Monday, 31 October 2011

On Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's Thor: The Wonderful Absurdity Of Stamping Twice

In which the blogger, finishing off a run of pieces on the Constitution of Asgard & amending one last chat about the Canon in the light of comments kindly left, finds himself distracted by and reveling in the wonderfully unselfconscious inventiveness of those early Lee/Kirby Thor stories;

From Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's "The Stone Men From Saturn", the first appearance of Thor from Journey Into Mystery  # 83, from August of 192.

It was once one of the most famous, if fondly-regarded, oversights in the history of the superhero comic book. Poor lame Donald Blake flees an alien invasion of Norway and stumbles upon a secret cave in which lies a "gnarled wooden stick". Overcome by a "helpless anger", Blake "strikes the useless cane" against an "immovable boulder" and, at that most fortuitous of moments, finds himself transformed into Thor, "the mightiest warrior of all mythology!". Experimenting with the thunder god's great magical hammer, Blake discovers that by "...stamping the handle twice on the ground ... I can create rain or snow ... which soon grow into a raging tornado!" It's a wonderful comic-book conceit, of course, framing Thor's use of his super-powers in a simple, visually-recognisable ritual of sorts. And it lent the comic's original target audience of young boys an immediately-graspable protocol for storm-summoning while play-acting the role of The Mighty Thor in their imaginations, or even with a hammer borrowed from the family tool-kit.Yet, of course, the problem is that we're told in just one further panel's time that "stamping" the hammer "but once ..." turns it into a cane and Thor into the harmless Dr Blake.

But if a single thump of that hammer turns Thor into Blake, then how can Thor ever manage to stomp it down a second time? How can "All the power of the storm" ever be "Thor's to command", when he can never bash that hammer any more than the once without turning into his hapless and helpless alter ego?

Of course, and for all that we can be sure that Messrs Kirby and Lee regretted that oversight, it's worth pushing any false sense of modern-era snottiness to one side here. Because criticising the tales of the Marvel Comics of the early Sixties in terms of any sensibility and circumstances other than those of their time is an arrogantly anachronistic business.  For making sense according to any contemporary understanding of the word wasn't ever anything of a priority back in 1962, because making sense wasn't ever anything of a necessity. All that mattered was snaring as many of those millions of sugar-charged, novelty-habituated, and perpetually-distractible young readers as was possible. That the Marvel creators were able to achieve that while producing comic books which were so untypically innovative and expressive was a substantial bonus, but if the Bullpen's innovations had failed to sell, nothing of the likes of the Fantastic Four and the Amazing Spider-Man would've remained on the stands. The Marvel Revolution was one shaped by the willingness of the marketplace to embrace radically new and invigorating ideas, as well as by the ability of the Bullpen to provide them, but for a great many years, a dull-minded literalism and an obsession with logic and consistency weren't of any commercial advantage at all.

In fact, there's an exceptionally good argument to be made that Marvel was at its most creative and exciting in the period before anyone in the company ever really cared about how sensible their stories were, about how persuasively self-referential their continuity could be.

From the fourth Thor adventure, from November 1962; the Thunder God is still managing to "thud" that hammer twice without transforming into Donald Blake.
For those first few years, pretty much all that mattered was selling those comics, and selling the comics demanded that frame after frame was as saturated with incident and drama and excitement as the audience could want and the culture would permit. And so, where the existing conventions of the boy's action comic demanded densely-told and quietly kinetic stories, Marvel crammed in even more content matched with a far more vigorous measure of kineticism. Plots were loaded up with the most basic of melodramas and characters informed by the least complex of neuroses, which together created a sense of depth and vigour which DC's white-picket-fence restraint could never match. Marvel never added a significant degree of realism to the superhero book, no matter what some later critics have allowed themselves to argue, but it did evoke a child's sense of the complexity of the real far more captivatingly than the competition did. By adding the conflicts generated by their character's two-dimensional inner life to the strange and forcefully intense visuals in their comics, Marvel succeeded in providing the audience with a great deal more value for their pocket money than did any other comics publisher of the age, distinguished or not. Not only was there more happening on the pages of their stories, but it was by comparison far more varied and pacy and powerful.

Klaus the ex-convict manages to accidentally poison himself with a radioactive cobra bite, all in name of an alibi for a murder which he fails to pull off. It's no example of sophisticated plotting, but it is an example of a dense, content-heavy reading experience. To remove such a lunatic mass of story without compensating for its absence is to reduce the superhero comic to fist fights and soap-operatic melodrama.
But working as they did at the most ferocious and demanding of paces, and while quite literally re-creating the superhero sub-genre as they went along, the creators at Marvel certainly weren't competing for the approbation of the literary critics of the Sunday Supplements, let alone the academic judgments of the 21st century's comicbook historians. Well of course they weren't. They were furiously cranking out as much incandescently-compelling product as a tiny company could shift, and the rules by which their comics were constructed and consumed were significantly, and often disconcertingly, different to those which hold for today's publishers and creators. Logic wasn't missing from the product of those years because Lee and Kirby and Ditko and the others didn't care about it, or because they didn't know how to maintain it. No, logic in its most bland and wonder-killing sense was missing because it wasn't relevant, regardless of the tastes of the Marvel creators of the day. To laugh at those comics for being silly, as so many bloggers today are prone to, is the equivilant of mocking the Hip-Hop of 2011 for its lack of bagpipe solos, or bemoaning the absence of finger-painting tie-in products for the latest primetime cop shows. Such things aren't there because they're just not relevant.

And yet, those early Marvels are so often seen as nothing more than primitive versions of today's product, when they are in fact a quite different species of comic-book altogether. Different audiences, different priorities, different methods, different ends. 

Strange that we can be so easily fooled by our over-familiarity with characters such as Thor, that we allow ourselves to believe that little has really changed in the superhero comic over the past 50 years or so. The superhero comic, it often seems, hasn't drastically evolved so much as it's become a purer version of itself. Put simply, the sub-genre's somehow grown up and done away with a great many of the indefensibly childish things which once blighted it. But if we were to rationalise away the plot-holes and inconsistencies of those early Journey Into Mystery tales, for example, and if we were to update their cultural context and modernise the characterisation, the product which we'd have refined wouldn't be a souped-up, streamlined, fit-for-purpose, polished-up and substantially improved comic book for 2011. Rather, it would be a significantly different and fatally diminished experience, from which its original purpose had been removed and never replaced. For those elements of the early Thor stories which now seem so incongruous and daft weren't mistakes or a reflection of low ambition matched with a less-developed skills base. Instead, they existed for the specific purpose of hooking an incredibly demanding and ever-evolving audience of young boys, and they did their job, for a good while, with a remarkable degree of success.          

The city of the future falls apart, and even their robot traffic police break down. Well, whoever would've imagined that such a literal-minded, two dimension vision of the future could ever exist? (It's great fun though, isn't it? From Lee & Kirby's Slave Of Zarrko, The Tomorrow Man, from J.I.M. 102)
Remove those elements aimed at a youthful audience, and what's left isn't a comic for adults. Rather, it's a withered and rather shameful corpse of a product which can't appeal to any great number of adults or children alike. Cut away that which today seems clunky and absurd and ill-considered and the de facto consequence isn't a better comic, a more literate comic, a more grown-up comic. Instead, the process generates an entirely different beast altogether, and one that's been filleted of much of its essential appeal and value.

Thor uses his hammer to haul a busload of passengers safely out of the river and towards a 'smooth, gliding landing" in the distant  the city. Well, that's just silly, but, of course, Thor himself can't be. (From the Lee/Berns/Sinnot "Defying The Mad Merlin" from JIM 96)

It's often these seemingly incongruous moments, these panels and sequences which most jar with the modern reader's sense of what's appropriate, that I find the most interesting and, yes, charming too. Every one of those frames which can derail the modern reader's concentration tells us something that was characteristic and distinct about the comic books of the time, about some aspect of storytelling that's since becomes not just lost, but verbotten. Without those strange and dippy and almost shameful awkwardnesses, we might forget that comics hadn't always been grinding inevitably forwards towards the current storytelling status quo. But to note Thor continuing to pointlessly stamp his magic hammer months after his first appearance, for example, and to see those storms still impossibly arriving, tells us more than just the fact that the spectacular was endlessly more important than the logical in the comics of the period. It also informs us that Marvel's relationship with its fans in the period was considerably less developed than it would soon become, and in doing so reemphasises that the past was not simply a less informed and insightful version of today. By the October 1964 issue of Journey Into Mystery, and with Thor only just entering his third year as a comicbook character, the letters column begins with what reads like a terrifying accurate manifestation of a fully-evolved Homo Sapien Fanboyus;

"You might not understand this, but how can you run stories on the boyhood of Thor when at the time Dr Don Blake hadn't even stumbled into the cave to find the magic cane ... unless there were two Thors! ... I hope I have cleared you up on this point or have I mixed you up?"

Stan Lee's response was to kindheartedly concede that the reader had indeed "posed an interesting problem", before offering to "award one of our usual no-prizes to the reader sending in the best comment. (To save us the trouble of figuring it out, natch!)" It's a charming example of the new kind of relationship with the fans which Mr Lee pioneered, but it's also a marker on the road towards literal-mindedness, towards the disemboweling of the spontaneity and vitality of the earliest Marvel comics and the imposition of a far less free-spirited and unselfconscious approach towards the sub-genre. For with the gradual and neurotic removal of so many of the most beguilingly absurd aspects of the superhero, and with the streamlining of the way in which the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade's adventures were told, a fundamental measure of energy and novelty was bargained away for an eventually-stultifying straight-jacket of faux-adult content and thin, comparatively empty narrative techniques.

Of course, the solution to the problems caused by the decision to swap pre-pubescent wonderment for adolescent self-consciousness couldn't ever be to desperately try to replicate the shameless intensity of the high Sixties at Marvel. After all, one of the great virtues of those years was that the work was ever-evolving, if at an ever-decreasing pace. But it is worth considering whether today's comic books truly have compensated for the lack of the original and energetic virtues of the likes of the first Journey Into Mystery tales? Has the sub-genre too often abandoned a barnstorming vitality for a flaccid self-absorption, and swapped an almost psychedelic sense of the luminous for a teenager's sense of the supposedly adult?

I have no idea Thor can possibly be talking about, but the children who originally read Journey Into Mystery # 102 were convinced that they understood. Remove such absurdity and the superhero comic needs to go elsewhere for much of its content and spectacle, and yet, that's not typically been so.
For it just can't be a coincidence that those few comics creators who have succeeded in taking the superhero away from a dependency upon the Rump and into a relationship with a broader audience have done so while quite deliberately adding to the emaciated subject matter more recently associated with the sub-genre. Neither Miller, Moore, or Gaiman have participated in the remorseless process of gutting the fantastical comic book through the continued removal of some of its more incongruously fantastical elements. Instead, they've quite deliberately compensated for the loss of so much of the comic-book tradition, and in doing so hybridised the concerns and methods of other mediums, other genres, and other ways of making sense of how and why a story might be told, with whatever's left of the poor undernourished, mainstream super-person book.

Trunks on, everyone. It's relocation day ...
To be continued;


Thursday, 27 October 2011

Secret Agents, Comic Shops, Cracking Wise, Debates & A Great Many Thank-Yous:- Smith's Miscellany For October 27 2011

In which the blogger offers links, comment, recommendations, and his sincerely-meant thank-yous;


Weird scenes inside the goldmines at both Marvel and DC Comics, it appears. Rich Johnston's report at Bleeding Cool of institutional capriciousness and insensitivity at DC was depressing enough in itself. How is the reader ever going to believe that the constantly-promised new comics millennium will soon arrive from 1700 Broadway, when the most fundamental of human decencies appear to be being occasionally dealt with so carelessly? For as far as I'm aware, there's no contemporary business model which suggests any such managerial practises tend to enable excellence where the employees in a modern creative industry are concerned.

Yet all of that appears almost benign and efficient when compared to the descriptions at The Beat of what seems to be almost Dickensian conditions in the workplace at  Marvel. One toilet per one hundred staff, cameras pointing at folks in order to make sure that they're not frittering away the hours? As laughable an idea as it might be to the more unengaged of the Rump, I'm really not sure how comfortable I am with my eaten-away-by-inflation teacher's pension being invested in what sounds like little-league predatory capitalism. Certainly, reading Tom Spurgeon's typically humane and insightful piece on the recent firings at Marvel leaves this reader with nothing but a quite useless sympathy for those folks who've been moved on in the name of 'cost-cutting'. No, none of this makes me feel like picking up a few more issues of any post-Fear Itself or Schism tie-ins.

If these reports are to be at all believed, then it's hard to see how the mainstream of comics is likely to be able to suddenly ratchet up the quality of its product. And it really does seem that there's a considerable degree of - shall we say - unfortunate executive involvement at both companies concerning which titles get published and what content appears in them. Perhaps we'll discover at some time in the future that all these endless tie-ins and all of that enervatingly thin storytelling had little to do with the creative and editorial staff at the Big Two at all. There may even be a moment at which a great many of those folks who are currently being pilloried for their unambitious and insular standards turn out to have been working their damnedest to keep some measure of excellence alive while the market declines and the higher-ups indulge in their own perverse version of enlightened stewardship. (*1) It's something which Damien Lucchese's admirable post on Facebook following his lay-off from Marvel certainly appears to confirm.

I spent almost two decades working in English schools, where the Government hype about how fine a job their system was doing was as overwhelmingly pernicious as was their constant and ever-changing meddling with even the most basic aspects of teaching.(Deborah Orr discusses Britain's literacy crisis, and the efforts to obscure it, in today's Guardian, should you be interested.) With much of the educational establishment absolutely bent on following whatever this week's soundbite political reform might be, I shared my life with a cadre of teachers who did their best to continue to deliver the fundamentals of numeracy, literacy and self-discipline despite promotion all too often coming from the delivery of the exact opposite qualities. It was regularly a thankless business, and brought with it endless trouble from the apparatchiks and sleepwalkers who'd bought into the myth that all those ever-improving exam results meant that the students themselves really had been well taught.

By which I mean, and for what little it's worth, it'll be my pleasure to make the most sincere of apologies if and when it turns out that the professional members of the Common Comics Culture have actually been working almost as double-agents, struggling without any broader recognition for the survival of the fantastical comic book in the face of the edicts from their various lords and masters. Mea culpe .

*1:- Michael May raises the issue at Robot 6 of whether reviewers can ever be sure who's responsible for a comic's contents these days in "Everyone's A Critic, So Let's Be Good Ones"

Appropriated from

I was just 12 years old when I first visited Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, London's first specialist comic book shop. That did for me. I have a horrible feeling that if I were given the opportunity to revisit any event in my life which wasn't either associated with family or not-for-public viewing, then that shop in that year would be where I'd go. It's not a nostalgia which I've any interest in defending; you'll either understand the weakness and the longing or you'll raise the garlic and the cross and move onwards.

Appropriated from
As the industry spirals into a disturbingly familiar mix of manic expansion and slash'n'burn cost-cutting, it helps to think of some considerably less compromised aspects of our mutual hobby. Over at Sequential Crush, the newly Europe-based Jacque Nodell describes her first visit to a Danish comicbook shop. I never imagined that I'd regret not having access to a comic shop in Aarhus, but Komics really does seems well worth a visit. At Bob Temuka's The Tearoom Of Despair, there's a quietly charming account of one man's plans to visit some far distinct comic shops, and of his wife's understanding where such a fan-minded wanderlust is concerned. And over at Comic Book Resources, George Khoury describes a day spent helping out at NYC's Time Machine, which certainly sounds like another destination well worth the travelling to.

There's still a magic to be found in the idea of a well-stocked, friendly-staffed comic shop, and yet they're sadly far rarer on the ground than I ever imagined that they would be in the 21st century. Ah, the future ...

Appropriated from
Lastly, if anyone here is interested in an entirely trustworthy and efficient mail-order service in the U.K., I'd whole-heartedly recommend Croydon's A Place In Space. They don't know me from Adam, so there's nothing behind this beyond the fact that they're entirely reliable with highly competitive prices and free posting to boot. I've had some unfortunate experiences with the business of buying comics through the mail over the past few years, and I wish somebody had told about A Place In Space earlier. So I've told you.


Here's a disagreement which I take a certain illicit pleasure in promoting. On the one hand, Jim Shooter passes a less-than-flattering judgment on the new Ultimate Spider-Man's issues 1 and 2. (The review of the first issue in particular does not go easy on Mr Bendis's new baby.) On the other, Sequart's Julian Darius argues that the very same comics contain a great deal to be admired. Of course, neither gentlemen references the others, but let's not permit that to stand in the way of a grand compare'n'contrast exercise. Who will emerge triumphant? Shooter's got the extra inches, but Julian's the younger man ...

For those looking for a chucklesome way to continue the day, I'd definetly recommend Kerry Callen's "May Contain Content". If you're a stranger there, I'd start at "Super Antics # 2", which on its own is well worth the visit. And then why not a trip over to Ty Templeton's place, where there's a rather sweet family adventure here - of sorts - and a Bun Toons concerned with the "Wall Street" occupations here. (It does have a superhero in it too.)

Finally, a few discussions of the exceptionally wretched closing issue of Fear Itself, which was so inexplicably poor that I daren't even start writing about it. Thankfully, Paul O'Brien at House To Astonish has done what he always does, namely nailing the essence of the comic he's discussing, and in little over 500 words too. And then, everyone over to Graeme McMillan at Newsarama, where he skewers one impossibly stupid subway tunnel of a plothole in the same shameful comicbook, in That Fear Itself Epilogue You'll Never See.

I laughed until I ripped the comic into tiny little pieces ...


In closing, I'd like to sincerely thank the following for the links which they've posted to TooBusyThinking over the past 10 days. Some were criticising what they'd found here and some weren't, but they all brought traffic this way and I appreciate their including me in their discussions. And so, in a deliberately random order - as chosen by the Splendid Wife with her trusty teacher's pencil - my hat is tipped to; Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter: Valiant Comics on Twitter : Sally P at Green Lantern Butts Forever, who has her own take on the enigma of John Stewart's behaviour in GLC # 1: Dispatches From The Fridge; Chris Eckert at Funny Book Babylon, who discusses his disappointments with my analysis of Ultimates # 1:  Andrew Whickey at Sci-ence - Justice Leak; Figserello at Captain Comics: J. Caleb Mozzocco at Every Day Is Like Wednesday; Comic Book Kid on Twitter: Greg Burgas at Comic Book Resources: Jay Potts at World Of Hurt on Twitter: to Gricomet at Reddit: Ragnell at 77% Recycled From Other Tumblers; Dan Liebke on Twitter; Yanbasque on Twitter, who thought my GLC post had a few good points despite its "clunky prose", which, reading back, turns out to be entirely fair comment where the prose is concerned; and, lastly but never leastly, to wyokid at the CBR forums;

I appreciate the kindness of being taken into the broader debate, and I wish all of above the very kindest of days. Should someone's link not have registered with Statcounter, and some pretty substantial traffic has failed to do so in recent weeks, then I'm both grateful for your help and sorry that I didn't acknowledge you.

And a fearsomely happy Halloween to all!



Wednesday, 26 October 2011

On Mark Millar & John Romita Jr's "Kick Ass 2", part 11, from "Clint" # 11: "Oh my god. We've gone too far this time. Even For Us..."

In which the Blogger interrupts his discussion of the canon with a look at an entirely contemptible sequence of rape-porn panels in Kick Ass 2, part 11:

I wonder if there's ever been a creator associated with the mainstream of the super-person comic-book who's worked as hard as Mark Millar has in order to be indivisibly associated with the leitmotiv of gratuitous sexual violence? He started off his career with the anal rape of a priest in Saviour back in 1990, which all seemed rather punk rock and precocious for a 19 year-old in the context of the story and the age. And now here we are, more than twenty years later, and he and John Romita Jr are showing us the newly-christened - oh, yes! - "Motherfucker" beating up a terrified teenage girl before unzipping his super-pants and declaring that " ... it's time to see what evil dick tastes like."

He's already shot her parents in the head. He's got his masked, gun-toting gangbangers lined up behind him. And look, he's taking his cock out and he's making a joke about it too!!!!!

Now, that's entertainment.

No, I can't do this anymore. I really can't. There's just no defending Millar anymore. Like some perpetually willful thirteen year old egomaniac who simply won't stop trying to piss people off in order to draw attention to himself, Millar just can't seem to imagine why he wouldn't present the world with such a morally-dessicated, imaginatively-bankrupt scene. For it's not just that it's a thoroughly unpleasant business that's he and Mr Romita Jr are waving around for the entertainment of their readers, although that's the overwhelming majority of the objection here. But it's also all so lovingly, prosaically and banally done, and yet, despite all that fetishistic attention paid to the rites of rape-porn, the plot's not advanced in this slightest. Well done, all you splendid gentlemen and women involved! Well done Clint Entertainment! Well done Marvel Comics and Titan Books too! Why not reduce the representation of the victim of this sexual assault to a terrified, silent, shivering object while presenting the whole scene from the perspective of ... god help me ... Motherfucker and the gaze of his minions? After all, there's those ever-tempting thirty pieces of silver clinking away in the background for everybody involved, isn't there?

Shall we attempt to raise the will to try and imagine what any stray apologist might spit at me by way of a defense of "the Boss" and his work here? Perhaps the young adolescent victim of the scene will turn the tables on her attackers in the next episode now that we've been encouraged to linger on those hackneyed and indefensible panels of panic, dread and psychopathic sexuality? (She doesn't, by the way.) Perhaps Motherfucker - awe-some - will only ever wave his super-villainous genitals in front of her before they're separated from him, which will, of course, be funny, as such things supposedly are in some comicbooks, rather than traumatic, as is inevitably the case out here in the real world. Perhaps what we're being shown is a smartly-framed insight into the pack-male mentality, reduced by the absence of both conventional social restraints and any intervening officers of the law to a rape-gang default setting? Perhaps it's just "funny", or "exciting", or perhaps Millar sees his work as being two stiff fingers up to those politically correct, self-righteous Whitehouses who can't see that he's only having a little bit of fun at their expense?

Perhaps this is a satire of the superhero genre, and one which, some half-a-decade and more after Doctor Light's outing as a rapist in Identity Crisis, is intended to helpfully reveal the true scale of super-villain sexual atrocities? Or perhaps what we're watching is comic-book realism? Gosh. What would happen if super-people existed in the real world? Faced with such an awe-some concept, it's sure-ly Mr Millar's responsibility to create an entirely implausible and pornographically-toxic narrative while cloaking it in the spurious justification of comics-documentary verisimilitude. For he isn't actually writing this story, you see, or so some of his defenders would seem to have almost convinced themselves. He's not imagining it, he's not choosing every moment that you see on the page. No. He's channeling it. What would happen if New York City was invaded by an army of super-villains, for we should be told! The sexual assault of Katie is nothing, it seems, but legitimate literary speculation based on an absolutely compelling premise.. And, self-evidently, it seems that such super-villains would set about raping helpless teenage girls, and we'd have to watch it too. A warning, it seems, from the pulpit of the perpetually publicly virtuous Mr Millar, adding this necessary social warning to his charity auctions and his other press-friendly good works in the community. Bad people rape women. Bad people in costumes do it in such a terrible way that we need to really linger on the evil of it all. Got it?

And I'll be willing to bet that all this suffering leads to a great vengeance-fueled blockbuster of a finale for Kick-Ass II, with Hit Girl playing such a prominent role that non-one could possibly suggest that Messrs Millar and Romita Jr were in any way playing for the side not typically associated with the angels.

But then, given that super-villains never will exist - oh, no! - then Millar might as well have discussed the "what-if" of, for example, an alien invasion of sentient five-foot tall Toblerones driven to sodomise the under-fives, or even - if you can believe this - a bomb that can be irremovably wired into the womb of a pregnant woman. You know, entirely cretinous, utterly irresponsible, attention-seeking wankerisms. 

Who knows? Maybe Millar's hoping Clint will benefit from the publicity which a little scandal might kick its way. All publicity is good publicity, or so some Barnums might attempt to convince us. But men-children who constantly cry rape eventually end up in the same situation as the tiresome little brat in the fairy story who cried wolf. In the end, no-one cares too much about them anymore, or at least, they don't unless the rape-fixated creator manages to identify a demographic who just can't see what the harm in misogyny, sexual violence, crap storytelling, and plain-and-simple stupidity might be.

In which case, the boy who cried 'rape' ends up feted, stinking rich and profiled by the worthy on The Late Review.

Well, you won, Mr Millar, didn't you? I do hope this sequence of panels will be useful to you the next time you take up your position as a senior member of your church or as a media commentator on Scottish political affairs. After all, given that you so regularly discuss the worthiness of your public concerns in the press, it seems only fair to point out that there's the chance here of a contradiction between what one Mr Millar says and does and what the comics professional himself gets up to when basically only the fanboys are watching. Or perhaps it is that this scene in Kick-Ass II is intended to serve as a distillation of your politically-minded worries matched with your writerly genius where some of today's most pressing social problems are concerned. Obviously, you could present these panels proudly in any schoolhall or seminary room, and use them to help everyone who's there come to grips with some of the day's most atrocious and appallingly commonplace acts of exploitation and oppression.  Why, yes, Mr Miller, thank you; men can be sexual beasts, it seems, and women can find themselves being terrified, beaten and violated, it appears, and men can make jokes about it while forcing themselves on their victims too. If there are costumes involved, why, it's even worse. Well, whoever would've guessed it, and whoever would've understood the matter if it hadn't all been turned in a comic strip for our soul-saving edification?

For this has obviously been a public information comic-book! If these super-villains were real, they might do just about anything terrible which Mr Millar can raise the energy to imagine. And look! What he imagined was this, and Mr Romita Jr came along to help him get the details right too.

No insight. No imagination. No compassion. No cleverness. No heart. No moral purpose that isn't drowned out by its stupidity and callousness and soulless triviality.

But, most certainly, big fucking bucks.

Strangely enough, and fully accepting how joy-killing and reactionary a view this may seem to be, I can't even start to convince myself that violating utterly defenceless young women is so exciting and informative and funny that we need to see it at all, let alone in such absolutely vivid, by-the-numbers, story-slowing, morality-defeating, detail. Yet apparently we do.

You pays your money, you get to enjoy the "evil dick" scene!

Oh, well. Keep standing up for the rights of the individual to free expression, traditional morality, and cutting-edge humour, Mr Millar, as well as continuing your campaign against social injustice everywhere you can. As for me, and not that anybody will give two hoots, but I'm out of here. Life's just too short to care, although I really, really did want to.

In fact - whisper it - I was even something of a considerable fan, and not so long ago either, always hoping that all that talent and all those on-occasion clearly visible good intentions would triumph over the arse-to-the-world, look-at-me-children snakesoil salesman act. For it seemed to me that the Mark Millar who wrote 1985, that Fantastic Four run and the first Kick Ass was a creator who was becoming skilled at stirring up teacup-storms while grounding his work in unimpeachably moral foundations. Informing the first Kick Ass with recollections of Mr Millar's own childhood, for example, helped to create a comic which was as fundamentally touching as it was hi-octane entertaining. Indeed, it was impossible not to associate Dave Lizewski with Mark Millar himself at certain key and tragic moments in the text, and to wonder whether this was the moment at which the writer finally nailed how to entertain without regressing into a crass lack of concern for anyone's interests beyond his own.

But, straw meet camel's back. Camel's back, meet Clint # 11 ....


(No. Let's not.)


Monday, 24 October 2011

Batman Loses A Robin, Dr Manhattan Slips Through Time: On The Canon & The Dark Knight Returns, Watchman, and - eventually - The Sandman (Part 4)

In which the blogger continues his discussion - begun here and here and here - of that tiny number of super-people comics books which always seem to be there or there-abouts when the "best-ever" lists are compiled;
It’s not just that love for the superhero sub-genre and that commitment to ethical debate which marks out both Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns as strangely traditional fantastical comic-books. There’s also the fact that each was designed to be perfectly welcoming and understandable even to a neophyte entirely ignorant of the business of the super-people and their hyper-conflicts. In the fact that that storytelling inclusivity was matched with a commitment to providing a complex and satisfying reading experience lies a great deal of the explanation for why both comics remain so very well regarded.

It’s this purposeful and nurturing maternalism, this sense of a responsibility felt towards readers from far beyond the ranks of the die-hard fanboy and his fellow travellers, which is so rarely shared by today’s creators of superhero comics. For the regrettable fact is that most of 2011's collected editions, strung together with a sequence of written-for-the-trade single issues, rarely manage to provide a reading experience comparable in satisfaction if not kind with that offered by the likes of film and the novel. Yet that's exactly what Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns offer to their readers, and that's in large part why they remain such successful ambassadors for a product which doesn't actually seem to very much want to be represented to anyone beyond the closed ranks of its own.

Because for all of the narrative complexities of Watchman, and for all of the innovative kineticism of The Dark Knight Returns, the qualities which first enable those books to appeal to a broader audience are the most basic of all comicbook virtues; they make clear sense, and they offer a rich, rewarding, and literate reading experience. Whether it's Messrs Moore and Gibbons showing us how the linearity of time is fracturing for Dr Manhattan, or it's Frank Miller subtly seeding without over-explaining the importance of Jason Todd to the Dark Knight's character, the stories in these oddly canonical texts are always transparently and involvingly told.  In them, the straight-forward is made interesting, the complex is clarified, while the innovative and the spectacular never obscures the progression of the story or the clarity of its meaning. To state this, of course, is to be in the position of emphasising the utterly obvious, and yet, how many comparable comics does the industry produce these days where even these basic qualities are concerned? To what degree is it commissioning and publishing work which is lucent and yet intricate, ethically informed and yet pop-culture exciting, fantastical and yet deeply concerned with far broader real-world issues than those of crossovers and shocking moments?

If the point of discussing the de facto canon of the fantastical comicbook is to ask ourselves why there's been so few nominees to its membership in the years since 1986, then at least something of the answer surely lies in a catastrophic refusal to engage with the primary responsibilities of storytelling in the heroic sub-genres. Sadly, today’s comics are often so deconstructed and ethically disengaged that the act of turning the page might take the same amount of time and energy as does the business of reading it. A literate consumer who's learned to expect  a considerable return from their investment of time and money in more socially-respectable mediums will most likely shrug and tune out at such empty-headed product, their prejudices concerning these silly little superhero comicbooks having apparently been confirmed. Similarly, a text knee-deep in continuity and threadbare where the logic and emotion of story is concerned is hardly likely to speak to anyone beyond the Rump. Yet the canon of Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns crosses over to each subsequent generation in the broader marketplace as well within the ranks of the committed, and it does so in part because its pages provide an experience which is meaningful, clear, intense and immediately rewarding to both the long-committed and the less-fanatical reader.

To compare either Watchman or The Dark Knight Returns to the vast majority of modern-era comics isn't just to be shocked by today’s lack of invention, but also by an inconceivably common absence of basic competencies too. In this, today's superhero book can be very much the worst of both worlds; unimaginative, unsatisfying, and yet so often difficult to understand too. Surely material that's so regularly crass and unambitious could at least be easy to follow, be internally consistent and sensibly thought-through?

Yet for all that the pages of the duopoly are easy to engage with and entertaining to experience, it’s obvious that the demands which their creators placed upon themselves while producing them were considerable and undoubtedly often exhausting. Clarity matched with content comes at a considerable price, while of course empty-hearted spectacle and an uncaring obscurity is easily achieved. To compare any single issue of Watchman or The Dark Knight Returns with so much of the everyday super-person product is to suddenly come face-to-face with a collapse of craft and ambition which makes it appear as if a new Dark Age has blighted the American comics mainstream.  Somewhere along the line, essential components of both manners and comicbook literary have been lost, and that’s as true for most of today’s limited series as it is for the monthly issues. Whatever the deadlines that creators are working under or the format which they're working to, the end result is often as banal as it's complacent and unimaginative.

Put frankly, the superhero comic book is no longer capable of crossing over to any significant degree because it is no longer literate or rewarding enough in its fundamental aspects. That there are exceptions to this rule is of course a given, and yet, as a rule, the lessons which ought to have been learned from the canon and the tradition which it embodies have been ignored for so long that their very existence is now nothing but some kind of heartening and yet obscure folk memory.  No matter how reviving the experience of coming across, for example, Daredevil # 4 or Gen Hope # 9 can be, the fantastical comic book is in terrible straits  For now we have comics which, rather than playing to the strengths of the medium and its sub-genres, ape more and more the conventions of film, TV and computer games, and that's true even down to the domination on the page of the usually-inappropriately placed widescreen panel.

In order to attempt to crossover to anything of the audience which exists beyond the comic shops, or so it appears, the industry has, by design and chance, effectively abandoned producing experiences which are both comparable in value while unique in virtue to even middle-brow books and TV. Instead, the industry has too often taken a medium and a range of storytelling options already widely associated with dumbing down, and it's dumbed them down further. Deconstruction at its least worthwhile, senseless posing money-shots, shallow and slapdash plotting, and a collapse which appears almost Baudrillardarian in the very basics of the language of graphic storytelling on the page mark what often feels to be the worst of times.

Because, of course, the best way to attract a smart and influential audience which has only ever bought into the superhero book when it was smart and rewarding is to produce more and more Rump-pleasing pap.

It is of course perfectly easy to imagine any of the duopoly’s creators producing the equivalent of a standard-issue modern-era superhero book in very short amount of time indeed. (A cynic might even suggest that Frank Miller himself has become a past master at producing work which is as shallow as it is difficult to perceive the point of.) Yet I wonder how many folks working on today’s be-caped properties could present a sequence of pages which even succeeded in aping the basic forms of Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns, let alone challenging those comicbook's per-eminence by adapting and innovating within those structures.

The de facto canon was established by work which reflected an ambition which was grounded in competence, a creativity which was framed by knowledge and skill, and a love of the superhero which was matched by a deliberate and passionate engagement with the social and political realities of the real world. Until today’s super-people comics can match that basic inclusiveness and those intensely-felt aspirations and that admirable level of craft, the canon’s ranks are likely to remain uncluttered by any great number of legitimate successors, or even convincing pretenders..


To be continued, with a look at those aspects of the canon which are very much not conservative in nature;


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Bat-Tanks & Flying Owl-Mobiles: On The Canon & The Dark Knight Returns, Watchman, and -eventually - The Sandman (Part 3)

In which the blogger continues his discussion of some the great sacred cows of the superhero sub-genre - begun here and here.  As a result, the "Sunday Miscellany & Thank You" will now become the soon-to-appear "Wednesday Miscellany & Thank You" instead;

There are failures of nerve, craft and ambition, and then there’s an industry daring only to sell superhero books to the Rump and to its most recently departed members. For if anything is to be learned from the past quarter-century of both continuous publication and critical acclaim where both Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns are concerned, it’s surely that superheroes can and will sell to a far broader audience than that of the habituated fanboy. And yet somehow the conversation of why Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns should have so very successful tends to be framed in terms of how each text really isn't a traditional superhero story at all. They’re revisionist, they’re ironic, they’re deconstructions, they’re satires, they're even the last closing statements of an ossified dead-end of a sub-genre. In fact, sometimes it can be hard to understand how the duopoly ever sold so many copies and impressed so many readers. Because if the superhero genre was, and remains, that exhausted and perhaps even contemptible, then why would readers from beyond the fan community even bother to turn up and witness the last rites being read to it?

And so, perhaps we might start by noting and celebrating the fact that both Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns are in so many ways profoundly typical superhero stories. For to a significant degree, they work exactly as superhero stories always have, and in doing so, they surely illustrate the strength and the lasting appeal of the sub-genre rather than any sclerotic and irradicable weaknesses which make it profoundly unfit-for-purpose. Rather than seeing the duopoly as having been in their day radical breaks with the super-person's past, and seeking something of why they've so appealed in that, I'd like to suggest that it’s the familiar framework of spandex costumes and impossible powers, of world-threatening plots and infeasible super-tech, which lies at the heart of these book's appeal. In short, no matter how an awareness of the failings of the sub-genre's past informs each book's sub-text, the text itself is recognisably and successfully part of a decades-long tradition of storytelling. Indeed, both books enthusiastically eulogise the superhero sub-genre far more than they ever playfully undermine it. After all, how could they do manage to do anything but, given that the pages of each book succeeds in making the whole fantastical business of the super-person so utterly compelling?  

Indeed, there’s such a joyful commitment to the traditions of the superhero sub-genre which radiates from each comic’s pages, and that makes it hard to see how time has lent each book the status of an attempt to stake that tradition right through its chest insignia. And so, the belief that each book somehow succeeds despite its superheroic content seems to be a quite indefensible one. These comics may function as critiques of some aspects of the super-person narrative, but they're no assault upon the sub-genre at all. The scenes of the aged Batman’s return to a storm-racked, lawless Gotham, and of the assault upon the Prison from within and without by Rorschach, Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre, are unashamedly gleeful in how they celebrate the business of putting on a costume and challenging the powers that be. 

Regardless of what Messrs Moore and Miller might have said in the years since these books were first published, there's a real sense of love for the superhero which shines through every page of these comics.

And although Watchman is undoubtedly also an argument against the conceit that costumed human beings could ever punch out a solution to the world’s labyrinthine and intractable problems, it’s also a narrative that both makes and wins the case for how fascinating it can be to watch them try to do so. After all, the costumes may be gone by the story’s end, but the super-people aren’t. Watchman most certainly doesn't end, as some would have us believe, with the superheroes all vacating the stage forever, although Dr Manhattan himself has retreated to his dressing room for awhile. In fact, there’s a criminal mastermind in charge of a debased America going by the name of Nixon as the events of the book conclude, and an even more nefarious super-villain/anti-superhero manipulating the geo-political affairs of the whole world in the shape of the impossibly gifted Ozymandias. More telling yet, there's that diary of Rorschach's lurking at the margins of the tale and threatening to become its new centre, its contents informed by the same indomitable and blighted qualities which made the vigilante such an impressively pathetic superhero. The influence of the super-person in Watchman has very much not disappeared from the world in which its set.

These are facts which touch upon another distracting and misdirecting myth associated with Watchman. Because Messrs Moore and Gibbons's story very much doesn't present its superheroes as ineffective and impotent characters. The less powerful of the once-Watchmen may be entirely unable to control riots or restore constitutions, but they're in no way pathetic or useless. What Watchman skewers isn't the figure of the superhero, but the trope of a noble, united and costumed elite which can always be trusted to behave ethically and effectively.  In that, it's a text which distrusts the myth of institutional power which ennobles and never corrupts, but it's also a book which celebrates the capacity of the individual to improve the lot of others. And so, the less powerful of Messrs Moore and Gibbons's costumed cast are still capable of rescuing folks from burning buildings and flattening even without trying every aspect of resistance which might be found in the prison to which Rorschach has been sent. And it's in these scenes, where the superheroes do what they can within the limits of their strength, that one of the key themes of Watchman is accentuated; we do what we can within the limits of our gifts and the constraints of the powers which we're subject to. In the context of this dose of intellectual if not physical realism, the reader is consistently shown just how thoroughly exciting such super-heroic escapades can be when the strengths of the sub-genre are played to rather than skated over. 

For although Watchmen may set limits on what might conceivably be achieved by small groups of only-just super-people, the likes of Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre are still impressively and endearingly powerful and able. Similarly, The Dark Knight Returns closes having in many ways merely replaced one strata of hyper-protagonists for another, with the local super-villains having been eliminated and Batman's army of super-people and costumed street-thugs gathering for an eventual assault upon Washington and Reagan's evil uncaring empire. The superhero narrative hasn't in any way been undermined here, so much as spruced up and mildly retooled for the future. Indeed, by incorporating decades-old criticisms of the superhero book, Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns do little but respond to contradictions discussed in the likes of Seduction Of The Innocent and Superduperman  in the 1950s. As far as radical reworkings of sub-genre forms and conventions are concerned, the duopoly's supposed assault upon the super-person narrative were minor, gentle and familiar. Only in a storytelling form which had remained impossibly resistant to change and self-awareness could such long-standing and essentially unchallenging innovations be viewed as revolutionary. Folks with superpowers couldn't be trusted to respect the rule of law? Superheroes might seek to control rather than serve the state? A mainstream audience would surely take such points as being entirely logical and sensible and necessary, and reject any narrative which ignored such commonsense truths and political engagement. Only a superhero obsessive bound to the least innovative conventions of the sub-genre would expect anything else.

It's not that I want to be thought to be ignoring those aspects of Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns which were undoubtedly radical and revitalising. I'll certainly be doubling back to discuss, for example, how the storytelling used in both comics draws upon both writerly and artist traditions which had been largely ignored in the superhero book up until that time. But it is that the duopoly's strength lies firstly, if certainly not entirely, in how the traditional virues of the sub-genre are attended to. This is particularly true where the politics of both comics are concerned. For rather than being a quantum leap forward in the form's maturity, the presence of an explicit and deliberate political sub-text in both books merely marks a reversion to the superhero's original and most appropriate form. For as we've discussed here  before, the superhero comic is by its very nature a discussion about the relationship between state power and individual responsibility. That's simply unavoidable, given that the sub-genre's stories are nearly always framed in the terms of  a debate about when it might be permissible to take power into one's own often-anonymous hands. 

And the very first superheroes, and many of their immediate pulp predecessors too, were keenly and explicitly concerned with social and political issues. To have Adrian Veidt attempting to direct international affairs through a fake alien invasion is only an extension of the first version of Superman's attempts to keep America out of over-seas wars by shutting down fiendish arms traders and slapping around foreign dictators. And to show The Batman taking arms against the state is little but a logical if hard-pushed extension of his early habit of throwing criminals off of the top of houses and skyscrapers rather than letting the rule of law attend to them. In this attention to politics, Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns weren't radicalising the sub-genre, although they were making it endlessly far more interesting to audiences from beyond those of the Rump. Rather, they were accepting the inarguable logic and strength of the superhero narrative, enhancing its broad appeal by being true to both its original and its essential nature.

It's in the figure of Rorscach that this process of returning the superhero book to its roots, to its essentially appropriate form, is most obvious. Unlike Mr Miller's Batman, who is consistently, and we must hope satirically, associated with the Great Man of History so beloved of fascists and their camp followers, Rorscach is clearly anything but a character who can ever be thought to be glorifying vigilantism and unrestrained violence. It's a mark of how little some of those associated with the Common Comics Culture understood their own sub-genre that the super-person book was immediately clogged with characters which aped Rorscach and yet presented their 'homages' in a largely if not wholly heroic light. In doing so, they once again mistook surface for substance, and lifted the least important aspects of Rorscach's appeal. None of these knock-offs ever succeeded in being as enthralling and as moving a figure as Walter Kovacs remains, and no increase in the degree of violence and angst associated with them can ever make these xeroxed killers any more appealing. For it is - of course - obvious that what makes Rorschach so counter-intuitively captivating and compelling is the politics which informs him as a character rather than the violence and loneliness which marks his everyday existence. Despite what so much of the C.C.C. choose to believe, it wasn't that he threatened elderly cancer victims or unempathetically broke suspect's fingers so deliberately which made most readers want to follow his character's arc. No, what makes him so sympathetic is that he clearly represents what a callous society can do to the most noble aspects of a young child's soul. 

That Rorschach is a critique of a depraved society may come as a shock to those members of the C.C.C. who believe that he and his kind exist to shame those superheroes too apparently fastidious not to torture and murder their opponents. Yet Rorschach is a clearly traumatised and mentally disordered victim of a culture which has abandoned its fundamental responsibilities to its own. In Walter Kovacs's blighted attempts to fulfil the most basic responsibilities of protecting his fellow citizens, we're presented with a portrait of an essentially decent human being who's been so damaged that he can only understand the world in the most basic and feral of terms. In standing as an example of the best of humanity debased by the worst of human social conditions, he, of course, utterly captivates us.

We associate with him not because we want to beat the scum of the earth into the earth, but because we recognise how the virtue in him has been curdled, and that inevitably raises the question of what it is that we may have suffered and/or participated in ourselves. To see Rorschach attempting to communicate gratitude to Nite-Owl, and barely managing to growl out the words, is to want to see a better world, is to be reminded again that what we are very much isn't simply a question of individual choice operating in a basically fair and nurturing social system. 

For, of course, super-heroes aren't ever the story. Super-heroes are a way of telling stories, and there are particular types of tales to which the superhero is uniquely well-suited. 

To be continued, when your blogger will attend to those undeniably radical aspects of both books which it might appear that he's so far chosen to ignore;