CATCHING UP WITH THE SMALL STUFF: why I don’t watch TV, and what’s wrong with Big Events
A NEW PUNCHLINE FOR THE OLD JOKE: Robertson misspeaks again
HORSE LATITUDES: conquering the sea of reviews
Sadly, it has gotten to the point where I don’t remember what I said in the columns thirty seconds after I turn them in. Apparently awhile back I made remarks about the current go-round of “big company events” that could have been taken disparagingly, particularly since there’s no way I could possibly have read them. (No, I’m not in the DC inner circle these days – matter of fact, I’ve never been in the DC inner circle.)
Which is true enough, but I don’t really stock any ego behind what I write here, and I’m always happy to be pleasantly surprised. And I don’t have the revulsion to the idea of Wonder Woman killing someone – presumably it was out of dire, inescapable necessity, which fits the doomed Greek mode of the heroine’s origin well enough – that many who’ve commented on the current DC arc online do. My objections to “company events” aren’t really even objections. They’re more… warnings. Let me explain.
The nature of the superhero story, certainly over the last 30 years, has been basically this: hero(es) face(s) villain(s). In order to be a credible threat, villain(s) has to in some way be significantly superior to hero(es). In order to successfully combat villain(s), hero(es) must “rise to the occasion,” ie, in come way become more powerful, in order to equalize or surpass the threat. Hero(es) at the end of the story end up more powerful than at the beginning. Therefore, the following arc in the continuing story (given that no single story constitutes an actual story anymore, though it may represent a chapter), in order to be credible, the villain(s) must in some way be more powerful than the hero(es).
And you’re on the escalating treadmill.
The same applies, in spades, to the “big company event.” DC and Marvel in the ’80s and ’90s epitomized this. Every one had to be in some way bigger and more important than the last in order to continue to command attention. DC’s problem was that they began with CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and it didn’t get much bigger or more important than that. Furthermore, CRISIS suffered from “too many cooks” syndrome, not uncommon on “big company events” where there’s often more than one itch demanding to be scratched. Editorial flipflopping on the idea even while the book was being produced resulted in a messier situation than what they began with. Writer Marv Wolfman’s original idea was to jettison 40+ years of accumulated backstory, leaving writers and editors to proceed as they chose. What they ended up with was all that backstory plus all the characters who’d survived CRISIS endlessly reiterating the sprawling, often confusing CRISIS storyline and further bogging down stories with trivia.
Subsequent “big events” were increasingly forced to hinge on gimmicks, either dolling up interesting issues (as in LEGENDS, where the public turned against superheroes, and certainly there’d potentially be plenty of legit reasons for that which are worth exploration) then skirting them entirely (mind control by a minor Kirby villain), teasing “major change” (ARMAGGEDON 2001, where a “major hero” would become a “major villain,” except the ridiculously obvious secret leaked out and it became more important to have a Big Unexpected Reveal than a credible story, so in the end a minor hero became a villain who quickly vanished without a trace) or attempting to organize and make sense out of accumulated incomprehensibles (MILLENNIUM, where minor characters were reconstituted to rewrite the history of the DC universe… again). I’m not trying to pick on DC, but their “big events” were largely more universal than Marvel “big events,” and past those two it’s not even worth discussing “big” events, since in this market they require enough emotional investment for readers to notice them and the new universe from any other company hasn’t yet been created that can generate that.
Is it possible for big events to be good? Sure. Is it possible to predict the course of new big events from a study of old ones? Sure. There’s a whole branch of mathematical science dedicated to this sort of thing called stochastics. Remember the old saw about those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it? I’ve coined two variations on that over the years.
There are a million stories in the naked city, but only eight basic plots.
You don’t have to cut your finger off to know you’re going to bleed.
“Big events” by themselves are one thing. Fine. When a company predicates its existence on going from one big event to another, that’s something else. That puts them back on the escalating treadmill. Each one has to be bigger and better in some way than the last, but the problem (as companies learned to their dismay during the halcyon glory days of the early ’90s) that rerunning a gimmick leads to immediate disinterest. After you’ve killed and resurrected Superman, your options get kind of limited. How many times can the world be destroyed? How many times can you kill off a hero and have someone else take over the identity?
At some point you reach the end of the tether. You can’t keep up. The treadmill keeps going, and you go right off the end of it. This already happened once, at both companies. It damn near took Marvel right down with it, and DC didn’t make out so well either. Now Big Events are back, and it’s not hard to see companies going right back down the same road.
And from a creative viewpoint, Big Events have largely been a disaster. The longest lasting effect of any Big Event (rumor has it even CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS is in some way about to be undone, though DC already tried that once, when THE KINGDOM tried to introduce the bewildering Hypertime concept, a sort of Schroedinger’s Cat that conceived a notion of continuity as whatever happens to be on the page when someone’s looking at it) has been the virtually ceaseless and ever-tightening grip of editorial micromanagement. The more expansive the scope of the Big Event, the more every little detail has to be coordinated and worked over.
People in editorial offices still talk a lot about Archie Goodwin, many even still shed a tear for his passing, but virtually no one even tries to be like Archie Goodwin anymore. Archie’s idea of editing was simple (and has been shared by many good editors, a couple of whom are even still working at the Big Two): hire the talent you think are right for a project, set the parameters, let them follow their own muses and instincts, ask lots of questions to make sure they’re doing what they actually want to be doing, and take a direct hand only if things are going off-course. In other words, trust and cooperation.
I can’t say for sure how things are going at Marvel and DC now, but the mid-’90s became a festival of second-guessing and dictating storylines. Often, the editorial mindset was “Here’s what we want to do, make it work,” and then the parameters would keep changing as this consideration or that came into play. It also emphasized an official fixation on “universe building,” conveniently forgetting that the most successful “universe” in the history of comics, the Marvel Universe, really came about by accident and accumulation, by people like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Roy Thomas and various others throwing this idea or that out there without much concern for the big picture. Somehow in the past couple decades The Big Picture has become the pre-eminent concern of the comics companies, and between micromanagement and the big picture has developed an increasing rigidity of approach, style and content, where individual inspiration is gifted, not expected. (Creatively, Grant Morrison’s SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY is so far a bigger and better Big Event than the slew of other, company-orchestrated Big Events pouring down DC’s sluice.)
But those are the twin big problems, traditionally, of the Big Event mindset: creative bankruptcy and rigid centralized control, and they’re really the same problem. Principles of evolution (or stock market investment, for that matter) apply: chances of survival are strongest where variation is most possible. Put all your eggs in one basket, and when the bubble bursts it bursts hard and bitter, and possibly apocalyptically. The standard American comic is stronger now than it has been in years, but not nearly so strong that it can withstand another bursting bubble.
So my concerns aren’t so much a loathing of the concept of Big Events – I like some, don’t others – but a concern for the longterm health of the business, and a loathing of the side effects of Big Events. And the more emphasis companies put on them, the more pain will be spread around when they stop working again.
BACK ISSUE #11 ed. by Michael Eury, 88 pg b&w magazine (TwoMorrows Publishing;$5.95)
As a magazine dedicated to comics of the ’70s and ’80s, this didn’t have a lot of initial appeal for me (I mean, I was there, man; as Dylan once musically asked, how do we keep from going through all of these things twice?), but it’s pretty much everything you want in a fanzine: lively writing, informative articles and hot art, mostly unpublished. The issue’s cornerstone is a lengthy piece examining the rise and fall of Conan at Marvel’s hands in the ’70s and ’80s that pulls no punches, but there’s also a fine article about the secret artists (obvious when you know about them) on the first SUPERMAN-SPIDER-MAN crossover book, the evolution of GROO, DC’s failed attempts at a KING ARTHUR comic, an interview with Art Suydam, and gobs of original and unseen art from talents like Moebius, Brian Bolland, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Joe Kubert, Bill Sienkiewicz. And it’s all fascinating! This is easily the best of the semi-pro fanzines TwoMorrows publishes. (By the way, does Top Shelf still publish COMIC BOOK ARTIST? It’s been months since I’ve seen the magazine or heard it mentioned anywhere.) If you’ve got any interest in comics history at all, buy this.
COMIC EFFECT #43 ed. by Jim Kingman, 52 pg b&w magazine (Jim Kingman;$3.50)
COMIC EFFECT continues to be one of the best old school fanzines available, a half-size labor of love. There used to be gobs of these things around. This is a specialized issue, one long essay/memoir about Hanna-Barbara in the comics, so if you love Yogi Bear and the Flintstones, this is the one to get, but if you don’t it’s not likely to do much for you. It’s good, though; writer Murray Ward is obviously in love with his subject, which is the magazine’s standard.
MEEDNIGHT PULP PRESENTS SECRET SKULL by Steve Niles & Chuck BB, 114 pg color trade (IDW;$17.99)
MPP SECRET SKULL isn’t Niles’ strongest work, but it’s got its little pleasures. Niles expands his horror “universe” (not that there’s any connection between Cal Macdonald and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT I know of) into the crime avenger milieu, as an attack on a girl in a cemetery leads to the downfall of a crime boss. The story’s lean and direct, though it could have used a few more emotional beats, and Chuck BB’s nontraditional art is like a successful mélange of Steve Bissette and Ted McKeever. I enjoyed it.
SMOKE #1 & 2 by Alex de Campi & Igor Kordey, 48 pg color prestige comics (IDW;$7.49@)
I mistakenly read the second of these first, and found it to be perfectly understandable, so that’s good. In a decaying near-future England, an internal political power play sets an albino government assassin on a crash course with his own government. There’s more than a little TRANSMETROPOLITAN and THE INVISIBLES in this, but de Campi’s story is satisfyingly complex, her cultural jabs not overplayed, the action’s sharp and snappy, and the machinations credible enough to pull it off. Korday’s art is terrific, both beautiful and beautifully conveying the world and characters. So far, a very enjoyable political adventure story.
HEARTBREAKERS MEET BOILERPLATE by Anina Bennet & Paul Guinan, 100 pg halftone graphic novel (IDW;$17.99)
I didn’t realize this was IDW, I thought it was through Anina and Paul’s own publishing company, like most of the HEARTBREAKERS material. The Heartbreakers are cloned interplanetary adventurers – they look just like Anina, for some reason – in the distant future, where clones have won personal freedom but not reproductive rights. Boilerplate is a Victorian-era steampunk robot with artificial intelligence. Business interests of the Heartbreakers era looking for workable, self-sustaining A.I. for robots to replace the formerly lucrative clone market, the Heartbreakers become Boilerplate’s self-appointed guardians when he’s discovered, and hijinks ensue. The story’s a romp of casually mingled anachronisms that somehow work, but the real star is Guinan’s new style of surprisingly attractive computerized photorealistic art, which brings a new standard of 3D imaging to the comics page. Looks good too. The book’s worth seeking out just for a look at it.
L. FRANK BAUM’S THE WIZARD OF OZ by Michael Cavallero; ROBERT LEWIS STEVENSON’S TREASURE ISLAND by Tim Hamilton; WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S MACBETH by Arthur Byron Cover & Tony Leonard Taiviai, 176 pg graphic novels (Puffin Books;$9.99@)
More in Puffin’s mostly excellent new “Classics Illustrated” series. I’ve hated THE WIZARD OF OZ since I first saw the movie at around age 6, but Cavarello does a terrific job of adapting it, hitting all the high points of the story without dwelling on the slow parts, though (like everyone else) he fails to explain why Dorothy would want to go back to her drab life in Kansas. The only minor problem is that the Kansas designs are updated to indicate the story’s taking place today, which kind of works against it, but Dorothy doesn’t spend enough time in Kansas for it to become an issue. Tim Hamilton stays strictly traditional with TREASURE ISLAND, but again does a terrific job, moving briskly through the story while keeping enough of Stevenson’s prose to get the mood and style of the book across flawlessly. He also provides far better art than I’ve ever seen from him before, really topnotch stuff that also gives a strong sense of the era. Bearing in mind the Puffin books are aimed at kids, the whole job is top-notch, and either WIZARD OF OZ or TREASURE ISLAND are strong enough to convince kids the original novels are worth reading. Not so with MACBETH. I’m not sure why everyone feels compelled to redo MACBETH in some new milieu. When I was working on CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED at First Comics, they wanted to do it as a 1930s crime story. The best reconception was probably the indie film SCOTLAND, PA from a few years back, but they just cribbed the story, not Shakespeare’s dialogue. Here, Art Cover, who’se usually a pretty good writer, and Tony Taiviai reconceive the story as a space opera, and the characters do spout Shakespeare. Epitomizing the problem: the Weird Sisters are made over as stocky robots with Tutunkamen “beards,” while Macbeth is calling them withered crones. Just too much of the story doesn’t translate, and they try to shove it in with a trowel. That the art’s stodgy and uneven and the style plodding doesn’t help. If people are going to “reconceive” MACBETH, I don’t know why they don’t take it back to its barbaric roots. It’s a sword-and-sorcery story. At any rate, if you want incentive to run from the play, this is it. But two out of three ain’t bad.
BALLAST by Joe Kelly & Ilya, 48 pg b&w prestige comic (Active Images;$4)
Another story – well, an extended vignette and a lot of backstory, really – featuring yet another professional killer with a heart of gold. The action sequence is way overwritten, and, seriously, he lost me where he reveals the killer has taken an oath to never kill. Yeah, professional killers do that a lot. Well, they seem to in comics, where people are so obsessed with characters coming off as “heroic” that they beat it to death because they want to have their cake and eat it too. (Remember when Marvel used to jump through hoops to explain why the Punisher, at the time among their most popular characters thank you very much, wasn’t evil when he always patently was?) Dialogue’s good, art’s pretty attractive, the story such as it is doesn’t cut it.
GUNPOWDER GIRL AND THE OUTLAW SQUAW by Don Hudson, 72 pg b&w graphic novel (Active Images;$12.95)
A different sort of western that knows how to have fun. Female outlaws – an orphan girl with no home and an Indian woman who refuses to live on a reservation – cut a swath through Texas in the late 1800s. The story’s a little thin – robbery, capture, escape – but the characters are played well and the art’s very nice.
KARMA UNLIMITED #1 by David Hopkins & Tom Kurzanksi, 32 pg color comic (Viper; presumably $2.95, but if there’s a price on there, I can’t find it)
And you thought DEAD@17 was high concept. This concerns a small company that metes out petty vengeance for hire, but it’s not very convincing. The characters all seem to spring from TV shows – the comic reads like a TV pitch, actually – and not only are they not very legal, they’re stupidly not very secretive either, though apparently every single member of the team has a dark secret they don’t want others to know about, so they’re all blackmailing each other. And they do things like throw scalding coffee on each other, and nobody presses charges. Complications arise when some members have pangs of conscience, but everything blows up when a disgruntled customer comes after them. (Like I said, they’re not very secretive.) I know it’s supposed to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but it doesn’t really work. The bobblehead art’s not bad, but it’s an acquired taste. Pass.
RANDOM ENCOUNTER #4 by Nicc Balce, 32 pg color comic (Viper;$2.95)
The story – young convenience store workers find themselves caught up in a battle against strange invaders – finally sort of wraps up as nothing is really resolved or even explained but Balce’s writing and quasi-manga art styles are breezy enough, and his focus on character strong enough, to encourage you to ignore that not much of it makes any sense. From the ending, it’s hard to tell whether another issue’s on its way next month or if this is it for now. Not bad, but if it does continue Balce had better get to some meat pretty quickly.
ODDLY NORMAL #4 by Otis Frampton, 32 pg color comic (Viper;$2.95)
Frampton’s tale of a half-human half-“figment” girl sent to the realm of nightmares after her family mysteriously vanishes also semi-wraps up, with this series definitely shutting down. In this case, though, most things are explained (albeit with a sort of dream logic) and at least the immediate threat neutralized as fairly obvious secrets are revealed and the girl’s power – you knew she had to have one – manifests. She also proves herself to be a flaming idiot, as the answer to all her problems is now right under her nose and it never occurs to her once. Possibly it never occurred to the writer either, because then the series would be really done. Eh.
THE FLY CHRONICLES: LIFE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE FOOD CHAIN by Michael Blaney, 136 pg color trade paperback (Active Images;$17.95)
A collection of FAR SIDE-style sick panel gags with a fly’s-eye view of the world. Literally. Much of it focuses on filth, but while there’s a stiff every so often, most of it’s pretty funny and surprisingly restrained, as when a dead spider arrives at the gates of Heaven to be greeted by a fly St. Peter, who says “I hope you don’t mind my saying, but the look on your face is priceless.” I’m not crazy about it art, but it’s clean and fits the material. Pretty good.
SNAKE EYES DECLASSIFIED#1 by Brandon Jerwa & Emiliani Santalucia (Devil’s Due;$2.95)
I guess the GI JOE franchise is still going. Though I wrote a couple issues back in the day, I’ve never thought much of the concept but it’s got plenty of staunch fans. The most interesting of the Joes was always the “ninja” Joe, Snake Eyes, who was always dressed from head to toe and never spoke. For all I know it was previously established, but what a disappointment to learn that underneath he’s just one more Aryan prettyboy after all. The revelation overwhelms an otherwise fairly pedestrian Vietnam War story that launches us into the character’s origin story. It’s okay for what it is.
MADISON UNDERGROUND PRESENTS FUNTIME COMICS #3&4 by various, 28 pg b&w magazines (Madison Underground Press;$1@)
OKEY-DOKEY #1 by various, 40 pg b&w comic (Madison Underground Press;$2)
Essentially the same series. The Madison Underground comes from somewhere out of Delaware, and the books are odd surrealistic snippets, mostly first chapters to serials that never continue, the stories are often bewildering amalgamations of flaunted education (though anyone who cites Giordano Bruno is aces with me) and standard sf/comics clichés (one cover is a nick of a very famous X-MEN cover, and the art is often startlingly inept. And, somehow, it all works great. My favorite piece is where a time traveler tells Mickey Mantle the way he hits the ball in the series against Boston in ’53 will drastically change the course of history. I’m not sure I can say it’s good, but it’s certainly intriguing.
KWOT by David Baillie, 28 pg b&w comic (David Baillie;$?)
Another oddball little project, involving tiny robots, giant robots in kilts, diners, surreal superheroes, belligerent mutants and TV stars. It’s more dialogue than story, but thankfully Baillie handles dialogue well, with snappy characterization. The cartooning’s good enough, and he shows a flair for expression that far more accomplished artists have yet to master. It’d be nice if the work didn’t feel quite so ephemeral, but it’s good as far as it goes.
UNIT PRIMES by Chris Dreier, Jacob Papiham & Federico Zumel, 92 pg b&w graphic novel (Afterburn;$?)
Basically, STAR TREK meets SUPERMAN. The last son of a dying planet is rocketed into space, where it’s salvaged by a team of interplanetary researchers. But the kid’s just a kid, and the aliens are researching what destroyed his planet, and countless others: robotic machines on an apocalyptic mission to purify the universe. Spiritually, this is the sort of thing that used to run as backup features in DC comics of the late ’70s & early ’80s, and it looks that way too, very of a piece with early Dan Jurgens. It’s not bad, for a first effort, though there are some flaws. While no one wants to hear more godawful “alien syntax” like Yoda’s, having “universal translators” (a pivotal gimmick in the book) translate alien dialogue into colloquial English probably wasn’t the best idea either. It slaps you around and takes you out of the moment. Admirable attempts at emotional depth are scuttled when burgeoning love for the orphan boy prompts his alien rescuers to suicidal heroism and the kid’s emotional level ends up playing as far superior to theirs. And the “graphic novel” turns out to only be the first chapter, really a long vignette, in what’s apparently a much longer work. Either that, or the authors didn’t have answers for the questions they raised. Technically, it’s fairly accomplished but, like many creator-owned works, UNIT PRIMES could have benefited from a good editor.
HANK KETCHAM’S COMPLETE DENNIS THE MENACE 1951-1952 by Hank Ketcham, 590 pg b&w hardcover (Fantagraphics;$24.95)
On the heels of their very successful PEANUTS reprints, Fantagraphics is giving the high end reprint treatment to another iconic American comic strip, DENNIS THE MENACE. These earliest strips are real eye openers. The Dennis here, reportedly based on Ketcham’s own 4 year old son, isn’t yet quite iconic – he only slowly morphs into the now-familiar character, doesn’t yet always wear his trademark overalls and striped T, hasn’t yet accumulated his supporting cast and, horrifying to the later Dennis, already shows an interest in girls – but Ketcham’s work is: both sleek and chaotic, pure and economical, invisibly incorporating an encyclopedia of techniques. Ketcham was a master of facial expression and body language – every figure beautifully tells a story – and I don’t think anyone else in any medium or any era has come anywhere near him in capturing, in equal portions, the innocence, malice and raw intelligence of small children. The book includes all the daily panels for almost two years, and on top of everything else, they’re still funny as hell. Fantagraphics deserves special commendation for their production and packaging, and this package is terrific. Don’t miss it.
Now it can be told. John Layman’s blog can be found here. By the way, it’ll help if you love cats.
Last week we had a last minute technical glitch that prevented us from running the Comics Cover Challenge, but this week it’s back with a vengeance. For those who came in late, the comics represented by the covers scattered throughout this column have something in common, a unifying theme. The theme may be apparent from the covers. It may not be. The first reader to correctly identify the theme in an email to me gets to promote the website of their choice (we reserve the right to refuse certain types of websites, but you know what they are) in the column next week. I have to warn you: this week’s is a toughie. I was going to hold off on it, but it’s been so hot lately that we could all use a little taste of February.
By the way, our best wishes go out to our hurricane-swamped readers in the Southeast. I hope everything’s back to normal for all of you really soon.
Because I’m feeling lazy in these waning days of August, a quick shot from last week: For those who’ve been on the fence, Johanna Draper-Carlson has run a lovely review of my book TOTALLY OBVIOUS on her Comics Worth Reading site, and the review is itself – I didn’t pay her for it, honest – worth reading. If you’re interested in the book, it’s available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies at a wonderfully inexpensive price for all that juicy information, along with my collection of political commentary, IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS. Don’t miss ’em.
It’s Labor Day. I guess that means vacation’s over. It’s kind of amusing, in a sick way, how few people even associate Labor Day with the labor movement anymore, the same way most people seem to believe the old song “Casey Jones” is a classic American folk song commemorating rugged American individualism rather than the dire warning about bucking the Union it was originally intended as. (Casey Jones thumbs his nose at union workers striking for better working conditions on the railroad and mans an engine all by himself, running it off the tracks and dying in a fatal crash because an enterprise like running a train requires a group of workers and no one man can do it by himself.) When I was a kid, every Labor Day my father, a lifelong member of the Communications Workers Of America, would drag the family down to the Labor Temple where we’d stand around in the hot Wisconsin summer sun, eat hot dogs and drink sodas provided by the Union. For a kid, it was a dull way to spend the last day before school started again. This year, I’ll just listen to Phil Ochs sing “Joe Hill” a couple of times, and get back to work…
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.
- Ad Free Browsing
- Over 10,000 Videos!
- All in 1 Access
- Join For Free!