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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..


  1. Ha! I was incredibly fortunate this year, as I bought almost none of the titles featuring the above nonsense. I bought Blackest Night #1, but was quickly turned off by it, but not by the gore. No, I was turned off by how a very obvious Green Lantern storyline was being stretched beyond all rational limits into a company-wide event.

  2. That too, especially since I've been really enjoying the Green Lantern comics otherwise. But the gore was the real sticking point for me, when the horror-film levels of bloodshed became a literal horror film with Blackest Night as the mega-crossover of the year.

    Out of curiosity, what were your least favorite comics of the year?

  3. I've read fewer comics this past year than any since starting college, so my scope for commentary is limited. The last thing I read recently that was just mind-bogglingly bad was the first volume of All Star Batman & Robin, but that was actually published in issue form in 08. I'm still a sucker for Jim Lee art, but there's a limit....

    Spider-Man: American Son was pretty lame, too.

    There are some very interesting ideas behind the Black Lanterns (I particularly liked the Black Hand's monologue against all the super heroes whom he accuses of 'cheating' death), but it's kind of drowned out by the onslaught of a zombie uprising. (So, like any Romero film ever). Also, the overuse of the BL's is a sticking point for me; like any horror monster, they'd have been more effective in limiting their numbers to a few well-loved dead folks instead of every single dead character ever. Less is more, people!

  4. Yeah, a small Black Lantern squad of just the most missed characters ( Batman, J'Onn, the Dibnies, and maybe Aquaman ) led by Black Hand would have been much more effective. If they want to do horror with capes, they should at least do good horror.

    The only horror in Black Lantern Vibe is wondering how much mescalin the human brain can stand before that idea sounds good, or irreversible nerve damage is received.

  5. I have complicated feelings about Scott/Emma --- there's actually quite a bit I *liked* about that relationship, as portrayed in Grant Morrison's New X-Men and Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men (both of which are way pre-2009, but whatever; that's the only Scott/Emma material I know).

    I got the feeling that Emma allowed Scott to be a lot more honest, both with her and with himself, than he could ever be with Jean, just because Jean *was* such a saint, and Scott thought he could never be as good as she was. I liked that about their relationship. Also, in the past, being away from Jean (whether physically or psychically) has tended to be really hard on Scott, and to lead him to dark place/flirtation with evil. I had thought maybe a reformed Emma might be someone he could turn to for moral support, but near the end of Whedon's arc on Astonishing X-Men there seemed to be a rift opening up between Scott and Emma, too. So maybe now Scott has twice the emo bitterness to work through...

  6. I agree with all of that, but unfortunately there's a pretty stark difference between how Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon wrote Scott and Emma, and how the two are currently being written. With Morrison and Whedon, Scott was able to feel free to be human and make mistakes around Emma, instead of having to live up to Jean's reputation. With the current crop of writers, Emma has enabled Scott to make the kind of morally problematic moves that have characterized his post-DeciMation personality; in fact, Scott's been acting as badly as Emma did back in her Hellfire Club days, if not worse ( see: the new X-Force, the black ops squad that Emma didn't even know about until recently ). I don't think Scott's decisions have been Emma's fault, but Jean would have been more ready to call him on his behavior.

    What bothers me more, though, is that the current Uncanny X-Men comic is basically devoted to Scott and Emma, with the other 198 mutants as background characters used as much or as little as the writer wants. I think it's time to give those characters a break and focus on other members of the cast.

  7. I was actually enjoying X-Force in its initial story arcs, when their mission seemed a whole lot more restrained than what it initially became. "Take out the heads of the Purifiers, who not only killed some of our kids, but also a whole maternity ward", wasn't that bad of an idea. And then, okay, you have to stop Bastion and his squad of techno-zombies.

    And then the book got sidetracked for all sorts of crossovers, and things went to Hell. Alas.