Friday, 27 January 2012

On "Birds Of Prey" #5

In which the blogger continues a discussion - begun here - of how reader-friendly and rewarding a random selection of the mainstream's super-books are;


        
This month's Spider-Man/Daredevil team-up by Mark Waid and his colleagues succeeds in being as neophyte-friendly as it's entertaining and touching. By contrast, Birds Of Prey #5 is an enervating, emotionally-flat indulgence of dismally underpowered storytelling. Swierczynski, Saiz and Pina's Chokepoint reminds me of nothing so much as the time I drove through and out of a Northamptonshire country town before I realised that I'd arrived at my destination. It's surely telling that Birds of Prey #5 brought to mind an entirely wasted journey to a job interview best avoided long before it made me think of any other comic-book.

              
The very first page of Chokepoint, for example, is entirely lacking in either emotional intensity or physical jeopardy. It's almost comical how the scene that's been chosen to lead the story off and, presumably, snare the uncommitted reader should be so absolutely uninvolving. This being a book for which the label "deconstructed" would suggest far too high a level of complexity and content, the first page consists of three panels in which a group of four super-women stand calmly in a road and discuss being somewhat confused. There's nothing of pace, insight or tension here. The fact that one character's hand should be broken and yet somehow isn't is approached with all the intensity of a discussion concerning the virtues of semi-skinned and entirely-skimmed milk. The setting is ill-observed and utterly mundane, the characters could be described as generic if there was enough on the page to indicate any character at all, and it all reads as if somebody had decided to produce the world's least enticing first page teaser. 




But turn the page and far worse awaits, as the reader's faced with one of the most unnecessary, uninformative and uninteresting double-page splashes in the history of the superhero comic-book. In that, the ennui-inspiring opening three panels really do succeed in setting the tone for the comic's remaining 19 wearisome pages. It's a desperately worrying business to wonder what principles of storytelling, let alone value-for-money, were guiding Mr Swierczynski when he sketched out the form and content of pages 2 and 3, for all that happens is that the Birds of Prey suddenly find a group of armed men appearing to one side of them. It's a business which could surely have been shown in a single panel, and yet here two sides are taken up with a scene which carries little of either surprise or jeopardy. Instead, the double-splash manages to create confusion rather than summoning up the slightest tension. Who these men are and anything specific of their purpose goes unmentioned. The reader might assume that these never-to-be-explained "Cleaners", as we later discover they're known, are attacking the Birds of Prey, but it's not even clear that that's precisely what's happening. Yes, there's two sound-effects that seems to indicate gun-shots, but there's only one character who might possibly be firing his weapon, and he seems to be aiming well to the left of his targets.
            
The bottom half of page 2. It's notable that this adds nothing at all to the reader's knowledge or enjoyment of the scene. There is quite simply no information or spectacle present here, unless the reader is thrilled by a super-villain's skin-tight costume. Given how little these pages do tell us, the fact that the equivalent of 50% of them is wasted on doing nothing at all would surely be off-putting, to say the least, for the uncommitted reader.
        
Elsewhere, many of the men who can be seen aren't even looking at the Black Canary and her allies, staring as they are in a variety of directions for no obvious reason at all. Where they've sprang from, we're not told, and indeed we're never informed of how they manage to achieve that trick in the remainder of the comic. (If they're teleporters, why aren't the Birds of Prey always uneasy about the possibility of being surprised? If they're not, how did they get there?) Even the question of how the vast spaces of the street in which they appear relate to the relatively confined area described vaguely in the very first panel of the story isn't explained either. These aren't page-turning enigmas, they're confusions, and yet, even if we include the title of the piece in the word-count for the two pages, there's just six words of story-content present. Even the most passionate supporter of content-free storytelling would surely accept that there's been, shall we say, opportunities missed when it comes to the matters of clarity and excitement.
    
Again, the bottom half of page 3. As with the preceeding side, 50% of what's here contributes nothing at all to the meaning or the storytelling content of the side. The reader is assumed, it seems, to simply be fascinated by young super-women in body-hugging clothes.
   
The fault ultimately has to lie in an editorial culture which has convinced itself that such space-swallowing indulgences are entertaining in themselves. But surely nothing is entertaining in itself when it constitutes 10% of a $2.99 book and stands as being both profoundly visually dull and almost entirely lacking in content? What's most odd about this sorry process is that the creators and editors involved in Birds Of Prey #5 appear to have internalised one particular model of storytelling and yet failed to grasp that a method designed to project shock and awe rather than story and content has to actually focus on spectacle at all costs. In these pages, the logic of widescreen deconstructionism is taken to an absurd extreme while much of the point of such is entirely ignored. What can possibly be eye-catching and thrilling about these pages, which are as still and as dull as they're absent of the slightest cleverness or emotion? "The Birds are surrounded by armed bad -guys. A few guns may be being fired" is barely enough plot to weave a single little frame from, and yet such pose'n'piffle storytelling is extremely common in today's books. The only conclusion to be reached is that this is a style of comics which a significant number of DC's as well as Marvel's editorial staff don't simply tolerate, but actively encourage.
       
Here we have two-thirds of page 18 of this book. Two thirds of a page filled largely by a shot of a woman standing quite still beneath some girders. Fantastic.
        

Perhaps the very finest of widescreen-friendly artists might have been able to make something compelling out of Swierczynski's script, but even then, its double-page non-event of a story-opener would have been little but a cheat of an flaccid offering. These unhelpful first few pages pages could've been dumped and hardly anything about the story would have been lost. There's surely no more damning comment to be made. That Saiz and Pina were unable to even raise the angle of the panel so that we might actually see the super-women being surrounded and threatened in a more exciting fashion is a sign of either an astonishingly rushed job or a worrying lack of ambition and/or skill. But in the end, who can justify burning up so much space with so little worth? It's certainly alot easier to present such a confection than to really apply oneself to the responsibilities of ensuring that the consumer's money is well spent, but why would any editorial office encourage such audience-alienating practises? Did nobody notice, for example, that that double-page's worth of confusion and space-wasting was being produced in such a static and baffling fashion? We do, after all, live in an era where an artist can send their layouts instantaneously to head office, where the experts who enable the creation of a comic can advise on how to improve a page before it's ever completed.


How little story and value-for-money extras can be included in one single side?
           
This farce without laughter or even momentum continues without a noteworthy improvement in quality for the remainder of its pages. We're evidently supposed to be touched by a scene between Starling and a woman who has apparently asked her to stay away, but since we know nothing of who either is or their relationship, it's impossible to care. The Black Canary discovers that her team has been fighting the wrong people all the time, and goes on to discuss exploding men and sleeper agents and I haven't the faintest what's going on. Apparently there's a mastermind antagonist behind all this confusion, but since this "Choke" has barely even been mentioned until page 17, it's a revelation that's of no use to the reader at all. Yes, the super-villain of the piece is referenced in just four sentences in three seperate panels. In the first, we're told nothing more than the fact that the Birds Of Prey have once fought on his "secret floor", whatever that might mean. In the second, Ivy refers to "this so-called Choke's lair". And then we're told with three pages to go that all the troubles in this comic are down to said bad guy. A vitally important figure, it seems, and yet one that's almost totally absent from the book. Should the reader have never picked up anything from this run of Birds Of Prey before, pretty much everything about "Choke", from his appearance onwards, will remain a mystery after Chokepoint has concluded.

Just one of an endless parade of good examples which might have inspired a far more interesting & exciting double-page splash for Birds of Prey #5. (A wonderful composition by Kirby & Ayers, image courtesy of GCD.)
       
Yet it can't be said that the creators and editors here lacked space to elbow in any more information. There are far more pages than just the first three in which quite literally nothing beyond one or two simple plot-points are delivered. The five panels of page 13, for example, show us a man approaching Poison Ivy as she rests, half-buried in the ground, in what appears to be park-land. (We're not told where she is, of course.) That is quite literally all that happens that furthers the plot there. The following page tells us nothing extra across 6 frames beyond the facts that (1) Ivy has infiltrated the Birds of Prey for him and (2) he's given her a mysterious suitcase with a green-glowing interior. The contents and purpose of this suitcase are supposed to serve as an enigma, but there's little point in trying to interest a reader about such a MacGuffin's contents when there's been no storytelling of any weight, wit or momentum beforehand to make us care.

               
If Mark Waid's work is hardly typical of many modern-era comics, then Birds Of Prey is sadly just the opposite. For here we have yet another comic that's marked by the most insubstantial and complacent of storytelling. It would be shocking if it wasn't so typical of a mass of second and third division books, though at least the interests of the new reader haven't been put substantially below those of the book's existing fans. For everybody's been short-changed by both the form and content, or rather the lack of each, in Birds of Prey #5.

My advice is to keep Chokepoint well away from any comic that you suspect stands as an example of superior storytelling. Gawd knows what will happen if the two books touch .After all, we're well aware from what we've read of comicbook science of what might happen should any two entirely antithetical objects ever even brush against each other.

I can't speak poorly enough of Birds Of Prey, and yet the comic's so very poor that the temptation is to try. Best to move on, then.


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28 comments:

  1. You can say what you want about Chuck Dixon, but compared to this his BoP was a rolercoaster.

    Canary´s new costume is of course so much better than the last one. Seems any wetsuit will do. At least (some) people can stop whining about the stockings. It is kind of sad. I am the right customer for Saiz´ art, but this looks so boring and the writing so uninteresting that I am not interested in buying this.

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  2. The pacing of this style is so...non-comic-book. It's television-drama paced. Is it that modern creators are embarrassed by the more comic-bookish tools of the medium, like heavy compression and thought balloons, or is it "television envy," or is it just that they're emulating the stuff they like from TV in their comics?

    Swierczynski is a novelist. Maybe his approach to pacing is too rooted in prose? I dunno. His run on The Immortal Iron Fist was decently paced, though he was following the example set for him by Brubaker and Fraction, and now he's starting fairly fresh.

    The art selections you provide indicate that the artist is far more interested in portraying pretty women than in telling an exciting story. Couple the "Hooray for Boobies" art school with a TV-drama-paced script, and yeah, this is what happens.

    Some odd choices. Take the first page. The Dutch angle on the third panel is meant to evoke a sense of unease. In a strange way, a good idea by the artist, since we're supposed to get a sense of "everything starts out fine but proves to be weird." But the characters in the panel don't reflect any unease, so the effect is confused.

    Also, if you're setting up a "everything's fine, wait what happened, that's weird, everybody talk, oh crap" page to set up a double-page splash, why the hell don't you use more panels? An old-school six-panel grid would fit nicely. The six-grid would imply a ho-hum pacing; you could work in more dialogue; you could more effectively build up to the Big Splash of Men With Guns on the next page because the contrast between pages would be sharper; and the reader would see the six-page grid and know that it's a preface to Big Action. (Also, if you're feeling your oats, maybe you could gradually Dutch the angle over two or three panels, so that the unease increases slowly.) A Bendis-banter page would actually work better here, provided it ratcheted up the tension as it went.

    This comic isn't being constructed as an individual unit of entertainment. It's ten minutes of an hour-long show on teevee. Plus breasts.

    It's odd that this is the preferred style right now. In dead honesty, I don't get its appeal. Can anyone explain why I'm supposed to like this stuff? This is not a snarky question; I mean it.

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  3. Hello Andy:- Well, I wouldn't say anything unkind about Chuck Dixon's writing at all. The work of his that I've read seemed to me to typically competent and in places, such as the Zero Hour Batman issues, genuinely touching. His politics aren't mine, but the world would be a pathetically dull place if all we ever read was work by folks who we agreed with. And yes, the Birds Of Prey by both CD and Gail Simone were so far ahead of this that it hurts to try and imagine the distance between them and this issue.

    I know little of Saiz's art. I suspect he's an able artist from the clean lines and often Chaykin-esque faces. But this book is done with so little imagination. Lots of mid-shots and close-ups. Little energy invested in interesting angles and foreshortening. I suppose BOP #5 was all a rush. Yet, it isn't any different in a great deal of its storytelling norms to so many other books.

    Similarly, DS's obviously an extremely able writer. He's a well-respected novelist as well as a comics scripter of course. For my taste, it's just a mystery why he's gone for the low-content model of storytelling.

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  4. Hello colin,

    you are right, DS is a fine novelist. I read one of his crime novels, and while it wasn´t that good as the reviews hyped, it was not bad either.

    But so many good novelists are rather mediocre comic writers. The list of good, accomplished writers failing in comics is a long one. It seems to be so easy to write good dialogue, to not ape the melodramatic purple prose of everyone from Roy Thomas to Marv Wolfman, but it is apples and oranges compared to novels. It is another medium with its own laws. Novelists tend to overwrite their material in a way which can put the worst excess of say, 80s Marvel, to shame. Compare for instance a good (not on autopilot written) Garth Ennis book with its lean to the point writing with anything by Brad Meltzer for instance. This is quite interesting.

    Of course if the plot sucks also you can´t win :-)

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  5. Colin SmithJan 27, 2012 09:43 AM

    Hello Harvey:- You're right, this isn't comic-book scripting at all. It's the dreaded storyboard style which you and I have discussed before, in which the artists are given all the work to do, which is a shame, because most artists need far more than this to be able to shine. I too thought that this was often comics reduced to the level of the various shots needed to describe the events in a particular scene. Why a writer as able as DS should be doing this is beyond me, but it simply doesn't work for any beyond that niche of a Rump left for the BOP.

    There is a degree of not-Greg-Land cheesecakism here, though I fear it might just be that's just how the artists depict women; ie; it's not a slight toning down of objectivisation so much as the way that women are portrayed by the art team anyway. The body types on display are so wearisomely familiar, so similar and so supposedly perfect.

    I actually cut a section out on that last panel of the first page. I'd not made your point about the askew angle - nice one! mea culpe - but I did discuss the fact that the enigma associated with that page-turner is incredibly weak. Also, the word balloons are all thrust over to the left of the page, meaning the last thing that the reader sees is actually the tattooed arm of Starling. Why that should compel a page to be turned I don't know.

    Oh, I'm so with you on using more panels! And, as always, I find your suggestion entirely convincing. But how can that double-page splash even exist? How can a group of creators and editors think that even the concept of that is value for money and interesting? An absolutely brilliant artist might have made it work; Adams or Kirby at their peak, but even then, why not tell a story?

    Plus breasts. Head in hands. And I wonder how those art choices went across the book's two female editors? After all, that terrible, terrible cover is just a typical Finch bodge-job of improbable anatomy and dodgy anatomy. Plus breasts.

    And the shame is, despite the art crimes of certain shan't-be-mentioned-here pencillers and inkers, Birds Of Prey has often been a book which stood against the sexism of the industry. There's nothing in DS's script that I can recall that's at all worrying. Not at all. But the art ....

    As for the storyboard/widescreen method and who it appeals to? I wish I knew. Done well, it's an approach that has real virtue; The Authority, Ultimates etc. But that's for particular types of stories for specific audiences, and the method only works when there's an artist as brilliant as Brian Hitch at work.

    Strange how few folks seem to notice that.

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  6. Hello Andy:- Yes, I agree with you about DS, and one of the worst things about a bad review is that it can seem to be attacking a creators talent rather than their choices at a particular moment. So thank you for helping accentuate DS's achievements.

    I'm completely with you when it comes to emphasising that comics storytelling is as complex and demanding as any storytelling form, and it's certainly not just a form of TV writing or whatever the current fashion is. And it is a stretch to think of writers from other mediums who've really nailed comics. Allan Heinberg, certainly, and then the list starts to run dry. I've yet to give Joe Hill's comics a proper go, though I know his short stories. Oh, I know I'll think of a dozen successes when I publish this, but my brain is seized up.

    It would make a good blog, though; writers who've first made it in other mediums who sparkled in comics right from the off. Time for some list-making ...

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    1. I know I've said it before, but Axe Cop, Axe Cop, Axe Cop. There is more plot per page, hell, more plot per panel than in that entire book, from your description. Six year old kid tells the story, his 30-year old brother draws it, and while the plots usually don't make much sense, they're fun and hilarious and exciting. And it's all on the interwebs: http://axecop.com/index.php/acepisodes/

      As I mentioned last week, I also got the Essential FF#1, Cap America #1, and X-Men #2. Haven't read the X-Men, but the first Captain America story is great! It establishes a bunch of things off the bat: that Cap is a great soldier, he's already old and wistful and misses his buddy Bucky, he's an Avenger, and a team of baddies can't take him down. And it doesn't even actually tell his origin story! The art is amazingly kinetic and fun. And Jarvis is pretty hilarious - when the baddies kidnap him to ask who's watching Avengers Mansion tonight, he tells them they could've just called. It even establishes that Iron Man's on the team, and who Iron Man is, through the device of having one of the baddies all armored up and Cap telling him "it'll take more than armor to make you as good as Iron Man!"

      I also wanted to mention that this establishing of his character makes the later frozen-in-time thing work perfectly, as his personality seemingly has always been kind of old and wistful.

      I know none of this is super relevant to the comic at hand, except to say that that comic seems to be everything this one is not.

      (I didn't get quite as much of a thrill from FF#1, I gotta say. I like some aspects of it, and it's cool to read in context of the issue you reviewed months ago, in which Reed explains his true motivations behind the formation of the team. But for some reason it just didn't grab me the way Cap did.)

      And I also read some Chuck Dixon BoP recently, and I gotta say, I really liked it! The relationship between Oracle and Canary was built really organically, and it was consistently engaging and fun, and I really couldn't wait to read more. I like the idea of them going after somewhat more real-world problems too, and discussing the validity of doing so - somehow, it made far more sense for them to be doing that than the Justice League in the McDuffie books, which seemed to be full of allegories about intervention in other cultures without ever quite hitting the mark for me.

      I actually might go so far as to say I liked Dixon's BoP more than Simone's. Maybe I just haven't read enough of hers to really get into it, but there seemed to be a little more backstory I didn't know there.

      I know Dixon's political beliefs can be a bit out there, but as a comics writer, he's great, and I'm grateful for his BoP books, as well as all his Bat-books.

      I have to say, just from reading the excerpts, I kind of like that first page. The narration box at the bottom seems suitably mysterious, and the "jumped a chapter" line works for me. I'll admit, that first page might hook me. But what follows seems to be somewhat of a letdown. I'm guessing they don't even explain why Starling was punching Canary if they're on the same damn team?

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  7. Hello Historyman:- OK. I've followed your link and I've consumed some Axe Cop and, yes, like everyone says, it's splendid. More consuming will occur.

    I agree with you that's a great deal that's charming about Cap's first few years in the MU. Sadly, that misery became such a reccuring feature that the character - for me - sank into a pit - a pit! I say - of despair, but if you ever get a chance to read the Steve Englehart issues; there are a few bumps along the way, but his issues are rather fine indeed. He takes that old and wistful air you describe and makes Cap fascinating because of it.

    The FF is a comic from 'before' the Marvel revolution became codified, so I can understand why it doesn't appeal as much. It lacks the humour and wackiness of the best of Marvel's High Sixties Summer, and it must be hard to see why it's so well regarded in retrospect. It's certainly hard to replicate the sense of shock that apparently accompanied the very idea of a team of protagonists who didn't get on, though at the time it was a very big deal indeed. There's a big one-panel-a-page hardback by Walter Mosley which discusses the effect of the comic; if your library can get hold of that, I'd suspect that that would be a good 'in'.

    I worry about the tendency to decry the work of writers for their politics. I certainly draw the line in judging work by Dixon according to his public statements when the work itself often displays no aspects of that all. And I agree with you, as I believe that I said above, about what I've read of his BOP. I've not been able to read a great deal of GS's BOP either, but I'm generally just more comfortable with her style. Still, BOP strikes me as one of those books which ought to reprinted in great thick b'n'white omnibuses. Then we could afford them and know which versions we prefer and why.

    Horses for courses on that first page. That's always the rule. I think my ego can cope with our disagreeing. You're right that Starling does seem in the reduced scan to be aiming a fist at the Canary. That story might have been far more interesting.

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    1. Ha, it does seem like she's aiming at Canary, but I meant more the part where Ivy tells Starling she broke it from punching her. Does any of that come into explanation?

      You're right, now that you mention it, there is a lot of personal dynamics in the FF issue. I also liked how the Thing's introduction in many ways seemed to be setting him up more as a monster, and possibly even a villain, than a hero. In fact, it's pretty ridiculous all around how much havoc and chaos our heroes create in their rush to get to Reed after he shoots up the 4-signal. Seriously, does Johnny Storm have to burn a hole in the roof of the car? Does Sue have to turn invisible at that moment and rush out of the store? Does the Thing have to bash through the doorway of the clothing store, when he clearly got in there just fine, and then destroy parts of the sewer system, all to get to Reed's shocking revelation about... a power plant in Russia disappearing? I'm not sure if it's intentionally being played wacky/strangely or not, but it is silly.

      The Marvel summer- when was that? Because from the publication dates in the books, it seems that FF and Cap were both started in the early-to-mid sixties.

      I'll see if I can find that Mosley book, it seems interesting.

      And yeah, well that's the problem with having a character whose main characteristic is that he's somewhat over the hill - in the first Rocky movie, he's already too old for people to expect him to be able to fight effectively, so when you get to II, III, IV, it just becomes more and more ridiculous that he's got anything even close to a chance.

      Those black and white omnibuses kind of intimidate me. It's nice to have the whole story in one place, instead of having to assemble 16 razor-thin hardcovers in order, but I look at my Essential Cap and just see the two weeks I've got it out of the library ticking away. I think I've accepted that I won't finish it, but still it gives me some unreasonable anxiety.

      Speaking of those omnibuses, I read some of the Metamorpho one a little while ago, and that's great, actually! I love the dynamic at play, each character is very well defined, with their motivations perfectly spelled out. Metamorpho wants to become a normal human, and only works for evil tycoon Simon Stagg because he says he'll fix it, whereas Stagg is never intending to try to cure him and wants only to exploit him. Stagg's daughter Sapphire loves Metamorpho just the way he is, but he can't see that. And Stagg's caveman bodyguard, Java, is constantly conniving to destroy Metamorpho so that Sapphire will love him, and sabotages every expedition for that purpose.
      With characters like that, it's kept consistently entertaining, and the stories have a great pulp adventure vibe, more like Tintin than superhero comics. I only got through about a third of the omnibus, but I dug it.

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    2. Hello Historyman:- I don't have the issue at hand, but unreliable memory tells me that we weren't given an explanation. But there's so little that is explained, and then there's also aspects of the story which appear extraneous; for example, I've no idea why Batgirl is in the story. She doesn't seem to contribute in any significant way, her behaviour doesn't seem consistent ... odd, I'd say.

      The FF's behaviour in the first story is justified by the supposed seriousness of the menace by Mr Fantastic's signal and the lack of cooperation which the various members might expect from the city's authorities. Yet it is an example of how spectacle has always tended to outrun logic in the superhero book, and I'm not saying that's by its nature a bad thing. How technology has developed since then. What if that signal went up and one or more of the members were asleep, or on the subway?

      My definition of Marvel High Summer has the company's decline dating from Ditko's leaving in '65, and it's a process which becomes marked in '68, which was always the year which sages such as Alan Moore gave for the moment when the company seemed to abandon its relatively radical beginnings. Yet there's a second summer of love from around late 73 to late 76 too, when there's so much excellance and weirdness going on in the company's books. The only other period of widespread excellance and promise I can think of was for the few years following 2000. Beyond that, in my own highly dubious opinion, Marvel has been carried by a few examples of excellance rather than a culture of excellance and excitement.

      It's true that the phonebooks can soak up a great deal of time. But I do enjoy seeing how storytelling developed over a specific period, as well as dropping into a period which is marked by fine stories.

      Metamorpho was a Pop art wonder. Silly, smart, entirely enjoyable. It was DC's attempt in many ways at a High Summer Marvel book and in getting it wrong, they created a lovely little daft book. That Showcase is well worth getting, isn't it? Absurd stories by Haney, wonderful art my Fradon. In retrospect, there were few Marvel books of the time which could claim to be as energetic and enjoyable.

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  8. I liked #1 quite a bit, because it was a thing that moved, accelerating forward with each page, and had slick, clean art. Then it got stuck in neutral. We're five issues in and still the plot hasn't really kicked in. I don't mind a comic without exposition-- in fact, I adore it-- but it needs some more momentum.

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  9. Your songs of praise are always enjoyable, Colin, but nothing is quite as much fun as one of your despairing dissections. The only problem is, you make me want to read the issues in question quite badly (also known as the 'Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose' effect). Try to make these indictments less entertaining!

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  10. Hello Bill:- I always struggle with this style of storytelling, so the first issue wasn't too enjoyable an experience for me. Actually, I'm talking rubbish. There's no style that I'm alienated by. But this is an approach which it's so easy to screw up. You're right that such stories require momentum, and I'd add invention and a visual fascination too,. If done well - such as the usual suspects like the Authority from '99 - then who can argue? But done badly, as here, it sinks a comic. As for exposition, I'm happy for a skilled creative team to construct a story which doesn't require it, or where the art carries a great deal of the telling. But too often a story is presented which does require explaining at the same time as the method at hand makes that impossible. The assumption that this WD method can handle any type of narrative at all is probably at the heart of a great many modern comic's ills. There's alot that can't be done in this fashion, and yet folks keep assumming that a double-page splash and a few shocking moments will somehow carry a plot which can't be carried solely, or even mostly, by the visuals. And of course it all reflects a mindset that presumes that such things as double-splashes are virtuous in themselves regardless of what they're showing.

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  11. Hello Tordelback:- "Witch Of The Black Rose Effect"? That strikes me as a perfect name for a blog which prints only bad reviews! When TooBusyThinking comes to a close, I might borrow that idea for an occasional blog that simply lets me vent:)

    I hope that these pieces do make folks curious about the original comics. It's always my ambition - no matter how much that's wishful thinking - to write a stinker of a review and have the kind reader who's popped in think "I must read that". I'd really like that to be so.

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  12. Hello Colin,

    All sad but true. Now that we're a few issues into the "New 52", I'm finding that one of the biggest problems seems to be the overall pacing. While some of the better Marvel offerings (Daredevil, Wolverine and the X-Men) are moving toward shorter stories of 2-3 issues, the new DC books are all creeping along at a glacial pace, and at this point I'm not even sure they're aiming to wrap the stories up in six issues. That's asking a lot of the reader's patience!

    What's more, their main concession to the serial format seems to be that they try to end every issue on some kind of "cliffhanger," typically the introduction of a new character or the meeting of some established ones. From a practical standpoint, this often means 19 pages of stalling before you get to the cliffhanger page where the plot actually advances. (For example, I recall Superman showing up on the last page of Supergirl's first issue, and then they fight and argue for the entire second issue before the next event happens on the last page of *that* issue.)

    There are plenty of problems with the basic craft of telling a visual story in an interesting way, as you've illustrated here. But it's the tyranny of that page 20 pseudo-cliffhanger that's really been making me pound my head on the table as I read these books.

    All the best,

    -- Mark

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  13. Hello Mark- It is indeed asking a great deal of our patience, and the structural choices which mark so many of the DC books are the reason why I was so worried about the New 52 as a whole when it began. It seemed unlikely to me that the storytelling in issue 1 would be different from that further down the line, and indeed most comics see a structure remaining in place while the intensity and novelty that can be brought to it diminishes over time. Though it wasn't a popular view, I felt extremely concerned that we'd end up exactly where we are, because that was the logic of what was being done. You've summed up the situation perfectly in your always-succinct fashion. That concentration on surprising the reader - or trying to - and cliffhangers was worryingly to the fore in DC's publicity for the first few months. Those interviews at the back of the comics with the question "How will you shock your readers?" was for me the single most worrying alarm bell. It showed the mentality of at least a part of the editorial staff and the rules that were being passed down to creators. (Not all creators. Some folks like Paul Cornell have emphasised how much freedom they had. But as a host of stories from Static Shock's creators onwards have relieved, and as the stories mostly always indicated, there were norms in place - cultural or directly mandated - which placed spectacle before substance. Those first few months of severed arms and skinned faces; well the Rump and the recently-deRumped will buy into that for awhile, but most folks will quickly find their buying choices being reduced to very few books indeed. The generic double page spread of Krypton exploding in Action recently was a nail in the coffin for me. The art just didn't deserve to be taking up so much space. It was unremarkable visually and empty in story-terms beyond the single beat. And nobody thought to say "Let's do something that really rewards the reader here."

    What's astonishing is that most titles are actually functioning according to what's essentially an Image Comics model from the early to mid Nineties. The hierarchy at DC can make all the promo flim-flam they like about rewarding daring and attaining excellence. It's thin gruel for the most part, and it's a real shame.

    There was a real charge about the new 52. It was indeed a pleasure, as I believe you said, to want to go to comic shops and check out what's there. But the storytelling isn't often there on the page, and when that happens month after month, heads are, as you say, pounded on tables. Because we actually want to buy into this stuff, and it's hard to grasp why such dysfunctional methods are being used.

    All the best to you, Mr M. I hope the world is going well for you, table-pounding aside :)

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  14. I'm sure they'll put "it all reads as if somebody had decided to produce the world's least enticing first page teaser" on the cover of the trade edition.

    Great work, with images to prove your case.

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  15. Hello Julian:- Yep, I was shooting for being the big fan quote on the collected version. After all I've done for the comics business, it's the least they could do ...

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  16. Hi Colin, excellent points all. I've been trying very hard to like this comic, as an old BoP fan, but this last issue I considered my jumping-off point. I, too, was confused when someone called Choke is referenced out of the blue. Then there's the stupidity of Black Canary telling her colleagues, amid an apparently intense case, to take a day off. And the casual way in which heroes committing murder is approached.

    Going back to Mark Waid, I do hope DC Comics brings him in on a freelance basis (a la Denny O'Neil) to train up some of the younger editors. As an editor-turned-writer of quality, he'd do anyone who listened a world of good.

    For now, it's bye bye birdies.

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    1. Hello Martin:- Boy, I've just noticed that there's a direct reply option on my own blog? That would be my not noticing the option for about three weeks since I changed the layout? For shame.

      I'm relieved that we agree on this, because I am a firm old fashioned believer in the idea that the point where 2 generally different critical approaches coincide tends to be worth paying attention to. And if you and I have a similar response to a comic, then I feel alot more confident about my position. I'd certainly think that DC ought to have spotted that things aren't working here, but I've been reading some interviews with folks associated with BOP and they either haven't spotted the problems or they don't know better than to keep their mouths shut. It never helps to say a book is great when it isn't, so either they can't see it or they don't know how such pronouncements can hurt the public's faith in a company. Either way, the New 52's hype is beginning to come back and bite a great many of the books - if I may put it so - in a fleshy, sensitive area.

      I find it terrifying that there are very senior players who appear not to grasp the essentials, the absolute basics. The Emperor's new clothes - of the past eight or so years - are now so taken-for-granted that a great many folks are proud to be walking around naked themselves while praising each other's good judgement in doing the same. There are very few folks who seem to really know what they're doing. Many of them are British, which speaks well for the tradition of short chapters and disciplined storytelling which flourishes more over here. But if I had the bucks and the opportunity, I'd be moving the earth to have Mark Waid as an editorial advisor at the very least. As you suggest, he'd be wonderfully useful. After all, he was capable of inspiring great work as such even at the beginning of his career a la Secret Origins.

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  17. Hi Colin, don't feel bad about missing that direct reply button. It's been around only about three weeks, and been knackered most of that time. It seems to be OK right now ...

    I wonder if we shouldn't bring this piece to DC's attention, get one of the higher-ups to read it, and perhaps respond. Hey, if they get a better comic by tweaking, they get better sales.

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    1. Hello Martin:- Thank you for your kind words about my habit of even late adopting 'reply' buttons :) I am gratified that I wasn't quite as late as I thought.

      They say that DC are anxiously monitoring the blogosphere and paying attention to what's written. I'm torn between thinking that's a fine democratic thing and worryingly close to an abdication of responsibility. But I do think it's telling that you added several excellent points to my rambles-worth of them, and those things aren't a matter of taste; they're bog-standard technical issues of sense and construction. I've no bone to pick, as we've been discussing, with the Spider-Man books despite them not being entirely to my taste because they're clearly technically able. But these many books which pass for muster when they're clearly not; that worries me, because such a self-deluding culture will kill books stone-dead. When fine creators and editors internalise clearly dysfunctional principles, the industry's in even more trouble than circumstances would suggest.

      But then, I'm just an old whipper-snapper ...

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  18. I rather like the idea that DC is paying attention to bloggers, given they're not soliciting mail at the moment. So long as they're not making big decisions according to our tastes ... I may not like a particular comic but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be out there.

    But if they're making tiny tweaks, great. I can't be the only one who whined relentlessly about Godiva's characterisation and here she is in the latest issue, #6, much improved. I don't fool myself that there's necessarily a link - writer Dan Jurgens is smart enough to layer his characters gradually - but I do like the notion!

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    1. Hello Martin:- You've really got me thinking about this matter. I didn't know that DC had stopped soliciting mail, which is a shame. It hadn't occured to me before, but one problem with the net is that it's full of the folks who haven't given up on comics, who aren't by the very fact of the mainstream comic's typical content well outside the audience for the books. In short, the bloggers who the industry should be listening to aren't bologging because they're not reading in the first place. Still, as long as folks are, as you say, listening rather than following, then I'd love to hear what DC pays attention to and how they do so. It would be fascinating to know.

      I noted that you thought the "other" Justice League had steeped up to the plate. I'm glad to hear it and it does make me curious to see how it's developed. By the same token, the book was incredibly ordinary, which again raises the issue of what were the editors thinking of?

      If DC is going to listen to anybody, I vote it should be you. Are we getting a vote too? I'd enjoy seeing the results of that!

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  19. Hmm, I may have given the wrong impression. I expect DC is still happy to receive reader mail, but since they pulled the lettercols for New 52 advertising bumph they've ceased asking for letters.

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    1. Hello Martin:- Thanks for the clarification. I always think that a lack of reader's letters is a bad idea m'self. I can recall how important the letters pages in creating a sense that comics were a phenomena worth getting involved in, and their absence is a genuine shame.

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  20. No wonder Dan Dido hated 52. Too many words! Too much content!

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    1. Hello Andrew:- Yep, the war on content is going to be the end of super-people comics even as a niche market product. Not having been in love with 52 when I first read, I recently returned and was so pleased to see stories with, yes, content.

      Shocking, really.

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