Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

When I was about 12 years old I told my grandpa that I was going to take over Calvin and Hobbes when Bill Watterson died. In an especially bitter moment, he gently chastised me, saying that it was likely that his family would take it over, and that Watterson probably wouldn't want anyone else to draw it anyway. Now I know for a fact my grandpa knew nothing about Bill Watterson, but damn if he wasn't right. Watterson HATED legacy strips, and felt he was the only one who could ever tell Calvin and Hobbes' story.

That's just one thing I learned in Nevin Martell's new book, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. The book is subtitled "The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip", and true to that it's part biography and part love letter. Anyone who fell under the trance of Watterson's comic strip will find lots of interesting tidbits about its origins and author.

That's the good part. Martell's research is above reproach. He interviews more people than anyone else would consider necessary and gets them to open up. He goes to Watterson's hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He visits Ohio State University's Cartoon Library and Musuem, to which the cartoonist donated ALL of his original Calvin and Hobbes strips. He even calls Watterson's mother on the phone.

Though the book isn't a strict biography, Martell does a good job of presenting the basic facts about Watterson's youth and development, the journey he took to create Calvin and Hobbes, his reaction to his success, and what he has been doing in the 14 years since the strip ended.

But the book is nonetheless problematic. Let's break it down:

1) Martell sets up his book as a quest for an interview with the notoriously press-shy Watterson, something that you know is not going to actually happen. If it had, the book would have been called Finding Calvin and Hobbes. It's a lame attempt to create drama. And though I think Martell's quest was a doomed proposition (by all accounts Watterson wants Calvin and Hobbes to speak for itself and is uninterested in rehashing the past any more than he already has), he didn't help himself with the way he went about his request. Included in the book is the text of his interview-request letter, and it's pretty lame and embarrassing, sounding like it was written by a gushing fanboy. I wonder if Martell would have had more success by asking Watterson if he'd talk about everything BUT Calvin and Hobbes.

In the absence of Watterson, we get Martell's rehashing many of his past interviews and speeches, and this is valuable. But Martell also chose to quote generously from Watterson's various introductions to Calvin and Hobbes collections. This feels unnecessary, and a little bit like cheating.

2) When doing anything other than presenting the results of his interviews and research, Martell's writing voice is awful. In a very curious move, he regularly interjects his own opinions and experiences into the story. That would be fine for an introduction, but Martell seems to believe that his own superfandom of the Calvin and Hobbes affords him a large place in the strip's story. It doesn't. I'm okay with when it's relevant, such as when he describes his experience looking at Watterson's original artwork at OSU. But when it comes to describing his desire for an eternal summer, or comparing his father to Calvin's father, or talking about his writing process, it's just distracting. Throughout, he peppers his writing with dorky, awkward references to things like "the trixster god Loki", Jessica Biel, and American Idol (ironically, this is something he praises Watterson for not doing). This type of writing has its place, but not in a biography.

3) Similarly, Martell constantly tries to philosophically analyze various Calvin and Hobbes characters, situations, and running gags. This would admittedly be less annoying had he actually had permission to print the strips in question, but even so, he rarely offers anything insightful. It's all cliched platitudes such as, "Of course, no young boy's life would be complete without a secret club." And really, I mean, I agree Calvin and Hobbes was a great comic strip, but do we need to elevate it to "Bill Watterson is the most brilliant pop artist of the late 20th century" levels?

You can also tell that Martell has worked as a rock critic, and is used to substituting laborious comparisons for actual descriptions. Check out his summary of Richard Thompson's comic strip: "Cul-De-Sac looks like Ralph Steadman and Charles Schulz fighting over a pen to draw The Yellow Kid crossed with FoxTrot, with a dollop of Watterson's wit thrown in for good measure."

One can't help but wish that Martell had worked with a stronger editor, someone who could have saved him from his self-indulgences and organizational challenges. I hate books like this, because you just know it could have been so much better, but you can't dismiss it outright because hiding in the mess a lot of good information.

So should you read it or not? If you want to know more about the story behind Calvin and Hobbes and its creator, Martell's book is basically the only resource you'll find. So I don't regret reading it. Even so, I can't shake the feeling that I probably would have gotten more out of taking all of my old Calvin and Hobbes collections off the shelf and rereading them from beginning to end.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In Review: Was Superman a Spy?

For several years, the indefatigable Brian Cronin has been addressing comic book urban legends on his Comics Should Be Good blog. He has written over 200 entries, each one tackling 3 legends. That means he's researched and proved or disproved over 500 stories from comic book history. They're required reading for serious comic fan.

Now, Cronin has released Was Superman a Spy?, a collection of legends previously-covered and newly-revealed. Some minor quibbles aside, it's just as essential.

There are a couple of jarring things about the book for those who've followed Brian's work on the blog. For one, the book is not structured the same. The blog poses each legend as a question and then attempts to give a definitive true or false. It's a very effective structure. The book abandons this approach and tells the legends in a sequential, narrative form. This results in what feels almost like "the secret history of comic books."

However, the book is more organized than the blog (which, despite occasional theme weeks, is haphazard in subject matter). In the book, the "chapters" are arranged by company and character, making it very user-friendly. It's too bad these two approaches couldn't have been combined, with the "true or false" structure organized by company and character.

My only other complaint is Cronin's writing voice. For the most part, Cronin comes off as a believable authority, which is important for an informative book of facts such as this. However, there are places where he still sounds more like a fan (which he is at heart - aren't we all?). For example, in summarizing a legend about Martin Landau's brief career as a comic book artist, Cronin writes: "It's probably for the best, because if comic books gained Landau, the world of acting would have lost him, and he is far too good of an actor to lose." There are several moments like this peppered throughout the book, where Cronin's opinion intrudes, and feels out of place.

There are also a couple of places where Cronin's logic doesn't quite follow, like when he writes about Marv Wolfman's original intent to introduce a black Teen Titan called Jericho. Carmine Infantino, then publisher of DC, rejected the story as written. Much later, Wolfman did introduce Jericho into the Titans, but as a curly, blond-headed white guy. Cronin calls this a "measure of revenge". Wait, what? If the offense was not allowing a black character to be introduced, wouldn't the revenge be Wolfman's creation of Cyborg, a black Titan who became quite popular with fans?

Even so, Was Superman a Spy? does a lot to recommend itself. The book is generously illustrated with original covers, interior art, and photos. Many of the legends require (or are at least enhanced by) visual reference, so I'm glad the publisher ponied up for the rights to reprint these images. And Cronin is a great historian and researcher; he has uncovered some wonderful anecdotes. My favorites include the story of Ray Bradbury's clever response to EC Comics' unauthorized adaptation of two of his short stories, and Disney duck artist Carl Barks' insistence on the scientific accuracy of his stories leading to the discovery of a process to raise sunken ships and a previously-unknown chemical compound!

Those of us who love comic books have long been required to learn our historical information piecemeal and through unreliable sources. Brian Cronin has done some wonderful work in Was Superman a Spy? by cutting through the fiction in a medium where the stories that get printed often aren't the only works of fantasy.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Raw Deal

News came through this week that Dwayne McDuffie has been fired from his post as writer of Justice League of America. Make no mistake, it's bad news.

McDuffie, co-creator of Ben 10 and the Milestone line of comics, is a talented guy who obviously isn't getting the respect he deserves. Consider that he put together a very good run on Fantastic Four a couple of years ago with artist Paul Pelliter, and then was shuffled aside in favor of the hit-or-miss Mark Millar.

And now this.

McDuffie says he was fired, believe it or not, because for the last two years he has given fans truthful answers to their questions about the behind the scenes decisions that go into a high-profile book like Justice League of America. Maybe the higher-ups at DC wouldn't have minded if they had made good decisions. Instead, after letting novelist Brad Metzler set the table, DC plagued McDuffie's run with editorial mandates out the wazoo, forcing him to use the flagship title as a set-up man for other stories and events in the DC universe.

Witness: McDuffie's relatively short run kicked off with something called "Justice League of America Wedding Special" meant to piggyback off the "event" of Green Arrow and Black Canary's wedding. To McDuffie's credit, he didn't play into the hype, instead using the special to introduce a four part Injustice League / League of Doom story (with nary a wedding in sight).

After that, McDuffie was forced to introduce the latest Tangent miniseries (issue #16), and then saw the title handed over to Alan Burnett for 3 issues (as a tie-in to the miserable miniseries Salvation Run); McDuffie had back up stories in 2 of the issues. After a nice Flash-centric one off (issue #20), McDuffie wrote an (admittedly good) Final Crisis lead-in issue before being left alone to tell a decent four-parter centering on Red Tornado, Amazo, and Vixen.

Then - get this - he was given the green light to introduce his Milestone creations to the DC universe, and after two parts of the story, the story's momentum is killed by a superfluous Faces of Evil tie-in issue written by Len Wein (issue #29). Even more egregious is the fact that Chriscross (who first made his name on Milestone's excellent Blood Syndicate title) drew this throwaway issue, when he could have drawing the main book that featured Milestone characters! Would that have made too much sense? With issue #30, McDuffie was back to the Milestone / Shadow Thief / Starbreaker story that closed out his run.

By the time of these last four issues, there was a sense that the sky was clearing. The team had been reset. Final Crisis took out Martian Manhunter, Batman, and Hawkgirl. A new (ill-conceived, in my opinion) Titans book grabbed Red Arrow and Flash. Black Lightning and Geo-Force were called back from whence they came (the Outsiders). Superman was sent away by the New Krypton storyline and Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) left to start his own Justice League (in the truly awful Cry For Justice limited series). So McDuffie was using a line-up comprised of Vixen, John Stewart, Dr. Light, Firestorm, and Zatanna (with hints in the "Origins & Omens" back up in #30 that Icon would join the team). If you're scoring at home that's a Justice League line-up that's 83% people of color and 50% female, which is pretty damn awesome. Unfortunately, we never got to see that come to full fruition.

It's worth mentioning, as well, that McDuffie was also saddled with a rotating cast of artists, never getting into a good creative flow even when he was allowed to tell his own stories. He worked with 14 different artists on the 20 issues he wrote (the best, in my opionion, being Mike McZone, Carlos Pacheco, Ethan Van Sciver, and Rags Morales). All this is to say that McDuffie had legitimate complaints here, and one can hardly blame him for feeling / venting frustration.

One could argue that a good writer should be able to make good stories out of whatever cards he or she is dealt, and for the most part McDuffie did that. Despite all the discontinuity of his run, the title was never worse than good. But, knowing McDuffie's excellent work on the uncompromising Justice League Unlimited animated series, it could have been so much better. His firing is not a referendum on his writing, but on DC's editorial leadership and head honcho Dan Didio's "throw a bunch of crap at the wall and see doesn't run" style. It's also a sad commentary on the state of current comics creation, where freedom and autonomy are the black sheep of the creative process. There's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one.

Dwayne McDuffie deserved better, and so did we readers.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Brightest Day...

Check this out:

I don't get that excited about comic book movies anymore, because it's just so hard to get them right. But if this was the actual trailer for the upcoming Green Lantern movie, I'd be in line already.

If nothing else this makes the case that Nathan Fillion would be a perfect Hal Jordan. In reality, they probably won't cast him because of his age. They'll want someone young enough to reprise the role over the next 10 years in potential sequels and a Justice League movie, and its potential sequels. This mindset has overtaken comic movie planning and, I think it's a misguided approach. All that energy should go into making the first film as good as possible, instead of taking success for granted.

Also, the guy who made this, Jaron Pitts, should get a job working on the actual film, or at least a chance to make the real trailer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Review: The Avengers (Free Comic Book Day)

I was always a Marvel kid. The first comic books and characters I loved were Marvel books and characters.

But since returning to comics reading in the last few years, the love just hasn't been there. I still follow a couple of Marvel books and enjoy reading older issues, but overall, I don't like the current direction of the line.

The recent Avengers Free Comic Book Day offering is a perfect example of why.

I won't complain about the size (it's significantly smaller than a modern comic, which is already significantly smaller than golden age comic), as some have.

Nor will I complain about the art. Jim Chueng is a great draftsman (his work looks like Chris Bachalo and Oliver Coipel genetically spliced together) and a pretty good storyteller.

The problem lies with the script by Marvel it-writer Brian Michael Bendis. The basic story is good enough: The Avengers face a pissed-off Norse ice giant called Ymir who has just taken out Thor. The problem is in the execution.

Spider-Man narrates, which is all fine and dandy if you're behind the idea that Spider-Man should be a full-time Avenger. I'm not. I always liked the idea of him being a reserve called in for extra special occasions. It makes more sense with Peter Parker's lifestyle, too. I'm even more against Wolverine being an Avenger. It's not strictly because I dislike the character (which I do a little bit), but more because he's already ON THE X-MEN! It's a stretch to me that he would even be on one team, let alone two.

That aside, this is an interesting Avengers line up. With Ms.Marvel, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Spider-Woman, Hawkeye (now Ronin) and Mockingbird, it's like a dream team circa 1977. Captain America (Bucky Barnes in shiny armor) rounds out the group.

But in actuality we only get four pages of the Avengers (some of them don't speak more than two words the whole issue) before a whole other team of Avengers shows up. It's the Dark Avengers, led by Harry Osborn, formerly the Green Goblin, currently the Iron Patriot. Having helped beat back the Skrull invasion, he is currently a hero in the public eye. Of course we all know he's bat-sh*t crazy. He has brought along his own team of analogue heroes who are actually villains going by the names of heroes. Confusing, yes, and Spider-Man even acknowledges this. Of this group, Ares emerges as the focus of the issue, while everyone else is relegated to background noise.

Ares aside, it seems like the inclusion of the Dark Avengers was unnecessary and took space away that could have been spent telling us more about the Avengers themselves, their powers, their personalities, etc. Look, I'm not one of those people who thinks every issue of a comic needs to be contain a primer for a new reader. I believe the average fan is savvy enough to pick up what they can and fill in the backstory as needed. But seeing that this was a Free Comic Book Day book, and it was a good opportunity for Marvel to try to lure me back into the fold, it's just a wasted opportunity.

There's also the matter of Bendis' trademark wordy dialogue. Comic dialogue has never been an especially subtle or realistic thing, and I'm all for elevating the art form, but this isn't how I'd go about it. Basicaly, everyone on the team cops the same sarcastic hipster voice. It works for Spider-Man, 'cause that's who he is, but does the whole team need to speak this way? It's like watching Dawson's Creek, or a Kevin Smith movie, where every character speaks in the voice of the writer. Witness the first exhange of dialogue between the Avengers:

Luke Cage: Damn.
Mockingbird: Well put.
Luke Cage: I am a wordsmith.
Captain America: What is that?
Ronin: You know what...I actually know what that is. It's a Norse ice giant.
Iron Fist: Great, okay, just tell us how your beat it the first time and we'll --
Ronin: Well, uh, a big giant fire god came and they beat each other out of this dimension.
Luke Cage: Do you know any fire gods?
Ronin: I do not.
Luke Cage: So nothing you said helps us at all.

Blech. There are "cute" exchanges like that all over the place. I'm all for a little levity, but it just doesn't work for me. And it doesn't seem to fit with the tone Bendis is trying to set in his stories. Anyway, superhero comedy has already been done. It was called Justice League, by Keith Giffen, J.M.DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire.

The story wraps up with some mumbo jumbo about a "twilight sword" and an never-acutually-gets-going throwdown between the two Avengers teams. Like I said, promising premise, disappointing execution. Besides the art, the only thing I truly enjoyed was Thor's badassitude at the end. "You and I shall have words another day," he tells Osborn and it brings to mind the beat-down he gave Iron Man in issue 4 of his most recent series. I might be on board for a repeat of that.

But am I going to buy any new Avengers comics? Or anything that Bendis is in charge of? Not based on this issue. Marvel, keep trying. You'll get me back one day.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Read Fantastic Four #300 and Now I'm Going To Tell You About It

Welcome to a new ongoing feature on 24 Pages. The idea is simple: I read a comic book and tell you about it. The inspiration for the idea isn't as easily summarized.

Last fall my wife and I were on a weekend vacation to Two Harbors, Minnesota. In the hotel room, we came across an episode of the AMC TV show Mad Men. We had heard many good things about it, but both thought it would be ideal to get the first season on DVD and catch up on the second. However, there in the hotel room we made a daredevil decision: We would watch the episode despite a lack of knowledge of the characters or what had come before.

After watching (and enjoying) the episode, we talked about how it wasn't that long ago that if you wanted to watch a show, you just watched. You didn't worry about not having seen earlier episodes. If you missed an episode you just had to hope they'd repeat it soon. There was no DVR or DVD or Internet.

I bring this up because it kind of reminds me of being a comic book reader. Too often I fall into the mindset of feeling that I have to read everything in order from the beginning. Often reading large runs of issue in order is a satisfying experience, but sometimes it feels like more of a chore.

That gets me thinking about my when I first started collecting comics. I didn't know anything about companies, creators, or even the characters. My only access to comic books was the spinning racks in the local Jewel and Kroger grocery stores, or the drug store next to the place my mom got her hair done. I was limited to what was available and what caught my eye. I didn't worry if the issue I bought was part of a multi-issue story arc. If it was, I just tried to figure out what was going on.

Of course that's the first stage of the collecting bug. We all know the next step is to discover that there are shops that sell old issues, to start trying to put together consecutive runs. That's part of the fun of being a comic fan, but when it comes to actually reading the issues, sometimes I miss just picking a random issue up and enjoying it for what it is.

Thus, this feature. My initial idea was to write about every single issue of Fantastic Four, out of order, but I realized it might get kind of tedious. Instead, I'll keep true to the concept and write about whatever issues I happen across.

So, here we go:

Fantastic Four #300 has a cover date of March 1987. Unlike many milestone issue numbers (usually in intervals of 25 or 50) there's no extra pages or special cover or retrospective or self-congratulation or even any real acknowledgment of the significance. It's kind of refreshing until one realizes that, the title had already used up all of its anniversary tricks on issue #296.

Another interesting item of note is the fact that the cover notes Marvel's "25th Anniversary" in the upper left hand corner. This makes sense, if you count Marvel's beginnings as the 1961 debut of this very comic. Fast forward to 2009, and Marvel's covers are bragging about "70 Years of Marvel Comics." No, your math isn't wrong. It hasn't been 45 years since 1987. I believe, in order to respectfully compete with DC's 75 years, Marvel has started counting the 1939 debut of Marvel Comics (featuring Namor, the Sub-Mariner) as their starting point, even though the original 1961 date makes more sense.

Who's Responsible?

This issue was written by the venerable Roger Stern. He only wrote (or co-wrote) 8 issues of the title before giving way to Steve Englehart's run. John Buscema drew the issue with inks from his brother Sal. Both of them had runs on the titles in the '70s.

What Happens?

Even though there's no acknowledgement of the 300 milestone, the issue still features a big event in the lives of the F4. As you can see on the cover, this is the one where Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) marries Alicia Masters. Alicia was a blind sculptress who had previously been involved with Ben Grimm (the Thing). Johnny and Alicia got together during John Byrne's run (which had just ended with issue #293) so this is a continuation. The two eventually broke up during Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan's time on the title when it was revealed that Alica had really been replaced by a shape-shifting Skrull imposter named Lyja.

Anyway, this being a comic book it isn't just a straight-ahead wedding. See Alicia's step-father is the villain called the Puppet Master (he's the eye-lift surgery recipient on the cover) and he's not happy about her marrying Johnny. So he allies with the b-listers Thinker and the Wizard to ruin the wedding. But once you think you know how the story is going to zig, it zags.

Plus, Ben and Alicia have a sweet peace-making conversation, and archnemesis Dr.Doom acknowledges the wedding in his own in idisynchratic way.

What Did You Think?

I thoroughly enjoyed this issue. It has the feel of an event issue with out the hullabaloo.

It's also the solid performance you'd expect from the creators involved. The writing has some great moments and pacing and never tries to overstep its bounds. Same thing for the art. It's nothing outstanding, but it's well-drafted and always in service of the story.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Willingham's Folly

Bill Willingham is a comic book writer currently most noted for his fabulous series Fables, a modern-day look at characters from various folk, fairy, and tall tales. He has also been announced as the new co-writer of one of my favorite DC Comics team books, Justice Society of America.

Recently he wrote an editorial piece for the blog Big Hollywood with the unwieldy title: Superheroes: Still Plenty of Super, But Losing Some of the Hero. In short, Willingham's point is that he's going to start writing with a clear delineation of good and evil in his superhero comics. He claims that the heroes he writes will be courageous and patriotic and virtuous. He doesn't define what these words mean to him, nor does he acknowledge that they can have different interpretations, but he does offer some examples of the opposite tack.

Willingham first laments that Superman "no longer seems to be too proud of America," but he doesn't provide any specific incidences. Oh, he does point out that Supes' old motto of "truth, justice, and the American Way" has been shortened, but as far as I know this was never an official mandate. Anyway, I'm guessing that when Willingham thinks of the "American Way" nothing but good things come to mind. But depending on one's perspective the "American Way" could be interpreted as "closed-minded" or "imperialistic" or "willfully ignorant." Do you blame DC Comics for not wanting their flagship hero to be seen as representing those things? Or, to look at it from a positive standpoint, are the ideals Superman represents - honesty, selflessness, humility - solely American values? The answer is no, of course.

Willingham is more specific on Captain America, chastising the character because, in one issue, he apologized for American wrong-doings during the Cold War. Seriously?! Isn't this we-don't -make-mistakes-because-we're-America mindset the one that the U.S. just put up with for 8 agonizing years, to no positive end?! THEN, Willingham goes on to complain that Cap participates in a government cover-up. Well, which should it be? Support your government or not?

Strange politically-charged examples aside, let's give Willingham the benefit of the doubt and say he's simply calling for clearer lines of good and evil in his heroes. After all, he never says a word about violence or sex, the usual fodder for this kind of conservative pulpit-banging (maybe that's because Fables regularly deals in both). I guess my question, then, is one of storytelling. Does clear good and evil make for stories that are as interesting as the ones where the heroes face situations that require tough calls, scenarios where there is no clear moral high ground? Would you rather read about a villain that's pure evil or one that evokes some sense of twisted empathy? I suppose there's room for both kinds of stories, but by limiting yourself to only one, don't you cut your potential in half?

And consider how many stories tell a clear moral lesson with clearly immoral (or amoral) characters. The Sopranos, though obviously not a superhero series, comes immediately to mind. Who, save the pathological and the callow, could come away from that show and not see the terrible toll that lying, stealing, and killing takes on a psyche? Willingham says these kinds of stories have no place in the superhero genre.

By portraying heroes as purely virtuous or purely evil, who benefits? You have to admit that it's a very small number of children who are reading comics, and many of them would rather play Grand Theft Auto if given a choice. Anyway, I'm not at all convinced that sheltering children from the complexity of right and wrong is the correct way to prepare them for life. Of course I don't want all my heroes to be murderous, gloomy, conflicted, and cynical all the time, but I also don't want them to always be shiny, bright, and perfect either.

Maybe Willingham is simply doing this for the sake of his own conscience. He makes it clear that he's not trying to force this on other writers. Perhaps, in writing his manifesto, he was simply working out his own vision and ideal for his future work, especially as he prepares to take on DC's biggest superhero team. But even if it isn't stated, there's an implication of a judgment, that people who aren't writing their heroes this way are doing a disservice to the characters and stories (nevermind the fact that Willingham says he's proud of the '80s work he did on Elementals, a "more real, edgier, darker" superhero series).

There's also a paragraph that just makes me sad. While demonstrating reasons for hope, he equates John Wayne to courage ("he resurrects a shade of his former self (summons his inner John Wayne if you will)") and celebrates a xenophobic comment by Captain America ("You think this letter on my forehead stands for France?"). Nevermind that John Wayne never enlisted to serve in World War II, despite being healthy and able - I wonder how that jibes with Willingham's definition of patriotism? And nevermind that it seems totally out of character for Captain America to gleefully insult another country (even if the French Batroc is one of his recurring villains).

Listen, of course Willingham is welcome to write his superhero stories in any way he pleases, and I'm welcome to like or dislike them. The fault of his argument is that he equates America with moral clarity, and that leads to dangerous places. To whit, the Comments section of the piece. Granted, comments sections are one of the most toxic places on the Internet, but this one features a number of supportive cheers, some of which are blatantly racist, jingoistic, and sexist. Willingham, who writes female and multicultural characters perfectly well in Fables, should have immediately distanced himself from those people in one of his multiple responses, instead of spending it quibbling about how "editorial mandates" affected his Robin stories.

Despite Willingham's views, he seems like a genuinely decent guy, without much ego. I don't get the sense that he's just another white man clinging to his privilege. I don't think that's what's behind his superhero ideal. What I do suspect is that he's got a bad case of "back when I was a kid..." nostalgia. It seems to hit a certain kind of man at a certain age (Tom Petty, Garrison Keillor, and John Byrne have all been there), this sudden Romanticization of their youth, casting it as something it never was. There's a hardening of views, a lack of recognition of gray areas. It all fits with what Willingham is saying here.

Reactions to Willingham's treatise have ranged from complete support to complete outrage. Some on the latter end have claimed they can no longer read his work in clear conscience, knowing the conservative mind that produces it. I'm not that extreme. I'll continue to read Fables, and I'll give his Justice Society of America a fighting chance. Though on the latter, Willingham perhaps unwisely turned up the wattage on the spotlight that was already going to be shining on him. That series will be where Willingham's theory will sink or swim. Maybe he'll prove me wrong. Afterall, it does have America in the title...

Friday, January 23, 2009

In Review: John Byrne's Next Men # 0 - 30

Writer/artist John Byrne was my favorite in my halcyon collecting days. I would buy anything with his name on it. I especially enjoyed his work on Namor, Superman: The Man of Steel, Fantastic Four, and the few X-Men issues I had (they were always expensive and hard-to-find).

In 1991 Byrne jumped into the "creator-owned" arena with Next Men, a multi-layered sci-fi superhero epic from Dark Horse comics. The draw, besides Byrne's usually excellent art and writing, was a "Mature Readers" tag that freed the book up from the Comics Code Authority constraints. So, if Byrne wanted to show two characters having sex or a bullet going through a brain, he did. If he wanted to throw a "shit" or "bitch" into the dialogue, he did.

The Next Men were Danny, Jack, Nathan, Jasmine, and Bethany, the subjects of a genetic engineering project. Nurtured since childbirth in a virtual dreamworld, the 5 are abruptly brought into the real world when the project is aborted. Of course they wake up with powers beyond those of mortal men (one astute reader pointed out in the letter column that they have the powers of Superman divided: Jack has his strength, Bethany his invulnerability, Danny his speed, and Nathan his vision; Jasmine's agility throws the theory off a bit). What would usually follow is that the five would put on costumes, form a team and fight evil, but Byrne takes the story in a completely different direction.

It's clear at the time that Byrne was interested in playing around in the superhero genre without fully committing to its tropes. But he did tease us now an again, like in issue 16, where the 5 offer themselves to Dollar Comics and get costumes that could have come right out of a million-selling Image book of the time (more on that later). Or witness the Power arc (issues 23 - 26) where Byrne really lets his freak flag fly via Sandy, a Dollar Comics employee who who has gained the power of mental creation. There are appearances by comic creators Art Adams and Mike Mignola, Hellboy, Concrete, Monkeyman and O'Brien, and Marv from Sin City. That's in addition to over-the-top Dollar Comics creations like Action Maxx and Dr. Trogg. Even Byrne himself shows up, being bullied by the latter.

But mostly this is a sci-fi story. The Next Men tend to wear real clothes, and in only one arc (Parallel) do they go on anything resembling a "mission." Mostly they're just running away or being captured, barely using their powers at all (Danny, Jasmine, and Nathan especially).

On re-reading it as one big chunk, some interesting things came to light. You see, John Byrne's Next Men came out of a 1991 graphic novel also published by Dark Horse, called 2112. That's the tale of a future world where a team of highly-trained soldiers take on an evil despot called Sathanus. At the end of the story Sathanus seemingly blows himself up. What we find out early on in JBNM is that Sathanus has in fact sent himself back to 1955 and befriended ambitious politician Aldus Hilltop. The pair in turn are the backers of the Next Men project.

Without giving too much away, issue #30 provides a sort of Mobius strip ending to the story started in 2112. Thus one could argue that these 32 comics are really Sathanus' story. It's just like how we found out after the fact that the Star Wars saga was really about Darth Vader.

One of the most enjoyable parts of re-reading the individual issues was reading the letter column. Byrne chose and responded to the letters himself, which gave a rare glimpse into his personality. You see, in the pre-Internet days what we knew about a comic book artist or writer was limited to very few sources, many of them second-hand. So to hear so much from the horse's mouth was rare. At the time I didn't I know that Byrne was somewhat of a controversial figure in the comics world.

In his choices of and responses to letters, he lived up to that reputation, sounding off about abortion, gay rights, his reputation, and many other topics. He's an intelligent and blunt fellow, and unafraid to state his opinion. He's got a persecution complex. He can be self-deprecating, but humility is not one of his strong points. For example, his elegy for Jack Kirby begins with a two paragraph anecdote wherein his art dealer tolk him "you're the King now." Byrne's ultimate point in the article is that Jack Kirby was one-of-a-kind and that there'll never be another King of Comics, but Byrne couldn't resist a little self-promotion along the way.

However, the most intriguing aspect of the letters page is how it documents the trends of the industry at the time. Byrne rails against gimmick covers (multiple cover images for the same book, trading card inclusion, holographic covers, etc), swiping, speculation, and Image Comics. While there was a lot to complain about there (books didn't come out on schedule, many of the characters were ridiculous, the stories were sub-par), Byrne's main complaint was a justifiable one. Namely, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. That pretty much came true.

Though Byrne repeatedly said that he had plans for the book up to issue #50, JBNM ended at #30. It was abrupt ending to the series, mainly because it happened without warning. Many times letter columns will reveal a few issues ahead of time that a series is coming to a close, but not this one. Maybe that's because it wasn't originally intended to be an ending point. In his letter column farewell, Byrne was unspecific, saying only that he had spent 3 years with the characters and needed a break. He guessed that the break would probably only be months long, yet here it is 14 years later, and we've not seen another new Next Men comic (though IDW has released The Compleat Next Men, two "phone book" volumes reprinting all the original comics in black and white).

Byrne has said he would like to bring back JBNM as long as it won't be a vanity project. To me that means he wants it to sell well enough to justify the time spent to create it and the money spent to market and publish it. But I think there's something more than that. Though issue #30 ended with Danny, Bethany, Nathan, and Jasmine being sent to the past (there's even a NEXT! cover image of an issue that doesn't exist), there's not much else we're left wondering about. Most lingering plot points from the series were wrapped up in issue #30. No doubt Byrne could have found many more interesting adventures for these characters, but I think looking back he realized that he'd already told the story he wanted to tell.

Sounds strange, but I enjoyed this series enough that I hope Byrne never goes back to it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Delayed Response

If you want to see something that's both disturbing and amusing all at once, go to a comics news website, find a story about a publishing delay, and read the comments section. There you'll find poor souls absolutely losing their minds about the fact that a comic will be released 2 weeks later than originally intended. They will rail against the editor-in-chief of the company in question. They'll blame the artist. They'll blame the writer. They'll blame the dark, cold unfairness of life itself.

The most recent of these incidents involves DC Comics and their big event Final Crisis. Months before the first issue was scheduled to come out, an interview with artist JG Jones revealed that he was about halfway through said first issue. The comments section of the interview was afire with doom and gloom prophecies about him being too slow and how he would never be able to complete the issues on time. Fast forward nearly a year later, and it turns out they were right. Jones only made it through 3 complete issues before needing Carlos Pacheco to spot him here and there. Issue #6 featured three artists in addition to Jones. The final issue, #7, will not feature Jones' artwork at all. Interestingly, the same thing happened on DC's previous big event, Infinite Crisis.

I understand that comics is a business. If a solicited / ordered book is late, it affects DC's bottom line and relationships with retailers and fans, especially the latter. Let me tell you, comics fans will hold a grudge! Just bring up Civil War or The Ultimates to some Marvel zombies and you are almost guaranteed a mention of the delays on those books. This inability to deal to be patient or deal with minor disappointment is immature at best, and perpetuates the stereotype of comic readers as arrested development cases.

Publishers cater to this childishness because they want to please their fans, and because they don't want to inconvenience the retailers, but is it really for the best, in the long run? Is instant gratification worth it if the work suffers?

I always think about the classics. If Dave Gibbons hadn't been able to keep pace while drawing Watchmen should DC have brought in another artist to bang out the pages? Would Watchmen still be such a revered classic if they had? I think most would answer no to both of those questions. I wish comic readers could take this long view. In 10 years, will it really matter if a single issue was 2 weeks (or even 2 months!) late? Who will even remember beyond the most bitter hearted fans? Personally, I'd rather wait for a cohesive work by the same artist and writer team all the way through.

So what contributes to lateness? Is it lack of professionalism, or is it the opposite? Certainly it's on the publishers to plan their schedules well, and allow artists and writers plenty of lead time. But if an artist falls behind, I'm guessing it's usually because they want to do the best work they possibly can. The single greatest comic creator ever - Jack Kirby - was freakishly fast, but he set a standard that can't be matched by most. So why not slow things down?

This is all part of a larger discussion about the business of comics. I recently wrote about the idea of digital comics, and I don't believe that they're the solution to anything. But continuing to operate off of a newsstand mentality isn't either.

In the last few years especially the trade paperback market (collected editions of story arcs) has blossomed and opened up a whole new way of doing business. Less and less is it sensible to buy an individual comic each month - especially at the next price point of $3.99 a pop - just to get one part of a larger story. I could buy six issues of a comic (a total of $23.94) and have to read the story in pieces, or I could wait for the paperback collection, priced at a maximum of $19.99 (but probably more like $17.99 or $14.99) and read it all at once.

Both Marvel and DC have tried to exploit this with hardcover editions priced at around $25 - $30. I don't have sales information, but I'm guessing they've found that fans are willing to pay a little more for a nice collected edition. Especially with the way and other big market retailers are able to discount these books, they still end up cheaper than buying individual issues!

So am I saying that publishers should abandon periodicals all together? Well, yeah. It makes sense more than just economically.

As I was pondering this, I came across an editorial in the February 1987 issue of Legion of Super-Heroes (#31). Written by Richard Bruning (then a design director for DC, now a senior vice-president), it's titled The End of the Never-Ending Story. His argument, in light of the success of the then-recent The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen mini-series, is that mini-series and graphic novels are the likely salvation of the industry. He looks at it from several angles, but none more convincingly than from the perspective of the creators.

As I mentioned above, the artists take the brunt of the deadline. Bruning agrees. As an artist, he says, "when you get on a monthly book, you're starting to run a race that has no end in sight." We see this play out when artists need to be spelled by other (usually less talented) artists for an issue (or worse, for half an uncompleted issue), or artists jump from book to book. And though many assume writers to be free of this sort of fatigue, Bruning points out that writers are under equal pressure to come up with story after story, with no real break. Providing anecdotal evidence, he asks "How many writers have been around more than 15 years?" Even 22 years after the editorial was written, it's still a pertinent question.

The final solution then, would seem to be to slow down the process, remove some of the pressure, and let creative teams work on self-contained story arcs. Whether these should be released in graphic novel or periodical form is debatable, but I'd prefer the former. This move would bring up larger questions of continuity between stories, but that's a topic for another day.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Who Watches...

With the movie coming out soon, I thought I'd share these original Watchmen advertisements I came across recently in some 1986 issues of Legion of Super-Heroes. Enjoy! Click on each image for a bigger version.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


In a recent feature on, comic book creators were asked what they thought was the biggest opportunity for comics in 2009. More than one answer involved digital comics, and the comments section of the article struck up an interesting debate about the topic. So the question is, is it sensible or feasible to move comic books into the digital age?

We've already seen at least one industry balk at the notion of embracing technology and end up regretting it. Now that it's been proven that people are more than willing to pay for music downloads (and fancy devices to play them), there's no question that the record companies should have embraced the digital age much sooner than they did.

TV and movies have changed in their own ways, piggybacking onto iTunes, but also using websites and DVRs to keep pace with their consumers. Photography has also evolved quickly and efficiently into something we can all agree is infinitely easier, if less mysterious and lasting. Most newspapers and magazines have added online formats, and it's not really hard to imagine their physical counterparts completely disappearing (though when that happens what will we read on the plane and the toilet?). Maps will probably soon give way fully to GPS.

The last bastion of physical media would seem to be books. The idea of ebooks has been around at least since the late '90s, but failed to catch fire until the recent Amazon Kindle craze. Whether it's Kindle or some derivation, the doors have been opened on ebooks. They aren't closing.

That said, I pretty much hate the idea of digital comics.

Now I don't consider myself a stick in the mud, but I can be slightly resistant to change, especially when it comes to things I love. Though I have an iPod and am buying more and more whole albums via iTunes or, I'm not getting rid of my CDs or vinyl anytime soon. Thanks to too many Ray Bradbury short stories, I also have an inherent distrust of technology. I am never surprised when technology fails. So there's that.

But there's also the matter of comics being non-analogous to any of the other media I've mentioned. Unlike TV and movies they are meant to be read. Unlike books they are completely reliant on visuals (you can't have a comic book read to you, at least not satisfactorily). Like music and photography they are artforms, but unlike those two things, they appeal to a very specific and small group of people.

Though Marvel Comics especially has made strides in digitizing their back catalog (you can get a collection of every issue of The Amazing Spider-Man - 500+ comics - on a single DVD-ROM for about $40, which is, well, amazing), but it hasn't quite caught on yet. In the above-mentioned article, writer Greg Pak brings up the idea of comics on iPhones and other handheld devices, because of how much people (especially kids) love those things. I see his point, but this brings up lots of problems. For one, if a regular comic page was iPhone sized the captions would appear at about a 0.5 font size and be unreadable. I suppose it would have to be individual panels, which would likely ruin the flow of storytelling.

An idea that could really have legs is a sort of comics Kindle. It'd have to be big, at least 8" x 10" and you'd have to have some sort of download service where any issue you want is available for a nominal fee. I could see people really digging that.

But the problem with all three of these (DVD-ROMS, iPhone apps, comics Kindle) is that they all involve staring at a screen. I'm not an optometrist, but I'm pretty sure increasing the time our eyes spend bathed in electronic glow is not a good idea.

I also don't like removing the physical aspect of reading and collecting comics. It's easy to overlook this part of the hobby, but I actually enjoy sorting through my comics, putting them in bags, looking for that elusive issue at comic book shops across the cities, digging through the quarter boxes for hidden treasures. Being a music obsessive has the same tactile allure; just look at how the digital revolution in music has led to a resurgence in vinyl collecting.

And I don't even consider myself a collector, at least not in the sense of the word as someone who owns things just to own them. Any comic I have it's because I want to read it or read it again someday. I don't care about value at all.

But many comic fans are completists and fetishists. I've been selling some of my old issues online and accidentally listed that I had both a first and second printing of The Uncanny X-Men #303, when really I only had the first. Well, a guy tried to buy that second printing and I assumed he picked that one because it was priced lower. So I wrote him an e-mail and asked if he minded if I sent him the first printing instead, at the same price. I figured he would be thrilled. He wrote back that he was looking specifically for the second printing.

Out of curiosity I looked into it. The second printing of that issue was included as a free giveaway in an X-Men board game. It is no different from the first save that it features a gold background on the cover rather than white. There is no additional story or artwork. The only reason I can think that this buyer would want that issue is because he's attempting to get every single issue of X-Men in every iteration that exists. This is a goal I don't envy at all.

But people like him are the reason the collector's market will never go away. Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spider-Man) is not going to suddenly be in the giveaway box because you can download it for a dollar. There will always be people willing to pay for the actual thing.

And to a certain extent that applies to new comics as well. Many comics fans rely on their weekly fix of new product. When I was in high school I worked too many hours at K Mart and was of no interest to any girls, so new comics day was often the only thing I had to look forward to. Now you might point out that the logical extension of the argument for digital comics - the complete elimination of new printed material - would essentially allow new comic book day to be everyday, because publishers would no longer be limited by shipping schedules.

That might happen, but again, what about the physical act of going to the store? Of being there and seeing all the new stuff displayed? Of discovering something great because it caught your eye and you decided to flip through it? And what about the comic shops themselves that rely on that weekly influx of business? There's no doubt in my mind that the comic book industry business model (from publishing to distribution to sales) is long overdue for a reinvention. I have some ideas about that, and I'll be sharing them soon. But they certainly don't involve the end of comic shops, or the complete cessation of printed comics.

I rarely have a "this or that" type of mindset, so my hope is that digital comics can coexist with their printed brethren. It might bring some new readers into the club. And I'm sure some old schoolers will embrace the new medium and love it. But I won't be one of them. I'm all for technology improving our lives, but there are some things that just don't need to be compressed and sent along cable cords and stored on hard drives. Comics are one of those things.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

In Review: Guardians of the Galaxy #1 - 27

As a 13 year-old one of my favorite series was Jim Valentino's Guardians of the Galaxy. Turns out my 13 year-old self had good taste.

The Guardians of the Galaxy (Charlie 27, Yondu, Nikki, Vance Astro, Martinex, and Starhawk) were the heroes of the Marvel universe, 1,000 years in the future. They had appeared several times in the 1970s, mostly in the team-up book Marvel Two-In-One and several issues of The Avengers. They briefly had their own feature in Marvel Presents, as well. Marvel reintroduced them in 1990 as part of a spate of new books.

In re-reading the series I found numerous things to be impressed about, none more than the fact that Valentino wrote and drew 22 straight issues plus an annual on a monthly schedule! After a fill-in by Mark Texiera (not the baseball player), Valentino completed four more issues.

That consistency led to an enjoyable series of interconnected stories. Valentino obviously planned far ahead, and was thus able to drop hints about and lay groundwork for storylines far ahead of their fruition. He also clearly understood how to create a mystery without dragging it out. For example, in issue 17 we meet a mysterious character called Hollywood. By issue 20 we find out (if we haven't already guessed) that it's the Avenger Wonder Man.

There are touches like that all over the series, showing Valentino was exceedingly well-versed in Marvel lore. Not only is he appropriately reverent toward Guardians history (the first three issues feature a prose recap with bibliography and there are constant references by the characters to past events), he also builds upon the work of other Marvel masters like Jim Starlin (the Universal Church of Truth) and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Galactus, the Inhumans, mutants, Dr.Strange, etc.).

Speaking of Lee and Kirby, they are obviously Valentino's stylistic touchstones. While his prose is nowhere as purple or prodigious as Lee's, it does have that same sense of excitement and quick pacing. And of course few can match Kirby's dynamic pages and figures, but Valentino has that same grasp of action and storytelling.

The Guardians see a lot of changes as the series progresses. Martinex sheds his crystalline skin. Nikki goes through several types of weapons and hairstyles. Charlie starts toting a gun as nearly as big as him. Yondu loses a hand. Starhawk (a being actually made up of an estranged couple) is separated and then combined again, and turns halfway evil. Vance Astro finds Captain America's shield and eventually sheds his protective suit. New members show up, too. Replica is a young Skrull whose torn between her faith and her loyalty to the team. Talon is a cat-like Inhuman.

If the series has any fault it's the obvious grasp at sales by including popular characters of the time. Ghost Rider shows up. A female descendant of Wolverine, Rancor, also makes multiple appearances. But the worst offense is the gang that has arisen on Earth inspired by the 20th century exploits of Frank Castle, the Punishers. Yes, they all have black shirts with skulls on them. All three feel out of place in the Guardians' future world.

But Valentino does a lot more right than he does wrong. Despite the whiz-bang attitude, he doesn't skip on thoughtful themes like the limits of religious power and the rise of reality T.V. Diversity is not spotlighted, but instead taken for granted. For example, we eventually learn that Martinex (the last survivor of Earth's colonization of Pluto), is of African descent. There's also the clear-but-never-stated gay relationship between mutants Bat-Wing and Blaster.

Though the series never jumps the shark during Valentino's run, it clearly loses steam around issue #20, coincidentally when Vance Astro ditches his classic cool costume for a terrible one and an even worse name - Major Victory. Seriously.

Valentino stopped drawing at issue #28 and stopped writing at #30. He left to be one of the co-founders of Image, a group of creators who wanted to own their creations. His contribution was a "grim 'n gritty '90s style" hero called Shadowhawk, pretty much the opposite of what he'd been doing. It never did much for me. I stopped reading Guardians of the Galaxy,
which made it to issue 64 before being canceled.

In 2008, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, Marvel's current cosmic writers, brought back the Guardians of the Galaxy concept along with ace artist Paul Pelliter. The team is completely different and is set in the modern day, but thankfully Abnett and Lanning have not forgotten the roots of the name. Both Starhawk and Vance Astro have made appearances in the current storyline, and the series has been high-quality fun, just like its predecessor.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Few Words on Spider-Man and Marriage

Note: I wrote this about a year ago, but the latest news that the Spider-Man newspaper comic strip has followed the misguided lead of the comics has reopened fresh wounds. I also thought it would be appropriate to kick off a comics-obsessed blog, since it tells some of my history as a reader.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of waking up Christmas morning at my grandparents house in Bowling Green, Kentucky to find 4 sets of Underoos displayed across the fireplace mantle. I was ecstatic. Green Lantern, Batman, Boba Fett, Spider-Man. The latter was, hands-down, my favorite. I would have liked nothing more than to BE Spider-Man. Underoos were the closest I could get.

Spider-Man had it all, cool powers, weird villains, a sense of humor, an everyman relatabilty, and after 1987, when he jumped the broom with childhood friend/supermodel Mary Jane Watson, a beautiful wife. He was completely enviable.

Not surprisingly, considering my childhood ardor for super heroes, I spent my teen years completely immersed in comic books. It was a hobby with a high price, and not only monetarily. Let's face it, reading comics is not cool. No matter how many literary geniuses endorse it, no matter how many blockbuster films get made, no matter how many TV shows legitimize the idea, no matter how complex and artful the comics themselves are, you will always be a loser if you like comic books. Even at the height of my obsession I would see these 30 or 40 something men in my local shop (Metropolis Comics in Bloomington, Illinois, long gone) and think, "God, I don't want to turn into them."

I could just picture myself, with a loser-ish hobby, an inability to appeal to women and a fear of many many things, easily sliding into that life.

I unceremoniously gave up comic collecting in 1999. Throughout college, my comics obsession had been competing with a similarly passionate affair with pop music. At age 22, music finally won decisively, and I didn't even mourn the passing of my other hobby. Afterall, my new interest was more acceptable, relatable and grown-up. I was in no danger of arrested development, only listening to Arrested Development.

A couple of years ago, I began to slowly revive my interest in comics. Like a newborn, it was small and fitful at first, but it has grown steadily. Almost simultaneously, I've found another love. Wendy and I are getting married in May. I've mused on the timing of it all. Is being in an established relationship in any way related to the sudden resurgence of my childhood hobby? Is the stigma gone now that I'm no longer in danger of being a single loser who reads comic books? I never consciously used such reasoning, but I wouldn't deny under oath that it was a factor.

Where am I going with this? It's strange to me that as I take the next steps in life, my once favorite hero is taking steps backwards. As of issue 545 of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker and Mary Jane are no longer married.

Some background: Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada (a comic artist himself) is firm in his belief that Spider-Man should not be married. In various interviews he has stated that he believes the marriage prevents the comic from being a true soap opera, limits the writers, ages the character and makes him less marketable to kids. Similarly, he was adamant that Spider-Man should not get divorced, as it would create negative press and send the "wrong message" to kids.

His solution? In a story meeting, creators decided that Peter would, to save his beloved Aunt May (accidentally shot by a sniper aiming for Peter) make a deal with Mephisto, Marvel's version of the Devil. The deal? Peter and Mary-Jane give him their love and marriage and Mephisto saves 80-year-old Aunt May's life. How this lazy, ridiculous idea ever made it past the brainstorming stage, I'll never know.

No matter what you think of Quesada's rationales (I think they're crap: 1. Nothing hinders good stories except bad writers and over-controlling editors, 2. The character, while happily married, has gained a higher profile than ever before in his history, and 3. Don't even get me started on his divorce logic) and no matter how the deal went down, the big question is actually very much a real-life question. It's growth vs. arrested development. Do you let Spider-Man continue to mature and change as a character, or do you stall him forever at a certain point at his life?

Recent pop culture has been playing on this theme quite a bit. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Scott Baio Is 45 And Single all gave us man-child protagonists struggling to grow up and eventually realizing the futility of neverending adolescence. Now, of course, maturity is not a prerequisite for marriage. And getting married no more grants someone maturity than staying single grants someone an interesting life. But this is a case of a character who had ALREADY grown up regressing.

In the first issue after the magical dissolution of his marriage (which he no longer remembers, by the way), we see Peter Parker living in his aunt's house, riding his bike to work, mooching off of his rich friend Harry, and dealing awkwardly with affection from various ladies. It's arguable that this set-up creates more interesting stories, but there's no doubt that those who have followed Spider-Man from his beginnings as a high-school nerd to a married, confident science teacher should feel robbed.

Consider for a moment DC Comics' the Flash. There have been 4 men to hold the title, but the current version (and my favorite) is Wally West. He's the nephew of the second Flash, Barry Allen. Wally gained his super-speed powers as a young boy and took on the mantle of Kid Flash. He joined a team of fellow kid sidekicks (the Teen Titans) and grew up with them before taking over as the Flash after Barry Allen's death. Through the years we've seen his character change and grow. He continually bettered himself as a person and hero. He gained a deep understanding and mastery of his powers. And, yes, he got married! Besides being good storytelling, there's just something special about being able to witness that, about being able to follow the same character for so long and through so much.

Despite what Joe Quesada believes, good storytelling is not about standing still. He's right that comics are essentially soap opera, but he ignores that good soap operas have to allow for change. Otherwise there's no reason to care about anything that's happening. Otherwise, nothing that happens is ever of any consequence. Quesada and the creators who spear-headed Spider-Man's regression should know that this sort of move is the exact reason why comics have such a poor reputation, both as literature and as a hobby. If the creators don't respect their own characters or readers, why should anyone else?

Cooler heads have pointed out that things always seem to eventually return to status quo in comic books. Even death rarely sticks. There's a chance that Marvel has plans, or will eventually decide, to restore the marriage. Even if that does happen, it doesn't make this any less of a terrible idea.

Look at it this way: There was a time when I would have traded lives with Spider-Man in an nanosecond. No longer. With things the way they are now, he'd be getting the better end of the deal.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Reporting Live from Sector 2814

I've loved super heroes since I was 4, when I faithfully watched David Banner get angry every Friday night. I've loved comic books since I was 12 and bought my first issue of What If.... That set off an obsession that burned brightly for 10 good years. At many points during this time I'm pretty sure I thought about nothing but comics. I followed almost everything (Marvel, DC, Image, independents) and became a student of the medium.

In college I lost some interest, but my mom faithfully sent me my subscriptions each week and I always looked forward to them.

I drifted away from comics somewhere in 1999. Part of it was what I perceived as growing up. I had just graduated college and moved away, and I left most of my comic book collection in my parents' basement. But I don't remember deciding to quit comics. I just had other things on my mind.

I found myself in a comic shop once and again, and I'd pick a book or two up. And I always enjoyed going through my collection on visits home, bringing a little more back with me every time. Eventually, around 2005, something snapped and I realized I could no longer deny my love of graphic storytelling. I tentatively restarted mania by seeking to fill in my runs of Jeff Smith's Bone, John Byrne's Fantastic Four, and Dave Sim's Cerebus. After accomplishing that, I realized I wanted more. So I set about catching up on what I'd missed in the previous 5 years.

Now, I'm back where I started: visiting the shop every Wednesday, patrolling the comics websites, and rifling through my back issues. With my music obsessions, I've found it helpful to have an outlet. That's what 24 Pages will be, a warehouse of the comics ideas and opinions rattling around in my addled brain. You can expect reviews of new comics and old runs that I'm re-reading, commentary on comics news, movies, and developments, as well as whatever else occurs to me. On the sidebar over there you'll find the ever-changing list of comics I currently read, and under the links section, a list of things I love about comics, appropriately titled, Things I Love About Comics.

Thanks for reading!