Thursday, September 01, 2005

SPOILERS ABOUND: a weekly digest of reviews, notes, and rants

Vol. 1, No. 7
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In this issue:
reviews of Green Lantern #1-4 / notes on my fantasy CrossGen Bullpen, my cyborg name, Jack Cross #1, Jonathan Lethem's comics nostalgia, the hypnoray review, horror blogs, and my swollen head / rants about Teen Titans #27 (but only incidentally about Rob Liefeld)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -






reviews

Green Lantern #1-4 (DC Comics)
Geoff Johns (Writer) / Carlos Pacheco and Ethan Van Sciver (Pencilers) / Jesus Merino (Inker) / Moose Baumann (Colorist) / Rob Leigh (Letterer)

Compared to the old-school drama and excitement of Rebirth, Geoff Johns and Carlos Pacheco’s Green Lantern is an austere pleasure. Perhaps too austere.

Like all such pleasures (and leaving aside Van Sciver’s brief prologue in issue #1), it begins in the desert, where Abin Sur’s smashed alien ship writes the first mythic word of the Green Lantern saga on the blank page of the sand. The ship fades into history and then, with a BOOOMM, two modern jets literally “write” a new word onto the blank space of the sky above it.

Hal’s description of Edwards Air Force Base, set against the sepia-toned image of the open airfield, makes the significance of these opening panels explicit:

When we first moved here, thunder would crack the blue sky open every hour. You’d jump and look up—as the sound barrier shattered. A few weeks later, both of my brothers got used to it. They stopped looking up. I never could.
The extreme contrast between thunder and silence, presence and absence, figure and ground suggested by the jets’ sudden shattering of the sound barrier replicates and reinforces the visual images of the planes in the sky and the starship on the sand. The thunderclap, the planes, and the ship all evoke some prime instance of creation and are thus not unlike the slash of meaning produced by the logos, say, or by Japanese brushwork. Hal’s refusal to let this astonishing thunderclap of meaning fade into the quotidian and become part of the background from which it attempts to leap signals the degree to which fundamental things—like truth and the good—depend on the willingness of the beholder to perceive them. It also establishes Hal as being up for the challenge of this task of seeing.

Both of these points prepare us for the iconic, archetypal splash page of issue #1, which shows Green Lantern soaring from one clean space (the desert) to another (the sky)—just like the jets of Pacheco’s first page. In this image, Green Lantern himself becomes that slash of meaning, that thunderclap of sound.

Why does the story begin this way?

The immediate point of this entire sequence is clearly to establish a sort of parity between Hal Jordan’s “civilian” identity as pilot and his superhero identity as Green Lantern. The parallels between Hal’s two identities are central to Johns’s interpretation of the character, and they extend not only to the suggestive motif of flight (airplane-, ring- and will-powered) that is everywhere in these issues, but also to the quasi-militaristic “cosmic police force” conceit of the Corps itself. Very generally, Johns’s Green Lantern appears to be an examination of freedom and responsibility within the constraints of an authoritarian structure. In this sense, the twin motifs of flight (plane and ring) and uniforms (Air Force and Corps) define the two poles of the series’ central thematic tension between individual freedom and institutional authority.

The more subtle point of this opening sequence, however, is to suggest—through the use of space, setting, and symbol—what, for lack of better terms, I’d call the “austere tone” and “mythic language” that characterize Johns’s treatment of this theme. I think that there are two reasons for the austere tone and language of this series, and I’ll try to flesh them out briefly here.

The first has to do with the concept of Green Lantern as a character. The second has to do with the other major issue that Johns sets out to explore in this series: the relationship between fear and courage in the face of unthinkable, “apocalyptic” events.

Green Lantern: The Austerity of Precision

Spiderman is the hero we are most likely to identify with the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility.” But it has a special significance for Green Lantern, a hero whose power is limited only by will and imagination—an “artist’s” power (as was made explicit in the character of Kyle Rayner) but also a God’s power (as has been made explicit in Hal’s case in countless ways). As a repentant (but basically blameless) sinner who’s done terrible things and still wields unimaginable power, the new Hal Jordan faces the necessary and serious task of mastering (or better, “overcoming”) his own will and his own ego.

The visual and even narrative austerity of this arc—which emphasizes Hal Jordan the man as much as his emerald alter ego—reflects the austerity and restraint that Hal must exercise in relation to the dangerous magnitude of his potentially infinite powers. The “civilian” analogy for this restraint is obviously the scene in issue #3 where Hal swallows his infamous pride in his curt apology to General Stone. But it is also suggested by the very strategic and sparing use of his ring throughout the story, where Johns goes to considerable lengths to keep Jordan out of his Green lantern uniform and to keep the fancy ring-work to a minimum.

As Johns made very clear in the climactic battle scene in Rebirth #6 where he gives us a catalogue of the distinctive ways in which each Green Lantern manifests their power (pp. 6-7), Jordan’s exercise of power is defined by his capacity for restraint and control:

For me it’s about precision. Doing exactly what I need to do to get the job done. Concentrated power. Focused ambition.
“Precision” becomes, in this context, another word for minimalism, and the aesthetic equivalent of this minimalism is realized in the visual language through which the story is told. The precision suggested by the elegant, deliberate marks made by bodies and machines on the sky and the desert in the opening scenes of issue 1 are subliminal evocations of this theme of restrained power that do not just set the atmosphere, but actually symbolize the substance of the story.

Coast City: The Austerity of Apocalypse

To the austerity of the desert, sky, and even Edwards Air Force Base itself, we must also add the more terrible apocalyptic blankness of Coast City—the other symbolic desert of this story. The bombed out or empty city is perhaps the supreme trope of apocalyptic postmodernism in the sense that is seems to represent the ultimate nullification of traditional human values, community, and agency. Since 9/11, however, it has become not just a symbol but a disturbingly literal experience not only for many American citizens, but for countless numbers of people who are similarly (and even more desperately) afflicted by the current state of global war in which we find ourselves.

I don’t know if Johns has alluded to this point in interviews about the series, but the subtext of 9/11 is palpable in these three issues. It is there, most obviously, in Coast City itself—a city that was destroyed by the intergalactic mass murderer Mongul and is currently being rebuilt. A city in which a handful of traumatized citizens bravely face the business of picking up the pieces and getting on with life. It is also there, very overtly, in the climactic action sequence in the sky over Coast City in issue #3 where Hal’s plane is “hijacked” by the new Manhunter and bursts into flames and where Hal must prevent the old Manhunter from triggering its self-destruct sequence in the heart of city, where it’s detonation would, as Hal says, be “like a nuke going off.” Such evocations of urban destruction and ground zero very plainly invoke the specter of terrorism, and this too is signified by the desert, which is as much the omega of apocalyptic wasteland as the alpha of a blank page. Of course, because this is a heroic fantasy, Jordan succeeds in saving the newly re-emergent Coast City, but only at the most literal level. At a symbolic level, the story suggests the darkness of real history, for the Manhunters hurtle towards a city that has already been destroyed and the effect this produces is an uncanny compression of past present and future into a single moment: the crashes, the devastation, the aftermath, and the rebuilding all seem to unfold simultaneously.

This, I think, is the subtext of Coast City. But it is only a subtext, and Johns doesn’t seem all that interested in telling a political story about terrorism and its complex historical antecedents in the manner that Warren Ellis seems to be attempting in Jack Cross. Nevertheless, it is relevant to the story, because this subtext provides an important context for Johns’s exploration of fear, and thus invites us to approach this arc as, in part, an examination of the human, and especially the civilian, story of terrorism from the point of view of its immediate victims “on the ground.” Hence the prominence of Hal’s younger brother Jim and his family and their struggle to decide whether to relocate to Coast City or to remain in Sacramento. There’s a lovely understated scene in issue #2 where Jim thinks he’s driving out of the frightening, apocalyptic space of Coast City to safety, but is literally driving straight into a desert wasteland.

As this scene makes clear, the real wasteland for Johns is not the “empty” city behind him (which is actually beginning to show signs of life), but the fear that propels him into this literal and metaphorical desert. This point is neatly underlined by the multiple ironies that frame Jim’s “get-away”: the voice of the Manhunter that intones “No…M-m-man…escapes…,” the radio broadcast reporting Congress’s move to halt the reconstruction of Coast City because of “the very low number of people that have actually taken advantage of the new metropolis,” and the road signs that urge visitors to Coast City to “Come back soon!” but also warn, “Better Safe Than Sorry: Keep Your Distance.”

What all of this suggests, I think, is that although Johns’s examination of fear in Green Lantern exudes a kind of pop universality, it emerges from a very specific time and place. It is an examination of the culture of fear in which we live and of this culture’s contemporary bogeys as well as its genuine terrors. It is an examination of the way fear controls and masters us if we let it, but also the way in which we can rise above and overcome it. The austerity of the desert imagery thus does not simply suggest a “wasteland” but also provides, as I initially argued, the ground upon which an exemplary heroic figure can emerge like a mark on a blank page, like an epiphany, like thunder.

This moment comes near the end of issue #3.

Hal is brooding on a rooftop in darkness on the question of whether or not fear is “the strongest emotion in the universe,” whether it is “what controls everyone and everything.” Suddenly, as if in answer to this question, the headlamps of his brother’s car appear, cutting the blackness of the night as he and his family emerge from around a dark corner, clearly having reversed their decision to remain in Sacramento. The ordinary courage represented by these headlights is the real meaning of Abin Sur’s crumpled ship on the desert sand, of the airborne jets that streak across the sky in issue #1, and of the luminous emerald mark that is Green Lantern himself.

The Lantern and the Face of Fear

Johns is a master of making a virtue of necessity, of wringing pop profundity from comic book iconography, and of making the paraphernalia of superhero narrative resonate symbolically. In this story, Johns’s manipulation of symbolism is particularly skillful and important because it centers on what is most iconic and mythic about Green Lantern—namely, the power battery that gives the hero his name. Like the headlights on Jim’s car, Hal Jordan’s lantern is a beacon of optimism in the struggle against fear. And like the headlights it feels true not because it’s powerful, but because it’s fragile and small.

The best symbols are those that synthesize multiple dimensions of a complex phenomenon, and in this storyline, Johns presents such a symbol in the image of Hal Jordan recharging his ring from the power battery located inside the Manhunter’s skull while both are in freefall over Coast City.

This is a cool, kick-ass scene, to say the least. But it is also the comic’s starkest, most optimistic 9/11 allegory and a potent parable about the nature of courage, about the necessity of confronting the fear from which “no one escapes,” and about how looking that fear in the face can turn out to be the very source of the courage one seeks. True, this allegory risks being simply reactionary because the robotic nature of the enemy appears to foreclose on a more complex historical diagnosis of terrorism and its causes. But Johns deserves credit for at least humanizing the older version of the Manhunter who finally feels the universal emotion of fear before detonating in space. (Even if the story does not seem especially interested in examining the nature of the “enemy,” making this scene feel less weighty than it might.)

If the image of the power battery in the Manhunter’s skull does have a political dimension, it does not lie in a diagnosis of the “enemy” so much as in a revision of the self’s own attitudes and moral certainties. In other words: the lantern in the enemy’s skull is a conflation of fear and power that re-writes the implicit authoritarianism of the Green Lantern Corps and its goofy but also sinister oath. Johns’s insistence that Hal is not a Green Lantern who feels no fear but one who “feels the fear and does it anyway” means that Hal must always confront the uncertainty of the unknown to find his courage, which is a very significant qualification of the bombastic and naïvely confident text of the oath itself. We are living in age where one routinely hears proclamations whose disturbing confidence in their own moral judgment sounds very much like the Green Lantern oath:

In brightest day
In blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might
Beware my power…
In the real world, this is type of confidence and “clear” moral vision that should genuinely frighten everyone. And in its traditional form, the Green Lantern Corps comes close to celebrating the kind of authoritarian structure that often accompanies such dubious moral certainties. This is why Johns’s envisioning of Hal as a perennial challenger of authority is so important: it makes possible a much more complicated understanding of the oath’s evocation of “good” and “evil” than the conservative Corps itself can be expected to represent. And of course, Hal’s challenging of authority from within is merely another version of the ethical preference for uncertainty over certainty represented by the lantern in the skull with which we began.

By making Hal not simply a master of self-restraint, but also a sort of renegade cop or skeptic, Johns makes it possible for him to occupy a genuinely ethical position—to be, in short, a true hero and not just a hollow emblem of might-makes-right heroism. (Even if he is inclined to pop someone in the jaw every now and then.) Restraint and skepticism, precision and anti-authoritarianism. Hal may not be as easy to love as Wally West—not initially—but there’s more to this character than meets the eye.

The fourth issue of the series—out yesterday—launches a creepy, rip-snorter of a tale and suggests that after three issues of subdued myth-making, Johns is ready to roll up his sleeves and deliver the type of big-screen action fans (myself included) have been waiting for. And what big-screen action we get: X-Files, Silence of the Lambs, and Jaws—all in a single issue! (I knew that shark fin on page 21 of the first issue meant something!)

Now that the series has kicked into high gear, it might be easier to get a little distance on the opening arc and to see what it is that Johns is up to here. The opening story of Johns and Pacheco’s Green Lantern is more like a narrative poem or short story than a novel. It’s “decompressed” but not baggy because every element of the narrative is freighted with symbolic significance and quiet power. Speaking only for myself, there’s something relentless but gratifying about the precision, stillness, and austerity of its vision. It is the opposite of Johns’s brilliant, kinetic Flash, and for this reason, it is an awkward way to launch a series and doesn’t work that well as a monthly. Certainly it doesn’t generate the kind of suspense and excitement that Rebirth led us to expect and which most of us (myself included) look forward to in a monthly comic.

But I think that in the end, Geoff and Carlos have given us something more lasting, resonant, and profound: they’ve told an archetypal Green Lantern story that rewrites the origin story indirectly and ultimately tells us something new about the core of this wondrous but frustrating character. Look at page 14 of issue #3:

Everything seems to be moving, but that’s just an illusion. Look again. This is the defining image of Johns’s new Green Lantern—an origin story told in a single panel where what looks like freefall is actually a moment of perfect zen-like stillness. This is what precision looks like.






notes


Tom Spurgeon’s Five For Friday #44: Dream Bullpen

As always, Shane knows where to find the fun. His own post over at Near Mint Heroes directed me to Tom Spurgeon’s site and got me puzzling over this great challenge:

Name Five Cartoonists, Any Era, Around Whom You Would Build a Comics Company

My company would try to be what CrossGen could have been, nearly was, but ultimately wasn’t: a publisher of high quality genre comics that brought a subtly subversive modern sensibility to classic forms and styles. Each of the following cartoonists would helm one or more original series in a distinct genre.


1. Herge – (Post)Colonial Adventure & Spy Thriller
2. Doug Wildey – Western, Horror, & Fantasy/Adventure
3. Darwyn Cooke – Crime/Mystery & Pulp Heroes
4. Jaime Hernandez – Romance & Soft SF/Space Opera
5. Jack Kirby – Hard SF/Cyberpunk

I wish I could mention the contributions that George Perez, Colleen Doran, and Wendy Pini would make to expanding the Crime/Mystery and Fantasy lines—but alas, that would be cheating…


J.I.M.R.O.E.G.’s Cyborg Name & a Near Mint Love-Letter to Comics

This also courtesy of Shane’s link list:




Just try to resist the siren call of the Cyborg Name Generator. I dare you. And while you’re at it, be sure to check out Shane’s wonderful love-letter to comic books. You won’t find a better or more heart-felt reminder of what we’re all doing here.


Jack Cross #1: Hmm…

The debut issue of Ellis’s new espionage saga packs a promising punch and has an interesting enigma for a protagonist, but I agree with Kurt’s evaluation of the logical problem with the torture scene and with others who sense a bit of dodging of the really difficult questions global terrorism raises in the issue’s narrow focus on CIA factions. Still, this is only 22 pages of comic and I think it’s necessary to give Ellis some time to develop the players and the stakes. With a topic this thorny—“Now terror has something to fear!”—the results could be terrible or they could be fantastic. My own feelings about the book will likely turn on how fully it dissects “terrorism”—surely the most loaded, complex, and ambiguous word of our time. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Some interesting thoughts from other discerning reviewers:
  • Paul O’Brien at The X-Axis
  • Don MacPherson at The Fourth Rail
  • Dexter K. Flowers at Broken Frontier


    Jonathan Lethem: You Are My Master Now

    I’ve been having a great correspondence with new pal and all-around nice guy Richard Baez lately, and he kindly brought these superb autobiographical essays on comic book nostalgia by novelist Jonathan Lethem to my attention. My Marvel Years is a heartbreaking essay about coming of age reading Marvel Comics in the 1970s. The Amazing… is a meditation on the first Spiderman film, race, and belatedness. There is some overlap between the essays, but both are brilliant. If you haven’t read them yet, you’re in for treat. And even if you have, they repay the reread—with interest. They brought a tear to my eye—but then, I’m a big baby. Richard also recommends Lethem’s newish collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist. He hasn’t been wrong yet!


    The Hypnoray Review : Gene Roddenberry’s Lost Universe #7 (Tekno Comix)

    Over on his great new blog, hypnoray, Jon Cormier has made a precipitous bid for your participation in the form of a contest:

    Starting next Monday I’ll start posting little questions that the first comment I get will receive a free $1.00 comic. I’m thinking of questions along the lines of, if there is one original graphic novel that you can recommend me to buy, what would it be and why? Or, what revamped property is worth checking out? I’m coming up with the list and these two questions won’t be on it. I think this will be a fun little social experiment. And I encourage everyone who reads this to come and make recommendations.
    As one of the first recipients of Jon’s generous experiment, I will now proceed to bite the hand that feeds me by offering snarky impressions of the incredible dollar-bin treasure that Jon has sent my way:

    Gene Roddenberry’s Lost Universe #7

    This is the quintessential dollar-bin comic. It’s from 1995. It’s published by a company I’ve never heard of (Tekno-Comix). It has a stunning bad cover by a big name artist (Bill Sienkiewicz!). It features mediocre art on absurdly glossy paper. It’s a genre comic (science fiction--they get no respect). Most importantly, it’s the final issue of the series before it transformed itself into the much more interesting-looking Xander in Lost Universe with covers by Jae Lee and interior art by Ron Randall.

    And yet, it isn’t completely unredeemable. Like most dollar bin comics (or free comics, in this case!), it’s possible to overlook and even be charmed by its numerous flaws. This is made easier in this case by Ron Fortier’s occasionally amusing script which, despite clunkers like “The Planet Malay. Twice the size of Earth, she is a cosmic rock filled with majestic beauty…and deadly secrets” also boasts a scene in which a horny female engineer attempts to persuade her computer’s interface image into scratching her itch—having programmed it to appear as the avatar of D’Artagnan from the Three Muskateers! “There’s nothing in the protocols that says a girl can’t have some fun now and then,” the engineer croons. “Define fun,” a ghostly-looking “D’Artagnan” replies. Um…winning this awesome comic?! Thanks Jon!

    See the current $1 comic contest question here.


    Worth a Click: 1960s and 70s Horror Blogs

    I’ve been having some fun surfing Horror Blog Updates this week. Here are two can’t-miss gems:

    Keith Milford’s Old Haunts


    The author’s own description—which feels like it could be a sign propped in the window of an old junkshop in a Daniel Clowes strip—perfectly captures the look and feel of the site: “Old photographs of Halloweens long past. Faded, out-of-focus snapshots. Far away memories of the chilly autumns of our childhoods. Turn of the century to the ’60s & ’70s.”


    This growing collection of vintage photographs, advertisements, cards and postcards is so attractively and cleanly presented that I could as easily meditate on it as use it for the basis of a cultural studies thesis on Halloween. The simplicity of the design and the quality of the images showcases the spooky fun and melancholy of my favorite holiday to a T. Or an A+.

    Curt’s The Groovy Age of Horror

    Like the site description says, Curt blogs 1960s and 70s horror in paperbacks, fumetti, comics, and movies, and his site is a fascinating collection of reviews and scans of this remarkably weird (and remarkably sleazy!) period of cultural history. There’s a ton of pulpy goodness to sift through on this site but two relatively recent notables are his reviews of John F. Rossmann (a.k.a. Ian Ross)’s psychic/adventure fantasy series, The Mind Masters (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4) and his copyright-flouting presentation of Michael O’Donoghue and Frank Springer’s sadistic soft core controversy-magnet, The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist (1968), in its entirety. I’m way too uptight not to be scandalized by the misogyny of Phoebe’s “adventures,” but I’ve learned a lot about 60s and 70s pulp subculture from Curt’s astute, informative posts. Oh yeah, and September is werewolf month!


    Swollen Head Alert

    It’s been a surreal week here at Double Articulation. My post late last week on interpretation and meaning in superhero comics garnered generous, hyperbolic responses from people whose opinions I respect and whose own writing I admire. Sincere thanks again to one and all for being so gosh-darn swell! And to top it all off, Gail Simone visits my site and responds to my review of Villains United #1-4! (The sick irony of Gail Simone thanking me for “a great read” is not lost on me!) Gail: you sure know how to make a fanboy’s day--thank you for reading! I tells ya, I’m gonna be impossible to live with if you folks don’t quit it.

    And now, after all that love, a bit of good old-fashioned animus…







    rants

    "COME ON...you KNOW you want it!"

    So blares the cover of Teen Titans #27. But does DC really believe its own cover hype? Can my favorite comic publishers actually imagine that I really do want it? And what exactly is the “it” they so coyly decline to name in their diagnosis of my most secret desire? An “ironic” but still poorly drawn Gail Simone story? A reminder of the bad old days of the 1990s when comic book storytelling was imploding? A discouraging warning that DC’s seemingly sure-footed revamp is not as clear-sighted as it needs to be? That Geoff Johns’s judgment isn’t infallible? That Dan Didio can’t tell the difference between clever nostalgia and enervating déja vu?

    I get that Rob Liefeld drew the pictures for the fondly remembered Hawk and Dove mini back in 1988 and that someone thought it would twang a heartstring of nostalgia to put him on a fill-in reintroducing the characters in 2005. I understand that I’m supposed to enjoy Liefeld’s art as a sort of guilty pleasure. I can almost even make out the vague contours of an argument that says: there’s something clever about having pugnacious fallen-star Liefeld illustrate a story about bratty love-starved super-villains. The problem is that in order to appreciate such rarified pleasures, I still have to be able to read the book. And I’m not over-dramatizing when I say that I nearly wasn’t able to. I picked it up, started it, and put it down half a dozen times before finally forcing myself through it. And let me add: I hold the writer in very high esteem and actually wanted to get into it!

    A few weeks ago, while it was all still abstract, I was feeling philosophical about Liefeld’s assignment to this arc, and I was happy to read the following diagnosis of the pitchfork-wielding mob of Liefeld-haters at Disintegrating Clone’s Nobody Laughs at Mister Fish:

    Conventional wisdom says that the early 1990s boom was caused by seventeen over-optimistic investors who bought X-Men #1 in all sixty-eight thousand different covers. Could this be wrong? Might it have been that we all went out and bought sub-standard mutant books by the skip-load, and are now a wee bit embarrassed about it? That Liefeld, the great symbol of an era (in the way Don Johnson, with his rolled up Miami Vice sleeves, had been a few years earlier), makes us uncomfortable because he reminds us of the failure of our own critical faculties?
    Whatever you think of Liefeld’s work, Disintegrating Clone talks sense. And the thoughtfulness of this evaluation is matched by Brian Cronin who bends over backwards to be fair, objective, and civil in his nearly Rashomon-style review of this issue over at Comics Should Be Good. With the issue actually in front of me, however, I don’t feel so magnanimous anymore. I just feel irked. And sort of stupid. After all, I’ve just repeated a 15 year old mistake—a mistake that I know, shamefully, I am going to repeat again some 30-odd days from now.

    It’s not fair of me to get too bent out of shape about what is, after all, a fill-in issue. The thing is, though, this issue got me thinking. And that’s not always a good thing.

    Teen Titans #27 is a revealing index of the current atmosphere at an ascendant DC Comics. A book like this is the product of a company that, after a couple of years of extremely careful creative and marketing decisions has had a taste of real success and is feeling confident, even cocky. It shows that they are sure of the stability of this series, of the bet-hedging salability of their guest-writer (rightly so), and of the good will of Teen Titans readers generally. And who could blame them? Sales are good, and DC is currently generating the kind of line-wide momentum that no doubt has nervous Marvel executives gnashing their teeth. But while DC is celebrating its current success and anticipating the excitement of the coming year, it may want to remember a few small things.

    The first is that comics are expensive and that there is, for the first time in what feels like a long time, a surplus of quality comics available to choose from right now. Most fans aren’t as “fickle” as some people like to claim, but no one likes to be taken for a ride. Moreover, much of the current excitement one sees among comic fans today stems precisely, I suspect, from their memory of how low things had fallen fifteen years ago. As Disintegrating Clone already pointed out, this is a touchy subject, and sometimes the past is best left undisturbed.

    The second is that nostalgia takes many forms, both good and bad, and that there’s a significant difference between building on the past to create new stories and blindly repeating it for the sake of a cheap thrill. The former can create a pleasurable illusion of historical depth; the latter generally follows the law of diminishing returns.

    The third is that—though it sincerely pains me to admit this (to myself most of all)—Geoff Johns’s Teen Titans is not as solid a series as at it might seem—not creatively anyway. To put it bluntly, the book has yet to live up to its considerable promise. And I say this as one of Geoff’s most starry-eyed fans. Despite the seemingly perfect fit between writer and series, Johns’s Titans relaunch has so far been only a very competent repair job that contains all the nice little touches we’ve grown to expect from Johns, but can legitimately boast only a couple of genuinely standout stories (the “Titans of Tomorrow” arc is one). Yes, Geoff stepped in and made a depressingly mismanaged property readable and fun. And yes, I’m excited about the prospect of a post-Crisis Titans East. But the current series still feels like its idling—and we’re almost 30 issues in. Geoff is a crackerjack plotter with a gift for emotionally resonant storytelling and I truly believe that there are big payoffs in store for Titans fans. But for Pete's sake, if Bendis were writing this book I’d have grilled it six ways to Sunday already!

    Geoff is understandably preoccupied with the larger canvas of the DCU these days—with Infinite Crisis and the challenges beyond—but it might not be a bad time to note that over twenty years ago, during another Crisis, a little Titans writer named Marv Wolfman also got sucked into the vortex of continuity-management in the DCU and seemed suddenly to lose his touch on the series that made him a legend. Fortunately for us, history in the real world isn’t circular—at least not necessarily. But it does have a funny way of repeating itself when no one’s paying attention.

    If Geoff says he isn’t overextended, then good. I'm happy to hear it. But I respectfully submit that now isn’t the time for silly stunts or for trading on the good faith of the book’s already patient readers, even if you are throwing us a bone in the form of an entertaining Gail Simone script.

    I understand that my warnings all ring hollow because everyone knows I’m going to buy whatever Titans book DC chooses to dangle in front of me. Like Pavlov’s pooch, I automatically salivate when exposed to certain stimuli. It’s sad, but I can’t help myself. Such is the nature of my disease. But remember, DC, my case is unusual, and not everyone is as helpless to resist the lure of a half-baked idea as I am.

  • 23 comments:

    joncormier said...

    Jim, how do you find the time man? I need to only show up here during my lunch break because I'm always sucked in.

    Again, thanks for the plug. I'm hoping someone else shows up to check out my site. I don't want to innundate you with dollar bin comics.

    What I like best about the one I sent you was that it was yet another Gene Roddenberry idea that he had nothing to do with.

    I really have to wonder where you find the time and the energy for these posts? There should be more actual analysis out in cyberspace like we find here. Well, that would make me happier.

    Shane Bailey said...

    Excellent as always. Expect a lengthier comment later on tonight.

    Richard Baez said...

    Another fine piece, natch.

    And much thanks for the namecheck!

    Shane Bailey said...

    Stupid spam. I dont' have time to write a lot tonight, but I did want to say that you're making me re-examine Green Lantern. Until issue #3 I found the title pretty boring, but you made me look at it with new eyes.

    I too bought Teen Titans for the Simone story, but after reading it felt let down. I'll still probably buy the next issue though, hoping that Simone can pull it out. I think Liefeld would be great at "finishing pencils" over someone else's layouts, but his layouts just don't do it for me at all. They used to, don't get me wrong. I was right there buying Youngblood and X-Force as a kid and enjoying every mind-draining second of it back then. Now, not so much. It did give me a tiny little nostalgia trip, but really really tiny.

    Thanks for the links and I'm glad your enjoying my blog. I was thinking of doing a "Near-Mint Heroes Greatest Hits" post tomorrow or early this weekend for those that missed those posts the first time and since I won't have much time to do much commentary. I really want to get back into talking about things rather than linkblogging though. I'll also probably have the "NMH Bloggies" up around Sunday hopefully.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Jon - No problem--and thanks again for the comic. There's something absurdly exciting about knowing that you're getting a comic in the mail, especially when you don't know what it's going to be. And don't worry: people will find your blog. (In the meantime, though, maybe you should institute a rule that limits the comics that any one person can get within a given period. That way I won't feel guilty about posting at your site--I don't want to exploit your generosity! At least not too much.) As for where I find the time, I type fast and don't sleep. That's going to have to change, however, as work is beginning to loom...

    Richard - Thank you! I've got the Lethem book of essays on order!

    Shane - Thanks! I'm glad you're giving GL another look. I too found it dull at first, but it was the kind of dullness I can kind of get into. All the desert/air force base stuff reminded me of old issues of the Hulk, which bored me in exactly the same, vaguely pleasurable way. (What is it about green protagonists that seems to require deserts and air force bases!?) What I was really trying to do in that review was put a name to that kind of quiet, austere pleasure--and in the process of doing so, I began to think that Johns was actually doing something quite deliberate with it, because it tied into the story's themes in so many ways. Anyway, it's a theory!

    Re: Liefeld: It did give me a tiny little nostalgia trip, but really really tiny. lol! Me too. I remember being really quite taken with Liefeld's work on New Mutants, before it became X-Force (though I bought that too). I don't have any of those issues at hand, so I can't compare them to the new stuff, but his art seemed better back then--though that's probably just the kindness of memory talking.

    A Greatest Hits post is a great idea--I love the thing that Mark's done on Focused Totality. It's especially nice for those like myself who are really new on the scene and have yet to really scratch the surface of everyone else's archives. Looking forward to the NMHBloggies too.

    James Meeley said...

    Yeah, Rob's art might be an eyesore to most of us now (and probably even then), but even Rob can do the right thing regarding it.

    If you head over to my blog, you'll see my latest entry, where the art of this very issue of Teen Titans will be used to SAVE lives, rather then kill them (and I didn't even use that lame joke in my entry, so you KNOW it's got to be important ;)).

    Jim Roeg said...

    Thanks for letting me know about this, James. This tragedy is sickening on so many levels, but it's reassuring to see how fundamentally decent ordinary people can be. It's a great idea and Warren, Rob, and Dustin are doing a really good thing here. As you said in your post: "The outpouring of support from this industry, for those who've been struck so hard by this tragedy, has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. It really helps to put all the little complaints we have concerning this industry into clear perspective." Check out James's complete post at The Comic Asylum.

    Shane Bailey said...

    I never said he wasn't a good guy. :) He seemed a little snobbish to some of his fans when I met him, but that doesn't make him a bad guy. Glad to see he's doing what he can to help out.

    As for putting complaints in perspective I think it does to an extent, but a lot of people use tragedies to gloss over or wipe out concerns about other things. "War" being the short term answer for bad economy, etc. That kind of thing. I think it's important to join the effort in helping out those people hurt by this tragedy, but like any tragedy I think it's also important to not gloss over things because of it either. Does that make sense or am I totally off my rocker?

    Jim Roeg said...

    You're not off your rocker, Shane. Not from my perspective, that's for sure. I agree 100%. The mobilization around catastrophes is always double-edged because it usually has the dangerous effect of disguising the fact that we have all been living in a quiet state of perpetual, barely acknowledged catastrophe for some time now. And yet, how can one respond dispassionately to such an event? What a fucked up world. I'm with you in hoping that people remember to think of the bigger picture when they reach for their credit cards to pitch in.

    Mark Fossen said...

    Bloglines is having issues, so I'm late to the party.

    Jim, I love reading your work because it always gives me a fresh set of eyes. Your ability or wring symbolism from mainstream superhero fare is a perspective that seldom occurs to me. So your essay on Green Lantern puts a series on the precipice of my pull list in a new light. Your dissection of Jordan's role as humanizing influence in an somewhat fascist structure is excellent, and right on target.

    I'm still edging closer to that precipice, though. :)

    The symbolism is there, but the execution isn't. I can see what Johns is trying to do (and can see more, thanks to you) ... but I don't think he's doing it well. I have yet to read issue 4, but entire series has seemed flat and colorless. It's as if there's a genre war here ... Johns is trying to uncomfortably blend the austere qualities you speak of with high adventure. It's like Wim Wenders directing Die Hard, and it's just not working. In the mid-air battery charging sequence you mention ... I could not get over the fact that it should have been "kick-ass", but that I had to work hard to get there.

    I've been thinging about the series a lot - trying to determine what was wrong - and your essay helped to clarify my thoughts.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Mark - Your perceptive comments are going to force me into a small confession:

    I had originally included the word "almost" before the word "perfect" in that second last sentence, "an origin story told in a single panel where what looks like freefall is actually a moment of perfect zen-like stillness."

    I took it out of the final version because I think that this is such a brilliant, luminous page--at least conceptually. (And I only said about half as much as I could have about this scene, which I suspect also resonates personally for Johns.)

    If I'm going to be brutally honest, I'd have to concede that you're right, that Johns doesn't quite achieve what I think he's aiming for here. And the scene, although "precise" still feels a little too Die Hard and not quite enough Wim Wenders--or vice versa. But even so, I think Johns comes incredibly close, despite the genre war you mention (love the analogy!).

    This is the challenge that smart superhero books face, and I'm so happy to see someone of Johns's skill wrestling with it--that is, working both subtly and (I'm certain) consciously with the action symbolism of the medium.

    This is a risky way to launch a new series (I too was underwhelmed at first). But my suspicion is (and issue #4 bears this out) that now that Johns has told this story, we're going to see a much less "austere" series from here on out. My guess is that Johns knew it was risky, but figured that the momentum from Rebirth would carry readers through several quieter issues until the action really picked up again properly. Whether this is true or not, it doesn't solve the genre war within these issues that you bring up, which is a genuine one. I think that Johns will have better luck with the symbolic aspects of his stoytelling in the straight-ahead superhero action that issue #4 promises (similar to his wonderful Flash rogues work). His treatment of Hector Hammond is extremely interesting... At least give this new issue a look before you drop the book--I think you might be pleasantly surprised!

    As always, thanks so much for the insightful comments.

    Jon Silpayamanant said...

    I find myself thinking too much while reading or after reading your posts to spend anytime writing--damn you Jim!

    I wish I could just skim through it like most other things.

    Oscar Blotnik said...

    Great stuff! It's nice to know that someone else shares my opinion that Johns's Teen Titans hasn't yet lived up to its expectations (or, at least, my expectations!) Is it me or did these same characters (Robin, Superboy, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash) seem more fun and exciting in Young Justice?

    Jim Roeg said...

    Jon

    I find myself thinking too much while reading or after reading your posts to spend anytime writing

    Aha! *evil laugh* My surreptitious strategy for warding off potential criticism by exhausting readers is working!

    Oscar - I wasn't a Young Justice reader, so I can't compare them. But I do have to say, to Johns's credit, that, from the perspective of a Titans fan, he's made the Young Justice characters as interesting as those of the older NNT Titans themselves. (I know this is a point of contention for many YJ fans, but I really like what he did with Bart, for example. I like all of them, actually.) My disappointment with the series so far mainly concerns the plotting, which hasn't been dense enough for my liking. Johns's slightly decompressed style works better on JSA, I think. I'd prefer a (slightly) talkier Titans and more crammed pages, artistically. But that's just me pining for the Wolfman/Perez era (AGAIN). Pay no attention.

    Jon Silpayamanant said...

    Aha! *evil laugh* My surreptitious strategy for warding off potential criticism by exhausting readers is working!

    ahahaha. between that and the intentional fallacy I fear I'm left in aporia...

    Keith said...

    Hey Jim! I just wanted to thank you kindly for the nice mention of my Halloween blog, and for adding me to yer links. It's much appreciated! I'm glad you dig the blog. :)

    But right back at you--great blog you've got here yourself! Wow.

    Happy Haunting!
    Keith Milford | Old Haunts

    Mark Fossen said...

    Wha? Huh? Sez you at Near Mint Heroes:

    Hi Shane--you know I'll miss reading you too, but since I'm about to take a (short) sabbatical from Double Articulation, I know exactly how you feel.

    Nooooooo!!!!!!!

    I shake my tiny fist in rage at the heavens!

    Jim Roeg said...

    Haha! Thanks Mark--it's nice to know one is going to be missed! I won't be gone long though. The "official" announcement here will be hopefully somtime tonight (I'm almost ready to post another SA). But it's actually so much cooler to have the announcement of one's own departure appear first on another blog and then have it quoted back to you on your own--before the official one has been made. Postmodernism in action--thanks!!

    Mark Fossen said...

    It's either postmodern .... or Example A in "Comics Blogging is a Tiny Incestuous Community".

    By the by ... you were correct on Green Lantern #4. While I'm still not blown away, my interest is piqued.

    Jim Roeg said...

    It's either postmodern .... or Example A in "Comics Blogging is a Tiny Incestuous Community".

    Or that! Though a compelling case could be made for the idea that Postmodernism is a Tiny Incestuous Community too. :)

    Glad to hear that Green Lantern is still clinging by his fingernails to the precipice of your pull-list! (Beware my advice though--I have an almost pitiable affection for imperfection.)

    Jon Silpayamanant said...

    Or that! Though a compelling case could be made for the idea that Postmodernism is a Tiny Incestuous Community too. :)

    Fear the homogenizing. ;)

    Todd C. Murry said...

    Amazing stuff - your Lethem and Leifield discussion got me a thinkin', and I posted a response on my own blog (I would have sent this as a trackback, but I didn't see the option - I'm tech stupid that way).

    Keep up the good work - you are my favorite new blog since tomthedog started.

    Blogger said...

    Sprinter - Function One (160BPM)