Friday, 28 September 2012

On The Very First Page Of "Batman Incorporated" #0

In which the blogger takes a moment to try to work out why the first page of Batman Incorporated #0 feels so unsatisfying despite looking so impressive;

If there's going to be confusion, then it ought at least to work to the story's advantage. Frazier Irving's artwork for Batman Incorporated #0 is  is characteristically inventive, frequently ambitious and repeatedly both beautiful and telling. Yet all too often, his obvious and laudable desire to push the boundaries of his storytelling also results in admirable experiments which unfortunately fall short of clarity. The price of aspiration and the excellence it promotes is the inevitable moment or two of misjudgement and disappointment. Yet the monthly 20-page super-book is by it's very nature a thin and swiftly-consumed confection, and there's little space to experiment in a way that might rebound on the tale being told. Clog up a story's progression with even a few pages which demand a second and even a third glance to make sense of, and what ought to be a rush of pop-pleasures can become instead a somewhat sluggish and even frustrating business.

It's certainly a challenge to make sense of much of the first page of "brand building". That its three panels are intriguing is undeniable. The colour design is particularly enticing, with its purposefully constrained and opulent pallet evoking a colossal detonation and its aftermath. But the choice to use those colours in all three panels immediately causes problems. Their presence seems to insist that the events in the second and third panels are occurring in the same context as those of the first. Regrettably, this isn't true in any physical rather than emotional sense, for each panel depicts events taking place in entirely different situations. As a result, time and place are instantly confused, and there's little effort on the part of either artist or scripter Grant Morrison to explain exactly what it is that the reader's looking at, and why it should matter.

In the page's second panel, it's almost impossible to work out where the characters actually are. Stare long enough at the page and it's possible to deduce the possibility that Batman's piloting the plane seen in the side's opening frame. But the truth is that there's really nothing that might allow the reader to easily deduce that they're looking at the inside of an aircraft. In fact, the sense suggested by the purple wash in the top third of the panel is that everyone's clustered under a considerably higher ceiling than any such a relatively small plane would have. With the fogginess created by Irving's use of a narrow band of rich, dark hues, and given the cramped, confusing placement of the characters in the scene, the reader might be forgiven for presuming that they're looking more at an ill-lit night-club than anything else.

Yet with so much dead space in the frame, it might be thought  that we'd have been given more information about the absolute basics; where we are, who we're looking at, what's the compelling reason for us reading on. And the side's final panel is similarly confusing, with the almost transparent purple blur which suggests a propeller - the key to making sense of events - being extremely hard to see, let alone recognise. It takes far more than a glance to realise that we're looking at a discussion taking place beside a parked plane in this shot. That the neophyte reader might not even know who these chatting characters might be - beyond presumably the ubiquitous Batman - doesn't seem to have been considered by the issue's creators either. The audience will, it seems to have been assumed, persevere and catch up, if they don't already know everything that's going on. In short, its the pleasure of the spectacle which Irving and Morrison are offering up that's assummed to count here. Whatever the issue's story might be, it's unimportant in the terms of what's being shown on its own page 1.

There's no denying that the page's lead frame in particular is a compelling image, but the question is whether the space that's been given to it was worth the confusion and air of inertia that the side ultimately inspires. Though the scene of the destruction of the mansion and island alike is undoubtedly arresting, it contributes nothing at all to the plot beyond the matter of starting things off with a huge bang. Yes, it tells the experienced reader which part of the title's backstory they're in, but it's two-thirds of a page given over to an eye-catching moment which is entirely irrelevent to brand building. Irving's composition, as it directs our gaze from tower down to aircraft, is interesting in the sense that a great deal of sound and fury's being suggested, but it isn't an essential representation in any way at all.

Since that scene of devastation isn't there to further the plot, it has to have been placed on the page as an attention-grabbing money-shot. Yet Irving seems unsure about exactly how urgent the piece ought to feel. Showing the plane head-on and in silhouette at the front of the design leaves it appearing to be almost entirely unthreatened. So too does the placid surface of the ocean and the aura of safety suggested by the gentle circle of blue used for its propeller's rotation. In fact, its escape is a foregone conclusion since its flight is entirely unaffected by what's happening behind it. For a shot whose only function can be to snare the reader, it doesn't seem to be trying too hard to do so. Even Irving's choice to add so many fiercely eye-catching golden aspects to the scene of the island's destruction constantly threatens to distract our gaze from the only evidence of human interest in the scene. The eye struggles not to be drawn to the many, competing examples of destructive intensity before it, which again undermines any drama that the plane's flight might have. As an aesthetic experience, the panel is in many ways interesting. As an example of intensely-framed comic-book drama, it's far less compelling than it might have been.

To suggest that something so striking is actually fundamentally redundant may well sound like a heresy. Yet all we're being told here is that an island blew up and a plane escaped, and none of it either matters or is being made to seem to. All aesthetic considerations aside, it's a page that just isn't needed. Rip it out and nothing which follows changes, which raises the question of - prettiness aside - what it's doing there?

Batman Incorporated #0 is comic which contains some notably innovative and successful sequences. The misty, late-afternoon panels showing The Knight commanding his "Micro-623 Squadron" in a touching homage to General Jumbo is just one of those, reflecting once again Irving's determination to increase the atmosphere of his work through narrowing the range of colour that he uses in it. Yet the same idiosyncratic approach also results in confusion too. Using only similar shades of green, gold and brown in successive pages featuring a stunt-filled pursuit in Paris and then a relaxed trans-continental conversation creates a disconcerting sense that each setting lacks any unique character of its own. Added to that is that fact that Morrison's story appears to be nothing more substantial than a series of largely inessential if devotee-pleasing vignettes, and brand building suggests a comic created by superb and yet here regrettably under-achieving craftsmen.


Thursday, 27 September 2012

From Iron Man to the Justice League: The Best Of The Best Of The Best: A Positive-Minded Wednesday List For A Thursday Afternoon

In which the blogger offers up two baker's dozen's worth of franchise-defining comic books. Last week's list - here - suggested a number of poorly judged attempts to revitalise superhero strips. This week, there's another totally subjective, entirely questionable list of the books which the blooger would argue best represent the virtues of the same properties. Much of what follows falls into the category of the exceptionally obvious, while much if not all of it may well seem ridiculously ill-informed. Mea culpa.

From The Mighty Thor #154, 1968, by Jack Kirby, Vince Colletta & Stan Lee.
Reader, please be assured that there's no suggestion being made that today's comics should attempt to replicate the form and content of the books mentioned below. Nor am I trying to suggest that only that which follows is worth reading. But I did feel that a week of negativity ought to be followed by the opposite. As such, the absurd exercise of nailing down just two examples from the careers of characters who've been published for decades promised to be  as much fun as such list-making ever can be.

As always, your generous suggestions and civil disagreements would be extremely welcome;

1. Hank Pym

The adventures and misadventures of Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne are something we've been discussing recently here at TooBusyThinking. As I've been babbling away about, Tales To Astonish #44 remains one of the most intriguing superhero books there's ever been. Charged up by the presence of what seems to be clearly out-there Pym and a deeply vulnerable and vengeance-driven Van Pym, each of them harrowed by grief and, as a result, falling in love with each other, it's saturated with promise that was never fulfilled. Even now, a reboot which started which the events of TTA#44 and used them to explore these two fractured, fascinating characters would be at the top of my pull list.
Pym's brief time fighting alongside the Defendersin the mid-70s presented him as an experienced science-hero who struggled to make sense of the chaotic, bohemian and often-disturbed Defenders. Highly competent, characteristically baffled, there was a real chance here for a fresh start for Pym under Steve Gerber's care. Sadly, the character was swiftly claimed for the pages of The Avengers, and another considerably less promising destiny for Pym and Van Dyne beckoned.

2. Superman

Nothing has so obscured the brilliance of the best of the Superman tales from the early Sixties as the popular belief that only Marvel's superhero books of the age were worth cherishing. Yet in the hands of writers such as Siegel and Hamilton, and with the work of artist Curt Swan at his height, one fantastically intense and imaginative epic after another was crafted for the marketplace. Editor Mort Weisinger's long years in charge of the character appear by all accounts to have been a trying time - at the very least - for nearly everyone that had to work for him. But this period of his reign in particular saw a string of wonderful Superman epics, all grounded in the often-ignored understanding that optimism and unhappiness aren't necessarily mutually exclusive emotions. Where far too many editors and writers have believed that Superman needs grim'n'gritting-down, the character's positivity actually works exceptionally well when matched to terribly trying situations. To add melodramatic angst to ever-more impossible trials quite misses the point of Superman, for it's that contrast between hopeless circumstances and old-school perseverance and decency which serves him best.
I've blogged about Mr Maggin's Last Son Of Krypton before. So perhaps I might quote from a recent Tweet by Mark Waid whose own work will be referenced below, on Maggin's two Superman novels; "They're the pinnacle, the definition of Superman to me."
3. Daredevil

No-one will be surprised if I argue that Frank Miller's time on the character stands out as the definitive take on the Man Without Fear, and few people would argue with the proposition either. Working with colleagues such as Klaus Janson and David Mazzucchelli, Miller transformed a perennially underachieving superhero into one of the most compelling characters ever seen in the sub-genre. Indeed, it's hard to believe that there was ever a series as brilliant as Born Again, and that it could be bought in monthly instalments at the corner newsagents. Now it's so much part of history, and so much part of the canon, that it seems incredible that it ever arrived in the UK as an import in the company of the likes of Elvira's House Of Mystery and Sectaurs.
Mark Waid's recent stewardship of Daredevil has been a wonderfully well-crafted example of how a character can be reinvented without anything of the past being recast as uncanonical. I'd suggest that it's been the best run on the comic short of Miller's two runs. None of that's meant to disparage the likes of Gene Colan's work , or of Bendis and Lark's long-lasting ultra-noir version, or Wally Wood's brief but often superb mid-Sixties tenure on the book. But Waid's time in charge of the character has provided a quite different take on Matt Murdock to that of Miller and those who've drawn from his stories, while also avoiding the problems which bedevilled the character's earliest years.  Reframing Murdock as an existential superhero, capable of deciding not to succumb to his mental demons, has resulted in a Daredevil who reflects much of what's been shown before while displaying a distinctively hopeful and inspiring character all of his own
4 The Phantom Stranger

The single most outstanding comic starring the Phantom Stranger was Secret Origins #10, 1987, which rather wonderfully offered four contradictory explanations of who the character actually was. Tellingly, none of them was Judas, though Barr and Aparo did present us with what could only be the Wandering Jew. (Also, the presence of an Alan Moore tale in its pages helps me sidestep offering the Stranger's appearance in the second Swamp Thing Annual as my second choice. No point, after all, in repeating praise for a particular approach when the less commonly lauded JLA#103 can be mentioned instead ...)
The very idea of the Phantom Stranger has nearly always proven more alluring than the character himself. Even when his adventures have been drawn by creators such as Neal Adams and Jim Aparo, the Stranger himself has always suffered from the same ill-defined power-set and purpose which ironically lends him his air of appalling mystery. Fans of, for example, the Len Wein stories in his solo book of the late Sixties and early Seventies might think me unfair, but the Stranger's most satisfying adventures have nearly always been his guest appearances as an magician/enabler in other character's adventures. Wein used him to good advantage in several Justice League stories, including one also guest-starring Jon Stewart in JLA#110, but in a sense the beguiling, all-ages horror Nick Cardy cover to JLA#104 says everything that needs be said about the pre-Judas Stranger. (In fact, Christmas stories have turned out to be particularly fertile ground for guest appearances by the Stranger, with his role in the Barr/Aparo tale in Batman & The Outsiders #8 also serving as sentimental good fun. I wonder if that particular tradition will be maintained in the book starring the New 52 version of the character.)
5. Speedball

My problems with Penance were never grounded in any kind of reverence for the character of Speedball, whose original adventures were guided by a Steve Ditko who didn't seem to care that the world he was drawing bore no relationship to the late 1980s at all. An underpowered anachronism of a comic, it's distinctly underwhelming pleasures failed to gather an audience and it was unsurprisingly quickly cancelled. (Where it was worth paying attention to, it was because even late-period Ditko carries with it an undeniable measure of charm.) As such, I'd be pushed to even mention a definitive Speedball tale, since I've never read one that was anything other than forgettable. Devotees of The New Warriors, which arrived in a time when I'd largely given up on the Big Two's product, would undoubtedly manage to put me right on the matter.
6. Wonder Woman

As all but the most Rumpish know, the only version of Wonder Woman which can be regarded as definitive is that by Diana's creators, William Moulton Marston and Harry G Peter. Radically if idiosyncratically feminist, sexually transgressive and constantly endearing, if eventually somewhat repetitive, the original Wonder Woman's appeal is one which today's blokeish market would never recognise. What a shame that DC seem content to market so much of its product solely to such a reactionary, hardcore niche of readers. There's more than one audience, you might think, for the likes of Wonder Woman, and surely there could be more than one take on the character. (Fingers crossed for the coming Grant Morrison version.)
Of all the takes on Wonder Woman since, I think Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti's was the most enjoyable and auspicious. A contentious point, no doubt, but then, it's something I've written about before - here.  I will just add here that issues #40 & 41 in particular were tremendously promising, and it's a shame that the company decided to back other, rather dregretable versions of Diana and the Amazons instead

7. Green Lantern

There's an understandable tendency to feel a touch embarrassed about Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil's High Sixties Green Lantern/Green Arrow tales now. They were improbably naive in their politics, they did lack subtlety, and the mixture of angst and sentimentality in them seems to be positively late-period Claremontian in its excess of melodrama. Yet in addition to wonderfully vivid comics-realist art, these were passionate stories, full of curiosity and anger about the world of the time, and that conviction and power means that even the least successful story in the series is still packed with memorable incidents. Given how craven most of today's super-books are when it comes to politics, GL/GA often seems not to come from a more innocent and strident past, but from a political adolescence yet to come. Or to put it another way, the sub-genre's fallen far behind the achievments of decades ago in certain key areas, and the same work that's often labelled old-fashioned and even silly can actually be far more radical than it at first appears.
Alan Moore only produced three tales of the Green Lantern Corps, yet his influence is still incredibly obvious in today's books. Working with Kevin O'Neil and Bill Willingham in the middle years of the 80s, he effectively revitalised the Corps, fusing its Silver Age SF roots with an occult sense of dread and a post-New Worlds air of wonder.
8. Thor

Of all the Kirby/Lee Thor tales, it's the story of the Odinson's epic battle to save the bone-headed Hercules' soul from Pluto which remains my favourite. Both creators had previously set-up Thor's disdain for his opposite number from Olympus with such care that his willingness to sacrifice everything to save Hercules appeared all the more admirable. Of course, Hercules was an endearingly egotistic oaf, and in most comics, that brutish charm would make him the most compelling character on display. Few writers and artists can make the straight-faced heroic qualities of a Thor more compelling than the arrogance and self-indulgence of a Hercules, but Kirby and Lee did exactly that here.
There's not an issue in Walt Simonson's run on Thor that doesn't carry with it at the very least a handful of memorable moments, and any attempt to write down the highpoints of Simonson's stretch on the book soon runs the risk of taking up a great deal of paper. The creation of Beta-Ray Bill. Fat Balder. Brittle-boned Thor in his body-splint armour. The Casket Of Ancient Winters. The last stand of the Executioner. Frog-Thor! The list really does go on and on. For the fact is that Simonson's Thor was so consistent that it could at times seem almost predictable in its quality if not its contents. With other books, it's far easier to recall the thrill of finding a particularly great issue. With Simonson's Thor, there's far more of a sense of years and years of inspiring, dependently-fine work.  It's hard to think of any other comparable body of work in the sub-genre which was as fine and consistent for so many issues.
9. The Legion Of Super-Heroes

The earliest days of the Legion, and in particular the marvellously individual approach of artist John Forte, have been discussed here before. Suffice to say, latter attempts to remove every last trace of oddness and daftness from the Legion have stripmined out a huge part of what once made the strip so entertaining and popular. Like the original Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, the Legion's appeal was enhanced by its often straight-faced absurdity, the removal of which has left what remains often looking both over-serious and yet - still - ridiculous.
Dave Cockrum's time as the LSH's artist in the early 70s wonderfully reinvigarated an underachieving strip, and yet the stories he worked on were more often adequate than ground-breaking. Legion fans had to wait until the early 80s and the collaboration of Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen to encounter an extended run which wasn't just worthwhile, but brilliant. In particular, the Great Darkness Saga - in which Darkseid is reborn to menace the 30th century - is as good a super-book epic as any.
10. The Pulp Heroes Featured In First Wave

It should be said that Darwyn Cooke made a good fist of his post-millenium reinvention of The Spirit for DC, but it really was a futile and thankless business. With the exception of the delightful Spirit/Batman team-up with Jeph Loeb, which was a hoot, there was nothing Cooke could do to match what Eisner and his studio had achieved in the dozen years from 1940. Yet at least Cooke's work was always admirable and consistently worth reading. The same couldn't be said for the First Wave version of the character..
To later generations who weren't around to enjoy the Helfer/Baker take on The Shadow in the late 80s; yes, that IS the Shadow's head, and, yes, that IS his body, and, yes, the one has very much been removed from the other. This particular take on the Shadow was, it's said, incredibly unloved where the right's holders were concerned, and it's true that it wasn't what might be thought of as a slavishly respectful run. Yet it was as innovative and ambitious as it was often hilarious, and it avoided being an emasculated heritage product through its creators persistently  irreverant approach. It was, quite frankly, brilliant, and the fact that it was cancelled just as the Shadow's head had been attached to a robot body is a matter of no little regret. The crime-fighting stars of the Pulps have mostly failed to inspire either great modern-era comics or profitable runs. Of the very few examples of wonderful comics being created using those pre-comics characters, The Helfer/Baker Shadow  was the most inventive and, perhaps, the single most worthwhile.
11. Spider-Man

I said it here, after hundreds and thousands of folks had said it elsewhere, and said it better too. There is no other take on Spider-Man that can stand head-to-toe with the Ditko/Lee version. But then, we all know that ...
And I expressed my adoration of Dan Slott and Ty Templeton's wonderful Spider-Man/Human Torch series over here too. Those who claim that Slott can't write a fine Spider-Man tale are not only avoiding the evidence of his more recent work on the character, but also the entirely adorable Spider Man/Human Torch.
12. Watchmen

After careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that the best example of Watchmen was indeed Watchmen.
13. Iron Man

Of all Marvel's first-wave superheroes, it's quite probably Iron Man who's had the least number of classic stories told about him. Yet even if there'd been far, far more, I suspect that David Micheline, John Romita Jr and Bob Layton's first run on the character would still come top of any best-of list. So much of these 35 years-and-more-old stories now serve as the backbone of the Iron Man movie that it could be safely argued there's been no more influential comics in the character's history.  There was certainly no more shocking scene back in the day than that of Iron Man's armour being taken over while Stark was in it and used to blow apart a foreign dignitory, although the depiction of Stark as an alcoholic was ultimately the most significant and moving aspect of the run.
Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's The Five Nightmares stands as the finest Iron Man tale of the modern-era that I know. It may well be the very best of his solo adventures since Demon In A Bottle back in 1979. It's exactly the kind of tale of a modern-tech world which the character would seem to lend itself too, and it's told in a way which avoids the worst excesses of deconstructed storytelling too. Where Fraction and Larroca's later achievements on the book were often undermined by a glacial pace of storytelling combined with the lack of a complelling focus to their work, The Five Nightmares was concise, fast-moving, smart-minded and, ultimately, great fun. It's certainly the first book I'd put in the hands of a fan of the films who wanted to know whether they should buy the comics or not.
And while we're chatting away over nothing of consequence at all, why not visit the TooBusyTalking Tumblr, here ...

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

On Happy! #1, The Ultimates #16, & Justice League Dark #0

Reader, beware; two of the following three reviews are very not positive, and spoilers are most definitely ahoy. If you don't want either surprises ruined or a contrary opinion expressed, then please, save yourselves!

Bullet-shattered skulls, angel-administered blow-jobs, by-the-numbers gangsterism, and an ardent, persistent display of Olympian-level profanity. With its opening 15 pages seeming not so much daring and thrilling as improbably over-familiar and wearisome, it’s hard to bother persevering with the first issue of Grant Morrison and Darrick Robertson’s new mini-series Happy!.  Could this be nothing but an enthusiastically fond nod of respect towards Garth Ennis' least restrained comics indulgences, or even a cut’im-off-at-the-knee satire of Mark Millar at his most desperately keen to offend? Yet having slogged through the first 60% of Happy!, all that hyper-noir’s revealed as set-up, and what we’re then eased into is the kind of 21st century, Rabelaisian reworking of Harvey which James Stewart would never have considered starring in. Having held back the slightest trace of humour and hope for such a protracted introduction, the appearance of Robertson’s perpetually-cheerful, pooka-like Happy The Horse into this washed-out, meaningless world of scum and scummier transforms the book into a laugh-outloud buddy comedy. The snare of whether a conscienceless killer and a quite possibly imaginary blue flying talking horse can outwit, and most probably out-murder, a hospital packed with mobsters means that the second issue of Happy! eventually appears far more enticing than initially seemed possible.

From a comic which playfully chuckles at the worst indulgences of genre fiction to one which seems to have no idea of what it's doing at all beyond hypefully attracting headlines, The Ultimates #16 sees Captain America sworn in as the new President of the Republic. According to Marvel's Editor In Chief Axel Alonso (*1), the Ultimate Universe's new Chief Executive doesn't just "transcend partisan politics", but “politics” itself. As James Stewart might've been asked to say; golly gee. Obviously the politics of the Ultimate Universe have as much to do with those in the real-world as does its science, given that the idea of transcending politics is one that belongs in a Zen riddle and nowhere else. And as with any other effort to pretend that politics can be risen above and something ethically objective achieved instead, Sam Humphries’ script for the no-doubt team-Marvel-plotted The Ultimates #16 ends up seeming to carelessly peddle some particularly dubious myths indeed. 

*1 - In an interview with Kiel Phegley at CBR

Too timid it seems to take the idea of President Cap and use it to discuss anything of America's highly polarised politics in a way that might offend or even amuse, United We Stand Part 1 presents us with a nation which seems to have been shattered by a perfect storm of selfish individuals, interest-serving politicos and super-villains. The solution, it appears, is for the everyday folks of the Republic to be inspired by President Cap's folksy rhetoric about duty and tradition while the man himself heads off and delivers a damn good ass-kicking to everyone he disagrees with the name of the common good. Well, aren't all our problems really down to just a few bad people and a huddle of easily influenced fools, and wouldn't it good to think they could be dealt with through the application of a thoroughly virtuous beating? Why, all the good folks could just settle down to getting along with each other, and everything would be peachy. How easy is that? Frontier-justice + mum's apple-pie neighbourliness = problems solved, and without any of those politics too.

Why, what's political about Captain America forcing people to obey a Constitution which he himself is violating with every punch he throws?

The result of all of this is a thick-headed celebration of a Constitution-shredding Great Man Of Destiny, who, for all of Marvel's attempts to avoid those rotten, controversy-causing politics, emerges as a reactionary brute charged up with super-soldier serum and set on saving democracy from itself through super-force. America's been betrayed, you see, which in itself is a highly charged enough concept in a time when so many folks appear convinced that that's true. Some subtlety - or even, gulp, satire - might have been due here, but instead, we're presented with the menace of corrupt elected officials and an entirely noble, superhumanly prescient and fearsome Cap. It seems that the inspiration lent by a politics-transcending bloke in a flag-waving costume who's been elected by an entirely impossible procedure will make everything better. At least, it will, we seem to be being told, as long as he's allowed to inflict as much violence as he wants without any trace of accountability at all. It's all worryingly reminiscent of a fundamentally fascist world-view, which is, of course, one of those utterly reprehensible ideologies which claim to be above politics. And though The Ultimates #16 is too insipid, ignorant and quite frankly mediocre to accidentally contribute anything to such a cause, that's exactly the world-view that this story seems to most sympathise with. No, this isn't an evil book, and it doesn't come wearing a black shirt in any shape or form; it'd take a hysterically disordered world-view to generate any such an opinion. But it is a stupid and cowardly tale, and the myths it appears to indulge itself in express values that would be far better off being challenged, or, at the very least, left well alone.

Perhaps this is all a wonderful feint on the part of Marvel, and perhaps we'll soon be shown how much sharp-edged, well-informed satire was being set up in this power-worshipping, politics-loathing issue. Yet modern-era comics are full of such hopes. Perhaps the Amazons won't turn out to have to murdered their lovers, perhaps Spider-Man really didn't willingly collaborate with the Sandman's torture. Whatever, if there is to be a politically-engaged reversal heaving into sight, it'll be an entirely unexpected one. There's nothing of any subtlety, or even fun, to be found in The Ultimates #16, although that's hardly the fault of artist Luke Ross, whose pages are reliably, if unspectacularly, competent throughout.

But then, comics-fans and comics-pros alike do often bear a strange obsession with the supposedly virtuous character of Captain America. That's true, it appears, no matter what universe we're in and it seems to hold regardless of what he might actually say and do. Of course, Benjamin Franklin held an opinion of patriotism which might have productively come into play when this storyline was being brainstormed, and yet it's one that Mr Alonso seemed to be ignoring when he asked Comic Book Resources, "...who’s a more attractive Presidential candidate than a guy dressed head to toe in red, white and blue?". I would have thought pretty much anyone and everyone, but that's those pesky politics again. I've obviously not transcended them yet.

I've not transcended my problems with the idea of John Contantine as the leader of a troop of - save me - "dark" super-heroes either, and regrettably Jeff Lemire, Lee Garbett and Cam Smith's  Justice League Dark #0 has done nothing to change my mind. Though it's possible that some of the quality of the well-regarded Lemire's script has been frittered away by Garbett's not-ready-for-prime-time efforts, neither creator can be said to have come out well of Young Bastards. Certainly all but a very few of Garbett's panels are stiffly framed in mid-shot and close-up at eye-level, meaning that he's hammering the same basic options over and over again. Sadly, all the one-dimensional clarity in the world can't compensate for a lack of dynamism, emotion and mood, and that means that Young Bastards lacks any convincing sense of the necessary menace, character, and - crucially here - sexual tension.

As such, it's hard to see how any writer could flourish, and yet there's more than a hint that Lemire's hamstrung himself by trying to tell far too much of a story in far too little space. He introduces us to a mentor of Constantine's, sketches out their relationship, establishes a love triangle, and then brings the affair to its inevitably unpleasant conclusion all in twenty pages, and the result is a tale that refers to many of its main plot-beats while failing to make anything convincing of any of them. People fall in love because the plot demands it, and betray each other for the same reason, but there's nothing to make us feel that these events have any substance to them at all. Information is delivered far more through exposition than action, with Constantine's drift from disciple-hood to Judas all sketched out in a single conservation with Zantanna. As such, the first hint we have that Constantine has turned against the dubiously-named Necro is when Lemire has him say so. There's a similarly perfunctory air about the supposed crackling romance between this unconvincing take on the Hellblazer and Zatarra's daughter too. They declare it's so, and so it must be, although the story has sidestepped showing anything of how they became so besotted with each other.

All in all, it reads as if someone mistook the bare bones of JLD#'0's plot for its story. It certainly doesn't help that, with so much emotional ground to cover, the script throws away a page on the irrelevant-to-the-plot business of Constantine's arrival at JFK, and another on an almost-splash of a sexed up goth-Zantanna, while seven sides are tossed in the direction of a closing punch-up starring three characters whose relationship has barely been established. Surely some of that clearly frittered-away space ought to have been allocated to the business of making us care about the folks who end up fighting each other for their lives, but no. Given such obviously counter-intuitive choices, all Young Bastards can do is impose a sense of purposelessness, and it's hard not to suspect that the script at the very least was produced in an unhelpfully short amount of time.


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Some Thoughts On The Mighty Thor #20

Yes, it's an Event that involves just two books, and, yes, those two books are both conveniently under the supervision of the same editorial staff. Yet the Everything Burns too-and-fro between Journey Into Mystery and The Mighty Thor more than strongly suggests that the modern-era comics crossover can be far more than the flaccid, fleece-the-punter marketing scam that it's so often seemed to be. The four chapters - of six - that we've had so far have been cannily-written and exuberantly paced, with a host of insightful, telling character moments played out by writers Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction against the backdrop of one of the superhero book's few compelling comics apocalypses of recent times. (When isn't it the end of everything these days?) As a result, the momentum of Everything Burns; A Dog And His Tricks is so ferocious and its plot-lines so skillfully interwoven that it's not immediately obvious how worryingly thin certain aspects of it run the risk of being.

For there's three splash pages among the 21 sides of this issue, including one which contains just three words against an entirely black background, which in  itself is as blatant an example of comic-padding as I can recall since The Ultimates #1. (There's several other pages very much dominated by a single money-shot of a frame too.) More initially suspicious yet, there's nine sides given over to battle-scenes which barely move the plot forward at all, which means that more than half of The Mighty Thor #20 runs the risk of fundamentally cheating the trusting reader. Yet those sequences of unheavenly warfare are wonderfully staged by artist Alan Davis, inker Mark Farmer and, in a scene-stealing performance, colourist Javier Rodriquez, and they help create a sense of terrible, fearful inevitability which only serves to makes Loki's machinations seem all the more catastrophically misjudged.

As such, even the page with nothing but "that bad dog" on it seems forgivable, because for all that it's an obvious attempt to suggest something from pretty much nothing at all, it doesn't diminish what's been achieved elsewhere. Add to that the sight of so many aspects of the recent past of both books studding this issue's pages and there's the satisfying sense of a well-seeded, intricate master plan being played out. Those splash pages? Those beautifully rendered and yet relatively plot-light fight-scenes? In the context of both this crossover and this particular issue, they work remarkably well. In fact, with this much story and this many characters, a even more dense and frame-heavy approach may well have ended up destroying the story's sense of pace and scale without adding anything that was essential. In that, The Mighty Thor #20 is a rare example of how many of the modern-era's least apparently edifying storytelling conventions can be used to create some very fine work indeed.

Yet at the heart of Everything Burns, as is only to be expected these days, schemes the entirely captivating figure of the born again Loki, who's perhaps the single most fascinating character in any of today's super-books on either side of the Big Two divide. And it's clearly not enough that he's embarked on a grand deception which involves the betrayal of absolutely everyone else in the cast, for he's also given to winking at and teasing the reader through the fourth wall too. (So too is Mr Gillen - or is it Mr Fraction, giving the vagueness of the credits -  himself, as can be seen the from smile-inducing meta transmitted by the scan below.) It's a smartly-played business, for it ramps up the audience's desire to know exactly what Loki's game is, and that's true even despite the suspicion that his motives will ultimately still seem murky and potentially self-serving. In that, we're constantly being encouraged to hope against our more cynical suspicions, and indeed much of the evidence on the page, that Loki really is pursuing something more virtuous than his own self-serving, world-splitting mischievousness this time. And yet, that air of mystery and deep-hidden, many-layered connivance needs to stay in play too, or Loki's appeal might start dissolving in the sentimentality of the prodigal redeemed.

With that central enigma in place, it's the duplicitous foster brother of Thor who unquestionably dominates events even when far off-panel, and that's just as true when the Thunder God himself is shown helplessly drowning in Muspelheim's fire-pits. Cleverly, Gillen and Fraction make not the slightest effort to hypefully suggest that Thor's life may just be over for good this time, and they focus instead upon the distress caused by the probability that his perpetually trusting heart has been broken by Loki again. After all, that's a far more powerfully involving prospect than yet another oh-so-tragic and yet oh-so-easily-reversed superhero death, and it's a prime example of the way in which Everything Burns trumps a great many of its fellow Event books. Underneath all those spectacular set-pieces and those apparently space-swallowing splashes, it's a sharply plotted story that's grounded in the smart and generous-hearted use of character and emotion.  As such, it's anything other than a disposable, hucksterism-blighted read.

Indeed, the cosmic-comics spectacle is a bonus to be enjoyed in addition to the central pleasures of the mystery of whatever it is that Loki's up to. This isn't a comic which works despite the elements of contemporary comics craftsmanship, but in significant part because of their presence. Crudely put, it's the Journey Into Mystery material which grounds and drives the issue, but a considerable degree of the pleasure of that is informed by the horned-helmet opera which the setting and recent backstory of The Mighty Thor offers too. The story's the thing, as of course it pretty much always should be, but if a team of creators and editors can make the turn-it-up-to-eleven material work to the story's advantage too, then every credit to them.


The Truth About The Year In Comics: There Is No The Year In Comics

From 1988's "Machine Man", by Tom DeFalco, Herb Trimpe & Barry Windsor-Smith
Just in the improbable - but thereby very much appreciated - case than anyone has popped in for this week's The Year In Comics post, it doesn't exist! As the kind and far-more-sensible-than-me chaps at Sequart were generous enough to point out, it's tough going trying to hit a whole sequence of deadlines for several different places while also getting the text of my ebook ready for the end of October. (I'd have kept stubbornly hitting those marks while misplacing bits of sleep, but I must say, it's a real relief to have abit more time to play with.) So, just for awhile, my previously-unpublished contributions to Sequart's site will dry up, although there will be reposts of material from various elsewheres which readers there will likely never have seen before. As such, there's the first part of the Al Ewing interview which went up here last month  appearing at Sequart today. If you've already read that here, then I should assure you there's no new bonus material been added. But if you haven't had the chance to peruse it, then, given that Mr Ewing is one of today's finest comics writers, I highly recommend clicking here and popping off to do so.I think you'll find that he's got genuinely interesting things to say.

From Blue Beetle #15, by Cully Hammar & Freddie Williams II et al, 2007
And while you're there, I'd highly recommend your taking a look around at what Sequart has to offer. There's a great deal to be enjoyed that-a-ways, as regular visitors there will know.

Everything else at TooBusyThinking will remain the same, bar a once-only delay of the Wednesday List until later this week. So, should you have a dead moment to while away, you'd be, as always, very welcome here.


Friday, 21 September 2012

On The New "Shazam", in "Justice League" #0

Just how desperate is DC to pander to the eternally adolescent-minded fanblokes that it’s tailored so much of its product for? We already know the answer to that, of course. And yet, as if to underline how tail-chasingly reactionary and complacent so much of the company’s product's currently is, here’s writer and corporate cornerstone Geoff John’s Justice League #0, a book so intent on bumping up the next quarter’s profits that it’s drained every last microscopic trace of charm and imagination from the character once known as Captain Marvel.  As such, there’s nothing here to surprise, let alone challenge, the I-know-what-I-like superhero devotee, which means there’s precious little if anything at all for everyone else.

It seems telling that Johns has gutted his story of any authority figures who might advise or even stand up to the thoroughly unpleasant, and soon-to-be super-powered, young Billy Batson, who we're told is fifteen and yet thinks and behaves as if he were either half that age or somewhat dense for it. Worried, we might assume, that the target audience might not warm to the presence of anyone representing common sense and ethical oversight, Batson's powers are no longer granted by an all-powerful, all-wise, three-thousand year old wizard. Instead, Johns presents us with an apparently teetering-on-senile, and perhaps even comic book-schizophrenic, magical enabler - the only representation of a person of colour in the whole book - and then allows the whining teenager to dominate their conversation. Well, what could age, experience and knowledge possibly have to offer an arrogant little pimple of a boy anyway? (Perhaps the Rump don't like their superheroes seeming too bright, although it seems they might enjoy them coming across as somewhat lippy.) As such, it's Batson who knows all about human nature in their conversation, and it's Batson whose interests dominate the discussion, and it's Batson who's granted the power of a "demi-god" based on the most slender, and quite frankly unconvincing, evidence of his "potential". It's a hormonally-unbalanced, habitually unpleasant 12 year old's version of the rising and advancing of the spirit; behave as ignorantly and callously as you like, show as little respect as you can get away with, and in return, why, there's the reward of a Superman-like body which arrives quite out of the blue. It's super-powers on the ethical instalment plan, as it were, with Batson apparently expected to pay off the karmic debt he's accumulated in a fly-now, be-good-later arrangement.
Of course, the conceit that Batson is anything but a paragon is a smart one, for it allows for character development to occur in future stories, and yet Johns simply doesn't have the courage of his convictions. He wants us to know that Batson's behaving badly, and yet he also wants us to glorify in that stupid-minded, dead-hearted behaviour too. Like a yellow journalist decrying some terrible immorality while making sure that explicit pictures of the act are splashed all across the front page, Johns has the newly super-powered Batson's first act be the impulsive and purposeless demolition of a great stone throne. The ever-able Gary Franks makes sure that the scene's played as a supposedly hilarious money-shot, all ludicrous hyper-muscles and testosterone-fueled glee, as if it's perfectly  understandable and entirely hilarious that Batson's first instinct is to unthinkingly demolish the home of the person who's empowered him. Johns' story pretends to be about the dimly perceivable seeds of a moral awakening, and yet the supposed high points of the tale are designed to celebrate the very things that he's suggesting are immature and regrettable. It's the sheer fun of the transgressions that's emphasised here rather than their deplorable nature, with Batson's choices being implicitly excused by his status as an orphan who's endured a hard, hard life. It seems we're supposed to sympathise with this brat to the point at which anything he cares to do or say goes, and why? It's a question that Johns never delivers a satisfactory answer to, although it seems that the reader's simply expected to associate with whoever's got the muscles, the shiny tights, and the heroic code-name.

What's most pathetic about Johns' script is the characterisation of Batson himself. We're clearly meant to see him as something of an edgy character, and yet he's an affluent, cloistered pre-pubescent boy's version of a bad sort. Though no-one could expect Johns to have lent Batson anything of how typical 15 year olds actually talk, he might at least have studied how the likes of Brian Michael Bendis has his youthful characters speak in Ultimate Spider-Man. Instead, Batson's presented as if he were a choir boy trying to catch the spirit of a James Dean or a Montgomery Clift. There's nothing here of the 21st century, and the whole story seems to take place in some distant past on a generic Hollywood sound-stage. When Batson expresses contempt to the old man he encounters underground, he calls him "Chester" and "Grandpa", which is somehow intended to convince us that this is a sometimes cruel and defiant boy. What kind of streets are they that Batson has experienced, and how hard has his life on the social periphery actually been? When he threatens to knock out "the last" of the mysterious sorcerer's teeth, it's a laughably implausible business.

In short, he's as unconvincing as a Bob Haney hippie, which of course makes him the perfect representation of rebellion for a  niche audience which loves its product to be full of violence and yet absent of consequences, charged with strange suggestions of illicit sex and yet fundamentally empty of recognisably mature relationships. This is a story for folks who want to pretend that they're daring while instinctively avoiding anything that's in the slightest bit threatening at all. Having his utterly unengaging protagonist, who's less than a year away from being old enough for full-time employment, behaving like a disturbingly narcassistic 8 year with impulsivity problems is what passes for confrontational here, and it's actually a discomforting business. Are we really supposed to sympathise, and even empathise, with him as a lead character, let alone a superhero? It's one thing to imply that Batson will end up a splendid chap advising other strangely anachronistic teens not to call their elders "Chester". But it's another to expect the reader to applaud this petty-minded prodigal being so incredibly well rewarded, no matter how chuffed Johns clearly expects us to feel about the whole business.

If Batson's sins were of some substance,or even some interest, then perhaps his road to redemption might be a compelling one. But Johns portrays him as little but a brat. He's selfish, he's sharp-tongued, he's stolen uncooked meat from hard-working butchers. He probably even throws cans at stray cats who come mewling towards him in search of a tickled neck. But that's not much of a stone to push up the mountain when the reward of being the World's Mightiest Demi-God has already landed in his lap.

It's not just the authority of the wizard Shazam that's missing from these stories. So too is any significant trace of the ethics which both Billy and Captain Marvel once represented. This isn't so much a reboot as a comics festival of the undead. These are the gutted shells of the stars of what was once the biggest selling four-colour franchise in America, and if the character has undoubtedly failed to achieve commercial success in the years since 1953, the solution needn't have been to persevere with nothing but the faintest traces of what had once been. That's never so obvious as when considering Billy's new super-powered body, which Johns has decided to call in a fit of patronising contempt for his audience's intelligence, "Shazam".("Captain Marvel", it seems, is too confusing a code-name.) As might be expected, Shazam - help me - lacks the wisdom of Solomon which was part of his predecessor's power-set. It would've been a fascinating business, to have a sad little reprobate such as 2012's Batson forced to inhabit the consciousness of a supremely wise and perfectly ethical being every time he assumed his super-powers. Perhaps it was feared that a Captain Marvel who has a different character to Billy might confuse the poor lambs that are the new version's target audience, and it would certainly get in the way of having Super-Billy punching would-be muggers through cars - a humorous business, it seems - or destroying the property of anyone that he doesn't care too much for.

It's not just that Justice League #0 features a typically thin, read-it-in-a-minute, woven-from-money-shots tale from Johns. It's not even that Frank's version of Captain Marvel often appears to be a psychotic, punk-skinned version of the Hulk crackling - in a textbook case of fan-pleasing overkill - with lightning bolts. I wouldn't even argue that the problems stem from the fundamental lack of respect that's been shown to all that Captain Marvel once was, although it doesn't help for anyone who came across the good Captain's adventures before. Rather, it's the fact that the whole project seems so craven in its grovelling to the tastes of a tiny niche of readers. The finest achievements of the superhero sub-genre since the turn of the Sixties have tended to occur when creators have refused to be bound by the expectations of their work's core audience. From Ditko, Kirby and Lee through Miller and Moore and beyond to today, the jewels in the super-book's history have challenged and extended what the sub-genre is. It's not a point which Johns and his fellow corporate architects of the New 52 are interested in for all but a tiny number of titles. Instead, they're purposefully, and even hysterically, chasing a marketplace of little but uber-fanboys, who, though capable of floating what remains of the superhero comicbook industry, demand product which will never sell to a wider audience. Justice League #0 is nothing but cynical, cold-hearted, poorly-crafted product.

It'll come as no surprise that there's just a single woman to be seen in the whole of the lead feature in Justice League #0. She's attractive, of course, and a helpless victim, as you'd expect, and the new "Shazam" saves her just as embodiments of blokeish wish-fulfilment are expected to. He even gets to scrounge twenty dollars from her for doing so, and laughs about it with his best mate afterwards. What could be more laddish than that?

As a triumph of fulfilling the narrowest expectations of an apparently fanatically naval-gazing readership, Justice League #0 is mechanically impressive. But it's glossily soulless trash too, and worse, irredeemably stupid to boot. Reader, beware.