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.