Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anyone else wondering...

...what "Clark Kent" is up to since Kal-El is living on New Krypton? He does have a rather high profile job.

Or are the Superman writers just going to keep ignoring that until someone asks at a convention this summer?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Illusion of Good

Over at the Comics Should Be Good blog, which I frequent because it is definitely one of the better blogs out there, a witty punch line to the most recent Comics Critics webcomic has spurred a bit of discussion over what one poster refers to as “Well-Disguised Suck”. That is when a comic seems like it might be good or very good at first read (Jeph Loeb’s Batman work, for example), but upon further evaluation is actually much worse than what you originally thought. While I prefer the term “The Illusion of Good,” the fact reminds that many forms of entertainment get away with giving good gut reactions, yet don’t quite hold up after re-reading or even just further reflection.

Not as good as you remember. Trust me.

The biggest cause of deceit by The Illusion of Good is youth. Have you ever watched a movie that you loved as a child years later, only to ask yourself “why did I ever think that was good?” Over at CSBG I used Return of the Jedi as an example – people LOVE Ewoks when they're kids, but a few years go by and... – but a better example for me is The Breakfast Club. As a young teenager, I was convinced that The Breakfast Club carried The Most Important Message In The History of Important Messages – you know, that we all should respect each other despite our cliquey high school differences. Real, real deep stuff there. I still enjoy the movie – it certainly isn’t a bad movie by any means – but it definitely is not the all-powerful message that I thought it was because in the decade-plus since then I’ve viewed hundreds of better films and had more mature life experiences. My initial reaction and opinion – even ones I held for a few years – does not hold up when I go back with a more experienced eye.

I Won't, Won't, Won't Forget About You, Even If I Don't Like You as Much

To put this back in the perspective of comics, I remember (at an even younger age than my Breakfast Club worship) thinking that the death and return of Superman was the Greatest Story Ever Told (there’s a Superman/Christ parallel joke in there somewhere). Again, as far as comic book events go it’s not half bad, but it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight of greatness that I once believed it did. How come? Well, I’ve had more time and opportunities to read better comics out there – all those great comics published pre-Death of Superman that I had yet to discover and others that were created after – so my view of what makes a comic “great” has changed since I read the Death of Superman.

Nostalgic? Yes! Good? Well...

Hype can also be incredibly deceiving, especially to those who only moderately pay attention to superhero comics and get “suckered in” to buying The Big Events That You Must Own. The death of a major character or a company-wide crossover might seem “good” simply because it is “important” – important because it gives the illusion of change in a genre that has always resisted change and/or important because there is a lot of buzz around the event. But neither of these really improves upon the actual story – does Superboy’s death in Infinite Crisis really add much pathos to the story if you know that he will be back in a few years, even if every comics website on the Internet buzzes about how it is meaningful and a can’t-miss issue? Ed Brubaker’s ongoing run on Captain America isn’t great or "important" because Captain America died (and, of course, will be reborn shortly), but because Brubaker has been writing a powerful, intriguing story that many fans and critics have praised as an excellent contribution to the medium. Of course, who knows how fans will feel upon re-readings of the storyline a decade from now?

Then again, this is the same culture where middle-age people who spend much of their lives debating Transformers canon and/or writing fanfics about Joss Whedon characters believe these as important pursuits worthy of incredible amounts of their time. Asking many of us to look back at our prior pursuits or things that dominated our attention and deem them unworthy of it might just be out of the question. Yet this isn't convined to comic book fans, because one thing that I always thought to be very curious about art is that when most critics talk about a piece of art being "rediscovered" or "revaluated," it's always for the better -- like the Monkees, or the films of Sergio Leone (and both are certainly worthy). Not many people have the courage -- or even bother -- to say "you know what? That movie really wasn't good now that I think about it again." Probably because most people don't like to admit they might have been wrong.

We always talk about about art and artists that are underappreciated in hindsight -- but that doesn't mean there aren't those that are frequently overappreciated (which should be a word!)!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Carmine Infantino - Architect of the DC Universe

This was only a start for him.

(New name, new post!)

Comics great Carmine Infantino seems mostly known today for his role in creating the Silver Age Flash and his long association with Barry Allen. This is, on its own, a remarkable achievement – after all, he designed the iconic Silver Age Flash costume that has been continuously used (with very little modification) since 1956. Yet I would argue that Infantino’s greatest achievement in comics was his role as Editorial Director, and later Publisher, of DC Comics (1967-1975), a wildly creative period that completely revitalized the company and established cornerstone concepts and new characters that helped launch DC to great commercial – but also critical – success.

Infantino directly had a hand in nearly every creative success during his tenure as Editorial Director because he hired many of the creators – greats like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo, and Mike Grell – who produced such successes. And while many of the concepts did not have wildfire success right away, almost all of them – particularly Kirby’s Fourth World and Swamp Thing – went on to massive success in subsequent decades. Furthermore, many concepts that did not light the sales charts on fire, like Adam’s Deadman and the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter, are even today praised from a critical standpoint as masterpieces of the art form. Infantino injected DC Comics with a new maturity in both storytelling and artwork that did away with much of the “silly” concepts of the post-Golden Age that caused so many to dismiss comics as an art form. Had Infantino not seized on the new opportunities available to the industry, DC Comics might have remained the comics for your “little brother” compared to those offered by cross-town rival Marvel (of course, not that there's anything wrong with comics for your little brother).

Infantino also hired the two men most associated with Marvel Comics who were not named “Stan Lee” – Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the artists who had the most influence on designing the “house style” of Marvel Comics. With Infantino as Editorial Director, Kirby and Ditko created some of the most offbeat characters that DC Comics had. Kirby’s New Gods, Demon, Kamandi, and OMAC and Ditko’s Creeper and Hawk and Dove are all still widely used in DC books today, and the DC Universe would be a poorer place without these contributions. Other notable new characters introduced include Deadman (Strange Adventures #205), Bat Lash (Showcase #76), Swamp Thing (House of Mystery #92), Jonah Hex (All-Star Western #10), and Warlord (First Issue Special #8).

Along with the new characters created by Kirby, Ditko, and others, nearly all of DC’s flagship characters received revamps. Though some of these had a questionable success rate – notably the “I Ching” Wonder Woman era that was reversed in just under four years, the even shorter-lived “non costume” Teen Titans era, and the “Kryptonite No More!” Superman – others, like the Batman revamp that lead to the O’Neil/Adams Batman stories and the “New Look” Green Arrow were massive improvements for both the characters and the stories. In addition, Green Lantern was able to latch onto the critical success of Green Arrow with the “social relevance” issues (though sales were not there), DC began publishing Shazam! featuring the original Captain Marvel, and Len Wein began a well-regarded run on Justice League of America (issues #100-114). Even Golden Age characters, like the Spectre, Manhunter, and the Sandman, received new versions by top creators (Fleischer/Aparo, Goodwin/Simonson, and Simon/Kirby, respectfully). Heck, even the Phantom Stranger, who was previously a character from a long-forgotten canceled 1950s book was revamped in the pages of Showcase! Yet curiously enough, the character most associated with Infantino – the Flash – received no such revamp. I’d imagine even a prolific editor like Infantino couldn’t get to every character, and since he had a big hand in Barry Allen's creation perhaps Infantino liked the Scarlet Speedster the way he was.

In January 1976, Jeanne Kahn was made Publisher, and after a few years away from DC Infantino returned to drawing The Flash in the early 1980s. As for Kahn, you might say she did quite well also, but creators under her tenure certainly were able to capitalize on what Infantino oversaw before.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Real Mystery is How They Got So Popular!

[Spoilers below for Jeph Loeb's Batman work]
Word is that Jeph Loeb’s Batman: Dark Victory is receiving an Absolute Edition, along with the already released Batman: Hush and Batman: The Long Halloween. All three of Jeph Loeb's major Batman projects will be available in the format DC Comics uses for its greatest works.

I know I rank in the minority for this – though that isn’t a bad thing, I presume – but I care very little for Jeph Loeb’s Batman writing. On the surface this would be an odd statement because the positive buzz around Hush was what brought me back to reading comics regularly after I spent about eight years away, driven away by the (general) lack of quality of mid-to-late 90s comics (and also the lack of personal funds at the time, I must admit). I like Hush for the gorgeous Jim Lee art, but the story was lacking. I found the “mystery villain” incredibly obvious and the carousel of "greatest hits" villain appearances was unnecessary, distracting from the main story, and only served to pad it out to the unnecessarily long twelve issues. But from my perspective (as a casual reader of mystery fiction) Hush as a whole fails as a “mystery story” (which Loeb seemed to adamantly promote it as so). As those who have read Hush know, the “big reveal” of the “mystery villain” has less depth and “mystery” than the average Scooby-Doo mystery reveal.

I was told by others that Loeb’s two other Batman projects, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, were much better mystery stories. I went out and bought them. Once again, I loved the art (this time by Tim Sale), yet I found the stories lacking for a multitude of reasons. The primary reason? Neither are actually mystery stories in the true sense of the term.

The Long Halloween suffers from multiple storytelling problems. One of the major distracting problems is that Loeb seems intent to reference as many gangster films as possible – there are multiple references to the Godfather films, Goodfellas, and older gangster films like White Heat (the first line, “I believe in Gotham City,” echoes the first line of the Godfather, “I believe in America;” the first scene takes place at a wedding and Harvey Dent gets beat up for snooping in the parking lot, like Godfather; there's the "try the cannoli" line from Godfather; and Carmine echoes Pacino’s “In my home!” line from Godfather Part II… and all this is in just the FIRST ISSUE!). Homage is homage and allusion is allusion – both are done all the time in fiction – but when it comes to doing both a few dozen times across thirteen issues, well, let’s just say Loeb cannot hold a candle to Alan Moore’s much deeper work with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Where Moore’s literary references are subtle, display great appreciation for the source material, and does something interesting with it, Loeb’s word-for-word quotations appear like obvious rip-offs and because the references are so obvious they come off as poor writing. Yet they haunt Loeb like a crutch, like he personally did not know how to write mobsters, so he just went with the ones he saw on TV during Spike TV's "Wise Guys" movie marathon. At best this makes Loeb come off like that irritating guy you knew in your college dorm that awkwardly punctuated his conversations with quotes from movies in a poor attempt to be witty.

Along with that criticism, Loeb’s The Long Halloween and Dark Victory both make Batman – who is, after all, supposed to be The World’s Greatest Detective – out to be remarkably clueless. It takes Batman an entire year to figure out who the Holiday killer is in The Long Halloween, then another entire year to figure out who the Hangman killer is in Dark Victory – and, if we are to take the epilogue of The Long Halloween at face value (and more on that later), he actually doesn’t fully solve that mystery. Batman, as written by Denny O’Neill in the 70s, Max Allan Collins in the 80s, Chuck Dixon in the 90s, or Paul Dini in recent years (I should add that Dini has been the only one to produce a good Hush story), could have had Batman solve the mystery of two rival crime families with members dropping dead in a single issue. Now, this isn’t me so much invoking Batman’s detective skills (he is, of course, a fictional character), but rather showing the strength of these other Bat-writers who wrote much better mystery stories. While I understand that these two works take place early in Batman’s career, that fact alone does not excuse his Batman’s relative lack of detective skills in both stories (and the same lack of skill in Hush, which takes place much later in Batman’s career!). If mobsters are murdered on every major holiday, why isn’t Batman doing more to predict who will be the next one killed, and plan ways to watch out for them? Even more so, in the sequel, why isn’t Batman (and the GCPD, for that manner) doing more to predict which
cops the Hangman killer will go after, and how to protect them? If Batman’s mission is to protect lives, why does he allow mobster after mobster to be killed when the possible victims amount to a monthly-decreasing list of about a dozen? Give Gordon a list of possible victims (i.e. the whole crime family in The Long Halloween) and stake them out; story over in issue #2. Yet another way Loeb demonstrates that Batman is a poor detective in Dark Victory is Batman's inability to guess that the first word in the Hangman’s game could be “NINE” instead of “NONE” when the “N_NE” is given. It takes Dick “Dictionary” Grayson to figure this one out. So Batman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and the entire GCPD missed that one? Batman didn’t run other possible solutions through his brain or the Bat-Computer, forcing it to be solved by a kid with no detective experience? Again, very little sense, and "The World's Greatest Detective" being baffled over this is a gigantic logical fallacy that Loeb has never really learned how to control in his Batman work.

I have even stronger criticism for Dark Victory. While Loeb shies away from the use of movie references (thank goodness!), the mystery in this one is even weaker. The Hangman killer’s victims are cops that are chosen at random, whom all happen to be alone at the time of the murders. Often the Hangman killer has no way of knowing that these officers will be alone at the time and at the appointed time they are killed, nor does the killer have any reason to kill some of these specific police officers (Flass, Commissioner Loeb, and Branden, for instance, were off the police force before the Hangman killer’s family fell apart in The Long Halloween - and the "helped Harvey Dent become a crusading DA" reason given doesn't work because as corrupt cops they were a hinderence, if anything). If the only motivating factor for the Hangman killer to kill police officers is because she doesn’t happen to like police officers, well, that is a rather weak motivating factor from a revenge standpoint because there is no revenge to take on these individuals. It makes little sense to take revenge on people who haven’t done anything to deserve revenge – in fact, that isn’t revenge at all. That instead smacks of madness, the number one cop-out (no pun intended) of mystery stories.

An “insane” character has no place as the villain a mystery story. Why? Because a mystery story should be based on a crime that can rationally be solved if the reader is attuned to all the facts of the case (which is actually #15 on S.S. Van Dine’s classic 1928 list “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” I might add). Often this is nearly impossible (I have solved very little of Doyle’s Holmes stories in my first reading!), yet the possibility must be there for a story to truly be a detective story. If not… well, it isn’t a mystery story. This is why Joker, Scarecrow, etc. are effective as Batman’s villains – they are insane, so Batman has very little chance of solving their crimes beforehand because Batman is, if nothing else, a man of rational thought. But for people (including Loeb) to present these stories as “mystery stories” is incredible deceitful – a mystery story must have a solution that can be surmised from the facts presented. The reveal of the “actual” Holiday killer shows no possibility based on prior facts (which is why Loeb needs to resort to blatant exposition on the much-discussed last four pages which also makes little sense – although this is not unlike the “postscript” technique often employed by Agatha Christie and others, although much more logical in their cases), and the Hangman killer’s murders have no discernable solution based on their “pattern” (actually lack thereof). Think of the ending of the movie The Usual Suspects -- it requires no exposition because all the pieces fit once the true genius of the villain is revealed. The art of mystery fiction requires careful and intelligent plotting – an insane character lacks that skill, and it becomes a simple way for an author to write himself or herself out of a corner – “of course it doesn’t make sense! The killer is insane!” As I said, a very weak excuse to explain away why Batman could not solve either mystery in a year's time.

Even Scooby-Doo mysteries have a clear solution based on the facts presented – in fact, Loeb makes the opposite writing mistake with Hush, where the villain is telegraphed from the first appearance because of his “unrevealed until now!” origin, just like Scooby-Doo ("it was the old man all along!"). On Internet message boards while Hush was being released many were posting countless figures from Batman’s past as possible “masterminds” because too many (myself included) thought the eventual villain reveal would be too obvious. Loeb even teases two of these possibilities (Jason Todd and Harold) within the story, yet both are red herrings for the obvious (and even weaker) solution. Again, this presents Batman as an incredibly weak detective, whereas the detective should always be much smarter than the readers. Otherwise the mystery holds little entertainment value, although, I admit, Loeb did have a lot of people's attention (he just lost much of it with a weak ending).

Loeb had the remarkable fortune of landing in the company of two incredible artists for his three biggest Batman projects, and these certainly helped his projects receive such positive buzz. But I ask current and future readers to judge these works from a writing standpoint, particularly as they hold up as “mystery fiction.” For all the positive reviews these stories have received as "mysteries," I feel that all require a reevaluation based on tough criteria. True masterpieces stand the test of time – which is why people still read Christie and Doyle all these years later. Before the work of other great Bat-writers gets ignored in favor of Loeb’s, I’d like people to take another look at what makes Loeb’s stories fail from a storytelling standpoint as mystery fiction.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Backing Up the Back Ups

When it comes to entertainment, a great deal of success depends on the presentation. It is common knowledge that most 90 minute movies based on 4 minute Saturday Night Live skits (or half-hour Saturday morning cartoons) lose something in translation. Likewise, the record industry is finally relearning that for many pop stars a 4 minute catchy single sold for $1 on iTunes is often far more lucrative and successful than a $16 album of that one single and filler. Likewise, with superhero comics – Simply put, there are many great DC characters that cannot support their own 22 page ongoing monthly series. That is why DC’s recent decision to have back-up features in the upcoming $3.99 line of comics is a very good one.

There is no shame to being a “back-up” character (just ask Archie Goodwin’s Manhunter!) Like the aforementioned SNL skits and pop songs, some characters have had great success in a shorter format. In fact, there are many popular DC characters that were regulated to constant back-up features for decades – even when comic sales were far higher than they are today. Cases in point:
  • Aquaman, created in 1941, did not have his own ongoing title until 1962.
  • Green Arrow, also created in 1941, never had his own ongoing title until 1987.
  • Black Canary, created in 1947, did not have her own ongoing title until 1993 (which only lasted 12 issues, anyway).
  • Martian Manhunter, created in 1955, did not have his own ongoing until 1998.
  • Elongated Man, created in 1960, has never had his own an ongoing title.
Other fairly popular characters, like The Atom, Hawkman, The Spectre, Blue Beetle, and Firestorm have had one or two lengthy series but have not been able to re-capture that success in the last decade or so. Even some of the above characters who have “graduated” still struggle to carry an ongoing (like Aquaman and Martian Manhunter) and end up with prominent roles in team books instead. As of now, these characters lack that "X" factor – whether it is a new creative approach or a superstar creator who wants to take on the character as a pet project. The important thing to remember is that these aren't "bad" characters -- they just don't have what it takes (at this point) to carry a successful ongoing title.

This isn't to say that B, C, and D list characters can never find success – Animal Man had a lengthy and popular series, for crying out loud – but randomly tossing characters into short-lived ongoing series (Simon Dark, Hawkgirl) or low selling mini-series (Raven, Cyborg, Vixen) cannot be a good thing for DC. Obviously fans will eventually become (if not already) very unwilling to invest their attention and money into a new ongoing if the sales potential means only 11 or 12 issues of that ongoing will see the light of day. Furthermore, creators who heavily invest themselves into a new project would probably become frustrated (from both a creative and financial standpoint) when their newest gigs have ended prematurely. I should not have to state that anything that turns off both talent and readers is a bad thing for comics.

The $3.99 comic is unavoidable right now, so adding back-up features to the $3.99 books is a positive step. DC has created an opportunity to cultivate “breakthrough” characters in a way that takes advantage of the increasing cover price. Not only do readers receive more content for that extra dollar, but it allows creators two luxuries: to allow creators work on a less "demanding" project (leading to some writers/artists taking on characters that they would not have time to do in monthly 22 page format) and allow DC to build up potential breakthrough characters that will have enough interest to support something more than a crashing-and-burning ongoing or a mini-series with terrible sales.

Now let's see what Wednesday Comics does to bring back the anthology format...