Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Disturbing trends.

It's been awhile. A confluence of events forced a little break: on the road a bit due to some health and family matters and amidst that, trying to avoid the April Fool's computer virus resulted in a week of hell trying to fix what the solution did to the computer.

Twenty years ago and some change, Jim Shooter had an idea of a story and had founding Avenger Hank Pym suffer a breakdown, slap his wife and betray the team. Today, the character still routinely suffers from that storyline, not the betrayal of the team so much as him slapping his wife. Writers were unable to just let it go and move past it and instead kept revisiting it, trying to explain it away or to further mire the character.

Just a year or two back, Black Canary punched Green Arrow during a spat. Barely anyone made a comment. Black Canary is a trained martial artist, one of DC's top fighters. And, she lost her temper enough with Green Arrow to punch him. Not slap him. Balled up fist and punch to the jaw. This month, she does so again, both in JLA AND Green Arrow/Black Canary with even less provocation than before. Neither story gives any solid reason why Black Canary should be angry enough to even slap Ollie much less haul off and punch his lights out. And in the latter we actually see some spittle of blood from the punch. Again, this passes by with little fanfare, little outrage. I'm cancelling both of these titles from my pull list. Not just because of these scenes. They're just indicative of the bad writing that has plagued the books.

I had high hopes with a new writer for Green Arrow as Winnick seemed to just be spinning his wheels, as if he really didn't know what to do with a married Green Arrow. The new writer sets out to create a few new villains. Good. However, he does so by having Black Canary be a loose cannon with her powers, injuring innocent bystanders. He also commits the sin of building up his Mary Sue villain Cupid at the expense of other characters. This character who couldn't even defend herself in an abusive relationship, has the resources and abilities to track down various bad-guys and KILL them and even go toe-to-toe with Black Canary? Lazy and bad writing. And, while Green Arrow doesn't have the most impressive gallery of villains, it's a complete waste of characters to just kill them off panel instead of trying to find ways to make them interesting.

JLA has been suffering for awhile. And, I tried to give McDuffie a chance. After all, he inherited a whole bunch of subplots from a previous writer who had no intention of following up on any of the mess he made and then obviously editorial making the book a vehicle for introducing various characters and storylines to be continued elsewhere. It has gotten so bad, that Hal Jordan (and Green Arrow agreeing) has decided to appear in a different JLA book under a different writer that is at least promising the team will be doing things. This too is probably editorially driven, but WE JUST HAD THE TEAM BREAK UP AND REFORM! It's too soon to just all of a sudden announce another break up, with another reforming of a new team with new team members. Instead of giving us a whiny issue reaffirming what a load of crap the book and the team basically has been since the relaunch, actually write a god-forsaken story where the team is doing something, facing a huge threat. Ultimately, the only reason why the book has been floundering is that the storytelling has been lacking. The two-parter with the Milestone characters made little to no sense, it did a poor job with setting up the characters and explaining who they were and how they fit in. Their inclusion into the JLA may have been an editorial decisision, but it doesn't mean that there couldn't have been a good story to do so. Even the worse JLA-JSA crossovers made more sense and at the very least, told a complete and coherent story (even if you suspected the writer eating some bad mushrooms). Instead of Black Canary whining about the loss of Superman and Wonder Woman, show her be a person of strength. Have her a) be understanding about the concerns and issues that have made a bunch of the team leave or b) basically fire them for being undependable and seeking members to replace. Even with the wholesale slaughter of secondary and tertiary characters of the DCU, there are still bound to be enough characters left to draw upon, especially with MILESTONE and MLJ being folded in. It's not as if the whole team left, she is left with a good core group consisting of Vixen, Dr. Light, John Stewart, Hawkgirl, Zatanna. And, it's only McDuffie's writing that insists on having Red Tornado unavailable. Go to teams past and recruit the original Hourman (who stays out of the picture mostly in the JSA anyway), Lionheart, Maya, Major Disaster (in his old costume please), Fire, Ice, Guy Gardner, Connor Hawke.

Flash: Rebirth. Dead at the starting line. Starting off with a graphic murder scene, Johns delivers a mopey and dark comic. He doesn't tell us why we should be excited that Barry is back. He shows us why the characters in the book are excited for his return but not why we as readers should care. If McDuffie used Hal Jordan as a mouthpiece to express just how lame the JLA book has been, Johns uses Barry Allen to show how depressing comics have gotten as he ruminates about his rogues and the villains and things that have happened since. Len Strazewski did something similar in his JSA series, where various characters had recognized how much darker and dangerous the heroes and villains had become since their day. The difference being that he had the heroes recognize this and choose to be something more, to show a better way. Barry Allen on the other hand chooses to be the wet blanket on everybody's parade. This is supposed to be interesting enough to make me want to come back to a second issue and read about this character? The only hopeful thing about the storyline, if Savatar was able to escape also from the Speed Force (and Bart elsewhere), can we hope that Johnny Quick and Max Mercury nee Quicksilver won't be too far behind?

I will give props to Van Sciver's art. It has dramatically improved. It is still as detailed as ever and a merger of the similar styles Perez, Bolland and Jimenez. His storytelling is better though, his setting the scenes and letting each panel tell its story without the detail obscuring the message. His figures are more dynamic and natural.

Recognize the dapper fellow to the right? That's Deadshot in his first appearance. The Secret Six misses a chance to acknowledge the character's past for the sake of the humor of Floyd Lawton not having enough social skills to even recognize a decent suit (he was going to wear a Johnny Thunder reject of a green plaid jacket). Whatever suaveness the character has had, he is now just a plain sociopath. As much as I like Gail Simone's writing, I realize that comics have gotten to the point (especially with my economy), that I just don't care enough about these characters to really continue. It's a funny and often insane book with creative characters and concepts and wild action. Yet, the characters are for the most part ones I don't really care to spend money and time with each month. It's a sad decision to have to reach for what is one of the best written and best drawn books out there. It's just not my cup of tea.

Similarly, I've decided to draw to a close with Guardians of the Galaxy. In this case though, it's because while I normally would like these characters fine, I just don't identify with any of them, they are all too greatly changed in both looks and demeanors from previous incarnations. I don't care for the structuring of the stories around the de-briefings. Once in a while would be fine, but it is proving to be the rule and not the exception. And, there seems to be an illusion of stories happening. What we've had was events and subplots progressing and unfolding, but the big storylines seem to have been hampered by them and the various little cross-over stories happening. By dropping it, I don't even have to pretend to care what's going on with the War of the Kings crossover-itis.

Interestingly, in Captain Britain and MI:13, the illogic of the vampire base on the lighted side of the moon is actually brought up (don't really recall what their answer was other than "magic"). Think they may read this blog? Nah, probably not. It's an otherwise well-crafted tale, really setting Dracula up as a master planner and threat with logical goals for an undead vampire living on the moon. A pity that Spitfire has to be made just a bit more pathetic of a character.

Looks like the Sci-Fi channel has decided to go the same route with the Phantom as they did Flash Gordon. With probably about as much success. Arbitrary changes to the character (new names for him and his love interest) and a costume that is similar to the original in only that it is purple. You can change everything (such as their Battlestar Galactica) but it's an uphill battle from there. You have to make sure that what you are producing is so good that the changes are accepted (such as hot Asian Grace Park in the role of Boomer instead of an overweight guy). Let's face it, the Batman movies succeeded and failed despite the suit. In fact, once the stories became noticeably bad, the jokes about the suit became more prominent. The recent Batman movies would have been just as good if not better with the more iconic suit. The internet video of Batman vs. the Predator actually shows that the suit DOES work and makes all the efforts of Hollywood second-guessing and showing they know better than the creators of the character just look completely ridiculous. Likewise, the problem with the Billy Zane Phantom movie wasn't the suit. Although the scenes of him with the mask showing that he clearly has black grease paint on underneath that seems to magically appear and disappear when he puts on and removes the mask was annoying for its stupdity. And the movie had a good cast of actors. The problem was a story that erred too much on being campy and over the top with a supernatural menace that came off more ludicrous than threatening. It's possible to treat subject matter in both a fun and respectful manner, that takes itself seriously without being too serious or pretentious. Look at The Rocketeer and The Iron Giant for examples. Or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Dynamite is doing something similar to Buck Rogers. Granted, Buck never really had a costume per se other than being associated with jet packs. And he's been away for awhile, so I can guess some upgrading can be forgiven. However, he also has the problem that now plagues DC's Legion of Superheroes. He's been "updated" several times now. This gets to be a problem when it starts diluting the concept of the character, that readers are never sure how much of the characters they know are actually "true." It's why for 40 years, most characters were invisibly rebooted, there were changes in the backstories but with readership changing and continuity not meaning then what it does now, people were never really aware that the Superman or Batman they were reading was substantially different than before. The Blondie strip today just doesn't make mention of the fact that Dagwood was rich and disinherited and that Blondie herself was a flapper in those pre-WWII days. Invisible reboot as opposed to a story that tells us a whole new backstory, that they no longer have any kids and are now newlyweds, etc. Invisible reboots are generally concerned with what was the status quo last month, and continue on from there as opposed to just chucking everything and starting over. However, in the 80's, thanks to the fallout from Crisis on Infinite Earths, the latter style of reboots became the norm. For every one that worked, there were multiples that didn't. And, once you started that precedence, it became the norm to just do a reboot with little to no provocation. And, because you could just reset things, then it was ok to deviate from the median as much as you wanted, because the odds are that a writer or editor after you wasn't going to like what you did and reset it anyway. However, as I noted, this weakens the characters and concepts. It's difficult to impossible to hold to the semblance that these characters are in any way "real", that they exist outside of their reality (which is ironically the whole point of why you have continuity).

Buck Rogers already has this problem as he's a multi-media property and has been re-translated a couple of times. There was the original pulp story, the comic strip (which had some steady evolution of styles ie invisible reboots over the years), the Gil Gerard series which completely recast the character, and then the selling of the character to TSR which resulted in a novel with a new origin by Martin Caidin alongside an updating of the character for paperbacks, comics and RPG's by TSR themselves. All I can say is that 1) I've been less than impressed with Dynamite overall as a publisher and their heavily decompressed storylines that seem to sap the sense of wonder and fun out of their characters for the sake of "realism" and 2) with all the changes of the character, it might be time to take the character a bit more back to his actual primal roots. Everybody knows the name, present the characters in a manner that befits that iconic nature. I'm not really clamoring for something nostalgic but classic, not something that looks merely like the flavor of the month.
A big step, would be not re-inventing the wheel. Don't start from the very beginning; just give a brief synopsis of the character, the history and status quot and introduce the new/old threat (such as bringing back Killer Kane to bedevil him).