IT'S A BIRD
A couple of weeks ago, I referred to SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY as a personal story. The book was structured as a character study, but I also thought Kurt Busiek's writing about a man's love for his children, amongst other things, could only ring true from a man who's been there. While it was a story with certain X-FILES overtones, Busiek kept the book grounded by focusing on Clark Kent's thoughts and dreams.
Last week, I read IT'S A BIRD. It's the latest original graphic novel from Vertigo, running 124 solid pages of story for $24.95. As a personal piece of work, this one puts SECRET IDENTITY to shame. IT'S A BIRD is a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical piece written by Steven T. Seagle. Using his assignment to the SUPERMAN family of titles as a launching point, he brings a whole range of feelings to the surface, from his inability to cope with his family's genetic disorder, to the effect his own doubts have on his personal relationships, including that with his long time girlfriend. This book is a carefully constructed novel alternating between ruminations on Superman and what he means, mixed in with the self-destructive rampage that an assignment to the Superman family of titles brings to the lead character, a comic book writer named "Steve." Seagle blends the two beautifully, showing how the choices a person makes in life can color the point of view they have for fictional characters. Our opinions on matters related to such esoteric things as the colors of Superman's costume can be strongly influenced by our personal experiences and insecurities.
Even when I disagree with the assertions in the book, I have to give it to Seagle. He knows how to structure them and make a compelling case. I disagree with his cynical attitude towards the American dream and can't share in his liberal guilt, but I can easily understand his feelings and how that shapes his character.
The book has the ironic effect of making me want to pick up all the back issues of whichever Superman title it was that Seagle wrote. Now that I know so much of what informed his work, I'm curious to see how it's spelled out. How much of that carried through the work, and how much was subsumed in the fantasy? It's an interesting thought. Even on a genre title like SUPERMAN, an individual point of view is an important thing that can show through in ways that you might not understand. It's true beyond just the comics world, of course. Many musicians write their strongest music in times of anger or depression. But it's not something that often gets the chance to show itself in writing the action-packed adventures of a superhero slugfest.
I also want to know if the "semi" part of "semi-autobiographical" covers the incident wherein the writer "Steve" punches the Joe Kelly stand-in.
Joining Seagle on this ride is Teddy Kristiansen, whose work is just as impressive. He mixes up styles as the story dictates. His bio piece in the back indicates that he used 21 distinct styles in creating this book. Those styles are well suited to the tone of the page or sequence of pages they're used for. Kristiansen employs a very painterly Alex Ross-ish style for the two pages in which Seagle discusses the Death of Superman and the state of the industry. Then he flips right over to a simplified child-friendly animated style for the scenes flashing back to Steve's childhood. How he kept it all straight is anyone's guess, but it's a nice complement to the story. Truly, this is a book where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It all adds up to the single most moving and deeply personal story that I've read this year, if not in recent memory all together. This is a book that should not be overlooked. If the $25 hardcover price is too much for you, then I'd strongly advise keeping an eye out for the almost inevitable trade paperback version DC will put out in another six months or so. Don't forget about this book when that happens.
X-MEN: A LOOK BACK
A lot is being made lately of the expansion of the X-Men franchise at Marvel. A whole slew of new series and mini-series have been announced. The old titles are being revamped, restarted, or retitled. One wave of fans leave while another jumps on. It shows how malleable a franchise the X-Men can be that a title can go from Chris Claremont to Grant Morrison to Joss Whedon and still maintain a high ranking on the sales charts.
The mutants are beloved, for whatever reason. I can't explain it. It's a sprawling group, encompassing literally hundreds of characters brought to life over the course of the last three decades, mostly. There's a character for everyone, and every character has his or her die-hard fans. Give it long enough, and you'll see just about every character in the spotlight, whether in a single issue, a one shot special, a mini-series, or an on-going series.
I don't know exactly what makes the mutant subsection of the Marvel Universe so special, to tell you the truth. Perhaps it just taps into the teen angst a large portion of Marvel's readership remembers so well, or is currently living through. Maybe the original Claremont era on UNCANNY X-MEN was so influential that its effects are still being felt decades later. Maybe it's just "cool" and I don't realize it completely.
When Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas took over at Marvel, one of the first things they did was eliminate some of the redundancy of the mutant titles, and keep them looking forward. Gone was THE HIDDEN YEARS, revamped were the rest. Now, as that run of titles ends, a new run begins. It's back to the costumes and the codenames and to the sprawling casts. This isn't inherently a good thing or a bad thing. It's the current thing. If you don't like it, then don't worry. You'll be back in three years with the next revamp.
But does it invalidate everything Quesada said five years ago when he took over? Does it prove that he's a lying scoundrel who goes back on his word at the first opportunity?
In fact, I'd say he's finally taking my advice. Let's go back now to something I wrote in Pipeline back on September 17, 1999:
Having so many mutants is not a problem. It's the biggest asset Marvel Comics has. Their problem lies in not diversifying enough and in trying to cram all those mutants in so few titles.
So am I advocating added even more titles to the X Universe?
Maybe I am. . . Let's think this out.
Each title in the X Universe should operate independently. You shouldn't need to read all the other titles to understand what's going on in your favorite. If someone wants to read just one X title, they should be able to.
Each title should have its own unique cast of characters. Maybe you have Professor Xavier in both X-MEN and UNCANNY X-MEN, but I don't want those two titles to be one large story, divided in half depending on who feels like writing which characters today.
Each title should have its own unique outlook.
There's one big keystone of this whole set-up, though. There's one last bit under which this system could operate that is the deal breaker. You have to let the writers and the artists have their freedom. Obviously, you can't eliminate the editor completely. You can't let the writers run completely rampant in the Marvel Universe, contradicting established continuity or interfering with each other's plans. However, if you're going to hire them to write the book, let them write the book! Do not dictate the storylines or silly changes to the stories.
Make sure each book stands on its own. The minute they become inseparable, the whole scheme falls apart. Uniqueness is key.
Inside of this whole structure, of course, you could still have assorted one shots and mini-series, but do not use one of the main books for the sole purpose of setting up such a special. Do not waste my time as an X-MEN reader to advertise your new mini-series. The specials should flow logically from the main titles, but without interrupting them.
I have to admit: I like a lot of X characters. I think they've been poorly treated at times and not worth reading, but they're characters I root for to be good. I want these books to work, because otherwise it's a waste.
I also went on in the course of that article to give rough ideas for what each core book could be about, and how to keep them diverse.
I can't speak for the comments in there about heavy editorial handedness, but I can say that much of what I say up there goes for what Marvel is doing today. Even with a book like FANTASTIC FOUR, they have two different takes on the characters happening between KNIGHTS 4 and the core FANTASTIC FOUR book.
The trick is that the mutant books aren't all interdependent. You don't see any crossovers between all the books, or even X-MEN and UNCANNY X-MEN, like you used to see in the days before Quesada and Jemas came around. Much of the new material being announced today are spotlights on single characters with unique settings, art styles, and tones. So long as this doesn't all end up in a mushy mess of crossovers with a loss of focus on the individual titles, I don't see a problem.
There is also the much bigger picture to discuss here, that I think gets all too quickly lost. People talk about the Mutant Universe or the X Universe like it's a unique thing. It's not. It's just a smaller segment of the overall superhero universe that Marvel put together. It has a slightly more devoted fan following than Superman or Spider-Man does these days. They're more fanatical about it, but they also have a much larger cast of characters to pick favorites from. If you want to say that there are too many mutant books, then what you're really saying is that there are too many superhero books. At that point, I'd implore you to check out a good NBM or manga trade. Don't complain about the prolific X-Office while buying your four monthly Superman titles or third Spider-Man/Doc Oc confrontation storyline of the month.
Which would you rather have? Four comics starring Spider-Man fighting a different villain in each? Or four comics, each starring Madrox, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Rogue? Why is there a problem with the latter, but not the former?
In the Batman family of titles, Batman appears in all of them, some more prominently than others. In the X-Men family of titles, you do have Wolverine popping up in different titles, but his solo title maintains its own identity, with Wolverine very much playing the loner in it and not the team superhero troubleshooter role he assumes in UNCANNY or ASTONISHING.
But the strongest part of the Batman family of titles for me, right now, are the ones without Batman in it every issue. I couldn't tell you the difference between GOTHAM KNIGHTS and DETECTIVE and BATMAN anymore. I can tell you all about ROBIN and BIRDS OF PREY and BATGIRL, though. So it is with the X-Books. While there are a couple taking place at the school with some shared characters, the vast majority of the books are satellite books left on their own to create unique (to the Marvel Universe) identities. This is why I think that having a large number of titles featuring characters with mutant powers is not a bad thing. It could, in some small way, actually diversify Marvel's lineup. This is not a bad thing.
In a follow-up piece a couple of weeks after the column I quoted above, I suggested putting Tom Orzechowski back on lettering duties. Chris Eliopoulos' lettering style right now is obviously inspired by Orz's. I also wished that Alan Davis would stick around on art duties. I drew up a list of names that I'd like to see drawing the titles including Adam Kubert (ULTIMATE), John Cassaday (ASTONISHING), and Darick Robertson (NIGHTCRAWLER). So far, no luck on the likes of Stuart Immonen (although he's close with UFF and even drew some AVENGERS stuff), George Perez, Brian Hitch (also close), or Erik Larsen.
One last thing I wrote back then: "Let's get to work on approving that JLA/AVENGERS crossover, please?"
I'm a friggin' prophet, aren't I?
Pipeline Previews is coming your way on Friday, with a look at some books coming out in August this year.
Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday with lots of other stuff yet to be determined.
Over at Various and Sundry this week, you'll get links to news on the HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY movie, Clear Channel's latest infuriating move, the final SLEDGEHAMMER DVD solicitation text, and more. Plus, the final episodes of AMERICAN IDOL Season 3 are recapped, and much more.
More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page.