Sunday, 27 February 2011

Sexism & 2000 ad: One "Professional Lady", One "Bitch" & One "Scabbed Whore", Oh Dear ...

Over at Girl-Wonder, there's a final piece of mine on the matter of sexism in 2000ad, in which I explain why it's a subject that has finally defeated me. There's a limit to how long a well-meaning head can be uselessly slammed into a particularly solid brick wall, and my head's reached that limit, it really has.

So, why not pop over to Girl-Wonder and to the words of a perplexed and somewhat thoroughly disappointed man responding to a month of weeklies in which, yet again, women are largely defined by their bodies, their sexual pasts, and/or their capacity to be an angst-inspiring hostage? The link is placed in the box immediately to your right and just up an inch or so, under the label of post number 3, and you'd be very welcome to click upon it, I do assure you. (Alternatively, and while I'm working out how to add a hyperlink, you might want to cut'n'paste  :))             

Next time, a final look at the Paul Cornell/Gail Simone "Action Comics/Secret Six" crossover. Or, at least, I fully expect that part 4 of 3 will be the last piece, although I have been wrong about such matters before, to say the very least ...

Thursday, 24 February 2011

"What Does Your Crime Require?":- Paul Cornell & Gail Simone's "Action Comics / Secret Six" Crossover (Part 3)


There's a great deal that I might add in this part of our chat about the recent crossover between "Action Comics" and "Secret Six" on the matter of how both Ms Simone and Mr Cornell add depth and detail to their recognisably modern-era, fast-moving scripts. And having been a teacher for almost twenty years, I certainly do find difficult not to fill up these pieces with every potentially relevant grain of information I can, as if some imaginary student might suffer an exam catastrophe because I haven't made my notes as comprehensive as possible. But that's a particularly bad habit here, since I'm not approaching a subject I know relatively well, such as that relevant to a specific exam syllabus, but rather using the opportunity of writing a blog to try to gleam some small measure of insight into the business of how thoroughly entertaining comic books are created. What's more, I do have to constantly remind myself that I've discussed a great deal of the information that's relevant to matter at hand elsewhere. For if we're talking of how Mr Cornell and Ms Simone succeed in crafting comics which use a great many of the more contemporary narrative tools while ensuring that their books are far more than

three minute reads, then that's something that's already been repeatedly touched upon in pieces on this blog for much of the past year. And so, for example, we've already talked about how Ms Simone might have politically informed her work, as when we were recently discussing "Welcome To Tranquility", and of how Mr Cornell might have done the same, while engaging last year with his short story "Secret Identity" and his work on Captain Britain and MI:13. To repeat such points would at best be redundant and, at worst, apparently obsequious, duplicating often admiring statements long ago expressed in what would most probably read as an act of utter Uriah Heepism.  So,  if I fail to once again mention, for example, any detail of how Ms Simone so deftly uses continuity to make her books more substantial and entertaining in that which I've written below, it isn't because I've somehow come to the conclusion that her most recent work lacks any such quality, but rather because I've written at length on the subject before, and especially in connection with her use of the characters of Catman and Deadshot.

But the matter of how Mr Cornell uses continuity, or rather, how he uses history, whether from the real or a host of imaginary worlds, isn't something that I've had the chance to talk about previously, and so that's the topic that I'd like to concentrate upon for the remainder of today's piece.


"Intertextuality" is an ugly if useful word that gets all-too casually and imprecisely banded around in academia, and I doubt I'd ever have come across the term if I hadn't found myself struggling to deliver a few lessons of Media Studies a week for some three years in the late Nineties. For anyone who's never come across this brute of a mark-earner before, it's used in its broadest sense to refer to the way that creators use other people's work to add meaning to their own. For decades, the writers and artists of superhero books have tended to put to use the contents of other comics to achieve this, mirroring other creator's work, adapting other creator's plots, and generally relying on the ever-proliferating mass of continuity, of a common and narrow store of comicbook memories, to encourage the audience to perceive complexity and value in what's tended to be rather familiar fare.

It's quite unavoidable, of course, that such a process should occur in any genre and in any medium, and it's often an incredibly productive business. But when a genre such as that of these marvellously absurd superheroes gets into a longstanding habit of constantly referencing itself and relatively little else, it runs the risk of becoming creatively inbred and functionally deformed, if not ultimately sterile. A thirtieth Galactus story in which he threatens to gobble up the Earth again, which constantly draws off the content of the preceding twenty-nine epics? Yet another grimy, cynical twilight of the superheroes tale, re-using the same familiar mashed-up tenth generation "homages" of Watchman and Dark Knight, produced with the expectation that it'll feel apocalyptically important because those seminal works did? Comic books informed solely by even the best of their tradition don't become more powerful, of course, but far weaker, endlessly rolling out less and less distinct uncreative photo-copies of the surface rather than the soul of the past's great work.

But Mr Cornell is self-evidently part of the ranks of those writers who not only want to broaden the inspirational gene-pool of the genre, but who can't help themselves in doing so. There's something endlessly cheering about his utter unwillingness to consider producing thin, self-referencing fare which exists in sterile isolation from all that verdant stuff that's there for the shaping in the world outside of the Big Two's un-mainstream. And just as we can note his deliberate intent to master the modern-era form of scripting from his work on the first issue of "Wisdom" onwards, we can also follow his enthusiasm for using a mass of material from beyond the world of costumed crime-fighters to add something distinctive and invigorating to the mix. At its most explicit, as in "Fantastic Four; True Story", where the reader is presented with a host of characters often casually stigmatised with the utterly defeating label of "classic literature", Cornell simply refuses to suppress his conviction that the books he's referring to are self-evidantly exceptionally good fun

In "Black Widow: Deadly Origin", for example, we find allusions to, and scenes inspired by the narrative conventions of, 007, Bourne and Mission Impossible. ("I'm going to have my collected James Bond themes on all the time while writing it." he told CBR in 2009.) But at the same time, we're also presented in the same book with cameos of Logan, Bucky Barnes, and The Red Guardian matched with specific moments in the history of the USSR and its empire. And this is one of the aspects of Mr Cornell's writing that's most interesting and important where this genre is concerned, in that Mr Cornell's not in any way snotty or snobbish or dismissive about the characters and the continuity of the fictional universes he's working in. He's not trying to suggest that the superhero as it's often been presented isn't a beguiling and magical thing, but he is unable to consider resisting his belief that so is just about every other type of story too. And regardless of whether these extra layers of story are recognised or not, they mark out Mr Cornell's books as notably different, creating in them individual and distinct textures which add to their character and appeal.


There's a love of history, and a willingness to enjoy at the very, very least a touch of historical research, in Mr Cornell that first became overwhelmingly obvious to me, or so it seemed, when I was reading his "Black Widow: Deadly Origin". In the first chapter of that book, there's a two-panel appearance by Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, which in itself is unremarkable, except that's he's portrayed in a way that, to my knowledge, is unique within the pages of any superhero comic book. Instead of the usual taciturn, faintly oriental and frankly sinister stereotype, here we're given, for all the scene's brevity, a figure recognisable from modern popular scholarship. For it is only in recent years that we've become familiarised with the face that Stalin could and so often did present to those around him. A psychopath who could be a warmly intimate and, despite decades of Western preconceptions, an astonishingly gregarious, apparently good-humoured man, Stalin rose to supreme power with a measure of charm as well as through the application of an abnormally ruthless and scheming character . The laughing, wandering Stalin of "Deadly Origin" was so spot on, and so untypical in the context of comic books, that I immediately started to pay even more attention to the unshowy historical background of the tale, as well as reaching for my copy of Montefiore's "Court Of The Red Tsar", which, if I was compelled to, I'd wager is a text that's not unknown to Mr Cornell.

This process of both buttressing and enriching his work with these other real-world narratives can be seen in "Action Comics" # 895 too. Sometimes, it's nothing more playful than the use of an appropriate historical name that might sound to us like that of a bronze-age supervillain - Spearhavoc (*4) - or that chosen for a city - Sacristi - that is itself a French swearword adapted from a religious ritual, a suitably ironic title for a profane conurbation masking a somewhat transcendental and hidden reality.(*5) At other moments it's the use of unspecified but clearly historical events to serve as a backdrop for Vandal Savage's centuries old obsession with prophecy; can that be Rousseau at 895:4:2, and surely that must be the Prague Spring two panels later? And all of this material is used to inspire the reader to ask themselves one absolutely pertinent question; what does it do to even an immortal man to be that obsessed for that long and with no good reason beyond prophecy to be so?  

*4:- There was, for example, the splendidly named Bishop Spearhavoc, who served as Edward The Confessor's goldsmith, as a swift Googling will reveal.
*5:- Or so I'm told. French, let alone the etymology of French swear words, is not comfortable territory for me in any way at all.

Regularly grounding action in references to historical events which, for all that they needn't be identified or understood in order to enjoy the story, lends comic-book events a real-world flavour which is as much a relief as it is a pleasure, I'm sure, to many a reader. I'm far, far from being even vaguely competent in Bohemian/Czechoslovakian history, and so there are a series of possible references in "Action Comics" 895 which escape me and leave me cheerfully grasping at vaguely-informed guesses. (Is that the thirty years war at 895:4:1? Is that a reference to the brief revolts of 1848 a few frames onwards?) But the point is no more that the reader is driven to an obsessional search for information by "The Black Ring" part 6 than it is that Mr Cornell is seeking to spread the gospel of Central European studies. What matters is that the real world and the fictional one are shown intersecting, given the latter a greater sense of depth while expressing a joy at how all these various actual and fictional narratives can be both playfully and serious-mindedly referred one to the other.

Of course, Mr Cornell's desire to use history as content and flavour rather than as an aspect of ostentatious self-regard can lead to a tiny measure of frustration in the reader who'd quite like to know a little more. What did happen in Bohemia in 1358 that inspired Mr Cornell to set a scene there, and is the character with a lupine quality and dark black eyes at the fore of that splash page anything other than an unlucky everyday citizen? (Could the events be connected to the Black Death, since even Savage's language has been affected by that specific horror; where the Black Lantern energy was referred to as "things" in the scene set around 1000 in # 894, by 1358 he's referring to its globes as "pustules"?) Similarly, in "Black Widow; Dark Origin", shouldn't the attack on Stalingrad in 1928 by "imperialists" actually have occurred in 1918 in Volgograd, when the White Russians occupied the city? (*6)

But these kind of trivial questions aren't important, and that's especially true in a comicbook universe where we just don't know what might have occurred in the USSR of Marvel's 1928. What's important is that the text is alive with aspects of depth and enthusiasm, which can, if the reader wants, inspire them to ask a few questions more than they might otherwise have felt moved to consider. The appeal and the value of these books by Mr Cornell is no more founded solely or even substantially in history than many of Ms Simone's comics are made fascinating by her evident love of the geography and culture of nations far beyond America's borders and nothing else. But all that extra care, and curiosity, and, yes, excitement, about how stories might do more while working in an effective and efficient way surely doesn't hurt a comic book's achievement either.

*6:- But then, I could have easily mis-read or misunderstood that page of BW:DO or missed out by not having read previous chapters of "The Black Ring" while waiting for the trade. This isn't a question of getting the references right, as if these comics were nothing but a game of spot-the-connections , but of rather being inspired to read each comic as if it were more than a quick surface-dash from set-up to throw-down.

Oh, dear; to be continued. I must stop saying I'm going to write a particular number of entries on any subject when I invariably over-run. There's one last piece on this topic already written, although not checked, to go up next, and that'll be put up soon.  My apologies for any confusion, and my best wishes too for a splendid time to anyone who's kindly persevered with this page for at least long enough to reach these closing words.


Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Your Smartphone & Too Busy Thinking About My Comics

I must admit, I still find it astonishing that anyone ever reads this blog at all, but since even a slow week brings in two-and-a-half thousand folks over this way to visit, it strikes me that I ought to start thinking about how to make the experience of doing so as comfortable as possible. Even more astonishing to a scardy ol'Luddite like myself is the realisation that some good people really do dip into TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics on a strange new Star-Trek like gadget called a "Smartphone". Now, I'm not being disingenuous when I say that I've got no idea what a Smartphone is, except that blogs can be read on it and, presumably, phonecalls and the like indulged in too. And so, thanks to Martin Grey of the estimable Too Dangerous For A Girl blog, who's been kind enough to fill me in on the (very) broad detail of such matters while nudging me towards becoming a (very) late adopter, I thought I might just say that this blog has now been formatted for a smoother, more comfortable read on a Smartphone. I've posted the screenshots Martin was kind enough to send in order to convince me that this was all a good idea, and, as always, he's right and it is. My apologies are therefore owed to you should you have ever tried to pop in for a second to this blog while on the move and found that it was off-puttingly uncomfortable to read. 

Or, to quote Martin himself when he did this very thing back in December, you can now read this blog "in a lovely mobile phone-friendly format. The home screen offers snippets, leading to the full blether. It seems easier to comment than previously, too ... While there's no official app, simply call up in your phone browser, hit "add to home screen" and there you go!"

And should you ever read a piece on here when you're killing time on the train or while waiting for a passport stamp, I'd love to know. Because I still find it remarkable to think that good women and men, honest and true, amble over this way every once in a while for a minute or two, let alone that they might do so when they're out there, in the real world. (!)


Monday, 21 February 2011

"Modern People! Pah!":- Paul Cornell & Gail Simone's "Action Comics / Secret Six" Crossover (Part 2)


If I regret the passing of the general will to use certain narrative conventions in the contemporary superhero comic book, it's not to say that I can't identify a host of modern day approaches to storytelling which I greatly admire. One of these is the attitude to continuity which a significant number of today's best writers share, in which creators work not to define what is and what isn't canon so much as to tell the best stories they can without crudely violating their predecessor's work. It's an approach which is far less likely to inspire the creation of continuity-fixated stories than that which was largely dominant in the decades following the late Sixties, and it's one which tends to begin from the premise that pretty much everything that's been shown in the past is, to a greater rather than to a lesser degree, valid and important, even if it can't be referred to anymore. These days, those tales which simply can't be incorporated into 2011's scheme-of-things are far more likely to just not be mentioned rather than being put to use to serve as a vehicle for some dry tale set on reconciling the detail of the past with the complexities of the present. And thankfully, the slate-wiping threat of the ret-con seems less and

less viable as every year passes, while those books which do deal with the fine print of what is and what isn't the detail of the canon appear more and more anachronistic with every passing month. Such a respect for, and tolerance of, the genre's rich heritage is obvious in the pages of the three issues of this crossover, with both "Action Comics" and "Secret Six" drawing off different aspects of DC Comics history and its various traditions without ever threatening to degenerate into stories largely and unproductively about the trivia of the DCU's past. Instead, what we're given is a tale of fascinating characters whose present life is informed rather than determined by their past in the DCU. And so here we can have our inter-galactic super-intelligent lil'green worms as well as our psychotic rapists, we can have our Robot Lois's as well as our mass murdering immortal beasts. What matters isn't any pseudo-scholarly dissertations on how such characters can possibly share a common fictional universe so much as the fun to be had by the fact that they do.

We'll touch on several aspects connected with this matter in the final part of this piece , but for the moment, it's worth noting that Mr Cornell and Ms Simone's decision to avoid the slightest taint of the worst excesses of the continuity-obsessed in no way means that their characters have ceased to be informed by their comic-book past. Quite the opposite is true. In "Secret Six" # 29, for example, the entire story is constructed so that its true climax doesn't sit at the conclusion of the issue's punch-up, as is traditional, but after it in far quieter circumstances, and the story's denouncement draws off the common history of the Savage family while adding an absolutely shocking and totally defining moment to it. The reader isn't buried in a weight of facts and figures, of story references and continuity re-writes. Instead, we're told that the tale of Scandal Savage's mother took place "some time ago" in a "remote village" where her father was hiding from the Brazilian army. The events we're told of by Ms Simone are harrowing, and all the more so because they depend not a whit on their relation to this particular issue of the Justice League or that reference made long ago in Crisis On Infinite Earth. What we're given is all that we need to be given in order to move us about the characters we're reading about, and there's nothing of the irrelevant detail of any of the 75 years of DC comic books needed to make anything more meaningful out of a briefly told and deeply moving tale such as that of Scandal's mother here.

The fact that "What Luthor Has Wrought" contains those two distinct climaxes coming quickly one after the other, one relatively celebratory and once distinctly not, one concerned with physical safety and the other with emotional loss, again lends the comic the sense that it's a more detailed, more rewarding experience than it might otherwise have been. For at the point when the reader is expecting what's effectively the epilogue, we're actually just about to receive information which colours our fundamental understanding of Scandal Savage as a character. In the first of the tale's conclusions, Scandal Savage succeeds in manoeuvring herself and her team into a position of relative advantage to both Luthor and her father; just this once, while the Six might not actually proposer, they are getting to leave on their own terms without losing any more of their self-regard than can be associated with a tactical retreat and a loss of promised riches. And that's the point at which most comics would close, for the final punch-up traditionally allocates, as is the way with the genre, appropriate rewards to its participants according to their relative virtues. And since Scandal Savage is the least compromised of the three main antagonists on show, ultimately more sinned against than sinner, and since she's managed to see off her father while even satisfyingly chinning Lex Luthor, there's a pleasing sense of a job well done and a conclusion well-wrought as she manoeuvres the Six out of danger.

Yet what unexpectedly follows is a far more emotionally involving climax which provides a measure of gravitas to what had already been a thoroughly enjoyable three-cornered jape concerning a pack of more or less endearing if reprehensible criminals. That revelation of the fate of Scandal's mother, and of Vandal Savage's behaviour so vile that even Luthor labels him as a "monster", causes so much of the previous events, both in the crossover and right back through the Six's history, to fall into a different and tragic perspective. All that fighting, all those page-turners and relatively light-hearted events, become something else, as if the three issues which had worked exceptionally well as something of a romp, of a black comedy, are now re-cast as something far bleaker, something far more challenging and upsetting. For all the enjoyment that the three issues have given us, we're left unable to forget that Vandal Savage is, yes, something of a superstitious buffoon, but also that he's fundamentally a raping, murdering brute whose crimes are probably without parallel in the history of the DCU's Earth. And we're also left with Luthor once again defined as the monomaniacal moral black hole that he is, since his response to Savage's proclamation of just one of his crimes against humanity is merely to briefly insult his immortal companion. Other folk's suffering aren't important to Mr Luthor when his own perceived self-interest is obsessing him, as it always is, and it's important that we're never allowed to forget that, least we forget that he too is far more reprehensible than his few better qualities might allow us to completely believe.

Or, to put it another way, we may have spent three issues laughing, if often in a rather uncomfortable fashion, at and with these folks, but none of them are really very funny at all, except for Ragdoll, who remains utterly terrifying despite that. And the end of "What Luthor Has Wrought" throws the sixty and more pages which have gone before into an appropriately thoughtful and mournfully qualified perspective.


That double conclusion of Ms Simone's to "Secret Six" # 29 works, of course, not just because of how that final issue of the crossover has been structured, but also because of all of the set-up that's been so deliberately crafted into place by Mr Cornell over the course of the preceding two issues of "Action Comics". For unlike most modern comic books, whether part of a crossover or not, which seek to attract and maintain the reader's attention from their very first page by charging from one water-cooler moment to another in a hectic, turn-the-page-quickly fashion, the Luthor/Secret Six crossover is very deliberately constructed to function as a three act tale, with each of the three issues featuring a distinctly different structure to each other, and with none of those conforming precisely to the rather frantic model of storytelling followed by so many other comic creators today.

It's immediately notable that the pace of the storytelling, and the frequency and density of incident, increases significantly from the first to the second issue of "Action Comics", setting up the intensity of the conflict which is presented at the end of "Secret Six" # 29. That this requires a degree of unselfishness from Mr Cornell is undeniable, for in order to create the first two acts of an arc that'll be closed elsewhere, he can't afford to preempt either the meaning or the scale of jeopardy in Ms Simone's closing issue. And where some writers might without meaning to undermine the work of their colleagues by not thinking of the structure of a crossover as a whole, and by focusing on the impact of their chapter in isolation from the wider structure, Ms Simone and Mr Cornell work unselfishly together to create a story which serves the interests of two quite separate and distinct books as well as producing a tale which in many ways stands apart from them both.

And so, we can clearly see that the first part of the crossover in Action Comics 995 is dedicated to establishing a status quo to be disrupted while ensuring that coming installments won't be overshadowed by any events depicted there. There are, in fact, only 3 panels showing any kind of what we might call action, or more specifically violence, in "The Black Ring Part Six", and the comic ends on nothing more excessive than a still scene of a call being put through to a room containing a casual if curious Secret Six. Part 2 of the crossover, however, contains more than two dozen panels of action, and it closes with six tense shots setting up a great explosive disaster about to occur from the perspective of various appalled members of the book's cast. In essence, this is a crossover whose authors trust their readers to know what a story is, to realise that not every page need feature the universe exploding in order for it to be enjoyable and rewarding. Doing so is, however, an act of faith which, I suspect, not every creator and editor would feel comfortable investing in.

This is not, however, to say that that first chapter is a slow or dull comic book. For one thing, as we have discussed, it's woven through with a rather bleak and amusing sense of humour, and, as we'll soon discuss, it uses both the fictional history of the DCU and the history of our own slightly-more real world to serve as a backdrop for a tale of powerful and deluded men heading for a confrontation for no more valid reasons than greed and superstition. And in order to create a sense of reader-carrying pace in the absence of any great eye-catching set-pieces, Mr Cornell ensures that no scene lasts for more than three pages, and that none exists for anything other than to establish a specific and relevant plot point. This is a story with a clear purpose and direction, even if it won't yet hit escape velocity until more than thirty of its pages have passed, and as it jumps from one locale to another, and from one point in history to another, the questions it places before the reader are designed to snare through curiosity what might elsewhere be gathered through spectacle.

And there very much is a sense that Mr Cornell's first two chapters of the crossover are being written with an eye on creating a suitable sense of momentum for the story as a whole. In the first chapter, for example, 13 sides of story pass before a genuinely intense page-turning final panel is placed before the reader. To close that many pages on rather quiet enigmas, and on often very restrained if not uncompelling ones, ensures that the first issue of the crossover in particular reads very much like the prologue and first act that it's designed to be.

When a page finally does appear which closes on a panel showing an extreme of jeopardy, which doesn't happen until the ninth page of the second chapter, the effect of suddenly feeling compelled to snap pages over to discover what happens next is made all the more intense by the gradual build-up which has proceeded it. There are then 5 pages of final panels to pages marked by the threat of major physical harm to one character or another, before the dramatic device of briefly slowing the action to allow one character to display some emotional vulnerability is pressed into service. With a breathing space briefly created and then passed, and with the key relationship between Vandal Savage and his daughter emphasised for the coming final chapter, the last few pages of Mr Cornell's laps around this particular track before the baton is passed are marked by an increasing complication of the action all within a dangerously confined and crowded space. And if there's a feeling that Mr Cornell trusts to his craft to carry readers over from 895 to 896, there's also a sense that he wants to make absolutely sure that he hits his mark for where he and Ms Simone have designed the transition to occur between his issues and hers. The reader may have been a trusted collaborator up until this point, but now the audience isn't being granted any great measure of choice about whether or not they proceed over to the Secret Six. That cliffhanger is designed to compel the reader to jump from Action Comics across to the pages of the Secret Six, or, at the very least, to make the reader who doesn't feel as if they really ought to have done so.

There's a control of the writer's craft across all three of these issues which is as deliberate as it surely isn't typical. These are, if you will, stories where everything is very much not perpetually turned up to 11, and where protracted sections of the tale are even rather daringly turned down a few notches below ten where such is judged appropriate. To be honest, it is, in the context of the present-day market, a rather impressive and somewhat brave business, if one that's modestly and unpretentiously undertaken by the writers involved.


Mind you, none of the above is to suggest that there aren't problems that occur as the crossover switches from the pages of "Action Comics" to "Secret Six", but it is to argue that the structure that's been designed by both writers succeeds in maintaining its form and much of its effect even when there are problems with the story as represented on the page. For example, there are considerable visual inconsistencies between the, yes, thrilling scene shown at the end of Mr Cornell's last episode and the beginning of Ms Simone's closing chapter. Towards the end of Action # 896, Luthor's boardroom is further packed by the arrival of magically-protected armed soldiers commanded by Vandal Savage, who engage in a fearsomely high-powered brawl with the Six. Yet these uniformed men are quite missing at the beginning of "What Luthor Has Wrought", as is the evidence of the havoc that everyone's fighting has caused. In truth, it's as if there's been no preceding fire-fight at all. Most importantly, perhaps, the detonator panel which is depicted falling perilously against a piece of debris, and possibly being triggered by contact with it, in the last panel of Mr Cornell's shift is then inexplicably shown in Secret Six # 29 to be lying somewhat unthreateningly face down on an undamaged floor. These are, we would agree, substantial inconsistencies in the representation of the conflict, but my focus here is upon the scripts of these issues, and their cumulative effect certainly overcomes whatever problems there's been in creating a common artistic vision for the details of the showdown.

Although I do tend to assume that whatever is shown on the printed page is a reflection of the creator's conscious, deliberate and commonly-agreed choices, I'll admit that here I'm for once far more inclined towards the unintended cock-up theory of history than I am to imagining that what the reader's being shown in "What Luthor Has Wrought" is entirely what was intended. And yet, it is a shame that there's such a significant pressure drop between the cramped, crowded war-zone of the executive office in "Action Comics " # 896 and the largely empty, largely conflict-free scene in "Secret Six" # 29, for it really does undermine the satisfactory progression of the tale from the one title to the other. The deliberately created melee in a confined space of "The Black Ring Part 7" just morphs between issues into a visual representation of a far, far calmer debating chamber instead, and a great deal of the tension that's been developed simply evaporates away.. And where a willfully deluded Ragdoll delaying our re-introduction to a highly volatile and violent situation would be as funny as it was effective in raising the level of anticipation prior to a return to the action, a Ragdoll who interrupts a cliffhanger only to give way to a far less gripping scenario than was previously shown works against the success of the book. A pleasurable frustration from Ragdoll followed by the puncturing of an anticipated pleasure is no way to build upon the momentum that's been carefully created beforehand. (Weren't several members of the Six actually shot in Action # 896, because there's no physical evidence of it in SS# 29?) And yet, the fact that the three scripts in sequence still work so effectively together to carry the reader over these inconsistencies is a testament to how well they were crafted. But it is a source of some regret that such a well-constructed third act should be so obviously and unaccountably visually compromised at the beginning of its progress towards what remains a highly chilling and effective conclusion.

To be concluded;


Saturday, 19 February 2011

"Better To Be Odd & Whole Than Normal & Broken ...": Paul Cornell & Gail Simone's "Action Comics / Secret Six" Crossover (Part 1 of 3)

In which the blogger, enticed by a crossover event written by two of his favourite writers, proves quite unable to wait-for-the-trade(s);


At the beginning of this month, in a video interview with IGN, Mark Millar spoke of why and how he'd set out to target an audience of potential comicbook readers beyond the ever-dwindling hardcore of long-established superhero readers;

"Comic writers can sometimes do stuff that's really inaccessible to people who don't read comics. (They're) like civilians, y'know. And like I would loan comics to people I loved, to friends at school and so on, and they'd be like, "I don't even know where to start reading this", "Do I start on this page or that page?". How do you even follow the format? And I realised how inaccessible comics can be. So I really tried about 10 years ago to simplify my stuff, even the way that the comic itself is laid out, like the way the art is laid out. I wanted it to be almost like storyboards, to make it as simple as possible, and make the stories really accessible too." (1*)

Millar's mission, for that's exactly what it's been, is one that's been shared by a significant number of the most influential editors and creators in the comic book mainstream since at the very least the turn of the century. At its worst, this drive towards uncomplicated, unconfusing storytelling has resulted in fundamentally competent books which lack the individual and distinctive character of Millar's comics without providing any distinctive personality of their own. Instead, pages upon pages of lightly-dialogued and largely linear storytelling, founded upon ranks of page-wide horizontal panels and a mass of splash pages, have become an often wearisome norm.

This revolution in how the industry frames its own product has of course produced work of considerable distinction as well as a mass of thin, limp, rather patronising material which assumes not just that the reader is liable to become easily confused, but they're profoundly stupid too. And in an environment where some editors and creators don't seem to grasp that, for example, a page-wide horizontal panel has, as a frame on the page, specific rather than general advantages and limitations, and that constantly presenting action within the form of pseudo-storyboards makes no more sense than filling pages up with circles and frames, there's a terrible risk of superhero comics becoming more and more homogeneous. (Certainly, the "storyboard" ideal seems to be based on a quite false premise, since anyone who knows anything of storyboards knows they have a complex language of their own, which can be used to achieve far more than a literal representation of one moment of action within a long, wide panel. What a great deal of folks describe as "storyboards" in comics are often nothing of the sort, but rather the equivalent of freeze-frames lifted from a wide-screen print.) There seems to be something of a fear of creators displaying too much character on the page, unless they're individuals who have a certain credibility in the marketplace, which was usually and rather ironically earned through producing fine work of a distinctly individual character.

As this century has passed, more and more of the tools once available to the writer in particular have disappeared. The omniscient, and even the unreliable, narrator has largely fallen out of use, while narrative captions are expected to be as brief as possible. Word balloons contain less and less content as the years roll on, as if brevity is always, always a virtue, and thought bubbles are so entirely verboten that the very fact of Brian Michael Bendis deciding to occasionally put them to use again became a relatively high-profile piece of news. (*2) Superhero comics today have in many ways become, for a series of often very fine reasons, an even more profoundly conservative medium than before, and yet the audience for them has continued to shrink, despite their reading experience becoming simplified and standardised.

*2:- It should be noted that there's a heretical double-thought balloon provided by Mr Cornell at Action 895:7:4. The skies have not fallen, the seas have not all dried up.

And yet, there are still a whole phalanx of writers who can, while operating largely within such a climate of expectations, produce work which both conforms to professional norms while consistently serving as idiosyncratic and relatively complex, writers who seems as determined to express their own tastes and skills as they are to produce the work which their employers and readers demand. Indeed, it's hard to believe that these creators regard the limitations upon the range of options in their authorial toolboxes as being anything more than a challenge rather than a constraint. In this light, it's hard not to feel a little skipping of the heartbeat in anticipation of the prospect of a crossover between Paul Cornell's "Action Comics" and Gail Simone's "Secret Six", in the expectation of enjoying work that's as easy to follow as it is rewarding to read.



No matter how damaged the individuals they write about, and no matter how cruel the fates they describe, both Ms Simone and Mr Cornell's work is essentially good-humoured and optimistic. There's a clear difference in their stories between the misery that individual characters suffer and the more hopeful and purposeful universes those individuals exist in. As such, their books avoid a sense of life being one damn (miserable) thing after another; angst is a familiar visitor to their worlds, but it isn't reality's defining characteristic.

The strange thing is how their work stands apart from comics which are on the surface marked by an excess of wise-cracking while remaining at their core essentially pessimistic and, yes, angst-ridden. "Secret Six", for example, is a comic about a population of protagonists and antagonists who are nearly always profoundly damaged, and yet the book itself doesn't promote a sense of anything other than optimism, of the sense that little victories are often possible even in the most doom-ridden of circumstances. Similarly, Paul Cornell's tales of Luthor are studded with moments when Lex's delusions of grandeur are so absurd that he becomes as ridiculous a character as he is a threatening one. No matter how fearsomely brilliant an adversary Luthor is presented as, he's always shown to be a occluded, self-obsessed moral idiot, just as the Secret Six are, for all their ability to harm, consistently rendered as fallible and fractured. In essence, these characters are never stripped of their personalities and their psychological underpinnings, meaning that they're never reduced to simple, unconvincing metaphors for death, fate, revenge or any of their bleak brethren. Scandal Savage and Rex, Robot Lois and Ragdoll, are real enough to empathise with, formidable enough to want to see in action and feel threatened by, and yet they never stand as a sign for a Universe which will not let more humane, compassionate virtues than theirs triumph every once in a while.

It's in this way that neither "Action Comics" or "Secret Six" ever run the slightest risk of asking us to empathise so much with the characters on display that we find ourselves wholly supporting actions which we really ought not to. The reader would have to be already profoundly disturbed to regard society as the super-villain in Secret Six rather than Scandal and her crew, while Luthor and his Objectivism could only stand as a heroic model for someone who's already passed over the event horizon of immorality. These are books which allow us to empathise with, and be amused by, super-villains, while never being lead in anything other than an ironic fashion into cheering on their sins, great and small.

In short, these aren't comics which are concerned with a straight-forward, easily-deliniated clash between good and evil, and as both creators head speedily away from any such banality, they avoid the production of simplistic, shallow reads. Neither are they concerned to present universes in which every little victory is inevitably just a prequel to a greater defeat, even if Luthor and the Six consistently ignore the opportunities for reform and redemption which appear before them. Instead, these are comics about both flawed and less flawed individuals who always might choose to follow a better road if they could just raise the clarity of thought and heart to do so. We can laugh at them even as we can respect their capacity to do quite terrible things, and we can believe that they might be something better than they've previously consistently shown, which places doubt and hope at the heart of these narratives.

These certainly are clearly designed and easily-read comic books, professional to their core, but they're also by no means lacking in complexity, challenges and ambiguity.


It would, however, be absolutely wrong to give the impression that these comics are wisecrack-free zones. The humour isn't all sealed up under a layer of seriousness and a worthy measure of irony. Indeed, quite the contrary is so. But unlike so many of these book's competitors in the marketplace, the optimistic and occasionally laugh-out-loud character of these comics doesn't rely solely on peppering their panels with easily-recognised, over-familiar gags. Instead, both Ms Simone and Mr Cornell know that their readers are going to take their work seriously enough to look twice at what they're being shown, which produces a wonderful playfullness which makes the readers complicit in the events of the books. In essence, the audience knows that they can't take what they're being told on trust, although the stories will work perfectly well if they do. These may not be books which demand a measure of untypical engagement, which means they avoid self-indulgence and its accompanying scent of smugness. But there's far more to be enjoyed here than the progression of the plot from prologue to closure.

In these issues of "Action Comics", for example, the reader is constantly being encouraged to laugh at Vandal Savage, the great immortal tyrant who just can't grasp that he's often talking just like a distant and unpleasant acquaintance of Julian and Sandy from "Round The Horne";

"This, Scandal -- is that man I told you about. Who must one day meddle with my pustules."

Well, if you're not smiling, you're probably just a little po-faced, and you've probably missed the point that these books, which could so easily end up celebrating the power of exceptionally unpleasant individuals, for they're designed to do exactly the opposite to that without having to produce narrative captions explaining that Vandal Savage is a moral idiot. For comic books often forget that tyrants must be as funny as they're fearsome, or they simply function to oppress us, to convince that there are people who are so evil that they're not as human and vulnerable as we are. And so, when both Vandal Savage and Luthor debate destiny and the higher powers, they're both leaping to grand conclusions based on very little evidence but a huge degree of laughable hubris, and when, for example, Luthor leaps from a bed he's been sharing with a robot of Superman's wife to self-importantly declare that "major powers (are) watching me", it's hilarious because he doesn't realise how vaingloriously daft he is. Transpose the same scene of Luthor's declaration of his own importance to a laboratory or a torture chamber where he's tormenting others, and we're not going to pick up on his flagrant inadequacies in such as way as we're likely to cackle at him. (Especially since the bedroom scene does involve Lois, who we find out may well be observing him for another, if not a higher, power.)

It's that playful irony that helps to add depth to what otherwise might be over-familiar, largely linear, and straight-forward tales. In "Secret Six", it tends to be Ragdoll who plays the part of the character most likely to throw the reader out of their stride in order to highlight the absurdity, and often the more fundamental truth, of what's going on. Whereas Vandal Savage doesn't know that he sounds like a fool, albeit a quite terrifying one, Ragdoll is obviously fully aware that he's unlike everyone else, and he quite determinedly celebrates such a fact. If he's no fool, and he most certainly isn't, he still offers a quite different and often equally valid perspective on the events around him. This means that he's a wonderful tool to add more depth to the tales he's presented in, because his version of events is often quite different from everyone else's, and it requires of us that we see what's occurring through his eyes as well as through those of the narrative as a whole. In the absence of tools such as thought balloons and complex narrative captions, Ragdoll's ability to seemingly step outside of the text and comment upon it adds to the richness and complexity of the Secret Six's adventures without derailing the pace of the stories he's involved in.

This is especially obvious in "What Luthor Has Wrought", where Ragdoll is presented on the very first page as a character who's convinced that he's died and passed over into some form of heaven. It's a theatrical convention that's too-rarely used in mainstream comic book, the unreliable commenter whose soliloquises amuse and mislead the audience, convincing them that the most likely outcomes of the events at hand might not be as they expect. It allows that sacred fourth wall to be broken in places while never diminishing the emotional force of the closing melee of the crossover, and it constantly leaves the reader wondering what exactly is happening, and what might happen next.

In both "Action Comics" and "Secret Six", the reader is encouraged by design to laugh at the delusions of the various characters while also taking their schemes and potential for harm very seriously indeed. It's a far more subtle and effective way of adding a touch of irony, morality and entertainment than simply lobbing in a set of wisecracks, some deeply serious speeches and a weight of tragic events and conclusions, and it makes the reader something more than just a passive spectator of events. When, for example, Robot Lois cuts off Mister Mind's continuity digressions with a forceful and contemptuous "WHATEVER", there's a keen sense that Mr Cornell is speaking for the reader as well as himself where the unecessary detail of comic book backstory is concerned. The writer is speaking to us at the same time as he's presenting a statement that's perfectly in keeping with Robot Lois's character: it's not an intrusion into the narrative, an authorial indulgence, but it is a sign that we don't just have to skim the surface of this material and follow one scene after another towards the climax without gaining some extra value, some extra fun, from the journey along the way.

To be continued;


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Valiant Comic's "Unity Saga" Book 1: Unexpected Pleasures

There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure where pop culture is concerned, David Hepworth once declared on the estimable Word Podcast, waspishly insisting that there's only examples of music which the individual listener might find themselves enjoying or not. "Guilt" was everything to do with other people's concept of cool and nothing to do with the music itself or the pleasure it can inspire.

On the whole I'd tend towards agreeing with him, although I'd have to say that a love for a totally sincere and committed reading of the "Horst Wessel Song" might indeed be an unqualified guilty pleasure. And as with music, so with comic books. What works is what works, and on the most purely fundamental of levels, that's all there is to say. Yet, without ever being truly conscious of the fact, it can be as difficult for a grown man to hold onto a comic that's usually a target for unguarded disdain as it is for a teenager to admit to having fallen in love with someone generally considered to lie on the less agreeable side of the beautiful/ugly divide.

"Unity" is not a crossover event burdened with a great chorus of doe-eyed admirers. If it's mentioned at all these days, almost twenty years after the event, it's as an example of the great comic-book glut of the early Nineties, of those ultimately catastrophically damaging years when one superhero universe after another was hyped up, made briefly hip, and then run into the ground to leave little behind beyond an unstable market, critical contempt and the fond memories of those who'd actually read and enjoyed the comics. And, I will admit, coming across its collected edition stacked at the back of a bookshelf a few evenings ago made me concerned that the Taste Police might somehow find me, might recognise through their surreptitious and esoteric arts that I own a four volume collection of a Valiant crossover with a special slipcase to keep them all together and trim.

But the only Taste Police I ever come across these days are clustered in my head, internalised during an adolescence spent devouring every word and contradictory judgement handed down by the New Musical Express and the Comics Journal. And so, ignoring those strange urges to make a supposedly credible fist of the contents of my own library, I tend to fall back on a simple principle that helps to keep my own deleterious internal Stasi at arm's length; if I can identify two good reasons to laud an even generally pitiful comic book, then it gets to stay.

Strangely, this is not a test which the overwhelming majority of comics can pass, which surely tells a truth, although whether it's about me or the books is, I will concede, well up for debate.

Of course, "Unity", as anyone who's ever read it will recall, is characterised by some incredibly dodgy sexual politics, by a shiversomely disastrous attempt to create super-villains out of a small cast of survivors of sexual abuse. For that reason alone, it's as hard to celebrate as are, for example, the far more important and able tales of "The Spirit" which feature the racist representations of the likes of Ebony White. The question of whether the reader can ever justify hanging on to a comic, or even enjoying certain elements of it, which contain such, shall we say, profoundly insensitive material is something which we'll return to in the near future, given that what once were habits are now vices, and that what once might have been unconvincingly passed off as acceptable when cloaked in undoubted good intentions now reads as something that's both embarrassing and distasteful.

*1:- Incredibly briefly, the main antagonists of "Unity" are victims of sexual abuse driven to conquer and destroy entire realities in order to create a perfect universe. It's strongly implied that incest is occurring between the second Mothergod, who's slain a similarly abused other-worldy counter-part, and her dead variant's son, who's a terribly bad sort too, a Nero for the Valiant Era. There's nothing in the text that suggests that survivors of sexual abuse can create meaningful and socially valuable lives for themselves, and the whole tale starts with a particularly ugly scene where a naked Mothergod falls out of the sky and is immediately threatened with rape by the first man she encounters. Need I go on? I don't think I do.

Reason-to-keep No 1: Expertly Unobtrusive & Effective Technobabble

Jim Shooter's script for the first issue of the crossover does contain my favourite example of technobabble ever, in which he has Solar succinctly explain over just two panels the basic premise of what could otherwise have been, in the hands of a less disciplined writer, several chapters or more of alienating continuity-bound waffling;

Page 6, Panel 3:

Solar: "This is just outside of reality, Geoff ... sort of the backstage of the universe .... Trouble is, it's a big place. It'll take us forever ... literally ... to search it."

"Sort of backstage of the universe" reads as if it's been lifted from the answers of an exceptionally idle, but fundamentally able, History Of Science student, who's grasped something of the concepts he's failed to make any serious effort at all to revise. And that is, of course, why this form of technobabble, containing a far higher proportion of babble to techno than is often so, works so well. We all know something of what "backstage" means, though we little if anything at all about "reality". "Backstage" summons up images of the places where magic is created, of dark corridors, dressing rooms and a mixture of ancient and modern technology all out of sight of the paying punters who only know the spectacle that's lit on the stage itself. That it's a nonsensical phrase is of course irrelevant, given that the vast majority of us, including myself I hasten to add, find it challenging enough to grasp any of the detail of the concept of the "universe", while finding it far, far easier to believe implicitly in ghosts, alien abductions, and fortune telling.

In truth, and here's the contradiction that those who love to stud their scripts with reams of complex and pseudo-appropriate expositionary dialogue miss, the less information we're given, the more likely we are to believe. The Kingdom of Olympus doesn't become any less absurd if its existence is buttressed with fake mathematical proofs and impressionistic "scientific" terminology, but its absurdity does become more obvious the more folks are pushed into actually thinking about it. (In that direction lies all those questions about pin-heads and how many angels can stand on them. *2). And simply by Shooter having Solar declare that he and his lil'pal Geoff are "just outside reality", "sort of backstage of the universe", and that "it's a big place (that'll) take ... forever ... literally ... to search ... " gives the reader all the information they need to grasp where they are in the story; they're somewhere else, it's an exceptionally large neck of the woods, and it may not follow the same rules as our existence does.

But it's the next speech bubble that I most admire, wherein Shooter establishes as much of the nature of the Mothergod's secret, extra-reality kingdom, all futuristic Kirbyesque technology and very big dinosaurs, as the reader currently needs and no more, and does so in just 22 words too;

Panel 6, Panel 4:

Solar: "Hmm, looks like a little pocket continuum formed here in the most sluggish part of the time stream ... "

Geoff: "Are those dinosaurs?! Neat!!"

The closest we get to alienating technobabble here is the phrase "pocket continuum", and a few words that seem to carry some little scientific weight certainly don't clog up the dialogue at this point. (*3) Shooter knows that it's the use of everyday language that will allow the reader to swallow what they're reading and move swiftly on, and the key to the effectiveness of his explanation is the phrase "the most sluggish part of the time stream". Well, we all know what a stream looks like, and we all know that stuff piles up there when things get sluggish, don't we? (We might even recall all those geography lessons about ox-bow lakes and how they're formed.) And of course, the whole process isn't hurt in any way whatsoever by Barry Windsor-Smith's accompanying panel showing, yes, an apparently slow-moving river bend turning through wetlands full of, yes, really neat dinosaurs.

Two panels, 68 words in all, great distracting dinosaurs and a big red superhero; scenario established, job done, move on!

*2:- Gabba, Gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us! (Of course.)
*3:-Indeed, "Pocket continuum" is a phrase which would've reminded comic book readers at the time of a similar concept which had been used to try to explain away the existence of the Pre-Crisis Superboy in the history of the post-Crisis DC Universe.

Reason-to-keep no: 2; It's Often Fun

These first four chapters of "Unity" may not be superhero comics at their very finest, for there are longueurs in which the exposition necessary to maintain each title's existing continuity mixes with that needed to carry the crossover forward, creating an attention-stunning effect which quite derails the narrative. But there are still sufficient moments of charm and comic book audacity to make "Unity" worth returning too. Some of this can be found rooted in Shooter's ability to tap into an early-Silver Age spirit of playfulness while maintaining a contemporary sense of the utter seriousness of universe-threatening superhero adventures. It's hard not to imagine Grant Morrison, for example, approving of the scene in which Solar, a creature of pure energy dressed up just like a superhero, lends Geoff, his travelling companion, the power to return to the Valiant universe by quite literally removing his own hand. "Lots of energy in there...", he declares, which sets up the quite beguiling scene of Geoff sitting in a ruined phone box back on Earth wondering what to do while holding a single red heroic hand silently leaking power into the air.

"Unity" is sprinkled with moments which set the book apart in its flashes of imagination matched with traditional standards of comic book creative competence. The meeting of an Aboriginal sorcerer with a Bronze Age warrior before the storming of a Southern Mesopotamian city "before history"; the notably idiosyncratic cartooning of Ernie Colon, which provides us with a distinctly, and of course appropriately, late-Fifties version of the far future of 3988; Archer's coming face-to-face with religious fundamentalists from the future who've been inspired by deeds he's not yet undertaken, and the piquancy of the scene in which the young superhero is almost executed by a rather disappointed acolyte; the presence of the Immortal Warrior at different points in his life in several strands of the narrative. "Unity" is something of a grab-bag mostly full of somewhat familiar fare, but rustle around in its pages for just a minute or two and something arresting, and often downright amusing, will appear.

Yet if "Unity" does have a single claim to uniqueness in the history of superhero comics, it must surely be in its use of dinosaur dung as a major plot device. No-one before or since Jim Shooter and Barry Windsor-Smith has ever shown the comic book reading public a scene of a super-human escaping captivity through the device of allowing himself to be pooped upon and buried under a great mound of pterodactyl ordure. It's a potential genre convention which surely deserves at least a single homage in these days of inter-textuality and post-modernism.