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Stories to Stagger the Imagination!

When Graeme McMillan introduced to the comics blogosphere the wondrous comic book cover pictured below, Rose and I leapt into action and purchased a copy of From Beyond the Unknown #23 from eBay. (We also got Eddie Campbell’s The Eyeball Kid #1, a bunch of the Doom Patrol runs of Grant Morrison and Rachel Pollack [mostly Rachel Pollack], and special extra surprise freebies Foxfire #1 and The Phoenix Resurrection Genesis #1 [both of which are Ultra Gold Limited Edition! awesome!]. Both of the extra special freebies are apparently X-Men comics, despite having been published by Malibu Comics. What is Malibu?)

From Beyond the Unknown #23

I’ve not had a chance to read “World of Doomed Spacemen!” or “Language-Master of Space!” yet, but “Secret of the Man-Ape” alone is worth whatever we spent. Expect a full review very very soon. Maybe even a full transcript, because everybody should read this story! I am disappointed to say that the ape’s reason for checking out those three particular books (he apparently actually checks them out in the story, rather than holding up the library with a gun) is disappointing. The rest of the story more than makes up for it, though!

Superman announces his plans for dealing with little lost girls and guys with guns

This is the year were we get a more proactive Superman that you don’t want to mess with. If you’re a little lost girl, he’ll be there to save you, but if you’re a guy with a gun or an alien armada attacking Earth, then look out because he’s not going to go easy on you. This is not like Batman’s revenge scenario, but more of an empowering fantasy. We all want to have the power to make a difference. Superman does, so he should. This year, he will.

No word yet on how Superman plans to deal with girls with guns or little lost boys. Perhaps he will give them rides on Comet the super-pony. Sad little lost lads and poor little lasses turned to a life of crime just need a super-pony!

Oh, wait, DC removed Comet the super-pony from continuity. No wonder lonely Superman is so unhappy nowadays:

Mad Superman

What was so wrong about Superman’s best friends, Comet the super-pony, Krypto the Kryptonian’s best friend, and Beppo the lovable simian super-rascal? Fuck you, DC!

[Quote from an interview with Superman editor Eddie Berganza, thanks ever so much to Graeme McMillan. Image also stolen from Comic Book Resources.]

Continuity Criticism!

Rose and I bought Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why this weekend, and I’ve just read the introduction and Chapter 0. I think this is going to be a fun book, and looks like it will have a lot to say about the concept of “continuity,” which I’ve been getting very interested in lately.

Few superhero narratives enjoy uncomplicated relationships with prior parent-narratives, which are (all too) present in the narrative. (p. 2) […] The path that gets the superhero from the reduction of chaotic continuity in a single fictional universe through the burden of continuity and tradition in Planetary’s Snowflake is the focus of this book. (p. 24)

Sounds like fun to me! I’m especially taken with Klock’s description of Crisis on Infinite Earths (which is not discussed at length in How to Read Superhero Comics):

The metaphor of this biblically styled story is unavoidable: by looking into origins, existence is splintered into a variety of mutually exclusive interpretations that have no center. The current state of the DC universe—all of the continuity problems and confusions and paradoxes, Umberto Eco’s oneiric climate—is the retroactive result of looking too closely for a guiding and originating principle. (p. 20)

I’m going to have to get Crisis tomorrow so I can read this for myself!

Also, as Rose noted, we’ve been reading The Invisibles, and I’m planning to get The Invisbles: Entropy in the UK as well tomorrow, which I believe goes to the end of The Invisbles volume one, so hopefully I’ll soon have read enough to share some coherent thoughts.

Creative Freedom

Creative freedom. (See also Dave Intermittent’s thoughts on creative freedom.) Well, I’ve never in all my years of reading found that the creative freedom with which a piece of art is created is an accurate predictor of quality. Uh, that’s about it, I guess.

As for there being too many superhero comics on the market, and their prominence choking out everything else… See, I was in a comics shop in Bloomington this weekend, and I’d say maybe half the books in the store weren’t superhero comics. Maybe it was less than half, I didn’t do an exact count. (And yeah, there are tons of stores that stock 100% superhero comics, too bad for those fanboy loser stores.) Of course, I was also in a Borders and they had maybe half American superheroes and half manga, which is too bad. The thing is, as far as I can tell there’s lots of totally superhero-free comics out there. The thing is, moreover, if there were fewer superhero comics then there wouldn’t necessarily be fewer bad comics. The thing is, really, if you ignore Marvel and sort of squint at DC so you can’t see the superhero books they publish, I think the corporate comics publishing industry looks pretty diverse. If you look also at small-press publishers, even more diverse. That Borders I went to that stocked almost no American comics that weren’t superhero comics could easily build a strong inventory of American comics with no superheroes. Why don’t they? I don’t know, but my guess is that a lack of available published material is only one of several reasons, maybe even a smallish reason among larger reasons. Another obvious reason I can think of is that there has historically been a lack of available published material other than superhero comics, creating the perception that there’s a lack of available material. If you look at most of the comics resources on the Web, it sort of looks like superheroes dominate the industry—but that is maybe getting a little better, especially thanks to the growing community of comics bloggers. If you look at resources outside the comics community, it seems that, say, there are ever fewer newspapers and magazines at which clever headline writers feel it necessary to preface each comics-related article with “Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t for kids anymore!” So, from my perspective anyway, the notion that superheroes dominate comics is largely a matter of perception, and I see many signs that that perception, in popular culture, has been been changing and continues to change.

If I believed in karma…

I’m not sure my post quite warranted this response, in fact, I’m pretty sure it didn’t at all. But you know, I told myself when I started getting involved in this comics blogging community that I wouldn’t get involved in political stuff like this, debating whether Marvel is evil or whether intelligent adults should bother reading superhero comics, because frankly I don’t even care. So I figure having people mock me and call me a retard is just a little friendly reminder not to stick my nose in places I didn’t even want it to be in the first place. Chris, I suspect we both should have taken some deep breaths and tried to calm down a little before posting, but nevertheless I thank you for the reminder.

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

Sez Sean Collins:

Another month, another tedious kerfuffle about whether or not superhero stories are inherently bad/childish/stupid. I gotta tell you, for all that superhero-bashers decry the genre’s tendency to lapse into rote, repetitive predictability–well, I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

Which is exactly what I thought after my “hilarious takedown” (so Sean calls it) of Chris Butcher. You’ll note the permalink URL of my post contained the words “superhero windmill.” After I’d finished that post, I thought, “Why am I defending superheroes against the windmill that is Chris Butcher? Don’t I have anything more interesting to say?” Well, I do, actually. J.W. Hastings has written some good stuff about morality in art and what he calls “fuzzy coherence” in narrative art that I’ve been meaning to reply to and probably would have been more fun to reply to than yet another attack on Marvel.

As for the minor controversy surrounding this message-board post on Millarworld, I make note of this second post from the same fellow:

A few get this absolutely right - Morrison, for example, can raise very complex issues and created sophisticated stories without blowing the intrinsic simplicity of the creations he deals with. That’s one of the reasons his JLA and X-Men were so faithful to the history of the originals.

I’d argue that Ultimates is also pretty much spot-on. There’s nothing there that is really prohibitive for kids but at the same time it has a real edge and sense of danger. Of course, to get to this the characters have to be scrapped and started over - you couldn’t do it in the 616 universe, though many try with various characters.

Most don’t get it right and we end up with SpiderMan agonising about his marriage which, frankly, is missing the point of the character by a mile. We get three years of the misery of Banner rather than a fun Hulk story and so on and so on.

I can’t say I agree with his positive assessment of The Ultimates (especially the part about it being OK for kids), and I’ve not read enough of The Incredible Hulk or Spider-Man to discuss those, but at any rate I agree with his general point. Which, it seems, is merely that superheroes aren’t fit for psychologically realistic characterization (even if you posit that Batman is insane, dressing up in a rubber batsuit and fighting crime is still pushing the bounds of realism just a bit). There seems to have been widespread confusion that Richard L meant this in a pejorative sense, but given that clarification above, as I said, I agree with him. It’s just embarrassing when Mark Millar comes around claiming his Spider-Man series is going to be—what was the term he used?—”hyperrealistic,” that we’ll get to read about how grim ‘n’ gritty Spider-Man is and how he has battle scars and stuff (I could find the interview in which Millar says this stuff but I frankly just can’t be bothered). And, you know, what the hell? I am going to dress up in red and blue spandex and crack wise while beating the living shit out of some guy with metal arms stuck on his back is not a hyperrealistic response to feeling responsible for your uncle getting shot dead. And if it were then Spider-Man wouldn’t be a superhero, he’d be a super mental case. I think part of Richard L’s point is that when you try to do psychological realism with superheroes what you end up with is just sad and pathetic.

Blathering on about corporate superheroes…

Chris Butcher is fed up with the injustice in the world of DC and Marvel comics! (via Sean Collins)

I think that one day, maybe if Bendis gets bored with superheroes, He and Maleev (or he and his “ALIAS” artist Michael Gaydos) are going to start turning out the best crime graphic novels that the comics industry has ever seen; the new work will make the excellent JINX and TORSO look anemic in comparison. If this were the Japanese comics industry, we’d already have it too. We’d have Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima doing LONE WOLF & CUB. But this is America, and so we get a good run of DAREDEVIL, which will inevitably end and be followed up by CHUCK AUSTEN, which is… Well.

Because… well, I guess because apparently if Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev and Michael Gaydos were Japanese then they wouldn’t do superhero books. Which, hey, I don’t know any of those guys, maybe they hate superhero comics and wish they could do their own special thing but those fucks at Marvel won’t let them. But the funniest thing about these outraged rants against the tragedy of good creators working on superhero comics, for me, is always the moralistic tone. (And here I’m also thinking of Tim O’Neil’s review of The Filth in The Comics Journal, but I haven’t read that myself, so maybe Tim didn’t put it in such a moralistic context.) It’s like, if only Marvel weren’t so evil and were more like Japanese publishers they’d let Bendis do whatever he wants, but they’re evil so they make him do evil trademark-babysitting. Chris’s special twist on the anti-superhero schtick is that creator-owned superheroes are fine, but corporate-owned superheroes are bad, they’re bad even if they’re good. OK, sure, but I think there’s maybe a problem with this. I was reading a really good interview with Grant Morrison a couple days ago, and as Morrison talks about writing JLA, he seems to have a genuine affection for the characters, which suggests to me that he in fact wanted to write JLA. And I’m going to make an assumption here, based on the joy and love I see in Daredevil and Alias, that Bendis also actually wants to write these corporate-owned Marvel characters. Why? Well, here’s what Morrison has to say:

After FLEX MENTALLO, I knew I had to do some superheroes. More specifically, I had to see if I could bend the entire superhero industry in a certain direction in order to effect a large scale magical working - a shiny pop direction I blueprinted in the last book of the FLEX MENTALLO series […] Using the big icons of JLA I figured I could really influence the trend away from dead end realism and towards a hyperfuturist renaissance of the comic book imagination. I’d been working on this since ANIMAL MAN but getting access to the JLA allowed me to bring big concepts and wild ideas back to the mainstream.

I conjecture that Bendis isn’t writing Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man as part of a magical ritual, but I’m sure he has his own reasons. David Mack, in his introduction to Daredevil: Parts of a Whole, says

I’ve always felt that my writing is felt most powerfully if I am able to write it from a personal context. I need to be able to emotionally imbue the character with my own personal experience. The challenge [with Daredevil] was to find a way to do this, bring something of my own to the main characters (and to my new characters), but also to write the book in a way that respected the rich history of Daredevil, and all that the previous writers have brought to the character.

Of course, some people would ask why Mack doesn’t just write his own characters in the first place and avoid these compromises. But… Several of Jeff Noon’s novels sample heavily from Lewis Carroll’s work. Stephen King’s Dark Tower alludes to all sorts of pop culture from Dr. Doom to Star Wars to The Wizard of Oz. Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze retells the Trojan War myths of Greece. Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen uses characters, settings, and plots from Victorian and pulp-era trashy literature. I know, I know, here I am comparing Moore’s clever metafictional use of real literature and some guy doing trademark-babysitting on Superman, no comparison. First of all, as David Fiore so eloquently put it:

Mina Harker, for God’s sake? Dracula is the Plan 9 from Outer Space of Novels!

Second of all, is Alice in Wonderland better than an X-Men comic? Well, it’s probably better than X-Treme X-Men (I’ve read not an issue of X-Treme X-Men, so I suppose I wouldn’t know). Is it better than Morrison’s New X-Men? Hell, I like them both. I haven’t read Alice in many years, maybe I would think it better than New X-Men. I know a lot of people will laugh at me or feel sorry for me because I think such a question as “Might a corporate superhero comic like New X-Men be as good art as Alice in Wonderland?” even requires consideration before answering “No.” Sorry, I don’t believe in high-art/low-art hierarchical dichotomies. And I don’t care about the question of what gets to be art at all, just to preemptively answer arguments about whether I should even be referring to a corporate superhero comic as “art.”

OK, now that I’ve got that mild little rant out of the way, my point is, writing about other people’s writing is a fine old tradition in literature, and writing new stories for characters that other people created is simply a direct way of writing about other people’s writing. When Shakespeare lifts material from older sources, it’s cherished art. When Jeff Noon writes a novel about Alice, or when Grant Morrison rewrites the Marquis de Sade novel 120 Days of Sodom in The Invisibles, it’s art (or sometimes it’s just empty postmodern cleverness, depending on your point of view). When Brian Bendis writes Daredevil, it’s a tragedy he’s not writing crime comics like he should be. Or maybe, and I’m about to propose a crazy theory here, maybe Bendis actually thought he had something to say about the Marvel Universe. Or maybe he just likes Marvel’s money. Or maybe he likes Marvel’s money and he thinks he has something to say about the Marvel Universe…

This is an unorganized mess! Oh well, it’s not like I’m getting paid to write this. Formal essay structure can get fucked.

Look, more Chris Butcher!

Oh, and for those of you who would argue that we don????????t need another JINX, or that ALIAS and DAREDEVIL are the new JINX’s from Bendis, all I want to do is point out the difference between POWERS and even Bendis’ most mature Marvel work. The differences, what he can and can’t do, are obvious. Plainly stated, particularly when you put the two works in sharp contrast. POWERS is the one that people are going to remember 10 years from now.

I think the weird thing about that passage there is that he says he wants to point out the differences between Powers and “even Bendis’ most mature Marvel work” (which would be, I guess, Alias?), and then says the differences are obvious, and then apparently the only differencea are that Bendis has more creative freedom with Powers and people will remember Powers ten years from now but won’t remember Bendis’s Marvel work. Which, hmm.

Alias Powers
Naughty words Yes Yes
Sex Yes. Granted, only one scene, but I’ve only read one volume of Alias and I’ve read several of Powers, so like I said, unscientific data collection here. Yes
Violence/Gore Yes. Maybe not as much as Powers, but come on, it’s not like we judge art based on liters of blood (well, I don’t). This whole comparison thing here is just a snarky joke anyway. Yes
Mispellings None that I recall, but I’m sure there were a few An easier question would be, “Does Powers have any words spelled correctly?”
Creative Control OK, this is probably the sticking point…

Wait, I already talked about this. The challenge of saying something personal with a character somebody else created, writing a story about a character somebody else created because you have something to say about the character or maybe something related to the character or something that you think can be said best or only through that character. Alan Moore can say whatever he wants, with a great deal of creative control, about Mina Harker and Alan Quatermain and Captain Nemo and all these characters because they’re in the public domain. If we were still using the United States’ first copyright law established in 1790 which allowed authors 14 years of monopoly over their creations, Daredevil would be in the public domain now and Bendis could write all sorts of Daredevil stories without asking Marvel. (Of course, there’s trademark to take into consideration, but at any rate we can imagine a set of intellectual-property laws which allow much greater creative freedom than the ones we have now, in which case Bendis wouldn’t have to do work-for-hire at Marvel to write his Daredevil stories.) But we’re not, and I don’t know how long Marvel gets to hold their copyrights, but it’s a long long time.

So creative control is an issue. But, you know, I think Bendis has a lot of creative control with his Marvel comics. Not as much as Powers, no, but a lot. Creative control is overrated anyway. Casablanca was produced within a studio system which epitomized creativity by committee. Does this make it (and all the other classic movies created within the studio system) an inferior movie to, say, Citizen Kane, which Orson Welles was allowed to produce with absolute creative control and no studio interference? I guess some people would say so, I don’t know why they’d think that though. To add nuance, yes, it would be nice if good creators like Bendis and Morrison never ever had to adhere to Marvel’s (bizarre and inexplicable) content restrictions.

This is what my point, such as it is, amounts to: There’s a big difference between Jessica Jones getting mixed up in a murderous sex scandal involving Captain America, and Jessica Jones getting mixed up in a murderous sex scandal involving a Captain America parody. And, like I said, it would be nice if intellectual-property law in the United States didn’t suck, but it does, so if you want to write something about Captain America you have no choice but to play along with Marvel.

As a final note, one obvious response to all this is that maybe Bendis doesn’t want to say anything about Captain America and is only working for Marvel because he needs money and benefits and stuff. Sorry, don’t care! Money is fine, but if an artist creates a piece of art then I’m going to assume the artist had some creative drive to create that art. I’ll readily criticize the corporate stranglehold on creativity, but I’ve never seen justification for the notion that corporate copyright and lack of creative control on the part of creators have a necessary negative effect on the artistic and aesthetic qualities of a work.

Pop Revolutionaries

Apple and Pepsi’s Super Bowl tv ad: this is brilliant! I’m sure all you people who actually watch tv have already seen this a million times, but I was introduced to its wonders only today thanks to Warren Ellis (who is apparently rather offended by the ad). Two corporations saying “Hey kids, you should download music legally, but hell yeah, way to stick it to the Man!” And they use Green Day’s (quintessential corporate pseudo-punks) cover of “I Fought the Law.” This ad is satirizing, like, everything. Faux-punks like Green Day, real punks like The Clash, corporate copyright hysteria, the pop rebellion of filesharing, corporations who appropriate anti-corporate punk symbolism to promote consumerism, people who rail against corporations who appropriate anti-corporate punk symbolism… Why can’t all evil multinational corporations be this hip and ironic?

“Are you going to fight the sun for me?”

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
      By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
      Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
      The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
      And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
      Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
      The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
      Some sell and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
      And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
      Yet each man does not die.
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oh, New X-Men: Planet X is the most beautiful and wondrous thing. As you probably guessed from The Ballad of Reading Gaol there, I want to concentrate on Jean and Logan tonight. We can guess which poem Grant Morrison had by his side as he wrote issue #148. “The kindest use a knife, because / The dead so soon grow cold.”

So terrible and beautiful, these scenes on Asteroid M. Jean and Logan have been trapped by Magneto, their vessel is hurtling through space and will reach the sun in 24 hours. There’s not much they can do to save themselves, so they have time to talk. They talk about the Phoenix, which is coming to judge and to disinfect, and has given Jean the power to move molecules with precision but has not made her immortal—she may still die. And of course she may, that’s what the Phoenix does. Will the Phoenix let Jean die before it can judge? Maybe it’s here to judge Jean… They talk about Logan’s discovery of his past in the Weapon Plus files. Were the files lies? Weapon Plus turned Logan into a sentinel, a killing machine—”…they chose me because I liked to kill, Jeannie… all I’m good for’s killing. If you knew what I was you’d hate me.” This is what the superhero life has gotten them: Jean is a dying disinfector of worlds and Logan is a murderous animal. Everything’s going wrong.

And then Jean is dying and the sun is there. She asks Logan, “Are you going to fight the sun for me?” Almost, Jean… This is the X-Men: it’s all the epic Romanticism and desperate hope and love, culminating here in Logan’s final act of killing Jean and carrying her into the sun “in a blaze of glory.” This is where the X-Men have their power, in this desperate will to superheroic self-sacrifice. It’s there in the old “Protecting a world that hates and fears them” line, in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s original Dark Phoenix Saga, and now Morrison and Phil Jimenez give it to us in Logan’s final act of love.

Did Logan know what would happen next? I’m not sure… but it doesn’t matter. They love each other and they die, but they don’t die. The Phoenix returns. As Jean says, “You did it, Logan… you released the Phoenix Consciousness. […] I had to die to come back, Logan. But I don’t know how long they’ll let me stay.”

Superheroic Power Fantasies

The Grotesque Rampage Delphi forum has more discussion of the world-famous Jeff Parker interview (link to the message board thread via John Jakala). Steve Lieber disagrees with me, saying that thirty years of reading superheroes has led him to the conclusion that superheroes are overwhelmingly about power fantasies.

OK, here’s the thing. There’s only one thing in the Jeff Parker interview I really disagree with, and it’s this:

But there it is: my peers clinging madly to what they loved years ago, but now they’ve matured and want stories that explore relationships and heavier themes. Yet they can’t let go of the cape book, and the superheroes start killing each other and sleeping around, drinking, gambling, talking a whole lot … the kid has wandered off by now in search of something where good guys fight bad guys in a fun way. Back at the store, our adult has squeezed the bunnies to death. The moral? Give the kid his damned books back! Adolescent power fantasies are for powerless adolescents.

I didn’t mention this in my first post about the Parker interview, because at that point I didn’t think it was a big deal and just wanted to make a joke out of reading some of Parker’s statements overly literalistically, but since several people have referenced my post in order to agree or disagree with it, I might as well write even more about this.

See, what bugs me about that Parker quote above is the suggestions that adding things like “relationships” and “heavier themes” makes a book more “adult.” Now, stories for kids probably shouldn’t have a lot of explicit sex and stuff. Drinking and gambling? Well, Pinocchio has that stuff and it’s a great movie for kids, but let’s say kids’ stories should be very careful in using such “adult” things. (Another example, the recent movie Peter Pan has some subtle and mostly subtextual sexual maturation metaphors, but I’d have no problem taking a 12-year-old kid to see it.) So if “heavier themes” means “sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” then yeah, we’re talking more adult. But the thing is, here, Parker proposes, as a counter to the adultification of superheroes, more “adolescent power fantasies!” Wait, wait, wait, I’ve got another idea: literature of ethics for kids. Or stories for kids about an exploration of the limitations of humans or the relationship between creator and created (two very arbitrarily chosen links to David Fiore’s Animal Man series of posts). I know when I was 12 years old I would have found Animal Man a lot more entertaining than a story designed to give me the vicarious thrill of power fantasy.

Writing straightforward empowerment fantasies is about the worst way I can think of to make superhero comics more kid-friendly.