Thursday, July 26, 2007

Interrogating 'bully readers'

A particular species of comicbook fan is utterly fantastic at deflecting criticism of their most beloved creators and titles. A typical and awful exchange from any number of message boards:

Reader 1: I think Book W sucks because of X, Y, and Z.
Reader 2: If you don't like Book W, then don't read it.
Reader 1: Fine, I won't. But I still think it sucks.
Reader 2: I don't care. If you're not reading it, then you're not entitled to an opinion.

It's a ridiculous turn of logic that seems aimed at eliminating criticism or negativity altogether. It's very nearly a twisted sort of syllogism, I think: if you don't like it, you shouldn't read it; if you don't read it, you can't comment; therefor, if you don't like it, you can't comment. It is also, in fact, surprisingly common to internet discussions of all sorts.

There's a certain common sense appeal, of course. That is, if you aren't informed, you shouldn't be writing as if you are. Quite right. But people of the Reader 2 sort are never satisfied by claims to information or authorities that are not
Book W itself.

The problem here is that Reader 2s are (unselfconsciously, I'm sure) setting themselves up to be revealed as hypocrites. Thing is, we all register opinions all the time based on something other than direct experience of the topic in question. I can confidently say that Michael Bay's
Pearl Harbor is a piece of crap, but I've never seen it. So how do I do it? Well, I've never seen anything by Michael Bay that I've liked; I think that the leads are terrible actors based on other films they've been in; it was utterly trashed by the film critics whose authority I respect and trust; the trailers didn't interest me at all; the blockbuster historical romance/war film genre generally don't interest me at all. (Granted, I could still be wrong - but, again, experience has taught me that my educated guesses are usually close to the mark.) And I'm sure that I'm not the only one who makes these sorts of decisions, whether we bother to enumerate them in this way or not.

There's an additional problem, too - the problem of never having the time or money to read or see everything. Should we be prevented from commenting or registering an opinion on a text simply because it's beyond our means to acquire it? I'm reminded of jury selection in the recently completed Conrad Black corporate fraud and racketeering trial, where Black's lawyer requested a change of venue because the average Chicagoan was not wealthy, did not own multiple homes, and did not employ servants - that is, the jury could not possibly consist of his "peers". These ploys by various Reader 2s strike me as disturbingly similar - the field of "peers" for the purposes of discussion is being systematically reduced to only those who have a similarly positive experience of the comicbook in question, reducing the space for discussion to those that would not only fail to interrogate each other and their texts, but would acquit one another of their "criminal" reading practices.

Note added several hours later: I linked this blog entry to a post I made in the discussion that directly prompted me to write this entry in the first place. The response it elicited from at least one poster is both quite (inadvertently) funny and wholly deserving of my 'bully reader' characterization. Just click the link above and follow the exchange.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fraction's The Order

My first instinct is to accuse The Order of being Peter Milligan’s X-Force but with all the fun sapped out of it. Or most of it anyway. It’s not a totally fair accusation, but it lingers with me. Here’s a team of people trained to be heroes by a massive corporation, who can be fired and replaced by members of the farm team, and who must be ‘on’ and play to the media at all times. They’re recorded by another, unofficial team member, and
their leader has lingering
doubts because of his self-destructive streak. Death is a constant threat and two team members are melted in the very first battle.

Another similarity that also provides a slight but meaningful difference: rather than a team beholden to an owner or stockholders, this team is beholden to the taxpaying public. This is perhaps where the decision to tackle the topic with some seriousness makes sense. X-Force was expected to act in outlandish ways, to be public with their personal problems and do outlandish things that would increase their Q-rating. So long as more people were watching or buying their products, it was all good. Not so much for the Order, though.

What the Order does particularly well is reveal the hypocrisy of a consumer-culture that pays money to see pictures of intoxicated celebrities but throws closeted politicians to the wolves. Once the team is paid with tax money instead of free capital, it seems, self-destructive behavior is no longer tolerated - much less celebrated - and the public’s obsession with the night-lives of these celebrity-heroes becomes a burden for the Order instead of a marketable angle. It’s a funny (or disturbing) truism that people will freely and readily throw their money at the same ethically bankrupt people that they would never allow anywhere near public service – as if they’re even mutually exclusive categories that are occupied by different folks to begin with – and the Order turns out to be no exception. And our irony tolerance is pushed to its limit when Tony Stark, a recovered/ing alcoholic, forces team-leader Anthem, another recovered/ing alcoholic, to fire four of his team for violating their morals agreement by – you guessed it – going out and getting drunk. The exchange is subtle but powerful, and full props to Fraction and Kitson for avoiding the melodrama that a weaker team would have milked this scene for. This is not the sort of ethical dilemma that would’ve made it into X-Force’s pages, and we’re better for it.

Much of the concept remains unclear to me – like why Stark and the government aren’t converting military-types into the Order, rather than punkish girls with pink hair who would seem to be less easily controlled; or what the deal is with the military stepping all over the Order’s authority – but Fraction seems to delight in filling his comics with more subtextual content than we’re able to consume on the first read-through, and I'm willing to give him the time to develop these stories. You can bet that my copy will be well-worn before the next one hits the shelves.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Comic book vocabularly lesson #1

With thanks to Somebody from the X-Universe Message Board, this is just too funny (and useful and accurate, probably) not to post here...

continuity porn (n) -

Fundamentally, it's a story whose primary purpose is to involve some sort of past event to the detriment or even exclusion of the story which is nominally being told. (see also: "fanwank")

Exactly what stories ARE "continuity porn" therefore varies from reader to reader, since it's a pejorative term, and therefore only stories a reader considers to be bad tend to get defined as such.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Quick thoughts on Harry Potter and the latest movie

I'm not going to actually review the new Harry Potter movie. It's successful at least insofar as they somehow managed to distill an 800 page book into about 140 minutes without it becoming an incoherent disaster. Granted, there are scenes that feel totally unnecessary from the perspective of either plot or character - throw-aways that are never revisited and so offer no pay-off, like Harry invading Snape's mind to see that his dad was actually a bit of a dickhead - but one assumes that they'll be more meaningful in the next film or two. (Since this one, at least, has not read the books.) Many sequences are rushed and so the tension is totally dashed - Bellatrix should be terrifying, I imagine, but she's only very briefly foreshadowed, her escape is about 15 seconds long, and she's on-screen again for maybe a minute before she commits the only act that necessitated her inclusion. So the film makes you entirely too conscious of its own structure and narrative compression, yes. But I still enjoyed it, and maybe that's actually something of a triumph with these sorts of restrictions.

What interests me more, though, is the way the filmmakers have gradually rejected Draco Malfoy as a suitable nemesis for Harry. He's arguably been a comic-foil since the second film, was nearly absent from the third, and hardly rates a cameo in this one. I briefly checked the synopsis of his character's role in the text of Order of the Phoenix to see how it compares, and I'm not entirely sure that Rowling rates him as any sort of threat to Harry either - it seems that he's mostly just responsible for discovering Harry's secret club and a failed attack on Harry at the book's end. It hardly compares to the threat posed to Harry by Voldemort or even Draco's own father. (Granted, too, Harry doesn't seem to be a match for Lucius in a fair fight, but he seemed to be more than capable of injuring other Death Eaters and resisting Voldemort's psychic attacks, so maybe he is.)

It's an interesting movement, anyway - Draco was positioned in the Philosopher's Stone as Harry's ostensible equal but opposite, a status that now shifts to Lucius or Voldemort himself. The move makes the story more epic and Harry himself something larger than life, but at the cost of the versimilitude and empathy: Harry is no longer good-natured orphan as contrasted against the spoiled-brat, but the yang to Voldemort's yin in some spectacular battle for the control of magic and humanity; this is no longer a story about more-or-less normal kids at a school for magic, but epic fantasy that happens to be staged primarily at a school and also happens to star kids. (Though they're quickly growing up, so the appeal of naive tweens embroiled in magical mystery has mostly vanished.)

Again, it's hard to fault because it seems to work well enough - but I can't help but feel that the Harry Potter story has strayed from what had made it initially appealing (there are caveats to this appeal, as there always are, but i won't get into them now) and gone somewhere much more generic.

One last (disconnected?) thought: During the penultimate battle where Bellatrix does that thing she does (I'm trying not to spoil anything!), I was reminded of Ebert's criticism of the fight scenes in the Star Wars prequels: they're damn fun to look at it, but they're really just visual cacophony and lack a lot of drama precisely because we know that the principles can't die. Reasonably, it doesn't matter what kind of danger you put Harry, Hermione, and Ron in because we know they'll escape it. Rowling's cast is so huge that it means there's no shortage of potential-corpses, but we'll never be as invested in any of the others. The threats have to be something other than mortal ones - it's much too late for this bit of advice, sure, but why can't the climax be something more subtle?

Friday, July 13, 2007

'Comics in the Academy' at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival

I'm organizing the 'Comics in the Academy' panel at this year's Toronto Comic Arts Festival (August 18-19), and I'm currently looking for people interested in participating as panelists. Respond if you're interested, and pass it along if you know someone or some people that it might appeal to. Details below...

“Comics in the Academy:
How to Study Comics and Why”

Toronto Comic Arts Festival ( )
Old Victoria College, University of Toronto /// Sunday, August 19th (time TBD)

Since its emergence in Europe, Japan, and North America during the 1930s, and especially in the past two decades, the modern comic book has enjoyed increasing legitimacy as an artistic and literary medium. That said, the study of comic books in the University remains a marginal project: many still dismiss comics as (gasp!) popular culture or (gaaah!) ephemera, most academic papers appear in little-read and/or hard-to-find journals, and new scholars are often at a loss as to where and how they should begin their research.

The proposals being sought for this panel at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) are not for analyses of particular comics (though they can/should certainly be used as examples) or a defense of the study of comics itself (as we will take their worthiness to be a given), but rather for the presentation of a particular disciplinary or interdisciplinary approach to the comic book form and/or its various subject matter. In short, we are looking to discuss the various ways of embarking on a study of comics (“how to study comics…”), as well as an explanation of the merit and/or necessity of such an approach (“…and why”). However, as the TCAF is a public event, submitters should be mindful of the fact that their audience will likely consist of many (if not mostly) non-academics, and so presentations should be very accessible, even conversational, and avoid academic jargon and the ever-dreaded “name-dropping” of theorists wherever possible.

Presentations will be approximately 15 minutes, and it is expected that panelists will submit a preliminary (if not finished) copy of their paper/discussion notes a week in advance, so as to allow the organizer and their fellow panelists the opportunity to prepare thoughtful questions and enter into dialogue with them. Submitters are asked to prepare a 250-350 word proposal and brief biographical statement in a single Word or Rich Text file and submit them to the panel organizer, Neil Shyminsky ( All proposals will be accepted for consideration until at least July 25th, and questions of any sort can be submitted to the organizer at the same email address.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

All-Star Superman 8

As All-Star Superman: Year 2 hits its second issue, it seems evident that Morrison is moving the book in a slightly different narrative direction. Where the first 6 issues were only loosely connected, each issue in this next movement would appear to lead directly into the next. And if issues 7 and 8 are any indication, this isn't an entirely good idea: in the grand, kitschy tradition of the golden and silver age comics that Morrison is emulating, an argument on the second page is little more than expository dialogue aimed at refreshing the reader's memory. "I already explained..." says Superman, to which Zibarro replies, "And I explained to you..." It's cute, I suppose, but unavoidably awkward. Issues 1 and 2, as well as 2 and 3, were also somewhat linked and yet Morrison never resorted to this sort of cheesy recapping.

Morrison actually increases the campiness of the comic as it progresses, though his subsequent choices seem better reasoned. The Ancient Bizarro Anthem is as strange as it is unsettling, and Superman's manipulation of the Bizarros is simultaneously clever and obvious. The Bizarro speech should also get old - and maybe it would have if issues 7 and 8 had been released four weeks apart - but Morrison manages to keep the joke fresh, with Bizarro Wonder Woman's appearance in the Unjustice League providing a particularly absurd and wonderful moment.

The real star of this issue, though, is Zibarro. Recalling that all the best issues of this series have been focalized through some other cast member - Lois in 2, Jimmy in 4, Lex in 5, and young Superman in 6 - Morrison again pulls away from Superman and makes Zibarro the center of the story. In many ways, Zibarro seems to stand for the incredulous reader who has no time for infantile Bizarro-talk and feels above the material to which Morrison is paying homage. At first insufferable, Zibarro grows on us. He's drawn with incredibly sensitivity by Quitely - just look at him in the pages where he realizes there's only space for one on the ship, and then when he ties Superman to the ship - and he comes to stoically accept a tragic end as Bizarro World returns to the Underverse. It's not on par with the funeral for Pa Kent, sure, but it'll do.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ultimates 2 ends with a whimper

Producing the sequel to a hugely popular blockbuster film is a tricky matter. The fans of the original film generally aren't looking for, nor are they expecting, new ground to be broken. Sure, they want new and bigger explosions, but it's largely a matter of wanting more of the same. The best sequels, of course, tend to deviate from these expectations almost to a rule: the second Godfather film introduces an entirely new temporal structure, the second Star Wars offers both real philosophy and a much darker tone, and the second Ocean's film is as much a satire of the heist genre as the original was a loving homage. But the majority - and the most successful - tend not to wander far from their beginnings.

Needless to say, the conclusion to Millar and Hitch's run on Ultimates is of the less impressive sort. All sense of plot is lost as we approach the end, characters (that is, Hulk and Thor) conveniently arrive just when they're needed most and with little explanation, and the battles rage mindlessly and endlessly until the tidy ending. Bryan Hitch can draw a hell of a fight - as evinced by the huge pull-out that seems to include every hero in the Ultimate universe - but his powers seem abused on these issues. The Hulk battle that capped the very first story arc was all the more incredible because it was unlike anything else we had seen. But in Millar and Hitch's relentless push to outdo themselves with every subsequent story, it seems like there's just nowhere else to go and nothing left to do. If we can't have more dramatic fights, the logic seems to go, then maybe we just have longer ones?

I'm disappointed, as well, with the way Loki and Abdul al-Rahman are handled. Loki was far more interesting in the previous issues, when we didn't actually know whether he and Thor were Norse gods. (It's a shame that it's proven conclusively. One of the great things about the Ultimates are that they seem to exist in a world much like our own, with people are similarly unbelieving in the existence of monsters and aliens - even when they see it for themselves. Norse gods push it ever closer to the normal Marvel Universe.) al-Rahman, on the other hand, appears far too quickly - he's introduced in the first part, but it would have really been fantastic if his cameo could have appeared several issues earlier - and is dealt with much too easily. A man who could have been a great foil for Cap is already done telling his stories.

There's another sad bit in that battle with Cap. While Cap stands over al-Rahman, the latter asks him if he's going to say anything clever and John Wayne-like before he finally kills him. Cap doesn't, but the point is far too apt - it seems like every character spouts a cheesy line before surprisingly jumping (back) into the fray. Cap has his full-page return at the end of the 4th issue, Banner takes a moment to grandstand before turning into the Hulk, and Iron Man re-appears just in time to shut up the Crimson Dynamo in dramatic fashion. Oh, and Thor gets an entire two-pages for his comeback. Hawkeye also returns from the dead, though his return isn't quite as flashy and lacks that John Wayne quality.

It's affecting in the moment, sure, but it's all very cheap, and in the end it feels quite cold. It's more of the same, sure, but it seems clear that Millar has lost his drive to do anything new with the Ultimates. Its top-of-the-line special-effects budget aside, this blockbuster sequel is of the worst sort - the direct-to-video variety. (I'm over-stating, sure, but Millar and Hitch started so well that even a mediocre-to-good result is hugely disappointing.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

On comic art and artists: Visual prose and poetry

My visual comic book sensibilities seem to be very realist, I think - or at least highly conventional. My favorite story tellers - that is, the pencillers and penciller/inkers - are distinctly linear and clearly organized in their style.

For instance, John Cassaday's style is very romantic - high contrast and deep shadows (or negative space) that draw your eye to the character in the foreground (who is often almost bursting from the panel), and he sometimes duplicates panels (either literally or in a visual approximation) to indicate beats in a way that lends his work a certain rhythmic and cinematic quality. Though still an undeniably linear (or at least not unlinear) rhythm.

Note below, for instance, the absence of a distracting background in the first panel and the way that the indistinct light source make's the villainous Ord's face look hard and dangerous. The jump from first to second panel seems dramatic, but it's anticipated by the previous page (where Ord is running through a hallway while he knocks soldiers aside) and so the inference is an easy one. It also makes it clear that Cassaday considers the actual run to be of little dramatic consequence. He wants us to see Ord's eyes, and then the fantastical escape itself, which seems to be frozen in time, or at least in very slow motion. The two panels at the bottom have a kind of visual repetition insofar as Cassaday very deliberately wants us to know how Ord escapes - we can't intuit his finding a ship and stealing it as easily as we can his jumping out a window, so he walks us through it very deliberately.

Frank Quitely may seem like a curious pairing with Cassaday - insofar as his overly detailed line-work sometimes borders on the absurd or grotesque, and his absence of Cassaday-like attention to light sources heightens our awareness that this is, in fact, a cartoon - but their organization is still deceivingly simple, as he likewise employs obvious focal points, tight and accessible visual arrangements, and clear narrative panel progressions.

The first page of All-Star Superman is an exaggerated example - this is Quitely at his most self-consciously mythic and grand - but I think it does well to speak to how overwhelming and lush his visuals can be, while at the same time there is never any doubt as to where and how our eyes should be moving through them. We might return later to see if we missed something, but those subsequent peeks never significantly alter the path of the story.

Which is just to bring me to Chris Bachalo, whose work, while resembling Quitely's in its detail and Cassaday's in his fondness for light and dark, is playing an entirely different ballgame. I like Bachalo's character design work, but I'm often left confused and anxious about his layouts and panels. Unlike the other two artists, Bachalo often balks at convention and doesn't lend his pictures any clear focal point. There is often no negative space (or the opposite - an overabundance of it) and so you might find yourself at first examining the most inconsequential bit of overly detailed debris in the foreground - simply because that's where your eye has been trained to go. Bachalo's stuff is often without rhythm, and so seems to resist linearity: you're caught in the panel, trying to figure your way out, and so time seems to freeze in an uncomfortable way. (Though, I suppose, this is more true of people who are less familiar with his work than others.)

In this two page spread, Bachalo takes it a step further by providing us with more than one narrative option for moving our eyes through the panels, each in contradiction to the other. One is distinctly linear - and the small panels and grid-arrangement make it much easier for us to read in this way - while the other jumps between the visual organization in an entirely different pattern, opening up a totally different experience. From a narrative standpoint, the scene almost has to play twice - we read it one way and then go back to read it the other - and attempting to marry the two never produces a wholly coherent result. We have to decide how we'll read the comic before we can even worry about, well, reading it.

This is not to say that I think that Bachalo's a worse or better artist, but to say that the vocabulary and rules he's playing with are themselves entirely different. I'm not as fond of Bachalo because I think that he often pushes too hard to be less accessible and experimental at the cost of the larger story's (that is, the visuals and text) ostensible goal, but it's clear that his approach deserves attention. If I were to be reductive (and, sure, I'm feeling that way), I'd propose that Cassaday and Quitely's pencils are prosaic, whereas Bachalo's is poetic. And while the latter is admirable, I also have to wonder if it can ever be as fully realized as the former in a 22 page booklet with its unavoidable physical limitations. Or, rather, maybe I feel like I'm still waiting to see such a thing to happen.