this crap is in my blood. Here's a quick stab, written in about ten minutes. (It's actually kind of hard to fix, because the "hole in the world" part is so undramatic. -sigh-)

    Asgard, home of the Norse Gods, fell to Earth. The Realm Eternal now rests on the American plains, a golden paradise broken by its fall from heaven.

    Though the city is broken, its gods survive.

    The All-Father, Odin, retains the throne only after bitter warfare against one of his sons, cruel Loki. What it cost him cannot be spoken.

    Loki, God of Evil, slain in Asgard's fall, has been resurrected as a young god, stripped of memories and seemingly innocent once more. Few believe he truly is.

    And Thor, God of Thunder, sworn to protect both Asgard and Earth, hides cold fear in his heart, for he knows he may have doomed both.

    In his great battle against the Foes from Beyond the Nine Worlds, Thor drew forth Odin's sword royal and, in a mighty swing, split reality itself with its divine blade, returning the evil gods to their own hellish realms.

    A geyser of strange light flows from the Odinsword's wound to our dimension, a geyser that spouts up from the rooftops of Asgard and lights the plains of Oklahoma.

    What the light will bring upon Asgard and Earth, not even Odin knows.

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  16. Hello Harvey:- there is indeed a sense that the text hasn't been written for the page, if I may politely put it that way.

    I thought your 10 minutes work establishes that this kind of material actually does require the skills of a professional. 10 minutes work, years of fixing the crap, as you put it, in order to inform your decision-making. We live in such an off society, where literacy is taken for granted, and where the ability to write down what jumps into our heads passes as 'writing' rather than 'typing'.

    Thank you, Harvey, I too had to fix that crap for many, many years. An interesting discipline to acquire, and I'm glad it's served you well.

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  17. Just a brief question, what does Fraction have to do with "Agents of ATLAS"?

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  18. Hello lurketwithout:- I'm afraid that Colin can't be here to talk to you at the moment, due to his having written something which even he can't recall doing and which he can't explain.

    When he's deleted all references to his ignorant mistake, he'll be back, acting as if nothing ever happened.

    He did, however, ask me to express a wish that you're well and that the world is treating you kindly.

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  19. Hello Colin,

    I was thinking of going on about how HG Wells was wrong, and you actually could introduce more than one departure from the real world and make it work, but how you had to root it solidly in an actual story, rather than making it all One Damn Thing After Another. Some telling examples (Sandman, Planetary, Miracleman / Marvelman, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a dodgy reference to how people used to say that schizophrenics just stipulated any meaning they wanted to everyday words and how that was a bad thing, a gratuitous reference to listening to the Norrmalmstorg police marching band playing oom-pah, oom-pah without a single chord change until you wanted to shout "Modulate, you dumb bastards!", and you would have seen exactly how all this applies to bad comics and, believe me, it would have been compelling. Well, long, anyway.

    Then I realized, why write all this when Sydney Padua's nails the issue so well I'd just look foolish? http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/

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  20. Brian, not only get what feels like a psychedelic contact high from reading your comment - "Modulate, you dumb bastards! - for which I thank you, but I also ADORED Sydney Padua's blog and that piece in particular was SO enjoyable. Yep, creating narratives that do what the narrator intends requires a great deal of work, and that piece makes the point far better than I ever could!

    A splendid nudge, Brian. Thank you.

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  21. Colin,

    I believe much of this current editorial "weakness" had seeds planted alongside the Image Comics revolution.

    Creative types frothing with laudable qualities - talent and ambition not least among them - threw off the chains of the traditional form and became wildly successful.

    That, I believe, led decision makers at both companies to become more lackadaisical when maintaining the balance of power between editors and creative types. This leaning combined with the "looseness" of the industry in general has made for quite a potent brew.

    There are many paths to greatness in writing. Two follow:

    One approach is to seek an editing partner who will push and in some cases brutalize your writing to make the work better. This approach, while it can be galling, generally results in good work because a second pair of highly critical eyes is working for you and with you towards a common goal.

    The other approach is to allow a distance to develop between the creative and the process of editing. The writer may go off and be the "idea engine" and the editor may content himself with "tidying the store." This approach takes two people willing to sublimate ego in different respects and has also produced fine work.

    This video using Stephen Fry narration brought to my mind a clarity I'd been struggling to achieve regarding the use of language.

    http://vimeo.com/15412319

    First a point on the editor writer relationship via Mr. Oscar Wilde.

    (Um, block quote formatting is quite difficult in comments pages but here it is)

    Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: 'I'll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.'

    Wilde realized his writing required the hands of an aggressive editor who might change quite a bit of the nuts and bolts. That's an admirable quality in someone trafficking in content he was hoping would be consumed by an ever widening audience.

    Additionally Fry states, "Context, convention and circumstance are all."

    In other words it is imperative that the writer use what works best for the framework in place in the genre. To think that all your PAP outweighs the NEED to POP in the comics format is the height of hubris and will doom your properties and the medium to a dimming and tightening circle of eyes.

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  22. Hello Smitty:- you know, I think that the role of the editor in comics is greatly undervalued, and while there's a fair degree of attention given to the history of writers and artists, there's less to editors. One of the main problems is that the word 'editor' covers so many different responsibilities and roles that it's incredibly unhelpful to even think of there being such a job. There have been editors who were excellent line managers and paid little attention to the product, and some who were the opposite. Editors that bullied creators and editors who ennabled them. I'm unsure of what editors do these days. I've heard of writers whose final scripts are never seen by the editors involved until the books are printed, though I do find that hard to believe. The idea that editors are there to discuss the script before it happens, but not when it's written is strange, but hardly unknown in the industry. Most of the Marvel books in the first half of the 70s seem to have been published in a state that was a surprise to their various editors!

    By which I mean, I know I'm using 'editor' in a speculative sense; I'm assuming that editors are there to guide and teach 'their' creators. Given the problems with so many comics today, it's hard to see what other authority might allow craft and Pop to thrive.

    Both of us are therefore in the strange position of wanting to authority reimposed, which isn't usually what present-day culture aspires to. The assumption is that authority is a bad thing in our culture unless those involved want to produce nothing but product - X-Factor, American Idol etc - but in the absence of craft, authority in a mass medium is the only option. If there were a mass of creators who were creating POP of their own accord, fine, but I'm not sure that some folks could even do that if they wanted to. Their work lacks that degree of control.

    But I have an awful feeling that we're hoping for the intervention of folks who, to a large degree, lack those skills, that will and any incentive to do so. I wonder whether anyone would send back a page of Mr Coipel's art and ask for it to be designed in a way that clearer? I wonder whether there's anyone with the power to say to any of the top writers or artists 'change it, it doesn't make sense'; there may be, but we see no sign of it.

    The problem with any balance of power is that it's always wrong. When the editors are in charge, the creators suffer, and vice versa. Yet, it seems impossible to draw up any simple model of where power lies. Just as the job of editor varies, so does the power of creators. The much-missed Dwayne McDuffie was absolutely knifed on JLA, yet other creators have such power that they seem to get a free pass.

    Yet we pin our hope on such a thing as an 'editor' because there's nowhere to look. Mr Fry's despair about how language is used matched to his ambition for a fusion of craft and purpose expresses a clarity of ambition which is rare. I see little sign of any such vision where most of the sub-genre's custodians are concerned.

    But someone has to have the power to say 'Tell stories clearly', 'don't cheat the reader with poor and indulgent storytelling', and so on.

    But I'm not sure who'd be given that power, or who could survive acting using it.

    We need a new post in these publishing houses to oversee the key responsibilities; might I suggest GUARDIAN OF POP?

    Because I've had to teach about so many industries which sank while those in charge felt sure they were doing a good job.

    Still, what do I know? I don't even know what an editor does ....

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