Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Escapism: Tales of the DC Decade (Part 1)

No, not this one. The other DC Decade. The one Marv Wolfman announced in 1984.

I was twelve years old in 1984, the year that DC initiated its hardcover/softcover plan, splitting The New Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes into regular “Mando” and deluxe “Baxter” format books. Wolfman’s trumpeting of the details of this plan in a guest editorial for Dick Giordano’s “Meanwhile…” column is worth savoring in full (click to enlarge, left), for it captures a moment in comic book history when DC’s commercial and creative impulses achieved an exquisite symbiosis (a symbiosis whose details uncannily anticipated DC’s current 52/One Year Later experiment). Even now, I find Wolfman’s palpable joy at the prospect of new, brighter paper for Perez’s Titans drawings totally disarming and totally charming. He is speaking here in the voice of fan and co-creator, not businessman, and he is as smitten with the idea of simultaneous “hardcover” (direct market) and “softcover” (newsstand) editions of the Titans being released each month as I was.

I don’t think it would be possible to overstate the degree to which my twelve-year-old self reveled in this new plan. In its original form, The New Teen Titans was the comic series that I already regarded as a confirmation of my own mature tastes: “Runaways,” “Who Is Donna Troy?” and the just-wrapped “Judas Contract” were not kid’s stuff after all! So when DC’s invention of a second, “Deluxe” edition of the Titans promised to launch me into even more sophisticated territory, I was thrown into what I can only describe as a kind of rapture or ecstatic fit. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone, for what Titans fan could fail to appreciate the magnitude of a plan that would take a book that was available to just anyone on the newsstand (the “softcover” regular series, renamed Tales of the Teen Titans and destined to be a reprint book after a final year of original stories) and supplement it with a “hardcover” title that was available only to the elite readership that frequented comic book specialty shops?

In my case, what made this “evolution” of the Teen Titans so electrifying was that the change in format corresponded almost perfectly with my transition from primary school to the unforgiving world of junior high—a transition that was, to say the least, bumpy. In the same year that my social fortunes plunged from the relatively comfortable heights of grade six (in a school that I knew) to the nerve-wracking depths of grade seven (in a school that I didn’t), at least my fantasy world was ascendant and expanding.

The plan—a softcover newsstand edition that would print original stories for a year at the same time that the hardcover direct market edition would jump a year ahead in continuity so that the softcover edition could seamlessly begin to reprint those stories twelve months later—turned out to be a kind of microcosm of the dual temporal track upon which my own life at that time was destined to run. My dreams may have been Baxter, but day-to-day life was, without a doubt, Mando all the way—and it was appropriate that the stories in the Mando newsstand edition of the book were themselves a little drab. The idea that I could literally jump ahead by a year in the better, glossier hardcover book while the regular book continued to trudge along was a luxury whose symbolic resonance was not lost on a kid who would have liked nothing better than to fast-forward through grades seven and eight.

It helped that in the new hardcover Baxter series the Titans themselves were more adult-seeming than ever. Dick and Kory were shown (scandalously) waking up in the same bed, and the remarkably horror-driven Raven plot reached new levels of darkness and seriousness. And of course, Marv was right about the paper. George’s art had never looked better than it did in those first two self-inked issues of The New Teen Titans, vol. 2. This was a book for connoisseurs only—a “mature” title at every level of its production. Script, art, and now format—a total achievement and a whole new level of comic fetishism to mark a new phase in the Teen Titans’ (and my own dreamed of) coming of age. That it was available only through subscription or “through the special network of comic book shops”—perhaps the most profoundly important counter-space to the official world of the school for many kids—confirmed an exclusivity that was already deeply felt.

For me, the new Baxter series of The New Teen Titans represented the acme of juvenile fantasy, not simply because it was so fanboyishly satisfying (which it was), but because it provided a very unique sort of consolation for the misery and uncertainty of junior high: it was an object that validated my precocious snobbery—my belief in the sophistication and maturity of my tastes and my conviction that, even though I felt like I had little in common with most of my classmates, there was some parallel universe in which a twelve-year-old’s capacity to appreciate the beauty, darkness, and, yes, profundity of the world was actually recognized. The book was also a peculiar kind of fetish. To read it, to hold it in my hands, was to regard a perfected self. A self that was, in its own mind anyway, already fully grown and complete, though it was of course a self that was totally incommunicable. No doubt, like all comic books, the hardcover New Teen Titans was an “escape,” but it was not merely “escapist” in the way that people usually mean when they invoke that word to characterize the preoccupations of twelve-year-old geeks. This was an “escape” that actually pointed somewhere. Not (just!) to some never-never land of perpetual narcissism, but to that hazy realm past secondary school, past even high school, towards the (relative) autonomy and freedom of adulthood.

to be continued...

For New Readers: The Best of Double Articulation

On Allusion
All-Star Superman #1 and “The Golden Apples of the Sun”

On Love
Clich├ęs, Obsessions, and Objects in The Amazing Spider-Man #205

An Archaeology of Affect
What I Learned About Gender from The Defenders #53

On Existentialism
Why Paper Dolls Do(n’t) Cry, or Steve Gerber’s Myth of Sisyphus in Marvel Two-In-One #7

What is the Impossible Man?
Mighty Marvel Metafiction in Fantastic Four #176

Spoilers Abound (Vol. 1, No. 6)
On Villains United

What I Did On My Summer Holidays
Notes on the Cabin Bookshelf

and, just for nostalgia’s sake, the first post: My Golden Age

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Double Articulation Digest: Wish List 2007: CrossGening DC’s Science Fiction Titles

Many moons ago, I fantasized about repairing The Outsiders. This year, I fantasize about the science fiction titles I’d love to see from creators whose work I enjoy more than a little. Sure, the Green Lantern Corps is back in deep space action in a (mostly) nifty book by Gibbons, Champagne, and Gleason, and DC’s reinvestment in its other space characters is heartening. But imagine how good these ongoing titles would be:

The Omega Men
Written by Tony Bedard / Art by Paul Pelletier

Yeah, so, they work for Marvel now. That’s what contractual loopholes are for. It’s a crime that they didn’t get a chance to finish Negation, CrossGen’s superior space adventure, but at least that series gave a sense of what this duo can do with a space-faring group of misfits. An Omega Men book with a (resurrected) classic cast written by Bedard and drawn by Pelletier would be a grand slam. Bedard knows how to have fun with space-faring teams and Pelletier’s visual imagination is ideally suited to the kind of universe-spanning adventure and interplanetary intrigue that the Omega Men are all about. In the hands of this cult creative team, the book would sell better than it ever has before and it would provide a roving camera for exploring both the familiar worlds of the original series as well as the weirder pockets of the DC universe.

Captain Comet
Written by Chuck Dixon / Art by Scott Eaton

Hmm… This creative team seems familiar too. Are you sensing a theme here? The thing is, CrossGen had it largely right: their books had incredible established and up-and-coming creators working on classic genres in a thinly-veiled superheroic mold. Dixon and Eaton’s Sigil was a great-looking space opera bursting with potential, but it (like most of CrossGen’s books) was held back by the dead hand of the corporate metastory that ended up killing the entire line. Put this pair on Captain Comet, age the protagonist back to his grey-templed glory, and turn it into the science-adventure it was meant to be. Eaton grew enormously as an artist at CrossGen—and he can draw spaceships like nobody else. Give the man some work!

Legion of Superheroes
Written by Keith Giffen / Art by Andrea DiVito

I seem to be in a minority, but I just don’t like Waid and Kriston’s Legion. Kriston’s art doesn’t do it for me, the kids are annoying, and the whole enterprise is just a little too knowing for its own good. Give me the young adults, the low concept, and the pure soap operatic melodrama of the Levitz/Giffen LOSH any day. And who better to restore the Legion to its roots than Legion alum Giffen and on-the-rise penciller DiVito? In fact, DiVito’s pencils even have an early-Giffenesque feel to them and between Marvel’s Annihilation and CrossGen’s The First he’s already proven that he’s adept at drawing both space sagas and books with outrageously overpopulated casts. Please, Dan Didio, I don’t WANT to beg, but I’m not above it. I’d even settle for an out-of-continuity Tales of the Legion or Legion: Classified sort of thing. What do you say, huh?

Double Articulation Digest: The Year in Review (Part 3)

Read: Part 1 and Part 2.

On Probation

1. The All-New Atom – I was surprised to learn that Entertainment Weekly named this title book-of-the-year. Gail Simone is the bee’s knees, but this book hasn’t completely won me over. I’m grateful that they dumped Byrne, but even without his arrogant scribbles, there was something a little too tongue-in-cheek about the opening story-arc for my taste. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued and sticking with it.

2. Blue Beetle – I’m rooting for this series, but I dunno… Love the characters and the premise. Curious about the New Gods connection and the ongoing mystery of the alien tech. Not thrilled with the pacing of the series, the inconsistent art, or the meandering nature of the story so far. Loathe the Beetle suit. Fingers crossed.

3. Green Lantern Corps – This book is in certain ways more entertaining than the main Green Lantern title—Guy is just a lot more fun to read than Hal Jordan. Gleason’s sensational art is also a major plus. However, this book suffers from a fairly dull supporting cast and, in Dave Gibbon’s hands, was cursed with the most pointless fill-in story arc since the endless Justice League Detroit saga torpedoed both JLA and JSA Classified titles earlier in the year. Thankfully, things are looking up again with the brand new “Dark Side of the Green” storyline.

4. Shadowpact – Another book I’m prepared to love, if only it would let me. Much of the charm of the miniseries seems to have vanished along with Justiano. The villains are too silly for my taste and the stories need a denser texture.

5. Tales of the Unexpected – The Spectre story is pretty good but the art is a bit rough. The Doctor 13 back-up is a hoot.

6. Ms. Marvel – This started off as one of the more entertaining new Marvel books of 2006, but has since become a casualty of Civil War politics. The recent Wieringo fill-in issues didn’t work for me either—the tone of Ringo’s art is all wrong for this title. Better days ahead, I hope.

7. Omega Men – I like the concept behind this book better than the execution, but I’m in it for the duration because I want to see more of these characters.


1. Teen Titans – I’ve been holding out for the big pay-off, but I think it’s time to admit that it just isn’t coming. There’s no momentum here at all, partly because Johns never really allows things to simmer and because there are so many new (or new-again) characters flying through these pages that the reader never actually gets a chance to care. The perfunctory handling of Kid Devil’s origin in the most recent issue, which Newsarama’s Koben Kelly accurately describes as “com[ing] off like a fill-in issue,” is another sign that Johns isn’t quite the right writer for this series, despite his superb instincts for reinvention. I know how I’d fix Teen Titans from a creative standpoint, but I’d be curious to know what others think.

2. Astonishing X-Men – This is a strange situation. I love Joss Whedon’s TV, and I can see that “objectively” this has many features of a “good” book: drama, tension, surprises, likeable characters, witty dialogue—the whole nine yards. One problem is that it isn’t an X-Men comic—it’s an episode of Firefly masquerading as an X-Men comic. And as much as I enjoyed Firefly, I would really like to enjoy a good, involving, non-cutesy X-Men comic that moved at faster clip. The pacing is just brutal. But the underlying problem here is that I find myself bored senseless by the X-Men generally. I routinely pick up new X-Men stories in the hope that something will hold my interest, but all of it just feels blah. I think I need a little vacation from the X-Mansion.

3. JSA (Levitz/Morales) – What a shame to end the series with such a whimper.

4. OMAC – I was drawn in by the first couple of issues, but MAN has this series killed my interest. Is that big satellite STILL in the sky? Is it still sending signals to that kid-OMAC? Is he STILL in bed with that girl? Is it all a hallucination? Did he just wake up again? Wait, where is he now? Did the sheriff come and get him, AGAIN? Is this, like, the most boring road movie I’ve ever had to sit through? Did this REALLY need to be eight issues long? Is it over yet?

5. Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis – A valiant but apparently doomed effort on the part of Busiek and Guice. The pictures are pretty, but I’ve finally had to give up on this waterlogged King Arthur yarn.

6. Trials of Shazam – Not at all what I’m looking for from a Captain Marvel story. Awful.

7. Martian Manhunter – My expectations weren’t all that high to begin with, but I wasn’t sufficiently hooked to stick around past issue #3. Not a fan of the cone-headed J’onzz either.

8. Creeper – This “Brave New World” experiment hasn’t worked out so well, has it? The series has really fallen apart since the loss of Justiano—or rather, it’s revealed how thin its premise was to begin with.

9. Mystery in Space – I think I might actually hate The Weird, despite having briefly convinced myself that his return was something to be excited about. My reservations about de-aging Captain Comet are already on record, so I’ll only add that the problem with this series is its rather claustrophobic focus on the protagonist. Captain Comet is awesome, but the canvass doesn’t feel big enough.

Unmitigated Catastrophes

1. Civil War – Too harsh? I don’t think so. It’s high production values can’t disguise the fact that it is the most loathsome book of the year and the epitome of everything that is wrong with the company’s current, utterly humorless creative “vision” for its mainstream titles. It’s killed my interest in Marvel for the time being—and not because of its notorious lateness. What’s so awful about this series (aside from the multifaceted idiocy of its premise) is the way that it has made character subservient to the dictates of a high-concept plot, with the result that it utterly poisons some of its most significant characters. And then it has the gall to pretend that the plot really is “character driven” and all about “character moments” after all. Right. The reason this rings so falsely is that the manipulations leading up to the series (getting Peter into bed with Tony Stark, for example) were all utterly transparent, crude, and unconvincing. But, you know, it isn’t even that that really irritates me. It’s the self-importance and utter humorlessness of the project that turns me off. I could elaborate, I suppose, but why bother?

2. Flash – Someone must have owed someone a favor. How else to explain the shockingly incompetent handling of the relaunch of a title that had been climbing in quality and popularity for the past several years? It’s hard to say what’s worse: the writing or the editorial decision-making behind this fiasco.

3. New Avengers – How did a promising start go so completely off the rails? This book has been in a death spiral since the end of the Savage Land story, and most of the Civil War issues have been pointless filler. The Luke Cage issue was good, I guess, but not the reason I read the Avengers (New or otherwise), and Maleev’s art in the most recent issue was lovely, but Hawkeye—wha? I’m really just done with Bendis. The post-Civil War sister book isn’t cause for optimism either.

4. Hawkgirl – An object lesson in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule. The infuriating thing about this title is that it had finally established its viability as a nearly first-tier superhero book when it was shot out of the sky by One Year Later.

5. Outsiders – As if its pseudo-hipster status weren’t enough to make you flee, the unsuspenseful stories themselves moved at a snail’s pace. Run, Katana—run to Birds of Prey while you still can!

Friday: My 2007 Wish List for DC’s Science Fiction Books: 3 Redesigns