Saturday, July 05, 2008

Countdown to something inane

Countdown to Final Crisis

Put it this way: is it possible for a continuity-wise writer to deliver a story which makes sense to the interested, but uninformed reader?DC comics, with their mammoth-but-not-necessarily wise maxi-series, have put this to the test.

First off, a series of such a length is a statement of intent. If want people to spend $200 or $300 on a story, you'd better make sure it's a good one. Scratch that. Make sure it's a fantastic one. Fail and you're telling your readers in the starkest terms that you're taking them for a ride.

Countdown, sadly and predictably, is bloatware. Nothing much happens for the first twenty issues or so. That's four hundred pages, people. Even Dostoyevsky gets his arse in gear faster than that. We have a number of different plot strands which do, somewhere far down the line, come together. To get there, though, we have a long and uninteresting road to travel.

Here's how it goes: Donna Troy and co turn up in one of DC's new spangly universes. 'I'm detecting Ray Palmer,' says one of them. They get attacked by some local baddies. They despatch them using fists and blinding flashes from Donna's galactic pants. 'Ray was here, but now he's gone,' says one of the bruised locals. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. 52 universes and yet all so samey.

Incidentally, didn't Ray Palmer sing the theme to 'Ghostbusters'? Perhaps that's one of the new universes.

Let's remove these pointless Ray-searches - to add insult to tedium, there were special 'Search for Ray Palmer' one-offs with exactly the same guff - and see what's left.

Mary Marvel. Mary Marvel. Doubtless her behaviour was utterly out of character for the entire series, but I'd never heard of her before, so I'm fine with that. This was a good strand, I thought. Good girl succumbs to temptation, does some naughty things, sees the error of her ways, redeems herself. Sometimes the old 'uns are good 'uns.

Except - and I don't have a clue how a sane editor could allow this to happen - right at the end, after she's redeemed herself and been forgiven and this strand is put to bed, Darkseid turns up, offers our Mary some more evil powers. This is a last temptation, right? She'll turn him down. We've spent the last few months learning about Mary's character. She's seen where succumbing takes her. Only that's not what happens. Clean out of the blue, she turns evil once again. No foreshadowing, no reason to think it might happen. It doesn't make the blindest amount of sense.

DC staff, this is narration 101: don't have your characters make decisions the plot doesn't support. You're in charge of this. You're supposed to know what you're doing. Pathetic.

As I understand it, Darkseid turns out to have been offing various old Jack Kirby characters. Why he's chosen now is never explained, but explaining isn't DC's strong point. He has to store their powers somewhere. Wouldn't in Darkseid be a good idea, maybe? Or just down the corridor from Darkseid's bedroom? No, he stores them in Jimmy Olsen, Superman's friend-sidekick-irritant. Would it be possible to find any place more ridiculous than there? You can never underestimate the stupidity of the powers of evil, I guess.

By the time the series is drawing to a close, we've got multiple factions slugging it out. I never quite figured out who Monarch is, or where he went in the end. I understood the Monitors well enough. OMAC turns up at the party, for some reason. One woman, Una, turned into one and then turned back again. Did I miss something there? One universe gets 'destroyed' twice.

Could someone tell these scientific illiterates that introducing a virus onto one planet is not the same as annihilating the entire universe? Memo to DC: universes are really, really, fucking huge. Just because a virus is one thousand years more advanced than us - no, I don't understand that either, but bear with me - somewhere in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies with a hundred billions stars each there might be a planet with technology more than one thousand years ahead of us. They might find the anti-life virus as deadly as a snuffly nose.

And then the finale: Monarch and the Monitors have fallen by the wayside. Ray Palmer squashes a podule inside Jimmy Olsen (I suspect Olsen is composed of a multitude of podules, but there you go) and a new character pops out. Orion.

This brings me back to my continuity question. You're probably thinking Orion is an old character, right? Not to me. I'd never seen him before. But he turns up in the second-to-last week and kills the bad guy. Not Ray Palmer, not Donna Troy, not - heaven forfend - Jimmy Olsen, but some guy I'd never heard of. Surprised? You bet. Foreshadowed? Not in the slightest. For the uninitiated, this last plot turn made as much sense as the cast of Pride and Prejudice turning up and beating Darkseid to death with parasols. If you're planning to have Orion take care of Darkseid in the end, have the cast search for ways to spring him. Make that their goal. My enthusiasm for the DC universe seeped out of my head like air from a fart cushion.

Lord, I wish I could say something good about this series. Donna's galactic pants are fetching, I have to admit. The annihilation of one of the Earths was well-done. But the rest? Well, I would say bilge but.... No, I will say bilge.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Erase the mistake

Way back when, Plok wrote a post about the achievement of Roy Thomas in codifying the Marvel Universe. While Stan Lee made up stuff up without consider its consistence with his other work, Roy went around the MU with a tidy brush, building a set of links between characters which made it possible to conceive of the Marvel Universe as one entity. From that time on, it became important to link each new innovation into that central whole.

I don't know if that's the whole story. The horror comics made no attempt to integrate, except maybe with themselves. Dracula could do a turn in Werewolf-by-Night, but his appearance in Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men was just fundamentally wrong. Chris Claremont, of course, loved any amount of magickal weirdness, and his talent for assimilation carried on way after Thomas' time.

This codification, by the way, is nothing new. Homer - the Greek version 1.0, I mean, not the portly suburban version 1.1 - took a load of characters - mystical Mycenean heroes, local deities, maybe even one or two genuine historical figures - and created a mythology. Athena and Area fight wars through proxies on the Hellespont because he thought it made a great, coherent story. He was codifying, in other words, and they built a religion out of it.

No, let's not call it a religion, as that just get people's back up. Call it a mythology. Marvel, and DC for that matter, have created a mythology. And the problem is that, where the Greeks had old stories to be embellished and changed as required, at the heart of our mythology is a company which has to make a profit, and therefore has to issue new updates of these figures on a monthly basis. As it does, the characters and plots grow convoluted, bad decisions get made, and these mistakes get amplified over time.

I'm tempted to use the Spider-wedding as an example, but I've done that already. Let's take another: the proliferation in the number of mutants. In the beginning, of course, mutants were few in number. There was only one comic, for a start, so that placed a practical limit on the number which could be around at any one time. The X-Men were shunned outsiders, which made sense and made for good stories. Then came New Mutants and X-Factor and X-Men and all those other spin-offs. Mutants went mainstream. By the mid 1990s, Marvel superheroes, which in 1980 had meant Marvel, were a side-event. Marvel threw money and talent and more money at the X-Men and everything else started to wither. Then Grant Morrison went into overdrive. There were thousands, then tens of thousands, then million of mutants. Take that to its logical conclusion and the whole of the Marvel Universe, Spider-Man and Rocket Racer and Man-Thing and all must eventually become embroiled in the X-men's race war.

That multiplication of numbers made for good X-Men stories, but at the expense of the Marvel Universe.

Which is where 198 comes in. Erase the mistake. Ditto the Spider-marriage. Erase the mistake. Whether you agree with those decisions is one matter. but there's a clear logic here. Erase the mistake.

But what does this do to the mythology?. After so much continuity-mining and reverse-gearing and retconning, is there a clear understanding of what's mythology and what's not. Quesada, of course, would claim the right to change it as and when, and given he's Editor-in-Chief, you have to concede that's some authority. But people believe in this stuff. Not believe in an I'm-a-stupid-fanboy-with-no-life-and-this-really-happened way, but believe in the sense of having an involvement in a story. A belief no different to people watching soap operas. Or reading The Great Gatsby. It's called suspension of disbelief, and that's why we have stories at all. If people are reading this because of their fascination with the entire Universe, then tinkering with it risks undermining the suspension of disbelief in the reader. And once that goes, the story is gone.

So am I arguing against myself here? If we concede the importance of mythology, then Peter Parker did marry Mary Jane Watson, right? Quesada can issue retcons to his heart's content, but if that mythology is living in the minds of his readership, they can just refuse to accept it. Are the MJ lobby right after all? I'll concede the point. Retconning the marriage damages the mythology. But married Spider-Man = bad stories. Twenty years have proved that. You pays your money and....

Friday, March 28, 2008

After the love has gone (3)

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day

It's not true that I haven't been reading any comics. I read DC's 52 all the way up to the top. Then the numbers started going down again - I haven't figured out why yet. I read Gerber's last comics. I'm up-to-date on, if uninspired by, the X-Men.

And then there's Spider-Man. His was the first comic I bought, and doubtless it'll be the last.

Brand New Day, Brand New Day. Where do you start with that one?

Well, first I'd like to thank the Mary Jane Lobby for their forebearance and understanding in these difficult times. It must be tough, knowing they have to go through life without receiving regular publications portraying the non-existent marriage of a non-existent man and a non-existent woman. I can see how your life must feel devoid of meaning and character now. Well done, Mary Jane Lobby! You've done yourselves proud. Thank goodness you haven't done anything undignified like, say, whining like a fucking jet engine.

Spider-Man is nothing if not a Moebius strip, and we've been here before. The Byrne-Mackie relaunch. Dispose of the marriage, push MJ from a DC-10, give Peter a new job, make things bright and fun, just like in Stan's time. It fell apart within ten issues. The MJL screamed and screamed. Everyone got horribly upset, and it all went back to status quo - Peter Parker, the Friendly-Neighbourhood thirtysomething science teacher. JMS was workaday and competent, if nothing else, but his series was as broken as it had ever been.

Now Joe Quesada's the one to flick the switch on MJ in an eyebrow-raising deal with Mephisto. Of course it was ridiculous, but marriage is like virginity. Once you do it, you don't get to go back to before. Get out of a marriage and you're either divorced or widowed, and neither label looks good for Spider-Man's market positioning. One More Day was preposterous, sure, but what else can an Editor-in-Chief do? This bed was made long ago.

The problem with Spider-Man is this: the character's been allowed to age too much; a majority of readers like it that way; young readers are turned off by it all. Bob Harras or John Byrne or Joe Quesada looks at his aging readers and thinks, Christ, we're doomed. They're not looking at their current customers, they're worrying about who's going to replace them when the reaper comes wagging his bony finger. They do what's necessary, and the rebellion kicks off again.

The only way this situation gets resolved is if the writing is so good on the relaunch that the protests die down. If sales don't slump they'll be able to build. A big if.

A few years ago, Rupert Murdoch wanted to take over English Rugby League. A complete revamp to fit Sky's schedules: a new league, Sunday games, played in the summer. And he wanted mergers: new clubs with silly names. Naturally, there were protests. 'Fev is Fev, Cas is Cas, stick your merger up your ass.' After a suitable period, he relented. No mergers. Everything else stuck. The game's played in summer now. But he never gave a stuff whether Featherstone Rovers merged with Castleford. Increased revenue for the big clubs will dispose of the little ones anyway. The mergers were a straw man. He got every single thing he wanted.

In Spider-Man, I think, I hope, the straw man is Peter's relationship with MJ. Once the MJL has squealed for a few months, Peter and MJ will go on a date. The MJL will be mollified, probably. Quesada wanted the marriage gone. It was nothing personal against MJ. If MJ gets cloying, a future writer can split them up. That's the fall-back position. At least, that should be the fall-back position.

And is Brand New Day any good? For me, no. It has a forced jollity, like being made to wear a stupid crepe hat at the Office Christmas Dinner. The tone is Stan Lee, hesitatingly updated for a new generation. It doesn't do anything for me, but you know what? My time is up. I've read all this a million times.

But if I was twelve and picking up a comic for the first time, I'd be impressed that Spider-Man's web shooters can run dry, and he can be falling out of a blue sky to his doom and get rescued by a beautiful woman.

It's time to move on.


After the love has gone (2)

'The wisdom of John Byrne.' It's a hell of an oxymoron. It's become a duty to hate the man. He's a four-colour Heather McCartney, a moustache-twirling burlesque villain, ever ready with a half-witted quip or poorly-phrased boast. Living proof of why comic creators should be allowed nowhere near the internet.

I know, it's a new era now. Everything's interaction. Creator intersects with fan and this intercourse will result in.... In what? Better comics? Are comics written better now than twenty, thirty years ago?

Anyway, to quote Byrne:

"Who wants to read the same stories over and over. Characters need to change."

This is, of course, much like saying "Who wants to eat the same pablum all their lives? The flavors and textures should change!"

Those who take the stance that the characters need to "change" are missing the most important point -- it is they, the readers, who are changing, and if they cannot continue to read these stories for nostalgia value, they should move on, and find something which better suits their altered tastes.

This nails the problem. My tastes have changed.

When I was seventeen, I read Tolkien. No, I adored Tolkien. I read and re-read those damn books so often I'd memorised family trees of non-existent people. Names Tolkien had just thrown together in an Oxford quad some evening. Aragorn son of Arador son of Arathrump son of Aratickle. Why did he create this stuff? He was one anal-retentive author, that's for sure.

When I read Tolkien these days, I just laugh. Maybe not the Fellowship, which retains a little charm and mystery. But the third one, Lord oh Lord. 'Gondor! My King, thou art wounded! The Riders come at dawn, we must rebuild the wall!' Such unwitting hilarity. Those Elves: did anyone tell Tolkien what humourless boring stuck-up High Tory bastards those fuckers actually are? Given a choice, I'd much rather go down the pub with some Orcs.

You get the idea, I'm past Tolkien. Like I'm past comics, right?

Only that's not so clear, because Tolkien is one author. Comics are a whole genre. Dozens, hundreds of writers and artists. How can I be over every one of them, even though there's doubtless some I haven't even read.

Here, I'm going to let the late Steve Gerber do the talking.

We're working with a limited amount of space. You don't get the depth of characterization that you can find in a 1200-page Russian novel. It cannot be done.

There's a shallowness to comics, to the vast majority of comics. Its creators may be bursting with creativity and new ideas, but there's a hard limit in the medium to the amount of exposition. Given comics' self-imposed ban on the comment caption, all superhero comics have been reduced to dialogue. I think I've had my lifetime limit of dialogue-only literature.

I think the time is coming when the kids are not going to be willing to settle for about six pages of Peter Parker's neverending, never-changing problems with Aunt May sandwiched between two fight scenes with the Vulture. That era is rapidly drawing to a close. It's a style that became a formula accidentally.

What has happened, though, is that over the years that simple dramatic structure has ossified into a page-by-page formula that has become so predictable and so mind-numbing to the readers that it's hard to tell, except by the colors of the costumes — and they've all begun to look alike, too — whether you're reading Ms. Marvel or Spider-Man.

Gerber was talking back in 1978, and things have moved on a little. His ossification was that of Stan Lee: that writers were all having to write in his style. It's different now. Everybody writes like Chris Claremont.

And that's my second problem. Once you've read enough, superhero comics are completely predictable.

What keeps readers (including me, for many years) coming back, is fascination with the world and the continuity and its characters. I've lost that interest. Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson are just constructs. They're not real people, they were never really married. What if (no spoilers here, just picking a name at random) Mr Fantastic turns out to have been a Skrull for the last twenty years? It doesn't matter, because it's just a story.

Obviously comic books readers see it differently. Comics are alive for them, a weird and entrancing world full of the strangest things. I wish I still had that fascination. But I don't.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

After the love has gone (1)

There are four hundred unread comic books sitting in my spare room. I like to take my time reading them, but let's imagine I rush things. I'll read six an hour, four hours an evening. I won't take breaks or have baths or engage in rumpy-jumpy, I'll just geek out. It'll only take, what, seventeen days. Obviously I won't enjoy the process much and they'll all merge into one, but I'd get there. I might even get them all read before next month's batch arrives....

When I stopped reading comics, it seemed like a good idea to just let them keep coming in. My comic shop is happy to send them, I don't mind paying the money, and sooner or late, I'd thought, I'll get back into comics and start reading them again.

Well, yes, but what if I don't?

I used to be a big football fan. I even went to away games, which in the nineteen eighties was a recognised psychiatric disorder. What a place, that away end at Millwall. Ten-year-olds giving you the finger and challenging you to fights. Then last year, after some particularly unpleasant display of arrogance by a footballer, I got sick of it. I stopped watching it. Stopped following it. Now I can't bear it. There is a rhythm, a flow, to a game of football, but I've lost it. It all just seems coarse now. And dull. I can't bear it.

Funny that you can love something your entire life and then just switch off from it. No, I don't believe it's like that. What happens is that the real love trickled away long ago, and all that's left is a habit. I don't miss football in the slightest. It's a relief not to have to spend two hours watching it.

Which brings me, obviously, to comics. I don't love them any more, I don't like them enough to actually read them. All that's left is my approval. I like the fact that they're still published. I like getting a parcel every month, but that's not enough to justify doing it. I'm still in the routine of comics, and I need to break away from it.

But - there's always that back-of-the-mind voice - I've quit comics before, and come back. Why won't it happen again? That's what's kept them coming through my door this last year....

Anyway, I know there's nobody here but us chickens, but I like to write about things. I'm going to formalise my divorce from comics. I'm going to attempt one last reconciliation, set a date for the proceedings (a few months time seems about right), worry about the split (what am I going to do with thousands of comics?) and then, if I we haven't had a surprise reconciliation, it's die ende, finito, khattam shud.

And in the meantime, my (probably non-existent, but I like to think someone's out there) reader, I shall tell you all about the end of the affair. I might even review a comic or two along the way...


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Steve Gerber

You've gone, as they say, to some world or other...

Steve Gerber died working on a script for a character called Doctor Fate. His very last blog post was called Even Quicker Update. Like a doomed character in Man-Thing, I imagine him typing as fast as his dying fingers will let him, a clock thumping on the wall, conscious of how few seconds remained, and how much was still to do.

He'll never do it now.

I should enumerate his achievements: Man-Thing, Defenders, Omega the Unknown. A string of others, stretching from those early seventies - the most inventive, exciting period comic books ever produced. He was the outstanding writer of a great generation. And Gerber's finest work was Howard the Duck.

By turns outraged and affectionate, daring and inventive, and always hilarious, Howard the Duck was the greatest comic book series ever written. It had no rivals and produced no successors. Sure, it had its wrong turns and off-issues, but it never dropped below brilliant. And this in an industry which rarely rises above plodding competence.

I'm not going to be sentimental. Let's be clear about what happened to this man: he created something superb and developed it for a few short years. Then legalised robbery took his masterpiece, and they set about bastardising it. They gave lesser, unmotivated writers free-range to carry on Gerber's work. Their magazines and mini-series were feeble and embarrassing. If you want to understand why Gerber fans are still so angry about his treatment, it's right there. Marvel could have just let Howard the Duck slide into anonymity. But that wasn't enough. They wanted to prove the writer was dispensable. They were wrong.

You can say it if you want: that Marvel, in denying Gerber the rights to Howard, was just protecting its corporate asset, that Ditko and Kirby and who knows else would have wanted their share. That the economics of comics would have collapsed. That Gerber, damn it, should have made an effort to ingratiate himself with the powers-that-be.

You know what? I don't care. Writers aren't cuddly teddy bears. Some are prickly and anti-social, and some are downright nasty. A glance at Howard the Duck shows that Gerber might have had a negative side. Jim Shooter, apparently, didn't get on with him. So what? The job of managers and editors is to get the best, the very best, out of what is available. Even up to last week, the very best that Marvel could have produced was Howard the Duck. Thirty years passed between Gerber leaving Howard the Duck and his death, and Marvel produced six Gerber-written issues. Pathetic. Right now, there's nothing on Marvel's website about Gerber's death. Why aren't I surprised?

Somewhere out in the ether, there are a hundred or two hundred unwritten Howard the Ducks. The ones they gave Gerber no opportunity to write. Where would the industry be now with a regular infusion of literate, funny, satirical comics? I can't help feel it might be in a better position.

Anyway, those non-comics were stolen from Gerber and us by nobodies, bean-counters and mini-Napoleons. I don't know the behind-the-scenes details, so I won't accuse individuals. But I'll say this to the front men: doubtless you had your reasons, Shooter-DeFalco-Harras-Quesada, but does it feel uncomfortable to have torn the head off that golden-egg laying goose?

So now Marvel has its corporate asset, and no Gerber to launch irritating lawsuits. What future is there for Howard? Absolutely none. There's not a writer on the planet who could compose a new Howard the Duck.

The duck died with the man.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

All-new comic coding special

In an attempt to introduce breathtakingly novel blogging ideas into tired old reviewing, today I present the world's first compilable review. To take full advantage of this exciting feature, you will need a C++ compiler and a rudimentary knowledge of programming. You'll find my opinion buried deep in the code...

Today's topic: should Spider-Man's costume be red-and-blue, or black?


int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  for ( int i=0; i<SHITTING_LARGE_NUMBER; i++ )
    printf( "I couldn't give a " );
    for ( int j=0; j<i; j++ )
      printf( "fucking " );
    printf( "flying fuck\n" );

  return 0;

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Oh, I know you're all long gone

I mean, I haven't posted here for months. But still...

I haven't read many comics. You should try it for a few months. It's good therapy.

But, like a Austin Metros pouring off a 1970's British Leyland conveyor belt, comics have continued to arrive every month, and are now sitting in a huge pile in my spare room.

You know what? They're stunning. The modern American comic is gorgeous. Thick and glossy and lustrous. I'd willingly stick my right hand in a mincer if my left could draw with a tenth of the mastery of Finch or Mack. These artists are geniuses. If reputation had any relationship to talent, their statues would tower over major thoroughfares. We should talk about them in daunted, reverential tones, and when they died, massed ranks of soldiery would fire volleys as horsedrawn carriages took them past distraught crowds to their cathedral resting places.

Instead they're the obscure talents of a geek pastime regularly traduced by ignoramus herds. Not fair. Not fair at all.

I can't make an economic case for the continued existence of comics. They shouldn't even be viable any more and, chances are, soon enough they won't be. But what a magnificent folly they are.