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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Humperdoozies; Awards for Outstanding Blunders in Mainstream Comics

There’s a certain feeling of upset in my stomach as I write this post, because negativity is far from new to the Internet. I don’t want to have a post that’s pure snark, nor do I want to use mockery as a shortcut to actual critique. I’m not so in love with the sound of my own voice that I can write like Spider Jerusalem without doubting myself. However, I’m even less in love with the pervasive flavor of much of the big-name comics produced this year.

2008 was a disappointing year for comics; not because there weren’t any good works ( there were, and I plan to have an alternate awards essay for the stuff I loved ), but because the stuff that was pushed to the forefront was some of the worst excesses of American comics yet. The event fatigue of the previous years apparently hasn’t reached the Big Two, because the crossovers were even bigger and more expensive this year. What’s worse, the prevalence of comic and/or superhero movies in pop culture shows how profoundly this industry has gone wrong.

Take the most jarring example of the disconnect between the way the comic characters appear outside their home medium, and the way they appear within it; in the theaters, we got a Batman movie that was so incredible that it’s even been received as art ( in addition to making an arse-load of money ). In the comics, we had the protagonist in the middle of a long and convoluted story that’s actually going to write Bruce Wayne out of the books. This is a time when a Batman comic with a semi-serious narrative has more of a chance than year prior; hatever influence Adam West still has over Batman’s public reception is pretty much gone, and people can actually take the character seriously. But DC Comics doesn’t seem to have much interest in capitalizing on this, instead continuing their path of milking the niche audience for all it’s worth.

The inmates pretty much took over the asylum here, which is why I’m writing this; not because of comics that were individually bad, but comics that represent mistakes that are being repeated again and again. In order to win a Humperdoozie ( named after the signature catchphrase “ Humperdoo “ of the Grail’s messiah in Preacher, the thoroughly inbred, intellectually primitive boy whose lineage may tie directly back to Jesus, but no longer has any relevance to anyone without that level of faith....sound familiar? )*, the creators/editors have to take their errors from acceptably isolated incidents to frustrating patterns. So read, and remember, no matter who wins a Humperdoozie, it’s the audience that loses.

THE SHADOW THE HEDGEHOG FRANCHISE DESPERATION AWARD: Ultimate Universe, Marvel The critique that the Ultimate Universe would become redundant after the characters were established was a valid one, but the books started very strong, and offered a unique spin on the old classics. The rebooted universe had plenty of evidence that it could have continued without competing with its predecessor. But this evidence was ignored during Ultimatum, when the new direction for the imprint was ushered in by a massive bloodbath. The Ultimate counterparts to many beloved characters have been unceremoniously whacked, with no good reason other than to prove that “ anything can happen “ in the Ultimate Universe.

Maybe Bendis, Loeb, and Millar can get some mileage out of a post-apocalyptic MU, but an even larger portion of “ anything “ could happen in stories about completely new characters. It’s a nice dream, but that would mean Marvel would leave their comfort zone, and risk producing something not tied into a decades-old trademark. Occasionally we’ll get an creator-owned ICON series from a creative team that already built a reputation with the corporate stuff, but at this point, the Blob eating the Wasp’s corpse is Marvel editorial’s idea of something new.

THE ALAN MOORE + ROB LIEFELD MISTMATCH AWARD: Grant Morrison on Final Crisis and Batman RIP, DC Comics While I like shrimp tempura and I like chocolate cheesecake, I don’t plan on mixing them any time soon. The same goes for Grant Morrison’s writing style and franchise superhero team epics; a writer famous for non-linear narratives and layers of literary allusion isn’t best suited to the straightforward melodrama that this super-traditional form of the genre works best with. If it were another fringe property like Animal Man, or a continuity-detached art book like All-Star Superman, this wouldn’t be a problem. But putting Grant Morrison on Final Crisis isn’t reason for the event-weary to read the book ( they probably wouldn’t in the first place ), so much as a detriment to the people who do enjoy big superhero epics. **

THE TREKKIE MONSTER PORNTASTIC ART AWARD: Greg Land/Terry Dodson Uncanny X-Men, Marvel Comics Despite the book’s masculine namesake, the X-Men have a long legacy of strong, vibrant super-heroines to their name. Moreover, they tend to attract more female fans than most superhero comics ( though not to damn with faint praise, even though I can’t calculate the female portion of most superhero comic books’ fandoms, as zero isn’t a number ). Te original title has received attention from a new creative team, but unless you’re a devoted subscriber to Maxim magazine, there’s more than a little difficulty presented in the book when its visuals take the overdevelopment of these super-women to new heights. Not only do we get Greg Land’s tracings of cleaned-up porn-stars, but even Terry Dodson, the half of the art team that can actually draw, uses his talent on very large chests. Worse yet, it seems like the writing team is deliberately playing to the art team’s objectification; witness the S&M Red Queen, the Sisterhood of Evil Mutants ( I can’t think of any other reason the feminization of male characters would be so popular ), the burlesque house mindscape of Scott Summers’ thoughts, and the parade of Emmas in exoticized period dresses. If Dodson stays the permanent artist, the over-the-top fetishization might be acceptable in light of the other strengths of the book, but it’s hard to get past those early Land issues and his inability to distinguish between a scream of pain and an orgasm face. Is shame a concept that somehow got lost to Marvel editorial?

THE YEAHBUHWHAT WEIRDNESS INDULGENCE AWARD: Joss Whedon, Buffy Season Eight It may be heartening to see a title not published by the Big Two sell well in the direct market, but the continuation of Joss Whedon’s classic TV show has several overlapping problems. Like superhero comics, Buffy Season Eight is largely an in-joke meant for a set of hardcore fans; while Whedon has enough devout followers to make a Buffy revival a financial success, I can’t see anyone else getting it. The fact that Whedon is released from a budget means that he gets to go in really strange places, making the book at its worst read like a superhero comic with a very warped interpretation of sexuality.

The most controversial situation was Buffy sleeping with her comrade Satsu, echoing the super-fluidity of orientation that appears in Whedon’s works ( though Willow still defines herself as exclusively lesbian ). But the most simply messed up example is Dawn....after sleeping with her boyfriend’s demonic roommate, she transforms into a giantess, and then a centaur. The giant form at least gave us Dawnzilla vs. Mechadawn ( awesome in its stupidity ), but the centaur form especially has no logical justification, other than to connect the Buffyverse further to Equus. Was anyone outside the darkest corners of erotic fan art asking for that?

THE J. EDGAR HOOVER ECONOMIC SENSE AWARD: Hardcover Collection Saturation ( Marvel and DC both ) The printed page has an unfortunate tradition of releasing material in more expensive hard-bound forms, so at least this isn’t a total case of comic publisher tunnel vision. But price-gouging is bad enough, and it’s worse for an industry that shouldn’t afford to do so***. Due to the increasingly ornate techniques of printing and coloring that American comics have adopted, trades are already a luxury item, with six issues for $15 being standard. Six issues for $20 with no distinction but a hard cover and dust jacket is even worse, because at that point it starts to eclipse the cost of buying all the original issues. Worse, there isn’t any guarantee that you’ll get at least six issues’ worth of content for the money ( Marvel recently rereleased the X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills OGN at that price point, despite having only 96 pages of material in the compilation ). Manga has found success due to an inexpensive price point per collection ( though you do end up buying a lot of them ), and even the big-publisher’s non-franchise imprints like Vertigo have found ways to make their trades cheaper. For the Big Two, there’s the feeling as though they’ve given up on trying for a wide audience, so they’re just milking their niche until its udders grow barren and withered.

THE HOLLYWOOD SCREENWRITER CONTRIVANCE AWARD: Mark Millar, ( Fantastic Four, 1985, Old Man Logan, and Kick-Ass at Marvel, War Heroes at Image ) One unique trait about Mark Millar’s comic work is that he writes as though he’s pitching movies, working in finite, contained arcs instead of long, rambling mega-arcs. The good news is that they generally offer stories that can be picked up on by people outside comics. The bad news is that they tend to do so by taking the most obvious cliches, the ones that play to studio agents interested in a bottom line but don’t offer anything interesting, and attach superheroes to them. Some have commented that you can tell what’s in Millar’s NetFlix queue by what obvious trapping he’s using; was he watching Michael Bay’s Transformers when he started on Fantastic Four? Was he working his way from Ocean’s Eleven to Ocean’s Thirteen when he pitched War Heroes? Was he revisiting Mad Max during his work on the alt. future Wolverine arc? Since none of these stories have particularly nuanced dialogue and narrative attached, the unoriginality of the surface becomes more obvious.

THE THOMAS PYNCHON NARRATIVE CONVOLUTION EXCESS AWARD: New Avengers and Mighty Avengers Secret Invasion arcs ( Marvel Comics ) Secret Invasion has clearly been in planning for a long time, and on some level you do have to admire Bendis’ thoroughness. He’d been seeding his Avengers with hints leading up to this story for years, even if they weren’t explicit ( often to the detriment of the stories at hand; had we known more of the Skrull Empire’s involvement, the conspiracy villains behind it all wouldn’t have felt so flat ). But while the main action occurred in the Secret Invasion proper story, the Avengers titles themselves were taken over by flashbacks and explanations, little vignettes about the many, many players involved in Earth’s assimilation. How the Skrulls managed to take over the world so quickly has interesting material; how they were involved in the Hood’s villain army or House of M or Fury’s Secret Warriors or Marvel Boy’s return just adds clutter. Especially when you consider the fact that Avengers comics might be best served starring the Avengers, as opposed to a legion of supporting players.

THE HUMPERDOOZIE 2008 LIFETIME “ ACHIEVEMENT “ AWARD: Jeph Loeb ( Ultimates 3, Ultimatum, Red Hulk at Marvel, Heroes tie-ins at DC ) You have to wonder what happened to make a writer skilled and respected enough to win Eisners degenerate to this level of quality. If there’s interest in his works, it’s not because he’s doing good stuff; it’s because he’s producing stuff so outrageously bad that it has a train-wreck appeal. His Red Hulk stories at least don’t pretend to be about anything more than a big jerk beating the crap out of everyone and everything, so they have a more favorable reception. But Ultimates 3 was on a level of crap that matched and even exceeded that of Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin; it didn’t have a clear purpose, other than to present violence and sex in ways we’d never wanted to imagine superheroes in before. The first two Ultimates used their excesses as part of a very big but effective satire, but Loeb doesn’t give us any nuance, just cannibalism, incest, and a character who takes emo-tinged killing sprees to new lows ( the new, darker Hawkeye ). The worst part is knowing that Loeb can do and has done

The “ Goddamn Batman “ line of some three years ago has been disposed; now, when you want a meme to express the sheer stupidity of contemporary superhero comics, you say “ then I guess that makes me the mother f***er! “. And that’s the perfect example of the problems with modern comics, and the reason why I was motivated to do this ( and the subsequent awards essay for the good comics of 2008 ).


* ( named after the signature catchphrase “ Humperdoo “ of the Grail’s original messiah in Preacher, the thoroughly inbred, intellectually primitive boy whose lineage may tie directly back to Jesus, but no longer has any relevance to anyone without that level of faith....sound familiar? )

* ( I had this problem with parts of his JLA and X-Men as well; stories that read like a jigsaw puzzle, like Crisis Times Five or Here Comes Tomorrow, weren’t nearly as memorable as the more straightforward works ).

** ( especially outside the direct market, where $4 for 18 pages of Ellis X-Men backup strips is grudgingly accepted )