Monday, 5 March 2012

On Justice League #6, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, & The Authority vol: 1


 

First, the maths. Of the 23 pages in Justice League # 6, five are taken up by full-page splashes and four by two-sided spreads, meaning that 39% of the issue is taken up by what are effectively story-light pin-ups. Of course, that doesn't mean that the unimaginatively titled Justice League Part Six is doomed by that statistic to be anything other than a masterpiece. The ranks of the super-book's very best comics contain a host of splash-heavy, fight-centric issues. The first Amazing Spider-Man Annual, for example, from March 1963, contained what was then a shocking 6 single-panel pages, with none of them serving as chapter-openers, as was then the custom. But then, The Sinister Six also contained 35 other story-sides which each featured an average of 6 panels of peak-era, if occasionally sketchily-finished, Steve Ditko art matched with the best of Stan Lee's soap-operatic hipsterisms. With the comic already crammed with good-humoured cameo appearances by all of Marvel's other early-sixties headlining superheroes, and with pretty much all of Peter Parker's supporting cast and rogue's gallery on display as well, the then-untypical series of splash pages, totalling just 15% of the book's story-content, supplemented an already incident-dense and smart-minded tale with an eye-catching measure of novelty. Nothing so extravagant and little as powerful had ever appeared in a Marvel Comic before, and the sheer surprise of the annual's tradition-breaking contents counted for a great deal. Ditko's beautifully composed shots of Spider-Man facing down each of the Sinister Six in their turn presented the book's leading super-men as massive, kinetic presences dominating the pages upon which they featured. As such, those 6 almost-posters added to what was, in surely anybody's terms, a 25 cents already well-invested.

The double-page spread of Superman flying into Darkseid - top of page - & that one -sided affair showing Spider-Man assaulting Mysterio -  above - have a great deal in common. Both feature superheroes attacking their enemies at great speed and with considerable force, crashing through from one distinct environment into another. The differences between the two are more telling. We can choose to ignore the fact that Ditko's work is clear and direct whereas Lee's is confused and confusing, and in doing so decide that the virtues of each piece are nothing more than a matter of taste. But the Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 1 presents its full-page shots in the context of an incident-packed tale, whereas Justice League #6 is a shoddily plot-thin, character-light pamphlet. In the former, the pin-up pages are the icing on an already-considerable cake. In the latter, the facilely indulgent pin-up pages are actually supposed to be carrying the plot, leaving the comic as lacking in story as it is in sense.
      
By contrast, the seemingly endless parade of largely purposeless splash pages in Justice League #6 don't supplement the experience of reading the comic so much as ineptly constitute it. The issue's plot is both insultingly threadbare and, as Martin Gray has shown in his fine review, often slapdash and indeed nonsensical. Having taken five previous issues to cover the kind of set-up which the likes of Lee and Ditko would've dealt with in perhaps half-a-comic at the most, writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee shamelessly offer the most emaciated of stories combined with the most generic and unrewarding of visual non-experiences. Superheroes punch superbaddy, Superbaddy rages back. Superheroes stab Superbaddie in one eye, and then do it again in the other. Superheroes win the day and receive a Presidential award. Superheroes senselessly bicker as if they were aggressive and low-achieving nine year olds challenged by limited attention spans compounded by regrettably low IQs. Both Johns and Lee have crowed about the New 52 being a line of comics where experimentation, inclusiveness and excellence are the order of the day, but their work here is empty of anything but a purposeful attempt to fulfil the incredibly limited expectations of a narrow niche of adolescent-minded blokes. Those artistically ambitious and socially progressive ideals which were used to help justify last year's DCU reboot are reduced in JL#6 to a sequence of impossibly familiar markers of manliness, as costumed idiots threaten, snarl, tighten buttocks, punch, hurt, growl, win, pose, bitch and wisecrack for no better reason than that's what super-people do.

If you've not read Justice League #6, you'll need assuring that the scene scanned in above takes up an entire page in the book. Not only is it clearly the product of 5 minutes planning and execution, but it makes little sense in the context of the comic's story. On the preceding page, Darkseid is shown being dragged back into a Boom Tube. On the page after, Wonder Woman declares, "They're all .. gone." Presumably, Darkseid and his minions have all been removed from the Earth, but how that looked, and the emotional meaning of it all, has been sacrificed for the scribbles above. (How the sight of stick figures fighting shows us Darkseid's departure, let alone that of his troops, escapes me.) I wonder how a professional would respond to an ambitious amateur artist who presented the above to them for criticising.
                        
Perhaps it's unfair to compare Justice League #6 with the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, perhaps there's so many years separating the creation of the two that any form of comparison is inevitably juxtaposing oranges and apples. As such, it might be fairer to compare Johnfirst s and Lee's work with The Authority by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, given that the latter is the book which popularised the very widescreen method of storytelling which has reached its empty-headed nadir in today's Justice League. Those first dozen issues of The Authority might seem at first to be remarkably similar in terms of their form to Johns and Lee's contemporary work, containing as they do a series of double and single-page splashes, but that's as far as any comparison can stretch. As surprising as it might seem to those who can remember the first appearance of The Authority, and who can recall feeling that the book's substance rather than its style was somewhat lacking, Ellis and Hitch's work is far more dense and rewarding than that of Johns and Lee. There's a great deal of wit and cleverness in the first dozen issues of The Authority, combined with a willingness to be playful with the sub-genre's narrative traditions, a strong spine of story-logic, and the presence of admittedly broadly-drawn and yet sympathetic characters who challenge rather than reinforce the standard-issue macho-bias of the super-book. In the Justice League, by way of comparison, one-dimensional costumed boneheads pummel one another and then do it again, and again.

Bryan Hitch's splash page for the seventh issue of The Authority carries more emotion and meaning and sense of place than any visual in Justice League #6 of any size, and that's despite the fact that the only characters in sight in the above are distant silhouettes. Just to focus on one key difference between the work of Hitch and Lee, the latter's work on JL#6 contains just one example of a well-worked background in all 23 of the book's pages. Most of Lee's work contains no environmental features at all, except for the odd scattering of rubble and the most generic of comic book ruins. Lee's art consists of little but super-people posing in each other's company, and it's often difficult to tell what even his front-line brawlers are feeling in the most basic of terms.

The Authority works as a critique of the super-book every bit as much as it celebrates the same, whereas Justice League #6 mindlessly regurgitates the very sub-genre-killing cliches and indulgences which the work of Ellis and Hitch so successfully challenged. Johns and Lee's take on widescreen is essentially that of Ellis and Hitch's with all of the latter team's intelligence, good humour and measured storytelling removed. Where Hitch presented the reader with huge establishing shots which transmitted a sense of wonder, which were as detailed and imaginative as they were fantastically well-composed, Lee presents knocked-off money-shot after knocked-off money-shot without the slightest sign of knowing that a story can be anything other than a sequence of obsessive fanboy doodles. Johns and Lee use the splash page not as a deliberately-chosen aspect of storytelling so much as a way of adding a maximum of force for a minimum of effort to an entirely predictable and hollow indulgence of a tale. Rather than choreograph a visually compelling fight scene, they produce bloated, static cliches which shriek that something really thrilling and important is happening on the page, when the truth is exactly the opposite. Worse yet, as the scans on this page will show, it's often simply impossible to tell what's happening in terms of a specific narrative rather than those of a general punch-up.

Perhaps the most successful of Lee's full-page shots in JL#6, the above splash page only falls down when the reader wants it to make sense. Diana's pose, for example, seems absurd, as if a shot of somebody practising the long jump had been superimposed onto a battling take of Darkseid. How can she be stabbing Darkseid in the eye when she's not only looking away from him, but closing her eyelids? Is she swinging on the weapon she's thrust into his eye, or has she somehow stabbed him as she runs swiftly past him? (If so, how is that physically possible?) Her expression is one of entirely unthreatened joy, with no effort or distress showing. Putting aside the distasteful sadism of this, the apparently all-mighty Darkseid is revealed by this to be a completely ineffective warrior, unable to do the slightest harm to the woman's who's attacking him, which contributes to the book's complete of tension. The big baddie of the book's first arc turns out to be quite useless in a punch-up, and then keeps establishing his lack of threat until the issue's close. Finally, and predictably, it's hard to take Wonder Woman as a powerful warrior when the artwork focuses so upon her sexual identity rather than her actions.
            
No, it's not that it's impossible to create a fine comic-book from a mass of splash pages and a plot stitched together from nothing but the details of an almighty melee. But Johns has so little story to tell, and he does it with so little humour and subtly too, and Lee is so unconcerned to make that tiny degree of plot clear and meaningful, that all that's left is a mind-deadening, heart-sinking howl of fanboy-pleasing white noise. Justice League #6 is the year's most complacent, exploitative, and joyless superhero comic so far, and that's no little achievement given how generally poor the mass of its competition has been. The innermost circles of the Rump and the next-quarter bean-counters will adore it, no doubt, but then, they would, wouldn't they? Everyone else, and this surely includes most fans of Johns and Lee alike, are going to feel that, at the very least, the creators of Justice League have been, in the immortal words of James Brown, talking loud and saying nothing.

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48 comments:

  1. I stopped reading this series after issue three. Despite repeated attempts to see what all the fuss was about, I've never cared for Johns' or Lee's work. But I thought that since this story was starting over from the beginning, it might be a good place to evaluate their work without having to deal with muddling continuity issues, so I decided to give it a chance for this first arc. Couldn't even make it past the halfway mark.

    I've already read the long-form origin of the Justice League. It was called "The New Frontier" by Darwyn Cooke, and it was infinitely better than this story. The new "Justice League" pales in comparison. Where "The New Frontier" was artful and well-crafted, this story was garish and pointless.

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    1. Hello there:- I too stumbled when trying to even make it to the end of this six-part squib. I have no problem with work in which creator's appear to stumble despite what appears to be their very best efforts. But I just can't believe that these issues reflect anything close to the best of Johns and Lee. I cannot believe, for example, that Johns sweated the slightest over this issue. It makes little sense, it carries nothing at all of any depth or cleverness. It really is terribly slapdash and careless work, and that goes for Lee's artwork too. Bloated, sloppy, complacent; I can't imagine what the reason for it all is, I really can't.

      I agree with you about the virtues of The New Frontier. In fact, now you make me think of it, there are quite a few fine Justice League origins. I've always been fond of the Englehart/Dillin version, for example. Dick Dillin's art was never to my taste, and of course it wouldn't fly in today's market. But he never stinted when it came to his work, and that's something that I can't honestly say I could argue about the art or story in JL#6.

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  2. In the first image, Superman and Darkseid appear to be waging their fight within a Photoshop program. Perhaps in some grand post-modern Grant Morrison-y way their battle has transcended their manufactured reality and emerged within the idea space?

    In the second panel, at first glance I took it for a campfire set within a blizzard. I would not have guessed Jim Lee drew it.

    In the third panel, I believe we're seeing an example of a staged fight, as in professional wrestling. Clearly Wonder Woman & Darkseid's routine is so overrehearsed that she can't help looking at the audience.

    I think it's interesting to bring up the splash pages from Amazing Spider-Man Annual#1; the information Ditko placed in each splash could have been told in single panels... and yet, the splashes work because they each highlight a turning point in Spider-Man's battle with each Sinister Six member and the splashes are restricted one per villain. If every guest star had been granted his own splash page, I think the annual would be pretty terrible.

    Thinking about splash pages and why they aren't effective in today's super hero comics, I find myself thinking of how in the 1970s, Kirby began running a splash page on the first page of every story, nearly always followed by a 2-page splash and how being able to predict where Kirby would place his splashes made those books seem less interesting. Perhaps it's the downright predictability of splashes which make them so dull these days - oh, the villain is stepping out of the shadows - cue splash page! Another hero just joined the fight - let's give him a splash page! Someone declares "this time it's personal!" = splash page! First page: splash! Last page: let's celebrate with a splash!

    Thanks for encouraging me to think about this Colin!

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    1. Hello Mike;- "Idea space" ought to be a concept taught to creators, editors and executives for use when swatting away criticism. "I transcended reality" is tough to argue with.

      The second panel is probably the laziest splash page I've ever seen. I say "probably" because there's always some doubt, but it easily thrashes the likes of the non-backstory full-page shot in Flashback: Hal Jordan, and that's saying something.

      Rehearsed? You've really got a good point there. This issue reads like a terrible wrestling panto, an end-of-the-pier, written-on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet rip-off.

      You're absolutely right about the virtues of the splashes in Amazing #1. Even on the level of Ditko's composition, those pages shine. Each of them would work as a Pop Art poster, but who beyond a Rumper would feel the same about the wastage in JL#6?

      I've also been thinking about those Kirby issues, and in particular Kamandi. Many of his double-shots are quite wonderful, and yet, as his capacity to draw slowly diminished, so did the value of those spectacular shots, until his pages were still energetic and powerful, but rarely entirely satisfactory. (The shot of Kamandi paddling through a flooded world in his first issue is wonderful. I still feel agoraphobic and chilled looking at it.) It seems to me that an artist has to be (1) quite brilliant, and (2) at the top of their game in order to make even one splash work. Yet we've come to a time when everybody gets to fill up their books with these indulgences and such is the level of complacency that so many creators treat them as their right, as something which can be dashed off because it doesn't really matter too much.

      Sometimes I think I must be imagining that the sub-genre has ended up here. How can this be possible?

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  3. Do you think the issue with the art is the same (assuming you agree what I am about to say is an issue) as the writing? That, since today's writers and artists were yesterday's readers and fans, that they are simply aping what they read without either understanding it, or the underlying craft that went into it?

    I know that back in the heyday of comics, the writers and artists had other sources to draw on besides comics. An artist could reasonably be expected to draw mundane things like an unmade bed, children, buildings, and the like. Writers drew from all kinds of sources, from old myths and legends to politics. It might be clumsy today, but shows like Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, even clever 70's fare like Columbo or Quincy MD tried to stimulate you and make you care (or in some cases learn, too). Like I said in another post, Claremont's writing made me head for the dictionary more than once.

    I ... well, I don't get that sense today. The artists and writers are fans of the older comics (and pop culture), and that seems to be ALL they draw on. Splash pages look cool because they look cool. There's not as much thought (IMHO) to where they are placed, if they are needed, and whether or not they actually serve the story.

    I like a lot of what Geoff Johns has done, from creating Stargirl to his work with Green Lantern, but never even picked up this new Justice League. It just never appealed. Seeing this review only tells me I made the right choice :)

    Jim Lee is trickier. Of the (in)famous Image founders, he was always the most amiable, the one who never attracted controversy -- but his art still seems steeped in the 90's in a way I can't really explain. I mean, I see it, and I think of asian ninja Psylocke, or WildCATS, or anything from the 90's. I don't bear him any ill will, but he doesn't draw me to his work the way someone like George Perez or old-school John Byrne would.

    I mean, John Byrne "drew" a page or two that was blank panels in the first volume of Alpha Flight, where Snowbird (shapechanged into a Polar Bear) fights one of the Great Beasts in a blizzard! And it WORKED! I thought it was clever.

    But the haphazard placement of splash pages, the fact that for their reboot, DC chose to use Darkseid AGAIN (although to be fair, they did the same after the original Crisis with Legends, so maybe that was an homage?), it seems that basic craft is missing.

    Heck, I mentioned Legends -- maybe it IS another case of the creators aping the past. They know something worked, but they don't seem to know WHY, so, as was the case with Watchmen and The Killing Joke, the writers and artists try to recreate it while not understanding what made the original books work.

    As for "A New Frontier"? Loved that! Loved the books, and even the DVD. It just ... it seemed like everyone was enjoying themselves, having fun.

    Maybe that's it. For good or ill, a lot of the older comics were FUN in some way. It wasn't all grim and dark and serious all the time, 24/7. I don't see Johns OR Lee having fun with Justice League. It looks churned out, made for the trade.

    Now, compare that to Dex-Starr the killer housecat Red Lantern. I admit, the GL books sometimes do approach Torture Porn levels, but seeing a glowing red kitty vomiting red death at his enemies is, to me at least, pretty funny on some levels. Fun!

    So I am not sure. Have we finally reached the copy of a copy of a copy, where things are so washed out that they don't move the reader? Is it because writers seem only able to rehash older comics stories with a dash of pop culture? Is the art suffering because of Photoshop and other computer tools?

    Thanks for making me think.

    Take it and run,

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    1. Hello Earl:- "Do you think the issue with the art is the same (assuming you agree what I am about to say is an issue) as the writing? That, since today's writers and artists were yesterday's readers and fans, that they are simply aping what they read without either understanding it, or the underlying craft that went into it?"

      I think that must be part of it. The superbook has, with notable exceptions, seen its storytelling decline in quality since at the very least the early 90s. (That’s an irony, in that the post-Watchman period was supposed to be the time in which comics became more adult, and yet that’s so rarely been the case.) It makes sense to suggest that the super-fan’s taste has become more and more narrow, as each generation separates into those who’re not interested and the few who are.

      But that doesn’t account for the decline in both Johns and Lee’s work in JL. Johns has proven to be more than capable of producing dense, smart superbooks, and Lee’s work has often been marked by a great deal of care. So why are they producing such pap? We’ve no way of knowing. Are the two of them overworked, do they believe in the no-storytelling model of storytelling, do they even recognise that they’re flogging sub-standard goods? Their public statements suggest anything but slumming on their part. Whatever the explanation, the truth is the industry is still capable of generating a considerable amount of money through producing books which appeal to the most Rumpish of readers, and to nobody else. No matter what it does to the industry as a whole, no matter how it alienates all but a tiny of readers, the right product will rake the dollars in if it targets the doodle-happy ranks of the Rump carefully enough. In that, neither creator needn’t ever think twice about their work. In the pathetically small market of today’s “mainstream”, they have status, a huge measure of institutional power and a great deal of wealth. In short, they win big by working less hard. Where’s the incentive to do anything else/

      “Like I said in another post, Claremont's writing made me head for the dictionary more than once.”

      There’s no doubt that the majority of super-books display intellectual ambition on the part of their creators. The seventies and eighties were marked, as you say, by creators who were smart, well-read and often politically savvy. That’s rarely true today. There are perhaps almost a dozen writers currently at work who could have competed with the best of the past in those fields, but there’s little incentive to do so.

      “I like a lot of what Geoff Johns has done, from creating Stargirl to his work with Green Lantern, but never even picked up this new Justice League. It just never appealed. Seeing this review only tells me I made the right choice :)”
      I hope you will check the new JL out. I wouldn’t trust my reviews. I change my mind all the time. I certainly do agree with you that GJ has written work which was worthy of respect. Something changed.

      “Jim Lee is trickier. Of the (in)famous Image founders, he was always the most amiable, the one who never attracted controversy -- but his art still seems steeped in the 90's in a way I can't really explain.2

      My feelings about Jim Lee are so confused that I reluctantly feel only a blog will help me sort them out. Byrne too. The more I think about the latter, the more I see a direct line from Byrne to Lee.

      “But the haphazard placement of splash pages, the fact that for their reboot, DC chose to use Darkseid AGAIN (although to be fair, they did the same after the original Crisis with Legends, so maybe that was an homage?), it seems that basic craft is missing.”

      Homage is used to excuse a great many ills, isn’t it? What worries me is that the distance between the rhetoric used to push the New 52 and the reality is so huge – with notable exceptions – and relatively few folks seem to think there’s anything wrong with that.

      cont;

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    2. cont;

      “Heck, I mentioned Legends -- maybe it IS another case of the creators aping the past. They know something worked, but they don't seem to know WHY, so, as was the case with Watchmen and The Killing Joke, the writers and artists try to recreate it while not understanding what made the original books work.”

      I would find that to be the most depressing explanation of all. I know how highly Jim Lee speaks of Watchman, for example. Surely that respect is matched with an appropriate level of appreciation of the nuts’n’bolts of the work. I guess the question is why Lee thinks that it doesn’t matter to make sense.

      “Maybe that's it. For good or ill, a lot of the older comics were FUN in some way. It wasn't all grim and dark and serious all the time, 24/7. I don't see Johns OR Lee having fun with Justice League. It looks churned out, made for the trade.”

      The macho miserabilism is a repellent business, isn’t it? But the Rump eat it up, so it must be OK.

      “Now, compare that to Dex-Starr the killer housecat Red Lantern. I admit, the GL books sometimes do approach Torture Porn levels, but seeing a glowing red kitty vomiting red death at his enemies is, to me at least, pretty funny on some levels. Fun!”

      I know not of such unlikely pleasures. But I will keep an eye out for collections in the library.

      “So I am not sure. Have we finally reached the copy of a copy of a copy, where things are so washed out that they don't move the reader? Is it because writers seem only able to rehash older comics stories with a dash of pop culture? Is the art suffering because of Photoshop and other computer tools.”

      What we need is a huge budget and permission from the industry to undertake a massive research project I’m a social scientist. I’d do it. And, of course, I’d be entirely unbiased too ….

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    3. Colin,

      Re: Storytelling and craft. I think, despite all the press releases to the contrary, DC’s philosophical transformation to the New 52 had nothing to do with telling new stories, and everything to do with getting more attention (and I don’t even know if it was intentional, or just falling back into a rut, or too short a notice, or any number of reasons). Too much, FAR too much, of the New 52, relies on the readers having intimate knowledge of the previous DC, as it were. As you say with homage, few people seem to care about the reality versus the rhetoric.

      The Red Hood book has Kory responding to names like Garth, Raven, and Vic with annoyance. If you hadn’t read the old Titans, would you know who they were, or what was being intimated? Never mind the fact that it sounds like there is no Wally West or Donna Troy in the New 52 – supposedly it would affect their mentors badly (and since the original Crisis, it took 25 years to keep explaining who Donna was, who Power Girl was, etc). How is it a reboot when storylines from Batman and Green Lantern have remained intact from the transition?

      As for appealing to the Rump, it’s pretty much all that’s left. I know the reboot to the New 52 was driven from the top, even above DiDio (or at least, so I’ve heard), but wouldn’t it have been great to see ads for the New 52 before showings of the Green Lantern movie? I don’t know if Cartoon Network is saying anything about the New 52 before the Green Lantern cartoon, either. But at this point, how does DC even REACH new readers? How does it direct someone who doesn’t read comics now to even FIND those books, never mind keep them once they get them in the door?

      That’s another topic, though, the goods and ills of the Direct Market.

      I also completely agree with your statement on effort, or the lack thereof. If you’re already doing moderately well without effort, why bother?

      I’ll take a peek at the Justice League when the trade comes out, maybe it will read better then.

      Dex-Starr (or Dexter, no relation to the serial killer) was thrown into a background as a joke, but fans loved him, so he became a more prominent character. I don’t know off the top of my head what issues he was in, but he really is funny. Since I own cats, I can certainly see one of them becoming an embodiment of mindless rage given half a chance (especially when food is late in coming!). Off-topic, there’s that old joke; Dogs look at man, realize that man houses them, feeds them, and loves them, and concludes that man must be God. Cats look at man, see the same things, and conclude that THEY are the Gods. :)

      A direct line from Byrne to Lee? That sounds like it could be a great blog. Can’t wait to see it.

      Re: macho miserabilism. Did you read or enjoy the “Bwa-ha-ha” Justice League of Giffen and DeMattis? Or the follow-ups done more recently (and more broadly comical)? For all the griping that they were tainting the memory of the original League, that was a book I really enjoyed. They managed to tell serious stories at times, yet they threw in plenty of jokes and humor. I wonder if a book like that could even succeed today?

      More later as I sit and think, but thanks for the reply! I appreciate it!

      Take it and run,

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    4. Hello Earl:- “Too much, FAR too much, of the New 52, relies on the readers having intimate knowledge of the previous DC, as it were. As you say with homage, few people seem to care about the reality versus the rhetoric.”

      Well, that does make sense if we look at DC’s admitted commercial ambitions rather than all that hot air about art and social responsibility. DC set out to target BLOKES who’d either dropped out of the habit of buying comics or those who tended to make theirs Marvel. And they succeeded. By providing a faux-new universe that’s often little more than a meta exercise in what-if’s, they’ve produced something which the Rump adore, namely, the comicbook that’s all about canon. In this case, it’s often nothing more than a chat about which DCU was best and why. Fan-babble at its height, and I speak as an obvious fan-babbler.

      “How is it a reboot when storylines from Batman and Green Lantern have remained intact from the transition?”

      Obviously, it wasn’t. It was a great card trick, although some fine creators have carved out space to produce admirable work. But it was never about creating a coherent universe. It was about creating a commercial template which was cat-nip to Rump-heads, which is why the GL and Bat-books were left as they were. And it worked.

      “As for appealing to the Rump, it’s pretty much all that’s left …But at this point, how does DC even REACH new readers? How does it direct someone who doesn’t read comics now to even FIND those books, never mind keep them once they get them in the door?”

      I believe in the properties DC has, or at least had pre-reboot. I’ve not doubt they’d sell if they were framed and pushed in the right way. Watchmen and TDKR still shift units in their thousands. But it’s much easier, and far more lucrative in the short-term, to just pump the Rump. Which sounds awful, and actually is too.
      “I’ll take a peek at the Justice League when the trade comes out, maybe it will read better then.”

      I hope it does. It’d help me feel more optimistic to have been wrong.

      “Re: macho miserabilism. Did you read or enjoy the “Bwa-ha-ha” Justice League of Giffen and DeMattis?”

      The post-Crisis Justice League was, for its first year or so, an absolute joy. It wasn’t so caught up in the Bwa-ha-ha as it became, it was undeniably smart and it promised a future in which comics could take themselves so seriously that they didn’t need to seem to take themselves seriously at all. The tie-in with Millenium is still one of my favourite books from the period. And a very dense read too. DC did have a period in the late 80s when it seemed to recognise, belatedly, the opportunities left by Crisis. It didn’t last, but JL and Suicide Squad, to name 2 examples, were, even at their worst, well worth reading. I hadn’t thought, but comparing those titles in 1988 and today is … thoroughly depressing. DC is Devo.

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    5. Hi Earl,

      RE:"Jim Lee is trickier. Of the (in)famous Image founders, he was always the most amiable, the one who never attracted controversy -- but his art still seems steeped in the 90's in a way I can't really explain. I mean, I see it, and I think of asian ninja Psylocke, or WildCATS, or anything from the 90's. I don't bear him any ill will, but he doesn't draw me to his work the way someone like George Perez or old-school John Byrne would."

      The thing that bugs me the most about Jim Lee is that he's clearly capable of stretching his style, and is a perfectly fine, capable artist when he wants to be. I remember Warren Ellis writing an article about this: he continued to change and develop his style into the early 2000s, but then went back to the cliche style everyone expects of him because that's what people wanted to see. He actually DID attempt to grow and change, and people bitched about it. So he shrugged his shoulders and gave them exactly what they wanted.

      "Heck, I mentioned Legends -- maybe it IS another case of the creators aping the past. They know something worked, but they don't seem to know WHY, so, as was the case with Watchmen and The Killing Joke, the writers and artists try to recreate it while not understanding what made the original books work."

      I think Darkseid is the #1 example of a really annoying trend, where writers/artists think that just by throwing in a certain character it somehow makes their story more important and more weighty. That just by including Darkseid it somehow ups the stakes of the story and makes the story IMPORTANT, no matter what happens or how the story is written. There's no real reason that Darkseid was the villain of Justice League other than Darkseid is popular and it makes the story seem like it matters if Darkseid is in it. But honestly, you could have plugged just about any villain into this plot and it would have come up the same.

      One of my favorite quotes has to be Keith Giffen describing Darkseid as being passed around the DC editors "like the office bong."

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    6. Hello Adam:- if I may just crash your response to Earl, your point about Darkseid being quite irrelevant to the plot is absolutely on the mark. However, it does seem to be becoming clear that Darkseid has been set up as a big baddie for future events, which is another modern-era, the character who steps into the limelight not for the benefit of the story but to set up a coming Event. I may be wrong here, but there's already mention of Parademons in the coming Earth-2 book, which looks every bit as interesting as the Justice League 1 to 6.

      Love the Giffen quote. You can list the number of fine Darkseid appearances since Kirby on just over the fingers of one hand, I suspect, and none of them seem capable of capturing the wonderfully complex character which the King created. Darkseid has turned into some great brawling mega-tyrant. Have these folks actually sat down and really read the Fourth World saga?

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  4. Hi Colin, excellent piece - I'm ashamed to say, I've never read Spidey Annual #1, I shall go digitally fishing later. The structure as to how splashes are used in that book is clever, while also being bleeding obvious. Nowadays, as Michael points out, it's random in a codified way.

    As you say, both Johns and Lee are capable of much better work. I think the difference is that they're not emotionally invested in this series. For years people were predicting a run by them on the JL (I want my A!), and it seems they've just gone along with it bacause it's a guaranteed New 52 seller. DC needs a new origin for the revised team so they've churned out enough pages for a modern paperback collection, but not enough sensibly entertaining content for a 1963 double-sized story.

    Johns and Lee don't have a story they're burning to tell; they're going through the motions, pitting the heroes against probably DC's biggest name villain with scant regard for motivation, characterisation, even actions making sense within individual panels. It's shameful stuff. Hopefully their royalties will provide comfort for Johns and Lee as this six-parter hangs around as a trade for years.

    In other news, thanks very much for the kind words and link ... I didn't know they were coming up!

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    1. Hello Martin:- Thank you. And I think you'll really enjoy that first Spider-Man Annual. It's so much fun, it really is. To have read it in 1963/4 must have been an astonishing pop buzz. Do let me know what you find.

      "As you say, both Johns and Lee are capable of much better work. I think the difference is that they're not emotionally invested in this series."

      It's certainly tough to imagine they care, isn't it? It's comics as commerce, and nothing else. It's an ugly business. There's nothing wrong with commerce, unless it's all that's there, and it's so obvious that that's so. As you say, it's shameful stuff, and it's the kind of stuff which will kill the super-book in the long term.

      "JL (I want my A!)"

      I do too, though I would gladly settle for an "I".

      Kind words? Not at all. I really enjoyed the review, and, despite some sadly unavoidable overlap, I hope I've not trodden on your toes.

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  5. ASM Annual #1 was reprinted in Marvel Tales #150 in 1983. I bought it off the spinner rack in the local drugstore for a dollar. Sweet merciful Jeebus, I loved that thing. I could probably sketch half of it from memory. The unique splash page approach was part of what made it memorable. Old-style Spidey stories just didn't do that. In 1983, almost no comics did that. The story was intended to be a Big Epic Adventure, so the shift to splashes gave the Big Scenes added power. Contrast, man, contrast!

    They weren't always the greatest splashes, honestly, but their place in the narrative absolutely worked.

    Damn, that was a great issue.

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    1. Hello Harvey:- They weren't always the greatest splashes/ Them's fighting words. I suspect I may be impossibly biased. Ditko's scene of Spider-Man taking on Sandman, for example, seems so iconic that I find it hard to think of the characters appearing any other way. I ought to go back and find the feet of clay, but it'll be hard.

      Your use of the word 'contrast' is telling. It's something which is often lacking today, and it's certainly lacking in JL. No humour, no pacing, no .... well, no storytelling that's in any way measured or meaningfull, actually. What an odd business. Those critics of the ranting eighties who compared the super-book of the time to crack had no idea of how bad things could yet become. JL #6 makes a standard-issue, pleasant-if-hardly-brilliant ROM issue look like a work of genius. And for all I was fond of ROM, it was never a line-leading book.

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  6. The second (near empty) Justice League splash actually kind of appeals to me. There's a certain level of energy to it that could be pretty effective. Of course, to actually be effective it would need to be in a much denser book with some understandable significance attached to it.

    That sort of impact splash needs to be a contrast to the other pages to actually have an impact. When The Wind Blows springs to mind for its devestating splash page. Emotionally significant, expertly placed and a complete shock to the system after pages of Briggs tiny panels.

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  7. Hello Mark:- I couldn't disagree with you at all. (And thank you for reminding me of the When The Wind Blows. That's something I must find and read again, although it remains a difficult book for me because it's so very moving.) The problem isn't the style, so much as the fact that the page doesn't make sense.

    Mind you, the page does serve as a contrast to the rest of the comic. Problem is, there's no good reason for that particular design to be there. Oh, well ....

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  8. I think my "favorite" part of the issue has to be the "this is going to sell more than the bible!" note from the suddenly-introduced writer character's editor, about his no doubt thrilling graphic novel about the Justice League. I'm sure it was supposed to be a great, inspiring moment a-la "All Star Superman," but it was just laughable.

    For one, it assumes that the Justice League EVER had that kind of cultural relevancy even at its prime. It didn't. Add that to the state of comics readership today, and the point not only comes off as wrong-headed but frankly delusional...

    ... and that's ignoring the fact that this book also assumes that anyone would actually be inspired by the books moron protagonists, whether they're the reader or a character in the book. When the "GREATESTEST HEROEZES EVAHS!" spend several pages whining and bickering about absolutely nothing in front of not only the President (WHO'S MAKING A SPEECH PRAISING THEM!), but live microphones, television cameras, and a crowd of thousands, it really doesn't inspire much confidence. I really, really wanted the President to turn around in the middle of his speech and say, "Hey, you idiots want to shut the hell up for two minutes?"

    It would be one thing if, by the end of the first issue, the world wasn't clearly supposed to have witnessed the creation of this great, inspiring force known as the Justice League, made up of individuals who overcame their own issues to come together and become something greater and learn to be a team. The characters didn't LEARN anything. They didn't overcome themselves at all; they "Three Stooges"-ed their way to a victory, and are still the same obnoxious pests they were from the moment they were introduced.

    Which wouldn't be a problem, if that was the point. If this was taking it's cues from Giffen and Dematteis's "Justice League," that would be more forgivable, in concept if not execution. But this is a comic so deviod of anything other than paint-by-numbers superhero plot line #1, it doesn't even succeed in making the Justice League seem impressive or heroic. It makes them look like a pack of raging idiots who shouldn't even be appointed National Dog-Walkers.

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    1. Hello Adam:- It was ... how can I put this? ... an appallingly sentimental and self-indulgent part of JL#6. Another GJ short-cut to meaning, another example of treating the audience as if it's made up of idiots. It's so slapdash, and GJ used to be a far better writer than this.

      The Justice League did have a brief period where it was very important to early Silver Age comics, and it was, of course, the JLA's early commercial success which led to Stan Lee being asked to create a competitor; the Fantastic Four. But you're right, the JLA never carried any wider cultural relevancy. It was a fan-boy thing, and even there, the JLA was a specialist taste. Even the sole moment when the JL became a big deal in itself - the post-Crisis book - it was there as a critique of the team-book rather than a celebration of it.

      You're absolutely right about the "Presidential" scene. It seems to have been written for an audience of laddish 7 year olds. Which would be fine in itself, but if JL is for such a young audience, then all that eye-stabbing poses an ethical problem. It's as if GJ is aiming at the lowest common denominator.

      And yes, who'd believe in a bunch of super-powered morons bickering just several feet away from a live Presidential address. It's simply absurd. Did the state not investigate these idiots and realise that they're not fit for any authority at all? It's not just that they've not learned anything, a point which you're quite right to make, but I doubt most of them could learn anything. The very idea that this version of Hal Jordan would be accepted into the GLC beggars belief. Of course, a seven year old would find it all very thrilling. Dumb down, GJ, dumb down.

      I'm still struggling to come to terms with how awful JL is. It's as if the solution to the decline in the super-books audience is to do all the things that have failed in the past, BUT EVEN MORE SO.

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  9. Another great example of lots of tiny panels --> big splash is in Morrison/Quitely's we3. Great book, not quite sure exactly whether to read it as overtly political or not. Something about how every bad guy is an old white guy, the trainer is a young woman of undetermined ethnicity. Either way, It's an effective piece of storytelling, the splash page indicating freedom. As opposed to these splash pages, which seem to indicate not much at all.

    It's just a different world. Jack and Stan could have told the entirety of the JL1-6 in 23 pages, probably. But that's not how comics work now, is it. Bah, whatever.

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    1. Hello Historyman:- I have followed your advice and picked up we3. I admire what I've read, but I have to say; it's painful reading. I know that's the point, but ... I'm shamefully easily moved by such issues, and I say this typing at an odd angle because I've got a cat demanding my lap.

      "Bah, whatever".

      Indeed. Bah.

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  10. I was off by an issue. I was on record as calling for nearly this same % breakdown of splash and 2 page spreads in (wait for it) issue 5. It's saying something when that looks like an exercise in restraint by comparison.

    Now, mind you, it's not saying anything good.

    I'm so put off by mainstream comics right now. It may, in truth, be that it's because they don't look like comics to me! I don't mean that to sound nostalgic but we've talked about the toolbox available to illustrative storytellers at length throughout the life of this blog.

    I think the consensus is that the way out is not backwards but through.

    The only real question is whether or not traditional capes, tights, companies are the ones to get us out of the tunnel. Keep an eye on Image this year, Colin. I really think they're emergent.

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    1. Hey there J_Smitty_, if you ask me (and I know that you didn't) I seriously doubt that Marvel & DC are capable or even willing to 'fix' comics - and why would they? The present situation is working great for them. They turn enough of a profit and produce wonderful intellectual properties for film, tv and merchanising (as well as positive social marketing buzz from fans) without having to take real risks with storytelling or make a serious investment in alternative distribution models. If the print comics industry as it exists dies out then they still hold all the cards.

      I too am very excited about what Image Comics are offering this year. If you are (or anyone else is) interested I wrote an article about them for Tastes Like Comics and I'd love for you to give it a read: It's Time We Talked About Image

      There is definitely still a light at the end of the tunnel and to me it looks like Dark Horse, Image and even Archie comics (with their innovative new Facebook-embedded distribution system) are the ones most likely to lead us there.

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    2. Hello Smitty:- the solution seems clear. All comics should just be a single sheet of rolled-up paper, upon each side of which should be splash pages of super-people hitting each other. Think how many comics GJ and JL could write and draw if only we gave way to comic-book evolution. Big fight pictures and nothing much else.

      I must admit, it's tough to retain faith in the super-book as a whole. Beyond Daredevil, it's hard to find anything which everyone would agree about. There are books which are well written but only competently drawn - JIM, Demon Knights - and books which are beautifully well but not outstandingly written - Batwoman, but few comics which are both. But I refuse to be - stubbornly, naively - count the super-book out. It's having a really hard time at the moment, but that doesn't mean it's dead. Mind you, I haven't felt so worried about since the mid-nineties, after Waid's Flash and before Morrison's JLA, when just about everything was terrible. Like today, of course.

      I have been paying far more attention to Image recently. It is time I wrote a little more about the company's product. It's been a while since I reviewed Orc Stain ... I will get on the job.

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    3. Hello Ed:- Between Smitty and your good self, I'm inspired to spend a while looking at the companies you describe. Archie is certainly being wonderfully daring at the moment:- that split-future Archie book may not be to my taste, but it's good stuff. I've a Hellboy piece coming up, so that's a start on Dark Horse, if not much of one. I'll get it sorted ...

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  11. Hi Colin,

    You'll not see a lot of splash pages in Ditko's stories. He used them only when it served the purpose of the story; when it had an impact, as it clearly did in the scenes he used for the Annual. The importan thing is Ditko thought out the approach to the page, in service to the story, and did not indulg himself or try for anything flamboyant. ASM Annual # 1 is well paced and clear, the splash pages do not detract or slow down the story; they move it along.

    As you noted, Ditko did not use splash pages to feature guest-stars. Foe one thing he didn't like the idea of cross-overs, feeling it detracted from the uniqueness of the main hero and cut into the ability to focus on supporting characters. In this instance he went along with Stan, but almost every super-hero is a cameo, and the characters often don't even meet Spidey. At this point in the Lee-Ditko relationship Ditko was content to placate Stan, but once they were no longer speaking to each other you'll notice there are no more guest-stars (the last was in ASM 21).

    But I digress from the main point. With the Annual Ditko was aware he had more pages to work with, and that it was a special issue. He added a little something extra without taking it baway from the pacing of the story. I don't see a lot of thought in some of the comics like the Justioe League you've featured here. I think it would do some of the writers and artists well to look at a book like ASM Annual # 1 and see what Ditko was able to accomplish.

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    1. Hello Nick:- That's a fascinating point aboutthe end of crossovers in the Ditko/Lee Spider-Man. I suppose I think alot less about the last year and a half of ASM than the 18 months before, during which I thought Stan and Steve were at their best. I know that fans of each man may disagree, but then I often enjoy the fruits of collaboration more than work that's more individual in character. In short, I'm not a Lennon or a McCartney man, but a fan of them working together. Of course, now you give me that issue in the context of another discussion, I'll now have a place to start looking for a more precise point where ASM looses just a little of its shine for me. (Not that I'd ever want to lose a single Lee/Ditko Spidey. They're ALL brilliant to me, I do assure you.)

      I wonder whether some modern-era do ever go back and really study how classic comics were constructed rather than just noting the plot aspects which might be lifted from them. It's not that I believe that the past should simply be copied. But to so obvious ignore what's been done ...

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    2. I think a lot of modern day folks take the superficial aspects of older comics, without looking deeper into what made them work. Sure, Jack Kirby was bombastic and in your face, but he also know how to tell make the little moments work. Ditko and Lee wove plot and pacing into a seamless whole, turning in a full story. Will Eisner told a complete story in seven pages. I think there is plenty to learn from the masters, all one needs to do is look.

      The idea of collaboration is probably worthy of an ongoing discussion. I enjoy individual works, but artists do tend to induldge themselves and often lose something when they have no one else to bounce off of. I truly loved the entire run of Lee-Ditko Spider-Man, and although I believe it hit its apex with ASM #'s 31-33, those earlier issues had a freshness and excitement that will never be duplicated.

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    3. Hello Nick:- It was actually that problem of creators failing to recognise the value of the storytelling in the books they were raiding for plot-points which led me to suspect that the New 52 would be a Pyrrhic Victory, and little I've seen since has led me to doubt that that's true. What we have in JL#6 is work that's almost entirely uninformed by the work of the masters, and it suffers for that.

      I too love the entire Lee/Ditko run, and consider it one of the few masterpieces in the history of serial-superhero, there to sit with The Spirit and very little else. I do, if you'll forgive, find 31-33 just a little too over-wrought for me, and by "just a little", I mean no more than that. There are moments when Ditko's art and Lee's script are clearly fighting each other in those issues, which I don't think happened in that same way too often in the earlier books in the series. But that just means that, for me, 31-33 is merely BRILLIANT rather than UNQUESTIONABLY BRILLIANT. It's rather like trying to express a preference for Revolver or The White Album. In the end, standing up for one doesn't mean that the other isn't still a wonderful work.

      And I'm glad we disagree, because it means we get to talk about it :)

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    4. Hi Colin,

      It's fun to respectfully disagree, not like many who are drooling saliva when then do so! I'd find it interesting to know where you felt Ditko's art and Lee's script were fighting each other, as I don't recall many instances.

      The plots, at this point, were all driven by Ditko, and the three part arc was his way of turning the teenage, learning superhero into an adult. The impetus, ironically, likely came from Stan Lee, since it was he who wanted Peter to graduate High School and go to college (he did the same in Patsty Walker a year earlier, when that was a soap opera style series). It has been reported that Lee discussed this with Ditko earlier in the run (when they were talking to each other) and although Ditko was initially against taking Peter out of high school, feeling that as a teen he was allowed to make mistakes, he apparently embraced the idea and had the college campus laid out on his studio walls (this from Jim Starlin and Dick Giordano, who visited him around that time).

      It was Ditko's philosophy, though, that an adult hero couldn't doubt himself or make mistakes, he had to be an example, hence the moment of him lifting the weight (figuratively and literally) of past mistakes off of him. The new Peter Parker/Spider-Man was a more confident hero and he would remain so until Ditko quite and Romita took over the co-plotting, with Lee once again in the drivers seat.

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    5. Hello Nick:- My problem, and it's only a slight problem, with the later Spidey issues is that (1) some of the things which I most loved about the strip, such as the high school setting and the greater presence of doubt and humour, are either removed or whittled away, and (2) the sense that Lee and Ditko's contributions were starting to clash with each other to a degree that hadn't been so obvious before. To illustrate the last point, I always feel that Stan's captions for the famous Spidey-lifts-an-impossible-weight scene are not only redundant, but purple even for the great Mr Lee. (Not by much, but there's a personal tipping point for me there) Now, to raise these points isn't to suggest that the books aren't great. It's just that there are tiny shifts in the book's content which carry it away from the comic which I particularly loved. By the time we arrive at Peter showing disdain for the very idea of student activism, I'm left feeling that Mr Parker isn't growing up to be the man his Uncle Ben would've wanted. (Different readings are of course entirely possible for the same material. Of course. Peter is certainly more confident in those later issues. I just don't like him nearly as much.) The truth is, I'm not sympathetic to Steve Ditko's politics or the way that they inform his work. It's not that I have the slightest objection to SD believing whatever he chooses to. How could anyone? It's just that his work starts, as you say, carrying more and more of a political superstructure as the years pass, the consequence of which is inevitably that those who struggle with those values struggle with the work.

      Does this mean I don't love as well as respect Mr A, the Creeper, Hawk And Dove, and even the Destructor and Stalker - with Wally Wood (sigh!) - and a host of others? Not at all. It's just that I find it easier to adore the earlier work, given that it was often artistically superior to the later work as work. (Another bias. To me, Ditko's work reaches its height in 64/5, and rarely if ever again matches his work on ASM and Dr Strange.)

      All of which makes it sounds as if I'm really down on Ditko, but I regard his work in the period of 60 to 65 as one of the keystones of my taste in comics. To me, those Spidey and Dr Strange stories are up there with mid-Sixties Beatles, Gore Vidal's essays, David Low's political cartoons and all the other touchstones of excellence which I treasure. But if we're narrowing down a love of Ditko to a period, then that's mine :)

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  12. Hello again Colin. ;)

    Dear oh dear. If you were to find a single ongoing comic that was emblematic of pretty much everything wrong with the contemporary American periodical-form comic book it would be appear to be this.

    You say that 39% of the book is splash or spread pages - I have to wonder how many of the remaining pages have fewer than 5 panels?

    The problem with all of those splash panels and double spreads is that while they appear to be well drawn at first glance they fall apart as soon as you start to think about them; but then, without wanting to sound too elitist, that's the precisely problem with a great many fans: they aren't thinking about their comics.

    You suggested that Jim Lee and Geoff Johns are "going through the motions" but I can't help but think that this is the general editorial direction of DC comics. Lee, Liefeld, splash page after splash page of character-centric story-light pulp - doesn't the 'New 52' and DC in 2012 sound an awful lot like Image (circa 1992) and the Image-influenced era? (with a bucket-load of Bendis-esque decompression thrown into the mix)

    I see a degree of irony in this as a lot of Image comics today are much heavier in terms of page count (unless you count text filler/promo as legitimate pages) and story content than their DC equivalents. Obviously there's still books like Thief of Thieves #1 which actually suffer from their widescreen style but at least they make the likes of Mudman and Prophet, which manage to feel comparatively full of content/meaning even when they are light on text.

    Perhaps DC are marketing themselves to the stereotypical 90's comic-buyer. After all, that was 20 years ago and 20 years seems to be the generational nostalgia cycle as thirty-and-fourty-somethings try to recapture their lost youth (and the Nielsen Survey results seem to suggest this is the one demographic they actually succeeded at capturing).

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    1. Hello Ed: "Dear oh dear. If you were to find a single ongoing comic that was emblematic of pretty much everything wrong with the contemporary American periodical-form comic book it would be appear to be this."

      I'd agree, Ed, and the fact that's been sold to us as a line-leading book by the two most senior creators at DC just compounds the problem.

      "The problem with all of those splash panels and double spreads is that while they appear to be well drawn at first glance they fall apart as soon as you start to think about them; but then, without wanting to sound too elitist, that's the precisely problem with a great many fans: they aren't thinking about their comics."

      I'm actually all for folks not having to think about comics if they don't want to. What I'm against is work can only be enjoyed if it isn't thought about on any rational level. The best super-books can be read simply for the general pleasures of the Pop! of it all, but they can also be enjoyed for the content as much as they style. But there is nothing left in JL#6 in addition to the style. It's aimed so directly at the Rump that there's nothing left for anyone else.

      "You suggested that Jim Lee and Geoff Johns are "going through the motions" but I can't help but think that this is the general editorial direction of DC comics. Lee, Liefeld, splash page after splash page of character-centric story-light pulp - doesn't the 'New 52' and DC in 2012 sound an awful lot like Image (circa 1992) and the Image-influenced era? (with a bucket-load of Bendis-esque decompression thrown into the mix")

      Absolutely. We've been assured by some creators that no such deliberate standards exist, which has to be true. But there's some kind of cultural agreement going on at DC which means that most creators accept the Image-esque model as gospel. Pah and bah.

      "but at least they make the likes of Mudman and Prophet, which manage to feel comparatively full of content/meaning even when they are light on text."

      Mudman is of course good fun. I've got a copy of Prophet around here. How come I haven't read it? There is no excuse.

      "Perhaps DC are marketing themselves to the stereotypical 90's comic-buyer. After all, that was 20 years ago and 20 years seems to be the generational nostalgia cycle as thirty-and-fourty-somethings try to recapture their lost youth (and the Nielsen Survey results seem to suggest this is the one demographic they actually succeeded at capturing)."

      Sadly, none of us know what the powers-that-be at DC are really doing. They're certainly happy to let a certain number of books off of the leash, which is all to the good. But the suspicion remains that they've a clear picture of what they're doing and who they're targeting. It's as if somebody high up at DC owned a comic shop, studied what the most Rumpish fans who shopped there wanted, and then decided to give them exactly what they craved. And everyone else?

      Pah and Bah.

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    2. "I'm actually all for folks not having to think about comics if they don't want to. What I'm against is work can only be enjoyed if it isn't thought about on any rational level. The best super-books can be read simply for the general pleasures of the Pop! of it all, but they can also be enjoyed for the content as much as they style."

      That's a much better way of putting it than my crude comment (which was born out of frustration I suppose). It just annoys me that people are willing to call out Liefeld and Land for their atrocities against anatomy but don't go "hey, hang on a minute - this 'fan favourite' Jim Lee guy who draws some great costumes but some of his most 'dynamic' pictures in JL look pretty flawed too. Is he spared because of the level of detail in his inks I wonder?

      Oh you must read Prophet! It's a cracking comic and a fine example of how a story can be told through a little narration and some fine sequential illustration. I would love to know what you think.

      I'm still amused by the idea that DC are going down the 90's Image path when Image have consciously recoiled from that approach and are placing more emphasis on quality writers than they used to.

      I know you have no love of Hickman's work at Marvel but his work at Image is far superior. The Nightly News (which he innovatively illustrated as well) is a 'future classic' in my eyes. It seems like his time at Marvel is coming to an end too - FF/F4, SHIELD, Ultimates runs are all finishing by the end of the year.

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    3. Hello Ed:- I hope that comment about thinking and comics didn't sound stroppy or snide. I'd just been reading a history of the NME, which in many ways reads like a history of how snotty and snide some music journalists have been about the tastes of others. For all that the book was full of mentions of writers I admire greatly, the dominant theme seemed to be a struggle for power re: who gets to define "cool" rather than a love of music per se. Inevitable, no doubt, but it all reminded me how often Pop music has been dismissed for not being this and that, and I think I ended up unknowingly channeling my thoughts about that into my answer to you.

      I must say, I share your bafflement as to the get-out-of-jail card which JL is perpetually given. His work can be very pretty, and at times carries some superb storytelling. Yet it's often super-doodling which lacks clarity and punch. I suspect the worst of his work is comfort food for the Rump. He makes them feel they belong, that they're respected, because he delivers the core of what they want from their comics. Super-doodles.

      I am rather frantically looking for Prophet this morning. I buy a couple of comics a week and I seem to have lost the last few weeks of them. This is most grumpifying.

      I too find it amusing that DC has decided to play Image when Image is doing something which is often far more substantial. But DC appears to have decided that flooding the Rump with crack-like superbooks will create a stable and lucrative market for their product. Perhaps it will. That doesn't mean, however, that a more far-sighted and smart strategy couldn't have achieved the same ends and more.

      The Nightly News is on my watch-out-for list. There are rumours that Hickman's heading for the Avengers books, but then, given the blogosphere's love of babble, there's probably rumours that he's rebooting Caspar The Friendly Ghost too ...

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    4. Oh no it didn't - it was a good point; while comics like JL#6 are deserving of critical scorn, we certainly don't want to fall into the trap of being a comic book NME (like certain websites that shall go unnamed) and tell people what not to buy or mock them for their tastes, but it is in our power to offer our fellow fans the comics we like and believe to be superior. Demonstrating the value of one comic over another will always entail pointing out the failings of one or both.

      Super-doodles indeed. If I want to be generous and make excuses on his behalf I could say that the monthly schedule forces Lee to press ahead with flawed illustrations after he starts then spends so much time with the fine detail work - but I don't want to be generous; he's a highly paid veteran of the industry and should know better by now. Another website I regularly frequent calls it the "free pass" and Jim Lee definitely gets one from the JL fanboys. His costume designs are top-notch, but I expect far more from someone who is hyped to the high-heavens.

      As for the market? I suspect that a new distribution model could be the saviour of comics. High quality on-demand printing combined with digital publishing maybe...I've no head for business so I wouldn't want to speculate much further than that.

      I'm not exaggerating when I say that TNN is the most radical experiment with form that I have seen in a 21st Century comic. Worth the cover price for that alone.

      As for the rumour-mill...well I couldn't guess. It's hard to think of a comic less suited to Hickman's strengths or weaknesses than Avengers (or Ultimates for that matter). Marvel fans are just slapping two brands they like together with no thought to how they would work. Maybe Axel Alonso is doing the same. He seems to benefit from having full license to play with characters - including permission to kill them off at a whim. With all those 'big property' characters on the roster Avengers is best suited to a company-man like Bendis who has a talent for soap-opera and now writes lots of issues where very little happens (all of his major shake-ups were done prior to Marvel's 'Heroic Age' policy change). It's also worth mentioning that neither Avengers or Ultimates really involve the kind of sci-fi concepts Hickman usually enjoys writing about.

      Coming back to the "free pass" thing: much as I love Hickman's work at Image, the issue of Ultimates that I got from a grab-bag was an absolute stinker. If his Avengers would turn out anything like that (compounded with the inevitable limitations that come from working with Marvel's biggest brands) then he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near it.

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    5. Hello Ed:- Thank you for those calming words. I must say that at its best, the NME was an absolute marvel. In the second half of the Seventies, for example, it was essential reading. But you have to have a large number of really good writers to play the "we're cooler" card, and for much of the paper's life, its attitude was more prominent than its excellance. A shame. I'm still in love with the idea of the NME, although the last time I felt compelled to buy an issue was during the high summer of Britpop.

      I must say we disagree about JL's costume designs, which of late have made me shudder. But that, I will concede, could well be a mark of my stubborness and my age; with Superman, for example, I just can't develop a taste for anything other than the old pants over the tights version. As for the excuse of the schedule which I've seen quite a few fans making, it just doesn't wash. You wouldn't release a film with pathetic special effects and then suggest that fans should be grateful because it's that or nothing. Yet somehow poor JL art is grounds for cheering. Either he should hire some more assistants, spend more time at the drawing board or wait until he's the time to work. Easy for me to say, of course, since DC and all concerned have made a fortune out of slapdash JL art, but it's still a cheek. It feels like an ugly business, like a calculation that quality just doesn't matter...

      I suppose a great deal of the chit-chat about Hickman's future is based on the premise that he's an "architect" - no, that doesn't sound arrogant at all - and therefore bound to land a big-book gig whenever he wants. Given that I've been profoundly unimpressed by his superhero work, I find that I couldn't care less. He seems to me to be quite unsuited to super-books, but again, I could just be missing that great single issue which unlocks an appreciation for him. Unfortunately, as with you, the Ultimates appealled not at all. I went back for the past month's issue and I will say that there was an effort being made to keep the reader informed of the back story. A shame that I couldn't grasp why the story might matter on an emotional level at all. Paint drying time, I fear, and yet, I do feel frustrated by my constant inability to grasp why he's so lauded.

      On BMB's Avengers; I've also been making a genuine effort to grasp why those books sell. Four issues have passed and it's all been one long, unimpressive fight scene. I am trying to enjoy this stuff ...

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    6. I haven't bought a BMB book since Siege (which turned out to be a very convenient stopping point because the first volume of New Avengers ended then). From all accounts I haven't missed much - it looks like he's taken the worst aspects of his first run on NA ('kooky humour', mad decompression, multiple characters speaking with one voice, innumerable round table breakfasts at the base) and exaggerated them across both Avengers & New Avengers. I don't understand the value in his decompression - unless it's a cheat that means he doesn't need to think of actual story content - because doing it constantly means it completely loses its dramatic power.

      I'm convinced that Avengers & New Avengers only sell because of the following factors:
      1) Brand. Brand, brand, brand. Slap an 'Avengers' banner on a title and sales immediately jump.
      2) Perceived importance. The BMB Avengers books are the build up to and fall out from every major event since Secret Wars. MarvelU fans want to know what's happening to their world's mythology. See also: Justice League.
      3) The cast. Pretty much all of Marvel most popular characters in one or two comics = SALES. See also: Justice League.
      4) The soap opera. Like the stereotypical bored housewife they need their fix of 'what happens next' and the real genius of BMB's comics lies in how well he has structured them toward this. I only understood this when the original volume of New Avengers came to it’s conclusion – or more appropriately it’s lack thereof.

      Avengers/NA is an infinite cycle of hook followed by delayed gratification followed by partial conclusion and another hook followed by delayed gratification, etc, etc. I know that all comics follow this pattern to an extent but with BMB it’s taken to an unbearable extreme because so little actual plot transpires in each issue. When the book caused me to outright question whether comics are a worthwhile use of my limited funds I decided that it wasn’t for me. This is in stark contrast to his brief Dark Avengers, where things actually happened and the plotlines had an ending. BMB is a talented writer who knows how to keep the Rump hooked – it just so happens that by following that pattern for too long he drives me away. Maybe a limited space forces him to write better comics.

      I actually bought the New Avengers & Avengers Annuals this year because the story was (almost) entirely self contained and Dell’Otto’s artwork is pretty damn cool, and really enjoyed it – but even in a (comparatively) compressed storytelling space Bendis suffered from some of the same pitfalls. It only confirmed to me how cheated I would feel if I was still reading the drawn-out six issue arcs on the main books.

      Regarding Hickman - no he isn't suited to the superbook, unless you count Red Mass for Mars as a superbook. I enjoyed a lot of what I've read so far with F4/FF but it's not up to the standard of of his best work, which is all at Image.

      Urgh. Architects. That whole thing is such a shoddy marketing ploy. Broken down Marvel's game equates to "we named our biggest selling and most hyped writers 'Architects' because that gives the impression that there is a well considered plan for the future of the Marvel Universe beyond the "event; post-event; two-arcs; pre-event; event; post-event; two-arcs; pre-event; event; ad infinitum; ad nauseum”.

      All of which brings us back to the whole hype phenomenon and lack of critical thinking in some fans. Hickman and Aaron (as far as I can see) wrote all their best stuff outside of Marvel but the fans buy into the hype and few people seem to differentiate between "best writers" and "writers of the biggest brand books".

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    7. Hello Ed:- BMB is yet another one of my modern-era blind spots. I've been trying to figure out what he's doing for a long time. One recent statement from him keeps sticking in my mind. BMB said that critics are always the last people to know what he's doing. Now, if I can pretend to be a critic here, he may well be right. I'm baffled about what he could be up with the recent Avengers/New Avengers issues. It seems to me that these books are thinnly plotted, unoriginal, cliched bound and fight-o-centric. But I suppose I'm missing the point.

      I agree with your analysis of the popularity of the Avengers, although I don't think that there's much that can pass as soap opera. Some "romantic" banter between Hawkeye and Spider-Woman, some unconvining angst on the part of Jessica Jones; it's neither convincing nor involving.

      And yet, and it's a BIG yet, the Avengers was struggling as a title before BMB turned up. Now it's Marvel's leading franchise, out-pacing the X-Men to a degree which once would've been entirely inconceivable. BMB has done a fantastic job in commercial terms, and the very fact that he's done so well for the books stands in his favour to a degree that should entirely insulate himself against any fanboy rage.

      Yet I am baffled by the appeal of his work on the Avengers. This is, I'm ready to accept, a fundamental weakness on my part.

      I bought one of the Avengers annuals this year. It all tends to blur. It was a dreadful, dreadful ramble concerning Wonder Man attacking the Avengers because of some entirely unconvincing pap.

      I hope that the whole "architects" rubbish isn't making my response to BMB and Hickman all the more critical. But it's such a smug business, and the work is simply nowhere near good enough for such self-satisfaction. I'm afraid it all seems like a big boys club, and the last thing Marvel need to be doing is projecting the sense of being a White Boy's Club.

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  13. Oh man, I forgot to take into account that you, like I, am a close friend to animals, and that we3 is quite upsetting. I do believe the craft and function as a modern morality tale (crossed with homeward bound, of course), does make it worth reading. I know a lot of Morrison fans consider it his greatest work, and I would be very interested in a column on the subject. Is it touching and heartbreaking, or just another example of over-sentimental maudlin cliches about animals, as a friend of mine who is also a cat owner has said? I do think it's probably the best marriage of Morrison/Quitely besides A-SS (and the Authority? Heh.).

    Regarding my Stan and Jack comment, I just read the FF story where the creators themselves get threatened by Doctor Doom, presented with zero explanation as to how they got into the world of their creation, and it still made more sense than those audience members shouting "they're the world's greatest superhumans!" War Rocket Ajax had a pretty good takedown of this issue, too, this week, as well as an interview with Chris Humphries, who apparently was influenced by 2000AD- I haven't read him yet, but I'm gonna look into it now because it seems interesting.

    It is interesting, isn't it, that while so many complaints about this issue are about what happened, the examples above show that it's not really what, but how, that makes a difference. As I pointed out, self-insertion can work, above, the bickering team worked in JLI, as well as superheroes being arrogant asses. Even multiple splashes have been known to work. But it worked when it was intentional and matched to firm craftsmanship, which by all reports this is none of the kind.

    Bah, Humbug.

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  14. Hello Historyman:- I remain in denial about we3. When I'm feeling braver, I'll return ... Obviously, War Rocket Ajax is a less intimidating prospect, so that I will go check out.

    You're quite right to point out that the various traditions of the super-book retain their power, IF they're used in an ambitious and smart way. What saddens me is how much the current super-book - with notable exceptions - fail to use so much of the best of the past. I think of books missing subtlety, character, humour, emotion; it can only be a deliberate decision to target the Rump that's behind it all. If it's not, then I worry about the mind-set of those who who've bleed so much out of the sub-genre.

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  15. Justice League is a comic that feels rehearsed because it falls into cliche. The rag tag team of heroes take on a threat that no single hero can fight. The issue with DC Comics tradition, is they are using ideas that became old at Marvel by the 1970's. Tropes and cliches are fine literary techniques, they breed familarity; though many would say they also can breed contempt. That is where this arc of Justice League has transcended the familar, into the realm of fan contempt.

    This arc was created to showcase the big team members, yet only deals in superficialities of their characteristics. The arrogant jock, the distant detective, the calm one, the aggressive one. All of these characters feel like action figures, devoid of the very things that engendered them to such love that they have endured decades of scorn.

    The composition of the comic is repugnant and seems to be a relic of the 1990's. Lee's style evokes a less disciplined hand then a similar debut he had with X-Men #1. In that opening arc, there are splash pages and double splash pages, but none of them seem exploitive. In the first issue, it is dense with character moments both visually (notice how the danger room sequence tests all their abilities and gives character moments), while similar fights in Justice League seem more like cotton candy; gossamer visual sugar that if eaten too much sickens the consumer.

    Geoff is perfectly capable of writing a team book as evidenced by his JSA run, which had nearly triple the characters. Lee also has the dicipline to visually show character moments and use the grid like structure to give the story perfect beats. Alone, this arc would be troubling and easily passed away. But knowing that these two are 2 of the three creative directors of DC Comics, worries me to no end. Is this the future for this particular corporation?

    I am given some hope from books like Batwoman (though having lost Amy Reeder, worry seeps into these words), The Flash (amazing visually), Swamp Thing, Animal Man and Batman. These works buoy the negativity I feel towards DC, but I wonder how long they can hold out to the juggernaut of artistic laziness, dearth of creativity, and writing for the action figure line.

    There are many issues with the comic I do not mention (the villain alone would take pages), I only hope that with blogs such as this and comics alliance and others; thoughtful analysis and criticism will allow the readers to demand change. I only hope the readers are listening and not being taken in.

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    1. Hello Jeff:- I don't think that the qualities that you mention can be accidental. It can't be anything other than a hypothesis, of course, but it seems to me that GJ is producing a book which appeals to very easily-pleased, doodle-happy blokes of all ages. The decision seems to have been made; target the Rump and damn everyone else. As a strategy, it may just pay off very well in the short-term, but giving a niche nothing but its minimum expectations alienates everyone else and will, I suspect, wear away at the Rump too.

      In particular, GJ's work at the moment seems to sit in direct contradiction to the best - and much of the most popular - comics in the sub-genre's past. GJ's work at the moment is profoundly stupid. Deliberately stupid, it seems. Yet the super-book since the Marvel Revolution has often been concerned with intellectual ambition, if not pretension. That doesn't mean that it hasn't been profoundly trivial too. Yet GJ has stripped the language, the sense, the smarts, the emotions - pretty much everything beyond the violence and sulking - and as such managed to out-Image the worst of the earliest Image books.

      I fear that these principles of storytelling have been obvious since the earliest days of the New 52. Though some books are better than others, smarter and more moving than others, the lack of intelectual and emotional ambition as a whole is so disappointing. I generally agree with your choice of high points from the reboot. Batwoman is visually strong and story-competent, while Demon Knights is the opposite. The Flash may be visually strong, but I find the stories weak. Swamp Thing and Animal Man are certainly smarter than many of their compatriots, but the storytelling has degenerated and the last issues of each, along with Wonder Woman, are hardly new -reader friendly. In fact, even familiar readers might find themselves struggling and/or yawning. Elsewhere, I'm forever being told that Batman is a great book, so I picked up issue 6 and I'm faced with a Bruce Wayne who can survive being stabbed through the belly and transform into a monster. No explanation was given, so I've no idea what's going on.

      If I don't respond directly to all of your points, it's simply because I agree with them! Your comparison with the X-Men, for example, is a telling one.

      I suppose that I just can't believe that what's happened to DC is an accident. Dig underneath all the snakeoil salemanship, accept the few noble exceptions to the rule as exactly that, and what DC seem to be doing is deliberately dumbing down in order to target the Rump and everyone else can go hang.

      Thank you for the generous words. I hope you, and anyone else reading this, will let me know where the good books are which I've missed from the New 52. I've no problem with Dc, I've been reading their books for almost half a century now. It's just that the nuts and bolts of storytelling don't lie. I was deeply worried by the first month of the reboot, when I bought every New 52 book. Nothing has changed.

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  16. I am just really enjoying this blog. The analyses are great.
    That is all.

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  17. A few notes, in response to various comments above-

    Re: metatextuality of Spiderman and how his personality develops over time, in reference to the changing relationship between Lee and Ditko:

    I've been reading more FF, and I noticed that the comments about Sue's value start at the mail-bag issue, when the Fantastic Four answer listener mail. It seems to me that Sue starts to get a bit of an inferiority complex starting at this issue. Apparently, a "lot" of readers are writing in asking if she really belongs on the team.

    It continues in the Hulk crossover when the other three are talking about how they'll defeat him (which also functions to conveniently remind the reader, who might have come over because of interest in the Hulk, of their powers), she's like "I'm not sure how I can help!"

    It seems Sue's started to feel bad about her role on the team and the guys want to make her feel better but aren't enlightened enough to figure out better ways to reassure her than "you're like Lincoln's mom!"

    The guys are so tone-deaf/oblivious that after pretty much agreeng with the General that Sue's value lies in her looking pretty, Reed shows off another of Johnny's skills, as a mechanic.

    To take a step back from the characters, maybe the letters issue felt like some sort of wake up call for Lee or Kirby, and they started feeling like they had to justify Sue's existence, but didn't quite get the concept enough to not do it in a patronizing way. To be fair, right after the infamous "Lincoln's Mom" panel, Reed does continue on to point out the places where she's saved the day with her powers and quick-thinking, but it still feels a bit like an afterthought.

    I suppose another option is that, like Peter Parker's initial self-centeredness*, Sue's growing insecurity is part of a character arc which will ultimately result in her discovering her own assertiveness and self-worth. As a character, she is well-written - her torn loyalty between Reed and Namor seems human rather than a stereotypical damsel in distress or flighty woman.

    Cont’d

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  18. Cont’d


    To get slightly back on track to the actual topic of conversation, Splash pages! There's a great panel in the FF/Hulk crossover which isn't even the entire page - only 3/4 of it - and it's absolutely chock full of action and movement! Johnny is flying around (the decision to give him a fire trail is perfect for creating a sense of movement), the Thing's grabbing him, Mr. F is grabbing the Thing, there's a soldier in the middle, falling over as Sue, invisible, is grabbing his gun, and they're all having a chaotic but perfectly ordered conversation, with speech bubbles that follow the action and are completely understandable. It bears repeating, I know you agree, but Kirby is such a master of the craft.

    Modern comic artist such as Jim Lee and Geoff Johns have to realize a splash isn't just a panel blown up. A splash, like a single panel, can convey the passage of time, and a series of related or unrelated moments, like that Broons panel I remember you put up a while ago. (Or a car crash panel from we3, but we'll let sleeping dogs lie at the moment, apologies for the insensitive pun.)

    It's a truism, as well as somewhat of an irrelevancy, that older comics packed way more into space than modern ones, but it's just amazing to realize that that one 3/4 of a page conveyed an entire sequence of events, that said a ton about each character, was exciting, and fun, whereas a full page of JL (an acronym which conveniently fits both Justice League and Jim Lee!) merely says "Superman punched the big dude and said something jerkish" or "Wonderwoman stabbed that guy in the eye while mugging at the camera."

    One note on the new commenting format that lets people reply directly to comments-
    Pro: way easier to follow flow of conversation - you don't have to search for the comment someone's replying to halfway up the page anymore.
    Con: harder to tell which comments are new - when coming back a day later, I used to just be able to scroll to the bottom to see the most recent comments, but now I have to look through the entire comments section to see if there's a thread someone followed up on. Horses for courses of course, but I figured you'd appreciate the feedback.

    An additional comment on the comments, while I'm here - it can be frustrating when I exceed the character limit while writing in the comment box - most comment boxes physically limit the amount of characters - once you have written your 4,096, it doesn't allow you to write any more. Here, however, you can write all you want, but then have to copy it into Word or some such document editor and perform all sorts of Word Count Alchemy. Again, this is the very epitome of First World Problems (as I try to remind myself when I become frustrated with daily inconveniences), but I thought you'd appreciate the feedback. :)

    *check out CA's Ask Chris** column this week for a pretty insightful discussion of Spiderman - a lot of it touches on stuff you've discussed previously, but it brings it all together well. And, coincidentally, includes the "Spiderman trapped under something" panels you referenced. I gotta get my hands on those early Spiderman issues.

    ** and I'm sorry for always referencing CA and Sims so much, but I don't read that much comics journalism besides your and their sites, so that's a good portion of my reference material. While I'm here, they did a great point-counterpoint on JL that will probably interest you if you haven't read it already. Uzumeri brings up some points about character work - and having not read it yet, I can't vouch for the veracity, but it interested me, at least.

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  19. Hello Historyman:- I did warn you about that FF Essential. Once you get a taste for those old Lee and Kirby tales, their virtues are never exhausted. And it's SO easy to feel enthusiastic about those stories. To do so doesn't mean that the reader feels that those ways of storytelling ought to be lifted wholesale into the present-day book. But it does mean that it's easy to feel perplexed as to why the modern book pays so little attention to its own heritage.

    I can picture the page you describe perfectly and it must be years since I first saw it. The arc which you describe wirh Sue's character>? Well, I don't remember that with any such precision. My memory is that Sue was pretty much always a door-mat, but of course now I'll have to go back and see whether I've not been imagining how she was portrayed.

    I of course agree with everything you say about splash pages. Yet they're now taken for granted by the Rump and those who feed their compulsions, meaning that it's hard to imagine a situation when anything will change. It's a sad state of affairs. Yet why is it tough for creators to remember that a double page spread, or even a single one, ought to deserve the space it fills. At the heart of this situation is the fact that some creators don't feel any responsibility towards their readers. They just don't care whether folks have been given value for their money.

    I agree with you about the comments now. I think that the old system was probably better, because, as you say, it allowed folks to turn up and note what's changed. But I do particularly like the fact that folks can exchange comments with each other in a far more direct fashion now. So two steps back, but one step forward.

    I have no problem at all with you refering to CA and Mr Sims. He's a fine blogger, the site's a good 'un, and anything you choose to raise is fine by me. I missed the Spider-Man stuff, but I can pop over when I've a second. No, there's no problemo with you refering to them folks at all :)

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