Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lightning Round!

Daredevil #114

Remember how I was just saying how awesome a character Dakota North was, except for the fact that she'd never actually been in a good story? Well, turning her into another in a long line of Matt Murdock's corpse brides isn't going to help matters.

Hulk #9

Jeph Loeb is one of the worst writers currently working in comics. That said, this series succeeds by making a virtue of his shortcomings. It's all big, dumb action, there's no room for political subtext or mumble-brained characterization or just plain flat-out poor plotting. There are two Hulks jumping around fighting people, lots of ass is kicked and the plot is thin enough you could pass it between the cracks of the Wailing Wall. The only downside is that as fun as the book undoubtedly is, Loeb is so very bad at pulling off "mysteries" that the ultimate Rulk revelation will almost certainly be a massive, frustrating cheat of some kind. But still, it's a fun ride, mostly because he's not allowed to do anything but be big, fun and stupid.

Ultimatum #2

Like here, for instance.

In case you were wondering, the Wasp is number #1 on my Underrated, Underutilized characters list. She's my all-time favorite super-heroine. Of all the classic Silver Age Marvel characters, she is the only one who has never really had any kind of solo spotlight, or really any kind of spotlight, aside from the occasional star turn in the perennial ensemble piece that is The Avengers. I fully intend to write about why I think she's such a great character, but for the time being it's important to note the strange coincidence of two incarnation of the Wasp dying within a month of each other. Remember a few years ago when something like three different versions of Northstar died within a couple months of each other? It was enough to make you think someone at Marvel really wanted their only prominent gay superhero dead. Now, however, I just think people are lazy, if the only value they can possibly see for Janet Van Dyne in either the 616 or Ultimate Universe is to have her dead, serving as inspiration for her crazy husband to do something even more crazy.

I mean, seriously, being eaten by the Ultimate Blob has to be the most needlessly gruesome comic book death in quite a while. Are we supposed to think the image of Ultimate Fred J. Dukes chomping down on the Wasp is some kind of sexy titillation? Furthermore, why was the 616 Wasp dispatched with such little consideration that the death scene literally had to be explained a month later by Dan Slott? (When I read the last issue of Secret Invasion, I specifically remember making a comment to myself to the effect that the death-scene was such a botched job Dan Slott was going to need to devote a whole issue of The Initiative to explaining what actually happened. Imagine my surprise when that was more or less what actually happened.)

The death of the Ultimate Wasp is really of no consequence besides the general comment that the whole "Ultimatum" storyline could not be more pathetic, and the knee-jerk return to female death and dismemberment as a shock tactic for mainstream super-comics is massively depressing. (Also: I'm no expert on Ultimate continuity, but isn't it odd that in order to make the story interesting they basically had to make the Ultimate Doom just like the 616 Doom? The Ultimate Fantastic Four was such an uninteresting reconceptualization of the original property that the only surprise is that it took this long for the whole Ultimate Universe to finally start dying.)

Robin #181

Is it my imagination, or do none of these "Batman R.I.P." tie-ins actually jibe with the chronology of the original series? Am I missing something? Reading these books confuses me something awful. As Tucker Stone recently said,

when you're working on the biggest super-hero character of the year, and your job is to do that characters big bestseller of the year, then that isn't the time for you to put out something that any Batman fan, even the dumbest one, calls "confusing."

I'd second that emotion, and also add that if you build your line around a crossover and the crossover very aggressively defies all attempts to make sense of its internal timeline, you've pretty massively screwed the pooch. Say what you will about Civil War, it had a good thru-line, and one of the things that got people excited was the fact that events progressed -- if not logically -- at least chronologically one to another, in such a way that the crossovers were pretty clearly defined and anyone reading the central story could step into the secondary books without fear of internal contradiction. For "Batman R.I.P.", however, it seems as if the creative teams involved in all the secondary Bat-books were simply told to write something on the vague theme of Batman being gone for mysterious reasons. It's almost as bad -- almost -- as the monumentally stupid "Avengers: Disassembled" event, the crossovers for which did not actually in any way influence, effect or even relate to the main storyline of "Avengers: Disassembled." But then, at least the crossovers to that story didn't blatantly contradict the main storyline.

This is not rocket science, this is not high "Art", this is superhero comics crossovers. It's bad enough that the story itself is a rotten clusterfuck, but the fact that they couldn't even get the crossovers to gel in anything resembling a cohesive manner is just insulting to the poor folks who actually care. I don't really care, but I'm still insulted by the sheer brass balls required to pull off such massive disregard for their audience.

People seriously wonder why Secret Invasion, which could have been written by marmosets, outsold Final Crisis! The former was an almost stunningly simple concept which, while certainly lacking in execution, nevertheless came out on time and presented no unnecessary challenges for the reader picking up, say, Thunderbolts and Deadpool and hoping for clear, easily-digested crossover stories. The latter, well, does anyone actually know why the Rage of the Red Lanterns or Legion of Three Worlds books are Crisis tie-ins? Sure, there is the possibility of some kind of major, paradigm-shifting revelation that causes the whole thing to retroactively cohere. But then again, it's more likely to be another "Avengers: Disassembled", if the scattershot approach to Batman R.I.P. is any indication.

Since I'm plugging other bloggers, I am reminded of Kevin Church's frequent advice to web designers: no matter how great your content is, if your portal is a confusing mess, or overly complicated, or just poorly conceived, you're likely to turn off just as many customers / readers / clients as not. It's really no different for websites than it is for any other kind of widget you can imagine. There's a reason why the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings have numbers on the spine indicating reading order: those numbers aren't just there to coddle the N3WBZ. Right now, as good as some may argue individual titles to be, the company itself is pushing the DC Universe as the major selling point for DC Universe comic books. The DC Universe is a disjointed, uneven mess, and if they can't even make up their minds that Detective Comics and Robin occur on the same planet, why should any potential customer believe them when they say that it's all "counting" towards something? Even something as simple as the return of the triangle numbers for the Superman books can make a world of difference.

Don't confuse your costumers, and don't insult their intelligence. If these seem like contradictory maxims, look again. It is very insulting to be confused by intentionally misleading and byzantine stories and meandering, meaningless crossovers. Costumers spend money to be entertained, and if that entertainment includes challenging, thought-provoking and even frustrating material (as the advocates of Batman R.I.P. would posit), then all the better. But it's all got to hang together at some point or else the trust between seller and customer dissolves. If the customer is led to believe that what was sold as a complex, interlocking, relatively non-contradictory crossover event is actually a half-dozen unrelated titles blindly groping after some broad undefined climax, then you're going to get some pretty pissed-off customers. Secret Invasion may not have been any good, but it delivered exactly what it promised.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Chris Eigeman

Alas poor Jason,
Fastidious friend. The fix
Was in. One season.

Set up for a fall.
God forbid anyone get
In the way of Luke.

Luke: a man of wood,
Cardboard cut-out, fantasy
Lover for the dull.

Jason Stiles we knew
Ye not, an interesting
Man, funny and sad.

Stars Hollow is a
Playground for depressed housewives,
A wish for stasis.

A catalog of
Ignominy for Marxists
Who still watch despite.

Jason Stiles, rose to
Find the toilet and never
Returned, Luke's patsy.

Luke Danes: fated to
Marry Lorelai despite
His stupidity.

Let's see: child of wealth,
Upwardly mobile, chooses
To marry hobo.

Change your damn flannel
Shirt, I don't believe you were
Married to lawyer.

If you were, I can
See why she cheated on you
With SUV dude.

But Lorelai, girl,
Don't turn your back on Jason,
Not illiterate.

He was in movies
Directed by Whit Stillman,

Barcelona, too.
The Last Days of Disco, an
Underrated gem.

Unsung star, shine on
In our hearts forever more,
Your elegance, wit.

In a tuxedo
In my dreams you glide, a man
Refined, supple, smooth.

However, I will
Not watch Maid in Manhattan:
Dignity too cheap.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Crunch From The Captain To You

I got a letter the other day from a fan of the site asking for advice as to what kind of comic would be good as a gift for a twelve-year-old boy with little or no comics experience. This is something that I imagine comes up fairly often, since the average age of the average comic reader long ago shifted from being 12 years old to being someone in the position to give gifts to 12-year-olds. It's not an easy question to answer.

Fact is, as much as we may like to think otherwise - considering we were all, at one point, twelve years old ourselves - it's devilishly tricky to figure out what kids will and won't like. Otherwise, everyone and their mother would be banging out Harry Potter and Twilight level mega-phenomena on their word processor. I still maintain that as much as we may like the "general reader" level comics that companies like Marvel and DC produce, there's still something of a ceiling to their appeal. Kids - at least, I'd say, once they get into the double-digit age range - have a way of sniffing out the ringer in any line-up. Sure, some of DC and Marvel's younger reader books are good - some of them very good - but I remain skeptical about just how much appeal they have past a certain point. (Of course, if you are buying for a kid younger than nine or ten, they're probably perfect.) I may be wrong here - I am speaking primarily from my own experience. But as I've said before, there is an element of luridness that must be present on some level in order to appeal to pre-teens.

What exactly is "lurid"? Well, in relation to kids entertainment it can usually be summed up as the intimation of something just outside the grasp of the target audience. I mean, seriously, most superhero comics are pretty juvenile, but there's a constant stream of signifiers pointing at something more significant under the hood - sub rosa importance that hangs there like a red flag for young minds. Be it the intimation of sex, the intimation of violence, the intimation of love or the intimation of fear, the strange grand guignol world of mainstream comics hooks kids because even if the stories are usually only an inch deep, an inch is still just out of reach for those kids who get hooked young. Sure, Spider-Man and the X-Men are pretty simple mechanisms for older readers to take apart, which is why later incarnations of the properties have become gradually far more elaborate and baroque in complexity. But if you're twelve, the idea of a fantastically stylized world filled with concrete representations of all those confusing emotions and sensations which remain tantalizingly far-off in the adult world is irresistible. When you reach your 20s, there isn't a lot in the basic concept of those types of characters that remains alien to your life experience (or, leastways, there shouldn't be), but when you're ten you don't really understand a whole hell of a lot.

So, with that in mind, I think a good gift for any youngster who might be interested in the world of superhero comics would be a later volume of Marvel's Essential X-Men series. The early Claremont / Byrne and Cockrum material might be a tad mannered by contemporary standards, and as much as some may argue, it isn't really necessary to start at the beginning. Most people didn't: the number of people who read or have read the X-Men who also started chronologically with Giant Sized X-Men #1 has to be minuscule. Everybody started in the middle, just about, considering it was a stable serial continuity that ran for almost two-hundred extraordinarily successful issues before grinding to a screeching halt with Uncanny #281. The whole point is not to have everything spoon-fed from the beginning - you jump in with a whole pile of unfamiliar characters and situations, and your desire to learn more about who these people are and what exactly they're doing pushes you forward, just like many of the other strange and unfamiliar experiences of childhood and adolescence. It's good for a kid to explore something like the X-Men or Harry Potter, where they can conceivably master all they need to know about the subject matter if they just read more - that kind of curiosity is a good counterbalance to the inevitably frustrating experience of growing older and realizing that it's not as easy or even possible for a kid to learn all there is to know about, say, sex or violence or money. All of which means, anyplace is as good to start as any. And if you're going to, why not start when it gets really good?

I may be in the minority here, I don't know for certain, but for my money the best period of X-Men is the period around roughly #200-250 - Claremont had been on the title long enough that he had the confidence and the respect to get away with pretty much anything he wanted. It's pretty awesome that so much of it succeeded as well as it did. The series had already became the most popular series in comics, so Claremont was justified if he betrayed a certain swagger - but at the same time, the subtext of this whole run is very clearly a fight against the kind of calcification and creative death that would be the only rational result of giving in to the temptation to allow the strip to metastasize into merely another static franchise. He fought the good fight to keep the series distinct and different for far longer than anyone could have reasonably expected, and in the end only really failed on account of a series of circumstances he could never have predicted (i.e., the rising popularity of those artists who would soon found Image comics, coupled with the general upswing in comics' popularity of the late 80s). If the last few dozen issues of the run seem to lose their momentum, well, more's the pity - if he had had a clear field he probably could have kept juggling the balls until doomsday. He was done in by the sad fact that the series simply became too popular for him to pretend he had any control over it. In the space of a decade it went from being a popular franchise to the most popular franchise to the most popular franchise that had ever been, at least since the days of Captain Marvel and Superman routinely selling millions of issues. (His later returns to the franchise have seemed to indicate he left exactly when he should have left, but even a sub-par creative vision is better than a first-rate franchise installment - as good a description of Claremont's significance to comics history as I've ever seen.)

For my money you could do worse than starting with volume #6, featuring the entirety of the still-disturbing "Mutant Massacre" storyline. This is significant as it was really the first - or one of the first - franchise-wide crossovers not related to some sort of overarching macro-series, like Secret Wars or the original Crisis. It basically grew organically out of the X-books, with a few other titles like Thor, Power Pack and Daredevil joining in for good measure. The point of this series, which set the tone for the next five or so years on the title, was to begin the long process of taking the X-Men apart piece by piece, a sequence which began in issue #200 with the beginning of Professor Xavier's long absence and Magneto's stewardship of Xavier's school.

The Mutant Massacre put half the team out of commission for a long time - Nightcrawler and Shadowcat were written out of the book permanently, and Colossus was gone for over a year. A bunch of rookies showed up, folks like Dazzler, Longshot, the still-Caucasian Psylocke and rusty old-school 60s X-Man Havok (whose Neal Adams-designed black bodysuit and concentric circles is still one of the coolest costumes ever). Wolverine was thrown into the unexpected role of being the team's elder statesman and Storm dealt with the continuing loss of her powers - a subplot that continued for around fifty issues, an unimaginably long time by today's standards. These threads came to a head with volume #7, in which all of these subplots culminate in the still very good "Fall of the Mutants" storyline. At the climax, the team sacrifices their lives in battle against the (somewhat purposefully generic) Adversary, only to be resurrected and dispatched to Australia.

The Australian period gets a lot of flack from certain segments of the fan population, but it remains a favorite of mine - the stories building from the team's fake death got progressively more desperate as it became obvious that the team was falling apart in ways that didn't seem so easily remedied. (The Australian sequence runs through most of volume #8.) It's all completely overblown and melodramatic, filled with Claremontian excess and stylized action - melancholy, depressed and positively Gothic in places - but it's nevertheless extremely well-constructed in a way that most contemporary superhero books can't even begin to approach. Marc Silvestri provides the art for the majority of volumes 7 & 8, and his work is pretty damn great - it's not hard to see why he had the reputation of being the best of the original Image artists. His action sequences are clean and easy to follow, his backgrounds are imaginative, his body and facial types varied and expressive, and - of course! - his women, very sexy without being slutty, in a way that surely thrilled hundreds of thousands of adolescent boys at the time of initial release. Basically, everything good about getting addicted to long-term superhero adventure continuity can be found in these pages, and just about every title that has achieved any degree of success in the past couple decades has cribbed more or less from Claremont's X-Men. Regardless of their generally overlooked status, these later runs are no less influential in their way than the earlier iconic material like the Dark Phoenix saga and "Days of Future Past".

But if you're not kindly predisposed to the X-Men, there are other books Junior might like:

Longtime aficionados can pick nits all day long, but Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's Ultimate Spider-Man was a dramatic success in terms of accomplishing exactly what it set out to do - i.e., updating the character of Spider-Man to fit securely in a modern milieu. It's not perfect - I think it was a mistake to tie the Green Goblin so strongly to Spider-Man's origin, and the reconceptualization of the Goblin as a Hulk wannabe was pretty badly misconceived - but put that kind of fanboy crap aside and it's easy to love the one thing the series does so eerily and consistently well. It's the characters, stupid - here's Peter Parker and Aunt May and Mary Jane and Norman Osborne and Doctor Octopus, all maybe changed a bit but only cosmetically, and only in the service of communicating what is most essential to each character's appeal. I don't follow the series regularly but so far as I can tell Bendis has never wavered from his ability to deliver a Peter Parker so consistently spot-on that it borders on archetypal. The first story arc is presented here, but considering the series' sometimes-glacial pacing, it might be better to start with a bigger book, featuring the first two storylines for only six dollars more.

Again, it's not a series that gets a lot of love from the cognoscenti - it's certainly not my favorite - but I have a hard time coming up with a better Batman story for a young adolescent than Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb's Hush. All of the elements that might seem like weaknesses to older audiences - Lee's reliance on flashy pin-up style storytelling; the straight-forward and consciously repetitive plot; the downright-cynical means by which Loeb cherry-picks all of the character's "greatest hits" from the last thirty-odd years of his adventures - will probably be perfect for a younger reader with nothing more than a vague idea of just who the Caped Crusader actually is. You want to see Batman wailing on Superman? Being pushed to the limit of endurance by the Joker? Fighting a moonlight duel in the desert against Ra's al Ghul? Finally confessing his feelings towards the rarely-more-zaftig Catwoman? We've seen all these beats played before and better, but for those with no prior Batman experience this story would probably play like the proverbial hypodermic needle full of adrenaline stabbed straight into the heart. (Note: Lee's art is a bit more explicit even than Silvestri's work on X-Men, with some very sexy females and a particularly demoniac Joker, so it'd probably be a good idea to make sure it's on the kid's level, rather than risk pissing off their parents. Nothing more explicit than you'd get in some PG-13 movies, but putting it all on the pages of a static medium makes it seem a bit more menacing than it would if it were onscreen or in a video game.) Unfortunately, the series is still only available split up into two parts, but you can get both for about twenty bucks. The first part is here, the second here.

If seeing a bunch of superheroes all in one place and kicking the living shit out of some bad guys is all you require, the first volume of Grant Morrison's run on JLA is probably just what the doctor ordered. The best Hulk story of recent years is probably Planet Hulk, an unusual fantasy-tinged sci-fi adventure in space that features a planet-full of gruesome monsters, fearsome warriors and - of course - the Hulk smashing the tar out of everyone he meets. For anyone fascinated by Iron Man after seeing his successful film, it's actually rather difficult to find good done-in-one Iron Man volumes that might appeal to younger readers, but the best bet may just be this volume featuring two of Iron Man's most famous adventures with Doctor Doom. If it's something more in the vein of straight sci-fi you're looking for, the second volume of the Essential Silver Surfer might be the solution (the first volume reprints all of the Surfer's 60s series, and as such is probably a bit too dated in execution to appeal to younger readers.)

And then, of course, you have my personal favorite new series of the last decade or so, Marvel's Runaways. It's the only series I actually own entirely in swanky hardcovers, and I love it so much I still haven't read the third volume because I know in advance that something bad happens to my favorite character. The hardcovers are probably a bit much for a blind gift item, but the series is also available in stocking-stuffer sized digests, the first of which is available here. Inexplicably the second book of the digests appears to be out of print, but if the first is a hit you can probably find the second volume through a local retailer or used.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's The Only Thing That Would Make Any Sense

(Actually, Not So Much of A Placeholder)

Criminally Underused / Misused / Forgotten Marvel Characters

5. Unus the Untouchable - OK, it's a guy with an impermeable force-field. But the thing is, the field's involuntary, which means he can't touch and can't be touched. This guy was a villain back in the original-run 1960s X-Men book, but never made any kind of impression in the years since. He may have died at some point? Still: even though my first exposure to the dude was in a Handbook entry, he always struck me as a goldmine of untapped potential - sort of like how Madrox was a bad joke for decade and a half following his first appearance, until Peter David refitted the character in the 1990s. There's a lot of existential angst to be mined from the concept.

4. Firebird - OK, Kurt Busiek actually managed to wedge some nice character moments with her into the tail-end of his Avengers run, but aside from a part in Dwayne McDuffie's great Beyond! series, she's been M.I.A. Her shtick is pretty neat: she has pretty generic fire-powers, but she's also mysteriously immortal and invincible. No explanation why, but a couple decades back when the Silver Surfer and the Avengers (East and West) all guzzled a bottle of super-poison to travel to Death's realm for some reason or another, she was left standing unharmed. I repeat: a Catholic social worker mutant and part-time Avenger was left alive after drinking a mouthful of a poison that killed the Silver Surfer and Thor. Tell me there aren't some fun ideas there.

3. Dakota North - She's actually popped up again recently as a hanger-on and love interest for Daredevil, which means she'll probably be dead in six months. It took me a long time to track down a run of her extremely short-lived series: it wasn't very good. It reminded me a bit of that old show The Equalizer, in some vague way. And the printing was so horrible - real authentic late 80s Marvel flexographic printing. I maintain that even given these facts, there has never been a Dakota North comic published that came close to matching the promise of these initial ads, which still remain seared into my memory decades after the fact. Essentially: a Patrick Nagel painting come to life and sent gallivanting across the Marvel Universe, a Bret Easton Ellis-inspired funhouse of strange fashion and abrupt violence. And that chick, that smirking chick: that's not the kind of smirk you could imagine any other female crimefighter or private detective ever flashing. Dakota North has been one of my favorite characters for decades, even if the Dakota North that lives in my brain has never actually existed on the printed page.

2. Frankenstein's Monster - This is such an unbelievable oversight that I have to believe the majority of people currently working at Marvel don't even know this character exists within the Marvel Universe. Because, really, is there any reason why Frankenstein's Monster isn't a major player? Seriously: this isn't some watered-down Universal Studios / Munsters pseudo-Frankenstein, this is Mary Shelley's Monster of Frankenstein - the very same cruel, calculating, incredibly powerful and eternally tormented figure who has haunted the romantic imagination of Western culture for almost two centuries.

He's popped up here and there over the years, but since the 70s he's never had a starring or even recurring role. If you care about superhero comics and superhero universes at all, a large part of the appeal for these things is the Brownian motion of so many characters in a contained superhero universe as they collide and interact in strange, unexpected, sometimes lame and sometimes awesome ways. Dracula is still a fan-favorite Marvel villain even though he's been under-utilized and mistreated for two-decades running - because of the fact that he's an actual literary and cinematic celebrity, there's still that little extra bit of frisson which comes from seeing Drac interact with folks like Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. The Monster has been used so rarely since his original run that you can't even properly say he's been misused, to my recollection - just forgotten. Now, imagine how awesome it would be if Frankenstein's Monster just showed up one day and started whipping the shit out of Wolverine or Moon Knight or something. You cannot tell me you would not buy a series called Frankenstein's Monster Goes Buck-Wild In Marvel's Manhattan, because you would be a God-damned liar. Or, reintroduce him as a truly disturbing, scheming behind-the-scenes manipulator, just like he was in the original book - a smart, implacable foe with nothing but resentment towards the human race and the circumstances of his "birth", but filled with a hollow loneliness stemming from his solitary fate.

Anyway, this supposed "placeholder" post has metastasized. So, I'll leave #1 for tomorrow or the next day. Hint: it's not Quasar.

Monday, December 08, 2008


So yeah, I know I had a good rhythm going there, with lots of content and lots of posts - and then I ran into the end of the semester, which cut off the momentum at its knees. I know, I know, bad for business. But take heart! my 90s ramblings will soon return, for certain, as I have gotten some interesting nibbles from certain third parties interested publishing the series in a more substantial form. So - when I have the time, the 90s series will continue, with more in the way of real research and actual insight, not just bald assertions about crap I vaguely remember from those years of yore when the Clintonosaurus roamed Washington and LFO was just a hardcore techno band and not yet a synonym for low-rent pedo-bait.

So, anyway, to keep you amused:

Things I Admit To Being Unable To Dig

1. Bone - Yeah, I know. Every couple years I try again - I've got scattered issues of the original run, the Image run, and the first of the Scholastic color editions. But then I start to actually read the damn thing and I jusssxxxxzzzzzzzzzz . . . I'm sorry, I think I fell asleep. Are they still talking about cow races?

2. The Fall - Has there ever been a band more perfectly designed to appeal to anal-retentive music nerds and pop critics? (Besides Stereolab, that is.) Hey, I just happen to be both of those things, so I should love the Fall . . . well, I actually do own a couple Fall CDs. And I listen to them periodically to see if I've changed my mind. Nope.

3. James Bond - I know every red-blood male secretly (or not so secretly) wants to be James Bond, but not me. The whole milieu, and everything that goes along with it, could not be more uninteresting - international intrigue, espionage, organized crime, martinis and gambling - yawn. I can appreciate the first couple Sean Connery films in an academic sense, and the first, best version of Casino Royale, but I don't think I've ever succeeded in making it through a Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan Bond film without getting bored and changing the channel. Just really bland, and all the knock-offs of the last half-century have been even blander. if he's got a license to kill, he sure used it to knock off my interest.

4. Cole Porter - I've got a double CD set of Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter songbook. If Ella Fitzgerald can't make Cole Porter seem interesting, I don't think it can be done.

5. Beer / Wine / Liquor - I have friends who love good liquor, friends who want to devote their life to the science of brewing beer. I have drank good liquor and drank good beer - not so much of the good wine, but some not-so-bad wine. And it's not like I don't occasionally have a glass of something, I'm no teetotaler. But on the whole there is no appeal. It all tastes like a dog's ass - I know there are folks who will swear up and down that beer tastes good, but even the most expensive beer I've ever drank still tastes like what my mouth tastes like in the morning when I forget to brush my teeth the nigh before. Alcohol is distilled and fermented into beverages for one purpose: intoxication. I can respect alcoholics because they at least admit that the purpose of liquor is to create temporary dissonance between reality and perception; they don't erect an incredibly baroque pseudo-academic edifice of crumbling bullshit in a vain attempt to try and convince me that something which obviously tastes like a big bag of baby diarrhea does not in fact taste like a big bag of baby diarrhea. I'd much rather have a nice glass of ice-cold pop, or maybe if I'm feeling frisky, some Ovaltine in soy milk.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding

In 1992 all the elements were in place for the Death of Superman to be a monster hit. The market had been primed to accept event comics that regularly sold in multiples of millions. The beating DC took in the early 1990s made the company hungry for a hit and willing to do anything possible to get some attention. The instability of both Marvel and Image in the immediate wake of the latter's initial success made both companies far more vulnerable than their sales dominance might have led observers to believe. To put it bluntly, Marvel had the hot characters but were forced to fall back on the back bench in order to staff the titles in the wake of the Image exodus, and their back bench was not very deep. Image had the hot creators but were pathologically unable to keep shipping dates. (The lack of lasting properties - while certainly a factor in many fans rejection of the creators' post-Marvel output - would prove to be more deleterious to the company's long term health than their short-term fortunes - the people buying up hundreds of copies of Youngblood and Cyberforce undoubtedly believed those characters would be the next X-Men, or at least the next Teen TItans. If the creators had been smarter and more consistent, the characters may well have been; but they weren't and - with the possible exceptions of Spawn and the Savage Dragon - they aren't.)

But for all their demerits in the "cool" department, DC had a decided advantage in the logistical realm. The cover triangles were a concrete example of this: the triangles were a promise that the Superman books would not merely offer an ongoing, serial continuity, but that it would be consistent in both form and content. Considering how many superhero comics and superhero comic companies have floundered for the lack of these basic ingredients, it's something of a wonder they were ever so thoroughly disregarded as they were in the 1990s. It wasn't simply that a story begun in Superman would continue in Adventures of Superman. The situation was essentially such that all the monthly books became a single weekly series. This had its problems, as I have mentioned previously. As the 90s progressed the straitjacket continuity lost its appeal as the stories became less endearing and the titles' lack of individuality became more glaring. But at the time, it was positively fresh. Jim Lee could take two months to put out WildC.A.Ts #2, but if you bought Superman #74 the week it came out then by Crikey Adventures of Superman #497 was going to be in the store next week. There was no "or your money back" promise, but there might as well have been. (I cannot recall if any chapters in the Death / Funeral / Reign sequence shipped late, besides the still-unbelievable and on-purpose three month hiatus between Superman #77 and Adventures #500 - perhaps Mike or another retailer with long memory can verify.)

And, let's be frank: if you were reading comics in the early 90s and you don't have fond memories of breathless anticipation for every week's new installment of the five-month-long Reign of the Supermen serial, then you're a liar. I can't say how well it has held up - I knew even at the time it was little more than extremely frothy pulp fun. But man, they knew exactly what they were doing: everyone I knew wanted to know who the "real" Superman was, who these pretenders were, and how it was all going to shake out. Even by the standards of superhero comics it was preposterous, convoluted, riddled with plot-holes . . . but it was sure a fun ride while it lasted.

I specifically remember driving around to different comic shops in Portland, OR (on a vacation trip, if memory serves me well) trying to track down Superman #82 and Batman #500, which had shipped right next to each other. Both were culminations of year-long storylines, and both were subsequently sold out everywhere I went. Moreover, I remember missing out on Green Lantern #47 when it hit shops and having to track it down by hand over the course of the next couple months. There was no eBay back then: if you missed an issue, best bet was to drive to the next store, and the next store after that.

These stories, more than simply big-selling events, were also uniquely designed as overt criticism of the very comics with which Batman and Superman were now forced to compete. The "new" breed of heroes, folks like X-Force, Youngblood and Spawn, were the target of a concerted attempt on DC's part to prove the continuing relevance of their blue-chip properties. Both Superman and Batman fell in battle, only to be replaced by "better" versions who couldn't cut the mustard. More on this, as you can probably guess, later.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

And Now A Word From Your Sponser

OK, here is something that has nothing to do with comics - yes, even less to do with comics than an inexplicable week devoted to Hellraiser. I need some scratch, both for the coming holiday season and in order to get some EXTREMELY overdue work done on my car, i.e., the front brakes that are grinding like Dan Didio's teeth at a sales meeting. So, I have dove into the "rainy day" fund, which just happens to be one lovingly used diamond engagement ring, whose services are no longer required.

Now, when I bought the ring i knew full well that diamonds have shitty resale value - but obviously, you're not thinking about that when you pay for a wedding ring, know what I mean? But it is a fabulous ring, and you'd be getting far more ring that you could expect even at three or four times the price in a place like Zales. Plus, a special for readers of this blog, anyone who buys the ring through this blog will get a GIANT BOX OF FREE COMICS SWAG, all kinds of stuff I've accumulated over the years which I do not need anymore for whatever reason - at least $100 retail value, depending on what I can scrounge up. So yeah: if you've been waiting for the right time to pop the question to your sweetie, there has never been a better time than now, and there has never been a better bargain for those comics-minded Romeos in the audience.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Spoilers for Batman #681

. . .

. . .

. . .

Well, that was a big piece of shit.

I didn't like the run up to the story, but against my better judgment I actually got sucked into the momentum of the last couple chapters . . . there was the promise of a truly awesome finish, based on Morrison's well-known ability to conjure up awesome climaxes out of disparate ingredients. But no, the last issue was pretty much the most awful thing ever, deflating the mysteries of previous issues and sort of retroactively making the pieces seem far less interesting than they had initially seemed. It's not just online hype and anticipation - the story itself seemed to be building to some kind of awesome cosmic slam-bang ur-Batman finish. And then, what? The villains are exactly who you'd expect them to be, the "revelations" don't make a whit of sense (there is a strong odor of editorial fiat) and then the titular hero has the least convincing death ever - incidentally the same death Green Arrow had back in issue #101 of his 90s series. Did anyone else notice that Batman #700 is coming up in a year and a half? Gee, I wonder if they'll bring him back for the round number . . .

Was the issue rewritten? The end is choppy enough. Unusual for mainstream writers, Morrison is really good at endings. Sometimes he can even redeem mediocre premises with strong finishes. But this is a mess - I'm sorry, I'm not going to put lipstick on this pig. At the very least, if he leaves DC after the end of Final Crisis I imagine we'll end up with one brutal exit interview on Newsarama or whatnot. Isn't this how his run on New X-Men ended - in truncated endings, yelling and tears? This issue can't be what Morrison intended it to be - otherwise, he's lost it pretty spectacularly. And, you know, I haven't really warmed to a lot of his recent stuff - but maybe he's just tired of spandex. It happens.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Of Some Small Interest...

I'm really proud of how this turned out. Probably the best thing I've written in a while.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Because I Fine Them Fascinating, At Least

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gleaming the Cube

The comics industry of the early 1990s was pure unbridled chaos. Sales rose steadily for many years in the late 80s, suddenly skyrocketed in the first three or so years of the decade, and then just as suddenly collapsed. There was a lot of money in comics back in those days. The late 80s was a high-water mark for mainstream superhero comics in general, and the sudden cultural relevancy of stuff like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns inspired a number of people to return to the field who hadn't bothered to think about comics since they were kids. There was a time, remember, when a comic being mentioned in Rolling Stone was cause enough to inspire industry-wide euphoria - and these things actually had measurable impact on sales, back in a time when media saturation for nerd-friendly properties was slim to nonexistent.

This renewed bid for relevancy climaxed in the release of the 1989 Batman movie, which either kick-started the boom of the early 90s collectors market or lit the fuse for the eventual disastrous implosion thereof, depending on how generous you're feeling. It seems - and this is a dimly-remembered bit of cultural anecdote, so feel free to dispute it in the comments - that this was also the period when newspapers around the country began a heavy saturation of local-interest stories revolving around people who had found old stacks of comics in their attic and sold them for thousands of dollars. I specifically recall an episode of The New Leave It To Beaver wherein one of the Cleaver grandkids found a near-mint copy of Fantastic Four #1 in an old box and got an offer of $3,000 for the issue. Gee, a whole $3,000! Comics were serious business!

So: comics were cool again. Tim Burton's Batman film actually succeeded in attracting new readers, finally dispelling (to everyone but newspaper headline writers) the campy atmosphere of the 1960s series, which had lingered in the public imagination for quite a long time due to constant syndicated repeats. Batman was a badass. Neil Gaiman's Sandman came literally out of nowhere and became an overnight cause célèbre for literary celebrities across the world. And in conjunction with these momentous events, a small group of up and coming artists very quietly began racking up some serious sales numbers over at Marvel.

Marvel's problem, as I mentioned last time, was the fact that this initial crop of superstar artists became far too powerful far too fast. In the space of two and a half years, Todd McFarlane went from being a weird, awkwardly cartoony artist on the low-selling Incredible Hulk to being the number one commercial draw in the entire comics industry. 1990's Spider-Man #1 became the biggest selling single issue of the modern era. That is, until 1991, when X-Force #1 beat Spider-Man #1's 2.5 million copies with 4 million. Then, just two months later, both records were smashed by Jim Lee's X-Men #1, selling something like 8 million.

Now, if you worked at Marvel at the time, you may just have been able to lie to yourself as to why these comics were selling so well. You may have been able to believe that the artists were just another interchangeable element in the same old factory setting that had been churning out Spider-Man comics for thirty years. There was reason to be comforted in this assumption: in the past, periodic attempts of "superstar" artists to branch out on their own had resulted in a whole lot of not much. Marvel hadn't lost many sales to Continuity Comics or Captain Victory, and I doubt even the relative success of companies like Pacific and Eclipse effected Marvel too much. These were essentially small-press outfits who sold their comics through the burgeoning direct market. They were small mammals who managed to survive in the shadow of large reptiles. Marvel probably worried more about losing star talent to DC - as they had lost Frank Miller in the 80s - but that was part of the expected churn of industry turnover, and had been since Kirby left for DC in 1970. The turnover of creators moving between the two giants did little more than reinforce the idea that the people who made the comics were replaceable, and even that the people who made the comics should be periodically replaced.

Of course, they were wrong, and their miscalculation wasn't just a little miscalculation, it was massive. Because when the "Image Seven" left the company, not only did they go into direct competition with Marvel (and DC), but they also left the company's flagship titles in complete and utter disarray. Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Force, Wolverine, Spider-Man and even steady mid-list mainstay Guardians of the Galaxy were all suddenly rudderless. (Amazing Spider-Man was safe because Erik Larsen had actually quit the title for a run on the adjectiveless Spider-Man, following McFarlane's absence - Mark Bagley had become regular penciller beginning with issue #351, and would remain at Marvel until 2007. I also remember reading an anecdote a long time ago to the effect that it was only an accident of history that Bagley wasn't a member of the "Image Seven", instead of Marc Silvestri.) The X-Men were the #1 franchise in comics and the loss of the creators who had enabled the explosive growth of the early 90s cut the books off at the knees - but, more important in the long run was the fact that Chris Claremont had been forced off the books after the artists' seized control. Without Claremont, who had very carefully controlled the direction of Marvel's flagship franchise for almost twenty years - hell, he had almost single-handedly built the franchise - there was nothing left but for the eventual, inevitable metastasizing. The books remained popular, but suddenly the future was full of doubt. (More on this later.)

With so much attention being spent on the ongoing Marvel / Image conflict, DC was ignored. The triangle boxes on the covers of the Superman family of titles were symbolic of the company's drastically old-fashioned approach to publishing. You could be assured that if you bought a Superman title you would receive a consistent, competent reading experience, built on the same solid soap opera foundations that Marvel had pioneered in the 60s. And, of course, this consistency was exactly why the titles sold so poorly. Consistency was anathematic to the popularity of Image: for some odd reason, seven creators who had (more or less) consistently produced comics on a monthly schedule for years suddenly fell into black holes of incessant delays. One of the founding books of the Image launch, Wilce Portacio's Wetworks, didn't even premiere until 1994. (At the time, this seemed like the biggest controversy in the universe, but that was before the days of Ultimate Wolverine / Hulk and Daredevil: The Target.) Consistency didn't matter - still doesn't really matter - it was a question of mass appeal. The kids would forgive late books if the content was hot (until, of course, they didn't, and until the retailers who had ordered books which they could have sold six months ago received unsaleable books six months late and went out of business as a result).

Valiant, another upstart that had met with great success parallel to Image by doing the exact opposite of everything Image did, prided itself on its machine-like consistency and overarching editorial vision. Valiant's output was some of the squarest comics that had ever been published - the line was based on two old Gold Key sci-fi heroes, for God's sake. They were incredibly consistent in terms of both quality and scheduling. A lot of effort was put into making the comics both good - by the standards of the time Magnus: Robot Fighter reads like fucking Proust - and on-time. The company just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the growing interest in comics as collectibles. Early issues of Magnus, Solar, Rai and Harbinger had absurdly low print runs, even by 2008 standards - the first half-dozen or so of all the titles had, I seem to recall, print runs in the low thousands. There was genuine scarcity, and the consistency of the company defied the current conventional wisdom regarding the necessity of hot artists. People who read the Valiant books genuinely liked them - they could never have become hot solely on the virtue of, say, Art Nichols or David Lapham - and when the scarcity of the early issues became known the feeding frenzy commenced. (Seriously, there was a long period in the early 90s when Harbinger #1 was the most-wanted comic on the planet. Seriously.)

As could probably have been predicted by anyone with an IQ above fifty, the moment that consistency was threatened - the moment Jim Shooter left the company - the careful, methodical growth of the company's first year-and-a-half was all upturned. They started putting out million-selling collectors' items like Bloodshot #1 and Turok #1 - but given that these comics weren't rare, and that the company's quality control grew ever-more spotty the further the company expanded, and it's not hard to see why they didn't survive the subsequent bloodbath. (If Shooter hadn't been forced out of the company, I'd bet good money the company would have managed to avoid the more disastrous mistakes of the post-Unity years, and would probably have survived the crash in some form.)

Hmmm. We seem to be having trouble with digressions . . .

Anyway, DC's problem was very simple: they weren't hot. They didn't have anything that could remotely be considered hot in the same way Image or even Marvel did. As I mentioned before, they had the Tim Drake Robin, and his first two mini-series were very popular - although, DC went overboard on the variant editions and "collectors' item" promotions. Even at the time, the promotional gimmicks for Robin II were criticized by fans as excessive. Lobo was hot for a brief spell, and considering the fact that the character was satire, it's amazing he had as good a run as he did - but overexposure did eventually kill the commercial appeal. (The only people not in on the joke, it turned out as, was DC.) Superman and Batman were mired in inextricable squareness. But they were icons - in a way that no one had really realized until then. The idea was simple: if they could learn to capitalize on the characters in their capacity as extra-textual "icons", they could maybe appeal to a broader base than those who tuned in weekly for the ongoing continuity.

People paid attention when things happened to these icons. People may have been aware of the formation of Image - I remember the event made a lot of mainstream news coverage at the time. But when DC said they were going to kill Superman, well, that was different. People didn't know who the fuck Spawn was going to be, and the intra-industry politics were mainly a business story. But people knew Superman. Everyone knew Superman. People lined up around the block to buy the copy of Superman #75 with the black armband. (Me, I bought the regular old un-bagged copy.) In retaliation to the escalating stakes of the Marvel / Image conflict, DC had dropped the proverbial hydrogen bomb, bringing a new wave of fresh customers to the store who would never have been attracted by anything so mundane as Cyberforce or X-Men. The problem was, these readers were expecting some kind of return on their investment, and were unprepared for the eventual revelation (so intuitive that it didn't even merit articulation to anyone in the comics industry), that this was just a temporary stunt, and not really the death of one of the most beloved fictional characters in the world.

But it wasn't just a stunt - although, obviously, it was. The Death of Superman was structured differently than most similar stunts: using the organizational advantages of the DC brand to good effect, they were able to capitalize on a singular event with far more alacrity than Image, which was essentially composed of seven (six, once Wilce Portacio dropped back from "founder" status) disparate and often feuding personalities. This provided DC with a tactical advantage in the cutthroat climate: with Marvel scrambling and Image beginning to sag under the weight of sudden success (and an inability to meet deadlines!), there was an opening through which a third party could catch both companies flat-footed, at least for a time. The problem was that DC wasn't the only company that saw an opening, and in the summer of 1993 saw many, many other companies did as well. Many of these companies hoped to appeal to the horde of new readers who had supposedly decamped for good on the industry's front lawn. But who of these hypothetical new readers really wanted to insulate their garage with crates of unsold Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #1s?

More on that later. But first, here's Wizard's market report for November, 1991 - just before everything exploded:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


(* Yes, that is perhaps the most obscure pun I've ever made on this blog.)

I'll set the scene:

The early 90s was a time of almost unprecedented success for the mainstream American comics industry. Hot titles were typically selling half a million copies per month, and special "event" comics were regularly selling in multiples of millions. It was a pretty heady time. And, for historical perspective, these weren't 10-cent issues of Dell Four Color - comics back then cost at least $1.25, and some series with higher production values cost as much as $2. I remember, at the time, it seemed almost criminal to charge $1.95 for a regular 32 page comic - just a year or so previous, Marvel & DC's annuals had cost $2, and those were something like three times as big as a regular issue.

So, lots of money being spent on comics, and lots of excitement as well. In the early 90s, kids and teens entertainment was still fairly deracinated, tame stuff - the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, Saved by the Bell, The Little Mermaid was huge, stuff like that. People back then were already complaining about the growing crassness of kids entertainment, but it was all still fairly PG. Folks complained if there was so much as a fart joke in a Disney movie. Just a few years later, Disney movies like A Bug's Life would incorporate coprophilia gags. Times changed fast, and then the president got a blowjob.

Why this digression? Well, even though it doesn't seem like that long ago, the early 90s was still an entirely different world from the world we know today. The Simpsons was seen as a strange, counter-cultural, anti-family perversity - The Simpsons! Is it even possible to imagine, nowadays, a more universally beloved cultural touchstone - practically a cornerstone of modern American society - than The Simpsons? It was a time when politicians could still get away with name-chacking The Waltons in an unironic fashion. People still cared about things like Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock - how bizarre is that to anyone born after 1995, for whom movies like Junoi are considered heart-warming family fare? Yeah, there was schlock and there was also transgression - Hellraiser came out in 1987, after all - but it was still a remarkably kid-friendly world, with clear distinctions between kids media and grown-up media. Things like the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth movies were popular with little kids precisely because they were taboo in a way that I don’t really think we still have in today’s culture (plus, plainly cartoony and ghoulish in a formulaic manner that undoubtedly appealed to the young, just like Joe Camel). I don’t want to overemphasize the point because it would be easy to dispute anecdotally, but those who were alive back then should know what I’m talking about: things were slightly different, and for anyone under the age of about 16, access to racy or violent media was extremely curtailed. There was no 24-hour pornography machine in the living room, and mom and dad would probably think real hard before taking Jr. to see Terminator 2 (maybe even – gasp! – go see the movie themselves beforehand).

Imagine, then, being a kid in this environment. Imagine becoming hep to a form of entertainment that - for the most part - existed below the radar of most parents, featured increasingly frank depictions of sexual titillation, extreme violence and borderline sociopathy. Is it any wonder that X-Force hit the nation’s youth like a ton of bricks? For God’s sake, it was like they were taking a needle full of adrenaline and jabbing it straight into the libido of every 12-year-old boy in America. Back when porn and sexualized media were still fairly well-guarded, it was pretty amazing to pick up an issue of Uncanny X-Men and read Chris Clarement’s sexed-up stories – so steeped in S&M and fetish conventions that the creators themselves probably didn’t even realize it at that point – with special attention paid to Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee’s X-babes, and of course Todd McFarlane’s ungodly pneumatic Mary Jane. (Early Marc Silvestri still holds up as some of the most remarkably sexy superhero art ever drawn – partly because he knew how to make his men nearly as sexy and idealized as women, but also partly because, well, Madelyne Pryor as the Goblin Queen:


What could DC do to compete with this? The revolution in increasingly sexualized and violent content that Marvel was riding all the way to the bank had left DC behind entirely. It is not without significance that of the original seven Image founders, three of them had begun their careers as journeymen artists on mid-list DCU titles – Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane, on Hawk & Dove, Doom Patrol and Infinity, Inc., respectively. So, not only did DC not have anything near the fanatically popular artists Marvel (and later Image) had, but they were seen – with good reason at the time – as being merely the “farm team” for major-league talent, a place where hot artists got their start before moving on to bigger and better things. DC was, for lack of a better word, staid. There was a period after the advent of Image where DC moved from being the rock-solid #2 in the American industry, to a distant #3. At the time it was hard to predict just how quickly the wheels would come off Image’s initial push, so it was not inconceivable that the publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman might be permanently eclipsed by the publisher of Spawn, Brigade and Cybernary.

Take a look, for comparisons’ sake, at the state of the comics industry circa summer 1991, the high-water mark of Marvel’s early 90s market dominance.

X-Force #1, cover-dated August 1991:

Spider-Man #13, cover-dated August 1991:

Uncanny X-Men 279#, cover-dated August 1991:

And now, Batman #467, cover-dated August 1991:

Superman #58, cover-dated August 1991:

New Titans #78, cover-dated August 1991:

Now, this is in no way intended to be an aesthetic judgment on the above comic books – but take a look and tell me, if you were ten years old in 1991, would you have given those DC books a second look? They aren’t bad, by any means, in fact, they probably have more in the way of solid craftsmanship to offer than any of the Marvel books with the possible exception of Claremont & Lee’s X-Men. But still – these books are the product of a corporate culture that was left totally flat-footed by a sudden change in the marketplace, and scrambling to catch up left them looking even worse. I mean, the then-new Tim Drake Robin was probably the closest thing DC had to a “hot” character, but he was still stuck in some resolutely square stories. I mean, a hot chick with an eye patch and a missile launcher? Maybe if Rob Liefeld drew it, but drawn by someone with at least a passing familiarity with human anatomy, the concept falls flat. And who the hell is that giant hobbit attacking the Titans? (Yes, I know it’s Jericho, don’t scream at me in the comments.) The Titans were the closest thing DC had to an X-Men level supergroup – and they even tried to pull an “X-Force” with the invention of the Team Titans the following year – but the book had obviously seen better days. Attempts at introducing a convoluted X-Men-lite Days of Future Past-retread storyline in order to launch a new spin-off team spearheaded by Leprechaun Cable was rather – well – shall we say, misguided?

In case you missed it the first time around, here’s Leprechaun Cable:

So, what did DC have? Well, the one real and undisputed asset they had in a crowded market - filled with flashy, new-fangled hyper-violent super-soldiers with impossibly round plastic breasts and razor-ship knives growing out of their nipples - was the characters themselves, the proverbial Crown Jewels of super-hero comics. Superman was still Superman, and Batman was still Batman, and no amount of mediocre or boring stories have ever been able to strip them of their premium, blue-chip status – because God knows, the company has tried.

They had the characters that everyone knew, and along with that they had the then-55-odd years of accumulated continuity that went with them. They had, in addition to Superman, Lois Lane and Perry White and Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang and Lex Luthor and all that jazz – maybe changed a bit from, say, 1955, but the overall shape remained the same. Given that, is it any wonder that DC’s editorial culture had become far more conservative, static and editorially-driven even than Marvel?

Marvel became so dramatically successful at the time because they lucked into a crop of young artists with an intuitive feel for what would appeal to kids – some of them, as with Rob Liefeld, weren’t that far from the demographic themselves. Marvel was smart enough – or, given what happened, dumb enough – to realize that they could reap incredibly rewards by essentially letting the madmen run the asylum: allowing the artists to follow their eccentricities and preoccupations to their logical conclusions, with all the requisite problems that entailed. No more sending shoddy anatomy and horrid foreshortening down to the Bullpen to be tweaked, that kind of shit was what the kids wanted. No more time spent building long-term plots and sub-plots and supporting characters, lets just introduce a bunch of cyborgs with pouches and multicolored biker jackets, who all hate each other for unrevealed reasons that probably will never actually be revealed. It got the pulse racing in eight-to-fourteen year-olds across the country, is what it did.

DC couldn’t do that. Looking back at the Superman books, they didn’t have a superstar creator among them (Dan Jurgens would be briefly elevated to the status of superstar by virtue of the fact that he was the man who actually killed Superman), and the company’s editorial culture actively discouraged that type of star-system. The stars at DC were the folks who had been there for years and come up through the ranks by being team players. Ironically, DC had a better record for cultivating top-shelf talent in the form of writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, but that has more to do with the fact that DC felt comfortable stretching the limits, content-wise, of what they allowed their marginal-selling tertiary books to get away with, in addition to the historical accident that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a historically gifted group of up-and-coming British writers. (Let’s have fun for a minute and imagine how the comics industry would have looked if Len Wein hadn’t stumbled upon Moore’s work when he did – say, if Jim Shooter had snapped up the young turk who was doing such great work in their UK offices and given Moore a poor-selling book like Ka-Zar or Dr. Strange.)

But a superstar writer is a different breed than a superstar artist. Writers, even the most prima-donna “artiste” imaginable, by definition have to be team-players, at least to some extent, or their comics would never move past script stage. Artists on the other hand can exercise a disproportionate (or, as the Image founders would have said, long-overdue) influence over the finished product. A popular artist can force out the writer who had almost single-handedly defined the company’s number one title for seventeen years. A popular artist can have entirely new series created strictly as a spotlight for their own talents. Most importantly - a popular artist can leave when he realizes he could be making all that money by himself.

DC didn’t have to worry about that - and in any event, even when they did piss-off Alan Moore, he didn’t drop everything and immediately go into direct competition with Superman. But Marvel’s problem was their problem, too, because while the advent of Image meant that the overall pie got a lot bigger, DC’s piece of the pie got a lot smaller. The long-term mismanagement of Marvel’s star system – the mismanagement that resulted in the creation of Image - probably created just as many headaches for DC as for Marvel. Suddenly, there was a new arms’ race in the comics world, and DC was stuck between two nuclear-armed superpowers with only a handful of muskets and horse cavalry with which to protect their territory.

All they had left was a massive stunt so shocking that no one ever even imagined they’d have the balls to pull it off. But, pushed up against the wall, facing commercial irrelevancy and rapidly-changing tastes, you could almost say their hand was forced . . .

More later, and more on how the cover triangles were a crucial element of DC’s return from the cusp of oblivion.
No Time For Love, Dr. Jones

Was going to blather on more about triangles, but got sucked into the Bermuda Triangle, AKA trying to post an item on eBay. Three hours later, I have posted an item. How is this cost effective? Does it get easier the more often you do it? I've only ever tried to sell one item before and it didn't sell, so this is all quite new to me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Triangle Man, Triangle Man

Do you know off the top of your head why this comic is important? (Relatively speaking, that is?) Chances are that if you do you've probably wasted as much of your life as I have. But we can cry about this later.

For now, we must discuss the Second Coming of one of the most distinctive aspects of 90s DC Comics - the triangle numbers. It's amazing to think there may be a whole generation of readers for whom the idea of the triangle number is a new, fresh development intended strictly to facilitate ease-of-reading across a sometimes-confusing assortment of closely related titles. The . . . well, enthusiasm would probably be too strong a word . . . let us say, the interest with which this development has been met by assorted nerddom is somewhat surprising. (I have seen more than one positive comment!) Because, for those with long memories, the idea of returning to triangle boxes means returning to some of the darkest times in the history of mainstream comics.

Yes, let's look back at the mid-to-late 90s Superman family of titles. The problem with the triangle number, as much as it was meant to simplify the reading experience, is that it was symptomatic of a creative process that ultimately ended up producing some of the blandest, most forgettable, least interesting comics that the world had ever seen. You could not call late 90s Superman bad by any stretch of the imagination, because they were was just so boring that the titles didn't even register as sensory input at all - put an issue of any late 90s Superman title down on the table and you'd have a hard time telling it from the tablecloth. Remember Conduit? Remember the Trial of Superman? Electric Blue Superman? Freakin' Dominus?

Now, of course, you can't blame these faults on the triangle, as I said above it was a symptom of a larger problem. But the problem was real: since the very beginning of the 1986 Man of Steel relaunch, the Superman books prided themselves on an extremely tight continuity, unusual at the time and still unusual to this day. Remember back in the day when it seemed like Batman and Detective sometimes occupied different planets? (Hell, those days are still with us now.) Or, better yet, let's look at Spider-Man - there was a period during the 90s when he had four different ongoing titles - and the quarterly Unlimited - and each title was so different in tone and execution that the direct comparison could be jarring. But it seemed to work pretty well for a time. Obviously, Amazing was the flagship, with the marquee superhero action; Spectacular was home to slightly darker, more street-level stories that emphasized (at least under JM DeMatteis) a more psychologically grounded milieu; and Web of Spider-Man dealt more with Spider-Man's extended supporting cast and many of the long-running soap-opera storylines that the other two titles had eased away from. (Spider-Man at the time was something of a lost child. It honestly should have been canceled after Todd McFarlane left the company, because the attempt to turn it into a Legends of the Dark Knight-ish rotating spotlight title resulted in a pile of extremely forgettable comics.) The point is that other lines tried to create a sense of variety, with different "flavors" being offered up in different titles: if you liked action, Amazing was the title for you; if you liked more focus on Peter and Mary Jane's marriage and their relationship to people like Aunt May and Harry Osborne, Spectacular was your joint.

But the end result of the Superman titles' close relationship was that they began to blend together. Rather than let each individual creative team tell the types of stories they preferred to tell, more often than not the whole line was preoccupied with large-scale macro-stories that, more often than not, did little credit to those individual creators who comprised the very large Superman team. It was, essentially, a weekly title for the duration of the 90s. Long before 52, they succeeded in making sure there was a Superman book on the stands every week for approximately ten years. Furthermore, they were so concerned with keeping the ongoing continuity intact that they even created a quarterly title, Superman: Man of Tomorrow, for the express purpose of putting a Superman book on the stands during the quarterly skip weeks that resulted from the monthly schedule. (Do the math: 12 issues a year x 4 titles = 48 issues, not 52.) That seems positively perverse now, but really, it happened, and the major selling point - the only discernable selling point - of the series was precisely that it filled a Superman-shaped hole in the quarterly schedule.

To a large part, the titles were also victims of their own success, namely, the success of the Death of Superman. I seem to recall that before the Death, the individual titles had still maintained some resemblance of individual identities, but for the duration of the subsequent year-long Death and resurrection sequence, the books were for all intents and purposes a weekly narrative, and they never really stopped that kind of tight coordination from there on out. And the success of the Death meant that for the next half-decade or so they kept trying to recapture the incredible popularity of that storyline with a series of similarly-themed Earth-shattering "events", each one a case of gradually diminishing returns. They were often titled using the repetitive formula, "The ____ of / for _____", i.e., "The Death of Clark Kent", "The Trial of Superman", "The Battle for Metropolis". (To be fair, there was also "Dead Again"). But, you can only kill the guy once, and these subsequent storylines got progressively worse.

More later.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Quick Detour Through Hell
Part Two: Apocrypha

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)

Crap, crap, crap.

The first straight-to-video installment, and not a good sign for the future of the franchise. The plot is pretty simple: there's an asshole cop who finds a puzzle box. He opens the puzzle box. Nothing happenes, but over the next few days things keep getting weirder. Finally, the shock twist at the end of the movie reveals that (SPOILER!) he's actually been in hell the entire time, which is something that everyone knew since the twenty-minute mark.

At its core, there's a not-bad idea for a movie here - basically, an asshole cop gets tormented and by the end of the movie you realize he really does kind of deserve it. But, as with III and IV, in order to tell the story the filmmakers want to tell, they have to mangle the mythos beyond recognition. Pinhead doesn't torment people because they're bad and deserve to be punished - he torments people because they fell into his clutches, and most often this occurs because, on some level, they wanted to do so. Most of the folks who end up opening the puzzle box are drawn towards it by their obsession and depravity: as we saw in Hellbound, Frank's immoral sexual obsessions define the nature of his torment in Hell. But there is no moral element involved in the formula, and the end of Inferno leaves the viewer with the strong impression that the cop is being punished because he is bad, and not merely, as with the early films, as an incidental fact relating to the circumstances of his opening the gateway to Hell. The moral element may seem like a fine distinction to draw, but the essential amorality of the Cenobites motivation is crucial to the franchise's early success. It's the primary reason why they're so imposing - so disturbingly inevitable - in the first two movies, and why their later descent into cackling matinee villains is very unconvincing.

Incidentally, this is the first Hellraiser film to feature CGI Cenobites, and they look horrible. The only reason this film even gets a single puzzle box is that as bad as it is, it's still better than Hellworld.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

Not bad, but not great. Hellseeker marks the return of Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty Cotton to the franchise. The movie itself is something of a mess - like Bloodlines, it tries to tell a complicated story in a non-linear fashion, and also like Bloodlines it trips over the large gap between ambition and execution. I can't honestly say I remember a lot about it, except my surprise at the fact that somewhere between Hellbound and Hellseeker Kirsty because really cold-blooded - she kills, like, five people here. It also seemed kind of a big coincidence that she would get married to a guy who would just happen to find a puzzle box - in the Hellraiser universe those things must be like the old AOL CD-ROMs that used to be glued into all the magazines.

(Incidentally, for those with long memories, it's been established that there are Lemarchand puzzle boxes in the Marvel Universe - the first issue of Terror, Inc. shows the titular protagonist playing with a puzzle box before being told in no uncertain terms to put it down.)

Not really a lot more to be said - it looks pretty nice - these straight-to-video films have surprising high production values. This is also the first of these straight-to-video joints to be directed by Rick Bota, who would also direct the next two. He's about as flavorless a director as can possibly be imagined, and is blamed by many fans for single-handedly ruining the franchise. I'd blame the weak scripts, myself.

Hellraiser: Deader (2005)

This movie began its life as something totally separate from Hellraiser, and the script was retrofitted to fit the mythos in order for it to be produced. As such, it plays exactly as you'd expect any movie that started life independently of a franchise only to be shoehorned into said franchise after the fact. There are some nice setpieces throughout - including a particularly effective knife-in-the-back scene - but overall not very compelling. You get the feeling that trying to tie the original idea into Hellraiser resulted in the loss of quite a bit of the original idea's impact. The tangential mythos connection is fairly vague and never really defined very well - I defy you to watch this film and tell me in what way it actually is a Hellraiser film, other than the fact that it's got about ten minutes of Pinhead.

The only element that sets this apart from the other STV installments is that it looks gorgeous. It was filmed on location in Bucharest and the cinematography, by Vivi Dragan Vasile, is pretty astounding. They get the most out of the surrounding, and the decaying post-Soviet architecture and ruined industrial landscape is appropriately creepy.

Also, it must be mentioned that lead actress Kari Wuhrer is not exactly hard on the eyes. Incidentally, she played Abigail Arcane on the live-action Swamp Thing TV show, so there's your gratuitous nerd connection. (And, hopefully, a link from Mike.)

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

And this is the nadir.

Hellworld was an attempt to reinvigorate the formula by making some kind of meta-statement - remember when meta-horror was the "big thing"? Like New Nightmare and Scream and many other better movies, Hellworld takes place in the "real" world where the Hellraiser films are just that, films, in addition to being an addictive online RPG. (The moment I said it took place in the "Real" world you probably guessed what the "surprise" twist at the end actually is.) A bunch of kids get obsessed with the game. One of them dies. The kid's father sets one of those insanely intricate revenge schemes into motion that you can only imagine working in a movie or an episode of Scooby-Doo, with the kids running around a huge mansion hopped up on psychoactive drugs thinking that the Cenobites are chasing them.

But they're not, it's just Lance Henriksen. Yeah, this is one of those examples of a late-entry franchise film bringing in an actor famous from another genre franchise in the hopes of creating some kind of resuscitating "synergy" - and it works here about as well as you'd expect, which is, not at all. But fun for all the Millenium fans in the house, i.e., my parents. (It's a well-established scientific fact that my parents are the only people who actually liked Millenium.)

This is horrid in every conceivable way. It finally finishes the slow transformation that began with III, of turning Hellraiser into a by-the-numbers slasher series, featuring a maniac chasing young, nubile teens around a haunted house with a knife. Worse of all, it ends with an absolutely unnecessary homage to The Vanishing, a movie I didn't particularly care for but which is still seventy-bazillion times better than this pile of steaming shit. (But, I guess, that means the sequence in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman gets buried alive is also an homage to The Vanishing? Unless there's another famous "buried alive" movie I'm forgetting.)

And, hah! There's still the shocking surprise twist ending, wherein Lance Henrikson, distraught over the failure of his plan to avenge his son, picks up one of the box props he had purchased in his revenge scheme, finds himself strangely drawn to the puzzle (SPOILER!), and subsequently opens up a real gateway to Hell, out if which pours Pinhead and his latest interchangeable desultory henchmen. That would qualify as a shocking twist if every single person on the planet hadn't seen it coming from the moment the movie's premise was announced in a press release.

It's a pretty low note on which to end the franchise. But then, considering the fact that the film franchise basically consists of two excellent films and six sequels of varying craptitude it was probably too much to expect anything different at such a late date.

So that's all she wrote, until this supposed remake gets made. I was excited about the remake when Barker was attached. Reportedly, he had responded to the idea with enthusiasm, and even wrote a forty-odd-page treatment for the proposed film. From the sound of it, he saw it as a chance not necessarily to "re-do" the original, but to play around with some alternate ideas and concepts that he couldn't pull off in 1987 with a shoestring budget. The last I heard his treatment was abandoned in favor of a script to be written by the guys who won the third season of Project: Greenlight and wrote Saw IV and V.

I would guess this happened for two reasons: one, Barker's treatment was probably more disturbing than the studio wanted for what could potentially be a franchise-reviving tentpole feature; and two, as such it was probably more expensive than they required. Horror films are a low-risk, relatively low-reward enterprise whose profit margins are dictated by the proportional size of their budgets: Saw V cost $11 million to make and took in $52 million. Do the math: an ambitious dark-fantasy horror film that cost even so much as $30 million to make - chump change for some Katherine Heigl rom-com - would probably be too much of a risk for any horror studio to take.

As you can imagine, I'm not particularly optimistic about these developments. But if you've gotten this far, you know I'll still be there, probably on opening day, if for no other reason than the fact that I've already proven myself to be a masochist of positively Hellish proportions.

But the good news - there is good news - is that Barker is planning a return to Hellraiser after all, just not on film. His next non-childrens' book is purportedly a return to Hell - entitled The Scarlet Gospels - featuring Pinhead as well as Harry D'Amour from "The Last Illusion", Everville, and the Lord of Illusions film. Of course, since it was first announced the project has been pushed back by Barker a number of times, so it's likely we won't see it anytime soon. But still. It'll happen one of these days.

(Of course, I say the same thing about an ALF revival, so there's that.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Quick Detour Through Hell
Part One: Canon

Hellraiser (1987)

The first, still the best, and one of the best horror films ever made - hell, one of the best genre films, any genre, ever made. It usually ranks fairly high on lists of horror fans and critics' lists, but I'm convinced the reason it doesn't rank higher is that, as explicated in the previous post, the frank psycho-sexual weirdness in the film makes a lot of people - even gorehound horror fans - extremely uncomfortable. The later films drop the sexual element almost entirely, or diminish it to the simple level of hetero titillation.

(I remember reading an interview - or was it a director's commentary? - with Tony Randall, director of Hellbound, who stated that during an early scene in the sequel where a mental patient flays himself with a straight razor, Executive Producer Clive Barker insisted they film an FX shot with the mental patient cutting off his penis. The director said something like, "well, that's just Clive". Well, no, that's Hellraiser in a nutshell: a psychotic man cutting off his cock with a straight edge razor on a bloody mattress.)


Considering that this film was made for a reported $1 million dollars, it's easily one of the best-looking "low budget" horror films ever made. Considering the Faustian bargain that Barker reportedly made in order to have the film made his way - signing over future franchise rights to New Line and agreeing to a paltry budget in exchange for the chance to direct his own book - the fact that it looks as good as it does is something of a minor miracle. Especially if you consider the fact that Barker was himself a novice filmmaker, with just two experimental shorts under his belt as a director. It's a shame, in a way, that he's not temperamentally suited to working in the film industry, because if he had chosen to focus his energies he probably could have been a director for the ages. As it is, he's probably a better writer, but still, the prose world's gain is film's loss. (And the first person to mention Lord of Illusions in the comments gets bopped on the head.)

It never loses its ability to shock and dismay.

Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1988)

A great sequel, almost as good as the original in some respects, but you can begin to discern how the wheels might come off in future installments.

A lot of people call this movie "cerebral", and I can see why - certainly, whereas the first film was almost exclusively focused on sexual metaphors, the second film is much more concerned with exploring the dark side of intellect. They spent a lot of time crafting some truly disturbing images, and they obviously had more money than the first film with which to do so. If you've ever been to a mental hospital - let alone been in a mental hospital - certain sections of this film are almost unwatchable. There's the aforementioned scene with the straight-razor, there's a lobotomy scene, there's a man getting a hand blender stuck on the end of demon phallus drilled into his skull . . . and then there's a scene in an elevator that is probably the single most horrifying sequence I've ever seen on film. It's not even that gristly a scene in the context of a movie where even the monsters get eviscerated and torn limb from limb, but I swear to God I almost never enter an elevator without thinking of the scene where Dr. Channard gets turned into a Cenobite. If you've seen it you know what I'm talking about.

But still, the movie suffers from an almost unintelligible third act. At a certain point you realize you have no idea why things are happening onscreen, and while they may be suitably gruesome and horrifying, you still don't understand why the man with the demon phallus thingie coming out of his head is killing everyone indiscriminately. A lot of its reputation for being "cerebral" comes, I think, simply from the fact that the plot is kind of vague in places, and it requires some thought to put all the proverbial pieces together. It's hard not to feel that just a little polishing on the script would have improved the final product inestimably.

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth(1992)

And here's where it all falls apart.

If they had continued in the vein of the first two movies, the series would have devolved into some kind of unwatchable hybrid of Shinya Tsukamoto / early Cronenberg. But apparently the powers that be at New Line figured that the best way to continue actually, you know, making money with the franchise was to scale back the ambition and intellectual pretensions and make something more resembling a straight slasher film. And this is pretty much exactly what Hell On Earth is.

At least they try to give an in-movie explanation as to why Pinhead would go nuts and start spouting off sub-Freddy Krueger one-liners while dispatching bar-goers with floating CDs. But the problem is that instead of making a good Hellraiser film they decided to try and make a Pinhead film, and as I implied before the storytelling engine was just not designed to tell stories specifically about the monsters themselves. Getting to know Pinhead's "human" side and learning that he became Pinhead as a result of the grotesque charnal horror of the First World War - well, it's all rather besides the point, and it's all rather boring. At least, on a meta-level, there is some acknowledgment that turning the concept into a slash-by-numbers horror franchise essentially means bending it almost entirely out of recognition.

Hellraiser: Bloodlines(1996)

I've got an odd fondness for this film even if I also realize it's not very good. The first thing you need to know is that this is an "Alan Smithee" film. Kevin Yagher was the original director, and the cut he delivered to the studio was reportedly a half-hour longer than the finished film that was eventually cut to the bone and supplemented with post-production work by Joe Chappelle (who apparently later worked on The Wire). The extra half-hour of Yagher's cut was destroyed, Yagher subsequently took his name off the film, and the result was an awkward, defanged mess.

And yet, it's still kind of fun. The central idea is good: showing the history, not of Pinhead or Hell, but the puzzle box itself, by tracing the lineage of the man who unwittingly created the means by which Hell was able to begin its war on humanity. There are sequences in pre-Revolution 18th century France, contemporary America and, heh, the 22nd century in a floating space station. If you don't like horror in space, well, this probably isn't for you. (I mean, it's no Leprechaun 4: In Space, but what is?) Seeing the space marines (right out of Aliens, no less) take on the Cenobites is fun, even if - again - it deviates from the tone of the original films so dramatically that you can't imagine a Hannah Montana crossover would be much worse. There's even a cute Cenobite doggie - yes, a doggie.

Originally, the film was intended as more of an anthology, with a clear through-line from the French sequence all the way through the movie's concluding future sequence. The changes imposed after Yagher left the production resulted in the three plot threads being spliced together in a matter that could best be described as "haphazard". The ostensible reason for the changes was to keep the audiences from bristling at the lack of Pinhead until after the half-way point of the movie - but it's worth pointing out that Pinhead probably doesn't appear on screen in the first film for more than seven or eight minutes, tops. By this point, all the great thematics of the first two films have essentially been discarded: there's nothing too weird about hell anymore, it's just a slick vaguely Marylin Manson-ish place filled with evil demons who want to take over the earth. All of which has fuck all to do with the concept as introduced in The Hellbound Heart, but hey. You can sort of see the outlines of Yagher's attempt to hew closer to the spirit of the original film by introducing other denizens of Hell with conflicting goals from those of the Cenobites (a female demoness named Angelique), as an attempt to inject some mystery and sensuality back into the deracinated series. The mangled result ends up pretty predictable, but you can just barely discern the outlines of a superior film.

Turning Pinhead into the focal point of the mythos weakened the soup almost beyond recognition. He was never meant to be Freddy Krueger or Jason or even Hannibal Lector: he's scary because he's so mind-bogglingly weird and evil that you honestly can't conceive of anything worse than having him walk out of a glowing doorway and drag you to hell. Focusing the camera on him for any length of time ruins the mystique. Having devolved into just another slasher villain, he's a disappointment, just another cackling cinema boogieman to be easily dispatched in the space of 90 minutes. Bloodlines ends with a giant space station turning into a magic transformer and blasting Pinhead into smithereens with the power of the sun, or something - it might as well have been the Care Bear Scare. It's not very good but it gets points for style.