Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Canterbury Cricket - How not to write a one-shot

So, not really interested in the Flashpoint event overall, but I thought the Canterbury Cricket looked pretty cool and it's a one-shot so I thought it would be a safe purchase. I was wrong.

The story starts off as a small crew of UK Resistance fighters are fighting against the Amazons. The crew consisting of Godiva, the Demon, a Ms. Hyde and a green ghoul girl are in over their heads until they are rescued by the strange Canterbury Cricket. While waiting for the leader of the resistance that they are supposed to meet, the Cricket regales them with his origin story. Even this extended flashback hinges on the plot of the Amazons vs. Atlantis storyline of other Flashpoint minis. It's a somewhat comic tragic origin of an aspiring conman and hustler who gets caught up in an attack by the Amazons as they invade England. Everyone he knows quickly dies as he runs away, seeking refuge in Canterbury Cathedral. A cricket chirping leads him to the skull of a saint interred there. When the church is destroyed, the boy somehow finds himself a humanoid cricket. Thinking he's been given a second chance and a holy mission, he joins up with some other bug themed characters (Jaimie Reyes Blue Beetle, Firefly, Queen Bee and a new one to me, Cockroach) to fight the Amazons. They are quickly killed and he's again fleeing for his life. Then he meets up with this new band and just as a character seems to get close to him, she's skeletonized by attacking Amazons. This is where it ends, with a blurb to get more of the story, get the Flashpoint Lois Lane comic.

This is what doesn't give me much hope for the future reboot. Even going into it, we have the same storytelling philosophies of past events and such. A one-shot should be largely self-contained. This one is not, it's barely a teaser, spending all the time explaining the character's origin and motivation and establishing the backdrop of the Amazon-Atlantis War as it pertains to England. It tells us what the story should and could be, but it's really just delivering background information via exposition. The origin story could be interesting but it's presentation as a flashback tale robs it of power and any real conflict. It tells us who the character is and what he's about, but with no conflict there's no actual story there.  There's something comically tragic in a scoundrel and coward who seems to want to be a hero but has everyone around him continually getting killed and him just barely surviving each time by running away. One would almost think that his whole thinking of a Holy Mission could be delusion or simple desire on his part to see meaning and redemption of the events. Except, of course, that Etrigan smells the stink of holiness about him, suggesting that he's indeed the victim of some holy intervention and not just a weird Kafka turn in a world already gone insane. The ultimate effect is that the comic is mostly a non-story by itself, more of a side chapter introducing characters that will play a role in a larger story that's being told in other books.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Forget a Reboot, can we get a Reset?

I was in Target the other day, getting some dental floss and fishing line, but otherwise browsing. Takes me about 30 minutes, my wife 3 hours and then she can go back in a week. Me? I'm good for a month. Anywho, I'm cutting through the aisles from the back of the store and end up going through stuff for school kids where I see a couple of floppy binders for papers based on comics. One is Wonder Woman. The other is the Justice League. Only, it's a Justice League cover by Perez from 1983! It includes some other marketing artwork from about the same time (judging by the appearance of Starfire). The source of the Wonder Woman artwork is not readily apparent, but the design also places it from about the same time period.

It highlights a problem with much of the DC comics. Here's material marketed for kids. But, it's material from almost three decades ago! Makes sense, because that's the last time that most of these characters still looked iconic. Hawkman hadn't been changed to wearing body armor with mechanical wings. Firestorm hadn't gone through his transformation into a fire elemental, much less other changes. Aquaman hadn't had worn his blue costume much less grown long hair, a beard, lose a hand and become the sour underwater character. Hal Jordan hadn't yet gone crazy and been replaced nor taken on the job of the Spectre. Elongated Man hadn't gone through a succession of bad costumes, was still alive and not more or less replaced by Plastic Man. The Atom was still happily married and the second and latest person to make use of the name.

Marketing obviously recognized something that the people writing the comics don't. Building a brand demands a bit of consistency. Not knocking creativity and trying different things, but there's inherent problems when trying to shake things up and write creative stories. If you go too far, change too much, you weaken the brand. Take Aquaman. When fans talk about what they think it will take to make the character successful and what they want out of the character, it's divided. Some people want the pre-Crisis Aquaman. Others want the Peter David version. In an effort to modernize the character and get away from the jibes the character often gets, the David version ultimately proved polarizing. It was good for short-term sales, but now it's an "either-or" proposition. Despite the acclaim of David's series, the Aquaman that's marketable is the one in orange and green. Kyle Raynor as Green Lantern did the same thing for that franchise. You can see the polarizing of fans over Blue Beetle and Firestorm, only with the added fuel of racism charges if you so happen to like the original versions over the newer ones. Or those that like Morrison's Doom Patrol versus the ones that didn't. Truman and Ostrander's Hawkworld proved to be damaging to the whole concept of the DCU as a shared continuity that the character nor company fully recovered from.

I'm not saying that the modern versions were badly done. But, they were badly thought out. When Superman became the electric blue Superman, it wasn't thought to be permanent. Likewise the death of Superman that launched several new characters. They were temporary changes to the status quos that allowed some character exploration. When John Walker took over the identity of Captain America while Steve became the Captain, it was obviously nothing more than a chapter in the ongoing story. Status quos were reset in about a year's time or less.  Peter David claims that he was going to restore Aquaman's status quo when he was done, but there was no sign of that in the actual book. When Morrison was done with the Doom Patrol, every previous member was dead or completely changed into an unrecognizable character and the team hasn't been able to recover.

DC seemed to recognize that a little bit. Hal Jordan was made Green Lantern again. Barry Allen returned as the Flash. Somewhere, Ray Palmer is the Atom. Recently Aquaman was brought back in his green & orange suit. Hawk and Dove returned. But, for each course correction we get Firestorm struggling out a compromise solution between the Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch fans. PC versions of the Question and Blue Beetle. Roy Harper (Speedy/Arsenal) becoming villainous and a cyborg. Green Arrow killing criminals again, still ruining his relationship with Black Canary. Hawkman maiming opponents. Wonder Woman gets a badly designed costume. Superman and Batman both absent from their core books for extended period of time at the same time. Redesigned and "revamped" versions of the Red Circle and pulp heroes to the point they have little to nothing in common with the source material.

So, I was thinking, "What DC needs is a reboot of all characters to about the 1983 continuity."
I was a bit surprised when it was announced that DC was indeed rebooting their line. With talk of making characters a bit younger, stories accessible. Sadly, it also carried buzzwords like "modern". In fact, what makes sense about saying Jim Lee is going to redesign 52 characters so that they are more modern and recognizable? How do you redesign Wonder Woman, the Flash, Superman or Batman to make them MORE recognizable? The very nature of redesigning an iconic look is the EXACT OPPOSITE of their proposed intent. Then, there's the inherent conflict of goals. Making something modern doesn't make something necessarily recognizable. As I started off with, the problem is that DC has some iconic designs, but they and Hollywood seem intent on moving AWAY from them when what they need to do is move back towards them. The designs of the characters have stood the test of time for decades with minimal tweaking. I have no problem with redesigns, if the character truly needs it. But, the goal shouldn't be MODERN. It should be TIMELESSNESS. There's a reason when talking about character designs, people mention words like "iconic" and "classic". Most costumes are iconic because they are timeless. This usually means there's a simplicity and instantly identifiable and reproducible elements to the costume. Don't know who said it, but a comment I liked was a good costume should generally be akin to one that an eight year old can reproduce in his own drawings. The recent Doom Patrol relaunch had new uniforms for the team, with piping and such. Not bad designs per se, but instantly forgettable in they were not only generic but needlessly busy with extraneous details. When redesigning costumes, one should look at a few factors. Has this costume been worn for two decades or more and do you understand the difference between "classic" and "dated"? Was it designed by Gil Kane/Steve Ditko/Jack Kirby/Dave Cockrum? If the answer is "yes" to either of these, then the answer to redesigning the costume should 95% of the time be "Hell no".

The other problem is that they have ONE artist and writer redesigning the line. On the artist end, it's an artist whose last design has met a lot of resistance and who has yet to produce a design that can be said to stand the test of time. Not to say he isn't talented and produces pretty pictures. But, a less than zero track record. On the writer end... the concept of a "planned" shared universe just doesn't work. Every company that has tried to launch a planned universe with a central vision has ultimately failed. EVERY. ONE. Valiant. Dark Horse. Marvel's New Universe. Malibu (with two different universes). Defiant. DC doesn't even have to look any further than last year with their Pulp and Red Circle launches. Yes, I know. Red Circle was within the context of their regular Universe, but it was still formed, linked and sold on mainly one man's name who had nothing to do with it after creating the bible and the first issues. Not saying go in without a plan. But, what made DC and Marvel work was that it was organic. Continuity was built by telling stories, usually trying not to conflict with events elsewhere. It wasn't about continuity in and of itself. However, launches like this ARE about continuity, even when it's trashing old continuity and establishing new ones. (There actually is ONE exception: Marvel's Ultimate line which is still going strong. However, it's a shared universe that is built on the concept of a previous one, not an all new continuity. Even when it's going somewhere different, it cannot help but be a reflection of the main line. I don't read the comics, but I've never seen any advertising for pushing a NEW character in the Ultimate Universe that didn't already exist elsewhere.) Unless you're Kirby, one creator generally doesn't have that much creative variety in him to really fuel a whole universe. And, even Kirby's Fourth World books didn't succeed.

The first descriptions and covers of the relaunched titles further shows that while they seem to recognize that the line has problems, characters too convoluted and written into corners to the point of not being viable, they don't seem to realize the source of the problem. From indicators, Captain Atom has nothing to do with any previous version, visually or story wise. Striving for a compromise with Firestorm, he is now Ronnie Raymond AND Jason Rusch who are high school buddies. The Hawkman description tells us a little about Carter Hall but not anything about Hawkman himself, other than it seems to be an all new take on the character with some nods to original elements. It was messing with the concepts to begin with that lead to he mess we're in. It's partly why Red Circle and the pulp line failed as it sacrificed built in readership and built in character identification. It's why Target has binders with artwork of the characters as they were 30 years ago. Green Arrow and Mr. Terrific sound like they could be all right, but the redesigns are horrible. The latter looks like he stole a costume from the Emo-LSH and reflects none of the character's legacy and history, but otherwise he didn't need a new universe setting to launch a book. It looks more like change for change sake in his case. Green Arrow's costume looks like it came from Hollywood and is overly busy and looks fated for early shredding and return to a more classic look. The fact that Green Arrow has been written into corners twice now by being taken too far from center and requiring a resetting and looking at what's being solicited with other heroes, doesn't bode well that the creators have learned anything from the past.

If anything, the ability to reboot and reset seems to allow writers the freedom to continually move characters in extreme directions as well as the freedom to just ignore or contradict what a previous creator wrote just last month. Every writer that came along felt the need to redefine or rewrite the origin of Powergirl, Donna Troy. Or a new Legion of Superheroes every couple of years after previous writers kill off several characters. We're not seeing anything in the new reboot that DC has learned from that, instead just the opposite. With new and ugly designs, more casual rewriting of some pasts and leaving some in place (such as Blackest Night), it's setting up for more of the same mistakes they've been making and the problems that have plagued DC since post-Crisis on Infinite Earths. The exact opposite from what they need if the goal is to make the characters memorable. Want them to be memorable, don't make long term lasting changes every time the wind blows. Get back to telling compelling action and adventure stories using continuity as a tool and backdrop but not making the stories be about continuity. The one book that looks the most appealing to me is Aquaman. In part because his costume is the least re-designed although now he seems to be incomplete unless he's carrying a trident weapon, much as Bucky now must always be shown with a gun. Ironically, the title will be by the artist I took to task for not knowing how to draw gloves and drawing his gloves inconsistently from one panel to the next.

The Firestorm description makes me wonder if Blue Beetle will be the same. I think we can safely assume it's NOT going to be Ted Kord, the question is will he still be dead, a mentor to Jaimie or just written out of continuity altogether?