Thursday, January 17, 2008

Some Comic Book Reviews

There are times when I think I focus too much on the negative, what about stuff that I like? Stuff that I think works?

Like many comic fans, I went to the store to pick up the shipment for this week. There are times now when I don’t go every week much less on the Wednesday of the shipment. The excitement isn’t quite at the level it used to be.

It was a light week, comics wise. Luckily for my comic shop, my interest in pulps and the pulp reprints make up for the dramatic drop in the comics I get. I’m spending about the same each month, maybe more on some, but the money doesn’t go to DC or Marvel or even the independent comics. It’s a great time to be a fan of pulp heroes. For the first time in decades, there’s more pulp stuff out each month than one can reasonably read, especially with the Spider, Shadow, and Doc Savage doing two novels per book. Unfortunately, since these come from small independent publishers, they aren’t exactly cheap. So, it pays to be discerning. More discerning than I was as I looked at the Operator 5 novel in my bag and was thinking “Secret Agent ‘X’”. I’ve developed a liking for the “X” novels, but I’ve yet been able to finish and Operator 5 one and would have preferred to save money. Especially as there was the attractive TALES OF MAGIC AND MYSTERY with it’s stark and powerfully minimally rendered and colored cover. I almost passed it up, but the short stories intrigued me as did some of the artwork. I justified it by the fact that I was only getting 3 comics: THE AMAZING SPIDER-GIRL, SHADOWPACT, and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA.

What’s great about the three comics, at least for reviewing and comparing and contrasting purposes is that they all fall well into Good, Mediocre, and Bad.


AMAZING SPIDER-GIRL #16. I should point out, that this is the only book from Marvel that I trust enough to have in my pull list and not pick up off the shelves. Of course, other than THE TWELVE, I hadn’t even seen anything even tempting to pick up apart from the odd reprints. Starting with the cover: As a general rule, I don’t like computerized effects with comic art. It might be because I use Adobe Photoshop in my work, but when I see a blur special effect or lens flare it throws me out of the illusion of the art because the first thing I notice about it is process of the artist and not the art itself. For some reason though, it works for me here to give the illusion of an invisible hand reaching out to Spider-girl’s back. The sense of impending menace comes across well.

Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz deliver as well on the story, juggling various sub-plots and soap opera moments while also delivering a solid main story with a beginning, middle, and end. DeFalco is not the best writer of dialogue or wordsmith, but he knows the craft and his genre. You never feel cheated when reading his books, they don’t feel padded, scenes don’t feel useless. And even though this issue doesn’t actually resolve much other than some tension between May and her parents, you still feel like you got a complete story, as May manages to at least fight off the villain of the month if not outright defeat it.

Frenz is up to the task of illustrating the scenes, even quiet moments. Here you have a discussion between Peter and his daughter, communicated through the art and not dialogue balloons (I do think his style has gotten a bit more of caricature and angular of late). The action scenes are clear and dynamic. He knows how to tell the story through his artwork while paying attention to detail and setting the scenes.


SHADOWPACT is an anomaly of a DCU title in that the powers that be seem content to let it reside in its own corner of continuity, free of the vast stuff going on elsewhere. Which is strange in that it actually spun out of crossover madness from two years back. Somewhere along the way Willingham left the book and another writer came on board, seamless enough that I really didn’t notice. Issue 21 is in the middle of a longer story arc that you either find interesting or not.

Tom Derenick lacks some of Frenz’ storytelling/layout skill, but makes up for it with style. His heroes look heroic and dynamic, his women lithe and sexy. And he rarely mis-steps in telling the story in each panel. In a fantasy setting as this one, it’s important to have an artist that can deliver the appropriate level of detail of backgrounds and such when called for, but to also know when it’s the figure work that is to take the center stage.

It’s Matthew Sturges’ writing that really drops the ball. There are just times that you just make you go “huh?” Such as when they mention that the Enchantress cannot figure out which dimension Nightshade, Nightmaster, and Ragman are lost in and then make this big announcement after two days of searching it’s the Nightshade dimension! Ok, they know that the two left with Nightshade who “teleports” via traveling through the Nightshade dimension, and it took two days of peering through a bunch of dimensions to find them in what should be the first place thoroughly checked? You know, I need to go to the store to get some cat litter. I think I’ll first look in the produce section, then the chips and crackers aisle, then the dairy aisle… you get the idea.

And then there’s the whole thing that the story has just revealed that Nightshade’s dimension is the same world that is Nightmaster’s background and not a single character seems really surprised or reacts to that knowledge. It’s like heading for New York, finding London and your reaction is “hey let’s go visit the Queen.”

Then there’s this great scene, where Nightmaster asks the Old man there for exposition purposes what happened. Nice big panel of the old guy who replies, “I will tell you, since you were not here to see for yourself.” Huh? It’s obvious that Sturges had no clue what to have the guy say as the flashback exposition begins on the next page but had to have the guy say something, so he has him re-state the obvious.

And, then there’s Sturges’ preoccupation with sex. Last issue and this we get nice visual innuendos that Nightshade is probably going commando under her mini-skirt and Ragman’s discomfort of constantly finding himself in positions of noticing this. And Detective Chimp’s using the internet to surf for girlfriends. It’s not needed for the story at hand and, frankly, comes off as frat boy level humor and writing. It falls flat and mars what is otherwise a good adventure story, especially through the repetitive nature of the scenes. It places Sturges as being somewhere between Judd Winnick and Chuck Austen as far as writers go without the flashes of above average capability from the former or the excesses of the latter.

And next issue implies the death of a character! Joy.


JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #17 is ugly from the get go. Like the monochromatic dark color cover featuring Black Lightning that is all about the special effect of his hand looking like it’s glass filled with lightning? Hope so, because the inside art is very similar in that it’s so dark it’s a chore to read even the action oriented pages. Benes was a decent if somewhat cheese-cake focused artist on Birds of Prey, but here he’s just a mess. It took three inkers to actually ink this, I guess it takes time putting that much black on the pages. Truthfully, it might not be the inkers, it could be the colorist, but whoever’s at fault should not put this book on the resume. It’s not helped that Benes work on the JLA has been one of filling characters up with scratch lines to give the impression of detail so the end result is just a muddied mess. It’s at the point that the when you get to the second non-story of Vixen, the manga-esque artwork by Jon Boy Meyers is a relief. It’s still too dark. She’s supposed to be shooting an arrow at two football fields away and if the coloring would imply that she forgot to turn out the lights. And thankfully the text tells us about the distance because the art at no point sets the stage to let us know that. But other than that, I like Jon Boy Meyers artwork here. It’d be better served to have a decent coloring job and a little more of a plot than just moving a subplot along.

The writing by veteran Dwayne McDuffie isn’t any better. I had high hopes with him taking over the writing chores from Brad Meltzer. But, his writing has been almost just as much a mess. Starting with the Red Tornado. Meltzer started off by writing the Tornado in a way that seemed to contradict 20+ years of continuity without actually explaining anything about the new status quo or nature of what the Red Tornado is (mainly because his whole overlong opening story arc was dependent on the Red Tornado being a substantially different character and instead of making his story fit the characters, he chose to make the characters fit the story). McDuffie’s handling of the Red Tornado is incompatible with both Meltzer’s and previous history as well and still doesn’t do anything to explain as to why this retcon exists (not asking for the “how” necessarily, but there should be a reason at least to why we’re changing history beyond just lazy writing)

Last issue was a crossover with the Tangent universe without actually explaining anything about the Tangent characters or why we should care who they are and the world they are from and then left on a cliffhanger of sorts as that universe’s Flash was in ours (although I had heard she was killed in COUNTDOWN: ARENA). But, then this issue has nothing to do with the main plot from that issue, if it was introducing a subplot, it should at least be touched on. Instead, last issue reads now as an anomaly. I understand that it might be a plot point picked up later on, but one should remember, even when writing for the Trade, you need to write for the month to month as well. Last month’s implied a follow-up and anyone following from issue to issue is going to expect some kind of reference. Otherwise we get what we have of McDuffie’s run so far, stories that just seem very disjointed. To further compound issues, to even remotely understand what’s going on in this book, you have to have knowledge of other DC books, especially SALVATION RUN. You have the Suicide Squad going after various villains but nothing really tells you anything about who the members of the Squad are and since they are mostly villains themselves, you really don’t know which group is which. Even if the motivations of the gang of villains headed by Dr. Polaris (didn’t he die too?) invading the Hall of Justice was a clever reveal on that story’s last page, it doesn’t undo the fact that instead of actually getting a Justice League story, we got what should be part of the plot of SALVATION RUN.

And, then there is the discussion of Roy’s daughter visiting her birth mom, the psychopathic murderess for hire Cheshire. Who in their right mind would actually allow such a thing? Do people not even think about what they are writing? Such a move is about as stupid and wrong headed as the idea of having someone with HIV actually be a superhero and shooting people with pointed objects. Seriously. I know it’s a fantasy setting, but there should still be some logical extrapolation of known facts and rules. The actions and decisions of the characters still have to make sense within the setting.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Where's Wally, The Twelve, and Technical issues

I don’t read “Funky Winkerbean” as regularly as I used to. I guess part of me is still grieving over Lisa’s death, one of the most emotional storylines in comics ever, whether you’re talking comic books or comic strips. There are people that disagreed with it of course. These are people that think that the comic strip page should be nothing but humor strips and all aimed for children. You know those types of fans, the ones that dictate that everything in a medium should conform to one reader, one taste. Usually their own. Not me. I applaud Batiuk in taking chances with the characters and storylines and fully engaging us in multitudes of ways. The strip’s a lot like life. It’s funny and sad, joyful and tragic, full of successes and failures.

While strip creator Tom Batiuk was able to jump his strip ahead ten years immediately following Lisa’s passing, jumping past much of the grieving process, I was unable to do that myself. I remember when my father was dying and there were times when I wished I could do just that, wake up and be me some years down the road pass all the grief and hardship, that living it day by day was too difficult. While the characters of the strip were able to do just that, not so this reader. Suddenly, all the characters are older, more wistful and bittersweet. And there are new characters and status quos. A lot of new stuff to absorb, but I wasn’t quite ready to move on and embrace the new.

So, it was with some surprise that in the Sunday strip 01-13-07, that I see that Wally Winkerbean’s wife Becky is now with comic shop guy John (who had fallen in love with her when Wally went MIA the first time). Now the last time I remember seeing Wally in the strip was before the time jump and his fate was left a bit questionable while in Afghanistan. I have no clue as to what the story here is. Did I miss some other subtle clue as to Wally’s ultimate fate? Whether it’s the death of a sympathetic character or of a relationship that I rejoiced to see, it looks like there’s more sadness in store. Just another bittersweet indicator of the passage of time and life going on.

It gives me a chuckle when I think of comments by a friend in an APA who commented a couple of years back in that he thought Batiuk was gearing towards giving happy endings for all of his characters, Funky falling in love and getting married, Wally turning up alive and marrying Becky etc.

The Twelve #1.

The first issue is out. And for the most part it’s good. Color adds a lot to Weston’s rather stiff drawing. The story is told mostly from the Phantom Reporter’s point of view as he narrates the twelve going into Berlin, walking into a trap and getting put in suspended animation (and addressing why they stayed lost for 40 years), and coming to in the present day and then ending on a cliffhanger as he discovers the dead body of one of the group. A pretty darn good set-up issue, with some mysteries involved.

But the bad… the cover is horrendous. I don’t know how many books are bought these days by casual buyers based on covers, but this cover will surely kill that. It’s a painted cover of the heroes just standing there ala Alex Ross’ KINGDOM COME covers. Only, this artist is no Alex Ross and such a cover is visually boring if you don’t really have the skill of Ross or Neal Adams to pull off. Notice that when Maguire did the iconic JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 cover that was then parodied endlessly by other artists (the cover may have been designed by Giffen), there is an attention to detail and a sense of attitude in the faces. There’s still a story/message being conveyed by the cover. Here, it’s looks like some generic computer painted fan art, the characters at best looking a bit constipated after their long sleep.

A plot hole that may actually be a clue to the identity of the traitor, just why were the Nazis in a hidden bunker lab apparently prepared and wanting some superheroes to happen to find them? Unless Mastermind Excello is working with them, it doesn’t make much sense. Excello’s knowing where he is fated to be could be a blind, that he knows where he is supposed to be because it’s all been a cover. The Phantom Reporter’s narration hints at some of the things “known” about these obscure heroes might not be true, Excello’s powers might be it. I think an interesting twist would that he saw that he and the others were fated/needed to be in the present to stop some threat, so he “betrayed” them in the past to get them to the here and now.

Although, another plot hole is, if they were part of the larger invasion force of heroes (some cool scenes there), why weren't they noticed missing? Especially considering the power levels of a couple of them. Dynamic Man and Fiery Mask might be obscure to modern readers, but in the context of the times, both were incredibly powerful heroes, and a technological marvel such as the robot Electro, I cannot imagine there wouldn’t be all sorts of investigations, even if undercover to find what happened and recover the bodies and technology. This would be like knowing we lost an atomic bomb in Berlin and be content with thinking that the Communists probably wouldn’t find it. Why wouldn't the professor behind Electro have an investigation launched? He presumably saw everything up to the trap being sprung .

I think we also see the weakness of JMS’ background as a television writer coming to the fore. Almost half of the book is spent just getting the heroes into the suspended animation. Too much is just watching the heroes cross a room, going down the stairs, etc. While the narration is good of the Phantom Reporter talking about the other members of the group, we don’t really see them doing anything. Instead of pages of other heroes like Bucky fighting in the invasion, why not really show off the heroes the book is about. Instead of an empty bunker and them casually walking down stairs, let’s see them fight their way, let’s see Laughing Mask be good with his .45’s and the Blue Blade with his sword instead of just the Phantom Reporter only commenting on it. It’s not television or a movie, we don’t need to see characters walking from point A to point B. It’s a superhero comic, show us ACTION. When we get to the cliffhanger of the last page, it’s really the first sign of the actual plot to the story, the rest has been all set-up of the characters and background information. If you watch LAW & ORDER, what we got is pretty much reserved for the first 3 – 4 minutes of the hour-long show to get you through the credits and make you care for the rest of the hour. Maybe if not so much page space was spent just putting the characters to sleep, we could have gotten to the meat of the story, saved some of that background to layer into the story later on.

What also struck a flat note was the preoccupation with Dynamic Man’s preoccupation with sexuality. Dynamic Man is an android (yet he falls victim to the gas and it’s his life signs that are being checked later) so I’m sure there’s a point to it. A lot of it read to me as a teen-age boy that is first discovering his own sexuality and in trying to sound adult about it, goes over-board with the talk. But it also struck me as a writer trying to sound more mature and adult like all those fan-favorite British writers. “See, you can tell this is a serious and adult book, we have sexual references and possible deviances.” You want to write stuff like that, take it to the MAX line or Vertigo. Just give us some superhero stories.

I guess I shouldn’t expect more. After all while he makes the Phantom Reporter and the Witness sound like really cool characters it's by a little subtle writing sleight of hand. First, he dismisses them in an interview, ignoring their heritage and reducing them to being 2nd rate even next to the equally obscure Fiery Mask and Rockman. He then reinforces that in-story by bringing over the reference to them being "tourists" and looked down by the super-powered types (and possibly modern fans as well). Only THEN does he get to be the rescuer of the characters by showing off how cool they could really be. But, he's the one who set them up as "tourists" in the first place. It's like the fireman who sets buildings on fire so he can be the hero by putting the fires out. It's a passive aggressive way of writing characters.

And if JMS is busy on bringing the characters down a level in order to tell more “realistic” tales, ie with sex, death, betrayals and bodies of clay, at least the art is keeping up with him. Weston’s tweakings of the costumes work for me. I like how in settling on a single look for the Fiery Mask, the costume is made up of elements of his various looks and thus still looks on-model for the period. The color differences in the Phantom Reporter and Mr. E work to differentiate two visibly similar characters. And the Laughing Mask’s theatre mask fits in with the look of that character as well. But, he also accentuates the negatives of the costumes such as the Blue Blade’s and where the costume design would otherwise work, he seems to go out of his way to make things ugly such as the hairy legs or making the Laughing Mask homely behind the mask and the rather weak weaselly face he gives Mr. E. Look at Paul Smith's artwork in THE GOLDEN AGE and he draws the characters accurately without highlighting the ridiculousness of grown men trying to be taken seriously in costumes. He handles all these different costumes and they all work. Here we have an artist that takes pains to make the costumes or the people less so.

JLA CLASSIFIED #50 on the other hand is pretty much pure fun. There’s a mystery villain that’s immensely powerful, and Byrne’s art is clear and powerful whether depicting a reflective Martian Manhunter, an analytical Atom, or just all out battle. It’s a great opening arc to a story that’s unabashedly pure superheroics and fun.

Roger Stern is a long-time and old style comicbook writer. He knows how to write longer arcs, his Masters of Evil taking over the Avengers mansion is a classic. And he knows how to tell quieter tales as some of his work on Doctor Strange can attest. This looks to be a great story by two of the masters of the genre. And probably a darn sight better than the majority of the mainstream superhero stuff put out right now by the big two.


There’s a reason why it’s been a week since updates have shown on my site. Basically, working on some of my villain pages, I discovered that the ftp client Filezilla would not connect to my geocities web pages. Now, it was working fine with no hint of an issue at the end of the year. When I tried using Fetch on my work computer, it also was giving me issues for several hours before deciding to work. Got home, Filezilla still not working. I don’t know if you ever tried contacting an Online company with a technical issue, but it’s next to impossible to actually find a service contact phone number anywhere on the pages.

I email them. 24 hours later I get a standard response asking for more information regarding my account. Respond, and about 24 hours later again I get a response saying that they don’t “currently support Fetch or Filezilla” and “if and when” they’ll be able to and that I should just use the EZ Upload on their site. I email them back detailing that EZ Upload doesn’t allow downloading which I need (even if I didn’t, the Fighting Yank stories and an upcoming expansion are way beyond the limits of EZ Upload) and that their website says that they do indeed support both of those programs, both are actually recommended (I don’t point out that I told them already that Fetch did eventually work). 24 hours later, no response.

So, I compose a sterner and nastier email since I had been brewing over the last one. I pointed out that 1) I was a paying customer and one of the things I pay for is the convenience of not using their EZ Upload that they offer to non-paying customers and doesn’t do half of what I want and need it to and 2) the fact that if they don’t support those two programs, their website is still soliciting business on the basis that they do and that’s fraud, taking a technical issue and making it a legal one. For the record, I don’t think they are guilty of fraud as much as the guy that wrote that email response just didn’t want to do any work. So, he recommended a “solution” that he hoped I would be content with and tried to give me a reason to not pursue issues with the programs further. I got a quicker response, within that same business day of someone willing to work some and suggested a few tests to run. Also that one of the problems might be with the ISP and not them as they cannot replicate the error.

I ran the tests. Ping’ing my website didn’t work at all, running a trace showed me timing out about halfway. I emailed the results to Yahoo. Knowing it’d be the next day before I heard back, I decided to try my ISP provider. We have digital cable through Time Warner and the internet through Earthlink. Again, a little tricky finding a phone number but I do so. My brother warns me that their stock answer is call Time Warner. In this modern day and age, everything is automated as much as possible in the name of “better servicing your needs”. I see this even in the company I work for. I rarely received mis-directed calls before we went to some voice recognition system. Now, if someone mumbles, they get me. This isn’t much difference. Answer a few yes or no questions and sure enough, I get an automated number giving me the Time-Warner telephone number.

I call Time-Warner, go through some automated answers again (letting the computer know I am calling about Earthlink and not Road Runner) and after being on hold for a little while, get a live person! And, surprise, in America! The gentleman is polite and admits that he cannot help me so he’d forward me to the “Tier 2” level of technical service. The young woman there is patient while I re-iterate my problems. She informs me that once the trace clears line 10, it’s leaving their servers and not much they can do. But, she volunteers to take a look. And…

“Are you an Earthlink or Road Runner subscriber?”


“Then why are you calling Road Runner?”

“I’m not ‘calling’ Road Runner. I called Earthlink, talked to a computer who directed me to Time Warner. I called Time Warner and the guy there forwarded me to you. I didn’t actually call you.”

“But this is Road Runner. I can’t help you. I don’t know why Earthlink told you to call us, you need to talk to them.”

“I called them. You don’t get a live person, their idea of tech support was to send me to Time Warner. They didn’t ask me if I was Road Runner or Earthlink, they just forwarded me to you.”

As this was going in circles, she asked me what Earthlink number I called and I read the one back from their website. She gave me a different 1-800 number to try. As my phone was beeping at me in frustration and was about to give up on me, I placed it back in its charger and resolved to see the next day what advice Yahoo gave me before trying again with Earthlink.

The next day was another non-answer in that they could not recreate the problem, it seemed to be happening somewhere in between Earthlink and them. I should just try and use a different computer on another network. Excuse me? And, that helps me with my home computer that I do 90% of my webpage work in what way? Besides, the whole point of this is I want to be able to access work done and uploaded from another computer and network at my home computer. How many of the people that have issues with them have the luxury of just going to another computer on a different network? It’s interesting to note, that every single one of these emails was signed by someone different. Apparently, at no point did I have the same person twice working on my problem.

Saturday morning. Girlfriend is working out to an exercise video, I get back on the telephone with the 1-800 number to Earthlink that the people of Road Runner provided. I get the computer again. With this round of computerized voices I must answer something differently (correctly?) because I get put in the queue for a live person. I wait and I get the IT department out of India apparently. To his credit, he speaks good English and I explain the issues and he tries to help. When directing me to type things, he spells them out as “C as in Charlie”. This is where the language barrier comes in. If someone has trouble pronouncing a sound, there’s a good chance they will have trouble pronouncing both the letter and the clarifying word as well. So, we get to “H” and it comes out as “Eh as in Ehyo”. Huh? And, he apparently doesn’t know the the difference between the letter X and the letter G since he directs me to spell “cryptofix” as “cryptofig”:

“G as in GO”

“I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?”

“G as in GO”

I’m thinking that’s not right, but he’s the professional, so I type that in. My computer responds, “Do you perhaps mean ‘cryptofix’ you numbskull?”

The results I end up with aren’t what he expects, so we end up letting him take control of my computer remotely, he runs this program, restarts my computer which takes forever to boot up anyways… and the end result after 30 minutes or more on the phone is Filezilla still does not work any differently. He gives me the familiar refrain that the problem isn’t on their end, I’m clearing their servers with no problem, it’s not until I hit the geocities' computer. I try to point out that I have no trouble connecting using a completely different network Fetch on the Mac but the brick wall has gone up. Doesn’t matter, by this point I don’t really think it’s the ISP either.

So, I decide to call Yahoo. I had done so when this first started, but I wasn’t quick witted enough and they had directed me to using the “Online support”. This time I was ready. Only I couldn’t remember where in their morass of pages the phone number was. There’s the little bit that paying customers have access to 24 hr toll-free support, but there’s no phone number. And at this point I feel really sorry for anyone having issues that’s not a paying member and has to do it all via email. I finally find a number to call, not under Geocities and their various help pages still hawking Filezilla and Fetch, but under Yahoo.

I call and the “I don’t really want to help you” mentality kicks in with the person as I tell her my case number, outline my problem, she tells me that the support line is for the Plus and Pro members ie paying customers. I was ready for this, my hoo doo was strong and it’s with great restraint I didn’t holler, “ I AM A PLUS MEMBER, A PAYING CUSTOMER” I AM A MAN, NOT A NUMBER….sorry. I digress.

After that, the person was extremely kind and helpful. We found out a few new things. Ping and the Trace showed no problems if I tried just the Geocities server and not actually sign into my account. But, at the end of 30 plus minutes, they still cannot fix the Filezilla problem but direct me to downloading a different FTP client: Leech. A solution they could have just as easily done the first day and was a far sight better answer than telling me to use the free EZ Upload or going to a different computer and network. It’s not a fix, but it’s an acceptable workaround. I hope maybe Filezilla will fix itself, at least before Leech decides to also not work.

Leech seems a bit clunkier. And it’s too smart for it’s own good as it somehow looks at content ala file size and not modification date in deciding if the file it’s moving is the same as the one in the target folder. And if it is, it doesn’t allow you to override, it just refuses to copy, a problem I had in trying to download the updated index page to my computer over my older one. Yet, somehow in trying to get it to do so, it UPLOADED the old file to the server. Though the date on the file in the server still said the new date, I discovered almost two days later that my home page was the one from 12-31-07 and NOT 01-04-08! Sheesh.

Ain’t technology grand?

Friday, January 04, 2008

No More Days

Sometimes it’s just too easy. Part 2. Quesada and JMS have been going around talking about their individual plans for the One More Day and Brand New Day arcs. For those living under a rock, Aunt May is mortally wounded. Peter Parker travels the world looking for some way to save her, and Mephisto shows up offering to help. But, to do so, his and Mary Jane’s marriage never happened. MJ agrees to the deal. Bingo, Spider-man is single again, no one knows his secret identity and somehow, Harry Osborn is still alive.

Now, JMS wanted his name removed from the story. He didn’t like the magical angle and Quesada and company didn’t like how much JMS was actually intending to do, re-write history from an early point on. Whereas, Quesada just wanted the marriage to disappear but everything else really happened. According to Quesada, Spider-man still joined the Avengers and unmasked, though no one remembers it.

In this day and age where Captain America is put down for not knowing about myspace, Marvel seems to have an editor that doesn’t seem to know about YOUTUBE! Spider-man unmasked on national television, it was in the papers! Heck, it was in real newspapers! Who cares if no one actually remembers it, there are actual records of the event in almost every media! And even so, if Pete and MJ never got married, Aunt May isn’t told about his secret identity, why would Pete have joined the Avengers in the first place, much less unmasked (they helped convince him to)? It just plainly doesn’t follow.

We knew for a long time this was coming. Quesada was vocal early on about not liking the marriage, felt it “aged” Spider-man somehow. Want to talk about aging your fictional shared universe, the problems are with the FF, not only married, but also a couple of kids! But, Peter’s being married and teaching doesn’t make him any older than he has been for over 30 years, somewhere in his 20’s. Kids don’t want to read about married adults… hmm, some of my favorite JLAers were married: Aquaman, Atom, Animal Man, Rocket Red. I liked it when Crystal and Quicksilver were married, Scarlet Witch and the Vision, Hank and Jan. And while they weren’t married until recently, I liked that Green Arrow and Black Canary were a committed couple for the longest time. How does Spider-man being married age him in a way that marrying Storm to the Black Panther does not age them? Plus, considering the way the main Marvel Universe is being written, their books aren’t appropriate for reading by kids who are so young that married people are “old”. And anyone that young, being in college is old too.

And we knew it was coming as soon as Spider-man unmasked as Peter Parker, that somehow that particular genie would have to be put back in the box. For all the fanfare and the comments on how that was the new status quo for story ideas, most knew that the genie would be put back in the box, that Marvel had just written themselves into a corner that wouldn’t last long. And that anything that could do that could also get rid of that pesky marriage Quesada didn’t like.

Then you have the motivations behind Mephisto, a devil doing this, because it undoes a HOLY ceremony and a special and rare love… You’d think he must spend a lot of his time going around breaking up marriages that have been blessed then.

Just stupid, stupid, stupid all the way around.

And the reasoning is flawed because undoing the marriage doesn’t automatically make better stories. Look at Marvel’s track record with characters after they broke them up. Crystal cheated on Quicksilver, he keeps switching sides. Scarlet Witch, boy that character has been royally screwed up. Mockingbird and Hawkeye both got dead, not sure where Hawk is these days. Hank and Jan. DC’s not much better. Jean Lorring, wife of the Atom is now a murderer psycho and Eclipso. The Barry Allen Flash was widowed, went on trial for murder, and then killed off shortly after reuniting with his wife. Mera went nuts, Aquaman went through various psychological and physical changes. Currently deceased. Wonder Girl lost her identity and went through a couple more… her ex-husband and offspring killed. Don’t want to even go into the mess with Hawkman and Hawkwoman after they got restarted as an unmarried couple in HAWKWORLD and what that did to continuity as a whole. Suffice to say, both characters in that book are now dead.

Some of JMS’ best parts with Spider-man was focusing on the marriage. He brought MJ back from being MIA. He ditched the supermodel angle and made her an actress struggling for legitimacy. He brought Aunt May into the fold as sharing the secret and had Peter get a job that actually fit his character. Peter Parker’s circle felt more like a family, and while supportive, this actually adds more to a soul burdened with responsibility, even if it’s responsibilities he wants. They now know the dangers he faces daily, and he now must bear some of the responsibility for the stress they feel as well.

And, when I think of some of my favorite Spider-man stories, it’s regardless of his marital status. They are just plain good and fun stories. Some don’t touch on his personal relationships at all. Some do, but girlfriend and wife could be easily interchangeable. Because, when it comes down to it, he’s a superhero character and they are superhero stories. The only stories that really dictate there be a marriage is found in SPIDERGIRL where they are supporting characters and part of the backdrop to the central character.

What made Spider-man bad wasn’t the marriage, it was bad stories and stunts and decisions like “Sins Past” and “Civil War”. And “One More Day”. And if they cannot tell good stories now, why should I expect them to tell good stories coming out of it? Give me back the days like the original Hobgoblin saga and the HOBGOBLIN LIVES mini. The days of “The kid who collected Spider-man” and the original MARVEL TEAM-UP. And GIANT-SIZE SUPERHEROES with Spider-man fighting Morbius and the Man-wolf (you want to get a kid to pick up a Spider-man comic, a superhero being attacked by a werewolf and a vampire illustrated by Gil Kane was a sure-fire hit). What made t hem good stories was they were just good stories. They WERE NOT part of a 2 year epic, inextricably tied month in and out to other books or even a slave to past continuity though they were faithful to it and you didn’t have to regularly buy other titles and other characters’ books constantly to get the one.

One of the biggest problems is “family books” ala Spider-man who in addition to various sundry mini-series and guest appearances, at any one time he headlines 4 books. We get this with Batman and Superman, who also draft other titles into their family of books such as BIRDS OF PREY, NIGHTWING, ROBIN, SUPERGIRL, etc. Now, the books in and of themselves aren’t bad and I understand the reasoning and business behind it. But, want to know why I tend to stay away from them? Because, nowadays, marketing is after gouging the fandom for every penny and not trying to market to broader audiences. Thus, every other year, if there isn’t a company event to tie the titles together, the family books will have their own little event, their Hallmark special with a storyline demanding you buy the other titles to understand what the heck is going on in the single title you do get. It has happened every single time I’ve decided to follow a certain creator taking on a book within a “family”.

Quesada’s way of handling it? To do away with those times when you don’t have to get the other three Spider-man books by combining his various individual titles into one and making the book pretty much a weekly. So, hope those kids he’s supposed to be aiming for are up to paying for it every week. I might’ve given the Dan Slott written Spider-man a try, I generally like his work. But, I’m not going to be buying a weekly book where he’s only one of several writers. I just don’t have enough faith in Marvel anymore to make that kind of investment. I’ll keep getting SPIDER-GIRL who just had a ten year anniversary. It’s consistently fun and well drawn even when laying on the melodrama.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Motivations of a villain?

Sometimes it’s just too easy. This has been in my head ever since I read Keith Champagne’s commentary on the last issue of COUNTDOWN: ARENA.

In a series whose main plot didn’t make much sense from the solicitations: somehow Monarch nee Captain Marvel is able to traverse the different 52 realities, kidnap and coerce various heroes in order to build an army to fight the Monitors, but he wants just one Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, etc and so he has multiple versions fight it out, often to the death. The built in flaw is of course, if he’s powerful enough to do this, why limit himself to just one? Why not multiple Supermen, Green Lanterns and Flashes? Why would you even want a Batman in such a battle? A Batman that could really be valuable over the various super-powered heroes is probably one that would be dangerous to have working for you via coercion.

Then Keith says this about it:
“Let’s talk about Monarch for a minute.

There have been a lot of questions about Captain Atom/Monarch throughout “Countdown” and subsequently, into the pages of “Arena.” Why is Captain Atom suddenly so evil? How did he get so powerful? Why does he hate the Monitors so much?

The answer is: I don’t know, either. Those are all questions for the “Countdown” crew to answer and I didn’t need to know any of it to write “Arena.”

My job over the course of “Arena” wasn’t to answer the Captain Atom/Monarch stuff. It was to build Monarch up and get him ready for his coming war against the Monitors.”

“…..At this point, no matter how Captain Atom is eventually shown to become Monarch, I feel I’ve done my job. He’s now a great villain, plain and simple. He’s shown how smart he is, he’s shown how powerful he is, and also how determined he is. Monarch is now at a level where he can take on the Monitors in serious fashion and possibly win.”

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Ok, I could understand the writer not wanting to reveal it. But, not to know? He’s saying that his job is to write a mini focusing on and building up this character, yet he knows nothing about what is motivating the character, how he got from Point A to Point C.

And, not understanding or giving anything that really motivates the character is what makes him NOT a great villain. Sure, he’s been built up as a force to be reckoned with, but that’s kids on the playground debating on who’s the better hero or villain based solely on who can beat up who. Your great villains actually have depth. We understand a bit of what motivates them, even if not at first. If Monarch/Captain Atom does become a great villain, it will be because of what others do, not what was done in this mini. Character motivation is such a big deal, that when talking about writing, Orson Scott Card focused on that above everything else. Many writers talk about characters eventually taking over the story while writing, it's because they have such a clear idea of who and what the character is about.

It highlights a problem with the Monarch character (and has plagued some other great villains at DC such as Kobra and Vandal Savage). The character changes every time he’s trotted out as a menace, no one can really decide what the character is supposed to be about. It’s not even the same person every time. With Monarch, this has its underpinnings in his origins. He started out as a mystery character in ARMEGEDDON 2001, back when it was cool to run the Event of the Year through the annuals. When fandom deduced it was supposed to be Captain Atom turned traitor, last minute changes made the character into Hawk. Even though the HAWK & DOVE annual was one of the few that outright refuted that possibility, and the reveal of Hawk as the villain only makes sense if one ignores what the whole H & D series was about. It also gave the armor no origin, Hawk steals it from his future self, making the origin of the armor a bad time loop. After a lackluster mini of Captain Atom and Monarch squaring off across time, Hawk gets an upgrade to Extant and abandons the armor. So when we see the armor again, it’s now being worn by a duplicate Nathanial Adam (Captain Atom's secret identity) seeking revenge on Captain Atom (somehow the experiment that transformed Captain Adam to Captain Atom actually created a quantum clone) in the pages of EXTREME JUSTICE. But that series was short-lived and the villain again went into limbo. With the end of BATTLE FOR BLUDHAVEN, a damaged Captain Atom fresh from touring the Wildstorm Universe winds up in the again abandoned armor. We have a visually interesting villain, but he changes each time out. The only thing consistent about the character is that every story he’s been in has been a bad one.

Think of your characters like Lex Luthor, the Joker, Doctor Doom, Galactus. Part of what makes them work is we do know the motivating factors behind the characters. Even if we don’t know everything about the history, we still understand character. As such, this has led to a largely consistent portrayal of them because they are characters, not cyphers. And when Post-Crisis Lex Luthor was re-tooled, that was the character that appeared in other books, he was built up because he wasn’t changed with each new story that he was used. Not that consistency matters in the DCU anymore. Currently there are two different versions of the Legion of Superheroes in the mainstream DCU and then a third based on the cartoon series! TRIALS OF SHAZAM has a completely different Captain Marvel than Jeff Smith’s over-hyped MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL, and neither make any attempts at accurately portraying the characters, but writers with egos thinking their version trumps all preceding ones.

Keith Champagne does that as well in COUNTDOWN ARENA. A multiverse army of Captain Atoms arrive to take down Monarch, including one based on the Ditko version. Of course, Monarch easily slays that Captain Atom, making him the biggest bad dude around. The same page further underscores just how little Champagne understands his main character. He obviously doesn’t really know that much about the Post-Crisis Captain Atom either as he has Monarch comment to the original version of the character how much like him he once was. In actuality, the Post-Crisis Captain Atom was very different from the original from origin story to looks to motivations of the two versions.

I also found the artist choice to be an odd one. Scott McDaniel is a very dynamic and quirky artist. He’s so heavily stylized that in combat scenes it can often be difficult to follow the action, it actually slows the reading process down to figure out what exactly happens in a scene. He’s at his best with non- to low-powered solo characters and books. A book like this plays to his weaknesses not his strengths. He’s not good with crowd scenes, characters seem barely rendered and costume details skirted on. Similar looking characters look too closely alike, it’s hard to tell the various Batmen apart in their battle for instance.

To truly salvage the character is to probably do the one thing has defined him, dump the whole hero gone bad angle. Put an unknown in the armor. In other words, make Monarch himself the character and not whatever superhero id he was before. Other than Patsy Walker, has any previously established character taken on a radically different identity and actually have it work? Hal Jordan didn’t work as Paralax and certainly not as the Spectre. Azrael as Batman was designed to fail. I guess, maybe Robin as Nightwing, but it’s not like Dick Grayson radically changed in the pages of TEEN TITANS, he still played the same role in the book as he always did, it was more of just a change in nick name and clothes, something many do when moving from adolescent to adulthood. The various identities of Hank Pym is no doubt in part what lead the character to be defined as unstable. Let the villain be a villain and the hero be a hero. Instead of completely destroying every Charlton hero one by one.