Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Earp scraps

Always working away on earp. Building the stockpile of pages. Pencils and ink details.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Conclusion and Honorable Mentions

I’m fairly pleased with how I summarized the late 90s for Marvel in the comments of the last post: after shortsighted decisions in the early 90s bent its superhero stable out of shape, Marvel spent the latter part of the decade trying to repair the damage and make their characters recognizable again to their core audience. With the exception of a few new concepts, like Deadpool and the Thunderbolts (and even those weren’t totally new, strictly speaking), Marvel’s main focus was on trying to get back in touch with the ol' Marvel magic. If the Bill Jemas/Joe Quesada era was Reconstruction, might we distinguish the Bob Harras era by calling it Restoration? Or am I confusing the issue by throwing around not-very-well-thought-out academic classifications like this?

Would it be easier to tell you what it all meant to me?

Much of the discourse in the superhero comics blogosphere the last few years has been on “darkness,” about the loss of “fun” in our funnybooks. Which I’ve always felt was a little misdirected. I mean, I like superhero comics that are dark, I like superhero comics that aren’t necessarily all playful and wacky. But what I can’t abide is when a superhero comic is a complete and utter drag.

And that’s what the worst offenders of the last couple years have been. But I don’t quite feel that kind of crushing betrayal you read on a lot of blogs because I’ve been through it before, in the mid-90s. I went through my “Alas, what happened to the comics of my youth?” phase when I was 10 years old.

I mean, really, if you think those days were disheartening for longtime fans, imagine what they were like for someone in elementary school, finding himself reading a comic where Peter Parker has a psychological breakdown, wraps himself in a web cocoon, and refers to himself as “the Spider.” Like I said, “dark” is fine -- I had some X-Men Classic issues reprinting the first Morlock two-parter by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, and they were dark and moody and mysterious and seemed very sophisticated and “adult” to me as a kid. But these Spider-Man comics were, again, a drag; that really is the best word for them, if you know what I mean. Thoroughly unpleasant books -- what would a kid see in them, anyway?

But the years passed, and then the late-90s period came. The murky browns and greens and dark purples gave way to a brighter (computer-separated) palette, and the characters were all pretty much as I recognized them from the cheap little Marvel Super Heroes Guide Book I’d gotten from my school’s book fair that had taught me who all these guys were in the first place. They weren’t always the most adventurous comics, the most daring comics, the most innovative comics. But they were generally solid and they seemed entertaining, and as a 12-to-15-year-old, that was really all I wanted at the time. And I was fortunate, when I did start wanting more, that Jemas and Quesada came along to feed my teenage brain with Marvel Boy and New X-Men and X-Force.

When all is said and done, I think the comics I’ve talked about these last two months belong in company with the best stuff Marvel’s ever put out, and I do want people to know that the decade in which I spent my formative years did produce some legitimately good stuff. But as for the rest of it…you don’t have to like it, and I'm not going to try to convince you. You can tell me the post-Clone Saga, pre-Byrne reboot Spider-Man books were mediocre stuff, and I'll tell you you're probably right. It’s not particularly distinguished stuff, I know that. The Harras approach to Marvel worked to hook this particular nostalgic-before-his-time early teenager, but it certainly wasn't an approach that was gonna revitalize the superhero comic for the 21st century. But, you know, those comics were mine, man, I was there. When I’ve got a really bad cold I’ll pull ‘em out and read them in bed, I don’t care.

Anyway. Was that sappy? You can tell me if it was. I hate to romanticize nostalgia too much, but I'm also suspicious of bloggers who dismiss it completely. Before I go, though, I’ll just list very briefly a couple more comics from the era that might not be great, might even be severely flawed, but are still easy-to-overlook bright spots of the age in their own way.

Joe Madureira issues of Uncanny X-Men: It’s hard to remember now, but Joe Mad’s infusion of manga/anime style into mainstream superhero art was a breath of fresh air when he first appeared. While a lot of artists in the wake of the Image founders copied and watered down their heavily rendered and crosshatched style, Madureira made stylization cool again. So these comics get an honorable mention purely for the art; Scott Lobdell’s scripting was, just as it was in the beginning of the decade, quite insular and inscrutable…

Fantastic Four (vol. 3) #1-4: …and yet. Lobdell’s “create a mystery that’ll hook readers and worry about figuring it out later” approach that became so exhausting on X-Men seemed like a breath of fresh air for the FF. By the late 90s, the Marvel Universe didn’t seem to have enough undiscovered country left for these explorers to explore, but Lobdell’s four-issue run seemed to at least promise new ideas ahead; we’ll just never know if he could’ve followed through, because they swapped Lobdell for Chris Claremont, and his run, suffice to say, is not on this list.

Heroes Reborn Fantastic Four: The other “Heroes Reborn” books seemed to be proto-Ultimate takes on the characters, but on FF, Jim Lee (with scripting by Brandon Choi) gave us a retelling of highlights from Lee-Kirby FF. In the first six issues, the FF get their powers, fight the Mole Man, fight Sub-Mariner, meet the Avengers, meet the Black Panther, and get wrapped up in a battle between Doctor Doom and the Skrulls for control of the Power Cosmic that Doom is siphoning off the Silver Surfer. That is some condensed storytelling, man. These comics don’t offer much of anything new, and they certainly don’t improve on Lee and Kirby, but I like to think of those six issues as a really cool adaptation of a Fantastic Four movie you could never afford to film.

Sensational Spider-Man: This isn’t the post-Clone Saga/pre-Byrne reboot Spider-Man book I was reading the most at the time, but looking back, I’d say it was probably the best. Nothing groundbreaking, but just some really nicely done work can be satisfying in and of itself. Mike Wieringo’s work is great; why did we all wait until he was gone to notice? Writer Todd Dezago, meanwhile, offered old-school Marvel larks but gets hamstrung by inter-title crossovers and continuity, and for what it’s worth, he developed a way to modernize (well, for the 90s, anyway) the Stan Lee winking-but-still-sincere "voice" that most comics writers even today haven’t figured out how to do successfully.

Spider-Girl: I read maybe one or two issues of this, but never totally got into it. Still, I’m compelled to mention it because it had everything going against it in terms of what's traditionally successful in superhero comics -- female lead, set outside of regular continuity, debuted in friggin’ What If?, I mean really -- but found a hardcore devoted fanbase and managed to keep going (in one form or another) until just very recently. That’s got to count for something, right?

Cable: Man, I never read this either, but I always mean to track Joe Casey’s run down in dollar bins if I can. He works with artist Ladronn, who at the time was doing a style very openly aping Kirby. We associate Cable so strongly with the Image aesthetic, but Ladronn’s art forces you to rethink the character through a Kirby lens. Soldier from the world that’s coming, gimmicky glowing eye, part-man-part-machine…hey, let’s not dismiss this guy for being a Liefeld creation, you could almost make this thing work from a certain angle, couldn’t you? It suggests, to me at least, something relatively unique in comics at the time: instead of a modernization, a...past-ification? The late 90s' response to the early 90s. I don’t know, maybe it was rad.

That Punisher miniseries where he’s, like, an undead angel hunting demons and stuff: All right, just joking with that one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Black Panther

Christopher Priest’s big idea on this series was to take the fact that the Black Panther was a head of state and run with it, blending superheroics and politics.

Well, here is a book that was ahead of its time!

Has this book been an influence on today’s comics or just a coincidence? Because in reading his Black Panther, you see Priest ground the superhero action we all know and love with the political thriller genre in very much the same way as some of Marvel’s comics have for the past few years (the “Dark Reign” storyline, for example), or the way Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker and others like them sometimes write superheroes as though it’s crime fiction in tights.

Indeed, sitting down and rereading Black Panther recently, I was struck by how much it resembles a recent-model Marvel, right down to the snarky banter about how goofy superhero costumes are; swap the guest appearance by Busiek’s Avengers for Bendis’ team, change the year on the indicia from 1997 to 2007, tear out the Sarah Michelle Gellar “Got Milk?” ads, and you might not even notice.

But should it be a surprise? Black Panther launched under Joe Quesada’s (and Jimmy Palmiotti’s) "Marvel Knights" banner, and the success of these books is what led to him getting the Editor in Chief job (replacing Bob Harras, who oversaw most of the books I’ve been talking about in this series…and who was recently named EiC of DC Comics. Hey, I’m relevant!). Clearly Quesada knew what sort of thing he’d like to see in his Marvel comics even then. If this book is not a direct influence, then it at least comes from the same place as today’s Marvels.

Then why do I like this so much more than the stuff that drives me crazy today? (Don’t say nostalgia, don’t say nostalgia!) Well, we could say that Priest got there first (although he didn’t, of course). We could say his dialogue is funnier. We could say that his political intrigue plots about rogue intelligence agents, political coups, and international economics at least sound more sophisticated than “What if the Green Goblin was in charge of national security?” We could simply say Priest’s writing is better, according to criteria X Y and Z. I could even put it down to that great comics boogeyman of the last decade, decompressed storytelling, but even if I believe that to some extent, how tiring would it be to write, and how much more tiring would it be to read?

We could argue one, some, or all of these things, but a lot of it comes down to taste. Black Panther was a really well-done book. But what I will say is that Christopher Priest approached the material in a different way than those who have followed him, because he played that series Stan Lee-style so he could be knowing and ironic about superheroes while also using them in a very straightforward, sincere way.

That’s one of the things Lee was best at, and part of the reason his books still resonate with today’s considerably more jaded audiences. Stan figured out that you could point out and wink at genre conventions and clichés so that the non-kid audience is in on the joke…but in doing so, it allowed him to use those conventions and clichés just as much and as shamelessly as he pleased all the same. Take the Black Panther’s first appearance in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, where T’Challa reveals the story of his father the chieftain, murdered at the hands of a white outsider, after which the son swears revenge. Lee has the Thing point out -- a couple of times, actually -- that this narrative is cribbed from almost every contemporary movie or book on this subject you can find…but pointing it out deflates any unwarranted, undeserved pretensions and allows Lee the freedom to integrate these tropes into his story, where cliché fuses with traditional superhero narrative and becomes something new.

Priest does this constantly in his Black Panther run, largely through narrator, reader-identification figure, and “useless white boy” Everett K. Ross. Every time there’s a twist in the political intrigue, Ross is there to point out how it’s like something out of a spy thriller to prevent us from pointing out the comparison first. Conspiracies are compared to Oliver Stone’s JFK (actually, the 90s movies references are maybe the only thing dating this comic) regularly. The nonchronological narrative structure is unabashedly pulled from Pulp Fiction, and the characters comment on it all the time just so you know Priest knows. Of course, you could very easily overdo this deflation and nothing would mean anything; everything would just be one more in-joke and hedged bet, but Priest is smart enough -- tactful enough like ol’ Stan was in his day -- to know when to pull back.

Because the criticism isn’t coming from the Black Panther himself. When the Avengers guest-star, they’re not self-deprecating or ironic or anything like that at all. Here’s the difference between Priest’s poking fun at the superhero genre and some of his successors: in Black Panther, there’s nothing funny about superheroes themselves -- it’s Ross’ observations that make them funny.

Remove Ross and the whole thing is played fairly straight, and I think that’s important. Superhero comics for a modern adult audience are a curious animal and a precarious tightrope act. Your average adult readers aren’t going to just take this stuff at face value the way they could as kids -- even the attempt to do so requires some sort of adult-level interaction with text that’s just not present in the way an eight-year-old kid picks up a comic and goes, “Venom? Awesome!”

So how the hell do you write children’s stories for adults? We don’t believe in superheroes, but we still want to believe in superheroes. A tall order! You play it too seriously, and it becomes heavy-handed and overwrought. You can cut it with irony, but it’s easy to go too far and everything becomes a joke, and nothing means anything anymore. If the Avengers aren’t going to take themselves seriously, why should I?

But Priest’s Avengers do take themselves seriously. Issue #8 has the Avengers intervening in a New York City riot, and all the while, Ross’ narration is calling them “Gaudily dressed borderline fascists,” “The Village People with repulsor rays,” “the expression of some chronic self-delusion” and perhaps the ultimate insult, quotation marks around the “super” in “super-hero.” But all the while, the Avengers themselves are played just as they are in their own comic. The Avengers’ "integrity" remains intact, but we also get critique. That critique would ring false coming from the Avengers, because in the world of comics we so desperately want to believe in, there’s nothing funny and there’s nothing shady about the Avengers at all. But Ross isn’t an Avenger and he isn’t a superhero. He’s an outsider*. Ross can make fun of the Panther’s kitty-cat ears all he wants, and we’ll forgive him, because we’re Ross.

So Priest can supply that ironic distance from the Avengers, but he can also have the Avengers doing their Avenger-y stuff. You read Black Panther and you get both at the same time, the same as you do reading Lee/Kirby FF.

That’s classic Marvel Comics in any decade.

(* - Ah, but what about the Thing, you might well arsk? He is a superhero after all and thus not an outsider, so who is he to be poking holes in the Black Panther’s backstory? But I’d argue the Thing, the original “unglamorous” superhero, functions in Lee/Kirby FF is as an outsider as well, albeit one who’s more integrated with the main action. The Human Torch is closer in age to the comic’s original intended readership, but it’s Ben Grimm -- the comedian, the freak -- who’s meant to be the reader-identification figure. Although he’s a plainspoken, unpretentious individual, he’s wise to the tropes of superhero comics so that the rest of the Fantastic Four can afford not to be.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Deadpool

Today Deadpool has…four ongoing series, is that right? I don’t really understand why the market will bear this at the moment, but it seems incredible to me now that in the late 90s, there was only one Deadpool comic, and it was often teetering on the edge of cancellation. But believe me when I tell you, this is one of the best Marvel Comics of the decade, and at the time, no comic being produced meant more to me than Deadpool.

I’ve been trying to make a case in this series about the Marvel mindset circa 1996-1999 or so – after the near collapse of the industry as a result of the excesses of the early-to-mid 90s, editorial spent a few years re-evaluating their primary superhero properties and trying to get them back to “the good ol’ days” while remaining modern. It's back to bright colors and clean lines, but those colors (and letters) are done on a computer, and those clean lines are in service of that new "manga" fad we'd been hearing about that everyone was so sure would fizzle out in a couple years. So in light of that, Deadpool scoring his own comic in 1997 was a bit odd because he’s a symbol of that early-90s excess.

You could look all this stuff up on Wikipedia, but I need it here for context: Deadpool started out as an X-Force villain “created” by Rob Liefeld (co-creator Fabian Nicieza has apparently admitted that he was basically just a lift of DC villain Deathstroke, which is why he named him “Wade Wilson”: as an in-joke and as a pre-emptive strike against cries of “ripoff!”). A bloodthirsty, wisecracking killer-for-hire, Deadpool proved popular enough to eventually be spun off into his own mini-series. (If you were a mysterious supporting X-Men character in the 90s, it was pretty easy to get yourself spun off into your own miniseries.)

This sort of thing happened all the time in the early 90s – the fan-favorite villains got their own books, but for propriety/morality’s sake, they reformed or, more often, became antiheroes. Here’s how you do it: You give your villain a slight noble streak - he won’t hurt innocent people. You pit that character against worse villains than himself, so that he comparatively is the “gooder” guy. That way the character doesn’t lose the violent, gritty edge that made him so popular in the first place, but now you’re allowed to root for him. So the formula’s easy, but it’s hard to pull it off without being totally cheap. You get unconvincing reversals (Venom, who’s murdered prison guards on multiple occasions and isn’t above threatening Aunt May to get at Peter Parker, rather abruptly decides to dedicate his life to protecting “innocents”) or a lot of stock brooding about the long road to redemption.

Deadpool’s second limited series was written by the last guy you’d expect: our old pal Mark Waid! And the standard seeds of redemption are planted there – there’s a notion that Deadpool’s a bad dude, but when it really counts, he’ll make a heroic choice, etc. etc. Not his best work, and I recall Waid saying in an interview if he’d known what a scumbag Deadpool was before accepting the job, he’d’ve turned it down.

So for whatever reason, Marvel decides to give ‘Pool his own series in ’97, and the job of writing it goes to Joe Kelly, then a newcomer. (The original artist was a young Ed McGuinness, who’d go on to dazzle us with three incredible JLA Classified issues with Grant Morrison but was still very much learning his craft at this time.) Kelly turns out to be a really good match for Deadpool. Partially it’s because Kelly can channel an appropriately twisted sense of humor for the character. It’s easy enough to write pop-culture references and jokes about how much this guy digs maiming and explosions to get across how cuh-razy and deeeee-mented your antihero protagonist is (although it’s not so easy to keep it from being irritating as hell; it's down to taste, ultimately, but I think Kelly pulls it off). Deadpool’s words, however, always seem to adhere to some sort of central character logic. Not just a bunch of random, funny lines Kelly thought up on the bus, Deadpool “sounds” like the same guy from joke to joke, and he’s distinct from all the other smartasses who populate this book. The dialogue is in no way realistic, but it is consistent, so it at least creates the illusion of a “real” person, however fantastic he may be.

But more importantly, Kelly and Deadpool were a perfect match because Kelly was a new, relatively unknown writer, and Deadpool was a low-profile book crammed in its own corner of the Marvel publishing schedule. Working in the Marvel Universe is a lot of laboring in the shadows of giants. You’re trying to write Fantastic Four that lives up to Lee/Kirby, Spider-Man that lives up to Lee/Ditko, Daredevil that lives up to Miller, X-Men that lives up to Claremont/Byrne, and so on. Before Kelly got ahold of Deadpool, however, the character had never had that “definitive” run. Rob Liefeld, for all of his faults, was one of the last Marvel creators to pump new characters with staying power into the Marvel Universe, uninspired though they might be in conception. A writer can look at this assignment in dismay – “What am I supposed to do with a character like Deadpool? Where do I start? There’s never been anything particularly interesting about him!” – or you can look at the character as a blank slate.

And it’s quite obvious from reading the book how passionate Joe Kelly was about his blank slate. There is a hell of a lot of creating going on; Kelly basically a milieu and supporting characters for Deadpool from the ground up, but it feels like something that's been in place for years. He dips into Marvel lore but never depends on it – I keep harping on it for a reason, the best of these late-90s Marvel writers had discipline. He never treats Deadpool as an audition for a better gig; he poured everything he had in it as though convinced he’d never get to write another book for Marvel ever again.

And that was a very real possibility at the time! These were the days of Busiek/Perez Avengers and Waid/Garney Captain America…in 1998, who the hell was Joe Kelly, and who the hell cared about Deadpool? Chris Claremont likes to tell the tale of how he and Dave Cockrum, and later John Byrne, were pretty much just left alone in those early years of the new X-Men because then it was who the hell cares about the X-Men? Like Claremont & Co., Kelly seemed to be able to do pretty much anything he wanted to do on a midlist book (at least until cancellation rumors started circling around #25, a dance of “Yep, you’re getting cancelled, so you better wrap up all your storylines in the next few issues…no, wait, numbers are okay, you’d better come up with some new material…wait, no, actually…” that eventually drove Kelly off the book). And so, like many of the best creators do when left alone, their superhero books become bizarre, idiosyncratic, personal. Remember, I liked this “re-examination” phase Marvel was going through, but it was exciting to see a book that didn’t have to grapple with What Had Come Before, because What Had Come Before had been kind of crummy. Kelly and Deadpool were free to do their own thing.

And so what Kelly wanted to do was to turn that “long road to redemption” thing we’d seen a million times into something unusual. His innovation was to subvert this clichéd character arc by not making redemption a straight line. It’s “realistic,” in its way – if you’d spent the last however-many years as a paid assassin after escaping from a Canadian supersoldier program that had performed gruesome experiments on you to turn you into the perfect killing machine, you’d probably have a hard time making the transition too. He’ll look like he’s making progress for a couple issues – he spares the life of the Weapon X scientist who’s largely responsible for Deadpool’s condition – and then he’ll have a bad day and say “Screw it, this is too hard,” and go back to the dark side.

There may be some commentary on the quickie villain-turned-hero phenomenon in that Deadpool is trying to become a hero for all the wrong reasons. It’s a mixture of low-self esteem and trying to score with Siryn from X-Force, who thinks Deadpool might not be such a bad guy after all and harbors some sort of nebulous “feelings” for him for reasons largely unexplained. He falls in love with the idea of being a hero, mostly. You get the sense that he would be much happier if he could just give up trying altogether, but he can never quite let it go.

If he tries, he’s spurred to continue by Zoe Culloden of Landau, Luckman, & Lake, who believes that Deadpool is somehow destined to lead humankind into a new age of peace and prosperity. It smells a little like the standard “You have a mysteeeerious desssssstiny!” crap that got flung around a lot of comics of the day, but it’s undercut by the humorously corporate atmosphere of LL&L (Zoe is an “expediter,” and the firm offers Deadpool a 401k upon joining up) and, of course, by Deadpool himself. This promise of a cosmic destiny gives him a temporary ego boost…until he discovers his actual role in ushering in the new golden age is to kill a Predator-looking dude before he can kill an alien messiah headed to Earth. Even when promised a heroic destiny, Deadpool’s still little more than a glorified hitman.

But the upside to this almost-unending cycle of getting knocked down is that when Deadpool does manage to do the right thing (for varying degrees of “right”), it’s a true victory. Captain America can do a hundred noble things before Sunday brunch (and we love him for it, don’t get me wrong), but because Deadpool is wired for self-interest and violence, his little pockets of altruism mean more.

A similar thing could be said about the book’s tone. Deadpool is a character built for humor, a voice to poke fun at these comics we take so seriously. But Deadpool, for all its jokes and its typically late-90s bright color palette, could get quite serious and quite dark when it wanted to, and the contrast made it all the more powerful. We’re told Blind Al is Deadpool’s “prisoner,” but she seems, at first, more like a sassy sitcom mother figure. They trade insults and eat breakfast together and play wacky pranks on each other, and the whole thing seems pretty low-stakes. But then an issue like #14 comes along, where you find out about The Box, a torture chamber where Deadpool sticks Blind Al when she’s “bad,” and about the one time she escaped and went to hide out with an old flame…only to find Deadpool got there first and fed him, quite literally, to the dogs. Kelly’s quite comfortable using an assassin for comedy, but he never lets you get too comfortable about it. Blind Al stops talking to Deadpool and you're angry about it - "Just be friends like you used to!" But they can't, and you start to realize they never really were. Never forget that this is a dude who’s killed people for money. This isn’t just Spider-Man With A Gun.

So the question Kelly ultimately poses is whether or not Deadpool is a "good guy." And saying “Yes he is, because he tries to be better than what he is” isn’t really the final answer Kelly was going for, I don’t think, and my support for that is the “Dead Reckoning” storyline (#23-25) that wraps up the whole first two years of the series. The alien messiah I mentioned earlier is headed for Earth, and it leaves peace and bliss wherever it goes, but it also eliminates free will – it's basically a benevolent version of the Anti-Life Equation. So when Deadpool finds out, he makes a snap decision, and kills the “space baby” instead of saving it. And it makes sense because ultimately, Kelly’s Deadpool is a messed-up guy at the mercy of fate. He’s bad because he was created that way by Liefeld, because he got dealt a rough hand in life, and he’s good because people tell him to be, whether it’s Siryn or Zoe or Marvel editorial not wanting a psychotic killer to be the lead in a series. So it makes sense that he’d defend free will the one time in his miserable life he gets to assert his own.

As the fanbase gets older, and the comics themselves become increasingly self-aware, it’s hard for superhero comics to transcend themselves anymore. It’s hard now, and it was hard back in the 90s. But Deadpool the character and Deadpool the book were just scrappy enough to have something to transcend, and Kelly pulled it off like nobody else working at the time could have.