Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Double Articulation Digest #4

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

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Who says that wishes don't come true? It's not in color, but I'll take it! These too:
Writers: Gerry Conway, David Kraft, Bob Rozakis and Paul Levitz
Artists: Pablo Marcos, Rich Buckler, Arvell Jones, Dick Ayers, Mike Vosburg, Ric Estrada, Bob Smith, Vince Colletta, Bob Layton, Joe Rubinstein, Bob McLeod, Jack Abel, Romeo Tanghal, Joe Orlando, Frank McLaughlin, Ernie Chua and others
$16.99 U.S., 520 pages

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

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

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

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"We Were Legion": JSA #6 Preview

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

Sunday, May 20, 2007

On Reduction: The Secret Joys of Pull-List Asceticism

I’m reducing.

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

Then, I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Love You Deeply

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Post-Mortem: Teen Titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 12, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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