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Jim Henley

See Your Subscription Box Next Tuesday, Batfans

Or, The Vagina Dialogues. DC Comics recalled all copies of this week’s shipment of All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder because of a printing problem. The method of Miller’s script is

  1. Use an awful lot of profanity, including the C-word.
  2. Letter the profanity into the book.
  3. Black over the profanity, sometimes leaving little bits sticking out so people can figure out the redacted words pretty easily.

Apparently, the ink-over blocks weren’t black enough this time.

Heidi MacDonald broke the story. Rich Johnston got some illicit snaps of a few recalled pages, and provides a helpful transcript. All-Star Batman isn’t to my taste, and it’s been a standing joke in the comics blogosphere since at least the “I’m the goddam Batman” issue. I wonder if Miller’s take is a plausible hip-hop-generation take on the character, though, or a white cusper’s (those of us born at the very tale end of the baby boom or right at the supposed start of Generation X, falling between those two stools culturally) notion of a hip-hop generation take on Batman. Lots of bling, lots of T&A, lots of ultraviolance and lots and lots of profiling hard. Regardless, while I don’t like it, it ain’t moody.

We Must Be Cruel, Only to Be Kind Fanboys

Attention Peter David: Tor.com is worried about X-Factor! And when I say “Tor.com,” I mean “me.” And tikilovegod, who comments downblog:

I’ll second Jim’s assessment of Peter David’s X-Factor. What’s happening to X-Factor right now is particularly disheartening because it’s the same thing that happened to the title when David was writing it back in the early 90s. The title was a funny, character-driven thing that was nothing like anything else Marvel was publishing at the time. The psychoanalysis story (#87) remains one of my all-time favorite single issues. Crossovers killed the earlier X-Factor series and they are killing the new one.

That’s two! If we were cockroaches, and I ain’t sayin’ one way or the other, that would mean there are two thousand of us you’re not seeing. We have loved X-Factor, man, and we want to go on loving it. DO OUR BIDDING—FOR WE ARE THE CRANKY INTERNET AND THEREFORE GUARANTEED TO BE REPRESENTATIVE!

And, honestly, a plot that turns on the conceit that the whole Secret Invasion can be undone by taking down the One Super-Magic Skrull Priest Guy, when we have never, in almost fifty meatspace years of Marvel Comics, come across the faintest suggestion that Skrull society operates that way? That’s lame. Are you sending a secret message?

UPDATE: Dave Robeson makes three!

Secret? What Crisis?

Last week I fell prey to an avocational disease: I bought a couple of comics because I felt the need to keep current. They were DC Universe: Last Will and Testament, by Brad Meltzer, Adam Kubert and John Dell, and Final Crisis: Revelation #1, by Greg Rucka, Philip Tan, inker Jeff De Los Santos and colorist Jonathan Glapion. Both are part of DC Comics’ current big crossover event, “Final Crisis.” DC says Final Crisis is what previous events from 2004’s Identity Crisis through Infinite Crisis and, somewhere in there, 52 and Countdown. The end result will be, DC said, to determine what their continuity will be for the next several years. In other words, the whole shebang constitutes a kind of four-year retcon.

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics has been running its own series of daisy-chained crossover events which, Wikipedia reminds me, includes “Avengers Disassembled, House of M, Decimation, and Secret War.” The current series is Secret Invasion.

When people like Douglas Wolk write about the high entry costs of corporate superhero comics—all that back-story—and declare that the pleasure to be had is the long sweep of the continuity-wide narrative, to some extent they’re talking about the succession of crossover series. Me, I hate ’em. Indeed, I wish they would get off my lawn.

[More comics talk behind the cut…]

Geek Brother, the Power

I had a bootleg concert tape in which Steve Earle spoke between songs about his high-school hobby of “turning cowboys onto LSD.” Of one football-playing friend, in paraphrase: Wed lie on the hood of my car looking up at the sky and hed say, Did you see that?? And Id tell him, No, man, thats your hallucination.” A key theme of the monologue was that these were friends who were only comfortable hanging out with Earle on the sly. They took care not to be seen palling around with him. High school hierarchies.

I find myself thinking of the story as I continue to mull a passage from Tim O’Neil’s post on 1990s superhero comics I linked early in the week. The gist:

If you’re of a certain age and have never had the kind of “break” in comic reading that a lot of people usually do—you know, the old, “I discovered girls / college / pot and comics went by the wayside”—in other words, if you’re a lifer, your relationship with comics is probably pretty complicated. Comics can be like a drug. They say addicts get stuck at the level of emotional maturity they were when they first began to use. That is definitely true for comics fans, and learning to outgrow what can be a pretty crippling, albeit comforting “crutch” can be really, really traumatic.

I don’t think there’s no truth in that. (See also, “Comics Made Me Fat“, by Tom Spurgeon.) While there’s no question Tim’s portrait offers a facile causality, I think it would be equally glib to say the dynamic runs purely the other way, that comics are simply the refuge in which that some people respite from preexisting body issues or social anxieties or health problems. I think there’s a lot of that, just as there’s some evidence that a fair amount of pleasure-drug addiction constitutes an instinctive, if often counterproductive, self-medication for depression or chronic physical pain. I’ve been to a mall, and there’s an awful lot of fat people out there, and according to the circulation reports, hardly any comics readers. But people can deform themselves by clinging too firmly to crutches, yes, even if the crutch started out as necessary or at least useful.

But what I got interested in, pondering all this, was the kind of Oort Cloud of fandom: the closet cases; the furtive readers and the vocally anti-nerd nerds.

[Read more behind the cut…]

The King of the World, as Far as I Know

A hot topic in the comics blogosphere last week was “What were the best superhero comics of the 1990s, and were even the best ones any, um, good?” It’s a good thing the comics blogosphere took up this topic because I couldn’t tell you: I gafiated right through the decade, except for a brief fling with the early America’s Best Comics line. Which, I suppose, is the kind of thing one would say, but it happened just that way. What I was reading about the superhero-comics genre in the media was dire enough to keep me from re-engaging, particularly the deaths (for certain values of death) of Superman and the Jason Todd Robin. Somewhere I picked up a few issues of Daredevil written by DG Chichester: they and he seem to have passed from the memory of the hobby, but I liked them pretty well. But overall, I got no clue, so you should go to the people who were paying attention.

Dick Hyacinth kicks things off, tossing out the idea that there were no worthwhile superhero comics in the decade to warm up for an attack on part of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s tenure on JLA. In a separate post, he shoots down some of the decade’s standard canon. (Contains a lengthy comment thread with people’s enthusiasms.)

Tom Spurgeon offers a big long list of “half-way decent or well-regarded” books. It offers breadth rather than depth (there’s no appraisal).

Tim O’Neill goes the other way, offering lengthy appreciations of his Top Five, along with meditations on the social and psychological effects of long immersion in the hobby. (By implication, he thinks a decade’s gafiation here and there is a good idea.)

The Cool Exec with the Heart of Steel

Via Spencer Ackerman, a deleted scene from Iron Man if you haven’t come across it.

Since we can see the glowing ring beneath Tony Stark’s shirt, we can tell the scene follows Stark’s rescue. I’m thinking the scene’s business was to place Tony closer to Afghanistan so it would “make sense” that he could get there in his suit. It probably made sense to cut it. There’s some development of the relationship between Pepper and Tony, but probably not enough to make it worth keeping. And the seeming setup for a group-sex session (admittedly a total fakeout) was edgy for the rating.

The lack of music (even in the part with dancing) gives the clip an eerie feel.

Eighties Rewind III

I’m fuzzy on my cyberpunk bon mots and so is Wikiquote. Was it William Gibson who said that today’s nightmare future is tomorrow’s ordinary day? Around that time he or someone like him would have been saying that or something like it, Howard Chaykin was creating American Flagg!, the post-apocalyptic cop comic in which the Future looks at the ruin of Terran civilization—nuclear war; plague; general societal collapse and I forget what all else—and says, “Fuck it, man, let’s go bowling.”

Metaphorically speaking, I mean. I don’t remember if there was any bowling in the series or not. (There was basketball. With cesti! I am telling you about these books before I reread them because there’s no reason for you to delay picking them up on my account.)

[Read more below the fold…]

Eighties Rewind II

These days, when people think of Scott McCloud, they think of his books explaining comics, or his web-comics evangelism. Back when Talking Heads were touring, Scott McCloud was the guy who wrote and drew Zot! Zot the superhero was a teenage adventurer from the fantastic future of 1965—as envisioned by the 1939 World’s Fair. (Hear Aimee Mann sing about it at Last.fm. You need that whole record, Whatever, by the way.) Zot! the comic book is about a twelve-year-old girl named Jenny.

[Read more below the fold…]

Eighties Rewind I

Readers are going to start asking, “Jim, do you read any new comics?” And I do! But the last couple of weeks have seen a bounty in reprints of long-unavailable classic work from the early and mid-1980s that I can’t let them pass unmentioned. The three collections constitute some of my favorite comics from one of the industry’s more creative periods.

When I saw a collection of Journey on the shelves at Big Planet Comics in Bethesda on my regular Saturday shopping trip, I squealed like a child. I interrupted myself in mid-sentence in undignified fashion, something like, “Yeah, Leigh, the thing about the Ratzapper is OH MY GOD JOURNEY!!!”

So what is Journey?

Journey is the saga of—I’d call him a mountain man, except the Great Lakes region lacked mountains at the cusp of the War of 1812 just as it does today. Josh “Wolverine” McAllister is a pioneer in post-revolutionary America, but not the kind who makes as many tomahawk improvements as possible with an eye towards establishing his own town or estate. He’s the kind who comes to the frontier to get away from as many people as possible.

[More beyond the frontier…]

Superhero Blogging Goes to the Dogs

For personal reasons, I decided to write a bit about dogs in superhero comics. The very brief history is, a long time ago there were a bunch of dogs in superhero comics. Then creators and publishers decided to put them outside, but dogs being clever creatures, they keep sneaking back into the house.

The most famous dog in superhero comics by far is Krypto. (If we open the field up to animation characters, Underdog might contend for pack leader.) DC Comics introduced Krypto in 1955. Thirty years later, they decided that Krypto was not grim, and neither was he gritty. DC was launching one of the first of their laborious attempts to “clean up” and modernize their continuity, which they believe should always be done in full view of readers, over months (lately, years) of time, across all their books at once, which may seem like it offers all the excitement of watching stage hands set up props between acts but which goes on for a lot longer.

[More below the fold…]

Fuzzy Heroes III: The Final (Promise!) Fuzzing

Because they told me back in Blog School that the key to building an audience was to seize on a hot topic and, er, worry it like a bone…

Because the question of what precisely Batman did to the dogs in The Dark Knight remains the overriding issue of our day, I ended up being interviewed by phone on the issue for Bloggasm. Simon also tracked down PETA’s blogger, Christine Doré, to get additional comments on her two “animal-friendly superhero” items.That part’s mostly just amusing. But the article adds value to the discussion by noticing that dog metaphors (or at least clichés) may be a running theme of the movie, which bears paying attention to on a second viewing.

 

[Image courtesy Lolcat Builder. Caption text courtesy – me!]

Some of Origins of Marvel (and Other) Comics

In all the versions of it, no one missed him.

–Thomas Lynch, “Michael’s Reply to the White Man

In which I contribute more to The Valve’s Reading Comics symposium than mere linkage. But first, more mere linkage, to playwright Justin Grote’s appreciation of the book. I want to add megadittoes to his praise of the book, particularly the section where he explains how, “The genius of Reading Comics is that it combines the best of both [the fannish and formal critical] traditions.” (Not so much for his assertion that SF fandom “began to emerge” in the 1960s.) I mention how much I agree with this part now because, in the way of things, I’ll be spending a couple items on places where I disagree. So let’s get to it.

The medium of comics has a Myth of the Fall that RC touches on, and that one finds elsewhere among critics, advocates and certain practitioners, and goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the comic-book industry offered a stupefying variety of material. From the late 1930s through the late 1960s you could buy monster comics, romance comics, humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, and, yes, superhero comics. Alas, as the 1970s turned to the 1980s, the two major corporate publishers, Marvel and DC, turned their backs on the general audience – especially children – to saturate the emerging (adult) fan market flocking to comics specialty stores, and since the fan market wanted superheroes and more superheroes, that’s what the Big Two, and a remora-school of wannabes, gave them. As a result, circulations plummeted, the mass audience tuned out, and “pop” comic books lost their general-issue appeal, becoming the preoccupation of a dwindling audience of aging fanboys. Only once the independent comics (aka “comix”) movement gathered steam from the late 1980s to early in the new millenium did at least a portion of the industry dare to provide the variety of sequential-art narratives that would appeal to a large audience.

This myth is very nearly completely backwards.

[More below the fold…]

When I think of the 1970s, I think of the major comics publishers trying like hell to stay viable in the general-interest market and failing. The long-term trends in comic-book circulation. from the 1940s to the 2000s, move almost inexorably downward, except for a speculator-driven bubble for a few years around 1990. According to Wikipedia, Ben Morse of Wizard Magazine believed, based on his research, that the top-selling comic book of the early 1940s was probably Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, and it moved around 1.4 million copies a month. Many comics had circulations of over a million per month, including most of Disney’s line, and Dell’s licensed properties like Tarzan and Roy Rogers. Timely’s Captain America shifted nearly a million copies a month, and monthly Archie circulations seem to have been in the high six or low seven figures. The Kefauver/Wertham witch-hunt of the mid-1950s certainly crippled the industry, though apparently their biggest victim, William Gaines’s EC line, mostly sold in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions per issue.

in 1960 there were still two titles selling a million copies a month, both from Disney, according to Statement-of-Ownership data compiled by The Comics Chronicles site. Superman, Superboy and Batman had circulations between a half-million and 850K. The “average” circulation in 1960 by CC’s calculation was ~316,000. Per the SoO data for the rest of the 1960s, that was the last year any newsstand comic sold more than a million copies. The Adam West-driven Batman craze of 1966 and 1967 made Batman the top comic of those years, but it didn’t crack 900,000 in sales. By 1969, the top two comics, Archie and Superman, barely break the half-million-copy mark per issue, and the average circulation is about a quarter million.

In the 1970s, Marvel Comics tried publishing sword & sorcery titles (licensed from the estate of Robert E. Howard), monster titles (Wolk offers a lengthy appreciation of the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan Tomb of Dracula in Reading Comics), war comics (Combat Kelly seems to have failed in 1972, jungle adventure (Shanna the She-Devil sputtered out after two attempts), even Romance – Millie the Model lasted until 1973. DC tried science fiction (Kamandi), horror (House of Mystery and House of Secrets), war (as late as 1979 they debuted All-Out War, which appears to have lasted six issues. Marvel tried an entire line of black & white full-trim magazines, tending towards horror and science fiction.

None of it worked, except – sort of – the superheroes.

Wolk tells some of the story, and you can pick some of the rest of it up elsewhere. The newsstand channel collapsed in the 1970s, and not because of superheroes – Archie, Gold Key and Harvey comics continued to be available to distributors; at least, the ones the publishers didn’t cancel continued to be available. Newsstand distributors and retailers gave up on comics because the low price points made them unprofitable compared to other things they could be selling – one reason Marvel tried to become a magazine publisher. The comic-book industry fled to the direct market just ahead of a cave-in. They took refuge in superhero comics because nothing else worked.

So the Myth of the Fall gets the causality wrong. But it also raises a question it doesn’t bother to answer: why is it that only the superhero story remained (somewhat) commercially viable as the industry transitioned to the direct-market era. In theory, the industry might have dwindled to a core of aging romance-comics fans, or monster-comics aficionados rather than superhero geeks like me. What magic power did the likes of us hold that – let’s face it – soulless corporations chose to chase our dollars rather than those of other slices of consumerdom? Why did the superhero pamphlet-sized comic die more slowly than other genres?

I think it’s because superheroes really did remain comic books’ competitive advantage: they were the kind of genre story that comics could tell effectively that other media couldn’t. Romance readers enjoyed the rise of Harlequin and Silhouette. Milporn enthusiasts could buy Mac Bolan paperbacks, at least until they stopped reading. Horror fans had numerous low-budget movies that delivered the various kinds of fright kicks more effectively than could drawings on newsprint. If you wanted war stories, you could get them from movies, books or TV. But until recently, other media couldn’t or wouldn’t provide superhero entertainment as well as the comic-book medium could. It’s not that there were no TV shows, no cartoons or no movies. It’s just that, for the aficionado of superheroes, there weren’t enough of them, and many of the ones that did exist didn’t measure up. They had lousy effects or reeked of condescension or embarrassment. I watched the first Richard Donner Superman movie a couple years ago. Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve turn in wonderful performances. But much of the movie is downright insulting to – people who love Superman. And the effects are pretty awful. Supposedly “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but without making his cape lift off the backs of his thighs. The water in the dam-break scene defeats the modelers – the drop sizes break the illusion. The script is deliberately cornball, and when you come down to it, the plot doesn’t compel. Even otherwise very good efforts like the two Tim Burton Batman films betray moments of embarrassment on the part of the creators. Say what you will about the ex-fans and Asperger’s cases the Big Two hired to fill the direct-market with superhero books from the early 1980s on: they didn’t spend half their time winking at you.

The assertion that there is or was some “natural” fit between the comic-book medium and superheroes hovers over the preceding, and such assertions make art-comics and manga partisans roll eyes. So let’s be clear: sequential art can and should be about lots of things. As Wolk suggests in Reading Comics, graphic romances aren’t just thwarted chick flicks; illustrated memoirs aren’t just ways to tell the story of your life in fewer words. The way that Daniel Clowes uses the conventions of the Sunday newspaper strip to structure Ice Haven results in a reading experience unique to the medium. You literally couldn’t have that story, in the proper sense of the term, in another medium.

But. The monthly pamphlet comic could fulfill the conventions of the superhero story more successfully than the same format could fulfill other genres, relative to the other options available at the time (the couple decades beginning in the late 1970s). As Wolk notes, art-comics creators have been abandoning the pamphlet comic as un-economical and esthetically restrictive. It’s becoming a book form rather than a magazine one. Manga has settled on the digest-sized, $10 paperback with hundreds of black and white pages: profitable to retailers;affordable to fans; portable; offering hours of value. And, really, still, more people watch TV.

We’re also reaching the point where the superhero story itself is in the process of finding new homes. Some of the best work in the genre in the last 20 years has appeared outside of comics itself: the “Timmverse” cartoons based on DC Comics properties; about half of the “Marvel movies” that have come out in the last decade; various prestige-format books. We’re starting to see some seriously intended prose novels too, as opposed to novelizations of existing properties. For good and ill, the pamphlets have become chiefly a means to amortize the costs of producing the paperback collections that will eventually hold them, and which are increasingly crucial to the business plans of the superhero comics publishers. The superhero comic didn’t kill the rest of the industry back at the dawn of comics fandom, but the things that did kill the rest of the market may yet kill superhero comics.

Comicon of the Mind

Your intrepid superhero-comics blogger has not made the journey to SDCC, an event which, from what I can tell, is probably sour anyway. Plus, those of us who stayed home get food and sleep. Plus, we need not lack for comics-related stimulation thanks to literary blog The Valve’s virtual symposium on Douglas Wolk’s new book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. The book is not remotely as annoying as the subtitle, which was probably chosen by committee. I enjoyed it a great deal, and recommend it unreservedly. I’m also part of the symposium, thanks to Valve ringmaster John Holbo. I’ll be writing about the book here over the next few days as part of the event, but tonight I wanted to point you to the existing symposium contributions.

Of the batch, Burke, Manley and Pedler take off from and to different extents argue with Wolk’s take on superhero comics; LaRiviere and Roberts try to use Wolk to justify their lack of interest in multipage sequential art as a medium; Farmar argues that the national traditions of comics art are more distinct than Wolk gives them credit for; Holbo plays off of Farmar’s essay; and Paik discusses – lots of things: to be frank, I’ve only skimmed it.

Nevertheless, I agree with part of Paik’s entry that did jump out at me:

He does a marvelous job of sparking interest in the creators he clearly admires, such as Carla Speed McNeil, the Hernandez brothers, Chester Brown, and Grant Morrison – in the chapters dedicated to them, Wolk demonstrates his skill at zeroing in on the essential details of a work without giving away too much in the way of plot.

I enjoy this aspect of Reading Comics a lot. I find Wolk to be delightful at expressing delight, and I find a lot of delight in the book. To that extent, I disagree with Burke, who sees way more frown on Wolk’s face than I do.

Cover image courtesy Da Capo Books.

Fuzzy Heroes II: The Fuzzening

Over the weekend I blogged about PETA’s list of the Top 10 Animal-Friendly Superheroes. Via an update on CWR, I see that PETA has kicked Batman off the island because of his dog combat in The Dark Knight. (Hellboy replaces him.) PETA Dudes. I have two words for you: Self. Defense.

By the by, I read somewhere people saying that Batman tossed one of the dogs out the window during the big skyscraper fight. I didn’t see it that way, and I was kind of alert for the possibility of a dog getting pitched. In my experience, an American movie will show you almost any kind of atrocity against human beings, but will scrupulously avoid graphic despoliation of Fluffy. My recollection is that, in Shooter, where the Feds’ murder of the protagonist’s dog becomes a major motivation,  the movie keeps the dog’s death safely offscreen. Am I misremembering either or both of these movies?

Meanwhile, the weekend is over, and I’d like to open this thread to completely spoilerous discussion of the movie.

Good Words About Bad Men

Sean Collins’s entire review of The Dark Knight is worth reading, but I especially like this part:

Ledger’s Joker is a creature in that vein, but instead of being larger than life, he’s smaller than life. I know that seems counterintuitive given the for-the-ages performance he turned in–surely this will be the most-referenced portrayal of a Villain since Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter–but what the Joker is is a human being reduced to only cruelty and glee.

Nicely put.