Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Experimental Farm

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Experimental Farm

Monday, November 12, 2007

Experimental Farm

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Funnies Page: Your Five (or Three or Two) Must-Read Strips

Like most people, I imagine, I've always been a selective reader of the funnies. Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly desperate for distraction, I'll take on the entire comics page as if it were the TLS--as if, that is, I'm getting bonus points for reading THE WHOLE THING. In such moods, I valiantly slog through Garfield, Gil Thorp, and the aptly named Hagar the Horrible, a task made bearable only by the leavening presence of reliable stand-bys, those strips that I may not read every day, but whose drawings and gags immediately draw my eye as it passes over the page.

When I was quite young, my favorite strips were Garfield, For Better or For Worse, Blondie, and Beetle Bailey. Garfield was explicable by three notable facts: mine was a cat-owning family, it was the favorite strip of a girl that I wanted to impress, and of course, back then, Garfield was funny. My For Better or For Worse fixation had similarly autobiographical origins--though it was also drawn so differently from other strips at the time that its "realistic" detail was immediately attractive to a boy who, in adolescence, would worship the pencils of George Perez. I also liked the art in Blondie--so much that the strip's rather old-fashioned jokiness didn't bother me--in fact, it may have been part of the appeal.

And Beetle Bailey? Well, what can I say? It was a funny strip, too, back in the day. But I suspect that, once again, it was a love affair born of identification with the luckless, bossed-around protagonist. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud notes that the simpler the drawing, the fewer its individuating details, the easier it is for a reader to identify with it. Highly detailed portraiture obviously repels our unconscious processes of identification for the same reason that Charlie Brown or a stick figure invites them. Hapless Private Beetle Bailey was an image that spoke particularly to me, perhaps because we never see his most individuating feature--his eyes. Sad case, wasn't I?

At any rate, my tastes changed. Some of them, anyway. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I began to keep a scrapbook of three amazing new comics that I cut out of the newspaper every night: Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side. I was still avidly reading For Better or For Worse, so it made it into the scrapbook too. The scrapbook (an old telephone book, actually) was, in effect, a primitive sort of comics blog. And like a blog, it immediately developed encyclopedic ambitions. Before long, I was cutting out many more comic strips--in some cases, pasting them in with my ink smudged fingers and my Uhu glue stick without even reading them!

One curious side-effect of my snipping and hoarding was that, because I read the comics page religiously, I began to follow the serials: Spider-Man, Gil Thorp, and Annie. I was already a comic book fan, so it might seem odd that I hadn't been reading Spider-Man already. But remember how dull those strips looked--barely a supervillain in sight! It was just panel after panel of Peter Parker talking to Mary Jane. Still, I got into it. Even the gothic world of Annie began to seem interesting, though I was never really able to fool myself into thinking that the jock drama of Gil Thorp was cool.

And now? I barely recognize the comics page anymore. Zits? Get Fuzzy? Grand Avenue? And these aren't even the cutting edge, fresh off the truck strips. (I don't even know what those would be!) Are they funny? I don't know. I can't seem to compell myself to read them. This will come as a shock to regular readers, I'm sure, but my eye just keeps drifting back to those older, more recognizable strips:

Peanuts
Despite the ritualized viewing of tv specials like It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas as a kid, I didn't "get" Peanuts until much later. Now it is the first strip I read. I especially enjoyed today's:

One often feels this way when reading parenting manuals, I'm finding.

Doonesbury

My home town paper The Winnipeg Free Press used to run Doonesbury on the editorial page, so I didn't discover it until quite late either. It's still sharp as ever--and though it's not a political gag, today's comic is priceless. One of the great surprises of my adult life was how much I enjoy teaching, and don't get me wrong--I love my students. Except these ones:


For Better or For Worse
I won't go on about this one any more than I already have, except to say that Supert Teddy rules. Deal with it.

I miss the exquisite nostalgia of Mutts, and keep intending to read Opus online, which is where I sometimes catch Sylvia as well. I still enjoy Dilbert, though not as much as I once did.

These are, I suppose, my favorites. What are yours?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Experimental Farm

Friday, November 09, 2007

Experimental Farm

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Geo-Force Grades the Funnies

Nota Bene. Are you reading Ottawa-based phenomenon (Cult)u're magazine? You should be! Thier fabulous Fall issue is now online. (Check out their previous theme issues on Identity and Rituals too!)

Experimental Farm

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Judd Winick's Titans East

I didn’t want to get too excited about my often wished-for reunion of the original Wolfman/Perez Titans, but this announcement made me very happy. Judd Winick is a hit-or-miss writer, so I was a bit nervous that he would be in charge (his Outsiders was grating, but I enjoyed his Green Arrow as well as the snappy but maligned Green Arrow/Black Canary Wedding Special). In any event, his newsarama interview suggests that he might be a great fit with the classic Titans team. This, especially, curled my toes:

The way we’re going about it…is that they’re not actually a team. There’s not going to be anyone on monitor duty, there’s not going to be meeting s and roll calls – they basically are coming together because they are together…. They are a team without associating as a team, because they’re more than that. They have a lot more history. No one is getting in anyone else’s face about who’s the leader, or who will do this or that. The adventures that will occur, and the missions that they will go on will come from one of them needing some kind of help. Somebody will be working on something, and they could use some backup from their friends.

This is exactly how the classic New Teen Titans always felt, even when they did pull monitor duty. It’s a timely team concept for this particular configuration of characters too. As Winick says in the interview, "they’re one of the very few sets of characters who actually aged during their fans’ life spans." Since this is a book that appeals directly to fans who aged right along with the characters (I was 12 in 1984), its nostalgia value as a superhero comic capitalizes on the real nostalgia that its now adult fans might have for their own teen relationships at the same time that it mirrors back to them their own sense of having aged and (in some cases) of how their teen friendships grew and changed into adult friendships. This is especially true for me because my own sense of what friendship meant as a teen was deeply bound up in the idealized fantasy of a "family of friends" that I found in the pages of the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans.

Long story short: I’m dying for this relaunch. Memo to Judd: since my wishes are being granted left, right, and center, and I’m getting used to being spoiled, please read this post attentively. Titans Together!

Experimental Farm

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Experimental Farm

Monday, November 05, 2007

On Reading and Rereading For Better or For Worse

I’ve been intending to rip off Comics Curmudgeon Joshua Fruhlinger’s entertaining newspaper strip commentary concept for a long time, and now that fatherhood is upon me and all those 3:00 a.m. diaper changes have left me too sleep deprived to come up with ideas of my own, the time for shameless plundering has finally come.

I decided to begin with Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, the first strip that I ever truly obsessed over. Why it spoke to me so intensely and so conspiratorially is a no-brainer. The strip began running in 1979, when I was seven and my sister was two-and-a-half—an age gap that was very similar to the one between Michael and his baby sister Elizabeth in the strip. Indeed, everything about the Pattersons and their children reminded me of my own family, a connection that was enhanced by the strip’s real-time development.

Most importantly, it was funny. Younger readers who came late to the adventures of the Patterson family probably find its current slice-of-life tone a little too maudlin. There is also, undeniably, an element of Bill Keane’s (risible but unintentionally fascinating) Family Circus in Johnston’s sometimes precious humour. But perhaps not as much as people like to think. And even if the strip does reach too quickly for upbeat or consoling forms of narrative closure, I still appreciate its frequent focus on non-traditional—often depressing—themes (epitomized by the Death of Farley storyline and subsequent arcs concerning death and disease), something that is consistent with the serious edge that the strip had from the very beginning.

Reading the earliest strips from the late 70s and early 80s now, one might be amazed by the stringent honesty of their treatment of parenthood—or perhaps I should say, motherhood. Usually focalized through Elly and her frustrating struggle to reconcile conventional maternal and wifely roles with the liberating promise of second wave feminist ideals, the “comedy” of many of the early strips is propelled either by Elly’s barely suppressed rage at being taken for granted by her husband and children or by her melancholic reflection on the hurts, missed opportunities, and emotional disconnections that haunt family life. Johnston’s particular skill as a cartoonist is to give even the darkest of this material a genuinely comic turn—though, at its best, the effect is to leave the honest core of the cartoon harsh and undiluted.

One of the best early examples of this shows Elly ranting angrily to John as she stalks through the house: “I’m sick and %&@ tired of picking up TOYS! I’m tired of housework and dirty noses and cooking and the NEVER ENDING MESS.” John, always hilariously meek and nervous in these early strips (as if he’s living with a keg of dynamite), takes Elly in his arms and comforts her with characteristic platitudes: “Take it easy. Kids are a lot of work. They’re part of life—you have to accept these things. After all—you’re the one who wanted kids in the first place.” This one makes me laugh out loud every time I rediscover it in Johnston’s first For Better of For Worse collection, I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues…” What really gets me is the way this marvelously dark humour is punctuated by Johnston’s visual depiction of Elly’s rage—pop-eyed with Medusa hair—as she’s wrapped in the arms of her well-meaning but clueless husband. More generally, it’s this integration of Johnston’s feminism with the inherent cruelty of comedy that makes the humour of the early For Better of For Worse so delightfully bracing. It’s Johnston’s exceptional skill as a cartoonist that makes these strips classics.

Like Charles Schultz, who masterfully transformed melancholia into a kind of textured gallows humour in Peanuts, Johnston always took the “or for Worse” of her strip’s title seriously as a thematic compass for its gags, reflections, and plots. Usually, the sources of strife were the quotidian disappointments of family life—disappointments whose seemingly familial nature was often revealed to be sexist and systemic by Johnston’s astute comic eye. In the introduction to Washload Blues, Johnston names these disappointments “guilt”—an emotion that brings the most private experience of desire, moral responsibility, and social codes into complicated and uncomfortable relation. We feel guilty precisely because of some failure to regulate our desire in accordance with the social codes and values we’ve internalized—codes and values that present themselves as transcendent and unquestionable. As Johnston pointedly asks, “Who in this world could ever follow all the sage advice in all those parenting books and be human?” (a question that is as relevant to parents now as it was in 1981). The strip, she tells us, is thus a confession, a “diary”—“therapy, you could call it”: “When I start to draw the hunched and disheveled housewife, eyebags drooping, mop in hand, grimacing as she removes junior from the dog’s dish, I am cleansed.” Evidently, Johnston’s cartooning against guilt, her laughter that momentarily drowns out the self-condemning inner voice, was a kind of therapy for her readers, too.

The strip’s recent return to its beginnings by reprinting this old material using various framing devices involving characters in the present has fittingly returned to the theme of guilt that animates the early strips as well. The weekend comic from October 7th (top) is a savory blend of the strip’s current nostalgic direction and its longstanding confessional tone. As the reprints of the earlier strips remind us, Elly isn’t kidding: she really did want those precious kids to hurry and grow up; the split between an idealized maternal experience and a “selfish” desire to live her own life remains starkly unresolved—at least on its own terms as an historical event. Here, as Elly sees it in retrospect, however, her confession to the reader apparently “resolves” the contradiction. Now, we might infer, she is in a position to render a judgment on her earlier self and can finally embrace the maternal role she struggled with when her children were young. Of course, this kind of retroactive nostalgia is all too easy, coming, as it does, so long after the experiences in question, and after so many of the deferred satisfactions have been realized. And perhaps the strip, which looks nostalgically over Elly’s shoulder at the photo albums that stand in for the very newspaper strips of the 70s and 80s that are currently being reprinted, allows us to see this too. For the photo album’s selective preservation of happy memories—the memories that support Elly’s judgment on herself as an impatient young mother, necessarily tell only half the story. The other half—the half that is being put before us each week in the reprints of those early strips—must be temporarily suppressed in order for Elly’s internal conflict to be “resolved” in the rather pat manner presented here. All of which is to say that, for me, Elly’s ironic, self-recriminatory punch-line does more to sustain the comic’s delicious ambiguities than it does to secure a finally nostalgic representation of motherhood because the rift between the idealized photograph album and the cannier reprinted strips make any such resolution elusive.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dear Readers...

Four months since my last post without a word of explanation? That’s terrible!

What the heck happened?

Well, for one thing, I became a dad. Is there any more surprising or absorbing event than the birth of your first child? Probably not. No matter how much you try to anticipate it, there’s no way to predict the way it’s going to feel. Nor, as I’ve discovered, is there any way to predict how much fun it’s going to be. Did you know that babies were fun? I didn’t! Jim Roeg Jr. was born a happy and healthy 8 lbs. 4 oz. and he is, as you might expect me to say, utterly perfect, beautiful, and amazing...and very distracting! I can’t lay my prolonged silence entirely at his feet, but the family time I’ve been enjoying certainly does have a great deal to do with it.

Besides that, I’ve been increasingly bored by comics over the last few months and just haven’t felt like blogging them.

Sure, there are several books that I continue to enjoy. Justice Society of America is still the jewel in DC’s crown—one of the few truly special books on the stands. Checkmate is a superb espionage drama, month after month. Ostrander’s Suicide Squad gives old fans something to chew on. Booster Gold is an enjoyable romp. The Green Lantern portions of The Sinestro Corps War are reminding everyone of the virtues of more contained crossovers. Tony Bedard is proving that Birds of Prey A(fter).G(ail). still has legs. Across the way, Marvel’s Thunderbolts is still riveting—something that cannot be said of many of their team books. World War Hulk has also been good for a chuckle.

On the whole, though, the mainstream comic scene has been kind of a let down this Fall. DC’s Countdown has been abysmal—truly wretched. (How did they manage to come up with a multi-character weekly series that didn’t have a single compelling storyline?) Marvel’s Annihilation: Conquest is perhaps objectively better (at least there is a story), but not interesting enough to keep me reading. Brad Meltzer’s JLA underwhelmed and McDuffie’s is worse—a surprise, because I’d enjoyed his Fantastic Four. I imagine that there are some interesting things happening in the Superman books, but I’m not reading them as monthlies anymore. I’d like to get the Donner/Johns “Last Son” story as a collected edition…once its conclusion finally appears (!), but my days of buying Superman floppies are over. And is it just me, or is Grant Morrison’s Batman turning out to be just kind of…average?

Well, anyway: it’s easy to complain. Despite my gripes, there are still a number of things I’m looking forward to…cautiously. Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman is at the top of that list. Dixon’s Batman and the Outsiders is close behind. The various rumored “adult Titans” projects are too vague to get excited about yet, but I am foolishly hopeful. Nightwing by Tomasi and Rags sounds intriguing, as does Wolfman’s new Vigilante series. And what old school fan isn’t at least curious about DC’s plans for the Legion in the coming year? Whatever they do, I’m just hoping that their plans include finally reprinting the Levitz/Giffen Legion in a nifty format (Omnibus?).

In the meantime, I’m savoring some older fare. I finally caved in and bought the Brubaker/Epting Captain America Ominbus (chapters-indigo.ca had a fantastic deal) and am really enjoying that. In keeping with my more limited attention span, I’ve returned to reading newspaper strips, particularly the original volumes of For Better or For Worse (very topical in my household, and really funny) and the early Peanuts. I’ve also just begun David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, which I can already tell is going to be as good as everyone says.

As for Double Articulation? I don’t know. I’m not one to give up on things once I’ve started, but the days of painfully long and tortured pseudo-academic essays in which I project my fantasy life and romantic values onto contemporary comics and Marvel of the seventies are probably over—at least for the time being. If you’re still out there, dear readers, you can expect to see some changes around here. What those changes will entail, well... We’ll both find out soon.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

New BATO = New Adult Titans


Yes!!! It’s not exactly one of the teams I asked for, but close enough.

The other fantastic news here is that the absence of Nightwing paves the way for the teased “adult Titans” team. If I were a betting man, I’d lay money on prediction that one of the forthcoming Countdown teases (which are gorgeous, btw) will be a pic of the New Adult Titans Team.

My fantasy line-up? So glad you asked.


The first orders of business:

1) Re-age Raven. The teen Raven has been a ridiculous cartoon tie-in marketing gimmick that completely ignores the nature of the character from the get-go.

2) A return of the real Brother Blood and his Church. Plus Arella and Mother Mayhem.

3) In the background, Trigon is rising...

4) Bring back Lilith. She's about as dead as Donna Troy was after that terrible miniseries that set up Johns's Teen Titans.

5) More "Children of the Sun." Was that ever resolved? Was it retconned out of existence? I can't remember.

6) A proper Tamaran epic.

As to the issue of who should write this title... Must I even spell it out?

Thank you.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Best. Summer. Ever.

Just how awesome can big event comics be? Just how awesome is my summer looking?? Just how awesome is it to be reading comics right now???

This awesome. And this. And this. And especially (warning: spoilers on) this.

Yowza!

Annihilation Conquest: Prologue perfectly captures the strength and flavour of Marvel SF. I don't know how better to describe Marvel's approach to science fiction except to say that its image of deep space is deliciously cold. Because of this, there's a level of grim beauty and high seriousness that acompanies its science fiction stories, giving them a more adult feel than DC's. Perhaps this is Kirby's doing; perhaps it's rooted in the predominance of humanoid races over the wackier alien creations that DC's space books sometimes favour (though Rocket Raccoon gives the lie to this one!). Whatever it is, Annihilation Conquest taps into it in spades. The Prologue, sumptuously illustrated by Mike Perkins, promises great things ahead. Two words: more Moondragon. Two more words: no Skrulls.


And speaking of space sagas, do they get any better than last week's perfectly executed Sinestro Corps Special? The nearly universal praise this Special is receiving is justly earned. I can't recall when I've read such an entertaining 64-pager--much less a single comic so crammed full of surprises. Some might not like Geoff Johns's neo-Hegelian mania for synthesis (even I feel exhausted by it at times), but it's irresistable here. Finally, that last remaining shoe from Crisis on Infinite Earths has dropped! Bonus: Ethan Van Sciver produces the best work of his career to date. Gorgeous.

Last but not least is World War Hulk #1. I rarely read the Hulk, but the combination of John Romtia Jr. illustrating the Hulk's rampage and the inevitable Iron Man beat down was too tantalizing to pass up. The World War Hulk event is genius marketing on Marvel's part: now they get to profit from all the rage and ill-will that have been simmering within fanboys and fangirls over Civil War. Perfect timing. Perfect planning. I can't help but fall for it. Who doesn't want to Hulk-out on Tony Stark and expend their disgust and loathing for the Avengers-Universe by throwing a violent temper tantrum that turns Manhattan into a war zone? Joe Q, your recent decisions have ensured that I won't be buying an Avengers title until well into the next decade, but you are a smart, sneaky E.I.C.! Will the Hulk be paying a visit to Marvel's New York offices in the great 70s tradition of Bullpen cameos, too? Now that would be sneaky--and shameless! FYI: Greg Pak and Garry Frank's WWH follow-up in The Incredible Hulk #107 is all kinds of awesome too.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Narcissus Neuroticus: Eight True Dull Things About Jim Roeg

Here we go. Blame plok!

1. I’ve always had a problem with procrastination—a shocking blogger confession, I know. On the one hand, I find it incredibly productive. Nothing lights a fire under me to do something creative like avoiding “real” work. On the other hand, the avoidance fills me with stress and undermines both my creative projects and my professional life, neither of which is quite as developed as I would like. Maybe the problem isn’t procrastination so much as attention deficit.

2. I love soap operas. They remain the most misunderstood and underappreciated art form in any popular medium. He said, defensively.

3. I don’t like James Joyce and have never been able to make it through Ulysses, much less Finnegan’s Wake.

4. I’ve always hated dieters and gym bores whose ripped bodies and healthy lifestyles seem designed to make the rest of us feel bad. When they jog past me at a swift clip on a hot July day I wonder, where are you going? What’s the hurry? How narcissistic and yet herd-like must you be to worship idealized body images and make yourself a slave to the scale and the mirror? That was then. Now I’m one of them. After a year of lethargy and tubs of Drumstick Ice Cream, I’ve become obsessed with my diet and weight, have taken up jogging and exercise, and have lost 20 lbs since May. And have the nerve to brag about it at the slightest provocation. Ironically, I now hate myself.

5. I’m nervous but excited about impending fatherhood.


6. I have trouble throwing things away. Once, in grade six, I did a major purge of my room and threw out a huge bag of classroom notes passed between me and my friends that I’d saved from the first few years of primary school. I’ve always regretted it.

7. I don’t understand how people are able to both eat and drink at parties that involve mingling. We only have two hands. If one hand is holding a plate and the other hand is holding a wineglass, how do you get the food into your mouth? I made a decision long ago that one either eats or drinks at wine and cheese events. I drink.

8. I hate tagging other bloggers because I worry that tagging will be perceived as an unreasonable demand on their time and presupposes a level of web pal intimacy that might not exist, the revelation of which would wound and embarrass me. I like to relieve my anxiety about this by making coyly humble, endearing confessions like this one. But I also worry that in doing so I will offend the very web pals who were nice enough to tag me in the first place. I’m very neurotic.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dropped Threads: Outfitting Donna Troy

Donna’s scenes in Countdown aren’t exactly setting my world on fire, but I salute the effort and am hopeful that it might ultimately yield something interesting. I’m of course always happy when someone at least tries to repair this beloved character to whom the fates have not been kind.

Despite a good college try by Phil Jiminez and Co. a couple of years back, the doyenne of the New Teen Titans’ heyday has proven almost impossible to rehabilitate. The “Who is…?” heroine’s infamously tortured continuity issues are only part of the problem. While they may have turned her into a punch line to some, continuity tangles alone are not insurmountable in the hands of a committed writer who is prepared to make a virtue of necessity and transform the black hole of Donna’s hopelessly fractured history into a plot point that actually builds the character rather than reducing her to a flat caricature--as Crisis on Infinite Earths and its consequences originally did (yes John Byrne, I’m looking at you, but not only you). All this can still be fixed or (better yet) erased.

The bigger obstacle is Donna’s outfit, which, I’m sorry, just isn’t cool at all. And if there’s one sure way to undermine a character’s chances for rehabilitation, it’s to make them look silly.

It isn’t Phil Jimenez’s fault. Though I am loathe to say it, it’s George Perez’s. It feels blasphemous to say so, considering that Perez defined Donna Troy’s three-dimensionality throughout the 1980s, most memorably in the classic, “Who is Donna Troy?” (NTT v. 1, #38). But it was also Perez who designed Donna’s “cosmic” black threads (borrowed from one of the Titans of Myth) during the reheated epic “Who is Wonder Girl?” (NTT v. 2, #50-55) that attempted to “fix” Donna’s post-Crisis continuity conundrum.

I always hated that outfit. It was fussy, over-designed, and impractical in the way of nineties costumes. And despite Perez’s intention of having the costume change signify Donna’s maturation, the effect was quite the opposite: suddenly, the mature, capable woman looked awkward and self conscious. The outfit seems even to have thrown off Perez’s usually impeccable draftsmanship; on the cover of New Titans #56, Donna appears to be falling rather than leaping through the poster of her former self. Talk about adding insult to injury. The subsequent transformation of Donna into a Darkstar could almost have been an excuse to put her back into some semblance of the simpler, cleaner, more commanding red costume.

Later, when Jiminez redesigned her look, he was clearly trying to synthesize the two Perez versions—but the full body cosmic leotard and the addition of white go-go boots produced risible results. Donna may have switched from red to black, but she hasn’t been blessed with the dazzling costume designs of a certain webslinger who pulled off the same feat with considerably more aplomb.


The good news is that the early teaser image of Countdown puts Donna back in her classic red duds. Indeed, the implication might even be that we are looking at some neo-80s version of the character who, like the Legion of Superheroes that recently appeared in “The Lightening Saga,” may actually be the real McCoy, “preserved” in the amber of the wonderful new Multiverse. (BTW: Where is the Time Trapper these days?) Such, at least, is my hope. I would quite happily forget the last 20 years of character assassination by inches. Moreover, a return to the red costume through the restoration of the actual 80s Donna would circumvent the problem created by Perez’s original costume redesign: how do you restore and earlier, better costume when everything sartorial that’s come after has explicitly signaled development and maturation? How can we have our cake and eat it too? Cool threads turn out to be a problem of Time.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

ENTER: Empire Valley

Just because I don't have enough to do, I've started a second blog--this one about television. Mainly it's an excuse for me to rhapsodize about Twin Peaks (forthcoming), to relive the guilty pleasures of my teens (no shortage of those), and to whine about the idiot writers who are ruining my favorite soap (ongoing; I've ruminated about soaps here before in a post about nonendings, so those who can stomach it can expect more of the same).

Since I've been so good at maintaining a regular posting schedule here on Double Articulation (hawhaw), this whole venture seems rather foolhardy. But what the hell? If there's one thing the world desperately needs, it's another television blog chock full of slavish hype and banal observations that have all been made more eloquently and expansively elsewhere. ENTER: Empire Valley.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Poetry of Death and Difference: X-Men: Endangered Species

This week’s X-Men: Endangered Species one-shot is more of a visual mood poem than a story, and that may be why I enjoyed it so thoroughly and so unexpectedly. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I might be ready to give the X-Men a serious try again.

The issue’s slight narrative concerns the X-Men’s attendance at the funeral of one of the 198 mutants who survived Wanda’s magical interdiction in House of M; largely, it is an excuse for the X-Men to reflect on their new status as “the last of their race”—to reflect, that is, on the nature of death and the meaning of life. There are no earth-shattering revelations here and very little action—almost none in the conventional sense. What we have instead is a series of character pieces that chart a range of responses to the new mutant status quo. These responses span a realistic range of emotions, from fatalistic piety to dignified defiance, culminating in a surprisingly affecting 9-page scene between Cyclops and Wolverine that is the raison d’ĂȘtre of the book and a rare example of effective decompression.

The scene is simple, but it does its work beautifully. It begins with Scott Summers alone in the graveyard after the funeral; he removes his quartz glasses and releases a frustrated eyeblast into the overcast sky, igniting a storm. Scott’s subsequent confession to Logan that he feels guilty for not having successfully recruited the boy to Xavier’s school confirms that Scott’s grief, guilt, anger, and fear center specifically on mutants as an “endangered species.” But then something wonderful happens: Logan replies that the X-Men’s new situation forces them to confront the reality of death as such, not just for themselves as a “species,” but as a universal condition of being alive.

This is pop profundity, to be sure—but it’s no less true nor is it any less affecting for that. It’s also a welcome qualification of the “endangered species” theme, which could very easily be played as a race war in which the theme of mutant “survival” becomes the excuse for reveling in a quasi-racialist discourse of “species survival” for its own sake. There’s a fine line between the metaphor of genetically different mutants as cool but embattled minorities (the reason many of us fell in love with the X-Men in the first place) and uncritical celebrations of group identity. In these paranoid times, I’d prefer my X-Men to be embattled but still alert to what might without too much embarrassment still be called “the universal.”

This danger of overvaluing one’s own identity (“species”) at the expense of what we all have in common is precisely what this issue is about, as the accusation of the angry father of the dead mutant boy make clear. When Scott and Emma try to pay their respects, the man bristles: “You’re paying your respects to a name crossed off your list. You’re just here to mourn your own hard times.” Judging from Scott’s confession to Logan, the shoe fits.

Yet, the conversation between Scott and Logan ends with an affirmation of the two-sidedness of an existence that is always haunted by death and of the will to life that compels us not despair but to keep fighting. Indeed, there is no death drive in Wolverine’s universe: we don’t give up on life because “we don’t know how.” If only that were true! But as fantasies go, it’s one I can’t help but enjoy. Moreover, it’s particularly gratifying here because Wolverine’s gloomy affirmation (spoken in the graveyard just as the rain begins to fall) seems to qualify the vapid consolations of the minister who assures the mourners that “pain—all pain—has a point” that will be understood at the end of history. Penciler Scot Eaton does a superb job of rendering Charles’s skepticism about that bit of biblical “wisdom,” as well as the bored faces of a number of other X-Men in attendance at this public rite. The narrative privilege accorded to Logan’s more sober, implicitly secular account of the individual’s encounter with death as “the only way you know what life is worth…Any life…” puts a very different spin on the minister’s faith in a transcendental justification for suffering.

The last three pages depicting the thunder and lightening of the storm over the cemetary, followed by the breaking of sunlight beyond are obviously symbolic, but like any true symbol, the meaning of these sky pictures is rich and ambiguous. They might be taken to affirm the minister’s view of pain followed by divine redemption, but they might equally affirm Logan’s reflections on the way that death gives life meaning here on earth, or perhaps some nebulous combination of the two.

More generally, the wordless two-page spread of the sun bursting through the clouds concludes the book on a “poetic” note that elevates the resonance and ambiguity of the entire issue’s-worth of vignettes. How? It’s a truism that realist prose fiction conventionally tends to favor literal language over metaphor, whereas lyric poetry conventionally reverses this situation, favoring metaphorical language over the literal. The reason for this is obvious (though perhaps tautological): realist prose fiction is about advancing a plot, moving a story along, whereas lyric poetry is principally about evoking a complex situation and equally complex emotions. X-Men: Endangered Species is nominally a narrative, but it veers repeatedly in the direction of lyric poetry, and it does so by substituting visual images for lyric poetry’s verbal metaphors. All comics do this to some degree, but it is especially prominent here. The visual poetry of this issue (which is, after all, about reflection rather than action) works particularly nicely at the end because the shift to symbolism that is not anthropomorphic strikes the note of universality that Logan’s concluding speech has already sounded.

All of which is to say that Mike Carey does a nice job with the words and that Scot Eaton (with John Dell on inks) does an extra nice job on the pictures. It’s incredible how much Eaton has grown as an artist, isn’t it? His work for CrossGen’s Sigil was a quantum leap from his early work on Swamp Thing; his pencils for New Excalibur and Endangered Species are even slicker. The book couldn’t have succeeded the way it does without an artist as good as Eaton, and I notice that he will be drawing a great many of the Endangered Species back-ups in the X-titles over the coming months. I may actually have to start reading X-Men again after all these years.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Surf Bored: On Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

[Spoilers Ahead]

I was hoping for "refreshing, weightless, and cheerfully dumb." What I got was "a plotless, brainless, witless bore."

I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. With the exception of Batman Begins and V for Vendetta (both flawed but in a different league than the rest), Hollywood has had trouble making aesthetically coherent, genuinely enjoyable superhero films with first-rank comics properties lately. Like the X-Men films, the Spider-Man trilogy started strong but stumbled with the histrionic weepathon, Spider-Man 3. Meanwhile, the equally grandiose Superman Returns collapsed under the weight of its own ponderousness and narrative bloat. Ghost Rider was a passable distraction, but only because it aimed so low.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer joins this distinguished company of creative misfires, but for different reasons. Spider-Man 3 and Superman Returns both fell short of lofty ambitions for pulp transcendence by taking themselves way too seriously. No such accusation could be levelled at FF2, a movie that reduces Ben Grimm's existential angst to body humour. The occasionally charming imbecility of the first movie was supposed to have been the second film's biggest strength. After the tedious self-importance of Superman Returns and the bathos of Spider-Man 3, how nice it would have been to see a dumb, good-natured, competently-executed comic book romp. Ghost Rider, but bigger and brighter.

FF2 doesn't deliver on even this minimal promise, however. Not simply because half the main players (Alba's Susan Storm, Chiklis's Thing, McMahon's Doom) are unbearable, but because the film's script aims both too low and, in a curious way, too high.

The "too low" is easy to account for. This consists of the reduction of the already slim characterizations from the first movie to entirely one-dimensional cartoons, the film's tireless cataloging of the Thing's bodily functions, and Johnny's dick jokes. When did the Hollywood suits decide that this was the only way to make a commercially successful all-ages film? Has everyone forgotten that kids will rise to the level of the material as readily as they'll sink to it? George Lucas knew that--"once upon a time..."

The "too high" is relative to the "too low." The one good thing about the film (though not enough to redeem it) is the Silver Surfer, who seems to have sailed straight out of the tip of Jack Kriby's pen and onto the silver screen. The anguished cosmic slave takes over Ben's traditional role of eternal sufferer, embodying exactly the kind of nobility and gravitas that one might have hoped to see in the translation of this character from comic to film. Unfortunately for the film, the Silver Surfer's movingly visualized tragic plight seems to belong in a completely different movie than the one we are watching--that is, a movie for grownups and children with IQs higher than a pretzel's.

The incoherent tone produced by the contrast between the Surfer and the FF themselves is evident throughout, but is particularly glaring at the climax of the visually stunning chase between Johnny and the Surfer when, just before being flung back into the earth's atmosphere by the emotionally remote, god-like Silver Surfer, Johnny gets off some moronic wise crack that undercuts the awesomeness of the moment. The later scene in which the Invisible Woman first converses with the Surfer illustrates a related problem: the CGI'd Surfer appears to have more emotional depth and to be more convincingly human than shallow, doe-eyed Susan Storm (who is for some reason written as a selfish, shrewish ditz, leaving Alba once again with the most thankless role in the film).

Needless to say, I have a fair degree of ambivalence about the film's tone. Part of me would be quite happy with a witty, well-crafted adventure pic, something like a super-powered version of the bubbly, ticklish Ocean's 13 that I enjoyed the night before. But another part--the shameless geek who still pointlessly yearns for a truly great FF movie--sees reflected in the Silver Surfer's gleaming form an image of what might have been, and starts to feel decidedly pissy.

Clearly, a "great" FF film isn't in the cards and was never part of the mandate for the sequel, so at best I'm left hoping for the amusing romp. And this is where things get really irritating, because the writers of the film seem perversely intent on withholding even the consolation prize of a half-decent B-movie. How else to explain the script's self-sabotaging impulse to curtail the sprightliness that was its only real hope for conjuring a bit of summer afternoon fun.

What is FF2 about? What's its theme? Forget about Sue and Reed's wedding shenanigans--this one's all about educating Johnny, the only truly puckish one of the lot. Or at least, he was, until the Surfer showed up, scrambled his powers, and tutored him on responsibility and humorlessness.

The pedagocial subtext of the opening air-battle between the Torch and the Surfer is not immediately obvious, but acquires its symbolic meaning retrospectively, at the end of the film when our favorite "narcissist" (as Frankie Raye calls Johnny) soberly takes on the responsibility of saving the earth because he realizes "some things aren't all about me." This goofball epiphany about selflessness and sacrifice is, of course, the lesson of the Silver Surfer's own tragic existence: he serves Galactus to save his planet and the woman he loves. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself to save the earth as well, anticipating and outdoing Johnny's own transformation from horndog to savior.

Thus, in that earlier air-battle between Torch and the Surfer, Johnny trails behind the quasi-angelic Surfer, both literally and morally. That battle concludes with the Surfer extinguishing Johnny's flame and throwing him back to earth--just as his example will later provide the model for the symbolic extinguishing of Johnny's "narcissism" when he is brought "down to earth" by the impending destruction of the planet and the apparent death of his sister. It is of course Johnny who gives the Surfer's board a final boost as the Surfer plunges into Galactus and destroys it in a sort of glorious cosmic crucifixion. Susan's parallel, but more minor, transformation from sullen bridezilla to can-do superwife is similarly informed by the Surfer's example (she reminds the herald of his beloved--why? because she's a woman?).

This would all be fine if the film had enough gravity to convince us that it was sincere about its moral fable. But the movie's indifference to its own moral is palpable, and the moralizing merely bogs the film down. Really, who wants to see the Human Torch mend his ways, anyway? Did we pay our two bits for "hugging and learning"? Is the domestication of the film's only remotely amusing character really a good idea in a series that is already painfully short on the fun it promises to deliver?

Bah.

Fortunately, FF fans have other options this summer. Despite the destruction of Reed Richards in Civil War, Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier, and Rick Magyar's The New Fantastic Four is an absolute blast--and it looks sensational to boot. Its just-wrapped Glactus/Silver Surfer three-parter was infinitely more entertaining than the film version. I wasn't sure about Storm and Black Panther replacing Reed and Sue at first, but the shift does liven things up, and Pelletier drawns a mean Black Panther. In fact, the quirky new team is just one other detail that harkens back to the glory days when Steve Englehart, Keith Pollard, and Joe Sinnott presided over the odd but wonderful FF team of Thing, Ms. Marvel, Torch, and Crystal, telling cosmic adventure stories with a classic look and feel. Their work really reignited my enthusiasm for the FF back then; perhaps McDuffie and Pelletier can pull off a similar renaissance for the title today.

As for the movies? I give up.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Double Articulation Digest #4

Thomas has a blog! And as you might expect from the author of this dazzling guest-piece on X3 here at Double Articulation, it's home to provocative and erudite pop culture commentary--or maybe it's just a place to stew in his seething hatred of Lost, Season 3. Time will tell! Since I've only seen up to the end of season 2, I can't read this fun-looking piece until December, but angry, angry Thomas has promised some Marvel-bashing, which I await with baited breath. P.S. Thomas's inspired defense of X3 (prompted by a certain blogger's unkind review) lives again in a phenomenal post by the prodigious plok!

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Who says that wishes don't come true? It's not in color, but I'll take it! These too:
SHOWCASE PRESENTS: THE SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS VOL. 1 TP
Writers: Gerry Conway, David Kraft, Bob Rozakis and Paul Levitz
Artists: Pablo Marcos, Rich Buckler, Arvell Jones, Dick Ayers, Mike Vosburg, Ric Estrada, Bob Smith, Vince Colletta, Bob Layton, Joe Rubinstein, Bob McLeod, Jack Abel, Romeo Tanghal, Joe Orlando, Frank McLaughlin, Ernie Chua and others
Collects: THE SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS #1-15, DC SPECIAL #27, DC SPECIAL SERIES #6, SUPER-TEAM FAMILYI #13 and 14, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #166-168 and a story from CANCELLED COMICS CAVALCADE #2
$16.99 U.S., 520 pages

SHOWCASE PRESENTS: SUICIDE SQUAD VOL. 1 TP
Writers: John Ostrander, Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Paul Kupperberg
Artists: Luke McDonnell, Keith Giffen, Erik Larsen, Dave Hunt, Karl Kesel, Bob Lewis, Al Gordon and Malcolm Jones III
Collects: SUICIDE SQUAD #1-18, the DOOM PATROL AND SUICIDE SQUAD SPECIAL, and a story from JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL #13
$16.99 U.S., 528 pages
It's about time DC got the absolutely classic Suicide Squad back in circulation--if you've never read it, I can't recommend it highly enough. I've been rereading what I have of the series, and it's remarkable how fully this title has been mined by the authors of some of DC's best current books: Rucka's Checkmate, obviously, but also Johns's JSA (Kobra) and even to some extent JLA (John Ostrander knew how cool Vixen could be long before Brad Meltzer came along). All this, and Batman and the Outsiders is finally getting some respect? Thanks, DC.

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At first I was excited. Then I remembered that I swore I'd never be sucked into seeing another idiotic Spielberg picture. Damn you, Fates! Meanwhile, Anthony Lane has a nice Tintin article in this week's New Yorker in honor of the centenary of Herge's birth. The abstract of Lane's article is available online.

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I missed the first episode when it aired, but was pretty enthralled by the second installment of abc's new serial thriller, Traveler--a TV show about two grad students who are conned into committing a terrorist act by "Will Traveler," a guy who seemed to be their friend. Now they're on the run from the FBI and searching for the treacherous Will. You can watch the entire 2-hour pilot at abc.com. CBR has a great write-up on the show too. Are we all too exhausted to tolerate yet another tv serial? I hope not; this one looks like fun.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Out from the Shadow of the Batcave: Wolfman’s Nightwing

Nightwing was born in the pages of The New Teen Titans and has always worked best as an ensemble player for me. That’s perhaps why I’ve never been drawn to his solo adventures and, until recently, had never read his book. I tried it for about six months during the One Year Later jump, and was amazed by how truly horrible it was. I dropped it. Then Marv Wolfman took over. Then Jamal Igle hopped on board as penciller, drawing the coolest motorcycles I've ever seen. And now I’m hooked. Why is an interesting story.

I wouldn’t call the two first arcs of Wolfman’s Nightwing unqualified successes. The Raptor is about as generic as supervillains come, and the Natural Born Killers riff Wolfman has just wrapped up in the “Bride and Groom” feels so 1994—and it was already stale when Oliver Stone subjected us to it back then. When Dick Grayson talks to himself in his apartment he says things like “Bada Bing! So tell us, Don Pardo, what has Dick won for his amazing lunch?” and “I am so outta here.” When he roughs up lowlifes, his patter takes on a Spiderman-worthy tweeness: “Hey, boys, you got some ’splainin’ to do.” Really, Dick? ’Splainin’? It’s always challenging for an older writer to capture the authentic voice of twentysomethings, and Wolfman shows his age with clunkers like these.

Yet, the quaintness of these details in no way impedes my enjoyment of this title—in fact, I suspect that they partly account for why I’m enjoying this book so much. Wolfman’s Nightwing is just so wonderfully old-fashioned. As I understand it, Wolfman (Nightwing’s co-creator, with George Perez) was hired to give the character a sharper sense of definition because Dan Didio didn’t “get” him. Mission accomplished, I’d say. Thanks largely to Dick Grayson’s talky internal monologue, I have a much stronger sense of who Dick Grayson is now, of what drives him, of his relationship to Batman, of his idealism and his insecurities. In eight issues, Wolfman has reminded me why I liked Nightwing in the first place and how he can be interesting and iconic as a solo hero out of the shadows of the Batcave or, for that matter, the Titans Tower. He’s done so, however, by writing Nightwing as if it’s still 1985—and for some of us, this is a selling point, not a criticism.

It isn’t just that Wolfman voices the character as if he’s stuck in that earlier era, it’s that the storytelling style itself has a kind of endearing fustiness to it. Wolfman takes time to set up and flesh out his strikingly unhip villains; we get scene after scene of Dick working out, chatting with his neighbours, brooding over his love life, finding a job. It’s all so heartbreakingly earnest, I can’t help but be won over. People just don’t pace comics in precisely this way anymore. And I’ve missed it. Wolfman has made Nightwing into a truly character-driven detective book about an adult hero struggling to be his own person. It’s archetypal, appealing, and I now look forward to it every month with more eagerness than I ever expected to.

Yet I do wonder if the appeal of Wolfman’s Nightwing isn’t strongest for fanboys of a certain age—fanboys who can identify not simply with the slightly retro feel of the comic, but with the character’s curious status within the Bat-canon where he is neither fish nor fowl, neither Batman not Robin, neither master nor apprentice, yet always tenuously balanced between both roles. This kind of ambiguous positioning of Nightwing with regard to his own authority no doubt speaks very strongly to an aging group of readers who might still be getting comfortable with the idea of being responsible adults. Do we ever stop wondering when we’re finally grown up? I doubt I will. And Wolfman’s Dick Grayson is the archetypal male hero for that dilemma. This is perhaps the thinking behind John Fiorella and Gabriel Sabloff’s legendary Grayson film “trailer,” whose adult Robin is simply a Nightwing re-imagined for a mass audience. Were that “trailer” ever to be made into a film, I’d be the first in line on opening night. In the meantime, Wolfman and Igle’s retro gem is a very pleasant diversion.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"We Were Legion": JSA #6 Preview

Fans, myself included, have gushed over Johns and Eaglesham's dazzling new Justice Society of America. And now they're giving us yet another reason to make soppy slobbering fools of ourselves. Not only is "The Lightening Saga" treating old folks like me to the return of the classic Legion, it's doing so in rare style. What can be said about Eaglesham's art that hasn't already been said? The image of the Legoinnares flying at night and silhouetted against the swamp is so delicate, you don't doubt its reality for an instant. Johns's dialogue is equally graceful. Superman's heavy-lidded response to Geo-Force and Batman on page 3 is poingnant. It is also a brilliant bit of metaplay because the Superman who can be nostalgic for his childhood (in the future!) occupies the same position as the dyed in the wool Legion fan of a certain age in 2007 who is nostalgic for his or her own childhood--a childhood in which this Legion figured prominently. And after all, what Legion fan isn't already nostalgic for the future? THIS is what the return of the multiverse is for. Just...wow.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

On Reduction: The Secret Joys of Pull-List Asceticism

I’m reducing.

Once upon a time, I didn’t buy comics at all.

Then, I did.

And at some point after those early delightful days of title-sampling, I started “collecting,” which only meant that I bought certain books every month and turned them into fetishes by encasing them in snugly fitting plastic bags.

At first, I was very selective about which comics I collected. This is hardly surprising, since collecting anything is not a neutral activity, and collecting illustrated fantasy narratives least of all! The urge to collect, to say nothing of the things one “chooses” to collect (our degree of volition is questionable), is deeply bound up in our sense of who we are and who we are becoming, perhaps especially when we are young.

So, my “collection” was more than just an enjoyable pastime. It was, in a very real sense, an idealized externalization of the identity that I was at once creating and discovering (very hard to tell creation from discovery sometimes!).

Of course, to call a comic collection a “thing” is imprecise. Because unlike a bike or a marble or a doll a collection is always growing and changing; it has porous boundaries and is always absorbing foreign matter. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it was “just a bunch of comics.” But, when you’re talking about shoring up the fragments of your kid-self and imagining who you might become, the danger of polluting your collection with unwanted books becomes a distinctly uncomfortable prospect. If “pollution” isn’t a big deal now, it is only because my choice of reading material is no longer quite as obsessively and inflexibly all about me as it was when I was eleven. (I reserve the blog for that!)

To put it a bit (but only a bit) more melodramatically than it felt, comic collecting involved a flicker of psychological risk when I was little, and this is no doubt why I had so much trouble knowing what to do with those few comics I accumulated that I regarded as babyish, ugly, or, for some nebulous reason, uncool. Where did these comics come from? I don’t know for sure. But they were there all the same. And I had to deal with them. Certainly they could never enter the ranks of those prized books that I bagged, boarded, and (to my mother’s horror, I’m sure) nailed to my walls to make-believe that my bedroom was actually a comic store. They weren’t even good enough to be stored in the same box as the rest of my collection. Instead, they were relegated to a drawer, the basement, or, in serious cases, given to my sister.

This was the “purity” phase of my comic book collecting. It’s vaguely embarrassing, but I can hardly deny it. And though you’d never be able to tell (if you saw the pigsty that is my office), the fastidiousness of that early “phase” is still very much with me.

From time to time, this fastidiousness reappears. Not as an urge to unclutter my comic collection by sorting the grain from the chaff (who has the energy? and besides, this is why god invented longboxes, as his prophet has shown us). But it does come back: as a kind of ascetic impulse to pare back my pull-list to it’s smallest possible size. To make it lean and mean. To hone it Emma Frost-sharp.

This impulse invariably strikes after periods of voluptuous expenditure, gross indulgence and wanton consumption. Those times when I’ve felt flush and added titles to my pull-list willy-nilly. When I’ve allowed my subscription to become bloated with second-rate books. Sure, that kind of gluttony is exciting for awhile, but even too much ice-cream will make you sick eventually. (Yes, Colin, I am admitting that I overate at the DC buffet this past year!)

The tipping point is always the same: the realization that I’m buying more books than I’m actually reading. So begins a new era of austerity and restraint. The nature of pleasure becomes converted into its opposite. Delight no longer resides in addition but in subtraction—a metamorphosis often marked by a symbolic excision, the cutting loose of a long-cherished darling.

Like the early era of collecting, the ritual curtailment of the pull-list is an act of self-fashioning. It’s a renewal of the commitments of that old fastidious self. A desire to be seen as someone who chooses quality over quantity. Someone who is shrewd, discriminating, exacting. A snob. Everything I’m not—except of course, when I am.

I Love You Deeply


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Post-Mortem: Teen Titans

The recent announcement that Adam Beechen would, in fact, not be taking over the Teen Titans following Geoff Johns’s departure as originally planned was greeted with relief by a number of newsarama message board posters—a response that seemed (unfairly to Beechen) to have been at least in some cases predicated on his involvement as pinch-hitter in the wretched “Titans East” debacle. I haven’t read much of Beechen’s other comic book work, so I can’t say whether his aborted tenure as Titans writer is a good thing for that series or not. What I can say, however, is that I should have greeted the news that his replacement would be Sean McKeever with nothing short of elation—much as I had when it was announced that McKeever would be replacing the seemingly irreplaceable Gail Simone on Birds of Prey. (Just spend an afternoon basking in McKeever’s tender and brilliantly scripted Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane series for Marvel to see why.) And yet, McKeever’s appointment to the position of Titans writer finds me in an awkward spot.

You see, I cancelled my subscription to Teen Titans last week.

This may not sound like a big deal, but the fact that I stuck through the entire Jurgens series, not to mention its dismal follow-up, should give you some idea of the pathetic intensity of my Teen Titans cathexis. (Just in case the blather on Double Articulation hadn’t already furnished you with enough evidence!)

What was the final straw? At first I thought it was the sheer awfulness of the “Titans East” arc, which was a kind of HeroClix Titans battle utterly devoid of characterization, narrative logic, or even basic suspense. But I’ve sat through bad story arcs before, so that wasn’t it. Was it the loss of Johns as writer? Superficially, I suppose. But I can’t say that I’ve really enjoyed his Teen Titans either. Strangely, despite the magic he worked on The Flash and JSA, Johns’s Titans work was never really able to overcome the fanboyish impulses that occasionally (some would say, always) mar his writing. Johns’s Titans run was frustrating because the instinct towards reconnecting with a team or a hero’s history that is the hallmark of his most successful writing was reduced to a kind of frantic referencing of the past coupled with an equally hyperactive generation of endless new “Titans” and team line-ups in the present, as if he were presiding over a giant game board rather than a work of sequential art. God knows, I tried to get into it, but the experience was, on balance, depressing. Certainly, the Johns/Beechen “Titans East” arc was an unfortunate way for Johns to bow out of the series that he (without question, and despite my perennial whining) reinvigorated, because the dilution of Johns’s script unintentionally showed up the weakness that plagued his entire Titans run and which dampened the success of his Titans revamp.

So, then, what settled it? Why, after all this time, finally dump the Titans? To some extent, I can attribute it to my vague feeling that if Johns couldn’t recapture (or at least reinvent) the Wolfman/Perez magic, perhaps no one can. Certainly no current writer was more perfectly qualified to do so, though Sean McKeever might have a shot. But there’s a bigger problem too—and this one is entirely a personal one that cannot even pretend to critical distance or objectivity.

Basically, the Young Justice characters that now form the core of the Titans just never won me over. I was too old to invest in the stars of the original Young Justice series when it premiered, and in any case, I’ve never liked the interpretation of the Teen Titans as a sort of Junior Justice League. The JLA guest appearances in the Wolfman/Perez series were among my least favorite Titans stories, and when Superman popped up during the first Starfire/Blackfire story it felt like a visit from dad. I’ve come to see Superman differently as I’ve aged, but at the time, he represented everything old, stodgy, and boring about the DC Universe. The venerable Justice League of America was simply another iteration of this mustiness. Why did the New Teen Titans need to compare themselves to those fossils? They were already awesome! This is no doubt why I’ve never been able to get excited about the magnified role of Lex Luthor in the current Titans series, nor have I been able to read the romantic tribulations of the new Wonder Girl and Superboy with much interest. One of the things that was extraordinary about Wolfman and Perez’s Titans was the originality of its cast—most of the characters were brand new to me and were not simply junior versions of existing heroes. Is it any wonder that of the current cast the only characters who’ve remotely piqued my interest are Ravager and Kid Devil? Only these characters bear any resemblance to the freshness of Raven, Starfire, and Cyborg. (Ravager may be a rehash—but at least she is a rehash of a villain!)

Can McKeever write teenaged characters with wit and skill? Yes he can, and I’m sure he’ll do a wonderful job with his new cast, a group which certainly has lots of potential. But these just aren’t my Teen Titans. When it comes right down to it, what I really want to read is a character-driven adult book starring the adult Teen Titans from the Wolfman/Perez run. I guess it’s time for me to accept that and move on.

Hey, what's this I hear about “a possible comic starring some former Titans.” Hmm...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Double Articulation Digest #3: 52, Countdown, Kirby, and Spider-Man 3

Whew! What a term. I hadn’t expected to be away from the blog for so long, but somehow, life just kept interposing itself between my fingers and the keyboard. It feels good to be back though…finally!

And what have I come back to, exactly? What the heck, let’s review.

A lot has happened over the past several months—much of it highly enjoyable. 52 wrapped up in style thanks to the Oolong island shenanigans, the Morrisonian metamorphosis of Mr. Mind, and the return of the multiverse (hooray!). Hard to say yet whether or not Countdown will be a worthy follow-up given its luke-warm first issue, but the commercial and creative success of 52’s weekly universe-spanning adventure bodes well for those of us who revel in this sort of thing.

Regardless of how Countdown fares (and I’m optimistic about its chances), I’m pleased that DC will be reprinting the Kirby Fourth World material in omnibus format. Though it is perhaps sacrilegious to say so, Kirby’s DC work has always felt like a poor relation to his truly “senses-staggering” work for Marvel—but that may only be because I’ve read so little of the former. Now I’ll have no excuse. Also, the reprinting of the Kirby material does something quite ingenious: it simultaneously showcases another part of DC’s rich history, while at the same time covertly “Marvelizing” that history (in a good, 1960s Marvel way) for readers like me who (ignorantly) associate Kirby primarily with Marvel—all at the very moment that Marvel itself seems to be deemphasizing its own mythic past (eg. Lee/Kirby FF) in favor of a more pedantically “realist” approach to superhero storytelling.

In any event, even though DC’s everything-old-is-new-again approach isn’t for everyone, I at least find the current regime’s dedication to linking newer material more fully to the mythic sensibility of the company’s roots very gratifying. In fact, the very concept of the multiverse—with all the creative chaos that such a model implies—sits perfectly with that mythic sensibility. (Classical myth, after all, presented its interpreters with perhaps the original set of fanboy problems: multiple versions of characters with similar but not identical histories, continuity glitches, etc.). Bring on the contradictions!

Meanwhile, JLA has finally emerged from its six-issue coma (the Geo-Force/Tara Markov teases have me a-tingle), and Geoff Johns and Dale Eaglesham’s dazzling Justice Society of America continues to set the bar for mainstream superhero storytelling.


Of course, these books are also currently hosting the long hoped-for return of the classic (and best) Levitz-Giffen Legion (newsarama’s recent feature on The Great Darkness Saga had me getting all misty the other day). Now that we’ve got ourselves some multiple earths, surely it can’t be too long before we see the classic Legion back in monthly action…I hope!

And what of DC’s trinity? Not a rosy picture, despite several strong starts. Of Detective, Batman, Superman, Action, and Wonder Woman, the only title I’m still buying is Batman—though Morrison’s all-prose issue was almost enough to make it a clean sweep. I’m not a huge fan of the stand-alone stories, so Dini’s Detective was always one of the last books I read on the week it came out; it was good, I suppose, but I don’t particularly miss it. Needless to say, the bungled scheduling of the Super-titles has been frustrating. The main story arcs in both of those books felt like potential classics, but I finally reached the end of my patience with fill-ins and will be waiting for the trades on the Johns/Donner/Kubert saga and Busiek/Pacheco’s Camelot. At least there’s hope for Wonder Woman. Gail Simone, as everyone knows, is not just exceptionally talented. She’s a professional. She’s also a genuine fan with an unusual level of commitment to the books she writes. There is simply no better writer for this series; it’s a shame that it took Didio so long to realize this and that the relaunch had to stumble so badly in the meantime.

Meanwhile, my post-Civil War disenchantment with Marvel continues. One book deserves a mention, however, and that’s Ellis and Deodato’s Thunderbolts. I had my reservations about this one, but I’m completely won over: this book is riveting…and gorgeously drawn. My favorite Marvel title by a fair stretch; the fact that it is a satire of mainstream Marvel doesn’t hurt either.

In the world of superhero cinema, Ghost Rider was mildly entertaining—if you could get over the increasingly cadaverous Nicholas Cage and his distracting collection of hairpieces. A challenge, frankly. Nonetheless, some of the effects were nifty and the scene in the desert where the two riders are side-by-side was a beauty. Speaking of Marvel films, I’m surprisingly enthused about the new Fantastic Four movie this summer, which looks pretty wonderful, actually. Despite its many, many flaws, the goofy first installment of the FF franchise was at least fun to watch, which is more than I can say about a number of recent superhero films. Some time ago, I argued that in order to be truly great, superhero films had to take the characters and the scenarios seriously. I still believe that, but after the guffaw-inducing bathos of Spider-Man 3 (more on that below) I’m really ready for something lighter—you know, like Galactus and the end-times.


Ah, Spider-Man 3. Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review called it “a shambles,” which is generous. After the superb Spider-Man 2, I guess it was inevitable that things would go off the rails at some point, and woooo! did they ever. I don’t want to be merely dismissive of the third film, because it did contain a number of spectacular sequences (the fight scenes between Peter and Harry early in the film were standouts). As a story, though—ugh. Shockingly boring. For the last hour of the movie I must have checked my watch more often than I did for the entire duration of Singer’s bloated Superman. When Mary Jane was finally caught in that giant web all I could feel was relief. Yes! The big battle! We’re almost done! And then the film ended…several times. Apart from its terrible pacing and inconsistent tone, Spider-Man 3 suffered from the same problems (though perhaps not quite as severely) as the egregious X3. In both cases, the filmmakers attempted to cram the plots of two potentially great movies into a single script, leaving us with an underwhelming, narratively flaccid pastiche of characters and ideas. Did we really need Sandman and Harry Osborne and Venom and evil Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey? Apart from a few nice action sequences, the best scene in the film—the most authentic feeling scene—was, ironically, the totally charming, totally throwaway omelette-making bit between Harry and MJ that culminates in Harry accidentally dropping half the omelette on the floor when he tries to get too fancy with the skillet. (There’s a metafilmic metaphor in there somewhere, but why bother?) The point is that this was one of the very few scenes that actually made me for a moment believe in the reality of these characters; compare the emotion of this scene with the histrionics of the conclusion. Was there a single opening weekend theatre-audience that did not greet Peter’s waterworks with gales of laughter? I doubt it. Even I laughed...albeit mirthlessly. I really can’t do better to sum up my feelings about this one than to quote the closing lines of Lane’s review: “‘People really like me,’ our hero says at the start, adding later, ‘They love me!’ Not for long, Whiny-Man, not for long.”

Didn’t mean to leave things on such a crabby note, but there it is. I’m pinning my hopes for summer superhero fun on the Surfer.