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Issue #163

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #163
  • Been listening to a lot of blues lately. I never used to listen much to blues, once royally infuriated a music critic friend when I told him I didn’t like blues. “The foundation of all American music!” he overemphatically (and incorrectly, but these days it might as well be) put it. Now I listen. Not endlessly, but there are weeks when I don’t want to hear anything else, but I still don’t care for the biggest names in the field, like B.B. King, who’s good but he sometimes seems all mannerism and technique, and not much imagination. As with many things, it’s the little known performers who are the most interesting: J.B. Lenoir, Big Jack Johnson, Lowell Fulson, Tiny Bradshaw, Jody Williams, musicians like that, ones who might’ve only had two or three great songs, but they were really great songs. “The blues” get a bad rap, really. “Feeling blue,” “singing the blues,” the blues are now associated with depression and loss: my baby died, my baby left me, I’ve been treated so bad, etc. etc., and, sure, there’s that and plenty of it, but the blues encompass so much more, and often with a joyous exuberance. “The blues” wasn’t even what the blues were originally about. There’s an ecstatic exuberance in a lot of the songs (the term “the blues” originated as a sexual reference that had nothing at all to do with suffering and loss, only desire), a raw joie de vivre not found in “white” music before rock and roll (a term itself derived from blues slang for sex). Like “rock,” “blues” encompasses multitudes of styles and viewpoints, but the media machine likes to dumb it down to a single, easy to grasp, misleading concept, reinforced by the scant amount of material that gets wide exposure, which is mostly B.B. King and his imitators.

    Lately, too, I’ve felt the urge to pursue a bunch of new ideas. Strangely, they’re almost all superhero concepts, after a fashion. Many readers think I hate superheroes due to what I’ve written about them in the past, which can be reduced to a couple principles: 1) the American comics business, particularly the direct market, has put too much emphasis on superheroes over the past couple decades, to its detriment. Why is manga running away with the audience these days? In part because of the wide diversity of the material, particularly comics for girls, which the American market brusquely abandoned with the self-fulfilling logic that girls don’t read/buy comics. 2) Most new superhero comics really have no interesting new take, nothing new to say, and are largely nostalgic episodes that not only do nothing new with the concept except change the costumes but proudly do nothing new. We trained fans to expect this, dividing them into two groups: those obsessed with nostalgia and those who lost interest in superhero comics. Unfortunately, with superheroes dominating the direct market – even when something different hits at Marvel or DC, they spend all their effort trying to remind people that Spider-Man or Superman still exist instead – that was tantamount to telling the latter group to get out of comics. Which many of them did.

    Stripped to their core, there’s only one concept that makes a superhero comic: a being with powers greater than that of normal people. That’s it. Everything else is clutter, a restriction set at some point or another for commercial reasons that may or may not still apply, or a gimmick that caught on once that has since been imitated to death. Even the “hero” part. That single element has done more over the years to limit the superhero concept to stilted melodrama and militaristic fantasy than any other factor. Or, as Wally Wood mockingly reduced it to, there are good guys and there are bad guys and the job of the good guys is to kill off all the bad guys, with the basic formula, as Denny O’Neil codified it, two fight scenes, a chase and a weird villain. Though traditionalists howl about the necessity of these aspects and complain bitterly when they’re absent, the fact is that they could be stripped right out of superhero comics and the resulting stories could be just as good (damning with faint praise, in most instances) or better – as long as what replaced those aspects was imagination.

    Which is what I wrote about a few years back as the rise of the “post-superhero.” These were basically superhero concepts liberated, to varying degrees, from the moral straitjacket of standard superhero comics and exposed to different techniques and milieus, opening them up to different sorts of characterizations. Warren Ellis developed THE AUTHORITY with Bryan Hitch and opened the medium both visually and philosophically with “heroes” who openly flouted all the rules (including sexual) and believed they were the baddest kids on the block so that gave them the right to tell everyone else what to do. It was a brilliant extrapolation of the “might makes right” underpinnings of all superhero comics – the one who gets in the last punch is the one who gets to make the rules – that drastically if subtly blurred the lines between what constitutes a hero or a villain. (Though Warren was explicit about it in interviews.) He wasn’t the only one. Grant Morrison’s trad-revisionist JLA went back to the group’s Gardner Fox roots while streamlining character, amping the pace and action, and dumping soap opera for science fiction, while his THE INVISIBLES subverts the traditional role of superhero as defender of the status quo. Kurt Busiek’s apparently retro ASTRO CITY paid overt homage old characters in borderline new versions, but subverted plot and structure in the service of character. Others, like Garth Ennis’ PREACHER and HITMAN, paid lip service to superheroes before virtually abandoning the mode altogether. Both heroes have superpowers, but as the series go on, the stories involve the powers less and less, and superpowers are pivotal in neither’s climax. Joe Casey’s version(s) of WILDC.A.T.S maintains the pulp roots of superhero comics but adopts a pragmatic real world morality, stripping away costumes and other accoutrements and recasting idealism in corporate logic. Alan Moore, JH Williams III and Mick Gray’s PROMETHEA thinly disguises magical tract as cosmic superhero adventure, with more reversals: the heroine routinely reveals “evil” as simply misdirected desire but finally positions the heroine in the traditional villain role, the figure ultimately destined to destroy the world and ultimately eager to do so. But, in Promethea’s case, without ever “turning evil.”

    The parade of “post-superhero” series has tapered over the past couple years, with most companies adopting a “new traditionalist” pose (one company not too long ago was specifically asking for “the next Green Lantern or the next Hulk,” even as DC was returning to the second-to-last Green Lantern) and trying makeover after makeover on old characters to hold onto the trad audience while projecting an illusion of newness. Even Crossgen, which positioned itself as the “anti-superhero” company, turned out to be the “anti-post-superhero” company, with most of its ostensibly “fantasy” characters being thinly disguised superheroes whose adventures were built on strictly superhero comic structures.

    But the post-superhero is alive and kicking in several guises. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ SLEEPER, ostensibly cast in the Wildstorm superhero universe, abandons the trappings altogether for a paranoid spy thriller taking place in a moral graveyard, totally eclipsed from the relative sunshine of most superhero tales. Likewise, Steve Gerber and Brian Hurtt’s HARD TIME drops its young powered hero into a maximum security prison and the reader in a swamp of moral ambiguity void of signposts, labels and easy answers. The post-superhero even lives behind the mask of traditional superheroes, as in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s brilliant THE ULTIMATES, which sacrifices few traditional Marvel elements (let’s not forget Marvel unwittingly pioneered the post-superhero with characters like Elektra, Wolverine and The Punisher) but takes a hardnosed yet playful attitude toward the characters: Iron Man’s Tony Stark becomes a hard-drinking hard-loving billionaire playboy driven by an inoperable brain tumor to become a superhero for kicks; Thor a pacifist anti-multinationalist with modern diction, an easy humor and a big stick; Captain America, freshly recovered from the iceberg he has been frozen in since WWII, tenuously balances a basic salt-of-the-earth decency with a willingness to do what it takes to get the job done. (Captain America has been misplayed at Marvel for so many decades that playing him logically, as a brilliant tactician willing to take huge risks and risk others without endless soulsearching, comes off as radical. With his Ultimate Captain America, Millar achieves something I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to sell to publishers for years: the decent realist as superhero.) Other characters get similar makeovers, and the big, bold art and unrepentant action, returns “traditional” superheroes to something refreshing and daring. This differs from other Marvel Ultimate titles like ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and ULTIMATE X-MEN. Aside from style, those are essentially retreads of the original concepts. Millar and Hitch’s ULTIMATES represents a sharp break, a total rethink.

    Obviously, there’s still ground to be covered with the superhero, and the post-superhero. There are different things yet to do with them. There are even weird, unexpected subcultures out there built around superheroes: a friend yesterday told me about “slash,” which has apparently been an open secret for a long time but somehow I just missed it, basically self-generated fiction by and for educated, mostly straight, often married middle-class women, featuring homoerotic (male-male) revisions of popular characters of TV, screen and comics, like the old Kirk-Spock fantasies once prevalent among an offshoot of STAR TREK fans. (Female “slash” fans are reportedly a hefty chunk of the fans of DC’s TEEN TITANS and OUTSIDERS comics.) Which ties in beautifully with the Apollo-Midnighter romance in THE AUTHORITY and shonen ai manga like GRAVITATION. Slash fans have their own conventions, websites and everything. Turns out there are all sorts of “superhero” audiences, if you’re of a mind to target one. The big problem with all this remains superhero fans – or, rather, the proprietary traditionalists among them. The trick is finding angles that haven’t been spotted or covered, and being willing to junk whatever aspects aren’t needed and play all appealing new aspects for all they’re worth. Harder than it sounds – it’s always easier to copy what’s already been done – but if I can come up with a half-dozen new takes, anyone can. It’s hard but it’s not that hard. (Of course, no way to tell until I get them out if the ideas are any good; no details until I see at least signed contracts.)

    So, okay, I’ve come around. Let’s see more superhero comics. Good ones, with original ideas. Let’s see lots of comics of any genre if they’re good, with original ideas. Time to get it done.

  • Was going to do a slew of reviews this week, but the Tuesday curse hit again: one of the breakers in my circuit box is completely shot and needs replacing. I can do it, but it means going to Home Depot for a replacement part, then shutting off all power to the house for an hour or so. Meanwhile, the mountain of review copies has grown again, so next week will be another review-a-rama. Those who’d sent in books for review and are peeing their pants in terror over last week’s column and the last batch of reviews I did before that, relax a little. I’m in a much better mood these days. Not that that’s going to make bad books better, of course. In the meantime, here are a couple:

    TSUBASA Vol. 3, by Clamp. Black & white trade paperback. (Del Rey Manga;$10.95)

    The Studio Clamp fantasy continues hero Syaoran quest across worlds, with a few sidekicks, to recover the memories of his love Sakura. This volume, with Syaoran and friends battling an evil sorcerer on a magic world, works better than last volume’s quasi-cyberpunk adventure. The art’s pretty good (Is it my imagination or is there a Walt Simonson influence in this? Or are Clamp influenced by the same old manga artists who influenced Walt?) though it remains frustratingly confusing in most of the action scenes, but it’s the emotional content that holds the series together, especially Syaoran’s unflinching devotion to Sakura and his mission in the face of crushing personal sacrifice. Pretty good.

    OTHELLO Vol. 1, by Satomi Ikezawa. (Del Rey Manga;$10.95)

    OTHELLO has a lot of familiar shojo elements, like the mousy schoolgirl heroine bossed around and tormented by snobby classmates, the object of desire that’s just beyond reach, etc., but it manages to do interesting things with all of it: the would-be boyfriend is pleasantly if tentatively open about his feelings for the heroine, so we get to skip the usual cat-and-mouse of these things, and the heroine manages to cope with her situation by developing a brash alternate personality… which she blacks out when she returns to “normal.” Ikezawa keeps it light but doesn’t go for screwball comedy, and though the theme of teens struggling to find their true identities is a mainstay of comics now, OTHELLO does it better than most, American or Japanese, do. Nice, clean art, too. Worth a look.

  • Next Tuesday’s the big day, and if you’re not swayed against the Hand Puppet by now, by his administration’s flagrant disregard for the law, for the Constitution, for the public weal, for international concerns, for pretty much anything except the narrow interests of their wealthy backers, there’s probably not much I can say at this point to change your mind. The Republicans may now be running an anti-Kerry attack ad talking about how Kerry voted against body armor for American troops, but it’s the Hand Puppet who sent them off to war (and, worse as it turns out, “peace”) without it. It’s not Kerry whose people allowed a disastrous amount of explosives from an Iraqi munitions dump that they somehow too busy occupying the Iraqi Oil Ministry to secure. It’s interesting that the Hand Puppet natters on and on about how much he supports the troops and Kerry doesn’t, but the record shows his “support” to be slipshod and callous, little more than tossing them, particularly the hordes of National Guardsmen essentially drafted into the fight without being properly trained for it, in harm’s way. It’s the Hand Puppet’s handpicked head of the CIA who’s been busily purging the CIA (not that I have anything specific against that) so he can fill the vacancies with loyal Republicans, and who, in contravention of law, has refused to turn over to Congress until after the election the final CIA report on events leading up to 9-11 that reportedly names names as to who in the administration fell down on the job and allowed the terrorists to get as far as they did. It was a Hand Puppet aide, not a Kerry aide, who boldly boasted to the New York Times that scoffers belonged to “what we call the reality-based community”… those who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” It’s apparently administration policy that “that’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality judiciously, as you will, we’ll act again, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” It’s the Hand Puppet, not Kerry, who announced to environmental and other groups on taking office, “You have to understand, we’re in power now and we’re going to do what we want.” It’s the Hand Puppet who told Bob Woodward, in the book BUSH AT WAR that being president removes him from accountability, or having to explain himself.

    A lot of readers are of the impression I hate the President. I don’t hate him. I don’t feel anything in particular towards him one way or the other. But, if you look past the glossy public image they tout out, he has been a horrible president. Between tax cuts and wars, he has engaged in the systematic destruction of the economy (which isn’t improving, no matter how much they insist it is), and now he’s asking for another $80 billion for Iraq that isn’t there. He has announced his intention to “compassionately” dismantle Social Security, basically surrendering the financial futures of most Americans to the same vultures who gave us the S&L and stock market crises.

    Recently Alan David Doane did one of his “5 Questions” sessions with me for Newsarama. We steered clear of politics until the last question, which I’m sure he won’t mind me reprinting here:

    Alan: You spend some time in many of your columns at CBR assessing the current American political landscape with no-holds-barred commentary. After three years of George W. Bush, how do you see the U.S. and what do you think is at stake in the November election?

    I think the U.S. comes across as frightened and panicky, which is an overreaction even to 9-11 and certainly not the way you want the rest of the world to see you if you’re genuinely concerned with your own security. What Bush has projected to the rest of the world hasn’t been strength but irrationality and weakness. What’s at stake? Our philosophy of what America’s supposed to be about. If you look at the record of this administration – really look – both domestically and internationally their agendas have been driven by thuggery and opportunism. This election is where Americans get to decide whether thuggery and opportunism are what we want to be about. If it is, that’s fine, but let’s stop trying to tart it up as something else. I prefer to think America should be about something better than that, but, ultimately, I’m not the one who gets to make that decision. Which isn’t to say I think John Kerry will necessarily be all that much better than Bush – there isn’t really that much difference between Republicans and Democrats – but if Bush is re-elected he’ll proceed as though it’s a mandate and we’ve rubberstamped his bad behavior. Kerry, if nothing else, just due to his circumstances will be forced to be much more answerable than that.

    Not to mention John Ashcroft, who seems to actively hate the Constitution, will be out as Attorney General and it’s unlikely Kerry will stock the Supreme Court with Scalia-esque arch-conservatives. It’s hard to believe Kerry will do worse on homeland security than Bush, since most of what Bush has done is a dog and pony show…”

    There’s not much I can add to that, and not much left to say about the election. Tuesday we get to decide what we’re really all about. Your choice.

  • This week’s TWO HEADS TALK brought to you courtesy of (and the art herein is ©2004 by) M.P. Mann. Thanks, Mann! If you’d like to see your art spotlighted in TWO HEADS TALK, check back next week for full instructions.

  • A few public service announcements:

    Tom Spurgeon, formerly of THE COMICS JOURNAL and co-author of the Stan Lee biography, STAN LEE AND THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN COMIC BOOK, has started a new web page, The Comics Reporter, which Tom describes as more of a resource than a newssite. Check it out.

    On Nov. 1, Danny Fingeroth will be talking with Denny O’Neil and Charles Kochman in a two-hour program at New York City’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, discussing their lives and work. 594 Broadway (just south of Houston), Manhattan, 6:30 PM. $36 (apparently negotiable). For more information, call 212-254-3511. That’s next Monday, y’know.

    It’s like a good news/bad news joke with no bad news. Okay, the “bad” news is that CBS’s sophomoric baseball themed freshman drama, THE CLUBHOUSE (Tuesdays 9P), hasn’t had the youth appeal the network anticipated (maybe due to stodgy, clunky storytelling and a kid too young and geeky to exude any credibility or sex appeal; THE O.C this ain’t) has been banished to the Saturday 8P dead zone. The really good news is that, come Nov. 16th (I think), CBS is bringing back, to the Tuesday 9P timeslot, the next edition of THE AMAZING RACE, the only reality show and the only game show worth watching. Watch it!

    As usual, information on my work can be found at Paper Movies, and those wanting a collection of my MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS essays can find the collection TOTALLY OBVIOUS on .pdf at the store there.

    Time to swap out a circuit breaker. See you next week.

    Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

    Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

    I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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