Saturday, 29 December 2012

What's The Point Of Simon Baz, Green Lantern & Car Thief? (Part 2)



Scratch the surface of the Green Lantern issues which feature Simon Baz and all that Johns seems able to offer is a vague and saccharine sympathy for those who lack power. Worse yet, it's only the least threatening of those who've in any way been socially disadvantaged that Johns wants to empathise with. And so, the Arab-American and Muslim citizens he mentions fall into just three distinct categories. First and foremost, there’s supposedly well-meaning and self-pitying petty criminals, as represented of course by Simon Baz. Then there’s the meek and passive good citizens, persecuted on an everyday basis by both the Republic as a whole as well as by their own community;

Mr Baz (senior) to his daughter Sira; "(My wife) won't leave the house. Your mother's friends won't talk to her. The Mosque won't let us in. We're as guilty (in the eyes of our own friends, neighbours and co-religionists) as your brother." 

Finally, there's that clearly cruel, unloving, and ostracising Muslim community itself, of which all we're told is that they're refusing to even talk to, let alone help, the Baz family in any way at all. Beyond this, there's nothing and no-one. The self-obsessed and lawless, the law-abiding and woe begotten, and the uncaring mass are all that Johns refers to. As a result, the writer appears to be suggesting that America should embrace the communities that Simon Baz is intended to represent despite their law-breaking, lack of character, and fundamentally heartless nature.


What's missing is any sense that Arab-American Muslims have any compassion, guts and campaigning smarts of their own. Nobody that's shown or referred to has any political convictions at all, whether framed in the context of Islam or not. Nor do they belong to any organisations of a social, religious or economic nature which might enable them to fight back and define their own lives according to their own principles and desires. On the one hand, suggests Johns, they're victims, deserving of our pity because they’re worn-down after doing their very best despite all the bullying. On the other, those from beyond the Baz's nuclear family seem predominantly dull-headed and hard-hearted, self-interested if not actively anti-social. Neither the mostly virtuous if excessively acquiescent Baz family or their Arab-American fellows appear to have the slightest idea of how to organise and resist. On the page, they exist solely to generate a sense of ill-defined kindliness on the reader's part, and yet what they can't do is inspire our respect. The Baz family is, the wretched Simon apart, clearly a close and loving one. But beyond that, they're rudderless. Everyone is against them, from their neighbours to their nation, and all they can think to do is keep their head down and hope the storm will pass. 

Surely Johns can't be trying to say that these particular Americans deserve respect and protection despite themselves? That they should be tolerated because they're - mostly - no threat at all to anyone except, on occasion, car owners? That even their criminals are essentially lovable klutzes who could be good citizens if the right advantageous circumstances would only arrive? For not only has Johns failed to show anything of the reality of the community that Simon Baz comes from, but he's also repeatedly demeaned it. We are, after all, being expected to respect a group of Americans who are shown being actively cruel to their own, though how that circle might be squared is never explained. In four months worth of stories, there really hasn't been a single pro-active, inspiring individual or organisation to be seen.

Despite that, there's an awful sense that Johns considers his work to be radical and worthwhile simply because he's shown Sira wearing the hijab and working for the government. She's even has  - gosh! - her own office at "the Dearborn Office of The Secretary Of State", from which she's sent home indefinitely because her fellow workers are scared of her. (*1) If that hardly reflects well on the men and women of the Republic in general, they are at least also represented in Johns scripts by noble superheroes and nation-saving secret agents. Of Arab American Muslims, there's no-one but the Disnified Baz family and their tearful, lonely isolation to suggest anything at all of interest, let alone strength. As such, the most positive values which they can be said to represent are a willingness to shut up, do what they're told and stay out of trouble. Beyond Sira's willingness to meet her brother in secret in order to serve as his conscience, there's little sign at all of power ring-less Arab-Americans being anything more admirable than victims, some of which are endearing as individuals while ohers - it's implied - are not.

*1:- Typically, Johns doesn't tell us anything about the nature of the leave, or the legal grounds under which it occurs, or the professional help she was offered or could call upon. We're certainly not shown Sira refusing to go, let alone declaring that she'll fight the decision.

An "incentive" cover variant for the zero issue, focused to an greater degree on that mask and that gun.

As a result, what Johns limply presents is a series of general and exceptionally limited criticisms of America, its state and its people. As if even that might leave his stories seeming all too vulnerable to criticism, he also offers up a collection of similarly ill-defined excuses; post-9/11 Americans were frightened, and outraged, and helpless, and working for the nation's greater good, and so on, all of which led them to lash out at Americans they associated with the Other. Nobody, it seems, is really to blame for anything, although it is the Islamic community which comes out of Johns tales the worst. They alone are shown to have failed to have produced anything other than the meek, or the meekly criminal.

Perhaps Johns simply lacks the courage to express his own beliefs where prejudice and discrimination are concerned. Yet such is the number and degree of howlers in his scripts that it does seem more likely that he neither truly understands either the issues at hand or the way in which fiction can be used to engage with them. Scratch any moment in his scripts and a set of contradictory messages immediately emerges. And so, Johns does at first seem to be excusing Baz's criminal activities with reference to the depression of recent years. But then he decides to present Sira blaming Simon for not seeking her help when times got hard. It's not the economy at all, stupid, but pride and guilt on Baz's part. (It's certainly hard to see why cars had to be stolen to support his sister when she's clearly earning a good living.) Up into the air go a series of possible causes, and up there they stay. What Johns' is offering isn't a sophisticated multi-casual analysis boiled down into the form of a comic-book melodrama. He's not suggesting in any rigorous way that crime has a host of overlapping causes from individual choice to financial destitution. Instead, he’s pushing a suggestion of his own importance - his own magnanimity - mixed with a lack of any considered, or even brave, thinking. It really is as if he was determined to cover his back with every possible constituency rather than offering any kind of forceful, insightful analysis. More than anything else, he seems desperate not to make anything other than the least contentious criticisms of America herself.  
       
  
And so, regardless of what Baz has actually been shown doing, nothing is allowed to make us feel that he's anything other than a rather sweet guy who's made just a few mistakes. It's as if Johns is suggesting that, yes, Arab-Americans who are also Muslims aren't always perfect when it comes to the law, but they are rather lovable despite it all. What's more, they can be as good as the rest of us if they're lucky enough to (a) have a fantastic opportunity - like a SF weapon - fall into their hands, and (b) if they're determined to put the problems which they've caused everyone else to rights. As a result, the very real racism that's such a pernicious part of the West's everyday affairs becomes reduced to a quickly-delivered plot-point implying that poor unlucky Simon Baz deserves out unconditional support because he's essentially nice. He's sorry that he caused his brother's coma. He regrets the car stealing. He's been harshly treated. He's a nice guy. He's even shown being willing to try to help society protect itself, or at least, he is once he's been caught, banged up in Guantanamo, and given access to super-powers  "I'm a car thief, not a terrorist!" Baz declares, as if the former choice is a minor and passing accident of fate. (*2)

Even then, Baz only reforms when he's nothing to gain by refusing to do so. He makes no sacrifices in turning towards the good. His only hope for freedom and forgiveness is to adopt the role of terrorist-hunting superhero. In short, becoming a superhero works entirely to his advantage, which makes him the supposedly heroic figure who's given up nothing but imprisonment and poverty in order to prove himself a better citizen.

With great power, it seems, comes the ability to sidestep the responsibility for one's own actions.

*2:"I'm a doctor, not a terrorist!", or "I'm an unemployed and law-abiding man who works for the community and not a terrorist!" surely would have been the more appropriate starting point.


Over and over again, what might seem to be a liberal point of view in Johns' scripts is qualified with a right-wing stance, and vice versa. And so, individual Americans are indeed briefly presented persecuting Muslims following 9/11, but then, Baz himself is - as we've discussed - hardly a good American in any typical sense of the term. Indeed, establishing Baz as an admirable individual has never been part of DC's plan for the character where the first month of his adventures is concerned. No doubt his arc leads towards his assuming the mantle of a licensing-friendly, pillar-of-the-nation super-bloke. But DC's despicable decision to initially drum up interest in him through the use of tropes associated with the media stereotype of Islamic terrorism shows how little the company grasps of what is and what isn't appropriate. For no discernible reason other than the shameful use of prejudice in order to shock the audience and scare up a hypeful buzz, publicity material showed Baz (a) carrying a gun while (b) wearing a Green Lantern costume now supplemented by an intimidating, full-faced mask. As an image, it pandered to the media shorthand of the evil, bomb-wielding Other, although the stories themselves went out of their way to state that Baz was anything other than a terrorist.

As if he felt compelled to remove the slightest trace of the very fuss he'd used to sell the book in the first place, Johns had Baz create the mask after his sister advised him to keep his identity secret from the State. It's as if the writer wanted to be able to turn around and declare that there was a dramatic rather than an exploitative reason for the mask, although Baz has tellingly retained it even though the authorities now know that he's the new Green Lantern. The ridiculous presence of a gun has also been back-tracked from. Aside from the promo shots and the cover of the zero issue, Baz has never carried one while he's wearing his superhero togs. Indeed, the only time he's been shown carrying a gun is when he's in his orange Guantanamo Bay overalls and - with some smug irony - defending himself against a fiendish, lone white terrorist. As such, the costume exists only to stir up fan-chat through the brutally unscrupulous use of tropes associated with terror. It's not a design that's been chosen so that the creators can discuss the way in which such images have been used. Instead, it exists solely to create surprise and outrage, and, in combination with the lack of redeeming moral qualities on Baz's part, it serves to reinforce far more than it challenges prejudice.


   
An outstanding example of this mixture of insulting sloppy storytelling matched with confused ideological messages can be found in "Innocent Lives", in GL#15.  For there, it turns out the theft by Baz of a van packed with explosives didn't just -  luckily! - prevent an atrocity. (Baz drives the van-bomb into a deserted factory building and saves us all, showing how theft can be a vital part of the War On Terror.) It also ultimately leads to Baz tracking down the terrorist responsible, and to the new Green Lantern uncovering a bomb factory too! Good old Simon Baz! Even when he's behaved in a despicable way, the consequences of his actions turn out to have been wonderfully good. That the terrorist himself turns out to be a white, would-be mass murderer with a front room filled with dead animal heads simply adds yet another layer of meaning-diffusing confusion into the mix. For Johns has loaded up these four issues with a host of the social concerns, and yet the real problem all along was a single, convenient lunatic, the existence of whom helps give the sense of a dramatic resolution which doesn't convincingly touch on America's problems with race and colour, power and wealth, at all. It may even be that Johns thinks that having a lone white terrorist as the cause of Baz's arrest and imprisonment and torture is a mark of a brave, ironic reversal of expectation.

It's this unwillingness to take a stand on anything of substance in Johns scripts beyond the perniciousness of not being nice that ultimately labels these books as a timid if not cowardly and insulting business. And so, the suspicion inevitably arises that perhaps Baz is a car thief so that Johns can't be accused by reactionaries of presenting idealised versions of Muslim-Americans. And perhaps Simon Baz makes not a single reference to the Prophet and his works so that the Muslim community won't regard him as an insulting portrayal of a true believer. As a working theory, it makes at least as much sense as believing that Johns is simply a well-meaning idiot.

          

So why does the character of Simon Baz exist? With a measure of passion and conviction, Johns might have taken this opportunity to make a forceful, principled, and coherent statement about massively important social problems. Whatever political stance it was that he might have adopted is beside the point. Right, left, centrist, out-there extremist; something that was well-thought through and passionately believed in might have helped stimulate debate. If nothing else, he might have demolished rather than reinforcing the idea that there's such a thing as a single community of Arab-American Muslims which carries a few backsliders in its ranks. (A single brief sentence indicating that Simon and his father disagree about the former's tattoos is hardly a convincing marker of diversity.) Instead, Johns gets no further than hinting that we all ought to be just a little nicer to each other, and ends up seeming to suggest that little can actually change because no-one’s really responsible for what’s going on. Not the state, not society, not the economy and those who control it, and certainly not any individuals beyond the odd stray madman with a van full of bombs. Some frightened and a very few vicious citizens, some zealous and impolite state officials, a lonesome terrorist or two; these are America’s problems, and those of much of the West, reduced to the vaguest and least helpful of explanations.

And yet, if there’s nothing really wrong with America where matters of race and state-sponsored terrorism are concerned, and if all we need is to just be a little more understanding of car thieves and torturers alike, then it’s hard to wonder why anyone should make a fuss about publishing Simon Baz’s adventures at all. If there’s no real social problems at work in 21st century America beyond irresponsibility and callousness, then why is it important that Baz exists in the pages of Green Lantern at all? Why has this comicbook been published, when its sole achievement is to succeed in being both cowardly and offensive at the very same time?

    
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30 comments:

  1. Dear Colin,

    I have to say that I think you have hit the nail on the head. The whole idea of Simon Baz has been mostly as a way to "shake" things up a bit, to show that they are being daring in making an Arab-American Muslin a hero, bringing out the gun picture, but then running away from it, once the issue actually hit the stands.

    It has all boiled down from being a big publicity stunt, to actually being pretty wishy-washy. Simon Bax as a character is, as I have said before...just...bland. There is nothing much to him. Certainly he has been discrimiated against, and so has his family. But John Stewart was discriminated against, and did his level best from the beginning to stand up to authority, and help his family and neighborhood. He also didn't wear a mask. ANd he certainly didn't run around stealing cars.

    Guy was a jerk...an unrepentant jerk in the old days...but he was still a hero. He also had brain damage and STILL tried to the right thing, but he was so handy to have around to voice all of those unpolitically correct things. He was also hilarious. Simon is humorless and dull.

    He is also, let us face it... a bit whiny. So is Hal, but at least Hal is charming. I also forgive Hal his stupidity because he is so very very pretty.

    Kyle may have been a hopeless rookie, naive, guileless and a rank amateur, but he did amazing things with the ring, simply because he had no idea that he COULDN'T! So Far Simon has shown a certain amount of imagination in duping the Justice League, which is about the sole point in his favor...but he certainly hasn't done anything about trying to figure anything else about the ring. Yes, he's a rookie, but his only efforts have been to free himself, and everything that he has done is for his own benefit.

    He doesn't even really seem to be that angry at the injustices done to his people and family. It is more as though he is upset that he has been personally inconvenienced. I find him to be awfully shallow so far.

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    1. Hello Sally:- There was a terrific opportunity here, wasn't there? As you've argued, the first appearance of John Stewart is the best example so far of how the Green Lantern franchise can be used to discuss social issues. By that, I don't mean that Stewart's depiction in 1971 was without problems, and I'm certainly not trying to suggest that the Adams/O'Neil approach is the only one that ought to be followed. But they did undertake their job with passion and a knowledge of the world beyond that shown here in Johns work. The relevancy era has been constantly poked fun at since, and yet I'd take that over today's era of bland, corporate comics any time.

      Now, as always, I need to make sure that I qualify that. The last year has seen the super-book engaging in politics in a variety of ways. The issue of the 1% started to appear in Batgirl. Demon Knights dealt fairly and admirably with various aspects of sex and gender. Uncanny X-Men and JIM discussed class and ruling class ideology. Dial H For Hero saw Alan Moore getting a good ticking off for his attempt to put the golliwog to good use. There HAS been good work, and yet ...

      Far, far more prevalent has been the usual reactionary nonsense. And here there's the strangest mix of reactionary politics mixed with undeniable good intentions.

      Having obviously blethered away about the politics of it all, you also - kindly - offer me the chance to think about how poorly Johns has dealt with the issue of character here. There was a time when he was a terrific re-caster of classic superhero properties. In his JSA days, I can't think of a substantially misjudged move until his version of Doctor Fate appeared. But here - as you've quite accurately expressed, of course - he's managed to create a superhero who simply isn't interesting in himself or by comparison with his fellow GLs. It's not just a matter of political miscalculations here. There's also the question of why Johns thinks this character - this individual - is of any interest. And I can't see why he might be. Even to the bad-ass worshiping crowd, it's surely obvious that Baz is anything but.

      For me, the key issue that shows that Johns has either (a) lost the plot or (b) is leaving it late to show otherwise is the fact that Baz hasn't had to sacrifice anything to become a superhero. He actually wins through serving nothing but his immediate self-interest. For a thief to adopt the role of superhero and do so in a win-win fashion strikes me as bizarre. In essence, Johns is presenting us with a character who gets to win the lottery of life BECAUSE of his criminal behaviour.

      But then, Baz gets to heroically hunt down the "real" terrorist because of his van-thieving too. If you wanted to cruelly boil down these issues to a single meaning, it would be hard to be more succinct than "being a thief can be a fine way to inadvertently serve the wider community and kick off an undeserved career as a major-league superhero".

      Wha'ppen there?

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    2. Good Grief! I really should read my replies before posting, as I made SO many typos! I humbly apologize for my incoherence and spelling errors.

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    3. Hello Sally - I hope you won't feel the need to do so. I didn't register the typos myself, and I'd much rather your always-welcomed visits were undertaken in a friendly, relaxed fashion.

      Of course, that worries me that it'll sound like I'm taking it for granted that you might ever decide to pop in again. That wasn't my intention. But if you, there are no such thing as typos here. I find so many in my own posts that I daren't ever notice them elsewhere ...

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  2. Cowardly, offensive, and unthinking.

    In an interesting parallel to the apparent lack of fault in this DC america, who's to blame for the creation of this book? John's has been hit the hardest in these two articles (and not without cause!) but, as is ever the cry, where was the editor? How does the publisher let the thing out the door? Do the higher ups at Time-Warner have anything to say about these books?

    From this perspective, just as a sort of thought exercise, Geoff Johns is Simon Baz- surely a nice enough person... and he only writes these comics because he has to support his family. Yes, I'm comparing writing these books to car theft.

    Despite my terrible example, Johns has stumbled onto a "point" if he noticed/cared enough to make it, the complicated job of finding the root of the social problems we face today. I could see Simon Baz turning out to be a distraught, rebel in search of a cause.

    If someone could just team him up with a member of the arrow family we could really get that story. Maybe him and Arsenal need a mini-series.

    I can't believe I still don't own the original Green Arrow/Lantern journey across america, the stories are definitely a favourite of mine.

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    1. Hello Isaac:- I've been reading and re-reading these issues over and over in the hope that I might come to a different conclusion to the one you kick off your comment with. Because these are such a stupid-headed sequence of issues, it's hard to actually accept that Johns could've gone to press with them. I've been going over them in a desperate attempt to see what I've missed, but if it's there, it's quite gone over my head. I would encourage anybody who might chance upon the above and who hasn't read the issues to go hunt them down. I'm capable of missing some pretty obvious points, and it may well be that these stories are actually smartly crafted and radical polemics. But I don't think so.

      As for whether anyone higher up at the corporation had a say, it would be fascinating to know. But then, DC talked the talk about increasing the diversity and number of its representations when the New 52 happened. So far, that's largely proven to have been hogwash. Perhaps Vibe and Simon Baz are part of an attempt to finally act on those promises. If so, the omens aren't good for Vibe, though who knows what's to come? It would be hard to think of something less appealing in so many ways than this quarter of a year of Green Lantern issues.

      But as you say, it would have been fascinating if Johns had wanted to use Baz to discuss a multi-casual model of crime. Yet that would've involved doing more than touching on issues. Johns would have needed to mention, for example, how labels of race function in terms of power and privilege. And I can't imagine that he'd ever do that.

      But perhaps things will change. Perhaps they'll change with the very next issue. There may even be a way in which Johns can use these four issues to set up a smart, accurate discussion of the many issues he both raises and yet body-swerves. But even in that unlikely event, there's still the problem of the four months in which this tripe was out in the market helping to shape the debate.

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  3. Dear Colin,

    While I think you've clearly and thoroughly shown the weaknesses in Johns' introduction and characterization of Simon Baz, I'm going to have to disagree with you on the ways to improve his depiction...or that of any minority group.

    Focusing on admirable, heroic members of a minority group does no good and can actually be counterproductive. When Mookie confronts his racist co-worker Pino in Do the Right Thing, (I paraphrase): With you, it's nigger this and nigger that, but all of your heroes are black--Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan!" Unfazed, he calmly replies: "But they're...they're not really black! They're...more than black!"

    "I'm a doctor, not a terrorist!" would in fact be the pinnacle of lazy, comformist moralizing, because it would not challenge the common justifications for discriminatory treatment. The NYPD is not frisking minorities who are evidently upper middle class; they are largely targeting young black and Hispanic men who look, dress and talk like poor people. It would be a lot harder to abuse someone who can clearly afford lawyers, after all. "I'm a doctor, not a terrorist!" would also confirm the biases of the many people who believe that success and virtue are the only shield that minorities should want or need.
    "I'm a car thief, not a terrorist!" is in fact the proper challenge to make, as it attacks the very heart of the issue: Should suspected terrorists be given the protection of the law? Is habeas corpus, and the right to counsel, and the right to be judged by a jury of your peers, only suitable for good, upstanding citizens who fully embody Christian virtues? It's a pity the proper argument is much harder, and less comforting, to make.

    I think part of the problem is that Geoff Johns knows how pernicious "model minorities" can be, so he avoids any heroic, socially affirming traits in Simon Baz, yet he can't suppress his populist storytelling instincts. The result is the train wreck you've described.

    Happy New Year, Colin!

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    1. Hello David; “While I think you've clearly and thoroughly shown the weaknesses in Johns' introduction and characterization of Simon Baz, I'm going to have to disagree with you on the ways to improve his depiction...or that of any minority group.Focusing on admirable, heroic members of a minority group does no good and can actually be counterproductive.”

      We’re not disagreeing, David. In both the above and its preceding post, I’ve argued that the problem lies in (1) having such a narrow range of representations in play which are also often (2) clearly negative stereotypes too. At no point have I argued that the best way to represent minorities is to present idealised representations. I have said that if Johns is only going to have one central representation of Arab-American Muslim life in his stories, then it really ought not to be one that’s formed largely from negative stereotypes. Better a doctor or a community worker than a car thief dressed in a way that evokes media images of Islamic terrorists. But better a range of fully-formed individuals than either.

      As for the idea that Baz is somehow allowing Johns to challenge prejudice by being a car-thief and road racer while dressed as a figure who evokes images of terrorists ... No, I'm afraid again that we're going to have to respectfully disagree with each other there. In fact, I’m baffled as to why terrorism has to be the central issue when introducing representations of Arab-Americans at all. That again is simply playing to the stereotype. That it’s an issue that deserves looking at as one of many concerns is beyond doubt. But to make it THE issue for THE initial adventure of Simon Baz – and to do so in such a crass, shallow way – is, to my mind, a terrible miscalculation. Surely the way to represent a community of Americans is not to open up by focusing on such stereotypes with so little attention being paid to wider, everyday issues? To define Arab-Americans with little attention to anything but ill-defined discussions of torture and prejudice is ... a terrible, terrible misjudgment.

      The solution to the problems of Johns scripts would be complex and demanding for any writer faced with making something worthwhile of so much that’s weak and even offensive. I certainly would never have suggested insulting the audience with simple noble types as a way of dealing with the weaknesses of Simon Baz as a character and a representation. In fact, in the above, I complained about the lack of diversity, depth and range in the characters on show. From that, I was hoping that my preference for subtle rather than over-simplified strategies would be plain.

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  4. It is striking that the Green Lantern Corps has become the sole supplier of diversity in the DCU. John Stewart's 1971 debut was not mere tokenism, as Stewart himself was a three-dimensional character and O'Neil & Adams tapped into contemporary racial politics. Over three decades later (and almost simultaneously in spring 2012), DC produces its first major Muslim and gay characters--but don't worry, they're a distant 5th and 6th in seniority. They won't be making movies about THESE Green Lanterns. It seems to be of a piece with sticking Cyborg in the Justice League or having an Asian Atom or Hispanic Blue Beetle. Even if those characters are well-written, the calculus of "Is this character minor enough to be made nonwhite (or non-straight or non-Christian)?" is shameful. It's also shockingly out of step with today's youth, who have moved past many of these issues. But then again, these "T" comics aren't written for "teens," are they? They conform to the prejudices of those who came of age, at least biologically, in the extreme 90's.

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    1. Hello Rabbi Joe:- It would be fascinating to be able to gain the knowledge of what DC intended by Simon Baz from - as it were - the horse's mouth, free from back-covering and hype. I do retain my belief that nothing but good was intended by Baz, for example, and yet it is hard to grasp what DC's vision of "good" might be. Presumably we can uncover that by looking at the material which ended up being printed. Your suspicions sound like ... how can I put this? ... interesting hypothesis to me. And yet, it's hard to grasp why so little effort is placed into representing anything but White blokes and cliched takes on everyone else.

      Of course, that's not to say that there haven't been interesting and worthwhile experiments with representation in the past few years. I liked the Gail Simone take on Ryan Choi, for example, and I wish the character were still here. Similarly, I'm fond of the most recent take on the Blue Beetle, or at least I was until the disastrous arm-loping tales I came across in the New 52. Batwoman, the Demon Knights; there has been good and caring work out there. But beyond these worthwhile experiments is the broader world of the DCU. And there, you're right, there's a sense that pieces are being moved around the chess board without the appropriate conviction and enthusiasm being shown for the company's products where social, ethical issues as a whole are concerned.

      "But then again, these "T" comics aren't written for "teens," are they?"

      I get your point. They're being produced for a narrow rather than a broad range of teenage readers. One of the things that worries me is that I suspect that a great deal of the New 52 really is being written for a particular niche of male teenage readers. We know that's who the New 52 initiative primarily targeted. It disturbs me that so little attention was paid to diversity in that campaign beyond mostly - but not entirely - shallow gestures. What does that say about producers and consumers alike? Thankfully, there remain a range of editors and creators who are concerned to reflect something other than the world according to white blokes who are gifted enough to do so well.

      But there's just not enough of them, there's not.

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  5. Just wanted to chime in and say that all of this just makes me appreciate Karen Berger a lot more (not that I didn't have a great appreciation for her to begin with). Many people feel that when DC became "DC Entertainment" she should have been named Publisher instead of Dan Didio and Jim Lee.

    Mrs. Berger is one of the greatest visionaries to ever work in the comic book industry and is responsible for shepherding some of the most beautifully crafted literary works to ever be published.

    If she had gotten that position, would we be seeing such hilariously vapid characters like Baz take center stage? Or better yet, would the New 52 as a whole be such a giant clusterf*ck?

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    1. Hello Sergeant Hartman:- You make a fine point. I wonder whether Karen Berger would've wanted that job at the top of the DC corporate ladder, but she would have undoubtedly done a fine job. And given that I can't recall as single problematical representation in a Vertigo book ... by the nature of fiction, there must have been such a thing, but I can't remember anything of the sort. Equally important, she published books by right wingers such as Bill Willingham, centre-leftists such as Paul Cornell and radicals such as Rick Veitch and enabled each to express their own personal political visions. That ability would have been so useful in the New 52 which - with some notable exceptions - has so often failed to live up to its responsibilities as regards the representations in its books.

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  6. I have a strong feeling that America and the Muslim community of Johns' GL series is going to remain in the negative light until Baz does something so amazingly superheroic that no one will have a choice but to change their ways.

    "Gee, all we needed to become a little less apathetic and more pro-active was to see was that fellow Muslims can explode aliens with lasers too!" the Muslim community will say.

    "Wow! Muslim superheros can explode aliens with lasers as well as other American superheros! Even the white ones!" the American people will say.

    And then everyone will be inspired to be better people because of exploding aliens. To really drive the point home, they'll probably be racist aliens and will probably make a speech about how humans don't deserve to be treated well, and then Baz will say something about how everyone deserves to be treated the same no matter what, before blowing the aliens with lasers in a extra violent splash page.

    I'd be willing to bet money on it that that's exactly how it'll play out. It reminds me of a forum conversation I was in and someone that claimed to have been an intern at DC claimed that Johns once told him "what's the point in writing something, if it's not awesome?" There were also some amusing anecdotes that would be very telling if real, but whether he was telling the truth or not, that quote /does/ seem to be Johns' M.O.

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    1. Hello Joe:- You would hope that that wouldn't be so, wouldn't you, but you may very well be right. I live in fear of the next issue ending with a respectful cast of torturers, superheroes and Green Lanterns all gathering around the Baz's Mosque while the Arab-American community applauds the new Green Lantern for being ... what? ... A SUPERHERO! Or some such scene. The blood chills ....

      What's the point of writing something if it's not awesome? It's an interesting idea, regardless of who it actually comes from. At what point did "awesome" and "rational, well-considered, smart-minded, emotionally intelligent" part company? I retain my faith that all the scenes of exploding planets and armies of the dead can co-exist with clever, empathetic tales. Yet somehow the culture has moved closer to the point at which "awesome" - and the qualities it suggests - means excessive spectacle regardless of any of those other more human qualities.

      And underneath all this rubbish about Simon Baz is the undeniable fact that the Arab-American Muslim communities could be the source of such fascinating tales. It would take study, heart and daring, for there's problems and challenges present in any community as well as more positive qualities. But as Paul Cornell showed in the last Captain Britain series, it's more than possible to produce thoroughly enjoyable super-books that do more than just throw up ill-considered stereotypes.

      But would that be awesome?

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  7. Johns might be onto something in keeping his distance from portraying how a Muslim-American community works, or how an office job works, or how healthcare works, or how a society works once its participants have graduated from high school, as to rail against the true injustices of organised religion requires passion as much as insight, and Johns' work to date has not featured much in the way of either. For all his faults as a storyteller of late, there's still moments in the odd Judd Winnick story where you can just tell he's pissed at something, but I've never got that from Johns - passion is not his wheelhouse.

    Johns' forte has always been in the field of continuity-wank, a term I do use in a derogatory way as much as a descriptive one: Stars and Stripe, Superman, Legion of Five Worlds, Infinite Crisis - all stories based on other stories or those stories' characters, but with Simon Baz there's just so much blank cloth that can't be filled with platitudes and the "I guess being bad is not okay" outlook of the uncommitted liberal whose day job is to offend as few people as possible and the way you avoid offending people is you don't ask them to think about the things they hold to be true. Johns' greatest failing with Baz is not that as a whole the enterprise is unchallenging, it is that Johns was attracted to the idea of being the guy who did the "Arab American Superhero Book" without considering if he was really the guy to tell a story about a character with no existing fanbase or pool of existing stories to be strip-mined for ideas - again, another staple of Johns' work.

    I guess what I am saying is that Garth Ennis would have written the shit out of this story. It would have been something, am I right?

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    1. Hello Brigonos:- I want a t-shirt with PASSION IS MY WHEELHOUSE. Though I'll want to loose about 10 years worth of weight before I dare to weat it ...

      The problem with Johns is that he HASN'T keep away from those things. He's neither stayed away from the issues you mentioned or treated them with delicacy, knowledge and insight. As you say, he doesn't have a track record of dealing with real-world issues in the super-book, or at least he hasn't beyond the focus on grief, loss and family which informed much of his best work.

      I find everything that you've written in your second paragraph to be entirely convincing. The idea that Baz is such a difficult prospect for Johns to bring to life because he offers nothing of continuity to play with is a compelling one. Can it really be that Johns knows everything about continuity and so little about real life and the traditions of how it's represented in fiction? That seems hard to accept. At the very least, his own background is relevant here. How is it that he can't even draw on that here, when he has done so in others contexts before.

      It would have been wonderful to see what Garth Ennis did with this raw material. The form that might have taken would've depended, of course, on who he was choosing to use the material to discuss. But one way or another, I would've bought his take without a moment's hesitation.

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    2. Having sat through more than one lecture about how Colin Farrel is not a working class tearaway and is in fact a posh gobshite, I suppose it's my turn to be a jerk about someone using perceptions of their "class" or race to get ahead or to make a cheap point, as Johns may technically be of Lebanese heritage, but I'm part Viking and can tell you with certainty that my background knowledge in the worlds of sailing, rape and being ginger is nonexistent.
      As far as I am aware Johns hails from a very affluent Detroit suburb where the inhabitants' view of the rest of the city has born an enduring belief that Robocop is a documentary, so I'm not sure how drawing on his background would have made for a better Simon Baz.

      Although JT Edison's career did just fine despite his background, so I am not sure what my point is, really, apart from that Robocop is always worth mentioning.

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    3. Hello Brigonos:- The assumption that a person's background will grant them any particular insight, or indeed the ability to express it, is a dubious one, isn't it, given how many folks attempt to write about what they know and end up producing barely lukewarm work. In Johns' case here, I suspect that part of his problem is that he seems to have no idea of how representations have been traditionally put to work. (If he has, then he's chosen to ignore that knowledge, which would be hubris rather than ignorance.) As such, he's using the tools developed for superhero tales in an environment where such needs to supplemented with other tools.

      I suspect that you're fibbing about that Robocop business, although you're quite right about how thoroughly splendid the movie is.

      But as for your Viking heritage granting you no insight, how can you explain your empathy with polar bears? I mean, Vikings obviously spent a great deal of time with polar bears, didn't they? That's how representations work, isn't it?

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    4. "As far as I am aware Johns hails from a very affluent Detroit suburb where the inhabitants' view of the rest of the city has born an enduring belief that Robocop is a documentary, so I'm not sure how drawing on his background would have made for a better Simon Baz."

      While this is true, it does (or should) give Johns some level of insight into Detroit and its neighboring communities, which could help flesh out Baz himself. Where Baz comes from should inform him in some way as much as his ethnicity and religion, much as how Peter Parker coming from Forest Hills matters.

      Going off on that tangent, it's been remarkably frustrating all around how Johns was not only unspecific in his representation of Muslims, but even of the Metro Detroit area. A great deal of that lies with Doug Mahnke depicting it in only the most generic visual shorthand, but even from the writing (he doesn't have a lot of "establishing shots," I've noticed), I wouldn't gather Johns has ever been to these places, let alone grew up in the area!

      The best he's come up with are references to the auto industry (even then only in vague terms) and the Secretary of State's Office.

      I guess the only point there is just to add another layer to how much Johns, Mahnke, and DC have failed with this character. And while I'm adding my voice to a chorus: Robocop is a great movie.

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    5. Hello Andrew:- You mentioning Robocop just made me realise that it's actually all the more relevant in the light of today's politics too. I must find some time to watch it again pronto.

      I appreciate you mentioning the lack of geographical as well as cultural specificity. I despair of the super-book's lack of interest in the real world. Where there's a recognisable version of reality, all the costumed absurdity becomes all the more remarkable because we can compare what we know - or at least can believe - with their remarkable antics. But place generic super-people in generic landscapes and the whole thing blurs in a colossal sense of over-familiarity. It was one thing for the great Silver Age artists who had little access to research and a great deal of work to do to pay the bills to create their own reality. A Ditko, Infantino or Kirby cityscape was fascinating in its own unique character, and the stories being told rarely needed reality referenced.

      But, as you say, a tale set in specific areas and concerned with specific cultures? It would have been preferable if more work had been done by those concerned.

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    6. Julien Temple's Requiem For Detroit should have been mandatory viewing for the creators.

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    7. Hello Emmet:- Agreed. I was deeply tempted to talk about Detroit as I understand it from sources like Requiem - which I was lucky enough to catch on BBC 2 about 18 months ago, and which I have never forgotten. But then, even last week's Late Show piece on the proposed new bridge linking the city to Canada showed far more of the truth of the city that issue after issue of GL has.

      I've been humming about buying the new edition of Binelli's Last Days Of Detroit. Just you mentioning the matter may well have pushed me over the edge ...

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  8. Hi, again, Colin--

    Living about 20 minutes from Dearborn, where one of my favorite comic book shops is located, I was surprised to see how much the people of Dearborn feared Muslims. Here I thought they were afraid of someone who would drive all the way across the country to blow up a mosque with fireworks (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/30/us-mosque-attack-idUSTRE70T3PI20110130) or a man who drove across the country to protest outside the Islamic Center of America with a gun on Easter (http://www.freep.com/article/20110421/NEWS02/110421070/700-surround-Islamic-Center-protest-Terry-Jones-rally-plans).

    As you say, there are plenty of stories to tell, but this one is not very reality-referenced and in seeming to sympathize with the plight of Muslim Arab-Americans, just recreates this fantasy, while ostensibly teaching tolerance, of Dearborn that is very dangerous for the people who live there--and who shop for comics and eat at Coney Islands and falafel places wearing hijab or not.

    Dearborn has a lot of potential for very interesting and very complex super-people stories, it's too bad this one wasn't.

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    1. Hello Carol:- To be honest, I never had any doubt at all that the portrayal of Dearborn would turn out to be inadequate, and that's being polite about it. It is, however, good to have the opinion not only of someone who knows, but someone I can trust when they express that knowledge.

      I was trying to bend over backwards not to start carpet-chewing about this terrible, offensive comic, but it was very hard not to. As you say, Johns has just reinforced stereotypes in these issues.

      No matter how hard I try to work out how it's possible for such a talented bloke to write such rubbish, I can't come to a solution that convinces. But regardless of the explanation, the comic is an ignorant, ignorant product, and on the level of storytelling every bit as much as stereotyping.

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  9. Hello Colin,

    It’s been rough for Simons in comics lately. Wonder Man’s gone from slightly hapless to a lunatic and now this. What’s left for me, Sapphire Stagg’s miserly, murderous father?

    Anyway! Baz came up when I was talking to a friend yesterday and both of us agreed that he’d hopefully go on to become part of the wider media mythos and do better there, given there aren’t ALWAYS quite the same production problems that have become almost inherent in comics at this point.

    Like maybe we’d a Simon Baz who’s implied to have been on the wrong side of the tracks. Or a Simon Baz who loves his family to the point he might do something stupid for them to protect them. Or a Simon Baz who speaks like a robot because he’s permanently keeping his guard up, as opposed to speaking like a robot because he’s being written by Geoff Johns.

    To add to what Brigonos masterfully honed in on about pre-existing stories to work off of, maybe Johns is also out of his element because he’s try to write a kind of crime book. A lot of Brian Michael Bendis’s Avengers writing tries to include (or at least give the appearance of including) a whodunit. Even his use of flashbacks are meant to act as clues: here’s something we didn’t know about before! Johns’ made use of flashbacks too but they’ve tended to be the origin summary kind, haven’t they? Or a slight spin on certain events that makes it easier to make it look like where he’s taking a character is a natural progression.

    Not that that’s at all wrong, but it’s a technique that let’s someone fall back on a personality or tone having been there before to change (or bring back) than create a whole new one. But Simon Baz doesn’t have that pre-prepared world and area of expertise so it’s probably easier to just bowl along with a vague collection of ideas. Muslims. Post 9/11 paranoia. Bombs. Okay. Along with being NEW! and EXCITING! and above all RELEVANT! what does that sound like? Uh…crime book? Those have mysteries and explosions. Good thing there so many examples of how to do crime books with super heroes in the post 9/11 world!

    By contrast there’s that moment in new Ultimate Spidey where Miles Morales’ dad sits down with him and about his past misdeeds with Uncle Prowler. While that’s a pretty good Great Power and Responsibility speech moment twist for the Spidey mythos in general, it also felt to me like a good examination of people who commit crime, why Mile’s father approaches things the way he does, why he loves his family and keeps his brother at arm’s length, why he doesn’t like mutants and super people and why he’s a bit of a glum bugger while also just naturally being a glum bugger. Simon Baz has checklist moments with his supporting cast but they’re nowhere near as informative or could be applied to his wider mythos like that one could.

    So yeah. I don’t know if that moment worked for you like it did me Collin, or if it works because Bendis has more experience and interest for neo noir than Johns does, but if there’s really nothing new under the sun in comics it feels like that one moment for Miles and Dad Morales (I forgot Dad’s name but would like to think Dad Morales sounds cool enough in it’s own right) feels like the sort of checklist people should try to be ticking off instead of whatever notepad Simon Baz came from.

    And while the world around Miles interests me a great deal the kid himself doesn’t all that much (Perhaps it should be that he doesn’t YET) so maybe a good thing for the Miles and Simon’s of comics and fiction in general is being allowed to permeate in the worlds of media outside their source material. Simon being a member of a cartoon cast, where even just a simple running gag can go a long way fleshing out a character, like, say, “Hey wanna know what this tattoo on my arm means?”. I’d totally watch a cartoon about a Green Lantern who loved tattoos just so darn much.

    -Simon

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    1. Hello Simon:- The history of superhero comics is indeed full of exams of characters with dodgy origins and histories who've been approached in new, redeeming ways by smart-minded, socially aware creators. As you suggest, there's certainly no reason why Simon Baz can't be reinterpreted so as to scrape the stupidity and insensitivity away from the character.

      The shock, of course - and I don't think shock is over-doing it - is that anyone would produce a character that NEEDS such a reworking within a few months of their introduction in 2012. If Simon Baz had been introduced with a version of the same tale in the early 1970s, then it might be far easier to grasp why it had happened. But to churn out this junk in 2012 is as mysterious as it's disheartening. The need to fundamentally rework a character so as remove cultural insensitivity in the modern era is a sign that somebody - or rather a chain of people - has either been very careless, very arrogant or very stupid. Or some combination of all three factors.

      I'm still uncomfortable with the fact that Miles Morales' family had to have that strong connection to crime as a headline issue from the off. But I can in that case readily accept that it was at the very least dealt with in a way that reflected thought and care. It might not be my definition of thought and care, but it's several leagues above where GJ has placed himself.

      I'll have to give some thought to exactly why BMB's USM reads so much better than GJ's GL on this issue. Certainly BMB does have obvious influences from beyond comics and TV and he has often put them to good use. Yet you could hardly say that he's a careful plotter; his scripts are saturated with sickly over-obvious moments and plot-holes. To me, it's less a mark of BMB's qualities and more a mark of GJ's work having become so very poor in the past few years. I struggle to find a BMB book that doesn't bore the pants off me these days. But GJ's books tend to inhabit another order of awful. With BMB's work - and this is a solely personal opinion I know - I tend to see a gifted and smart man who doesn't seem to often want to rework his drafts until they're sharp, disciplined and coherent. With GJ's recent work on material like Flash, GL, JL and so on, the work seems to be from somebody who's complacent and idle. I'm not saying that's true for either man. I'm saying that's how it reads.

      In the end, the truth is that I like Mike Morales and I believe in him, even if I don't believe aspects of the stories which BMB places him into. But I look at Simon Baz and I can't even see a character so much as a huge cluster*&£! of a corporate conceit.

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  10. This sounds like the thoroughly depressing business portended by those first teaser images of the masked, gun-wielding Green Lantern. But the reformed petty criminal standing up against "the real bad guys" is a pretty standard character motif for the super set, and I'm not sure that criminality alone erodes those characters' storytelling potential: Plastic Man started as safecracker Eel O'Brien; The Prowler started as a crook before Spider-Man convinced him to go straight; the first Avengers reboot ("Cap's kooky quartet!") was built on the reform premise, and Busiek turned that inside-out to create The Thunderbolts.

    Other storytellers have focused on the particular "to catch a thief" tension between criminals and foreign enemies. "The Dirty Dozen" provides but one example. In "The Rocketeer," the hero turns the tide by pitting an avaricious american gangster against a Nazi spy. A Batman-Captain America crossover memorably featured the Joker betraying the Red Skull with the defense "I may be a murderous psychopath, but I'm an AMERICAN murderous psychopath!" Making Baz a car thief who foils terrorists seems to follow in this longer tradition.

    All that said, the existence of these tropes cannot vindicate bad usage of them. But that seems like a separate matter. A better writer might even have been able to make a sympathetic car thief, or a unsympathetic jerk who earns our respect and interest. But achieving that requires both commitment and attention to the kinds of vivid and specific detail that make a character work. And I know that such a character CAN work, so I can't blame the recipe for the failure of Simon Baz. I blame the cook.

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    1. Hello Simon:- I'm with you completely. As you say so ably, the idea of the reformed criminal in and out of the superhero genre is so obviously a productive one that it takes some ineptness to screw the idea up. Eel O'Brien is my absolute favourite in the super-book, and the tradition stretches right down to the present day.

      "And I know that such a character CAN work, so I can't blame the recipe for the failure of Simon Baz. I blame the cook."

      There's no reason why Simon Baz couldn't have been presented as as criminal and still be put to use as part of a socially responsible representation of a community. But as the headline representation, and in this way?

      You're right, it's the cook's responsibility.

      On other matters: glad to hear from someone else who not only appreciates the Bat-Man/Cap team-up, but that great moment with the Joker. I've never been fond of John Byrne's scripting, or indeed his art without the likes of Giordano or Austin contributing to it. But that was a fine piece of work, and one of the very best Marvel/DC collaborations, if not THE best.

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  11. Once again Colin, a very interesting read.

    The mention made of Hard Traveling Heroes both in the piece and in the comments reminds me how the introduction of the cosmic Green Lantern to would-be social realism plots was a surprisingly rich storytelling opportunity. The sf fantasy of space cops with magic rings was brought suddenly down to Earth - speak to some fans, hell read the chapter on O'Neil/Adams in Supergods, and it's clear many still haven't gotten over that shock.

    Perhaps Simon was intended as a way of conflating the social justice perspective of Olly and the cosmic magic of Hal in one character. Certainly there is an opportunity for that kind of juxtaposition to be returned to. What you focus on though, is Johns' attempt to bring attention to a modern America of racial tensions. The Wire - but for the costumed set. Now that show had Omar, a more vicious and brutal of his own particular code of justice would be hard to find - but people love him! He's compelling, charismatic - his talk of 'The Game' is not an excuse, but a deeply held fatalistic belief. That show portrayed very conflicted perspectives on race in the States - and liberals loved it! Was this what Johns was aiming at I wonder?

    There's potential in the idea, but I would prefer a Palmiotti/Gray to tackle it, or a Brian Wood. Writers more willing to take a chance. Imagine the possibilities.

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    1. Hello Emmet:- Thank you for your kind words.

      "The sf fantasy of space cops with magic rings was brought suddenly down to Earth - speak to some fans, hell read the chapter on O'Neil/Adams in Supergods, and it's clear many still haven't gotten over that shock."

      The great periods of the super-book have always been those associated with radical changes in storytelling if not politics, although changes in the staid forms of storytelling do always tend to suggest political radicalism anyway. But the GL/GA issues were far better admired and enjoyed in the moment of their release than posterity would have it. True, they didn't sell to the degree that DC was willing to keep them going, although of course now they'd be line-leading numbers. But they were tremendously well-received and won many of the day's awards. Yet as you rightly some, some folks have never got over their social engagement, and the years have tended to tar the books as being far less entertaining and smart than they were. Yep, the drug issues were as awkward as they were taboo-breaking, but then so were Marvel's tilt at the same issue in Spider-Man 96-8. But history has somehow ended up recasting GL/GA as a deadend, whereas few if any of the great writers of the 70s and 80s - from Gerber to Moore - escaped being influenced by them.

      I would love to think that Johns was thinking in the way you're suggesting. And I'd appreciate being told about it if he says he was. It wouldn't diminish the ineptness of the stories as either melodramas or social comment, but it would pave the road to hell with good intentions. The super-book could desperately do with The Wire's influence bleeding into it, couldn't it? And of course, The Wire allowed Omar to play out the role of the anti-heroic vigilante before showing exactly where that can lead, both in terms of his own survival and of the impact on the broader community too.

      I'd like to see everyone touching on social issues. Kieron Gillen, for example, has shown that you can be political even when the story doesn't appear to be polemical at all. And sometimes more than "touching upon" too. Johns' efforts are at least important because they raise debates, although he's done so in such a cack-handed way. But I'd love to see far more comics engaged in the real world as well as fantasy. Perhaps one day we'll all get to note that there's only a few comics available that have no political resonance beyond timidity and an inherent reactionary core of values. I'd rather the balance was that way around.

      I must go read Brian Woods' Star Wars tale. I wonder how he's approached that particular universe ....

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