Thursday, July 24, 2008

Failing Upwards

I don’t consider myself a big fan of Kevin Smith – I think he does little to expand his films out of his "comfort zone," and his only comics work that I actually enjoyed was his great run on Green Arrow. However, I think his interview DVD, An Evening With Kevin Smith, contains some of the best stories about the complete idiocy of the Hollywood decision-making process. In particular, his commentary on the sheer stupidity surrounding the disastrous Superman Lives project is truly one of the most hysterical, yet infuriating, Hollywood stories. There’s one line by Smith that highlights the entire fiasco:

“In Hollywood, you kind of fail upwards.”

In all honesty, I don’t see why that quote cannot apply to some writers of mainstream comic books.

I don’t envy the job of comic book writers. Sure, like anyone else I think it would be fun to write stories featuring my favorite characters. But have you ever thought how difficult it is to sit down and plot out, say, twelve issues of a C-level character like Hawkman or Hawkeye? Most fans already pay little interest to the character, and heck, the company may want you to write a crossover issue to try to get a sales boost from the company’s (most likely bad) Big Summer Event. That cuts into your short-term plans. And maybe the villain or guest star you fully intend to use is declared unavailable after you already turn in your first scripts. And keep in mind that no matter how much effort you put into the issues at least a good portion of the Internet message board folks are going to say it is crap. On top of all this, most comic book writers write more than one title and end up dealing with all this junk three or four times over per month.

It certainly isn’t an easy job. If you’re a writer with any kind of name value you could make much more money in television or movies. Which is why it does not surprise me why a lot of the mainstream comics on the shelves are often poorly-written. What does surprise me is why these writers keep getting gigs.

The whole idea of a job is that you are paid with the expectation that you are to do your job well. You turn in sub-standard work or, hell, turn in no work at all, you may get away with it at first. But be prepared to eventually say good-bye to your paycheck. Look, I am not that much of a jerk to want anybody to lose their job, but I can’t really feel sympathy for anybody who does said job poorly or not at all.

Yet this does not seem the case with many comic book writers (and artists, for that matter, but that’s another article). I have followed the careers of numerous comic book writers who constantly turn in work that sells poorly, is widely-panned, or both, yet still get gig after gig. This does not include someone like Jeph Loeb, whose work I personally don’t care for, who generates high sales. These are writers who have on a regular basis killed sales and entire books.

I hate to use an example, but I need to in order to illustrate my point: Bruce Jones and his recent run at DC comics (2004-current). Here is Bruce Jones’ recent resume:
  • 7 issues on Nightwing, critically ridiculed and terrible sales
  • A Vertigo series, a “reimagining” of Deadman, which lasted only 13 issues
  • A reboot of Mike Grell’s Warlord, which lasted even less (10 issues)
  • The final six issues of Greg Rucka’s Checkmate (never a strong seller, so I won’t count this against Jones)
  • Three mini-series: Man-Bat, OMAC, and Vigilante. The events of Man-Bat were ignored in the main Bat-titles, the new Vigilante Jones created has since been replaced by another new Vigilante, and the OMAC character introduced in the mini-series had no further appearances. All three had rather low sales and did not spin-off into any other titles.
…Yet Jones has been writing yet another recent mini-series of a concept that cannot be expected to sell very well – The War that Time Forgot – no matter how awesome the Showcase Presents volume is. I am not saying DC should throw the guy Batman or Green Lantern, but there are only so many chances a writer should get to turn C-list and D-list characters into success stories.

I have been told that Jones has done some good work in the past. But in the last five years Jones has worked on six DC characters, none of which has been successful. Sure, Nightwing is probably the only one of those concepts that is expected to sell moderately well (although did not under Jones’ pen). He might not be exactly failing upwards, but he certainly seems to be failing and is going anywhere but out the door. But perhaps this is less a criticism of Jones and frankly criticism of the seemingly endless stream of projects that DC greenlights for him that are so off the radar they might as well be stealth bombers.

Obviously somebody at DC likes Bruce Jones. Well, if the company is so high on the guy, give him some sort of substantial project. If not, stop giving him concepts that have little chance of success. I
t's not like he's a superstar like Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis, who could sell at least 50k of an issue of NFL SuperPro if they wanted. Otherwise DC might as well write "Bruce Jones Project" on a stack of hundred dollar bills, then throw it in the paper shredder.

I know Bruce Jones is a veteran writer, but sadly I can't help but wonder what veteran and often ignored writers like William Messner-Loebs, Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, or Steve Gerber (RIP) could do with these concepts. Perhaps they would not sell any better, but at least these men do not have a lengthy recent history of failed projects.

I can only think of one writer in the past few years who turned in work that was considered so poor that he was effectively blackballed from mainstream comics: Chuck Austen. I’d tell you to look up why on his Wikipedia entry, but it seems the nice police have cut out the criticism. Suffice to say, well, this:

Click above to view Exhibit "A" of Why Chuck Austen No Longer Does Mainstream Comics

I can just imagine if this appeared in a Silver Age Superman book. The cover blurb would read: "SUPERMAN or SUPER-CHEATER?!?" with a fantastic Curt Swan cover. But I am sure that story would feature red kryptonite or an extra-dimensional space gorilla with magical powers. Austen, unfortunately, was not that creative.

Is that what it takes to be blackballed? Finally, honey, I found a job with security!

UPDATE, 7/27: It's interesting that I brought up Bruce Jones' failed Warlord reboot in this post, since it was announced this weekend that series creator Grell is returning to Warlord. Cool stuff! In an interview with Newsarama, Grell had the following comments on the Jones reboot:

NRAMA: Back in 2006 there was an earlier attempt to revive the The Warlord, but that was shelved after ten issues. Does this anything to do with that?

MG: No. As point of fact to that, that series didn't have much to do with the Warlord at all. I don't mean to be too harsh of a critic – I have the greatest respect for Bart Sears and Bruce Jones, but I was disappointed in that series with the respect to the fact that it had no bearing on the original besides the names. They did themselves a disservice attaching the name.... a new name would have better. The audience was looking for the Warlord in that book and they couldn't find him.

I think this quote can work as a commentary on not just the 2006 Warlord series, but all failed "reimagining" of characters and concepts. Sometimes they are just taken way too far from the original ideas.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Can't Forget A Classic

It’s apparently old news, but I’ve recently been told that the Dark Horse Classic Star Wars trades which reprint the Archie Goodwin/Al Williamson comic strips are out of print. A check on Dark Horse’s website confirms that they are no longer selling copies directly. also seems to no longer sell new copies. Although I know that the strips are available on the subscription service of, I think it is unfortunate that these specific editions are no longer available.

I was a rather big Star Wars fan when I was twelve, but I suppose most people my age were. This was, of course, before the prequel era and was thus before the currently saturated "Expanded Universe" kicked into high gear. Some may argue that point, but frankly I find it hard to believe that writers can do superb work while trying to awkwardly fit their creative muscles between the events of a hundred comic books, video games, novels, and cartoons. It seems to me that with much less product coming out in those “interim years,” the quality control was a lot better. Plus, with less published material there was more playroom in the universe, and unlike many of the Star Wars books that come out these days there is less focus on minutiae (leading to articles like this, which touts the newest video game as "Episode III and a half"). Early Star Wars material was not written with a strict canon and could therefore explore the developing universe on a more creative scale. A great example is the novel Splinter of a Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Forster, which came out before Empire Strikes Back was even in pre-production. The story: Luke and Leia chase after a cosmic artifact on a swamp planet – just classic, old-style science fiction with no attempt to tie it in with any history or continuity because, at that point, there was no continuity except for a single hit movie. Much of the Goodwin/Williamson strip is just that: fun sci-fi stories told by a writer who grew up reading EC Comics and an artist who grew up reading Flash Gordon. Williamson’s art is so far beyond anything you see in the comics section of a newspaper today (in part because most newspapers do not even bother to carry adventure strips) and Goodwin’s stories are, as always, full of imagination. Goodwin is one of those rare figures in comics whose work is universally praised, and he deserves every accolade that is thrown his way.

Dark Horse tried to do something different with the series rather than just paste the panels from the strip on pages and sell it as a comic book. The editors of the series reformed the panels, colored the artwork, and even had Williamson contribute new artwork to the layouts to expand the panels beyond the confining structure of a comic strip. Purists might be turned off, but as far as reprinting comic strips go it’s a unique and welcome approach. I would not suggest it for my treasured complete Popeye by E.C. Seger editions, but for an adventure strip filled with sci-fi action the approach really works. After all, this is Star Wars -- just like its film counterpart, it is supposed to be big.

If you are a Star Wars fan and never had the opportunity to pick up these editions, do so. Especially if you a fan of the original films and feel letdown about the prequels and the current unending stream of novels and comics, and particularly if you break out in sweats anytime you hear the word “midichlorians.” I hope that these collections will eventually make it back into print for those Stars Wars fans who might be a bit burned out on all the Jedi warfare. Scoop them up on Amazon or Ebay while you still can.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Question About Speedy

You may have forgotten (because I recently did) that Mia Dearden, also known as Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy, is HIV positive. I bring it up that way because something that anyone who knows anything about the real-life disease would expect it to be a life-altering change, however it has been hardly more than a background detail since Mia made the announcement in Green Arrow #33 (December 2004). Since then the fact that Mia is HIV positive has come up a few times in Green Arrow and never in any significant way.

In a 2004 interview with CBR, then-and-now Green Arrow writer Judd Winick stated:
“The point of this character is she's living with HIV, as many people do. There are people who have been living for 20 years through combination drug therapy and live relatively unencumbered lives. Some people are on the combination drug therapy and it's an enormous hassle and there are tons of side effects and terribly uncomfortable. It runs the gamut. This character is not about Mia dying of AIDS, it's about how she'll be living with HIV as many, many people do.”
I am all for social issues worked into comics – certainly it has worked in the past – as long as they are done organically and do not feel shoehorned in. While Winick is not particularly known for subtlety, I applaud him for not handling Mia in a particularly heavy-handed, preachy manner. But I do question why Winick made Mia HIV positive character when the revelation has since served no storyline or educational value to the title.

If the goal of including an HIV positive character in a superhero comic book series is education, I would argue that the twenty-thirty something audience of readers all lived through the mid-to-late nineties when AIDS awareness was at its peak in the public consciousness. I also highly doubt most children who read comics are reading Green Arrow, which is not code-approved and is often as sex-obsessed as Winick’s typical work (case in point: after writer Brad Meltzer had Ollie readying an engagement ring for Black Canary in issue #21, Winick had him fooling around with Black Lightning’s niece in issue #28). So the whole idea behind “using” Mia’s condition to educate young readers sort of goes the window when it is not marketed or written as a book for young readers. And even though part of the “Mia has HIV” fallout even involved her joining the Teen Titans (which is a code-approved book that probably has a number of young readers), her tenure in the Titans lasted less than a year (Teen Titans #21-31) and did not involve any sort of attempt to educate the reader. During that time Teen Titans writer Geoff Johns was busy doing the two things he does best: build up to an event and make dead characters somewhat less confusing. I guess there was not enough time for education.

I forgot that James "My Fables Covers are Works of Beauty" Jean did covers for Green Arrow.

If we are to take Winick’s words at face value – that Mia’s condition is just about how she will be living, not dying – I suppose she is like Garrett Miller. Don’t remember him? He was the wheelchair-bound Ghostbuster on Extreme Ghostbusters, a cartoon series sequel to the classic 1980s original. But that was about it – from what I understand, nothing much was made to make him into an interesting, three dimensional character except for the fact that he was in a wheelchair. Because the series did not end up lasting beyond the first season, Garrett Miller became a wasted opportunity of tokenism: an overly politically correct symbol who in a way was all the more insulting because he existed for no other reason than to be politically correct.

I think Speedy can be a character a bit more complex than this.

My point is that being an active superhero who happens to be HIV positive is something that makes Mia Dearden a unique character. While I am glad that Winick has not made her HIV status the primary focus of the title, completely ignoring what makes each superhero unique is what dooms a character to the Z-list and squanders any potential that character has. There is a balance somewhere between unnecessary heavy-handed preaching and unnecessary political correctness for the sake of political correctness.
For example, being a vegetarian is one of many unique traits that makes Animal Man a complex character, but nobody really thinks of Animal Man as the "vegetarian superhero" and you don't see him as the official mascot of PETA. Winick has not even come close to that balance in the fifty-plus issues that he has written since Mia’s revelation. She's neither a blatant symbol nor a complex character. She's just sort of... there. And that's a place she shouldn't be.

Personally, I would just hate for it to turn out that Mia’s condition really served as nothing more than a goodwill publicity stunt. She can be so much more than that and I would like to believe that Speedy’s unique story was going somewhere and that she is intended to be something greater than another Garrett Miller.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Back to (Bronze Age) Basics, Marvel Style

Marvel Comics has recently taken DC Comics to school on sales, but Marvel certainly can’t quite give Spider-Man the “Rebirth” treatment that DC has turned into a license to revive failing concepts.

Scipio over at the top-shelf comic blog The Absorbascon made a clever observation comparing DC’s trend of returning their characters to the Silver Age basics versus Marvel’s recent attempt to do mostly the same thing with Spider-Man. Of course, while DC’s recent moves to bring back their Silver Age stalwarts have clearly been financially beneficial (and generally had positive fan reaction), the court of public opinion (and sales) are still out on Spider-Man’s new status quo. I still think it is a little early to read into sale figures for a change of this magnitude – and it is pretty tough to find comparison average sales figures considering the Spider-Man titles went through a string of events pre-Brand New Day and (in the case of Straczynski's
Amazing Spider-Man) infrequent shipping. Suffice to say that as it stands now, sales keep slipping little by little.

Although the continuity alterations brought on by, well, the unexplainable power of magic, are still widely criticized from a storytelling standpoint, the changes have brought Spider-Man more inline with his Bronze Age status quo. Minus, of course, the still-dead Gwen Stacy.

Poor Gwen. Everyone’s invited back except you. Say “hi” to Uncle Ben for us!

Since then Marvel has put would should be enough star power on the thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man, including editor Steve Wacker, Dan Slott, Bob “Back to the Future” Gale, Steve McNiven, Mike McKone, Phil Jimenez, John Romita, Jr. and … Marc Guggenheim and Mark Waid. Didn’t I just write about them? Honestly, besides writers with the popularity on par with Brian Bendis or Geoff Johns (who are busy writing whatever they feel like writing) or superstar artists (most of whom don't have a prayer of doing a monthly title on time),
I can't think of anyone who would bring more attention to the title.

Of course, we all know that the main fault with the Brand New Day revamp was the execution, which left a bitter taste in plenty of people’s mouths and probably prevents more than a few of them from picking up Amazing Spider-Man. This is comic books after all and "magic deal with the devil" is not all that different from "Superman reverses the rotation of the earth" or "giant yellow space bug turns you evil," but the comic book audience as a whole is the type that does not want to feel that a poorly-crafted story is treating them like idiots. Others may be assuming the new status quo is once again temporary and (like Spider-Man’s 2006 unmasking, which had as much chance of lasting as the Death of Superman) will be changed once again. Frankly it seems that bar really poor sales, the Brand New Day status quo is the long-term direction for Spider-Man, and there still is a strong chance of it working out in the long run.

Certainly with the box office success of Iron Man and the planned “movie universe” the time may be right for the “back to basics” approach for other characters if Marvel feels the need to do so. But unless sales on Amazing Spider-Man level out or improve, it may be a very long time before Marvel tries a similar Brand New Day revamp of one of their characters – and considering the fan backlash over One More Day that might be a good thing for Marvel and Marvel fans' sake.

(Obviously I should point out that the whole intent of the Ultimate universe was to clear the slate for every character, yet Marvel has never quite been willing to put the Ultimate universe on the same level of importance as their “main” universe. That appears to be why an unmarried Spidey in the Ultimate books just wasn’t good enough.)