Sunday, December 31, 2006

Double Articulation Digest: The Year in Review (Part 2)

On Saturday, I looked at my favorite books of the year. Today I cast an eye over books that are ripe with potential but are still finding their feet, as well as books (or partial runs of series) worthy of particular praise, even if they don’t quite make the cut for “Best of the Year.”

Promising and Notable Books (2006)

1. Justice Society of America – The most exciting #1 of the year. Hands down.

2. Batman (Morrison/Kubert) – A tantalizing and overdue return to a more colorful Bat-sensibility, but where’d it go? There’s something cozy about the merely passable Ostrander/Mandrake “Grotesk” story arc currently in progress, but its tone couldn’t be further removed from the James Bond Batman that Morrison was developing. A “re-imagining” of the magnitude Morrison promised requires consistency to work, even if it is only within a single Bat-title. It would be too bad if Morrison’s jauntier playboy Batman ends up to be just a missed opportunity.

3. Wonder Woman – Alan Heinberg and the Dodsons? I love it. I’m even prepared to wait for it. My only complaint is that there are too many superheroics (and heroes and villains) hogging the spotlight in this frantically-paced opening arc. Let’s hope this is followed up by one of those “day in the life” issues laden with character moments and subplots, hmm?

4. Checkmate – Intelligent and compelling. Arguably DC’s slickest, most adult mainstream book. And it reintroduced the sorely missed Suicide Squad.

5. Justice League of America – I haven’t liked the pacing of this opening arc at all. (Meltzer needs to worry less about the feints and reveals and more about basic storytelling.) It has been an undeniably exciting ride nonetheless. More than anything else, I’m excited about the possibilities for this book down the line and the incredible JLA line-up that exploits the as yet untapped potential of DC’s lost 80s generation (about which you will be hearing a lot from me this year). Vixen? Geo-Force? “Doctor Jace”? Black Lightening? Arsenal? Trident? Cyborg? This is the first time since Morrison that the JLA has felt like a truly fresh property.

6. Nightwing – Wha… huh? You bet. The Wolfman is back, baby. Granted, Marv’s first story arc was saddled with the turgid pencils of Dan Jurgens, but thank goodness for the return of some old-school storytelling. The half dozen issues of this title prior to Wolfman’s assignment as writer were mind-bogglingly unreadable. Truly awful stuff. What a breath of fresh air to have this character back in the hands of the writer who defined him. You show those punk kids how it’s done, Marv. Your reward? The talented Jamal Igle!

7. Manhunter – May the appearance of Wonder Woman in the new arc finally help this entertaining and distinctive book find the elusive wider audience it’s been seeking.

8. Green Lantern – I’ve been enjoying the return of Hal Jordan for the last couple of years, but I haven’t been completely grabbed by the series until the last few Global Guardians issues (I especially enjoyed the reintroduction of all those weird Green Lantern science fiction villains in issue #15). After a year or so of housecleaning and set-up, the series finally feels like its heading into interesting territory. And finally, the return of the only Green Lantern villain worth getting really excited about: Star Sapphire! Reis is the ideal artist for this series, and I hope he stays because the book would take a serious hit without his sumptuous visuals.

9. Jonah Hex – It’s wonderful to read a book as assured as this one, whose gritty and engrossing re-energizing of the Western genre continues to impress. The current Hex origin story is fantastic, and I wish that Bernet would stay on as artist indefinitely; failing that, I’d love it if they could tap Eduardo Barreto as regular artist.

10. Detective Comics – It’s been awhile since I’ve been a regular Batman reader, and I’m enjoying Dini and Kramer’s stand-alone Bat tales quite a bit. Kramer’s art looks better here than it did on JSA and Dini is doing a very nice job of rebuilding Batman’s rogues gallery—in fact, the storytelling “model” here feels very similar to what Geoff Johns did on Flash, and that’s a good thing.

11. Moon Knight – Brutal, ugly, gratuitous...and ingenious. One of the few Marvel books that I enjoyed this year. Can Huston and Finch sustain the momentum? Here’s hoping.

Wednesday: Year in Review Continues with: On Probation, Disappointments, and Unmitigated Catastrophes

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Double Articulation Digest: The Year in Review (Part 1)

Let’s take a look at the old pull-list, shall we? It’s always tricky to evaluate comic books by year, given the wild fluctuations in quality that perennially afflict ongoing titles (and even miniseries) over the course of twelve months. In an effort to make some meaningful distinctions, I’ve categorized the books I buy according to several sub-lists that I will be posting over the following week: The Best of My Pull-List (2006) (today), Promising and Notable Books (Monday), On Probation, Disappointments, and Unmitigated Catastrophes (all on Wednesday). Not included on any lists are several books that I’m way behind on and buying as trades (Fables, Y the Last Man, Godland--all excellent).

The Best of My Pull-List (2006)

1. All-Star Superman – Despite a disappointing cinematic interpretation, 2006 was Superman’s year. Who cares if this series only comes out every six months—it’s one of the few that can legitimately make the argument that great art takes time. These are stories for the ages.

2. Seven Soldiers of Victory – Morrison at his most maddening and dazzling. The last page of Seven Soldiers #1 is perhaps the purest encapsulation of Morrison’s beautiful secularization of religious themes yet. I want the poster.

3. 52 – I can’t really argue with Ian Brill’s charge that many of the individual issues seem uneven or even (sacrelige!) mediocre, but this series is greater than the sum of its parts and has reset the bar for comic book “events” by addressing the temporal experience of reading and the distribution schedule of the medium rather than just focusing on the content of the story itself. (What other event can claim to have captured the “Wednesday” experience in a bottle?)

4. Birds of Prey – What can I say that I haven’t said already? If you’re still not reading this book, you’re missing DC’s best monthly.

5. Infinite Crisis – Uneven, but riveting. Although it never quite achieves the gravitas of the original Crisis, it hopscotched its way through a memorable series of emotional (and adrenaline filled) highs and lows.

6. Superman (Busiek/Pacheco) – With only a handful of issues under their belt, Busiek and Pacheco have infused more excitement and sheer coolness into Superman than I thought possible. Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman is a science fiction myth; Busiek and Pecheco’s Superman is a seamless blend of Metropolis story and sf superhero saga.

7. Doctor Strange: The Oath – Remember wit? This one was a very pleasant surprise, and Entertainment Weekly agrees. Finally, the Doctor is in! Er, out! Er…whatever!

8. Action Comics (Johns/Donner/Kubert) – Exhilarating. But be warned: for sentimentalists only.

9. Secret Six – Not quite as good as Villains United, but pretty damn close. Brad Walker stepped into Dale Eaglesham’s considerable shoes from out of left field and completely made these characters his own. Simone’s lurid, titillating, so-wrong-it’s-right, Alice-in-Wonderland script does not disappoint.

10. Freedom Fighters – I have enough Canuck prejudice in me that I never thought I could enjoy a book whose primary theme was American patriotism. Palmiotti, Grey, and Acuña proved me wrong—waaayyy wrong. In an entirely different league than the silly miniseries that spawned it and a tonic for its line-wide counterpart at Marvel. (Sure, it’s cartoon politics, but still!)

11. Thunderbolts – Nicieza and Grummett have recaptured the magic of the Byzantine original, and how does Marvel thank them? By kicking them off one of the last bastions of classic Marvel storytelling. Hmph. Ellis and Deodato had better be worth it, gang.

12. Annihilation – A rip-snorting cosmic adventure that gathers steam with every issue. Jaw-dropping moments galore, even if, like me, you only recognize about half the cast. Pure militaristic fanboy fun.

Monday: Promising and Notable Books of 2006

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Mirth Without Mischief: Twelve Pleasing Pastimes

Holy cow, is it Christmas?

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Not quite sure what happened to December, but I have briefly (and temporarily) reemerged from work-related things long enough to clean up the apartment, deck a fake tree, and read plok’s dangerously head-swelling post from December 3rd (!) on that enigmatic little triptych of mine. What a Christmas present—bless you, sir!

I had grand ideas for this year’s holiday post, but I’m sufficiently burnt out from term that the follow through just wasn’t in me. Maybe next year. Instead, let me recycle last year’s reflections on a favorite Daredevil Christmas story of mine (I would have found a way to say the same things again in a different form anyway), and offer a few remarks on twelve things that have kept me afloat these last few months and for which I give thanks on these (already in progress) Twelve Days of Christmas.

12. James Bond - Stephen King recently remarked after seeing Casino Royale: “I came out of the theater thinking it was the best Bond since Goldfinger. A subsequent viewing of Goldfinger…has convinced me it’s the best Bond ever.” I couldn’t agree more, but that’s no reason not to give in to the temptation of the 4 vol. James Bond Ultimate Edition collecting the twenty (official) films of James Bond B.C. (Before Craig). I watched many of these films a few years ago during a TBS Bond Marthon (“Superbond on the Superstation”)—over Christmas break, I believe. I was doped up on Sinutab at the time and all the movies sort of bled into each other in an extraordinarily pleasing way.

11. The Wild Wild West - And when you run out of Bond, there’s always West, James West. Please, forget everything you think you know about this series from the dreadful-looking Will Smith/Kevin Kline summer suckfest of the same name (I didn’t see it). Yes, the 1960s TV show is a rip-off of James Bond set in the American West, but it’s a spectacularly entertaining rip-off, and that’s all that matters. Season 1 (currently out on DVD) is in black and white, but don’t let that discourage you. These episodes are perfect '60s mixed genre tales with a little something for everyone: a cowboy/martial artist (!) hero (the usually shirtless Robert Conrad), an affable, resourceful, and long-suffering sidekick (Ross Martin), gorgeous, dangerous women (usually femmes fatales rather than damsels in distress, though often both), scenery chewing villains with world-conquering ambitions played by an array of classic character actors (who later had careers on nighttime soaps in the 1980s), more gothic traps (and trappings) than you could shake a stick at, an endless stream of steampunk sci-fi spy gizmos, and, of course, a seriously pimped out train. The stories—precisely because they were camp to begin with—stand up remarkably well.

10. Birds of Prey - Rarely is a first-tier series that is already running like a finely oiled machine retooled so gracefully. Gail Simone and incredible new find, penciller Nicola Scott (hopefully destined for a long run on the book), are keeping the Birds flying high—possibly even taking them to new, more exhilarating heights with the expansion of the cast to include such unlikely (but delicious) additions as Big Barda, Manhunter (star of another stellar book), a new Spy Smasher, and an unexpectedly appealing fangirl/Batgirl wannabe. Under Simone’s tenure (and with the help of a great group of artists), Birds of Prey has reached a level of storytelling quality, creative energy, and consistency that makes it one of a handful of DC’s unmissable books. It is quite simply the best treatment of a primarily female superhero cast in recent memory, and it is probably the best character-driven book in contemporary comics period.

9. Justice Society of America - And speaking of impressive retoolings of already excellent books… Dale Eaglesham? Geoff Johns? Dawnstar?? Kingdome Come??? The excitement level for this book is off the charts. The relaunch of JSA as the cornerstone book of the new DCU looks simply incredible. I met Eaglesham at a convention this year and learned that, in addition to being a superb artist, he’s also one heck of a nice guy—I couldn’t be happier that he’s the artist on this title. I’m also delighted that Johns will be pouring his energies into this book, since JSA has been, arguably, the strongest and most consistent work of his career so far. (I think it’s time to pass the Teen Titans on to someone else—Marv?) The first issue of Justice Society of America was a winner, stuffed with great new characters, tensions, mysteries, revelations, and teases—all wrapped up in an immediately engrossing story foregrounding the series’s legacy theme, which I love. Time to collect All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc, DC.

8. YouTube - There is much that is (delightfully) ridiculous about the content on You Tube, but occasionally the ridiculous takes a detour through the sublime. Exhibit A: the lo-fi stop-motion mini epic, Tony vs. Paul. Spectacular. Less sublime, but still gratifying is the ubiquitous Live Action Hamster Video Game. And on the subject of YouTube and gaming, is it wrong to be a fan of the elastic-faced Angry Video Game Nerd and his sophomoric profanity? He has an informative rant that attacks sequel numbering fuckups in movies and videogames with a rigor that I appreciate.

7. Andy Goldsworthy - This is who I would like to be, if I were a talented, faintly tortured artistic genius. Goldsworthy’s fleeting and profound art/nature “installations” are a perpetual source of wonder. He provides the best gloss on the significance and power of his art in this clip from Rivers and Tides (the stunning documentary on his work) when he says, “I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive.” Here is a second excerpt from that film. Stefan Beyst has a nice essay on the artist. And here are some photographs of the work.

6. Calvin and Hobbes Snowman Cartoons - I certainly don’t want to encourage the war on Christmas lunatics, but now that the snowman has become the prime signifier of ecumenical winter cheer it’s nice to remember that he need not be as dull as he often seems. This is nice too.

5. George Perez Storyteller - A Christmas gift from a good friend that I tore through on Christmas day. There have been collections on Perez before, usually in the form of interviews, but this is the first time I’ve been walked through his entire career. What a trip. Particularly fascinating for Perez fans will be the middle sections on his post-Titans decline, his mid-career fumbles, and the subsequent rejuvenation of his reputation following his run with Kurt Busiek on the “Heroes Return” Avengers. Perez recounts a priceless convention moment when, after his Avengers work allowed his “discovery” by a new generation of fans, one kid told him that he was such a good artist, he had the potential to be the next Todd McFarlane! Ever-gracious, Perez resisted the cheap shot. An attractive and surprisingly revealing book. (Finally, the cringe-inducing Sachs and Violens at least makes sense.) The Newsarama interview here. And a preview of Storyteller too.

4. Tintin: The Complete Companion - Tintinology 101 by noted Tintinologist Michael Farr. A superb account of Herge’s career and influences, and also a fascinating record of the twentieth century. I received this as a gift from a friend earlier in the year and have been delving into it with enormous delight for the past few months. I have been intending to explore my fixation on Tintin ever since I started this blog, but have always held off—I think for fear of not doing justice to a body of work that means a great deal to me. Working on it…

3. The Office - I’m usually not all that fond of comedies. Cheers, Seinfeld, Fawlty Towers: these are the obvious exceptions. Comedies whose humor seems (almost) timeless. Don’t know if the American version of The Office will stand the test of time or not, but few comedies make me actually ache with laughter, and this one does. Not sure I’ve ever seen such a deft juggling of mockery and sympathy.

2. 52 - Still the first comic I read every week, and always among the most enjoyable. But even when a given issue fails to dazzle, the momentum of the weekly experience carries me through. Watching it unfold is exhilarating for many reasons. Partly, it is the form—the thrilling momentum of weekly seriality as such. Partly it is the brilliant interweaving of high-pleasure comic book staples such as the training of a successor (The Question/Renee Montoya), the “who is behind the mask” mystery (Supernova), and the Romance-Quest (Ralph Dibney). Partly (and this is a big part), it is the focus on secondary characters. But beyond this, it is the sheer line-wide scope of the storytelling, both at the level of plot and in terms of stakes and implications (what is “52”? the “Grant Morrison factor”, etc.). Thrilled to hear that DC plans to revisit this kind of storytelling in the future—it’s the essence of comics, comin’at’cha every seven days. Wonder what Marvel could do with this?

1. Battlestar Galactica - Just watched the miniseries and am starting Season 1. OMFG.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Kirby’s Best Character Design: The Thing

Better late than never, right Sean? I can’t tell you how tempted I was by King Solomon’s Frogs, but in the end, I have to agree with plok and go with Ben Grimm. This will come as no surprise, I’m sure, since I’ve waxed poetic about the pathos, profundity, and—heck yeah—perfection of Kirby’s great existential hero before.

The idea of a creature composed of living rock is one of humankind’s oldest myths, but Kirby gives this myth its most viscerally human embodiment with one brilliant design feature: the brow. Yes, the orange rocks are essential, but it is the craggy brow shading Ben’s mournful baby-blues that creates a visual metaphor of the character’s extreme vulnerability and gives this pop version of Frankenstein’s Monster the true spark of life. And let’s not forget that Ben Grimm’s connection to Mary Shelley’s monstrous Adam (or is that Eve? or Satan?) extends beyond a visual referencing of the Boris Karloff movie version: Shelley’s original alienated Monster is, in many ways, the existentialist precursor to Grimm as well.

Additionally exciting, I think, is the way the Thing design so successfully sublimates Kirby’s primitivism. The astonishing modernist vitality that Kirby cannot help imparting to everything he draws achieves something unique here: in contrast to his more overtly thematized designs, the Thing is a truly modern primitive, and this means that he uncannily embodies an emotional intensity that (politically incorrect though it now is) modernist art routinely associated with “pre-modern” cultures. The Thing’s living rocky hide makes him a humanized version of the “primitive art” that was in many ways at the heart of Kirby’s own style. That Kirby himself was a stout figure gives Ben Grimm the additional savour of a self-portrait.

The real shame is that Marvel seems unable to imagine a meaningful place for its most adult character in its current universe. Is it a coincidence that the Thing left the FF just as Civil War began? I don’t think so; perhaps he found the whole debacle as depressing as I do. May his exile at least be short-lived.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Lost Objects 3: What Was It?

Law of the Father? Fetishism? My Castration Complex?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Double Articulation Digest #2

Doctor Strange: The Oath #1-2 – There’s still time. If you hesitated about buying the first issue because the cover logo was so inexplicably ugly, it’s probably not too late to reconsider. My advice? Just suck it up and take the plunge. Yes, the logo is hideous; but if you turn the page quickly, you’ll forget it in no time. Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin are outdoing themselves in this witty, beautiful story, which is by far the most assured and entertaining Doctor Strange tale I’ve read in many years. Vaughan’s wry take on the Stephen Strange/Wong relationship is perfection, and so is his use of Florence Nightingale fetishist Night Nurse, a salty structural stand-in for Clea who uses bobby pins instead of spells. Who says Marvel doesn’t know a thing or two about style?

Annihilation #4 – The exciting twists and turns of this space saga are further evidence that Marvel needs to liberate both its writers and its fans from the creative quagmire of Civil War a.s.a.p. Annihilation is a “traditional” space saga—by which I mean, it has an entertaining story, appealing characters, and beautiful art. This issue contains some satisfying revelations about Annihilus’s plans and gives more airtime to one of my favorite second-string Avengers: Moondragon. Oh, and it features one titanic ass-kicking. The best issue so far of a series that is shaping up to be outstanding. If only the Marvel webmasters could succeed in matching the covers with their correct issue descriptions in their on-line catalog (the actual cover to this issue is here). While they’re at it, perhaps they could make the Marvel website legible. Even after its reorganization, it is still, hands down, the most unnavigable company site on the web.

52 #25,#26, and #27 – There’s no shortage of things to praise about 52, but one thing I’m especially enjoying is its revival of DC’s more freakish characters, as well as its invention of new ones. Oh, Grant Morrison.

Is Chang Tzu “Egg Fu”? And more importantly, why do both he and Emerald Eyed Ekron have all those crazy robot legs?? (And who’s “driving” Ekron??? Or do my eyes deceive me?) Can we expect more disturbing monster-heads? 52 is so entertaining that someone is going to have to invent a special industry award just to honor it. Am also loving Ralph’s Orphic Odyssey. Not to mention the promised integration and rationalization of DC’s time-travel characters. Interesting too that the most recent issue appears to confirm my (and probably everyone’s) suspicion that the little girl on the cover of week 25 foreshadows of Renee Montoya’s future. R.I.P. Vic Sage; long live The Question.

Jonah Hex #13 – The already unmissable series gets gussied up a little further as Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti are joined by international comics artist Jordi Bernet to tell the origin of Jonah Hex. The story is gripping and the interior art every bit as rich and expressive as the superb cover image suggests. What a treat, for as good as this series has been, the charm of this issue is that it actually looks like classic Western comic. Highly recommended.

Superman #657 – This is turning into one of the best Superman stories ever told. Seriously. Busiek is on fire writing an apocalyptic future in which Superman’s own body becomes the missile that send the earth into a state of nuclear winter.

The apocalyptic future has long been a cliché of the superhero genre, but it feels different this time. The “superteam” of Luthor, Lois, Jimmy, and Parasite on the cover cool. And Pacheco’s art…gasp! The cover. The two-page spread of Metropolis falling into the sea. Everything here is just so beautifully rendered. I have nothing intelligent to say about this except: more please!

Teen Titans #40 – This was a good issue. But precisely because it was good, it also reveals the main limitations of the current series. When I finished reading it I thought: “Well, that was…moderately fun. It reminded me of some great stories from the past.” But, unfortunately, that’s about the most I could say about it. As my various Teen Titans posts over the past year and half have indicated, I’m tremendously ambivalent about this series, despite my nearly sycophantic admiration for Geoff Johns’s work on virtually every other title we writes, and despite (or perhaps because of) my fetish for the Titans era that Johns’s current series is attempting to emulate. I really like the One Year Later team; for the first time since the end of Wolfman’s brilliant Titans-Hunt saga, Johns has created a Titans team that could be spectacular. The group has energy, dynamism, and strikes a winning balance between novelty and tradition. And yet, despite a lot of action, globetrotting, new characters, and revelations, the actual story of this team still feels like it hasn’t started yet. I’m still asking myself, who are these characters? Who (especially) is Raven? And not in a gee-I-can’t-wait-to-find-out kind of way. More like an annoyed, wtf? kind of way. Similarly, the reveal at the end of this issue was enjoyable. But in a Johnsian universe, it was also inevitable (even though, I admit, I hadn’t predicted it). My complaint is that being caught by surprise this way can only be a mild thrill, and after awhile, begins to feel like a cheap trick if it isn’t supported by the kind of intricate character development and extended serio-comic “a day in the life…” downtime that was a hallmark of the classic New Teen Titans upon which so much of a reader’s enjoyment of the current series depends. What I don’t like about the current series, then, is its selective use of those Wolfman-Perez stories: it keeps much of their content, but throws out the form. What this new series has made me realize is that (nostalgia aside) my love of those earlier tales had as much to do with their formal density as with their treatment of plot and character. And of course, the two things are inseparable. Between Wolfman’s verbosity and Perez’s super-compressed, multi-panel pages, the classic New Teen Titans actually had room to deliver substantial doses of action and reflection every issue. The Johns/Daniel stories, however, are still too decompressed to do this adequately, so instead, they tend to build character development and reflection into their action sequences, sequences which are themselves simultaneously rushed (because there are too few panels per page) and overextended (because they take up so much of each issue). The result is a frenzied pace that never quite allows the team to gel. For an older fan like me, it all feels a little too much like the proverbial sound and fury… And yet, fulfillment is so close, you can almost taste it. Gah!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Kryptonian Fathers, Kryptonian Sons

Action Comics #844 – I wasn’t sure about this at first, but now that I’ve adjusted my brain to recognize this as a Richard Donner Superman film in the form of a comic (not a regular DCU Superman book), I’m enchanted. The orphan’s fantasy of recovering the absent father that pervades the Donner films is the driving force here too as Superman intervenes in what appears to be his own story being played out a second time. This is a compelling premise because while Superman’s intervention in this issue brings his own position in the orphan/foster-father narrative full circle, it does so in a way that may allow him to heal the initial gap between himself and the ghost-father/Mighty Oz, Jor-El. By becoming the space-boy’s guardian, Superman consciously steps into the role of archetypally good foster-father, Pa Kent; yet, because he and the boy are (apparently) both Kryptonian, Superman potentially transcends the position of “alien” foster-father to symbolically recover the original absent father, Jor-El—that is, he recovers his own father by “becoming” a “real” Kryptonian father in relation to a “real” Kryptonian boy/self.

No doubt, complications will ensue to muck with the promise of such mythic fulfillments. But it’s a tantalizing premise all the same, and its pathos is enhanced by the “filmic” visuals supplied by Adam Kubert in this issue. By “filmic” I don’t mean “grand” or “panoramic,” but quite the opposite: strangely subdued, realistic, plain. The banal details of the lab make it feel ordinary. Superman hovers cross-legged talking with the boy as he eats a sandwich on plastic toy furniture. The cubicles at the Daily Planet where Lois is working late have an exceptional degree of cinematic vraisemblance. There are no “supervillains,” yet. Barely any powers. That’s why the action sequences feel heavy—rather like “special effects.” (Could the producers not afford a conceptual artist to design a convincing spaceship? Is that why the child is “delivered” to earth in a giant wheel of brie?)

But this isn’t a criticism. What I am describing is the “austerity” that Hollywood cinema brings to the superhero movie because budget constraints require a stingy and very deliberate parceling out of visual departures from everyday realism. Superpowers are expensive, which is why the movie-Superman and his spandex-clad fellows spend so much time acting as brooding metaphors in superhero cinema rather than tossing bad guys around. When this kind of situational austerity is transferred to comic books—usually in adaptations of superhero films—the effect is almost invariably ugly, boring, and depressing. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a comic book movie adaptation that I’ve liked. And of course, that’s partly because such things aren’t written for me anyway; the adaptation is a “mediating” genre written for film goers who don’t read comics, though it’s hard to imagine that they’d be convinced to try more by such labored introductions.) Here, however, the Johns/ Donner script and Kubert’s translation of the restraint and austerity that comes from Donner’s (and Johns’s) film background produces a deeply gratifying effect, perhaps because the story is not an adaptation and because the paring down of the “color” of the regular DC Universe in the pages of Action Comics gives the plot a melancholy and nostalgic feeling that fits.

And there’s something else too. In a story like this, whose main concerns are thematic (and not intrinsically tied to the superhero genre, even if they find in its tropes a particularly congenial form of expression), the shift from a comic book aesthetic of spectacle to a filmic aesthetic of superhero “realism” confers a significant advantage. Namely, the reduction of ordinary spectacle means that the moments in which “special effects” are employed resonate with unusual power. The image of the boy holding the entertainment unit over his head is extraordinary, but we’d barely notice it in an ordinary superhero book. The same is true for the remarkably evocative illustrations of Superman sitting with the boy as he eats his sandwich or talking over his case with the scientists while the boy lays asleep in the racecar-shaped bed. These images take us to the heart of an emotion that runs deep and is, I suspect, fundamental to Superman’s continuing appeal, particularly for men who can no longer lay claim to the territory of boyhood, despite their most ingenious and self-flattering efforts. That these images are set within a story about relationships between sons and fathers is not coincidental. The feeling they evoke is not one that I expected myself to be moved by, because it is almost too corny to name. But as I get older, it’s one that, increasingly, gives me pause. Especially when it is presented as delicately and earnestly as it is here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Halloween: Shrouded Skeletons and Friendly Ghosts

The covers of classic horror titles were often far superior to the “chilling, thrilling tales of mystery and suspense” they promised inside. Take this cover from Dell’s Ghost Stories #30 (1971), for instance, which I bought recently because it struck me with the force of archaic recognition.

Everything, everything that matters, is here. The greenish night. The house on the hill. The broken shutter. The bent and useless fences. The black claw of tree that reaches for the house and in the same moment frames it in the protective curve of its trunk. The spectral bat that frames it on the other side, flying us into the pinprick at the picture’s center: that eerily lighted room. (Look closely: it is a human figure.)

It is of course this room that has the broken shutter; like the house surrounded by broken fences, it must bear the signs of supernatural breach. Even these broken fences are doubled by the merely relative (and thus deceptive) frames of tree and bat whose ability to enclose depends on your point of view, as if you can never have too many signs of rupture.

And supervening all, the grey skeleton, veiled. Or is that “bed-sheeted”? A garment of ghostly mist that blankets the house, not so much framing as enveloping. Snugly and reassuringly. The garment of a grim Casper, an ultimately friendly ghost. A quaint spectre who “tucks us in.” A “familiar.”

For this is not an image of horror. Those images are different, and I would discover them in other places. (A coffee table book filled with giant color photographs of insects that I was afraid to touch. Pages swarming with ladybugs.) This is a picture of cozy transgression. It is “spooky,” not frightening.

No doubt, we could roll out the entire psychoanalytical machinery of Oedipus and the family to understand the domesticated “secret” of this skeleton in bed sheets. But must we? For me, the intensity of this painting resides not in the promise of unveiling, but rather in the satisfactions of deferment. Its signs of transgression are a ruse. The doubling, tripling of broken frames (shutter, fences, tree/bat) do not “disclose” the painting’s “secret.” They are the secret. It is literally an open secret, displayed on the surface. Like the pallid ghost stories behind the cover, the promised secret is too banal to read. (The stories inside have nothing to do with the cover—total detachment, infinite deferral; the revelation of the secret, what “only the ghost knows,” must be sought elsewhere, perpetually. A definition of pleasure.) This is a painting of the only true “secret”: the one that cannot be known. That yellow room. A pinprick.

In the end, this cover painting attracts me because it is an image of our profound delight in secrets. And this delight is condensed in the childhood bogey of the shrouded skeleton because—with its familiar, comforting bed-sheet and its only half-disclosed grinning skull—it is our most intimate, most reassuring signifier of the pleasures of secrecy. The keeper of a “chilling, thrilling” “mystery” whose solution is perpetually “in suspense.”

A friendly ghost.

Why I love Halloween.

For more friendly ghosts, visit Keith Milford’s Old Haunts.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Multiple Articulation: Links

Any Eventuality's Nobody examines the New Earth-Prime emerging from DC’s 52. And follow-up.

Chris Ware’s foldout history of intertextuality, Jonathan Lethem on Philip K. Dick, Steve Almond on James Frey, and more. (Thanks Thomas!)

Booby Kids. Panic Restaurant. Divine Divinity. 50 Worst Video Game Names Ever. Come for the names; stay for the biting sarcasm. (Thanks Dioscuri!)

With his usual wit and precision, Plok explains why Civil War falters at the level of storytelling and argues that we need to bring back thought balloons. I could NOT agree more.

Dave Campbell abuses the Nuclear Family, silly but beloved creations by Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo.

Six-word Science Fiction Stories by Joss Whedon, Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Margaret Atwood, and many more. (Thanks again Thomas!) My contribution: Booby Kids. Panic Restaurant. Divine Divinity.

Anyone else want to play?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Lost Objects 2: What Was It?

Walt Disney Uncle Scrooge #175 (1980)

Friday, October 27, 2006

On Comic Book Blog Names: Notes on a Subgenre

I was cleaning up my link list this evening and got to thinking about what makes for a good comic blog name. Aside from good old-fashioned geek wit, I mean.

Naming anything is difficult, but naming a living document like a newspaper, a magazine, or a blog is especially tricky. The function of a name is to individualize, yet, for documents whose content is constantly changing and evolving, the best names, perhaps, are those that paradoxically “individualize” in the most general, most inclusive way possible. Mark Fossen’s brilliantly named Focused Totality is the epitome of this individualizing-yet-inclusive paradox.

The implicit model upon which this and many other such blog names rely is the proper name. Billy, Sarah, Geordie, Ahmed, Frances: these names may have some cultural meanings, some vague connotations, even a specific tone, but they remain, in every way that matters, empty signifiers. Blog names modeled on the proper name may convey a kind of attitude or sensibility, but they can still be “filled” with any content whatsoever and will come, retrospectively, to stand for whatever fills them, no matter how contradictory or complex that content might become. Moreover, it is no doubt precisely the diaristic, open-ended quality of blog composition—the fact that, like the diary, it is a record of the unfolding of a life—that leads Blogger to have a registration field for “blog name” rather than “blog title.”

Of course, because we are talking about a specific subgenre of blogs, the titles frequently (though certainly not inevitably) allude in some way to comic books or to fan culture more generally. Sometimes the “allusions” are very direct, other times they are subtle to the point of imperceptibility, and together these types form two ends of a spectrum upon which most comic book blog names can be found. Running parallel to this spectrum is an array of names that make no allusion to comics—a fact which produces a curiously pleasing effect of displacement when you begin reading them.

Naming one’s blog is obviously a very personal thing because it amounts, in a strange way, to an extension of its author’s proper name, regardless of whether they use a pseudonym or not. I am therefore hesitant to offer any opinions at all about what others named their blogs (an presumption which feels a little like complimenting people on having chosen a nice name for their child, as if that was any of one’s business anyway). Nonetheless, here I go... I hope that no one will be offended if I at least offer up a few of my favorites. My bias in favor of blog names that reflect the “half empty-half full” principle of the proper name and make some sort of reference to comic book culture at some point on the scale of allusion mentioned above will be evident in what follows.

Dave’s Long Box - The name of David Campbell’s blog is my favorite example of the proper name/metablog hybrid. The individualizing function of the proper name is obvious, but what I especially like is the elegant triple-threat of “long box,” which simultaneously suggests comics, the blog itself (which functions as a sort of second-order electronic comic long box; hence, “metablog”), and (?) a crude pun that perfectly captures the swagger of Dave’s sharp and wickedly funny take-downs of his favorite “bad” comics.

Shane Bailey’s Near-Mint Heroes has a name as good as that of any comics magazine on the stands. I love the modesty of “Near,” even as I enjoy the crispness of “Mint”—a combination which perfectly describes Shane’s site. A great balance of individualization and generality, set within a specific allusion to comic collecting.

Dial B for Blog - Robby Reed’s masterful blog also has one of the most impressive examples of a name that seamlessly merges its two media: comics and internet. It does so, moreover, with extra panache because the Dial H for Hero concept upon which it plays was itself a book that broke the barrier between comics and their readership (readers wrote in with character ideas that then appeared in the comic) just as Robby’s site does. It’s a meta-metablog. Wait, I'm getting dizzy...

When Fangirls Attack! - in the grand tradition of other great “attack” titles like Howling Curmudgeons, Ragnell and kalinara come up with a name that makes me happy every time I read it. At once playful and serious in its feminism, it is ingeniously meta and yet, at the same time, brilliant in its simplicity.

Ye Olde Comick Booke Blogge - this one almost goes too far, but I really do love it. I want to say that it’s because the weird overlay of a new technology with archaism actually captures something very clever about the “global village” nature of ye blogosphere, but I think that, deep down, it’s just that all those extra “Olde Englishe” letters are really funny.

Tales to Mildly Astonish - like “Near” Mint Heroes, this blog’s name is a nice blend of self-deprecating irony and confidence, expressed within a comic book allusion. I like this kind of name, I think, because it pin-points the duality of comic blogs in general—that “who, me?”/“wait, listen to this!” quality of a public journal.

Although my favorites are all names that sit somewhere on the more obvious side of the continuum of comic book allusions, and since my own blog name falls largely outside this spectrum, here are a few honorable mentions of the more subtle sort that I admire for a variety of different reasons: Progressive Ruin (a fitting tribute to all of our addictions to seriality), Written World (possibly the best example of a sophisticated and resonant use of plain style), Pretty Fakes (this one needs a whole essay to explain its nuances; in fact, I think Prof. Fury may have written one!), A Trout in the Milk (Thoreau!), and last but not least, Crisis/Boring Change (possibly the most evocative of this type, and a Pavement lyric, if memory serves).

A number of this latter group are not exclusively comic book blogs, so the more general name choice no doubt follows directly from the broadness of the subject matter they treat. But the especially nice thing about these kinds of more general names is that when the blogs in question do write about comics, the names begin to acquire connotations and a richness they wouldn’t otherwise have. The restraint, even austerity, of some of these names, is pleasing in itself. But it’s that resonance—between the name and the content—that sticks in memory and makes the name hum.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lost Objects 1: What Was It?

Walt Disney Uncle Scrooge #111 (1974)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The New Double Articulation: More Slapdash! Less Content! Fewer Pictures!

Alas, my vain quest for perfection has smashed up against the granite wall of sleeplessness and overwork. As fellow-sufferers know, perfectionism’s an all-or-nothing game. Either you make it good, or you pack up your toys and go home. (We never learned to play well with other children.) The relative lack of posts lately has been a result of that deluded worship of exacting standards that I never managed to hit anyway. Now that I’ve been forced to admit to myself that there really aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I’d like in precisely the way that I’d like, I’m rethinking my approach to the site in order to make it a little more sustainable over the long term. All of that verbose noodling that some of you kindly and over-generously mistook for “insight” and “quality” on this site? Gone! Forever! In its place: epigrams, maxims, gnomic wisdom.

If only, huh? Actually, not much will change. Major reviews will be self-contained, the “essays” will be shorter (probably a good thing anyway), and R.I.P. Spoilers Abound, at least for now. In its place? Read on. (Double Articulation Digest #1, below.)

The most obvious change is the new, less murky, hopefully easier to read Blogger template. I've had a few requests from nearly blind readers to give their eyes a break, and frankly, the blue template was starting to depress me. Hopefully this is a step in the right direction. A baby step. (A retooled link list will be back in the sidebar soon.)


Double Articulation Digest #1

52 #24 – Holy collapsing boundaries, Batman. The texture of allusion and metafictional reference in the best series of 2006 reaches a new level in this issue. There seem to be at least three categories of allusion at play here: (1) allusions to contemporary popular culture (Taylor Hicks, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow); (2) allusions to Marvel-related comics events and characters (“Just Imagine” [Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe], “Justice is served,” J’onn says, recalling Scourge’s tag-line, a fourth-wall busting Ambush-Bug whose sound effects and costume changes recall those of the Impossible Man—the metafictional Marvel greenie); and (3) allusions to significant DC writers (Elliott S! Maggin, Julius Schwartz). What does it all add up to? No idea, but it’s fun to guess, and I love Ambush Bug’s “This shirt’s a clue” clue. If, indeed, we are to take this metafictional “clue” at face value, then perhaps all the boundary breaks between our world and the DCU in this issue are indicators that the nature of the new DCU is precisely metafictionality. Could it be that Morrison’s teased “sentient universe” idea will involve a kind of bringing of the very process of making comics into DC continuity itself, albeit in a somewhat displaced or veiled form? This wouldn’t be a new idea (Marvel was notably playful about this in the 1970s), but certainly integrating it into the very fabric of the continuity as a kind of causal agency would be a daring move (this seems to be the implication of integrating the title of a weekly comic that refers to its publication schedule into some mystery that involves the “Guardians of the Universe”). More generally, the increased merging of our universe with the DCU in the pages of 52 (a merging that is inherent in the very weekly “real time” concept) helps to account for some of the allusions to Marvel as well, a company that has always emphasized the parallels between its universe and our own. Interesting too that Julius Schwartz was the inventor of the parallel universes concept—is the notion of “parallel universes” being redefined here so that the Universes in question are not Earth 1 and Earth 2, but literally our earth and the new DCU’s? Added bonus: Jimenez’s homage to Perez’s nifty Starfire pin-up. (Interesting how it is juxtaposed with Firehawk—another DC heroine with a fussy, challenging hairstyle that only a Perez or a Jimenez could love to draw.)

Tales of the Unexpected #1 and Mystery in Space #2 – If you like genre fiction and flip-books, you’ll be as delighted as I am with these double-digest series. And in any case, the return of occult “heroes” like the Spectre, Dr. 13, and another old favorite (yes!!) revealed on the last past of Tales of the Unexpected #1 is cause for special celebration in any form, especially when they’re all handled with such a deft touch. Lapham, Battle, and Rollins’s Spectre is gritty and truly creep-inducing. DC needs a mainstream horror title and this is it (though Niles and Justiano’s The Creeper is another promising successor to pre-Vertigo Swamp Thing). Also enjoyed Azzarello and Chang’s Dr. 13, which feels like a kind of updated Tintin adventure with a square but fraying hero. The pairing of horn-rimmed 1950s dad Dr. 13 with his 2006-savvy teenaged daughter Traci creates a charged dynamic (to say the least) and begins what appears to be an amusing riff on the relation between the denial of supernatural beings and the sexual repression of the 1950s. Smart and fun. Mystery in Space is a treat as well, though I wish they hadn’t de-aged Captain Comet because one of the best things about him was those grey Reed Richards temples – us old guys need points of identification too for Pete’s sake. Nonetheless, an interesting mystery is brewing about the Captain’s strange resurrection. Starlin’s return to The Weird in the back-up feature is nicely drawn but too exposition heavy for my taste; it does at least offer some tantalizing hints about the Captain Comet mystery.

Ms. Marvel # 8 – This is a great book, but I have to agree with fellow reader Lawrence Stewart who writes, “I love what you’re doing with Ms. Marvel. Yet, I have to say, all this Civil War nonsense is leaving a very sour taste in my mouth… I’m starting to wonder how I can justify rooting for a main character I don’t actually like much anymore. Can you fix this? Or is Carol destined to be a government stooge and Iron Man flunky forever more?” Amen, brother. Marvel is either currently engaged in the bizarre process of destroying many of its greatest characters by turning them into idiots, or pulling the the most annoying bait-and-switch in recent memory. Either way: bleah. Sounds like writer Brian Reed is going to come through and redeem this mess in this title though. Looking forward to the Rogue story next issue.

Omega Men #1 – a bit of a pastiche, but nicely illustrated and off to a flying start, especially with appearances by the Guardians and the Zamarons. Looks like I should go reread Millennium (that other DC weekly miniseries of times past). Echoes of Chuck Dixon’s wonderful nuns-in-space Evangeline series as well. Henry Flint’s style is a pleasing Frank Miller/Moebius hybrid.

Annihilation #3 – I’m enjoying this series perhaps more than it deserves and yet not quite as much as I’d like to, no doubt in part because it is a break from the Civil War storyline running through the rest of the Marvel books. The cosmic stakes are certainly big enough, but, with the notable exceptions of Nova, Thanos, and Drax, many of the players still feel more like action-figures than characters; Annihilus certainly takes the prize for most boring villain. Nonetheless, a fairly exciting military saga with gorgeous pictures by supertalented and superunderrated Andrea DiVito.

Thunderbolts #107 – Feel so mixed about this news. On the one hand, the new series looks gorgeous, and Ellis will no doubt energize things. But I love what Nicieza, Grummett, and Erskine have done with the book and hate to see them booted off at the very moment that things have finally achieved critical mass. If only we could have a West Coast Thunderbolts title and enjoy the best of both worlds.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Too Much of a Good Thing: Pleasure and Its Discontents

It’s times like these that I look back to the days of drought with a pang of longing. You remember the nineties, right?

Everything today is just…too good. And there’s too damn much of it. I’m not talking about Marvel, of course: there, at least, you can still experience that quickening of the heart that once attended the discovery of a sand dollar or a shell or a starfish on a grey and empty beach. When confronted with a wall of Marvel monthlies, it’s still possible to remember what it truly was to “collect.” Not simply to accumulate or even to read, but to choose. To exercise what was once called, without even a hint of embarrassment, “taste.” Everyone knows that that is the earliest and still most basic act that we perform as comic fans—the exercise of taste, the perfection of a certain style of choosing through which we begin to become ourselves. It is for this reason that the depressing nature of so much of Marvel’s current output these days turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because it at least restores the possibility of taste—of scanning the grey beach of Marvel for the glint of one of its “minor” but wonderful titles. Remembering this pleasure is of considerable value in a market that is already overstuffed with high quality mainstream books. Yes, now I’m talking about DC. No point in pretending that this is an objective account.

It’s a very good time to be a DC fan. Too good—especially if you’re a mid-thirties overgrown DC fan, because everything—everything—DC makes is being made just for you. All that Dan Didio and Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison and Gail Simone and Bill Willingham and Mark Waid and Greg Rucka think about when they butter their toast or walk their dogs, or kiss their partners as they turn out the lights is your—by which I mean my—pleasure. They must! Because every new title, every assignment of writers and artists, every revival of some obscure but secretly treasured eighties character, everything is calculated to stir some pleasurable memory or to unveil some new zone of delight, a zone that is nonetheless always, always moored to the dock of our adolescent dreaming. It’s glorious, dizzying, wonderful… Too much…

And that’s the problem with pleasure, isn’t it? Because pleasure is not, strictly speaking, a positive quantity, even though it might often appear that way. It emerges always in relation to other things—things that are less pleasurable, less thrilling. You know: boring. Maybe even bad.

So when the comic store—that special corner of the world that’s always been the secret laboratory of your self-invention, the place where you first “chose” your way towards being, where your “taste” was born and perfected—when that place becomes so saturated with products that all lay equal claim to your attention, you’re faced with an entirely perverse catastrophe: your power to choose has been overwhelmed by a veritable embarrassment of riches. You discover, to your horror, that you no longer have any taste. Or rather, that the “taste” you cultivated so carefully for all those years has been rendered obsolete. And banal too, because everyone shares it.

Suddenly, you’re buying more comics than you can read. You’re enjoying them all. You glut yourself. But something terrible is happening. You’ve not only lost the pleasure of choosing—a snob’s nightmare, a narcissist’s crisis—you’ve lost another, profounder pleasure too. I tried to describe that pleasure once; I’m not sure I managed it. It’s the pleasure of self-forgetting. Of an act of reading so consuming that you go…elsewhere. Away. “Into the panels” sounds silly and naïve. But it’s something like that. A child’s pleasure. But not only that. The horizon of pleasure. Barthes called it jouissance. And when it happens, you’re lost, blissfully…

That particular experience of pleasure feels increasingly remote. When you have succumbed entirely (almost entirely) to the engulfing tide of DC’s Brave New World, of its pleasurable Crises, of its Seven Soldiers and Holy Trinity, of its Leagues and Societies, of its seamless colonizing of every Wednesday for 52 weeks—when you have succumbed to all that—you begin, to your dismay and astonishment, to find yourself not engulfed, not overwhelmed, not consumed, but a little aloof, even a little ungrateful. Like any addict worthy of the name, you don’t ever want the high to stop, of course. You would prefer it, in fact, if 52 became Infinity. But you can’t help but notice that when things achieve a pitch this fevered and intense, the pleasures you were seeking begin to feel stretched a little thin. You don’t read with the same eyes you once did. You forget what it’s like to linger. To really lose yourself. You become that most awful thing: a speed reader. You skim.

It’s times like these that I remember the late nineties. The bad old days, when everything was godawful. Or nearly so. That was an era of austere pleasures, when the exercise of “taste” was forced to discover a new suppleness, to invent compromises. Everyone has their own version; for me, it was an era defined by two artifacts: Dan Jurgens’s Teen Titans series (a travesty of the sacred Book of Wolfman-Perez; I’m still not over it) and the emergence of CrossGen, which, although initially off-putting, eventually drew me in and taught me to read in an entirely different way. To slow down, to look—to really look. Almost to fall into those panels again… It was a rediscovery of the power of “archetypes” (though I hate that term) and especially of the magic produced by color in comic art. The evolution of “taste” in a time of drought.

Perhaps, then, I have something to learn from my reading practices of the late nineties, for the comics on the shelves today are simply a kind of inverted image of the majority of those books of those bad old days. The conversion, as far as I’m concerned, has been total and symmetrical: by some alchemical process, DC’s writers and artists have turned the array of titles on the comic shelves from lead into gold. The irony, as I’ve been musing on it, is that although this alchemical trick has in a certain quantitative sense produced more “pleasure,” the pleasure it makes possible is of a qualitatively different kind than that of those rare oases of pleasure we were capable of discovering in the nineties. That pleasure was a rediscovery of the inaugural act of choosing (the education and refinement of taste); this pleasure is the totalizing, somewhat exhausting pleasure of a genie’s bottle that gives you everything you want and were afraid to even wish for (too much of a good thing). But the inverted similarity of these two eras carries with it a kind of solution to my gripe: just as it was necessary to discover a subtler form of reading to spin gold out of the dross of nineties comics, so might it be necessary to refine one’s tastes all over again, to separate the still gold-tinged dross from the real gold of the comics of today. Oh curses. That sounds like work. Somewhere along the line, I got lazy about taste. I’ve been forgetting how to be a snob.

Pfft. Comic fans, huh? Hard fucking bunch to please.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

SPOILERS ABOUND: an occasional digest of reviews, notes, and rants

Vol. 2, No. 8
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In this issue:
reviews of Justice League of America #1 and Batman #656 / notes on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, J.G. Jones, my new favorite novel, Dame Darcy, Penguin's 'Toon Covers, Bazooka Joe, the summer's best superhero flick, and the Bat Guys / rants about new books in need of CPR

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Justice League of America #1 (DC Comics)
Brad Meltzer (Writer) / Ed Benes (Penciller) / Sandra Hope (Inker) / Alex Sinclair (Colorist) / Rob Leigh (Letterer)

Now THAT is what you call a tour de force. From the bouncy and dead-on characterizations of the issue-long summit between DC’s superheroic trinity to the heart-squeezing final page, Brad Melzer’s Justice League of America #1 gets it right.

There have been several great incarnations of the League over the years. Giffen & DeMattheis’s Blue and Gold cut-ups and Morrison’s cosmic oddities were by far the best of the recent revamps (hat-tip to Mark Waid for his inspired Tower of Babel story), and if this issue is any indication, Meltzer’s league will easily step into the company of those great eras. It will do so, however, in a very interesting way.

Both the Giffen/DeMattheis- and Morrison-era Leagues drew on the past, but understood themselves as fairly drastic reinventions of the JLA. And in both cases, the changes involved a hyper-stylized modulation of tone—gonzo humor in the case of G&D, “wonder” in the case of Morrison. In fact, their tonal distinctiveness made both books, even at their most satisfyingly conventional and nostalgic, still felt more like auteur projects than typical mainstream fare (much like a Woody Allen film or Bendis’s New Avengers, where it is impossible to forget, even if you try very, very hard, the hand of the writer at work). Meltzer of course brings considerable baggage to the JLA following his controversial Identity Crisis series (which, for the record, I enjoyed), and the distinctive quality of his dialogue, pacing, and plotting will no doubt give his Justice League run a bit of that auteur quality as well. But in this case, and unlike his predecessors, Meltzer’s League combines a fresh sensibility with a more profound return to basics in both character and story.

I really enjoyed those older eras of the JLA, but a change was overdue and what I find most satisfying about Meltzer’s general approach is that it shows so little interest in the G&D and Morrison Leagues, indeed, seems almost to repudiate their quirky histories. This repudiation is deliciously evident in the way that Meltzer’s JLA lineup at least partially draws on and redeems a very specific period of League history—the moment when the old League ended. If memory serves, this ending occurred in at least two-parts: first when Batman quit to form the Outsiders, and then when the Detroit League was destroyed. It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that Meltzer’s League includes both Black Lightening (an original Outsider who is overdue for recognition) and Vixen (the best member of the Detroit incarnation). The promotion of Arsenal and the passing references to Tatsu and Trident are also of course nice nods to this mid-eighties period as well. Meltzer’s League is, in other words, an elegant return to roots. His writing gives the book a strong, contemporary sensibility, while at the same time appearing to restart the series precisely where its classic model left off some twenty three years ago.

Hence the prominence of Red Tornado in issue #1. Why does Meltzer begin with him? Because, in addition to his tantalizingly enigmatic connection to the original Crisis, Red Tornado is now the most iconic member of the original JLA. Unless I’m forgetting some important history, Giffen, DeMattheis, and Morrison all but ignored the character, and the simple fact of his absence from the most high-profile League relaunches in recent memory has made him into a sort of relic in whom the older tales of the original Justice League of America could be nostalgically and uncannily embodied. The fact that Red Tornado has an android body and is thus in a certain sense a “blank” or “empty” signifier just waiting to be filled enhances the uncanny effect of this embodiment. Who (What?) better to act as a placeholder for a previous era of comic book adventures than an artificial hero? The ultimate metafictional character for a superhero universe. I’m pushing my luck, as always, but I can’t help speculating that Meltzer was in some manner attracted to the Red Tornado character for this reason, and had something like this in mind when he made “Reddy’s” (apparent) shift from a synthetic to a human body the subject of the first issue of his Justice League of America. In any event, whether he did or not, issue #1 still presents us with an incredible metaphor for Meltzer’s new League: an artificial man of the past who takes on flesh (“I’m sweating and tasting!”) is the ideal analog for how Meltzer breathes life into old genre clichés, without ever giving up on the pleasures and satisfactions that classic genre storytelling provide. Indeed, the Red Tornado’s extensive history of destruction and rebirth is also an ideal metaphor for the Justice League of America itself—both the team and the comic book. A fitting and engrossing first issue.

Batman #656 (DC Comics)
Grant Morrison (Writer) / Andy Kubert (Penciller) / Jesse Delperdang (Inker) / Dave Stewart (Colorist) / Nick J. Napolitano (Letter)

Isn’t it nice to read a fun Batman comic? The first issue of Morrison and Kubert’s run got off to a bumpy start with its Joker-in-the-trash shtick, but by this issue, everything’s roses, er…ninja Man-Bats. This review could rapidly descend into raptures about Morrison’s witty and ingenious Litchtenstein tribute, which gleefully announces, in ever more amusing ways, Morrison’s intention to travesty Batman’s Dark Knight image and restore a sense of frivolity, colour, and LIFE to this character. The gallery’s upside-down dinosaur in formaldehyde—a wry echo of the big green dinosaur “trophy” in the Bat Cave and presumably the work of provocateur Damien Hirst—is the symbolic centerpiece of Morrison’s vision of the new Batman, who, like the Green Dinosaur, is finally out of the Bat Cave, upside-down, and in a bright, madcap postmodern setting.

Batman’s hilarious battle-cry, “If there’s one thing I hate…it’s art with no content!” manages to be simulataneously an ironic wink at the absurdity of ninja Man-Bats (art with no content writ large!), an ironic nod to the lighter tone of the book, and an apt comment on the difference between a Roy Lichtenstein exercise in form and the comic book medium itself (art with content because, unlike the decontextualized and amusing but alienating Lichtenstein panels, it has an involving narrative). But wait—I said that this review could rapidly descend into raptures of this sort, so before things degenerate any further, let me just offer two observations about what makes this series such a welcome and diverting breath of fresh air.

First, thank goodness for Morrison’s efforts to humanize Batman through the renewed focus on Bruce Wayne. Focusing on Wayne’s playboy alter-ego is the most obvious way in which Morrison frees Batman from the more neurotic (if not psychotic) recent iterations of his masked persona: by spending considerable panel-time showing Wayne as a pleasure-seeker (even if it is to a large extent an act), Morrison effectively dispels the repressed, pleasure-denying Wayne that has implicitly driven the grim Batman persona of the past twenty years. The daring choice to explore the taboo idea of a Bat-Son is the logical extension of this new focus on the sexually freer “hairy-chested love god” version of Batman that Morrison has proclaimed his interest in reviving. More subtly (or perhaps less subtly), Morrison heightens his humanization of Batman by shifting unexpectedly between the Batman and Bruce Wayne identities mid-battle: for example, when Batman compares the Man-Bats (“six hundred pounds of meat, gristle and hide”) to Aunt Agatha’s overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.

This is unexpected identity-shift provides a great cheap-laugh, but it also erodes the distinction between Batman and the free-spirited Wayne-identity to make Batman himself more human and less dour.

Significantly, such a renewed focus on the hero’s civilian alter-ego characterizes DC’s new approach to Wonder Woman and Superman too. Historically, Superman has had the strongest relationship to his civilian identity, and, beyond his “blue Boy Scout” persona, it is perhaps for this reason that the character has often sustained a sense of lightness and fun more effectively than either Wonder Woman or Batman. Across the board, DC’s strategy for reinvigorating its Holy Trinity has been to humanize them through a focus on their civilian personas (Diana’s new job over in the superb new Wonder Woman series and the Clark Kent-focused “Up, Up, and Away” and “Metropolis stories” over in the Super-titles). In this regard, Morrison’s Batman is emblematic of the welcome new tone that has taken root in the post-Crisis DCU. The bottom line is that this is new territory and it feels damn exciting, in large part because the increasingly humanized characters now offer much stronger points of fantasy-identification, even as they hold out the possibility of narrative growth and change for the characters themselves. All while fulfilling the genre expectations of high-adventure superheroics in spades, er…ninja Man-Bats.

Contributing to this radical change in the feel of the Batman book is Andy Kubert and Jesse Delerdang’s art, which is, on its own terms, wonderful. Morrison gives them incredible things to draw of course—things that make the book’s visuals recall the Batman Family era when gangsters in a darkened museum plunged at Batman from the balcony on hang gliders (or were they kites?) painted with glorious Chinese designs. The pop art gallery is a throwback to that much older period of Batman gallery fights and Kubert has great fun updating it. More generally, though, the pairing of Morrison (the guru of retro-“newness”) with Kubert is a genius editorial move. That’s because, despite his past work for DC, Kubert is one of the industry’s most recognizable “Marvel” artists, and the added frisson of having an iconic DC character drawn by a dynamic Marvel artist reinforces the sense of a radical and refreshing change at a whole other level, drawing on fans’ awareness of industry politics in a most ingenious and satisfying manner. Historically, the difference between DC and Marvel characters has usually been characterized as the difference between Gods and humans; how clever of the new DC to poach an artist from that other camp to give their newly humanized stable of iconic heroes a humanistic shot in the arm.


Trying New Things: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane

I always mean to try new things and I always enjoy others’ recommendations, but for some reason I have trouble actually taking the plunge. I must have been feeling impulsive last week because I picked up a copy of the Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Marvel Digest (collecting issues #1-5 of the series) on the strength of a recommendation that Richard made awhile back here in the comments section of DA. All I can say is, I’m glad I tried it—I haven’t smiled so much or laughed out loud so many times while reading a comic in a long time. Sean McKeever’s script is intelligent and hilarious—a dead-on portrayal of the yearning, pain, and excitement of high school romance. Like all readers who read Manga for the first time, I feel compelled to register my shock and amazement at the subtlety and depth of human emotion conveyed by Takeshi Miyazawa’s witty, absorbing, and often touching art. This kind of confession is obnoxious, I know. Forgive my ignorance. I love this book. Thanks, Richard!

J.G. Jonesing

You all know about J. G. Jones’s 52 cover blog hosted by Wizard, right?

If You Like This Blog, You Might Enjoy...The Mezzanine

Friends, you know I sometimes exaggerate. That I sometimes get carried away with enthusiasm. This is not one of those times. I have recently been introduced to a slim novel called The Mezannine by Nicholson Baker. My friends: buy, borrow, or steal this book. NOW. It is the most jaw-droppingly beautiful-hilarious-poignant-true Proustian ode to everyday life that I have ever read. It will make you squirm with recognition and want to sing with melancholy joy—joy that someone else really is as neurotic as you are and really sees and experiences all these banal/profound things too. The premise of the book is simple (a man who works in an office takes his lunch break), but the execution is utterly dazzling. Baker is a master-stylist. Listen to this sentence in which the protagonists reflects on learning to tie his shoes: “Only a few weeks after I learned the basic skill, my father helped me to my second major advance, when he demonstrated thoroughness by showing me how to tighten the rungs of the shoelaces one by one, beginning down at the toe and working up, hooking an index finger under each X, so that by the time you reached the top you were rewarded with surprising lengths of lace to use in tying the knot, and at the same time your foot felt tightly papoosed and alert.” Tightly papoosed and alert. That’s writing. And, I submit, that’s how it feels to read The Mezzanine. Baker spends pages explaining the historic shift from paper to plastic drinking straws, recounting the Byzantine etiquette of office chit chat, rhapsodizing about the “black” Penguin Classics, philosophizing about what it feels like to run out of staples. And it’s all poetry. Oh…here. Just read it.

Reader, I drew her: Dame Darcy’s Jane Eyre

Dame Darcy’s Victorian nightmare Meatcake is one of underground comics’ most savory, slithery pleasures. And there could not be a more ideal artist to adapt Charlotte Bronte’s gothic treasure, Jane Eyre. Forget Jane and Rochester; Charlotte and Dame Darcy are the perfect couple.

Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions

These gorgeous new Penguin editions with covers by many legendary comic artists and cartoonists are old news now, but they were new to me when a colleague of mine—one Hulk Hogan (no relation)—drew my attention to Frank Miller’s recent cover for a new edition of Gravity’s Rainbow. For a complete set of cover scans (including a brilliant Candide cover by Chris Ware and a sumptuous Sadean cover by Tomer Hanuka), see these posts at nifty book blog The Millions.

Everydude: The New Bazooka Joe

How do you make geriatric scamp and gum-cartoon star Bazooka Joe hip again? According to market research, you turn him into Ashton Kutcher. How do you package him for global consumption? Diversify the cast! For all the details on Joe’s new look and new posse, check out thisamusing New Yorker report. Meet his new gang at the official Topps website. And while you’re at it, why not relive some Bazooka Joe classics? My homage to Bazooka Joe:

My wife’s comment: “It’s really funny that it doesn’t make any sense.”
My comment: “But it sort of does make sense, y'see it... it... Never mind.”

Recently Viewed: Years after everyone else, I've finally discovered Parkour!

District B13 – All you cool kids know this already, but the best superhero movie of the summer isn’t Superman, and it sure isn’t X3. It’s Pierre Morel’s graceful and exhilarating and very French Parkour actioner from 2004 that I managed to catch at a local rep. cinema after missing it when it played for all of one week at the big multiplex. Richard Schickel, in his suitably glowing review of the film for Time Magazine, hits the nail on the head when he says that “The French thriller District B13 makes everything Hollywood has lately done in the action genre look clumsy, dull and stale. It is a short, nonstop stuntfest that, by going back to basics and placing them on the screen with simple, breathless stylishness, turns what is essentially a lowlife movie form into something one is not embarrassed to call ‘pure’ cinema--all energy, movement and high kinetic wit.” “Lowlife” seems a little snobby, Mr. Schickel, but I heartily agree! Moreover, it isn’t just the action genre that is raised to poetic hights here. Martial artist Cyril Raffaelli (the good cop) and Parkour-god David Belle (the reluctant partner) are essentially superheroes, out-maneuvering and out-doing even the sublime, computer-generated Spider-Man films precisely because their “stunts” (an ugly, leaden word for what they do) are not performed in the zero-gravity of cyberspace. I hear that the new Bond will battle a Parkour-practicing terrorist (Sebastien Foucan) in the upcoming film. I guess someone’s paying attention. Watch the trailer here.

Don’t Tell Alfred…

From my local newspaper. It amused. Was it the invitation? The concept of “humane bat removal”? The idea that there are “bat removal and prevention experts”? Naw…it was that second “S” in NO-BATSS—just to make it scary! Three cheers for...the Bat Guys!


DC Sentences You to Death...By a Thousand Fill-In Artists

Last week I expressed my annoyance over the clunky relaunch of The Flash and my dismay over the parade of guest-artists on barely-begun Shadowpact. Last week, the new issue of The Flash seemed to combine both of these gripes in an all-new, all-weird way: Karl Kerschel and Serge LaPointe’s stunning guest-art on issue #3 is a cruel act for regular penciller Ken Lashley to follow on a series that has already had such a rough start. To this list of puzzling new-series foibles and fumbles, I also now have to add the latest issue of Blue Beetle (a title I just got through praising), which features…yet another fill-in artist. I have very fond memories of Cynthia Martin’s ultra-pretty work on the old Marvel Star Wars series, but having her attempt to emulate the indie style of “regular” series penciller Cully Hamner is sort of the worst of both worlds because no one is fooled by the imitation and it curtails Martin’s naturally smoother, more beautiful style. Hamner’s Blue Beetle work is fantastic, but he’s now drawn only 3 of the first 6 issues of the new series, which is lame by anyone’s standards. DC is producing the most exciting books in the business right now, but what is the point of launching a new title if you are not going to set it on a solid creative footing? The writing on Blue Beetle and Shadowpact is excellent, but the art is inconsistent and these titles feel amateurish as a result. The problem with raising the bar, as DC has unquestionably done, is that fans’ expectations rise with it. Come on, DC. Get these titles on track, or they won’t last a year.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

SPOILERS ABOUND: an occasional digest of reviews, notes, and rants

Vol. 2, No. 7
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In this issue:
reviews of Superman #654-655 and Omac #1-2 / notes on the new DC, that D&D guy, Hostel, The Descent, and Out of Sight / rants about a speedster's stumble and other pull-list casualties

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Superman #654-55 (DC Comics)
Kurt Busiek (Writer) / Carlos Pacheco (Penciller) / Jesus Merino (Inker) / Dave Stewart (Colorist) / Comicraft (Letters)

No one doubts that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s literate SF All-Star Superman is one of the most delightful comics on the stands, and Superfans now have one more reason to rejoice: Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco are doing an absolutely stellar job of reinvigorating Superman’s flagship title. If Morrison and Quitely go mythic to capture the archetypal resonance and sheer dizzying wonder of Siegel and Schuster’s super-powered strongman, Busiek and Pacheco go classic to capture a very different flavor of Supertale that is a particular favorite of mine.

My favorite Superman stories have always been those that create a web of criminal and law-enforcement intrigue in Metropolis (Intergang, Gangbuster, Luthor, the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit, S.T.A.R. Labs) and focus on Lois and Clark’s skill as reporters and on their rapport as husband and wife while still giving Superman a chance to throw some punches at a big, cool, supervillain. It’s precisely this focus on the Lois-Clark relationship and the human skills of the protagonists as they explore the Metropolis milieu that makes me think of this Supersubgenre as “the Metropolis story.”

In its classic (and in my view ideal) form, the Metropolis story implicitly restricts the significance of Superman’s powers, which become merely the signifiers of Clark Kent’s moral authority and the pretence for giving the conflict—at heart a 1940s or 50s crime adventure or conspiracy tale—a cool science fiction gloss. It wouldn’t be a Superman story without the SF trappings, but the story itself is really about Clark Kent’s ingenuity as he faces off against crime bosses, crooked billionaires, and secret scientific syndicates. The simulacrum of workaday grittiness that characterizes Superman’s friends and foes in such stories has the effect of rooting Superman in a crime genre that, while artificial in its own right, feels remarkably realistic next to the alien grandeur of Superman himself. This anchoring effect produces a totally unique frisson that is, for me, no less thrilling (though differently so) than a Morrisonian Superman who makes baby suns to feed his pet sun-eater. And it goes without saying, I hope, that Metropolis stories need not take place in Metropolis to qualify. The Metropolis story is not about setting so much as about the extension of a certain storytelling sensibility whose essence is rooted in the juxtaposition between retro criminal intrigue and wild science fiction that finds its purest form in Metropolis stories, but often extends beyond city limits.

Busiek seems to like these kinds of stories as much as I do. His first two solo-written issue of Superman (#654 and #655) are absolutely packed with classic Super-goodness. The first story, “On Our Special Day,” features a satisfying tour of Metropolis and the Daily Planet offices; deftly introduces new S.C.U. division, “The Science Police”; makes a point of sidelining a silly villain like the Prankster in favor of dust-ups with Neutron (a perfect third-string Superman foe) and a mysteriously mutated Intergang Boss Mannheim (a perfect second-string Superman foe); establishes a tantalizing mystery (who is the “them” behind Mannheim’s mutation and dangerous new gadget?); resurrects not one but two old flames of Clark’s (Lana in a surprising new role and news-to-everyone “arcanobiologist” Callie Llewelyn); and best of all, frames all this fun with a pitch-perfect snapshot of Lois and Clark’s ironclad relationship.

Lois’s discovery of a half-made anniversary breakfast, her unflappable response to the radio report explaining Clark’s absence, her needling of Clark over his old flame Callie, her final surprise for Clark at the end of the day—all of this serves as Busiek’s sweet (but not saccharine) reminder of why Clark Kent loves Lois Lane and why their happy marriage is such a delight to behold.

The final scene of the issue’s main story, of Lois and Clark (not Lois and Superman) taking to the sky to reprise their first dance in the clouds twelve years earlier, is magical, and sets the tone, I think, for the kinds of stories Busiek seems interested in telling. At least, I hope it does. And I think I have cause for optimism, given that one of the most significant plot points of the issue is the (re)establishment of two other women from Clark’s past in significant roles. Hopefully the prominence of Lana and Callie signals some enjoyable testing of Lois and Clark’s relationship in the near future.

The fact that the entire issue is organized around the conceit of “Mondays” is an artful touch. While punching Neutron in the face, Superman ironically remarks of Mondays, “You try and you try to get things to go smoothly, but somehow, Mondays always manage to smack you in the face.” Over the course of the issue, this becomes a running joke about the bad-luck Clark experiences—not only is his anniversary breakfast interrupted by Neutron, his Daily Planet assignments are interrupted by a variety of super-threats that seem to spell deadline disaster for Clark. The point of all this is of course to reveal Lois as the one thing that makes “Mondays” (and all the headaches and responsibilities they stand for) endurable for Clark. More broadly, however, “Mondays” are also an appropriate beginning for Busiek’s run as series writer because Metropolis stories in their classic form are in a sense about the ordinariness connoted by “Mondays”: they emphasize the parochial human dilemmas and banal challenges of being both Clark Kent and Superman, as opposed to, say, the sublimity and awe that characterize Morrison’s more mythic, even mythological approach to the same material. This is why these stories emphasize the ordinary human face of crime and justice in Superman’s world, often featuring super-powered variations on regular blue- or white-collar criminals and organized crime, rather than more outlandish science-fiction villains. And when they do feature wilder SF supervillains like Darkseid, their presence is often delayed by or folded into the apparatus of petty crime, criminal undergrounds, and military science conspiracies. We see exactly this type of thing in “Cold Comfort,” the gripping next issue (Superman #655), which features Superman’s encounter with Subjekt-17, apparently the monstrous leftover progeny some secret Soviet science lab with some as yet veiled connection to Arion, Lord of Atlantis. All of which is to say that Busiek understands what makes classic Metropolis Superman stories fun and unique: layers of criminal and scientific intrigue to be navigated by ace reporters, all anchored by the Lois and Clark love story, with a dollop of superheroics thrown in for good measure.

And I haven’t even mentioned Pacheco and Jesus Merino’s glorious art. My god, does this book look fantastic, or what? When Pacheco was drawing Green Lantern, his art was pared down and austere. I once made the case that this was a deliberate aesthetic choice, but seeing his work on Superman I almost wondered if maybe he was just bored. Lois, Clark, Jimmy, Perry, Lana, and the rest haven’t looked this slick in ages. Pacheco’s Metropolis hums with life. The villains and guest stars look great too, particularly Neutron (whom Pacheco draws with a wonderful Kirbyesque face, as if to suggest not just the amorphousness of “radiation in a man-shaped suit” but also the sheer power of this villain). Subjekt-17 is a creepily-rendered Hellboy reject. And Arion is suddenly cool. (Apparently, to be cool, you just need to be drawn as a sort of latter-day Count Orsino or Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont, lazing in bed with two gorgeous women. Fanboys are such an easy bunch, aren’t we?)

There are so many nice touches in this comic—among them the use of the cover to Action Comics #841 for Metropolis tabloid, Action Bulletin News and, on the same page, the most envy-provoking use of Superman’s power’s I have ever seen: the implanting of the page of a paperback thriller (“the latest John Sandford novel”—a Da Vinci Code rip-off?) with microdots that hold the complete texts of other books—“science, history, philosophy, current issues”—that Clark can read with super-vision and then commit to super-memory. Now THAT’s a fantasy that I can relate to. It’s also a nice nod to the play between pulp fiction (the Sandford novel) and reality (science, history, philosophy, current issues) that is the very stuff of comic books in general and of Metropolis stories in particular.

Kurt, Carlos, Jesus...take a bow.

Omac #1-2 (DC Comics)
Bruce Jones (Writer) / Renato Guedes (Artist and Colorist) / Phil Balsman (Letterer)

By all rights I shouldn’t like Omac at all. Despite my nearly infinite willingness to defend Infinite Crisis, not even I could defend the utter lameness of the Omacs—surely one of the silliest visual designs of recent times. They made me laugh, not shudder, and I was dismayed to see that their presence in the DCU was going to be perpetuated beyond the passing of the Crisis. And then the Brave New World Special made me think again. The new Omac series by Bruce Jones and Renato Guedes is as gripping as it is gorgeous—and it is damn gorgeous. Guedes inks and colors his own work and the results are stunning; he draws a little like Geoff Darrow, inks mainly outlines, and uses a subtle color palette in areas of both light and shadow, giving the action a soft, coherent delicacy. Heck, he even makes the ridiculous Omac suit look neat and occasionally menacing, and if that isn’t a testament to his artistic skill, I don’t know what is! His people look great, but his real specialty is drawing streets and buildings. The action of issue #1—in which seventeen-year-old junkie Mike Costner discovers that he is “the last Omac”—takes place within a truly impressive array of concretely visualized inner-city settings. This kind of visual concreteness is everywhere in DC’s books these days: Pete Woods’s beautiful Metropolis settings, for example, and the incredibly detailed training academy in the Green Lantern books. Part of the much touted “brightness” and “sharpness” of the new DCU comes from this attention to setting, and I hope that DC’s amazing stable of artists doesn’t let up on this kind of attention to detail because it makes a huge difference to the quality of the storytelling.

And the story of “last Omac” has so far been a blast. Jones has created an appealing underdog hero in Mike and is currently putting him through his paces in a very interesting way: whenever the Omac armor takes him over (Brother Eye needs to get this back-up “sleeper” Omac unit to an Alaskan NORAD facility in order to repair itself) Mike loses most—but not all—of his bodily control and risks going from petty thief to murderer. In other words, Jones is clearly playing the Omac armor as a metaphor for the destructiveness of drug addiction and the loss of control that addiction entails. At the same time, Jones keeps a wry, often satiric eye trained on the pervasiveness of addiction in contemporary culture and on the ambiguous issue of criminalizing drug use. In the first issue, he uses the conceit of Brother Eye’s scanning of the neighborhood for its missing Omac to identify, among other things, traces of nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana in the cops—with a nod to the medical marijuana lobby on page seven. A very nice elaboration of the central theme.

Beyond the clever welding of the addiction theme to the parasitic alien armour premise, Omac is just plain good reading—good reading that is significantly enhanced by the racial diversity of its cast, something that DC has been particularly vocal about lately. Jones writes realistic often very funny dialogue, and he makes superb use of two prominently-featured guest stars: Firestorm (Jason Rusch) and Cyborg (Vic Stone).

In addition to being one of DC’s most complex and interesting black heroes, Cyborg is one of the few older Titans without his own series that deserves more exposure, if not a crack at an ongoing title; likewise, the new Firestorm series by Stuart Moore, Jamal Igle, and Keith Champagne, has turned Jason Rusch into one of DC’s brightest new characters. It’s a sad comment on what the state of minorities in comics has been that it actually feels novel and exciting to have not one but two black superheroes guest-starring in the same book—but there it is. Geoff Johns has been subtly pushing this agenda on JSA using this strategy of multiplication (Mister Terrific, Jakeem Thunder, Crimson Avenger) for some time now, and I’m delighted by the prominence of Black Adam and the introduction of the Chinese team of heroes in 52. In most of these cases, the work of diversification has been to strike a delicate balance between proclaiming and deemphasizing the significance of race—of making an impression without necessarily foregrounding the fact of racial or cultural difference as a point of plot—though not ruling out that possibility either. DC’s general approach to this—and I think it’s a good one—has been to emphasize character complexity and multiply differences across many characters, producing, for example, not a single new Chinese hero, but a whole team of Chinese heroes. The Cyborg-Firestorm team-up in Omac is another instance of this strategy. On its own, the assignation of more culturally-diverse guest-spots would hardly be a solution to the overarching problem of racial and cultural diversity in comics but in this context it begins to address the imbalance and moves away from a more conventionally tokenistic approach to black characters, particularly in a story that juxtaposes black heroes with a white drug addict.

If you’re enjoying the new DC, then chances are you’re savoring Omac for some of the same reasons I am. If you haven’t yet been tempted, Omac is a great place to hop on board. Here’s hoping the creative team sticks around to make this outstanding miniseries an ongoing—or better yet, that they launch a Cyborg series when they wrap up their eight-issue run on this one.


The New DC: There’s No Stopping Us Now!

In case it wasn’t clear from the reviews above, I dig the post-Crisis DCU. 52 is like a drug and the relaunches of the flagship titles of major characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern have been impressive to say the least. What really gets me, though, is the number of incredible NEW titles I’m suddenly buying, starring heroes (and villains) I barely know. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago to predict what would be at the top of my pull list today, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed Omac, Checkmate, Firestorm, Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, Secret Six, or Blue Beetle. But there they are, and the list just keeps growing…

I’ve rhapsodized about Omac already, and it’s no surprise that I think highly of Gail Simone and Brad Walker’s dark, cheeky follow-up to the Villains United soap opera (can’t wait to see what Gail does with dysfunctional first-family the Doom Patrol next month), but what about Greg Rucka and Jesus Saiz’s super-espionage extravaganza or Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s Grant Morrison-inspired satire of Homeland Security in America? Not only are their stories topical, exciting, and smart, these series all do a superb job of marrying writing and art. I was skeptical at first because I loved Dale Eaglesham, but Brad Walker has completely won me over. His loose, lush pencils are a perfect fit with Gail’s twisted, erotic, emotionally gripping storytelling in Secret Six. Saiz brings an appropriate level of gritty realism to Rucka’s intrigue laden spy-scripts, and Daniel Acuna’s hyperreal Norman Rockwell style is such an ingenious choice for bringing Morrison, Palmiotti, and Gray’s American satire to life that I am dumb with admiration.

Among DC’s more standard superhero books, Firestorm and Blue Beetle really stand out. Stuart Moore and Jamal Igle’s Firestorm is slick superhero drama with an emphasis on great characters and classic superhero action. Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hamner’s Blue Beetle is even better. I don’t care that much for the new Beetle armor, but the new Blue Beetle himself, teenager Jamie Reyes, and his friends Paco and Brenda are such an entertaining and authentically imagined trio that I’ve been hooked since the first issue. Set in El Paso and drawn with an indie flare by Hamner (and guest artists Cythia Martin and Duncan Rouleau), the series has so far been concerned with setting up mysteries concerning a gang “extras” (metahumans) named “The Posse” and a sinister metahuman collector named “La Dama” and her magician-henchman. The Phantom Stranger has also appeared to offer gnomic teases about Jamie’s place in the new age of magic (following the events of Day of Vengeance). This is classic “with great power comes great responsibility” stuff, but with a totally modern sensibility. Jamie Reyes is the first teenaged protagonist to come along in some time who truly captures the spark of a Peter Parker. The Beetle armor needs a redesign, but this series certainly deserves to be a big, fat mainstream hit.

The Basement Elf: Boomerang Poster-Boy?

Despite a few lunch-hour D&D skirmishes in junior high and a brief flirtation with the ElfQuest RPG in high school, I’ve never really been much for fantasy games, but this IS a sensational ad. Aside from the guy’s priceless expression, posture, and droopy right eye, the basement/dungeon overlap is inspired, making a nifty play on the stereotype of the geek who’s “still living in his parent’s basement.” Interesting that it’s caught the attention of zeitgeist-meter Boing Boing. I wonder if its attention-grabbing resonance isn’t due as much to its capturing of the ennui of the boomerang generation as to its intrinsic cleverness. Or maybe it’s just that we all feel a little stunned by all our face-time with the world wide web, regardless of whether we play online games or not. Friends? Come over? You person?

The Screening Room: Recently Viewed

Hostel – I really enjoyed this. And so, to my surprise, did my squeamish wife (who initially lost all respect for me, but then promptly caved in and watched over my shoulder, fleeing from the room for the nasty bits). Despite being well-acted and attractively shot, it received mixed reviews, especially from disappointed horror fans who wanted more torture and defilement. Certainly the fact that the film was tamer than I’d expected made it much easier to watch for folks like us who are, um...a little less hardcore in our cultivation of Slovakian dungeon porn. The real selling point for me, though, was that the film layered its obvious exploitative charms with a dead-on satire of sex-tourism and the suppressed homosexual panic that attends certain rituals of male bonding. In this regard, the film’s central reversal manages to be both harrowing and amusing, right down to the bloody details—Paxton’s “castrating” loss of his two fingers and his subsequent (consequent) failure to genuinely rescue the girl. The only significant weakness was the film’s failure to capitalize on Paxton’s flight from the sadists’ gulag, which should have been more suspenseful. Nonetheless, far more interesting than expected.

The Descent – The tension level during the first hour of this film was so high that I was actually relieved when the scary things in the cave finally made an appearance. Je-sus! This is a smart, scary, nail-biter of a horror picture with riveting performances by its all-female cast. I’m terrified of small spaces (a recurring nightmare of mine is of being chased through the collapsing and ever-narrowing passageways of a university building until I get trapped—I wonder what that could mean?) so this movie was a fairly excruciating experience from the get-go. Cave-diving? Not for me. Especially not now. The director-approved ending change makes the film’s periodic birthday cake crosscuts seem superfluous, but the original British ending which makes sense of the damn cake doesn’t really make complete sense either—at least, not if you like your twists to be of the fair-play variety, which I do. Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter. This is great character-driven horror by a director (Neil Marshall) who understands suspense and isn’t shy about playing nasty. The most unsettling scene? Not the lake of blood (which was awesome) but the horrible, horrible surprise that awaits Sarah at the window in the cabin... Upsetting and nerve-wracking...but in a good way.

Out of Sight – If it’s been awhile since you’ve watched Steven Soderbergh’s most successful exercise in style and wit, do yourself a favor and rent it again. Jennifer Lopez is unbelievably good as Federal Marshall Karen Sisco and George Clooney couldn’t be more charming as escaped bank robber Jack Foley. The scenes between them—in the car trunk and in the hotel bar—are so natural and so genuinely romantic that you forget for a few moments that this is all just pretend. I guess that’s what they call chemistry, not to mention a great script. The fact that Soderbergh swiped the cross-cutting technique of the bar conversation with the bedroom consummation from the brilliant sex scene in Don’t Look Now (a theft Soderbergh fesses up to in the largely skippable director’s commentary) in no way harms the immediacy of these magical soft-focus scenes. Needless to say, this movie had me from the opening freeze-frame. Watching it again made me pine for the short-lived but superb TV spin-off, Karen Sisco, that starred Carla Gugino in Lopez’s role. There’s a TV DVD that needs releasing.


Annnnndddddd...he’s off! DOH!

I hate to be an asshole, but the new Flash is barely out of the gate and already the relaunch has been a stumble. It’s at the very least ironic that the fastest man alive is getting the slowest start imaginable for his new series, which is mired in exposition and choppy storytelling. I was willing to give a pass to the first issue, but things really haven’t improved very much in issue two. A large part of the problem is Bart’s sped-up metabolism, which has aged him prematurely. This kind of thing can work in TV soap operas because the intimacy of the medium (five episodes a week) allows you to become involved with the suddenly grown-up character very quickly. In comics however, the much slower monthly schedule militates against this kind of rapid re-involvement, especially when the character in question already has a substantial history. Exacerbating the problem of identification is that the suddenly-older Bart has simultaneously undergone a significant personality transformation. In other words, this new Bart literally feels like an alienating soap-opera recast—not only has the character been artificially aged, he’s also being taken “in a new direction” by an actor who bears no resemblance to the earlier versions. I realize that there’s supposed to be some kind of mystery about the identity of the new flash and that Bart might not be it; the problem is that the story has been so alienating that I don’t much care who the new Flash is. Truth be told, I’ve never really been much of a Flash fan. I only started reading because I was transfixed by the artwork of Scott Collins, and ended up staying because of Geoff Johns’s fantastic scripts. The new team had better pick up the pace, if they want to hang onto readers like me. You know…the curious, but uncommitted.

Tales from the Pull-List: Endangered Books

I mentioned above that I’ve been buying tons of new comics, which means that unless I suddenly win the lottery, something’s gotta give. I’ll be sticking with the new Flash series for awhile to see if it can find its legs but it’s fallen to the bottom of the pile and it’s certainly not the only comic on the endangered list.

I was originally ecstatic about Bill Willingham’s double duty as writer/artist on Shadowpact, but after four-issues and two guest artists, I’m wondering if it might not be time to get the series on a more even keel by finding a full-time penciller. I loved seeing old-favorite Blue Devil in solo action again this month, but moody, atmospheric visuals are essential to a magic-oriented series and not even Willingham seems quite in tune with the weird majesty of Justiano’s Day of Vengeance visuals. Also, I hate the superhero costumes on Enchantress and the chimp. There, I said it.

I really, Really, REALLY want to like this, but the All New Atom series is clearly going to be a perverse test of my love for Grant Morrison and Gail Simone. I’m trying to be mature about it.

I’ve been getting JSA: Classified since the beginning and added JLA: Classified to my pull list after that breathtaking Ellis/Guice arc, but after the recent Detroit League saga in JLA: Classified, which is now being follwed by a sort of “sequel” in JSA: Classified, it’s beginning to look like DC needs a reminder about how easy it is to alienate readers from satellite series like the “Classified” ones. Remember a little book called Teen Titans Spotlight that was launched to capitalize on the success of that team back in the mid-80s? Remember how BAD that was? It drove even the most slavering fans away. Things haven’t quite come to that in the JLA and JSA Classified series, but it is asking A LOT of readers to sign on for what appears to be a seven or eight-issue Steve Englehart/Tom Denerick Detroit-League mini. I’m all for revisiting the Detroit League characters and I’m a huge fan of Steve Englehart—I even realize that these are in a sense “period” pieces. But these stories do not meet the high standard that has been established for the Classified series so far.

Oh, AQUAMAN. I just don’t know. I shouldn’t have to try so hard to enjoy this. It doesn’t help that I have to reread the entire series each time a new issue comes out (every two months?) to remember who these characters are.

Off the list: Hawkgirl (a catastrophe), Legion of Superheroes (for real this time), Nightwing (I tried it; I don’t get it), Outsiders (good riddance).