In which the blogger returns to the question of how reader-friendly the mainstream's super-books are, and asks how welcoming and entertaining are the first few pages of several recent comics;
Folks who dismiss the very idea of today's superhero books being anything other than market-pandering pap are going to have to explain away the excellence of the work of Mark Waid and his collaborators on this month's crossover between Daredevil and the Amazing Spider-Man. For The Devil And The Details Part 1 is a considerable pleasure even if, like me, your fondness for Spider-Man has been worn away over time by reboots and stunt marketing and the decision to make Peter Parker a rather unlikeable twenty-something nebbish rather than one of the world's unluckiest adolescents. (*1) Yet, whatever my reservations, Waid's work here is a wonder, as technically sound as it's heartfelt and involving. Any reader new to The Amazing Spider-Man with issue #677, for example, is going to have not the slightest problem getting up to speed with the spine of the relevant back-story before the second page is over. Even the text introduction, in the form of a Daily Bugle tabloid front-page, is so smartly constructed that it establishes not just the essential plot-points for what's to come, but the fundamental theme of romantic loss and gain that's at the core of these two issues.Whether it was put together by Waid himself or the editorial office is almost beside the point, for what most counts here is that everybody that's on the team is doing the job that's expected of them, and doing it well too.
*1:- The last is the decision of Spider-Man's regular writer Dan Slott, but the other far more alienating decisions weren't. My own tastes for the characterisation of Parker aside, I have a great deal of respect for Mr Slott's work on Spider-Man, as I've expressed on this blog before. To praise Mr Waid is not meant to be read as any criticism of Mr Slott at all.
The very first page of Emma Rios's art for Amazing Spider-Man #677 is an example of modern-era comics storytelling at its best, delivering the sense as well as the facts of Peter Parker's romantic woes in a way that's as funny as it's undoubtedly touching too. Life really does conspire to emphasise misery when a significant other's off being significant elsewhere, and the panels of Parker wandering past streets of embracing, loving couples and adoring breakfast-cereal families raise uncomfortable memories as well as painful chuckles for this reader. The scene-setting collaboration of writer and artist here is entirely successful, with Waid trusting to his colleague to show us Parker's misery without the need for any excess of internal monologue or unlikely soliloquy. "Where is Doctor Octopus when you need him?", Parker asks himself as he passes by a crowded-shop front bearing a sign declaring "Two for One", and that authentic mix of quippery and unhappiness grounds what's to come in character before the super-heroics arrive.
By establishing his intentions with that authentic Parker-esque tone that's part wisecrack and part despair, Waid has the reader snared, caring and page-turning before any skin-tight costume is to be seen. The temptation to kick off each half of this crossover with yet another spectacle of yet another superhero performing yet another superfeat is one which Waid conspicuously avoids. And so, even with a cliffhanger involving buried-alive super-people to resolve in Daredevil #8, Waid tellingly begins his second chapter with a costumeless and intriguing scene involving loyal Foggy Nelson at his most Dr Watson-esque and the grave of Matt Murdock's father. It's easy, after all, to skip over yet another moment of book-opening jeopardy through fisti-cuffs, but it's hard not to pay attention when the real hero of the book is resolutely investigating the matter of what might have happened to the body of Battlin' Jack Murdock.
Waid's super-people are always individuals before they're crime-fighters, and for all the fun of the roof-running and the holographic illusions, it's the moments of betrayal and sadness and self-deception which stay with the reader after the comics have been put away. Parker catching sight of his unValentine's Day becoming all the more desperately bleak, and declaring that "this is my super-villain origin"; Foggy Nelson's stoic dauntlessness in his search for the truth; Murdock's capacity to appear to be thinking clearly when he's also being driven by far less rational motivations; these are the moments that ensure that readers will return next month to Mr Waid's titles.
Waid works as successfully with the artist Kano in the concluding part of The Devil And The Details as he does with Rios in chapter 1. In fact, the creative team on Daredevil #8 manage to pull off the trick of producing a conclusion to their particular chapter which works perfectly well for the reader who's read nothing of the story's opening twenty pages. Both comics are triumphs, and they beg the question of why it is that Waid's achievements are matched by so few of his colleagues. Any fool can construct a comic-book out of shock and a mass of panel-shy money-shots, empty-hearted fireworks and event marketing. But it takes years if not decades of study and endless practise to ensure that a story such as The Devil And The Details appears to be an effortless as it is entirely satisfying. How inspiring it is, to be able to feel certain that Mark Waid's very best work is being done in the here and now, and that he's neither joined the ranks of the burnt up or the gently fading away.
It's worth noting what each of these comics don't contain. No sell-it-on-the-secondhand-market double-page spreads. No arbitrarily placed pin-ups. No hollow by-the-numbers spectacle. No obsession with a world of superheroes existing entirely separate from a more typically human one. No stroke-friendly objectification. No careless politics or ethical indulgences, no reliance on inter-textuality to add value to a third-rate story. No melodramatic excesses. No grittiness and grimness that doesn't come attached to a narrative powered also by compassion and wit. No read-it-in-a-minute stories, no mind-wearying sense of the terminally over-familiar, no witless collage of one dullheaded punch-up after another. No generic backgrounds, no I'm-getting-paid-to-doodle indulgences, no purposeless parade of horizontal panels.
Yet if I were compelled by conscience to mention any limitations of the work, then I might suggest that Amazing Spider-Man #677 contains one side-consuming, plot-light action shot too many for a book of so relatively few pages, and that it also isn't precisely clear in a single panel why the camera of an amateur paparazzi has slipped from his hands when faced with the Black Cat's hyper-lucky powers. In other words, both parts of The Devil & The Details are remarkably well-wrought comicbooks, with their opening, reader-grabbing sequences standing as textbook examples of the craft.
All pop art traditions are eventually replaced by what seem to be more attractive, and usually more energetic, storytelling forms. But there always comes a time when the core values of what once seemed staid and gravebound begin to seem revolutionary in themselves once again. For all that the creators of The Devil & The Detail have been smartly influenced by the kineticism of what's happened in comics storytelling since the high summer of Image Comics, their work here is fundamentally rooted in the traditional values of clarity and density, emotion and cleverness. In pushing aside the degeneration of the superhero book into thin parodies of the once-innovations of the "widescreen" and "deconstruction", Waid and his colleagues have succeeded in embarrassing the efforts of so many editors and creators who've rejected the hard work for the easy effects, and who've succeeded only in generating their own pay checks while running the sub-genre into and almost under the ground.
Next: DC's Bird Of Prey # 5.