Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best Comics of 2009

After a long post of grousing, I felt it was needed to mention the stand-outs of 2009's comic books-- and there were plenty of them. There were a lot of books that genuinely excited me last year. The rise of the Norman Empire made Marvel's line all in all more interesting, and even DC had a few standouts amidst its usual mix of Silver Age nostalgia and relentless sadism. Meanwhile, the smaller publishers gave us a salvo of great new material-- from continually entertaining series like Dynamo 5 and Umbrella Academy, to new phenomenons like Chew and Beasts of Burden. Granted, there was still the influence of Sturgeon's Law upon the industry, but this year it seemed that the quality AND quantity of 2009's portion of good comics was an increase over last year.

So, the awards:

BEST SUPERHERO STORY ARC: World's Most Wanted, Invincible Iron Man, Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca, Marvel. Not since Daredevil: Born Again has a mainstream superhero been torn apart so effectively. I could discuss how the story destroyed the entire empire of Tony Stark, down to the last soldering iron and broom closet. I could discuss how his supporting cast was forced to pick up his slack, and prove their worth against impossible odds. And I could even discuss the meticulousness of Tony's plans, which were so elaborate he could even pull them off with a barely working brain at hand.

But therein lies the greatest part of the story; Tony having to sacrifice his very intellect to fulfill his plans and atone for his sins. Many stories have been told with heroes on the run, and heroes like Tony Stark typically maintain a MacGyver-like aptitude for making solutions out of thin air. In this case, the deconstruction even went for his mind. An uncharacteristic level of sophistication was used for the treatment of Tony's degenerating brain, having the loss of knowledge occur in multiple areas in a randomized arrangement, and showing that he could still accomplish things without certain sections of ability ( as opposed to the linear model of IQ that is tragically common in pop culture ). Eventually, Tony would lose all of his function-- but the last thing to go was his heroism. Even at the end of the story, so addled he couldn't form a complete sentence, Tony tried to fight back against a superior and completely depraved enemy. His victory was phyrric in the practical sense, but in the moral sense, flawless-- would a lesser superhero subject themselves to a fate worse than death to fight off such an enemy? Or would such a story even occur to a lesser writer than Fraction?

The revelation that Tony had a back-up of his mind intended to be used by the other superheroes may somewhat mitigate the redemption of this story, but it was still a huge risk for the hero. And for the creative team, to take a whole year with a story that had the protagonist mentally deteriorating. But Fraction's brilliant scripting and Larroca's always excellent visual storytelling ( especially in regards to his renditions of technology ) pulled it off.

MOST IMPROVED SERIES: The Boys, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, Dynamite. At its launch, one might have dismissed the Boys as being a puerile spoof of superhero comics, much in the same vein of Mark Millars' Wanted. Superhero comic fans still do, but if they actually read the comic, they'd have less and less justification for their critiques beyond prudishness. What began as a continuation of Ennis' " The Pro " has actually been living up to the author's claim that it would exceed his magnum opus Preacher.

For all the gaudy spandex trappings, the Boys isn't really a superhero comic-- it's a scathing critique of the military-industrial complex, with the capes as the garnish. From the start we knew that the stereotypical superhero universe was just smoke and mirrors for a world of Caligula-like excess, but Ennis and Robertson drove the point home further and further. That the origin of all superhuman power is a compound developed decades ago through the Nazis' vivisection? That the United States' leadership is divided in a coup between the President, the Vice-President, and the military contractors responsible for the power of both? Or that the X-Men analogue " G-Men " is composed of children abducted at a young age and sexually abused to give them the right disposition? Even Norman Osborn in his flag-colored robot suit is nowhere near so cutting an instrument of satire.

Not that it's just unpleasant to read; it has all the great dialogue and dark humor characteristic of a Garth Ennis comic, and Darick Robertson's excellent character design is in full force here. There's even a love story at the heart that serves as an anchor amidst the relentless cruelty of the universe. What Preacher did as a satire of religion, the Boys appears to be doing as a satire of military culture; don't let the abuse of capes detract from that.

BEST SINGLE ISSUE: Captain America: Who Will Wield the Shield. Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Luke Ross. Marvel. This wasn't a good year for Cap, after an exceptional 2008; the big event of the year, the resurrection of Steve Rogers, was just an extended action scene with a pointlessly convoluted plot, harmed by the art of Bryan Hitch ( who has moved too far from energetic storytelling into hyper-rendered set pieces, with the story suffering for it. Fortunately, the one-shot epilogue to the series delivered in a very substantial way.

The question raised by the title is answered, but not conclusively-- the prediction was that with Steve Rogers back, his replacement Bucky would either meet a quick end or simply fade into the background. Steve metatextually agrees, hence how he responds to ominous visions by asking Bucky to stay as Cap. But Steve's not simply retiring; he's keeping active in the hero community, especially given how far it's gone to hell in his absence. The characterization is as sharp as ever under Ed Brubaker, but what really sold me on the issue was Steve's dialogue with Barack Obama.

Marvel writers tend to lean towards the left, hence why Marvel-Dubya has been stripped naked tortured by Magneto AND cuckolded by Iron Man. Given Obama's reputation, one would think he'd escape this scrutiny-- at least, last year, that's what one would think. But Barack's inability to make real change has not been unnoticed, and his talk with Captain America makes him almost a pathetic figure-- he's talking about how he doesn't agree with things like Superhuman Registration or HAMMER Director Norman Osborn, but how he can't do anything about it. One might even think that he actually voted for the Registration Act while he was a Senator, and is retrospectively downplaying this given the company he's with. Obama isn't the savior others made him out to be, and his office forces him to support the status quo that he knows should be changed-- so thus, he turns to Captain America.

It's really interesting since the Dark Reign was conceived during Dubya's reign of error, and the Marvel Universe finally appears to be catching up to current politics. If Tony and later Norman represented the Bush administration, Steve is now Obama-- the figurehead for change and hope. I'll enjoy seeing how well he holds up under this level of pressure.

BEST NEW SERIES: Chew, John Layman and Trevor Guillory, Image. The moment this appeared in the solicitations, it looked like a huge conceptual gamble-- something that would be wonderful or terrible. Certainly the ideas represented were way out of the audience's experience. A detective with a psychometric sense of taste, who can read the past of what he eats? A job that forces him to eat all manner of awful things? A food-themed alternate America where the FDA rules with an iron fist and poultry is banned?

And then you get to the series itself, beyond the first issue. The character designs are extremely bizarre and exaggerated; the character of Mason is described by the artist as " the love child of Orson Welles and a grizzly bear ". The stories involve all sorts of food-themed bizarreness, such as a woman who can empathically influence people with her writing about food. And there's a meticulous constructed plot here about the Bird Flu scare, and the truth about it. Yes, this is an ongoing series with very dark undercurrents about a detective who psychically reads what he eats ( except beets, which somehow block his power ). It would either succeed spectacularly or perish pathetically.

And guess what? It succeeded. So suck it.

BEST MINI-SERIES: Beasts of Burden, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, Dark Horse. It's no secret that I love animals, especially dogs and cats. I love seeing comics about animals being animals; anthropomorphized enough to talk, but not enough to stand, wear clothes, or have human-type anatomy ( I'm NOT going any further with that ). Unfortunately, it's hard to find that balance in a way that's convincing. We3 was a triumph in this arena, but beyond that, good treatments of animal characters are few and far between.

Beasts of Burden delivered this. It's a great comic about household pets solving neighborhood supernatural crimes. The series is still relatively new-- it has some backstory as an online strip and only four issues on the stands-- and admittedly many of the characters seem identical. But the dogs and cats are wonderful creatures, who show depth beyond the story structure requirements when given a chance. Here, they aren't animals acting like their human masters; they're animals who have far more going on than their masters assume, but in a uniquely non-human way; the dialogue is in English, but the perspectives feel like they're from a different species with their own religious traditions. There are many stories about evil in suburban backyards, but few where the animals hold the line.

What's more, it's not a simple funny story. It has a strong element of horror, and sadly, that horror isn't always from the monsters-- the worse scenes involve human treatment of the pets. Issue 2, which had a ghostly dog trying to find justice for the deaths of her puppies ( coldly thrown in a lake ), was just brutal. And issue 4 was just as gripping.

They've only begun to scratch the surface of the Beasts of Burden's world, but Dorkin and Thompson gave us so much, that I demand more in 2010.

And the Person Of The Year: Brian Michael Bendis, for New Avengers and Dark Avengers. The series of essays I did for New Avengers' five-year-anniversary illustrate better how I feel about Bendis' work on the Avengers as a whole, but the Avengers books were the comics I followed closest this year. Intellectually pretentious fans may bitch about crossovers, and lord knows I've done it too; however, I can't deny how much I've enjoyed Dark Reign, especially in the aforementioned Iron Man comic and the Avengers books.

Bendis' Avengers have steadily been improving since the rough start of Avengers Disassembled, and really hit their stride when he started writing the second book Mighty Avengers as well. The idea of two duelling Avengers teams was a welcome one, but then the two teams were holding back against each other due to their former friendships. Now, we have the dynamic consolidated, with one book for the heroes, and one book for the newly-marketable villains. The way both of Bendis' books tie into each other is a unique dynamic, and I have to admit, one that could only work in a super-consolidated shared universe.

In New Avengers, we've seen many improvements. The Secret Invasion conspiracy stories are over, so the dangling plot threads have been reduced. The character dynamics have been developed further, with Luke Cage and Jessica Jones really starting to see how impossible it is to raise a child as vigilante metahumans, Clint Barton's nervous breakdown getting more and more extreme, and Captain Bucky joining with the disposition of a kid trying to fit in with his older brother's friends. Also, Stuart Immonen's art has turbo-charged the enjoyment of the book, and the stories have become more focused without the rotations and flash.

Meanwhile, Dark Avengers is just great. Norman Osborn, a complete monster in other comics, actually receives some sympathy in the comic series that is basically his. He's joined by the rest of his EllisBolts buddies, also dressed as heroes and trying/failing to restrain their psychopathic tendencies. The team isn't all evil, as Ares ( more of a Chaotic Neutral figure in the D&D alignment schema ) and the impressionable Sentry are on the staff, but it's still very much a villain book. The entertainment is in watching how long they can keep it up, and from all indications, it's falling apart. Also, Mike Deodato Jr. is on the art duties, and he's the artist who's given us the definitive version of Norman since he drew the guy's sex-face.

I hope that once Dark Reign ends early next year, the two-book dynamic will be kept up, because I've enjoyed it so much this year that reverting to a single Avengers faction with a unified heroic mission would be a let down. Kudos, BMB.

Here's to 2010 being even better.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ruby's World: Now Weekly!

Just approaching the end of the Holidays, my comic takes a long-overdue shift in scheduling; now, it'll be updating in single pages, three times a week. This will mean a lot more work, but also increased momentum. To go directly to the latest page,
go Here

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The 2009 Humperdoozie Awards for Exceptional Blundering in American Comics

Last year, I wrote the first Humpredoozies* article, listing the dumbest things that I thought Western publishers did. Looking back, I have to admit that 2008 was quite a bit worse for comics, and this year has seen better output overall; there will always be complete turkeys in comics, but it's much less common that great work is produced, and this year's given us Chew, Asterios Polyp, Beasts of Burden, World's Most Wanted, and Dick and Damien's Excellent Adventure**, as well as more consistently good work from continuing series. I also have to admit that I should have actually written a column on the stuff I liked that year, instead of just promising it. 2008 me was far weaker at this blogging thing, but 2009 will avenge the mistakes of the past and punch them in the weiner.

But as I said, there will always be complete turkeys, and the Humperdoozies award the worst of the worst-- the comics that aren't just weakly written and drawn, but do something outstandingly stupid and reach a level of suck that isn't just forgettable, but repellant. Every medium has its flops, but comics have a smaller audience than most-- and while that means great things can happen due to the lack of supervision, it also means a tendency for asylums staffed with inmates. So without further ado, here those allegorical inmates are...

THE RORY GILMORE AWARD FOR MOST REPREHENSIBLE PROTAGONIST: Cyclops, Uncanny X-Men by Matt Fraction, Greg Land, and the Dodsons. I name this award for the young co-star of the excellent Gilmore Girls show, who became more spoiled, egotistical, and self-destructive as the show went on ( and yes, I am a heterosexual man AND a fan of GGs ). And even as Rory moved away from her mother's hard-working values to her grandparents' WASPy decadence, developed tastes in men similar to those of Eva Braun, commit actual crimes without remorse or significant consequence, and all the while acted like she was still a great student and a good person with unique insights-- it seemed that the show's writers were coming very close to acknowledging what a reprehensible, vapid bitch Rory had become, but didn't actually go through with it. Such is the case with Cyclops, the first and once greatest of the X-Man.

People have commented that Scott Summers has gone downhill since he left his saintly wife Jean Grey for the profoundly immodest ex-villainess Emma Frost, but now his decisions are even less moral than hers. What's more, Scott's not even good at being a manipulative bastard-- his schemes are bluntly obvious and only succeed on luck. He didn't defeat Norman Osborn-- he just moved the mutant community to an offshore island, cowering from Norman's dark reign in international waters. He stopped Ares and Sentry, but only did so by having two of his people make deals with even worse forces ( Hela, and the Void, respectively ). He didn't bother to think through little concerns like food, electricity, indoor plumbing, or NOT HAVING THE FUCKING THING SINK INTO THE OCEAN before he made his island nation. And he's still commanding the X-Force squad of mutant assassins, a PR nightmare in the making so great that even the Red Hulk scoffs at it. Yet even though he's done nothing except buy mutantkind time against inevitable destruction, much of which wouldn't have come about if he'd actually gotten his shit together, Scott still believes he's a great leader with a master plan.

And apparently so does Matt Fraction, because at the end of the day, Scott is still treated as the great hero whose master plan justifies throwing out Xavier's founding mission of peaceful co-existence in favor of an isolationist, segregated mutant nation on a desolate ocean rock. Meanwhile, the other X-Men comics have to deal with the nonsense status quo of Nation X, and every time a character appears in the same panel as Cyclops and isn't causing him physical and/or emotional harm, their heroism loses credibility.

THE WOLFENSTEIN 2D AWARD FOR NEEDLESS BLOODSHED ON PAGE: Blackest Night and tie-ins, by DC Comics. The past few years have seen DC's superhero comics go from being PG to practically R-rated in terms of gore. Whatever the quality of the stories have been, there seems to be an encouragement for horror-movie levels of violence. Except, unlike the better horror movies, the bright spandex trappings of the DC Universe make such displays of gorn the kind of thing you wish were joking about. Comedic heroes get capped in the head, animal sidekicks devour their owners, Black Adam has become so good at ripping people apart that he can rip someone in half with one hand while the other plays with himself, and Superboy Prime seems to be a deliberate self-parody-- he wants things to be the traditional way he remembers them, but he unleashes an orgy of dismemberment to get it every time he appears.

However, I would rather have a superhero universe that doesn't revel in blood and guts instead of one that lampshades itself and doesn't do anything about it-- and if Blackest Night is any indication, it's just going to get worse. The many characters who have died are back-- except, to further indicate why most DC writers would be a more comfortable fit on the scripts to the next few dozen SAW movies, they're back as evil zombies!*** And they go forth to further kill and eat the surviving heroes, all the while giving long speeches about how the heroes are such failures. Yes, DC Comics have finally become one big horror movie. Now they just need to ditch all the superheroes in favor of nubile teenage cannon fodder in Abercombie and Fitch decor, so they can finally stop pretending they're doing anything else.

THE KURT COBAIN AND MORTAL KOMBAT AWARD FOR POINTLESS NINETIES NOSTALGIA: Invincible 60. Granted, Image United was a more blatant example ( though I didn't read it and don't plan to ) but this " summer crossover in one issue " guest-starring everyone Image still has some rights to was really frustrating. Certainly it was an interesting idea, and far and away preferrable to Marvel or DC dragging these stories across their entire respective lines for months, but I really hoped for better from Kirkman. Invincible is one of the best superhero comics on the stands, and a prime example of how creator-owned stories are good even for traditional genre fare-- a major reason being because they don't have to deal with such crossover nonsense and can just get to the meat of the story. But this comic, which wastes many pages on casts of characters from other creators' books who will not have any meaningful development here, fell into the avoidable excesses of the rest of the superhero genre. And since many of these Image all-stars aren't big commercial draws for anyone except fans of 1990's superhero comics that didn't stop holding a torch for shoulder pads and BFGs, I don't even know if it was so important that they appear on the pages themselves, as opposed to just the cover.

Suffice to say, I give Invincible 60 this award because while the main story was good, it didn't need so much page space devoted to the crossover orgy, and that detracted from the Invincible series at hand.

THE REPETITIVE REDUNDANCY AND REDUNDANT REPETITION AWARD: Tie between Flash: Rebirth and Superman: Secret Origin, DC Comics. Geoff Johns' Green Lantern reboot has been extremely successful, even though people initially questioned the wisdom of bringing back long-dead Silver Age hero Hal Jordan. Since it's proven successful, DC has to respond the only way a big comic company in charge of a shared superhero universe can; beat that approach into the ground until it stops selling. Case in point; two series with themes and even titles lifted from key Green Lantern stories, both also written by Geoff Johns, just applied to different characters.

However, while the approach has been applied to different characters, it's been done so in a way that doesn't fit the individual case. Hal Jordan's return can be justified by the fact that he'd had a sloppily written and inconclusive death/fall from grace, and excising the Green Lantern Corps from the franchise in favor of a Peter Parker Expy being the center of attention sacrificed too much. But Barry Allen had an extremely conclusive and memorable heroic over two decades ago, and his replacement Wally West had proven himself a worthy replacement in that time ( including the many Wally West Flash stories at the hand of Geoff Johns himself ). Similarly, Green Lantern: Secret Origin was a beneficial update to Hal Jordan's backstory that helped foreshadow new developments in the series, while the Superman story; well, everyone with a passing familiarity with superheroes knows Superman, and he's already had a great many origin retellings, so why yet another one?

Since Johns is writing, there's a high degree of craft involved, and the artists are excellent for both, but I would hate to have material for " The Geoff Johns Story Blueprint ", especially if I have to write " The Geoff Johns story wallows in the past regardless of the quality of the present ".

THE CRY FOR JUSTICE AWARD FOR BEING CRY FOR JUSTICE: Cry for Justice, DC Comics. Yes, Cry for Justice falls into the " Shaped like Itself " category, because this thing is so profoundly ridiculous that it doesn't fit into anyone category. The creative team was promising-- James Robinson is a respected veteran of DC comics, and the shots we saw from digital painter Mauro Cascoli were beautifu, but in practice all they've done is create a work that takes itself far more seriously than it should. It's similar to Blackest Night in terms of the violence, but instead of taking refuge in horror-movie audacity, it treats itself like Big PRestigious Story in the vein of Kingdom Come-- and fails spectacularly at doing so.

To the people outside the DC Comics offices ( and probably a few inside, if they care to admit it ), this is not a great work. It is a ridiculous story that treats some of the biggest cliches' in superhero comics like they're somehow novel. The veteran heroes who decide to take a hard line against super-crime are not only ripping off books like X-Force and the Authority that have been doing that for many years, but they're quite obviously echoing the use of torture in the War on Terror, without doing it in a context with even the slightest resemblance to the real world's depth. So, instead of increased stakes for the Justice League, we get the protagonists coming off as grumpy old men, trying to use the tactics of the people they're trying to keep off their lawns.

And it just gets worse from there. Characters are brought from various corridors of the DCU to receive grim-and-gritty updates-- Congo Bill, a human mind in an ancient gorilla body, comes in to weep over his fallen brethren and demand vengeance himself. The Atom, a character with the inherently unimpressive power of shrinking, uses it to step inside captives' heads and interrogate them by stomping on their brains ( and he does it so often even the characters in the work itself get tired of it ). Black Canary is kept absent for the first part, but later comes back to chastise her husband Green Arrow for his actions-- and, because apparently having her as a strong independent heroine wasn't kosher, her complaints are more about him neglecting her feelings than his team's use of TORTURE. Meanwhile, the token female on the main cast is the teenaged Supergirl-- hanging out with a bunch of middle-aged men, with only Captain Marvel Jr. around to diffuse the impression that she's just their shared Lolita.

The story is profoudnly melodramatic. The art would be good in another title, but that would be providing said title wasn't trying so hard to impress the audience. The dialogue is some of the clunkiest ever printed in a professional work ( " We want Prometheus! And justice, when you get down to it. " ). And even amidst the release of Blackest Night, the scene in the latest issue with Roy Harper getting his arm ripped off manages to out-gorn most of its competition for pointless dismemberment. If there's one consolation, it's that this has been an unintentionally hilarious comic. But it wasn't shipped as " Laugh at Justice ", right?

THE HUMPERDOOZIES 2009 LIFETIME UNDERACHIEVEMENT AWARD: Greg Land, Uncanny X-Men. Last year I gave this prize to Jeph Loeb, who hasn't stopped doing ridiculously stupid scripts since then, but hasn't topped himself either. I also gave an award to Greg Land last year, and he hasn't changed his style-- so he wins it this year. Comic companies will always do stupid things, but rarely will they do stuff that is outright angering beyond the parameters of regular nerd rage-- and Land's continuing work fits.

Everything about Land's art that can be said has been said-- it's overly surface, the character poses are stiff and lifeless, the faces are almost universally identical to each other, the scenes use reference material to the point of plagiarism, and the women are drawn like porn stars ( even teenaged characters; perhaps I should have named this " The Roman Polanski Award " ) . And yet, he's still drawing the X-Men as half of the regular art team. Apparently, since he gets work done on time and looks pretty in an air-brushed sort of way, the nigh-complete deterioration of his willingness to do original work and express something unique with his art is an acceptable loss. This isn't just goofy art in the realm of Rob Liefeld, which at least has some endearing qualities in its technical flaws and masculine excess. This is the kind of art that is offensively bad, and deserves as little respect as the artist apparently has for his audience.

Well, I have less anger at comics this year, and I hope that I'll have even less to rant about next year, but somehow I doubt that.

* Named for the calling cry of the Grail's Messiah in Preacher, who came from Christ's bloodline, but is the result of so many centuries of inbreeding that he's regressed a few million years of evolution. " Son of God or son of Man, you don't fuck your sister and expect much good to come of it ", to paraphrase Herr Starr, that still seems to be what comic book companies excel at with their publishing decisions.
** Batman and Robin, but since that's the main story hook of the new direction, that's how I'll be referencing it.
*** I'm aware that DC editors have gone on record to argue that the Blackest Night villains aren't zombies, since they're not shambling and mindless. But they're still undead, butt-ugly, evil, and make living beings into similarly undead, butt-ugly, and evil creatures. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc..

Friday, December 11, 2009

In Light of Nemesis; The Blueprint for Pretty Much Every Mark Millar Comic

In light of the Nemesis news, which I hope is not more of the same

After nearly a decade of consistent popularity, Mark Millar has developed a finely tuned formula for what to expect from his comic writings. By " developed ", I also mean " has fastidiously stuck to with little if any deviation ". And I say this from someone who has absolutely loved his work in the past, particularly on the Authority and the Ultimate Marvel characters, and even his year-long runs on Spider-Man and Wolverine. But in the past couple years especially, Millar's comics have become based on a very tight blueprint that's good at the illusion of deep, challenging work. Unfortunately, after many years, it's become apparent how the magician is doing the trick. Again, and again.

For example;

-- The Mark Millar story is a superhero premise with a high concept twist. Emphasis on high concept; the twists are readily apparent and easily digestible. Examples include Wanted ( supervillains secretly rule the world, Joe Schmoe discovers he's heir to the deadliest of them all ), Kick-Ass ( comic book fan tries to be a costumed superhero in a world without powers ), War Heroes ( military develops super-power pills, soldiers use them for massive heist ), and now Nemesis ( Batman figure turns out to have Joker modus operandi ), If it's a run on a corporate-owned franchise, it's less likely to be so obvious, since Millar is putting in a longer story there. But even then Millar tends to write his stories as finite runs with clear premises, most notably with Civil War ( superheroes brawl over thinly veiled post 9-11 issues of freedom vs. security ), but also with Old Man Logan ( shell-shocked veteran Wolverine pulled out of retirement for one last big kill ), 1985 ( 80's supervillains attack real world of 1985 ), and even the Ultimates ( Marvel history rewritten for Bush-era America ). These at first seem like ideas so devilishly simple that you're surprised nobody's thought of it prior. The truth is that people have thought up these story ideas, they just were represented in more subtle and nuanced ways ( JLA villain Prometheus being created as an evil Batman, late 80's fantastic four dealing with superhero registration in a sane and reasonable fashion ). But if you want the blockbuster treatment...

-- The Mark Millar story never has a hero. Protagonists do things that may be labelled heroic, but it's clear that the motivations are never pure, and the results are never wholly successful. The closest character Millar can write to a hero is a character like his version of Peter Parker, who's simply so naive that he doesn't know there's more than a good vs. evil binary to the world. Otherwise, his heroes are zealots for a very fundamentalist notion of justice ( Civil War Cap, Ultimate Thor, Ultimate Xavier, possibly Kick-Ass ), or self-serving nigh-sociopathic individuals who happen to target the right enemies ( Wolverine, the Authority, the rest of the Ultimates, Civil War Iron Man, most of the Fantastic Four but especially Johnny Storm ). Nemesis will probably have the Millar version of the Gotham Police work under a similar paradigm.

-- The Mark Millar story always has a villain. Nobody is 100% good, but there are people who are 110% evil, so vile that they go beyond the normal possibility of 100. Wanted has its protagonist become utterly hedonistic and depraved once he receives power, scoffing about how he can " rape an A-List celebrity and not even have it make the news ". The Wolverine story " Enemy of the State " has the Gorgon, who mathematically disproved the existence of God and works towards the destruction of life PERIOD. The Authority faced a number of genocidal maniacs obsessed with rape. And while Norman Osborn has always been a complete monster, Millar gave him his worst act to date-- upon learning of the chronic illness of his prison guard's wife, made a cure for her, which made her temporarily healthier but then killed her even more painfully. Nemesis should, by the very definition, provide a villain with similar actions ( especially since Millar compares him to the Joker, the worst super-villain since super became attached to villain ).

-- The Mark Millar story almost always has a Morality Pet,a genuinely pure and good character who is there for no reason other than to offset the nihilism everywhere else in the story. Characters like Hawkeye's family in the Ultimates, the Vulture's terminally ill grand-son in Marvel Knights Spider-Man, Dave's hard-working widower dad in Kick-Ass, the kidnapped little Japanese boy in Wolverine: Enemy of the State, Cindy Sheehan analogue Miriam Sharpe in Civil War, and Wolverine's Little House on the Prairie brood come to mind. Toby from 1985 might qualify, because he's got divorced parents ( though it isn't used for much other than stock drama ), but he's a protagonist. These characters tend not to have any agency other than to show that the world isn't all bad. However, they also tend to either suffer or outright die, reinforcing the nihilistic premises. They aren't characters who draw sympathy so much as attempts to show that the worlds Millar writes aren't entirely unsympathetic-- but they're still outweighed by the Wesley Gibsons of the worlds. I'm not sure how this will appear in Nemesis, but I hope that the titular character doesn't justify murder and pillage by being a single father to a child with cystic fibrosis.

-- The Mark Millar story has an extensive amount of conversational dialogue filling in backstory, giving hints to a colorful history and universe-- without actually showing us said colorful history and universe. Professor X will write a book on Mutant Boom and Bust Economics, Tony Stark will have a history of suicide attempts, countless characters will have backstories that make them " cry themselves to sleep every night " ( Bruce Banner, Ben Grimm, Bobby Drake, and more ), and as I said before Wesley Gibson will be able to commit rape without consequence-- but we don't find out anything more about these story threads. It seems like a compromise between having big unique ideas without having to risk them not succeeding-- these asides don't go into Mutant Economics or Reed Richards' 100 ideas for a better society, so there's no chance of failure for expanding on those ideas-- but no change of the success that a really thought-provoking story could offer. They're just expanding on what's already there.

-- The Mark Millar story has a style of dialogue that is universally nasty and insulting. Every character will call someone else an idiot, a moron, a dumbass, a ( R-Word deleted ), or some other insult to their intelligence. Villains are especially insulting, and they relish in exposing their nemeses to depraved monologues. Heroes aren't disgusting, but they do tend to go past witty banter and into outright dissing their opponents. Even nice characters talk with this dialogue rhythm, and tend to sound very condescending as a result ( Aunt May, for example, jokingly chastising Peter at the end of Marvel Knights Spider-Man for his tired " I'm giving up being Spidey forever " monologues ). It's a series of memorable lines, but it doesn't really work as dialogue, and it doesn't show a lot of range; at least in Nemesis, the protagonist is a villain, so this should be appropriate for him.

-- The Mark Millar story is told in wide, letter-boxed panels designed to imitate big budget movies. Many contemporary writers use this format for their scripts, most notably Warren Ellis with his " Authority ", but Millar has made it the key to his style. His scripts are written with big " moments " in mind, massive panels displaying awesome images. Every artist he collaborates with delivers this, and they very from dramatic gestures ( Wesley breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience in the end of Wanted ) to big action scenes ( Iron Man ripping open Captain America's face and years of borderline homoerotic bonding as a result ). Artists like Bryan Hitch, who are well known for drawing this sort of story, are called to be especially showy; Ultimates 2 ended with an orgy of splash pages as the Ultimates take down their third world enemies. Seriously, they had a six-page gatefold spread. These are most obvious in the endings to individual issues; typically there's a splash page ending with one ominous line of dialogue, like the first issue of Ultimate X-Men ( where we find that Wolverine is introduced as a Brotherhood assassin ).

-- The Mark Millar story has lots of references to pop culture and current events. Millar's stories tend to be very specific to the present ( exceptions occur like the Jenny Sparks history, Red Son, or 1985, but it's clear that Millar's preferred ouvere is dealing with the now ), and deal with headlines as they come up. His superhero comics tend to deal with the War on Terror in a very explicit fashion-- Ultimate X-Men has mutants cast in the role of Muslims ( though I have to give Millar a lot of credit for the fact that he was writing this series almost a year before 9/11, which makes " The Tomorrow People " arc almost prophetic ), Ultimates deals with America's concerns about homeland security, and Ultimates 2 is direct commentary on the " nation-building " tactic of Iraq. War Heroes also qualifies, since it was originally planned for Ultimates 3; Civil War was meant to, though it ends up being more of a really awkward version of the gun control debate. Pop culture also commonly appears; Kick-Ass is heavily influenced by the runaway popularity of internet video sites like YouTube, the fledgling mutants in Ultimate X-Men make constant pop culture references ( like how Iceman " should have been playing Metal Gear Solid like every other kid his age " ), the Ultimates has all its members become celebrity tabloid fodder, and many characters are actually based on popular celebrity likenesses ( most notably Wesley Gibson, based on rapper Eminem ). It's no wonder that the Ultimates had a scene with the characters chatting about who'd play them in a movie version.

I'm wondering if the fact that Iron Man movie actually DID get Samuel L. Jackson to be Nick Fury will further encourage this trend, and not just amongst Millar.

-- The Mark Millar story has blood. Lots of blood. People who watch Saturday Morning cartoons as an adult might wonder why they shoot lasers instead of bullets, why no civilians get hurt, and how someone can survive being hit by Superman. The sheer amount of collateral damage in the Mark Millar story is evidence why kids' versions of superheroes try to avoid that. It's logical, but it means that families in SUVs are incinerated when Electro goes rampaging towards Spider-Man, schoolyards of children are murdered when neophyte heroes screw up in Civil War, and people trying to be heroes without powers in Kick-Ass end up getting their faces worked into the shape and texture of a dog's breakfast. This shows up in Millar's Marvel work, even that which is intended to be towards a more general audience ( like Ultimate X-Men, initially ). His creator-owned work is even more egregious with this, being the " Too Hot for DC " version of his stories with franchise characters.

-- The Mark Millar story never has a happy ending. There's often a big party serving as an epilogue, as we saw in the Authority ( Apollo and the Midnighter's big gay wedding ), Ultimates 1 ( the White House party with Tony Stark about to cuckold George W. ), and the penultimate issue of Ultimate X-Men ( the opening of the Xavier School to the public ); even without the party, there's still always a sequence that indicates that it's not really the end. In Wanted, we get the immortal line " This is the look on my face as I'm fucking you in the ass " addressed to the audience; in Ultimates 2, we get a tragic flashback to the 1940's with Captain America promising his then-girlfriend that this will all be over soon. Civil War has Tony Stark kind-of bringing the world to order, though he does so in a very smug way that seems to invoke Wesley Gibson's parting lines. And while Marvel Knights Spider-Man is one of the few optimistic stories Millar has given us, it still ends on the note that the endless dance between Peter Parker and Norman Osborn is distracting him from doing anything meaningful in the world beyond being a costumed vigilante.

With this all said, I can envision a lot of Nemesis before it happens, and I'm hoping dearly that Millar will expand his repertoire. His formula has more often than not produced entertaining results. However, it's a formula, and it has limits. Many of Millar's contemporaries have their own stylistic quirks, but their stories have more range than this. Grant Morrison can do more than non-linear stories that read like hallucinations; Garth Ennis does genres other than just stories mercilessly satirizing religion, government, and spandex. Millar should be able to go beyond the super-cynical, super-violent, super-"hero" story. I have faith in him having the capacity to do so; I just hope he develops the inclination.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Maybe It Just Hurts To Be Me; Wolverine and Chronic Pain

An interesting reinterpretation of Wolverine's mutant healing factor occured in Jason Aaron and Ron Garney's story " Get Mystique ", where one of his strategies involved faking his death with a car bomb-- which, thanks to his regenerative abilities, allowed him to make it even more convincing by blowing himself up along with the car. Logan's inner monologue explained that people assume that he doesn't feel pain because he can recover from these massive injuries, whereas in fact the reverse is true-- not only does he feel pain, but the trauma sticks with him psychologically. With everything Logan's endured in his hundred-some years of life, the worst of which being the Weapon X procedure that forcibly bonded metal to his bones and claws ( something which gives him continual heavy metal poisoning, but does not debilitate him thanks to the healing factor ), the pain he feels is as chronic as it is severe, and he has had to accept that nothing will remove the pervasive discomfort.
This is an interesting wrinkle because it makes Wolverine a chronic pain sufferer, and he's far from the type of personality that most in Western culture would associate with chronic pain. At his most simplistic, Wolverine is a superhero who collects every adolescent male power fantasy cliche'. When he's not out chopping up bad guys with his claws, he's smoking cigars, drinking beer, tooling around with motorcycles, and bedding women with his ( literal ) animal magnetism. He endures a lot of suffering from being stabbed/shot/poisoned/blown up/steamrolled/etc ( writers get more and more inventive with what to throw at him for this reason ), but he always heals from it and comes back swinging, a superhuman metaphor for the all-American notion of " playing through the pain ". These are not the acts of a victim bedridden by physical and psychological suffering; Logan can't even be seen as an abuser of pain-relieving drugs, since his healing factor nullifies the effects of all poisons ( including the kind that are socially desirable, like alcohol and nicotine; he must just like the taste of beer, for some reason. ).

If Wolverine is in constant discomfort, it doesn't manifest as a handicap, unless being grouchy and temperamental is a disability. But the hyper-masculine activities that Logan engages in on a regular basis aren't necessarily evidence that he can overcome incomprehensible trauma; it's also been suggested that his adventuring is a compulsion to avoid being alone with his thoughts and feelings. Another great Wolverine story by Aaron started out by spoofing Logan's massive overexposure in Marvel comics by showing how tiring it is for him to fit all his adventures and team-ups with other heroes into a given week, but took a serious tone when Logan finally explained why he puts himself through so much stress-- he doesn't want to be alone with himself and his past. The past Logan refers to is the sins he's commit in his many years prior to being a superhero, but the same logic could be applied to the way he feels about his trauma. It's not something he wants to acknowledge, let alone confront.

Yet many Wolverine stories end up forcing Wolverine acknowledge his inner turmoil, even if he doesn't " overcome " it. The prevalence of Japan in Wolverine's backstory is more than an excuse for Logan to fight ninjas or angst over his dead princess fiance'-- to him, it's a place of peace and contemplation, where he can reach clarity through meditation. Logan doesn't specify a religion, and has even been portrayed as an atheist when it comes to the Judeo-Christian God, but he has a strong ( if also abstract ) sense of spirituality. In his quiet moments, Logan looks to ( admittedly not too specified ) Eastern religion, suspending judgment and finding emotional clarity. Logan can never overcome all of his trauma, but he does find ways to cope with it so he can function as a human being, instead of an injured beast.

Which, ultimately, is why Logan is one of the most heroic figures in the Marvel Universe. That he uses lethal force obscures this for many ( not me, but the whole should heroes kill debate is for another post ), but based on what he's endured, choosing to be a superhero carries much more weight. Logan has lived over a century and endured more pain, suffering, loss, and guilt than any other human or mutant. His healing factor ensures that he cannot age or die, but it also means that suicide is not an option for removing his constant trauma. To cope with his pain, he would have every excuse to be a complete hermit living in the woods, or even a heartless mercenary like his arch-nemesis Sabretooth. But he has chosen to protect innocents and fight evil, even though it means acquiring more pain and suffering.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ruby's World Comic Update

Click Here

More comics up, this time with more emphasis on the " widescreen " school of storytelling. I've always liked that kind of letterbox layout in comics, as it appears under the hands of artists like Frank Quitely and John Cassaday and Bryan Hitch. Any feedback, especially pertaining to how this works, would be appreciated.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Iron Man and the Nature of Power

From a post on the Iron Man Message Board, in response to the removal of Tony Stark's innate bio-abilities

If Iron Man retained the Extremis nanotech capabilities, but kept fighting super-villains, he'd trounce them easily. Not only would the already troubled dramatic tension of franchise superhero comics be further reduced, but Tony would almost come across as a bully for only fighting weaker enemies. Fiction favors the underdog-- another reason Tony is hard to write, because he's a rich genius who built his empire on military-industrial blood money.

This is why once Tony became Extremis enhanced, he stopped fighting villains ( except for cases like the Inevitable, which was meant to prove that he couldn't be bothered with costumed thugs anymore ) and went to bigger challenges; instead of just saving the world, he was trying to fix it. The Project ARGONAUT team of remote-controlled Iron Men was a precursor to this mentality, but the Director of SHIELD role was even more ambitious-- he'd gone from making Iron Man security for Stark International to security for the world. Which made the threats he faced even greater-- Ezekiel Stane being the harbinger of the new era, someone who spread super-terror on a level that not even Tony's awareness could match.

Of course, Tony DID match Zeke, but only by destroying his company and killing several of Zeke's cohorts. Which really unsettled Tony-- that story ended with him realizing that in order to fight that kind of brutality, he'd have to become more brutal himself. It's not about him being a human who uses the best of his species' abilities to compete with gods and monsters, but about a human who excises his species' innate capacity for good to compete. Note how this is the way many of Marvel's great villains started; Doom, Magneto, the Ghost, and others had good intentions, but they perverted themselves to the point where they couldn't even act decent any longer.

The problem with power is that even if you try to amass it for good reasons, somebody else is going to amass more of it in response, and then it becomes a vicious cycle. With Tony, this is mixed in with his self-loathing ablism-- wether he admits it or not, he wants the progressively increased strength of the Iron Man to compensate for his own failings. It's no coincidence that his greatest invention is a human prosthesis, that enhances his capabilities but hides his humanity. With the Iron Man, and especially with the Extremis enhancile that eradicated the barrier between man and armor, Tony used technological power to eliminate weakness, as opposed to accepting it. And hence, greater power leads to greater opposition.

Now, Tony Stark's failures have given us Norman Osborn's empire-- a man who has basically become a homunculus of Tony's sins. The system of SHIELD directors went from Nick Fury, who had to make hard decisions but whose sympathies ultimately lay with his constituents ( especially his troops ), to Tony, who made even more controversial decisions in the name of an ambiguous " better tomorrow ", to Norman, who does horrible things simply to serve his own ego. The Marvel power struggle in which Tony was so instrumental created an environment where a madman could become America's greatest hero through clever PR. Which left Tony a disgraced fugitive, feeling responsible.

This makes Tony's self-destruction in the current storyline an attempt to find a different solution, since gaining power had failed him and endangered others. Tony's new plan inverted his previous methods in an almost religious fashion-- stripping himself of all abilities until he's completely helpless. Not only because he didn't want his nanotech-enhanced brain falling into Norman's clutches, but because he wanted to break the cycle. On an ideological level, it worked very well-- his televised conflict with Norman had him severely handicapped, unable to speak in complete sentences, unable to operate any Iron Man except for the crude Afghanistan prototype, and barely aware of what was going on. By contrast, Norman appeared to the world as the complete monster the heroes and the audience know him to be, and without the Green Goblin persona to deflect his cruelty. When Norman beat the impaired Tony half to death, his power lost much of its meaning-- viscerally, there's no way for him to spin that kind of sheer cruelty.

I expect that once Tony's mind is put back together, he'll go back to being a man in a suit, without all the nanotech enhancements. He won't be as powerful as he used to be, though he won't be intellectually impaired either. But as a symbol, he'll be closer to what he wanted to be-- a man who uses his machines to oppose those who would kill and oppress others, instead of a man who uses machines to make more powerful machines for intangible benefits.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New Avengers Five Years New Retrospective: Marvel's Wardrobe Malfunction

If there's one moment that I think defines Bendis' New Avengers for better or worse, it's the very first scene of the first issue, where a shadowy figure offers Max Dillion ( a.k.a. the villain Electro ) a job, and tells him that it's up to him how he wants to dress for it; costume or no costume. Dillon puts on his lightning mask, gives us an evil grin, and says " costume ".

This, in microcosm, set the stage for the way Marvel would be doing the next few years of stories, and the way they continue to write. Keep in mind that New Avengers came at a period when Marvel, under the direction of controversial ( and at that point, recently absent ) president Bill Jemas, had rebelled against their roots. Their biggest hit was the Ultimate Universe, which reinvented the characters from scratch in a more realistic and subdued context, dramatically simplifying or removing the costumes ( except Spidey ), largely avoiding stories about magic and gods and grounding everything in either the Super-Soldier Formula or the mutant gene. Many of their franchises had been made over to reject superhero genre tropes; the Grant Morrison X-Men most notoriously, having ditched costumes altogether and explicitly denying their superhero identities. But we also had the Bruce Jones Hulk, who simply wandered the countryside in a conspiracy theory variant of the old TV show; Captain America in the Marvel Knights imprint, spending more of his time fighting Islamic fundamentalists than costumed criminals; even Bendis' Daredevil, which used quite a bit of the old continuity, made the distinction between Matt Murdoch as superhero and Matt Murdoch as pulp vigilante. Marvel was not really publishing non-superhero material, but they weren't comfortable with their old characters.

Whatever your opinion is on this rebellion against Marvel history, it was not obvious in the Avengers of the time, and one has to admit that they suffered for it. The Avengers remained the traditional superhero team living in a posh mansion and fighting costumed criminals. The team had writers who kept them in that status quo, most notably Kurt Busiek, but also Geoff Johns and Chuck Austen. In the meantime, Marvel was also publishing the Ultimates, which gave us a strikingly warped version of the characters. And the market seemed to prefer the latter; Tony Stark as a repentant do-gooder in form-fitting metal tights wasn't as dynamic as Tony Stark as a decadent neo-liberal in a humanoid mech. Regardless of individual tastes, Ultimate-style comics were where the discussion was; to try and ignore it was folly.

So thus we get to what Bendis did, which wasn't to deny the superhero genre's trappings-- but not to embrace them, either. The way Bendis writes the Marvel characters, being a superhero or a supervillain is a statement; you wear a costume as a conscious choice about what identity you're projecting. Electro is a villain who does not need a costume; when he's powered up, he's spewing electric sparks everywhere, so wearing a green leotard with a yellow lightning mask is redundant as well as ridiculous. By putting on the costume, he's putting himself out there-- in that issue, he arrives at the metahuman prison called the Raft, breaks all the convicts out, and stands before them in his costume, dramatically telling them that they owe him. The costume isn't just a fact of the business for Max Dillon, it's an emblem of why he's in this business-- to look, feel, and act powerful. Even though they use their power to help instead of hurt, superheroes have the same motivation.

And this goes not just for costumes, but superhero genre trappings in general. Since New Avengers, Marvel's publishing landscape has swung back towards comics' historical excesses. Shared universe crossover has increased, with New Avengers and Mighty/Dark Avengers being the center and every other comic following their lead. Stories aren't written as much like done-in-one movies in trade paperback form, with long, subplot-filled sagas like the Death of Captain America back in vogue. And history is once more a motivator for contemporary stories, from Bucky coming back from the dead and eventually taking on his mentor's patriotic identity, to Spidey's dead ex Gwen Stacy having been impregnated with Norman Osborn's gobliny children ( the former being a good example, the latter being one of significantly lesser quality ). But they're doing this largely with the awareness that they're working with a very specific genre, and trying to expand or subvert it. I've talked about Bendis' Avengers being very conscious of their image, but even solo books, like Matt Fraction's sci-fi-driven Iron Man or Ed Brubaker's political thriller-inspired Captain America, have made the superhero heritage of their books more deliberate in the new era.

One could say that this mixture of old and new leads to greater work; one could also say that it's a faulty compromise that gets away from what makes superheroes work. But it's the way Marvel's been for years, and Bendis' New Avengers has led the charge.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

New Avengers Five Years New Retrospective: My Bottom 10

When I started chronicling the ten things I liked best about Bendis' Avengers, I knew that in fairness, I would have to write a list of things that I thought were mistakes. Earlier I compared Bendis' Avengers to Chris Claremont' old X-Men, and the biggest strength of both is also their biggest weakness; they produce a massive output of writing and take a lot of chances. Not all of these risks will pan out, otherwise there won't be risks. But even though Claremont did many ill-conceived things like a year of stories following the wanderings of the individual members of a disbanded X-Men, he also made the team the It superhero team comic for many years. I feel that Bendis is very similar in the way he approaches the Avengers.

That said, here are the ten things about the Bendis Avengers that bombed, again in no particular order...

10.) The return of the 70's and 80's looks. Since Marvel writers are basically doing professional fan fiction, they're definitely going to bring in the trappings of their favorite eras. In Bendis' case, this is sometimes good, and has resuscitated characters like Luke Cage, Jessica Drew ( at least, the one we THOUGHT was Jessica Drew ), Mockingbird, Namor, Brother Voodoo, and even characters handled by collaborating writers like Ms. Marvel. The downside is that most of them have returned in their nostalgic looks-- looks which were better left in the Bronze Age. Simple looks involving skintight fabric and bright colors in solid patterns worked back then, but the era of hyper-rendering superhero artists has called for more intricate designs, and the era of identity-politics-conscious writers makes the notion of wearing a costume a special statement and not a default wardrobe. . Ms. Marvel, an Air Force woman and outspoken feminist, wouldn't be prancing around in a swimsuit and hooker boots. Namor, the king of Atlantis, should have better fashion sense than a black wetsuit with a disco-style open chest. And there is little to nothing that says " Spider " about Spider-Woman's costume, a rather bland red number. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that Luke Cage isn't wearing the tiara and puffy yellow jacket again...

9.) Jessica Drew's return. I praised the revelation that the Spider-Woman who joined the team earlier was really the Skrull Queen in disguise. I'm not going to praise the return of the original, who has been Lost in Space all this time and is now moping about being usurped by an alien empress. I wasn't terribly fond of the issues of her solo comic which I read, but she's just a waste of whiny space in New Avengers.

8.) Ronin. Bendis and Joe Quesada designed a great superhero ninja look that to this date hasn't found an appropriate character. If Ronin were Daredevil as was originally planned, it would be a great fit. But the changes ended up making the character Maya Lopez with padded masculine muscles, and then proceeded to drop that plot for almost a year. When Ronin returned, it was worn by an even less appropriate character-- Clint Barton, formerly Hawkeye. It's bad enough that a Japanese-style ninja costume be taken by a non-Japanese character ( and seriously, we need more Asian and Asian American heroes and heroines besides stereotypes like Sunfire.. Secret Identities shows us how much potential there is in that identity space ), but at least Matt Murdoch and Maya Lopez have prior background in Japanese culture and ninjutsu. This is a completely different skill set from a backwoods American carny who trained in archery and hand-to-hand-combat, who now is apparently a master of the katana. I buy that about as well as I buy Chris Farley as a ninja, but at least that was meant to be funny.

7.) Secret Invasion-era New and Mighty Avengers issues. I loved the main Secret Invasion series, but it rendered the Avengers books themselves as repositories for tie-in material. Some of this was good work that illuminated the seeds planted for the Skrulls' Invasion. Most of it was, as befits most tie-ins to crossovers, filler material that didn't advance anything dramatically and just served to keep the titles going. I'm glad that for Captain America's book, they're focusing exclusively on the Reborn even until it finishes ( even if it's still looking to replace the improved Cap with the old model...but more on that in another post ).

6.) House of M. I've already mentioned how this crossover kneecapped the X-Books, but it just wasn't good as a story in and of itself. it starts promising enough, with the Avengers and X-Men teaming up to take care of the Scarlet Witch situation ( one way or another, creating an interesting ethical dillema )....but then we go into Wanda's Bizarro world, and the next six issues have the heroes puttering around the alternative universe like fools, gradually regaining their original memories only to completely fail to put the world back. In the end, Wanda causes the problem and Wanda fixes it; everyone else is just peripheral. For the first mega-crossover in years, it was a tremendous letdown.

5.) Dr. Strange. Similar scenario, where the heroes do nothing but hand-wring until the climactic moment where they fail. To this date, Dr. Strange failed to detect Wanda's madness, failed to cure it once it became epidemic, chickened out of the Civil War, and used dark magic to fight the Hulk only to get smacked down himself. As far as Sorcerer Supremes go, he went from being the New York Yankees of magic to the New York Mets. Thankfully, Brother Voodoo has taken his place so he may retire with dignity.

4.) The reasoning presented behind Wolverine's Avengers membership. I actually like having Logan on the Avengers-- he's a cosmopolitan character who can work in a lot of settings, and on a team book the writers are less likely to wallow in his nonsensical spider web of a backstory. But Tony Stark brought him onto the team because he's " able to get to a place where we can't "-- i.e., killing the bad guys. This is really wrong for two reasons; one, because heroes should consider lethal force the last resort, not the pre-emptive one. And two, because neither Tony or Captain America needs to get their new Canadian friend to do their dirty work. Cap had to kill plenty of Nazis in The Deuce, and Tony's origin involved him burning his way out of the POW camp in Vietnam/now Afghanistan/eventually Iran. Neither man likes doing it, but they aren't chicken about it either.

3.) The Hood's return. Because this character isn't the Hood. The Hood we know and love, the one created for the MAX imprint by Brian K. Vaughan and Kyle Hotz, was a realistically dysfunctional young man with a deeply messy personal life, who lucked into magic powers as a means to make something of his life. He was a unique and deep character....the one who appeared in New Avengers is just a Kingpin substitute, with dialogue far more melodramatic than a nineteen-year-old petty crook who never finished school would have. It would have been much better to get a new character, as opposed to taking one who doesn't fit the role at all and diluting him.

2.) The Sentry. Yes, we know he's Superman as a schizophrenic agoraphobe, and I admit that's a really compelling hook...or, at least, WAS a really compelling hook. But in practice he's just been a hindrance, a deus ex machina who occasionally doesn't come into play because he's huddled in a fetal position due to a psychotic episode. His own wife said " find a way to power him down, or kill him before he kills us all ". Now if only someone would GET AROUND TO DOING THAT, that would be a good sentiment.

And the number one worst thing to happen in New Avengers ( which actually IS the worst thing... )

1.) Clint Barton's return. Had Hawkeye stayed dead in Avengers Disassembled, it would have been a satisfying heroic sacrifice. Since he's come back from the dead--twice consecutively-- he's just been a morally defective wanker. He slept with an amnesiac Scarlet Witch, didn't tell her who he really was, then ditched her the next morning-- given her mental situation, an act that could/should get him convicted for rape. He returned in the Ronin costume simply because it was there, and hasn't stopped wearing it despite having no background in ninjutsu. And he's gone after Norman Osborn in the most ineffectual way possible, first by ranting at him on the television with all the airtight debating strategy of a man with a " End of the World " sandwich board, then by trying to pull a hit on the guy, as if murdering an appointed official ( even an evil one ) would solve anything in the long term. I literally laughed out loud when Clint got the crap kicked out of him in his attempt to assassinate Norman; since I used to like the character, I wish I could enjoy him for more than schadenfreude.

One more essay to go, then I'll have five essays for five years...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cartooning for a Cause: Autism Speaks and Burrito Bob

On a more serious note than my usual blog discussions of superheroic disabilities and PR-enhanced goblins, I was able to use my cartooning abilities towards a cause I believe in.

The neurodiversity blogger abfh wrote a scintillating essay on the response shown by Autism Speaks supporters to civil protestors. For those who don't know, Autism Speaks is an organization devoted to speaking for autism and Asperger's-- if you consider autism a disease that will prevent your child from ever being normal, functional, and happy. They have a lot of support and very deep pockets, and they use it to create awareness- but towards the end of treating autism as a childhood epidemic, and working towards a cure. Their slogan involves " solving the puzzle ", as though a child with cognitive differences is inherently incomplete and needs to be fit together into a preordained form more in line with the social contract.

In a fair world, these people would be treated with the same amount of dignity and respect ( by logical people, at least ) as those camps that try to " pray the gay away ". This is not a fair world, so Autism Speaks has gained a lot of notoriety. They even got director Alfonso Cuaron to do a PSArepresenting Autism as a big scary voice over. They take the understandable desire for parents who want their child to succeed and warp it into bigotry against diversity. Worse, they claim they can speak for autistic people, including autistic adults ( who they pretend do not exist ).

As a person with high-functioning autism, who has had plenty of experience living with difference and the stigmas attached and doesn't want to see that imposed on anyone else by a big company with celebrity support and dubious science, I can speak. And here are the things I say in response...

1.) I'm not going to ever be cured. Even if you developed a pharmaceutical solution much like the mutant cure in X-Men 3, I'd still have all the knowledge and experience that I've gained as a neuro-atypical person-- and I wouldn't just assimilate. Having that identity is just as significant as the neurological quirks that caused it, so if you want to cure me, you'd be better off using your funds to make autistic-hunting Sentinel Robots.

2.) I don't think that people who think differently should be stigmatized by disability. Nobody, even if they function at a very low level, is useless to society. Everyone has something to contribute, and the contributions of a " classic autistic ", the kind who apparently can't live an adult life without Autism Speaks' intervention, give far more than bigots trying to impose order.

3.) The things that have helped me be able to function as well as I do ( which is far from perfect ) came from the love and devotion of my family, my teachers, my friends online and off, and my partner. To know that I am appreciated creates a much better framework for improvement than subjecting children to various medical/behavioral treatments.

4.) Your voice-over PSAs don't speak for me, but Alfonso Cuaron speaks for you. When your opinions are represented by the director that took the third Harry Potter book and made it a pointless, pretentious display of special effects artistry that make The Robin Sparkles Films look like Orson Welles' works, you are by default made of Fail.

Okay, ending rant due to the personal stakes. But the bottom line is this...abfh mentioned an Autism Speaks supporter throwing a burrito at a protestor, in a display of characteristic reasoning ability. She asked for someone to design a mascot around that theme, with a dollar sign attached to characterize the size of their pockets and the stakes involved, so thus I put together my take on Burrito Bob. It's not the best design, and it does look very stupid. But that's the role of satire, isn't it? For all their faux-caring about the disabled children, an organization putting out a bigoted agenda deserves to be treated with all the dignity of an anthropomorphized piece of lard and grease.

Thank you to abfh for putting up the sketch, and for everyone speaking out for autism and disability rights.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Treasure Buried in Sturgeon's Law: Air Raid Robertson

While looking through DeviantArt today, I found an interesting, relatively new webcomic by Ryan Valentine called Air Raid Robertson. The comic is done as a spoof of the old adventure strips at the dawn of comics, back when newspapers gave comics enough space to do such things. Air Raid Robertson is the buffoonish bi-plane riding hero; his bi-plane is shared with his handlebar mustauched comrade Ridley, who has kept him from dying since childhood. They get into various wacky adventures that typically involve them being in danger of being eaten alive, and often end up bickering with the omniscient narrator ( and normally I find regular 4th-wall breaking obnoxious, but since that kind of old-time caption narration was obnoxious in and of itself by describing EXACTLY WHAT WE'RE SEEING ON THE PAGE IN FRONT OF US, it's a welcome part of the satire ).

The current storyline has Air Raid and Ridley trapped on the Island of Misfit Supervillains, the most demented parody of the old adventure strips yet-- these are all the ethnic stereotypes from the old comics, diabolical Asians and thieving Mexicans and greedy Jews. They have been exiled to this island for their offensive traits, ( their leader The Claw bemoaning the fact that being evil isn't equal opportunity ), but I can say that from what 30's and 40's comics I've seen, they are not exaggerations of those stereotypes at all, and are actually somewhat tame by contrast. Hell, Iron Man's former arch-nemesis the Mandarin is much more offensive than the Claw, and he was created in the 60's and pops up to this date!

Hilarious stuff, and well worth a look.

New Avengers: Five Years New Retrospective-- 10 Things that Worked

( Note; this will be the third in a series of five essays, celebrating five years of New Avengers. I presume I could do more, or less for that matter, but I like symmetry. So there.

A friend of mine, in response to the first Five Years New essay, wrote a thoughtful response onhow New Avengers relates to Avengers history, and how it now IS Avengrs history. Realizing that Brian Michael Bendis has been writing the comic for five years leads me to two conclusions;

1.) I'm getting old, since I remember an era when the Avengers was just called the Avengers, Clint Barton called himself Hawkeye, and we were almost going to call John Kerry president, and

2.) New Avengers has been around so long now that even if Bendis leaves the title, it's still become entrenched in the comic's history, and the book is not going to go back to the way it used to be.

In other words, the people still whining about Bendis being the worst Avengers writer ever had the final nail put in the coffin of their hopes for a retro revival. For many readers, New Avengers IS the Avengers. If they started reading with Bendis, their first frame of reference for the comic is a team with Wolverine and Spider-Man. If they were long-time Avengers fans who have been following the book, they've gotten further and further away from a point where bringing back a team of familiar second-stringers would be a viable choice. This isn't a statement about the New Avengers' quality, so much as an assertion of fact; New Avengers isn't going anywhere.

As for assertions about the book's quality; well, I'm going to do this in two parts. The first part here is a discussion, Letterman-style, of the ten things that Bendis has done right with the title. The second part will be the ten things he's done that I didn't think succeeded. Positives first though, since that's an inherently rebellious act on the internet.

The Top 10 Best Contributions Brian Michael Bendis has made to the Avengers

10.) Veranke. From the start of the reboot, new recruit Spider-Woman's loyalties were in question, and readers were asked to wonder wether or not she was really on the Avengers' side. Based on the information given, the answers available were; no, yes, kind of, and No To The Millionth Power. The latter occured when it was revealed that she was not actually Spider-Woman, but Queen Veranke of the Skrull Empire in disguise. Even if you didn't believe that Jessica Drew was doing things for the right reasons, we were given plenty of evidence to believe that at least she wasn't a Skrull impostor. That she was, and that still it made sense in hindsight, was an impressive feat-- and gives re-readings of older New Avengers issues a really creepy undercurrent.

9.) Bendis-speak. Bendis' unique style of dialogue, admitted by the author as influenced by David Mamet, tends to be polarizing-- you either love his back-and-forths or hate it. I'm in the love category, because he pays more attention to conversational rhythm than most comic book scripters. Individual quotes may not be as spectacular, but dialogues flow marvelously-- and while others have criticized the way he writes characters from a non-American-lower-middle class background, I think it's a strength of his-- characters like Namor, Ares, and even Dr. Doom sound like they're actually engaging with the person they're talking to, instead of just going into monologue and tying it into whoever's nearby.

8.) The Cabal.While a secret society of heroic metahuman kings and visionaries proved to be a huge mistake on the part of the characters ( and IMO, a mistake on the part of the writers ), Norman's own group worked much better. Like Jesus if the Son of God were about sinning in every way possible instead of the other way around, Norman has united many different groups for a common cause-- ruling the world. Of course, the various megalomaniacs in Norman's Inner Circle don't like being subordinate to the once and future Green Goblin, so their secret meetings are always an entertaining display of tension and disdain. Thus far two of Norman's Cabal have betrayed him, and there's three more to go-- and from what the solicitations, Victor's the next, leading to a war of the tin tyrants.

7.) The Luke Cage/Jessica Jones marriage. Amidst the overwhelming darkness of the past few years of Marvel, this has been one of the great bright spots. The fact that it's Marvel's first mixed-race marriage isn't important ( well, it's a great thing for representations, but it's just background that doesn't overshadow the characters' individual depths ), here we have two heroic characters who've had hard lives finding solace in each other. Their marriage has been troubled by the shit they've had to deal with as outlaws, especially with their baby involved-- but they've ultimately managed to become closer due to the adversity, not drift apart. If Spider-Man remembered that he was married at one point, he'd regret selling that to the devil after seeing Luke and Jess as a dynamic and likable 'ship.

6.) Avenging Ares. The moral complications of the Marvel Universe have made it so that a public Avengers team can not only have a villainous God of War on the team, but have him in a capacity where he doesn't even need to feign recriminations. Michael Avon Oeming made Ares a complex character, and Bendis gave him the spotlight-- and in a capacity where his love of battle and gratuitous violence always steal the show. Tony Stark called him a mix between Wolverine and Thor, but he's more like the video game character Kratos-- angry and dangerous but more often than not pointed at people who deserve it ( as opposed to that game's Ares, who's more like the old Marvel Ares )At the same time, he does have redeeming qualities beyond pointing his axe at the right targets-- he's trying to be a good single father and do honest work, even if it's for a reprehensible human being like Norman Osborn. Hopefully when Norman falls, Ares won't go with him.

5.) The Iron Patriot. Say, for a moment, that evil is analogous to sugar content, and villains are deserts. Norman Osborn as the costumed maniac Green Goblin is like a good solid milk chocolate bar. Norman as a more realistic corporate shark is like a Nutrageous, loaded with extra peanut butter and caramel. Norman dressed up in a patriot-colored Iron Man suit and swindling the public into thinking that he's America's greatest hero is a Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake. And that Norman combined with the fact that he now believes he's America's greatest hero without acting any less depraved? That's like getting high fructose corn syrup injected directly into your jugular vein.

4.) Iron Man's rise to power. In recent years, Iron Man has gone from a dependable B-Lister to Marvel's A-List. Obviously the excellent movie and RDJ are the main causes, but he's also gotten a lot of great writing in recent years ( even amidst Civil War, when more than half of Marvel's staff felt that he needed a swastika on his armor ). Bendis may not write Tony's solo book, but he always wrote a dynamic Iron Man in the Avengers-- a character whose mistakes come from the fact that he's trying to do good on a much greater scale than any other hero. One of the best scenes in Bendis' run is the moment in New Avengers where he solemnly addresses Luke Cage's team, asking them if they have a better idea how to help the world than him. Unfortunately for him, they don't/can't answer.

It's also worth noting that Bendis' Iron Man scenes are written with a unique display of Tony in the armor-- they show him as a floating VR self in a womb of monitors. Sometimes artists make it look like he's a little fairy floating in a hollow suit, but overall it's a clever way to display the character's abilities.

3.) Luke Cage. It is a great thing that a hero who started out as a Hero For Hire with a tiara, poofy yellow jacket, and endless supply of stereotypical one-liners ( " Where's my money, honey? " ) could eventually take up the reins of Captain America. Luke 's easily the most heroic of the New Avengers, and he often does so simply through stoicism-- refusing to give in, be it to misguided heroes or outright bastards. In the latest issues, he's stood up to Norman while dying of a heart attack.

2.) The Dark Avengers. A perversely entertaining outgrowth of not only Warren Ellis' excellent Thunderbolts, but the direction of the Marvel Universe in general. In Civil War, the super-villains took an unfortunate backseat to the heroes' petty squabbling. Now they've come back at full force, even stealing their enemies' intellectual properties. Not only is Dark Avengers a great series, but it's helped several characters get a new lease-- it's good to see Bullseye moving his agenda beyond killing Daredevil's girlfriends.

And the Number One Good Thing;

1.) Luke Cage in the Elevator, Circa the Ronin Arc. Thrown out a skyscraper window by ninjas, Luke must get back to the upstairs fight-- but first he must take the elevator and listen to a rendition of Matthe wWilder's biggest and debatably only musical hit, Break my Stride. Normally music flops in comics, but this scene used the lyrics to add insult to Cage's injury.

Okay, it's not in a particular order, but these are still the things I liked.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ruby's World Halloween Fan Art; A Thought Experiment in Cosplay

In the tradition of the trope Halloween Cosplay, I put together a sketch showing my own webcomic characters in Halloween garb. The purpose was as a thought experiment for better characterization, to determine what characters my cast would go as if they were dressing up for Halloween. This is impossible based on my story's internal continuity, since not only is it July 2008 in the timeline, but they're too busy being on the run on the other side of the US/Mexico border to thinking of cosplay.

I wanted to get a wide cross section of my favorite genres/mediums, so I assigned a different story universe to each character's pick. For example, Ruby is dressed as Ginny Weasleyof the Harry Potter books, another red-headed heroine in a fantastical universe. When I showed the art to her, my partner, who is a far more learned Harry Potter fan than I, thought that it's odd that Ruby, a freakishly large but gentle and shy young woman, would go as a character consistently described as small and energetic. My logic was that Ruby would want to go as a character with traits she envies; it's been established that Ruby is a Harry Potter fan, but also that she faces constant internal conflict over her actions and exercises caution over how best to use her power. To take on the guise the main love interest in a young fantasy series where the Big Bad is well-documented by all as " The Dark Lord " would be a fantasy she'd find appealing.

Jiro's interests come from shonen manga, as he is dressed as Naruto's mentorKakashi Hatake. The logic of a character dressing as who they'd want to be is also here, as Kakashi is the very definition of unflappable, his permanently masked face only showing emotion through his eye, which tends to look bored. Only in very extreme situations is Kakashi angry, and even then it's controlled; most of the time he's mellow to the point of apathy, and can even read his book the midst of a fight. Jiro would like people to think of him the same way, but in reality he's got a very short temper and has several sensitive points ( most of which involving Ruby ). Still, the two characters have quite a bit of similarity in terms of their competence levels; I actually write Jiro's dialogue sounding like Kakashi's American voice actor Dave Wittenberg, albeit with more emotional variation than Kakashi shows.

Jens' costume is the only one from a superhero universe; he's dressed as the Batman from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns series, the masterpiece of grim and grit starring a middle-aged, psychopathic Batman ( note the colors, the pronounced bat-symbol, and the baggy belt pockets ). Not only does it fit with Jens' personality that he'd pick something from that incredibly violent and angsty period of hero comics ( and probably missing the artistic message and focusing on the bloodshed in the process ), but that Batman represents the kind of hero Jens could actually aspire to be. The story involves Bruce having to become more vicious by necessity; he's an older man who can't do all the Batman stuff as easily as he used to, so he's got to compensate by being more of a bastard. Jens is young but a normal human in a world of powers; thinking in terms of brutal pragmatism is the only way he can adapt.

Finally, Alexis comes as Neil Gaiman's version of Death, the disturbingly cheery goth girl. It occured to me that Alexis has not smiled yet in the comic, which makes sense given her backstory-- a broken home, a mixed racial background, and a post-human level of awareness that not even she understands-- so her idol would be on someone who has peace with that kind of knowledge. Gaiman's Death is almost perpetually perky, in contrast with her Grim Reaper job. I hadn't though of Alexis' fictional tastes in as much detail as the others, but I thought I'd use her to bring in my love of the Vertigo line, the comics that got me into comics as an adult.

Hopefully I'll be able to do this again next year, based on whoever my characters develop into then.

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Avengers: Five Years New Retrospective-- Avenging killed the X-Book Star

In my previous essay, I touched upon the fact that Bendis’ take on the Avengers has been very similar Chris Claremont’s enduring X-Men formula. Both storytelling engines use long stories with extensive subplots and no designated end. Both have an ensemble cast that mix characters across various age, experience, and personality archetypes ( in addition to an even larger supporting cast ). And both the New Avengers and the Classic Claremont X-Men have the heroes as underdogs and outlaws struggling against a nebulous enemy that can’t ever be defeated. One might consider it redundant for Marvel to take their #2 team franchise and twist it into an imitation of their #1. I’d be surprised this complaint hasn’t been leveled more often at Marvel, but for the fact that the company has handicapped the X-Men franchise on a level that seems almost calculated to make the Avengers more significant.

I say “ seems “ because I don’t know for sure. And it would be stupid for a company to take something profitable and push it to the side in favor of a new version of something classically LESS lucrative. If Marvel really wanted the X-Men to fail so the Avengers could become their central franchise, they could just cancel the books; that’s a strategy they’ve actually used with the Ultimate Marvel revamp. They wouldn’t intentionally make the books crappy, and I don’t think the X-Books are outright bad even the franchise has taken several missteps in the past few years. But they have made the X-Men increasingly cut-off from the rest of the Marvel Universe, and that’s where the company’s creative and commercial emphasis has been of late.

So let’s say, in a strictly hypothetical context, that Marvel wanted the Avengers to be their publishing bread and butter, and wanted to diminish the X-Men to make it happen. First, they would need a motive. The exponential increase in comic book movies is good enough; Marvel’s bread and butter is in intellectual property, and while both the X-Men and Avengers have that appeal, they have the drawback that their individual characters/parts do not make up the whole. You can do a successful X-Men movie; it’s been done four times now ( even if only three of those were team movies, and only two of that fraction weren’t a waste of time, money, and Stewart ). But a Colossus movie would never happen, just as a Wasp movie wouldn’t get past the pitch; they’re decent enough as members of an ensemble cast, but don’t have the appeal or versatility for isolated endeavors. Hence New Avengers, a Justice League-style team comic made primarily of successful solo characters; Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, and even lesser heroes with untapped licensing potential like Luke Cage. 

Thus they give me the perfect perfect segue; one of the successful solo heroes put on the new team is Wolverine, the X-Man most successful as an independent protagonist. At the time, Wolverine was just “ lending “ his services to the Avengers, and still stuck with the X-Men. But from our hypothetical conspiracy perspective, this is the first blow to the X-Men. The most popular character of the X-Men has been partially exported to the Avengers, his marriage to the X-Men becoming a Salt Lake City affair. Phase one of eliminating Marvel’s own competition.

Of course, that leads to ( hypothetically ) sinister phase two-- House of M. This story brings the X-Men into an Avengers story for a mega crossover, and ends up DeciMating the mutant population. Homo superior, at that point numbering in the millions and able to fill their own nations, has been magically cut down to a small fraction ( which was supposed to vary to upwards of thousands, but once the name “ the 198 “ was attached, that became literal ). Most of the important characters keep their powers, but many villains and second-string heroes just become regular people, usually shuffled off to the background. Those who survive become cloistered within the mansion, all but ignoring super-heroing to focus exclusively on the problems faced by the few mutants left. Even those mutants are no longer special, because super-humans without the X-Gene stigma far out number them. There’s no reason being a mutant is different from being a radioactive spider victim or Super Soldier specimen or other, making the minority metaphor an arbitrary, self-imposed exile.

Which is even more convenient-- or deviously schemed. After House of M, mega-crossovers become even more prominent. Every year has a big event series, and every year, the X-Men decline to participate. Sure they get a tie-in book or two, but otherwise they remain peripheral ( except for Wolverine, who’s now readily identified with the Avengers and shows up for these events ). In Civil War, they remain neutral and simply don’t engage with either side; in World War Hulk, they’re just a brief pit stop on the Hulk’s rampage, as he attacks Professor X based on the possibility that he would have joined the heroes in shooting the green bastard into space ( even though Xavier was absent during the actual event ). And in Secret Invasion, all we see is the X-Men as the San Fransisco resistance for the Skrulls’ global attack. 

Now, the X-Men franchise has continued through these events, but their storylines remain stifled and insular. They try to undo the DeciMation and restore the depowered mutants, but each time receive a microscopic nudge towards success at best. Now their plan involves making their own closed island nation while waiting for the Messiah Baby to save them. But since the X-Men’s only real mission now is trying to save the dying species, any other stories are irrelevant. If they go into space, find a lost civilization, or make a hit squad to fight zombies, it’s just trying to draw attention away from the big picture, and failing. Thus, what was once Marvel’s most important franchise is now treading water with its island of just under 200 super-malcontents, with no concern other than protecting said just under 200 super-malcontents.

Meanwhile, the Avengers has gained many of the tropes that made the X-Men popular. Large, diverse, and dynamic cast? Check-- in addition to the traditional rotations of the Avengers line-up, the book’s importance in the shared continuity gives it a huge supporting cast that pops in and out. Long stories that branch outwards instead of reaching a resolution? Check-- even after Secret Invasion wraps up one conspiracy storyline, we go directly into Dark Reign, where Norman Osborn becomes the new Big Bad. Stories where the heroes are the outsiders? Check-- the Avengers were on shaky territory with the authorities from the start of Bendis’ series, and they became the literal underground resistance after Civil War.

The difference is that in the Avengers, they are at least trying to do good, to fight against a massive multi-layered foe even if they fail. The X-Men are holed up on their island, ready to take down anyone who looks at them funny. But as Norman puts it, the X-Men can just be ignored as long as they stay off the mainland. Better for the Avengers, and their new merchandising powers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Avengers: 5 Years New Retrospective--Storytelling Engine

In November, Marvel's popular comic series New Avengers will have been running for five years. If you count its run as starting when writer Brian Michael Bendis did the old Avengers book's final arc, it's been going since August 2004. In this time, the Avengers have become the most popular/profitable franchise Marvel has, supplanting even the X-Men. They've gone from one book to four; New was followed by Mighty, The Initiative, and now Dark.They've also become the flagship of the shared universe, dictating the way all the other books go.

Needless to say, the New Avengers have been subject to intense criticism. To be fair, much of this is internet criticism, which is about as intellectually sound as three-year-olds whining about how they want macaroni and cheese instead of Chef Boyardee. But valid points have also been made about the errors of Bendis and Marvel's direction. I happen to agree with many of the individual criticisms, but not enough that I would lose interest in the franchise overall. In fact, Bendis' Avengers may have made me the most intellectually engaged in a Marvel franchise's progress that I've ever been; the contradictions are part of what make it so fascinating and enjoyable.

The most common criticism of New Avengers as a series that I've seen is that it isn't new, other than as repackaging the Avengers in a darker and edgier setting. John Seavey, a very insightful comic blogger who coined the term " Storytelling Engine " in reference to an ongoing series' underyling " blueprint ", derided New Avengers in his essay on the Old Avengers. He commented that by excising the old Avengers' storytelling engine, the New Avengers have ended up a random group of superheroes that use some Avengers trappings.

I submit to Mr. Seavey that the void left by the old Avengers' long history is the point.

One thing that has always bothered me about superhero comics is how they so easily slip into taking their fantastical, convoluted genre history for granted. They're stories where you have grown men and women who dress in bright, revealing spandex, have amazing powers and gadgets, and fight evil across realms of magic, aliens, gods, and more. To a person who's familiar with superheroes, this is par for the course. To a person who's not familiar with superheroes, it's either incredibly awesome or incredibly stupid, depending on how the creators make it across.

The Old Avengers was a book whose storytelling engine so often put it in the " incredibly stupid category ". This is not to diminish the fine work the title's many writers and artists have done over the years, but to acknowledge that it was the kind of book that existed in a space where superheroes were business as usual. The original line-up was an attempt to ape DC's Justice League and have all the A-List heroes in one monthly book; however, at the time the Marvel Universe was still very new and didn't have a well-defined A-List. What's more, Marvel's heroes were much rougher around the edges in personality than DC's; where DC's Justice League was like the country club of superheroes with its affluent, pretty, well-adjusted white guys, Marvel's heroes tended to be significantly more anti-social. Spider-Man was not put on the original team, the Fantastic Four were already a cohesive family unit, and the Hulk left in the second issue after realizing that the prettier members hated him. So the line-up became a home for second-string heroes, and cycled through a growing base of possible members repeatedly. Like a sports team, the membership varied regularly, but the status quo was always there; they would always be the A-List superhero team, the bright-and-shiny public heroes that lived in Tony Stark's New York Mansion, had an official charter and regular meetings, and fought evil within the confines of the law.

Bendis' Avengers has that history, but it's used in a much more self-conscious way that allows for increased story potential; in his series, being a super-hero is not a fixed identity, but one that has been challenged by world events, and one that the characters work to redefine. When the series starts, the Old Avengers have disbanded after one of their most trusted members went crazy and used omnipotent power to kill, injure, discredit, and otherwise traumatize many of her comrades. A breakout at a supervillain prison creates a setting where a new group of heroes band together, and decide to take on the Avengers name again. But they don't slip so easily into the role, because they're much more aware of the complexity of the larger world. The stakes are higher than for the Old Avengers; the super-villain underworld has done their own organizing, the government is watching the superhero community with their own agenda in mind, and even the Avengers themselves have their own closets full of skeletons.

Critics have accused Bendis of crassly trying to make the Avengers into an A-List team, most notably by admitting members like Spider-Man and Wolverine. I would be a complete idiot if I denied the marketing value of putting Wolverine on an Avengers team, but it isn't without story purpose. The New Avengers want to establish new value as a symbol, and their membership establishes that. The initial line-up of the team is led by Captain America and Iron Man, original Avengers who represent Greatest Generation idealism and futurist realism, respectively. Spider-Man finally joins the team, the isolated nerd given a chance to prove himself after years of treading water as a working-class vigilante. The membership extends to the other spheres of the superhero community, as we have prominent urban hero Luke Cage ( once a blaxploitation stereotype " Hero-for-Hire ", now given a chance to truly prove his worth ), duplicitious SHIELD Agent Spider-Woman ( an explicit link to the conspiracy theory storylines ), omnipotent yet agoraphobic Superman analogue Sentry ( a hero who could have been great were it not for his mental illnesses, now given a chance to actually be great ), and pragmatically lethal X-Man Wolverine as a link between the two brands. It's a mix of A-List and B-List heroes across multiple parts of the Marvel Universe, that's a calculated appeal in-universe to make super-heroes cool again.

Of course, things don't actually turn out that way for the characters; hurbis is another big theme. In trying to control their meaning to the world, the heroes tend to create more problems. One the series ties into Mark Millar's Civil War storyline, this reaches a head as the heroes split into in-group and out-group. Iron Man is the in-group, who believes that by joining the system he can control it for the benefit of the people, by making superheroes a legitimate function of the law. Captain America is the other side, thinking that the heroes work best when they have autonomy and serve ideals instead of rules. From here the series splits off into two, with New Avengers being the underground resistance, and Mighty Avengers being Iron Man's attempt to make a fully legit team with complete control over their representation. This fails catastrophically for Iron Man, and he ends up being disgraced and replaced by Norman Osborn, which leads to Dark Avengers; villains using this kind of PR manipulation to pass as heroes.

Storywise, this owes much of its influence to the Ultimates, the cynically satirical alternative take on the Avengers. However, while the Ultimates redesigned the heroes from scratch, New Avengers engages with the history of the Marvel Universe; this is not a story about the dawn of the Age of Heroes, but the attempt to start a new one. And while the Ultimates was almost completely self-contained, Avengers has the task of setting the standard for the other Marvel Comics. The other major component to New Avengers is the storytelling style pioneered by Chris Claremont in his foundational X-Men stories; long, soap-operatic sagas with continual progression and no inherent end. By merging the two styles, it creates something unique; an ongoing superhero saga about the attempt to define superhero identity, and the many pitfalls along the way.

I'll be analyzing key Avengers stories from recent years to further try to understand where this is all headed.