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A Friday Looking Back on Year Two (a sort of ‘Four Decades’ footnote)

by  in Comic News Comment
A Friday Looking Back on Year Two (a sort of ‘Four Decades’ footnote)

Everyone has been very flattering about the last month’s worth of reminiscing, for which I thank you all. But people keep asking me, “Well, what about the 2000’s? Aren’t you going to say anything about them?” Even my wife was wondering why I left that decade off. (Well, I know why Julie was wondering. She was hoping to see the story about how we met at the art studio. But there’s not very much of a comics hook to hang that one on.)

The answer is, essentially, that I do this decade the rest of the time. I get all sorts of column fodder out of tracing the arc from yesterday to today on any given project or character.

However, since Fred Van Lente Day has come and gone, it means that I’ve been doing this weekly column thing for a whole ‘nother year. So I suppose a quick look back wouldn’t be completely out of place.

The one thing I notice about these first years of the 21st century, as far as superhero comics are concerned, is that it’s when this guy completely took over the industry.

Marvel and DC aren’t even pretending to do their superhero comics for anyone else any more as far as their main lines are concerned: it’s all fan service, all the time.

I would go so far as to say that doing fan fiction is the bread-and-butter industry at Marvel and DC these days. We are in a climate now where DC Comics can market a book based on setting up a ‘new’ DC universe a year in the future and people BUY it. It boggles my mind that Countdown is a series that tells you right up front that it is setting up something fifty-two weeks away, the important stuff isn’t going to be happening till then — and fans say okay. All the complaints I’ve seen about Countdown are in the execution. Nobody had any trouble with the concept of a comic book series consisting of fifty-two issues of exposition and setup. That is a pure fan fiction reason for doing a story — to EXPLAIN something.

So on the one hand we have companies putting out a line of comics where the story comes second to setting up the history of the fictional universe the characters inhabit, and on the other we have all these stunt-casting books where a Big Name Writer is lured in from some other area — novels, or TV, or movies — and what does the Big Name do upon arrival?

Write fan fiction.

Certainly, the concept of Joss Whedon writing the X-Men sounds like a natural fit — the guy absolutely nailed teen-angst superheroics on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show, after all — but in practice? The book isn’t about stories so much as it is a collection of Greatest Hits X-Moments, where somebody gets off a zinger of a line or a really kewl punch. Let’s not even get into how much time the book spent on Kitty and Peter finally Doing It, something that has been a slash fanfic staple for as long as those characters have been around, practically.

Or take Kevin Smith on Green Arrow, another example of a big-name Hollywood guy coming to comics and getting his geek on.

“Quiver,” the storyline, managed to address all the common fanfic obsessions in twelve issues — the desperate need to Explain Every Seeming Contradiction, the Gratuitous Interaction With Other Favorite Characters, the Hardcore Realistic Violence and the Explicit Sex Scene, the Casually-Inserted In-Jokes (The big villain turns out to be the kid from Stanley and his Monster, all grown up? Come on.) and the Ending With A Return To A Favorite Era. THIS stuff is the great talent coup? If it had been submitted as an outline by a novice writer trying to break in, it would have been laughed out of the DC offices. At least, I’d hope so.

And yet these kinds of books are the big sellers and the Eisner Winners, most of the time.

I mean, they can be good. Done well, you get All-Star Superman or Astro City.

Done badly, you get Ultimates 3 or the Meltzer version of the JLA.

But the bottom line? At the end of the day, it’s all pastiche. Homage. Fanfic. It’s silly to pretend it’s anything else. It’s by aficionados, for aficionados.

Every time I say this, people throw a fit, and I fully expect to be yelled at again. I have to add that I say this as a fan; I’m not jeering or being malicious, just stating a fact. Hell, I love all that stuff too, I’ve written fan fiction of my own for God’s sake. (After the last month of reminiscing I’d think my nerd credentials are pretty much fully on display.)

But as much as I enjoy seeing Grant Morrison riffing on Mort Weisinger in All-Star Superman, I have no illusions about what that book is doing. It’s pastiche. All of you who come by to bellow at me, “But it’s really AWESOME!” — sorry, but that does not make the book somehow less of a pastiche. Look, I like pastiches, I have bookshelves filled with the things — but it is what it is.

In recent months we’ve seen another kind of fan service story getting a lot of play — the “I always wanted to see this!” comic. The kind of bridge-burning premise that you normally would end a long-standing series on. Jameson finally finds out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man and they have it out once and for all. (I didn’t actually see this one — I heard Peter David did a nice job on it — but however you slice it, that’s a total fanfic premise.) Kitty Pryde and Peter Rasputin finally getting together. Black Canary marrying Green Arrow. And so on. Never mind what these stories do to your long-term plotting possibilities or how they stretch your established characters completely out of shape; this is Giving Fans What They’ve Waited Years For.

Again, some of these could be good — but are they really necessary or good for the series overall? My sense is that the answer is “probably not,” and so they are often done with the implied understanding that it’s not REALLY happening, they’ll doubletalk themselves out of it a year or two down the road. There’s actually a good reason why Marvel and DC used to only do these kinds of plots as Imaginary Stories or What If?’s. They tend to paint your characters into a corner.

Those are just the obvious examples. I could go on and on. And if I sound a bit crabby about such nakedly fan-oriented efforts dominating modern superhero comics, it’s only because it seems to me that a lot of it is unneccesary and overly pedantic (I really don’t care about how all the magic users in the DCU access their powers or which deities are responsible for them. I just want them to, y’know, have magical adventures.) And also because the way this equation usually goes is, as the level of fan service goes up, the level of basic storytelling craft proportionately drops. If I have to choose, I’d rather have the well-crafted piece than the one with the bulletproof continuity. But I see a lot more of the latter than the former.

*

All of this is not to say I didn’t have great fun doing this column all last year. I got lots of interesting mail, for one thing.

The column on paperback cover artists, especially, continues to generate all sorts of fun feedback. I have to say I find it a bit appalling that the mere writing of it made me a sort of de facto authority on the subject for anyone doing internet searches on paperback illustrators. I often get inquiries asking me to authenticate this or that, or asking me for further info on one illustrator or another. I always feel ridiculously abashed and guilty when I have to write back that what I put in the column was pretty much what I know. I shot the works.

Several people have asked me about Fred Pfeiffer, in particular, and confessing my ignorance there really gravels me because I would love to know more about him. He is one of my very favorite illustrators.

There is hope, though. A gentleman named Courtney and I have been corresponding and he is preparing an article about Fred Pfeiffer and his work. He tells me, “I am making some progress on Pfeiffer. I have two solid contacts including his old art director and his 1st cousin! But he is still a mystery.

“Also, I have been spending lots of time in used bookstores looking at all the Bantams, and have had luck finding various Pfeiffer covers! In fact today, I found the book that has that wonderful framed painting that you sent me!”

He means this one.

“It is on a Bantam Sci-fi book by Fritz Leiber called A Specter is Haunting Texas. It would be great if you ever found out who owns it and he could send us a better picture of the original art.”

Alas, I haven’t even been able to do that. I stole it off a message board somewhere and I’m damned if I can find it again. I Google for it using all sorts of keywords and only seem to get my own articles, which is kind of annoying. Although now that I know the actual title of the book I can take another swing at it, maybe. (If you’re out there, sir, drop me a line, okay?)

Courtney also kindly sent a scan of a Pfeiffer original piece used to illustrate Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, which is really too cool not to share. Check it out:

Here’s how it printed. It’s a goddamned crime they reduced it so far down. Pfeiffer deserves better.

Anyway. I should add that there’s still no answer on the mystery George Wilson painting, though I was eventually able to put the owner in touch with Wilson’s widow a couple of weeks ago. At that point I felt a bit silly being a middleman and bowed out, figuring they might just as well e-mail each other directly, and I haven’t heard back from either one. It may be that the secret died with George. I still cruise the vintage paperback listings on BookScans.com every once in a while, seeing if maybe I’ll luck into it, but so far nothing. If I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know.

This was also the year that people started sending me review copies of things. That really ramped up after I did the column kidding about how I never get stuff, so I guess I should be careful what I ask for. Chip Mosher at Boom! Studios, especially, is the Hardest Working Man in Show Business — not a week goes by that he’s not sending us SOMETHING. If more publishers had that kind of marketing hustle there’d be a lot less bitching on the internet about the death of comics, I bet. I feel bad because there’s no way I’ll get to review it all, but fortunately there always seems to be one of us here at CSBG that picks up the slack.

There were a couple that I did want to call to your attention, though. My favorite things from Boom always seem to be the action/suspense books, and the latest one I thought was really cool was Hunter’s Moon.

The story is about Lincoln Greer, a father trying to find his son who was kidnapped while they were on a hunting trip together. It really is a remarkable piece of work. The suspense builds relentlessly as, one by one, conventional options (like police help, etc.) are closed off for Linc, until finally he has to strike out on his own, hoping his own skills as a hunter will carry him as he tracks the kidnappers.

What I liked about it was the way the plot is layered on top of character bits in such a way that each amplifies the other — the isolation the father feels from his son in the beginning gets turned up to eleven when the boy is taken. Thus the suspense isn’t coming just from the fact that Linc’s son is in danger of dying, but that the boy’s in danger of dying before Linc can FIX things with him. That kind of thing. For a strict constructionist like me who was taught that plot comes from character and character should be amplified through the plot, it’s nice to see something so well put-together.

The art is very nice too, and I wasn’t so lost in my admiration of the story’s structure that I didn’t notice. Sebastian Cardoso has a solid grasp of storytelling and a look that’s stylish without being show-offy, and the covers from Dalibor Talajic are emotional and impressionistic in a low-key way that reminds me of 70’s underground guys like Sheridan.

I wish they’d chosen a cover format that gave him a little more room, but whatever, that’s probably just being nitpicky.

This book strikes me as an obvious movie deal waiting to happen, and considering that James White writes movies, I wonder if the story didn’t start life as a screenplay. Oh well — Hollywood’s loss is comics’ gain. My only caveat (and this is going to be the common thread for most of my Boom reviews, I fear) is that $3.99 an issue just seems too high for me. I know they want to put out a nice package but I think the economics of single issues are such that they probably are taking a hit on it. It might be worth trying to downgrade the paper or go with a duotone or some other cost-saving measure to get the single-issue price down. Granted, I’m just kibitzing and for all I know their single issues sell like gangbusters. But $3.99 an issue seems like way too intimidating a price point for a new company doing non-superhero stuff, and I really want these guys to last.

Anyway, as it stands, I’d recommend getting this in trade– Boom does nice trade collections, and they are much more reasonably priced– and I really hope Hunter’s Moon gets one.

Speaking of trade collections, Chip also let us have an advance copy of the trade collection of Talent, from Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski and Paul Azaceta.

I quite like Golden’s novels and I was interested to see what his comics read like — I know, he’s been doing them for years, but this is the first time I’ve run across one. My first impression, reading this, without knowing who did what, is that it felt like another adapted screenplay. Only this one wasn’t for a movie but for a television series pilot. I hasten to add, that’s not a BAD thing, but it is what the book felt like.

It’s an interesting premise: the lone survivor of a plane crash mysteriously inherits all the talents and abilities of everyone else who died on the plane, and he is also compelled to somehow complete all their unfinished business, whether it’s a final farewell to a loved one or straightening out a boxer’s crooked deal with a mobster. The story mostly moves along at a nice clip, but in places it felt a little padded. This strikes me as something that would work better in a format like Global Frequency was, a series of one-off adventures with an overarcing premise. Paul Azaceta does nice work as always but it’s a little murky and hard to follow in places. Story first, Mr. Azaceta, then atmosphere, please.

Still, I did enjoy this, and I appreciated getting a look at the script and the thumbnail drawings for issue #1 in the appendix, as well — in fact, I took them to class to show my cartooning students, who sometimes have a hard time getting their heads wrapped around the concept of a thumbnail rough versus a finished page.

Another review copy I’d been putting off discussing wasn’t a comic, technically, but it is great fun.

This is probably because of Bill Reed. Now, our commenters lined up to beat poor Bill like a pinata when he said Dilbert was a reason to love comics, but nevertheless, that expression of affection apparently got us the attention of Penguin Books’ marketing diva, who kindly offered us a copy of Adams new non-Dilbert essay collection.

I was holding out, thinking Bill should be the guy to talk about it here, but maybe he’s still smarting from last time. I’ll take the bullet this time, though, because I gotta tell you, the book is great fun, and I’m not a Dilbert fan.

Stick To Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! is a collection of one-page mini-essays culled from the last few years of Scott Adams’ blog, and it’s hysterical. The subjects range all over the place, from politics to airport annoyances to handyman woes — the idea behind the book is to show Adams doing non-office humor. The key to this sort of stream-of-consciousness essay is remembering to keep it funny, and Adams certainly does that.

Comics fans beat up on Scott Adams and Dilbert a lot as being the perfect example of the modern badly-drawn targeted-demographic comic strip. I wouldn’t go that far, but I admit I don’t think he’s much of a cartoonist either. What struck me reading this book, though, is that Adams really is working the same basic territory as the late James Thurber.

Thurber switched from humorous essayist to cartoonist and back again without missing a step, and his humor is in much the same style. Think “21st Century Thurber” when you encounter Adams and I think you’ll be inclined to give him more of a break, comics fans. (If you don’t know Thurber’s work, you really should check that out, as well.) At any rate, Stick To Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! is a delightful book and I recommend it to Dilbert and non-Dilbert fans alike.

*

This year the column’s lucky streak continued, as far as the trend of writing about stuff/said stuff coming back into print was concerned. I was delighted to see DVD issues of the original Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, the Filmation Superman and Aquaman cartoons, and new trade paperback collections of stuff like Bob Haney’s World’s Finest Super Sons stories. There was even a re-issue of one of the original Ka-Zar pulp novels from Adventure House; there had to be only about eight of us in the country interested in THAT one.

Anyway, in an effort to consciously invoke this phenomenon, I wanted to suggest a new candidate for a DVD collection.

Thinking of James Thurber reminded me of a television classic that really NEEDS the archival DVD treatment.

My World And Welcome To It was a brilliant effort in 1969 that was loosely based on the life and work of James Thurber. William Windom starred as a Thurber-like cartoonist who was often exasperated by his wife and daughter. The great thing, though, was the way the show combined animation and live-action — at any moment Windom might drift into a fantasy cartoon exaggeration of whatever was annoying him at the moment, or get into an argument with one of his characters, or whatever. And the animation sequences were all lovingly crafted in the Thurber style.

Naturally, this innovative and utterly charming show was so far ahead of its time that it was canceled after a single season, but it was a terrific season. In a world where Firefly, Sports Night, and other noble TV failures are DVD sales perennials, I think the time might be right for My World And Welcome To It.

The above picture is from an illegal bootleg, but it was the best and biggest shot I could find that combined the live actor with a cartoon drawing the way the show itself did. But I don’t want a bootleg. Let’s have a real set while the people involved in it are still around to do commentaries and so forth, huh?

*

And that’s all I’ve got this time out. See you here next week for the start of Year Three!

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