Sunday, September 30, 2007

More on blurbs, a last word on Superman: Doomsday

Remember a couple of weeks back when we discussed the unblurbable Wonder Woman story arc Jodi Picoult wrote, the one which DC opted to promote by using a completely neutral blurb that only drew attention to the fact that apparently nobody anywhere said anything remotely positive about it?

Well, it appears that Jeff Smith's recent reimagining of the Captain Marvel franchise didn't have that problem at all. Here's the house ad for that trade of Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil that DC's been running:

They've got not one but two different blurbs, which is always a good sign, as it means more than one person/venue liked the work, and gives the impression of consensus opinion.

And these are two very good sources for blurbs, each at least as prestigious as Wonder Woman: Love and War's USA Today. I'm not sure what the circulation numbers of the three venues are, or which is the most widely read, but I know Entertainment Weekly and The Onion are both pretty mainstream, and, even if they are less widely read, they're known for their criticism (Or, at least, are known for devoting a great deal of space and resources to criticism).

EW's been doing comics coverage for years now, but the fact that they cover all forms of popular entertainment makes them very much a part of the mainstream media, so to hear them raving about any comic book always has the impression that it's something of a rarity (Just compare the real estate of the magazine devoted to comics versus that devoted to movies, television or music).

And as for The Onion, they're known for being a tough audience, so a good grade from Onion critics carries a little more weight than it might from elsewhere.

As to the content of those blurbs, both make fairly strong arguments that Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil is a book that ad-readers should seek out.

EW says that it can be be "savored" and "admired," like it was part delicious meal and part Founding Father, and the all-ages nature of the work is incorporated into the line in such a way as to sound positive rather than negative (which is how I feel "all-ages" is too often interpreted by too many comics readers). It's not just kids or prudes who will like it, but "everyone" from kids "to the most sophisticated graphic-novel devotee." The most sophisticated graphic-novel devotee? Hey guys, that's us!

The Onion or, in actuality, The Onion's non-parody AV Club list a string of positives—"slick, bright, emotional and witty"—before calling it "everything superhero comics should be." You don't get much more positive than that.

As for the rest of the ad, it points out that the book is "critically acclaimed" (it is) and that its author is "award-winning" (correct) and the creator of another graphic novel success story that anyone who knows anything about comics has likely heard of, and heard great thngs about.

The only downside of the ad I see is that it goes ahead and spoils the appearance of Mr. Mind, but then, I guess if you haven't read it yet, you wouldn't know that, so maybe it doesn't really spoil it (And the appearance of Mr. Mind wasn't played up so dramatically in Smith's version of the "Monster Society" story as it was in the original anyway).

Moving on to another DC house ad in last week's comics, you may have noticed this:

What a weird, weird ad.

The film having been created as a direct-to-DVD release marketed at hardcore fans, I wouldn't be surprised if DC hadn't sent many or even any copies of it to critics (I haven't seen reviews of it run in any non-comics press places, but then, perhaps I'm just not reading the right newspapers/magazines/websites), so perhaps there weren't any reviews available at the time of the release to pull quotes from to run as blurbs in the ad.

But still, why pull a quote from Lex Luthor?

Now, running a non-blurb quote in an ad for something isn't all that unheard of—remember the Oscar Wilde quote that ran in the house ads for Starman, for example?—but quoting a line of dialogue from the work being advertised, and then attributing it to that fictional character? That just seems all kinds of weird to me, and I honestly can't figure out what the fuck it's doing there, or what message it's intended to convey to someone coming across this ad.

I mean, if they thought it was a cool line that totally encapsulates what the story is all about, they could have always just put that phrase on the top of the ad, without the quotes and the attribution. It's not like Lex Luthor is going to sue them for stealing his quote and failing to properly attribute it or anything.

Also, below the image, in randomly capitalized lettering, appear the words "A New Movie inspired by the The Best-selling Graphic Novel of all time THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN." The TV ad made the same claim (only it left out the double "the").

I don't know for a fact that The Death of Superman isn't the best-selling graphic novel of all time, and while I suppose I could poke around the Internet or send some emails in an attempt to find out, I don't have that much interest in the question (or motivation to answer it). But I would just like to point out that the claim seems pretty damn fishy.

Is this really the best-selling graphic novel of all time? Better than Watchmen? And V For Vendetta? And The Dark Knight Returns? And The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes? What about, like, Naruto Vol. 1 or Persepolis or the more popular Tintin and Asterix books? I don't know, I'm asking. But if so, I find that pretty damn shocking. Particularly since that material is now available in various larger collections and omnibuses. It seems like its shelf-life is constantly being cut into by different "cuts" of the story, and it would therefore have long ago been eclipsed, whereas people wanting to read Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns are going to keep buying those same versions of the graphic novels.

We could quibble over whether or not The Death of Superman even is a graphic novel* too, I guess, but me, I'm just surprised that that particular collection of that story is really the best-selling gn ever. Certainly if I wanted to read the story for the first time, I'd gravitate toward something like this.

But I guess as far as Western trades go, DC also publishes the most likely contenders** for the top spot, so they'd know if it really was or not.

Of course, they should also know how goofy it is to quote Lex Luthor in an ad, and that someone should really copy-edit the hell out of the ad copy before going to press, too.

*There is a distinction to be made between a trade paperback collection of a serially published comic book story taken from an ongoing—or several ongoings, in this case—and an actual graphic novel intended to be a graphic novel, but the term "graphic novel" is used so indescriminately between the two that arguing about the distinction seems pointless.

**I'm guessing. I don't think Maus, lauded as it is, moves as many books as Dark Knight Returns, and those Jim Lee X-Men were partially driven by the speculation on the value of the singles, and thus I'm assuming the trade collections containing those issues don't do such astronomical numbers. But again, this is just a series of guesses and assumptions

The Best Part of Superman: Doomsday

I realize I was pretty hard on DC’s direct-to-DVD Superman: Doomsday film last week. I suppose I should take some of the responsibility for my own disappointment. After all, “direct-to-DVD” translates pretty directly into “not good enough for theaters,” and, well, Jesus, just look at some of the stuff that gets put in theaters. Still, I was expecting something at least as good as JLU, and perhaps that’s my fault for expecting it as much as their fault for failing to deliver it.

Anyway, I don’t want to sound like I didn’t like anything at all about the movie.

I mean, I thought it was pretty funny that the hot Metropolis nightclub Jimmy works as a paparazzo at is called “Nite Club.”

And that animated Kevin Smith is so much skinnier than real-life Kevin Smith.

And, um…I guess it was pretty cool when Superman grabbed Doomsday by the roof of this mouth to flip him.

And…uh…hmm. Well, that’s really about it from the feature presentation, but I did find the special feature documentary about the creation of the original death of Superman storyline from DC Comics quite fascinating.

While the subject matter isn’t the making of the film I had just watched, this short film is of a similar nature to the “making of” featurettes that are so common on DVDs these days, just focusing on something other than the DVD feature.

Certainly it amounts to little more than PR, and if there is a compelling documentary to be made about that time DC Comics killed off their flagship character, DC Comics isn’t really the right company to make it.

Is it a good documentary? God, no.

But is it interesting, and fun to watch? It sure is, particularly for those of us interested in the creation of comic books and the industry as a whole.

Consulting, I see that was 15 going on 16 when Superman died in late ’92, and I was just starting to get into comics. As that much maligned decade of the comic industry was dawning, the TSR/DC co-production Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the only extremely occasionally released Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books were the only comics I was regularly reading. But I was starting to feel the siren call of the DCU, thanks to the house ads and checklists that ran in AD&D.

Armageddon 2001 got me to pick up a couple of self-contained annuals featuring Batman, and Norm Breyfogle’s expressive art drew me to an issue of Batman (featuring a ventriloquist’s dummy with a tommy gun, as I recall), and I soon discovered there were scores of Breyfogle-drawn Bat-books in the back issue bins.

The Doomsday storyline would be my first exposure to Superman, beyond the Dan Jurgens Armageddon 2001 annual in which Superman wore gloves and fought Batman, and his brief appearance in the Death In the Family trade I’d bought (which also featured Batman and Superman fighting, come to think of it).

A neighbor kid had heard about the upcoming death of Superman and thought the books would be worth a lot of money someday, and he wanted to buy them. But since his mom didn’t want him going into the creepy comic shop in the creepy downtown part of my hometown (he was a gradeschooler) and knew I’d sometimes stop there on my way home form school, she gave me the money to buy those Doomsday fight issues for him. I would read them before passing them on (probably bending spines and leaving fingerprints, then decreasing their “value.” Ha ha!), and got hooked. With the actual death issue, I bought my own as well (I opened the polybag though, so there goes that investment), and hopped on for the whole year-long “Word Without a Superman”/ “Reign of the Supermen” storyline.

Considering how much time and energy I would eventually devote to the DCU, that year or so worth of Superman comics holds a special place in my heart, since it was a real gateway to the DCU in a way that the Batman comics I read weren’t; everyone showed up in there at some point. When I occasionally reread some of them these days, I’m sometimes struck by how dated they are in their details of the DCU’s fictional history (Lex Luthor posing as his own son from Australia, Supergirl being that Matrix thing I never completely understood, some guy named “Bloodwynd” being on the Justice League, the Hawks wearing red, et cetera), but it’s still an impressively rich and detailed story, in terms of the size of its cast and the different points of view the storyline was infused with, and the number of new characters and concepts introduced.

Looking back from 2007, I’m not sure which is more remarkable—That DC was able to sustain what was essentially a weekly Superman comic book for a year without the benefit of its star even appearing (kinda like what Ed Brubaker and company are attempting with Captain America now, only at least four times as often), or how influential the world-building those creative teams engaged in would end up being. I mean, Geoff Johns has been using Cyborg Superman to great effect in Green Lantern, Steel and Superboy have had been near-constant presences in the DCU since, and so on.

But enough about me.

(Above: Bloodwynd wears a golden circlet encrusted with jewels on his left thigh. I just wanted to point that out.)

The documentary features talking head interviews with Karl Kesel, Roger Stern, Jon Bogdanove, Louise Simonson, Paul Levitz, Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Jenette Kahn, Mike Carlin, Tom Grummett and Brett Breeding, only two of whom I’ve actually ever seen images of before.

These interviews are all rather brief and perfunctory, but I found it interesting just to see these creators’ faces and hear their voices, after having been familiar with them as names in credit boxes for so long. Comics is an interesting field in that the spectrum of celebrity varies so much from creator to creator. Read just about any novel, and you’ll see a photo of the author on the back of the jacket. But man, I’ve read scores of comics that each of these people were involved with, and I couldn’t pick most of ‘em out in a line up. I could be standing in a bank line behind all of them, and I wouldn’t be able to pick any of them out, although I might think to myself, Hey, that nerdy dude up there looks a little like Paul Levitz, doesn’t he?

(I wonder if this is changing due to the Internet, the rise of the blogosphere, the influence of conventions and the conscious cultivating of a celebrity culture to comics, or if I just spend more time in fan circles now. Like, I’ve seen pictures of just about every creator I read regularly now—and many, like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Paul Pope, Warren Ellis, Rob Liefeld and Brian Michael Bendis are people I wouldn’t only be able to pick out of a police line up, but probably a crowded New York City street corner— but I had no idea what any of the crators I was regularly reading back in the ‘90s looked like. Back then, I thought Kelley Jones was a woman at first though too, so it may also just be a matter of me being an idiot.)

Also interviewed are a couple of New York retailers, who give some first-person accounts of the consumerist hysteria that ensued when word got out that Superman wasn’t long for the world, and Brian Cunningham of Wizard magazine, who seems to have patterned his own hairstyle after Superman’s. I’m not really familiar with Cunningham, but I admit to sneering as soon as I saw where he was from. He provided the necessary fan perspective, and Idon’t mean to degrade the man here or anything, but I thought it was a little sad that in creating this film, DC turned to Wizard for an authoritative, third-party, industry watcher’s perspective on the event.

I don’t know how many magazines that were active in the early ‘90s are still active (Maybe Wizard is the only one?) or if websites like were around as far back as then (Was their an Internet back then? I didn’t discover it until it had already existed for quite a few years, on account of me being an extreme Luddite). But Wizard seemed like a poor choice, simply because this is just one more example of one of the Big Two legitimizing Wizard as the face of comics journalism. I don’t know, maybe Tom Spurgeon or The Comics Journal folks were asked to appear and laughed in the faces of those asking, and maybe Matt Brady of didn’t want to participate, but increasingly Wizard seems irrelevant to me, as the Internet handles the fan-stuff faster and better, and the mainstream media start paying more and more attention to comics, and I can’t help feeling the market would go ahead and kill Wizard off if only DC and Marvel didn’t devote so much time and energy into subsidizing it with their ad dollars, participation in coverage and granting the magazine “scoops.”

Anyway, the film jumps from talking head to talking head, occasionally lingering on art from those comics (which all looks extremely good blown up here), recounting in breif the John Byrne relaunch of the franchise, and the circumstances that lead to the storyline. Originally, they had planned a yearlong marriage of Superman and Lois story, but since they had to wait until the Lois & Clark series was ready to marry their Superman and Lois (as the plan was to synch the two events up), it left the Super-books with a year to fill.

And this is what they chose to do.

A lot of the specifics will be familiar to anyone who’s read any of the trades of these stories or of other’s from the era, as they recount the way the “triangle” books worked and the Super Summits, several of which are captured on film.

These segments are kind of revelatory, and while I hate to turn this post into another stiff arm of Countdown, it is remarkable that DC was able to produce such a (relatively) excellent Superman monthly 15 years ago, but have had such a hard time making a coherent weekly this year. Even 52, which I enjoyed enormously from the first issue on, had art that was quite sub-par. I forgave that at the time on account of it being a necessary evil of a weekly book, but then when you consider the Super-books of the ‘90s, that excuse evaporates. I noticed this too while reading the out-of-print Panic In The Sky! trade I recently found a copy of, and the whole death of Superman epic is just another reminder.

(Above: "Panic In the Sky!" featured Brainiac versus pretty much the entire DC Universe, and it was totally awesome. The trade, naturally enough, has long been out of print).

Why is it that those storylines came out on a weekly basis, and had high-quality art on par with the art in every other DC book at the time (if not better than many of them), while 52 and, even more so, Countdown, look so ugly, rushed and messy? I suspect it boils down to lead time, the Super-books were plotted out well in advance, and Countdown seemed to be more of an “Oh shit! We need another monthly, and we need it to start in three months!” But, in theory, Countdown could have had just four regular pencil and inker teams, each of which would take one week’s issue, and would thus only be doing as much work as they would on a monthly, although the story would be weekly (In theory. I’ve been downright shocked at how bad some high-profile DC books look of late. This past week, for example, JLoA and Teen Titans, the latter of which has had some real bad luck with artists, seemed just awful when compared to so much Big Two output).

Watching this documentary—and reading trades or comics from the period—also makes the lack of quality in Countdown’s writing seem mystifying as well. Is this another matter of not enough lead time, or a problem of the one writer as showrunner, with a team of writers fleshing out plot beats strategy of comics production? Because the Super-books had just about as many writers as Countdown, and yet these stories were all incredibly tight, and made sense from issue to issue. The extreme variance in writing quality is a bit mystifying when you realize that Countdown, “Panic in the Sky!” and the death of Superman stories all share an editor—Mike Carlin. Although Countdown launched with another editor, so Carlin can only be blamed so much for the lack of quality in the book.

But, as this documentary reveals, Carlin and all of the writers and artists would gather for summits, Carlin would break out these giant poster-sized boards and together they would all plot a year-long story, dividing up the pieces of the story. It seemed like a lot of brainstorming went on there, with pretty significant details suggested from all quarters. For example, the Four Supermen of the “Reign” storyline came about because each creative team had their own ideas about what a Superman coming back should be like, and it was, according to the doc, something they were debating until Simonson suggested they use all four, giving each team their own character and subplot to advance (and giving us two of the stronger new characters of the decade, Steel and Superboy, and Geoff Johns fuel for Green Lanterns stories 15 years later).

The convention season scuttlebutt is that a third weekly is planned. I hope DC is already working on it (although I doubt it), and that it will follow a production pattern similar to the one here instead of the top-down, TV-writing approach of Countdown. Clearly the former has lead to more readable comics than the latter. (But if Carlin’s editing Countdown, he can’t possibly be leading a summit on next year’s weekly at the moment, can he? Sigh.)

But enough about Countdown.

Back to the alleged subject of this post, in addition to the look into the process of the how Superman comics used to be created, the documentary also does a nice job of capturing some of the strange media coverage of the event, and the comics culture of the ‘90s, showing how the creators took the surprise celebrity status they received, with the kind of attention and adulation that was usually reserved for the likes of Todd MacFarlane or Rob Liefeld going, temporarily anyway, to the likes of Mike Carlin.

It’s a neat little trip down memory lane, to a time when comics was a collectable market and media coverage of the medium was still new.

It’s pretty striking to watch all the footage culled from TV news and the flashes of newspaper headlines in 2007, after Captain America had died, and seeing how the media of the early ‘90s did the same thing as the today’s media, in terms of equating that comic book icon with America itself, and trying to make the story of his death out as a broader cultural statement than the more obvious reading that, Hey, maybe this comic book company would really like to sell some more comics, and doesn’t have much to say about the “End of History” that followed the Cold War or War on Terror.

It’s also interesting to watch knowing all that would follow. The Death of Superman era, creatively, commercially and even culturally, genuinely seemed innocent and exciting, and the commercial aspect of wanting to sell more comics aside, there was something pure about it (Unless the creators are all really great actors, they seemed to have been really caught of guard that anyone other than regular DC readers cared about what they were doing at all).

But those of us who stuck around afterwards know exactly what it lead to for DC. Batman in a wheel chair, replaced by a darker, more ‘90s successor. Wonder Woman kicked to the curb for a darker, more ‘90s successor. Green Lantern turned evil and replaced by a new character. Green Arrow killed and replaced by a new character. Aquaman maimed and given a new, darker look*.

The success and attention the Death of Superman storyline may have caught DC off-guard when it originally hit, but they wasted no time in trying to replicate it, each attempt leading to diminishing returns. (See also Dan Jurgens twelve to fifteen different Doomsday projects to follow).

*To be fair, I enjoyed all of these stories. The Batman one went on a bit too long and didn’t go far enough—Jean-Paul Valley really shoulda killed some dudes, as the revulsion the regulars felt for him was a tad force. After all, he was simply a marginally more brutally violent asshole vigilante than the brutally violent asshole vigilante they were used to working with. And that Wonder Woman story? Good God did that suck. But otherwise? I was on board with all that stuff, even Hal going over to the darkside, and while the conversion likely felt forced to a lot of people, if anything is going to turn someone psycho, the genocide of his entire home town of millions oughta do the trick. Besides, when he was “evil” he was only trying to get enough power to resurrect the city, and thus if he killed someone, he did so knowing that if he’s successful, he could totally bring them back to life. I was disappointed when he died simply because Parallax, lame thought the name was, had the makings of a great villain.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

September 27th's Meanwhile, in Las Vegas...

This week's LVW column is devoted to this jewel of a project:

"But Caleb," you say, "didn't you already review it during last week's Weekly Haul, and in Monday's Best Shots column at Newsarama?"

Yyyyeeeahhhh, but it's an entirely different review. Really. I mean, it's still very positive and makes some of the same points, but it does so more concisely, and for an audience who may not know or care who the hell Geoff Johns is.

Anyway, I hope you guys won't feel terribly used to find out that I occasionally use the Weekly Haul feature as, like, a rough draft for later reviews.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Weekly Haul: September 26th

52 Aftermath: The Four Horsemen #2 (DC Comics) More of the same from last issue. Writer Keith Giffen does a great job on the dialogue between the super characters, getting all three points of the Trinity in the same place at the same time this issue, and pulling off a neat scene between the world’s second and third smartest men. The stuff with the Horsemen is less engaging, but then, we do need a conflict to pull the Trinity into action together, don’t we? Patrick Olliffe’s art is serviceable without ever being striking, but, as I learned from this week’s JLoA #13, being merely serviceable is a lot better than not even being serviceable.

All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder #7 (DC Comics)

Instances of the term “goddam” this issue: 8

Instances in which the term “goddam” is used as a modifier to the word “Batman”: 4

Things Batman calls thugs while he sets them on fire and brutally beats them: “Suckers,” “losers,” “wads,” “sweetheart” and “boy of mine.”

Instances of super-people totally making out after violent foreplay: 1

God, I love this comic book. I know it’s a love it or hate it kind of thing, but the more of it I read, the more convinced I become that it may just end up being Frank Miller’s best Bat-work ever. Seriously.

Annihilation: Conquest—Starlord #3 (Marvel Comics) It doesn’t take a whole lot to get me to at least try a new book. Nice art and an appealing hook, like, say, a talking raccoon, is usually enough to do the job. Starlord delivered both, and a fun story with lots of neat characters to boot, so here I am, buying the third issue and eagerly awaiting the fourth. Prior to Starlord #1, I hadn’t read a single Annihilation story, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything featuring any of these characters before, save maybe a Mantis appearance in old Avengers or Defenders trades, so it wasn’t nostalgia or affection that drove me to this, simply Giffen’s round-up of such an interestingly random assemblage of characters, and the great dialogue and interplay Giffen manages between them. And the fact that one of them was a talking raccoon. Seriously, a talking space raccoon with OCD that compels him to keep cleaning and hand-washing everything? That’s a great character right there. Timothy Green II’s art is incredible. It’s representational and realistic enough to make the space fantasy read nice and grounded (something about it evokes European sci-fi comics to me), he fills the panels with rich details, and his design work is top —I love the uniforms he’s given all the characters, and the way he’s slightly individualized them all, so that Mantis and Captain Universe, for example, look like they’re in versions of their usual duds, while still matching their teammates. And good God, does he draw a great raccoon and tree god thing.

Avengers: The Initiative #6 (Marvel) Regular writer Dan Slott is joined by fill-in artist Steve Uy, who recently wowed me with his one-issue Jakeem Thunder story in JSA: Classified. His abstracted style is aesthetically in keeping with the book’s usual look, although it’s smoother, flatter and lighter on detail. This is a pretty tightly constructed mystery story, in which someone beats drill sergeant Gauntlet within an inch of his life, and the former New Warriors are all top suspects, considering Gauntlet spent most of his workday making fun of the New Warriors legacy. Considering some of them are dead, and some of their friends are standing right there listening to Gauntlet besmirch their names, well, it’s kind of understandable they’d get a little sick of taking it. By the end, we learn the identity of the culprit, but no one in the book does, making for a nice little done-in-one that continues to advance Slott’s plots while taking the time to explore a few of the characters involved.

Batman #669 (DC) This is the very best kind of good super-comic: The predictably good super-comic. Part three of a three-parter, you know even before cracking the (beautiful, beautiful) cover that this is going to be a smart, evocative script upon which J.H. Williams III is going to layer some flat-out incredible art. The murder mystery aspect of Grant Morrison’s story may not have played entirely fair with readers—I don’t think we were given all the clues to solve it ourselves—but at the same time, there were only so many people it could have been anyway. I don’t understand the end though (Was dude the Black Glove, or not? If so, who blew him up?) But it hardly matters. Morrison and Williams have excavated a goofy bit of Bat-history, dusted it off, and threw it into the current DCU. I would love to see more of these characters in the future. The “predictably good” era of Batman is now coming to a temporary close, however. Next issue, we lose Williams for pin-up artist Tony Daniels, and Morrison turns in a script that will be part of a Bat-book crossover devoted to resurrecting Ra’s al Ghul, whom you’ll recall totally died forever (no really, for serious this time!) a few years back.

Blue Beetle #19 (DC) I’m still in catch-up mode with this series, and am thus on rather unsure footing with some of the characters and their relationships. For example, there’s a Peacemaker in this, one with very lame tattoos, training Jaime to fight in the first scene, which will have ramifications later on, and I didn’t realize what a big support staff our boy Blue Beetle has. This issue is essentially another rather accessible done-in-one, despite what I take it is a pretty big moment for sidekick Brenda, with Beetle, Paco and Peacemaker trying to save the local crime boss from Giganta, who is suddenly one hell of a popular guest-star. It’s a very well constructed story, with a few funny moments of dialogue. And even better story seemed to be happening off-panel, however, as Traci Thirteen, Detective Chimp and The Accidental Detective were trying to solve a case involving the Romanov dynasty. Was this the Croaton Society in action? And can we cancel Shadowpact and give John Rogers Bobo and Traci as the core for a Croaton Society ongoing? Because that would be awesome.

Justice League of America #13 (DC) Oh come on! We finally get a talented, experienced, professional comic book writer writing this series, instead of a slumming novelist learning still learning the craft of script-writing on DC’s dime, and what does the company do? Saddle him (and us) with the worst fucking artist they could find. Now, I’m no great fan of Ed Benes, as I’m sure past Weekly Hauls evidence. He seemed to start his run off strong, and get worse and worse as time went on (perhaps due to the deadline crush?), and his stiff characters, narrow command of design and relatively poor “acting” ability seemed an exceedingly poor fit for Brad Meltzer, who was more about conversation and emotion than sexy people posing sexily. But as bad as Benes was, he was head and shoulders above Joe Benitiez, who debuts alongside incoming writer Dwayne McDuffie here.

Benitez has a looser, more stylish line than Benes, but his art also combines the worst attributes of some of the worst artists in the industry. Now, I know art is subjective, and different people like different things. Just look at the mixed reactions Newsarama posters had for the preview of Benitez’s work; they range from “Benitez is teh awsum!!!” to “My eyes….they bleed!” (If you’ve got the time to kill though, and you can hold a pencil, it looks like there’s an editor offering you a job in the comics industry in the thread though, as an editor says he’d like to talk to anyone who can draw at least ten percent as well as Benitez). So perhaps I should qualify what I think is a baseline of artistic competency: Passing familiarity with human anatomy (or a style that compensates for it due to minimalism), the ability to draw an entire page background and all, and rudimentary “acting” ability, so that your drawings roughly align with the script.

Benitez does none of this. He was obviously a Rob Liefeld fan, having adopted both Liefeld’s love of tiny little facial lines and nonsenseical border-breaking lay outs and his distaste for backgrounds and consistent human anatomy. He has a strong impulse to draw as little as he has too on each page, which is fine (and understandable) for him, but bad for readers, who are paying for this shit. And he has a Greg Landian like tendency to explode the emotions in people’s faces far beyond what’s in the actual script, so they come across like silent movie actors overacting in a talkie (Check out page six, panel five, where Black Canary seems to be saying something rather calmly, but her face registers wide, glassy-eyed, open-mouthed shock; in the enxt panel she holds her wrist up as if checking her watch without even looking down).

There are 113 panels in this 22-page story; only 22 of those panels have any sort of background, and please note I am being rather generous with the word “background” to include a couple of crates stacked up to evoke a warehouse, receding diagonal lines to evoke a hallway, or a blue rectangle to evoke an open skylight. There’s also one establishing shot, of the Hall of Justice. So, that’s 23 out of 113 panels that have anything other than an action figure in them. That’s not very good.

It would a little easier to take if the figure drawings were that good, but it just scans like wasted space. Check out how Benitez and McDuffie spend a splash page:

Batman stands over a line. Now there’s some widescreen action demanding a full page!

It would also be easier to take if Benitez’s storytelling made a lick of sense. But check this out:

Here we see Batman finding a captured Wonder Woman, and he says he’s going to free her by tossing a projectile at a control panel. In the bottom panel, someone catches the (suddenly much smaller, but never mind that) batarang.

We turn the page to see a two-page spread, of which this is the left half:

(Here’s the other half.)

It’s five posing supervillains, who have all simultaneously appeared out of nowhere. Did they sneak in? Because one of them is wearing a giant metal suit with boots at least a foot-long at the sole, and another of them is a Mighty Joe Young-sized giant gorilla. (Perhaps they teleported, or Dr. Light was bending the light beams around them; the script and art offer no clues). But where the hell is Wonder Woman? Where is the room we just saw her in? Because if Luthor caught that batagrang, he should be between Batman and Wonder Woman in that room, right?

Drawing attention to the terrible, lazy pencil art is the color work of Pete Pantazis, who uses all kinds of effects to make Dr. Light and the various ring-energy beams to glow, and even covering Killer Frost with a sheathe of marble-effect looking skin. Obviously a lot of time, energy and technology went into making the art look as representational as possible, and yet it’s so much tinsel on a needle-less Christmas tree.

As for McDuffie’s script, it’s a little hard to even pay attention to with such distractingly bad art between it and the reader. The plot’s nothing special at all—a team of villains attack a team of heroes—something we’ve all seen a thousand times, including two weeks ago in McDuffie’s own JLA Wedding Special (If the bulk of that issue could be summed up as the villains attack the heroes, this one could be summed up as the villains continue to attack the heroes).

He does manage some fun banter, and I especially appreciated John Stewart ribbing Black Lighting for suddenly going bald, and as even if his first story arc is boilerplate superheroics, it still seems refreshing after months of Meltzer’s Byzantine narration cloud smothering his stories. McDuffie also deals with some of the left over plot points from Meltzer’s run with which he was saddled, particularly that of Vixen’s predicament.

I managed to make it eleven issues through Meltzer’s 13-issue run before completely giving up and dropping the book, when the writing ranged from mediocre to terrible and the art from not that bad to kinda bad; I wonder how long I’ll be able to stand this run, now that the writing is slightly improved, and the art much, much, much, much worse (Seriously. This is bad stuff. You’d have to go back to Extreme Justice to find worse art on a DC book with the word “Justice” in the title).

I thought launching McDuffie’s first story arc of Justice League of America in a title other than Justice League of America was a pretty bad idea sure to hobble his run right out the gate. Tying the rest of it to art this might be even worse.

Confidential to Black Lightning: Wrong continuity; you guys don’t have Javelins…and even if you got some between issues, why didn’t you just take that “door slideways” thing Batman stole from those guys on Earth-50?

Confidential to Black Canary: Remember what Dr. Light did to Sue Dibny was, like, years ago, and you’re one of the ones who didn’t forget it for years only to later remember it just recently. Is this really the first time you’ve seen him since? Really? Because I'm pretty sure it's not.

The Spirit #10 (DC) Hands down the best book this week, this issue of Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone’s Spirit series is another perfect example of how they manage to keep the classical, old school flavor and feel of the original Will Eisner stories in tact while updating the whole franchise into 2007 relevancy. This issue has a particular now-ness to it, as Cooke introduces each character, suspect and victim of “The Cable Killer” in panels framed in little borders (Here referred to as “boobtube,” naturally). The mystery? Someone is slotting cable news personalities, each a barely disguised version of a real-world one, given a brilliant Eisner-esque appellation that sounds like it belongs in the Spirit world and yet which evokes the real-world analogue through the sounds of the syllables. And man, is it fun seeing Cooke draw the likes of Rush Limbaugh (“Trust Wimbag”), Bill O’Reilly (“Wally O’Bellows”), Geraldo (“Mustachio Hernandez”) and even Stephen Colbert (“Stewart Flobber”). Although he does what I would have thought impossible when he makes his Ann Coulter, here going by “Mare Noltly,” look super sexy. I guess Cooke just can’t draw an un-sexy woman (That, or he couldn’t bring himself to look at Coulter reference long enough to get her down as well as he did O’Reilly and Colbert). A typically perfectly drawn, easily-accessible, fast and funny issue of The Spirit, one which includes one of the craziest-ass scenes Cooke’s managed during his run on the book, one that’s right up there with the man-on-bird scene. And there’s even a nice little message thrown in about our irresponsible age of news media creation and consumption; it’s an obvious point, but it’s made subtly and on the fly.

Now, what’s really weird about this issue? It begins with a one-page meta-fictive framing sequence in which Ellen and Ebony are told by a doctor that injuries Spirit sustained last issue were too severe for him to star in this issue, an executive type assures them that the comic must go on no matter how injured the star is (“Our young readers simply aren’t the kind of people who will tolerate late books”), so they find an inventory story. In short, due to injuries, the Spirit’s regularly scheduled story can’t appear, so they’ll need a fill-in. But since this fill-in is by the exact same creative team as the normal one well, it’s a weird set-up, seemingly made solely to make fun of the industry conflict between publishing books on a monthly basis, even when their creators can’t keep a monthly deadline.

Ultimate Spider-Man #114 (Marvel) Just like the last 113 issues. And considering that those are 113 pretty good issues, that's not a bad thing at all.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck in the Case of the Missing Mummy (Gemstone) A relatively light week for new releases and the presence of a mummy was enough to get me to check this book out; I’d probably be more inclined to buy more of these if the format wasn’t so weird. They’re shaped like comic books, skinnier than normal-sized trades, and priced higher than some of the slimmer digest-sized collections, only with less pages. This issue has two duck stories. The back-up feature is a classic 1943 story from good duck artist Carl Barks which sends Donald and his nephews a-globe-trotting in a typically whirlwind story. The new story, for which this book is named, is by Pat and Shelly Block, and also involves a mummy. It’s constructed as a Choose Your Own Adventure–style mystery story. It’s not bad, but the art betrays someone struggling to stay on someone else’s model, and the locked museum setting lacks the spirit of adventure that rushes through the classic back-up. All in all, it’s one more example of why Barks is still the good duck artist, and while I enjoyed it okay, I kinda wish I would have put that $8 towards a trade instead.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Same old complaining, brand new example

While flipping through some Green Lantern comics in a search for images to illustrate some silly post or another, I was a little surprised to see this:

You know what that is? It's part of an extensive two-page timeline chronicling every significant event in the history of the Green Lantern franchise, going all the way back to the dawn of the Oan race (ten billion years ago) and stretching all the way into the 58th Century. It's from 1998’s Green Lantern Secret Files and Origins #1, and compiled and written by Scott Beatty, a very talented comics writer who’s pulled a ton of this sort of research-oriented duty, and is currently providing the back-up origins in Countdown.

I knew JLA Secret Files and Origins #1 had a League-specific timeline (written by Phil Jimenez), as did New Gods Secret Files and Origins #1 (John Byrne). I'm not sure, but is it possible that these timelines were included in each of the first round of Secret Files and Origins specials? I don’t have ‘em, but Superman, Batman, Flash and Wonder Woman also had specials that year.

Either way, even if it's just those three, when coupled with the timeline at the end of Zero Hour, the post-Crisis history of the DC Universe is pretty rigorously laid out, in easily accessible books. (Certainly if my own longboxes have them, these timelines have to be floating around DC HQ too, right?)

As I've ranted and raved about pretty much non-stop since, I found the continuity rejiggering of Infinite Crisis* kind of galling because having a second continuity house cleaning Crisis is counterproductive (essentially de-streamlining the original, making the fictional universe unfriendly to newcomers and diehards alike) but, more so, because the specific changes didn’t seem particularly well thought out, or even agreed upon.

Over a year later, what they are exactly, and how they effect the characters and settings and stories is largely still up in the air. Certainly next to nothing has been done with those changes, which would have at least made the case for the changes. But, say, it didn’t give us Wonder Woman: Year One or a new Secret Origin of the Justice League or anything.

The big changes were trumpeted in IC itself—Wonder Woman founded the League again, Batman caught his parents’ murderer again, Clark Kent was Superboy again (despite the fact that DC apparently can’t use that name).

But I've yet to see any of these either explored or exploited for the sake of new stories.

Wonder Woman being a founder has only been touched on as background noise in Brad Metlzer's JLoA, where he stuck her in some flashbacks she otherwise wouldn’t have been in.

The Batman collar of Joe Chill hasn't been mentioned again since IC. Unless resolving that issue was supposed to be part of the motivation for Batman being slightly less of a paranoid psychotic asshole now, which lets some of the steam out of the character development he received previously in IC.

The tweaks of the Superman origin has just been hinted at, again as background noise in a Metlzer story and in coy musings over whether or not Superman would ever execute someone in Superman #666. What’s demonstrably changed has been laughingly minor—Jor-El had a beard now, maybe?

Beyond those changes, exactly as I've phrased them, as broad and unspecific as "Wonder Woman was a founder" may sound, nothing's been done to hammer out any of the details, or even seemingly agreed upon. Even a simple matter, like whether Wonder Woman found the League instead of Black Canary, or in addition to her.

This 52 back-up origin implies that Wonder Woman was there but Canary was not. According to this 52 back-up origin of the League, the First Five were still the First Five, and Trinity were said to come later, though they’re also called “co-founders.” Brad Meltzer’s JLoA has Wonder Woman there instead of Canary, but then it also mistakes Aquaman II for Aquaman I, and perpetrated the conclusion of “The Lightning Saga.” Black Canary implies the two women were both there at the beinning, while the most recent JLA Classified issue, the one kicking off “The Ghosts of Mars” story, has Wonder Woman present for a cameo by the heroes that would form the League, but not Canary.

The overall impression is that no one at DC really knows what the history of their universe is anymore, and that the canonical history of what stories “count” and which do not, which was carefully managed, at times maniacally so, over a course of decades isn't really important anymore. As an editorial and creative entity, the company seems to be just thrashing and flailing about out of sheer desperation, flying by the seat of its collective, metaphorical pants.

Now, when I argue about this with myself, as I've done here in front of you guys, like, dozens of times already, I like to point out to myself that, "Hey, maybe continuity doesn't matter. Maybe great stories is all that matters, and DC editorial has made a conscious decision to emphasize individual stories over collective history."

That’s a legitimate worldview, or “universeview,” I guess, for DC editorial to take.

But DC's storytelling doesn't reflect that decision at all, and not just because the quality is so often lacking. Take a look at just at Countdown, and a few of stars of DC’s biggest, best-selling and, for better or worse, line-defining series.

When talking about Countdown: Arena earlier this month, I mentioned that Countdown player Captain Atom-as-Monarch is a character and story arc that's 16 years old, and has been spread out over the course of five miniseries and an ongoing during that time.

Eclipso? See 1992'sEclipso: The Darkness WIthin, the short-lived Eclipso monthly, the second-to-last volume of The Spectre ongoing, Identity Crisis, Day of Vengeance (and it's godawful Judd Winick/Ian Churchill lead-in story from the Super-titles) and now Countdown To Mystery.

Jimmy Olsen? He's exhibiting powers, knowledge and relationships from before Crisis On Infinite Earths, so we're talking the Jimmy Olsen adventures of the 1950's through early '80s here.

Donna Troy? See dozens of stories spread through several Titans titles, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, DC Presents: The Return of Donna Troy, and Crisis.

Jason Todd? There's seminal Batman arc "A Death in the Family” from the 1980s, yearlong Batman story arc "Under the Hood," and maybe "Hush" and an arc of Nightwing (Or are we all just pretending the Bruce Jones-written Nightwing run never happened?)

That’s just some of the main players in a single DC ongoing. Clearly the company hasn’t chucked the idea that their stories need to continue from previous stories, only that they need to agree amongst themselves and with their readers as to what previous stories there are, as the rejiggerings constantly shift what’s part of the DCU’s canonical history and what isn’t.

Essentially, the company wants to tell continuity-dense stories based on trivia spread across decades, but they don’t want to define and master that trivia.

And, to get back to my point, that’s what made seeing these old Secret Files & Origins timelines so frustrating.

It would have been so easy for Dan Didio and some high muckety-muck editors to meet with some of their bigger, world-building writers and talk about the direction of the fictional universe, in the process busting out photocopied versions of all these timelines and simply crossing out a line here, writing a character name in there.

If they weren’t completely overhauling continuity in their rejiggering, but simply tweaking some details (More of a Zero Hour than a Crisis on Infinite Earths), then this wouldn’t even take much work. After the changes were decided on, Scott Beatty or Phil Jimenez or a freaking intern could take a red pen to these timelines and retype them for future reference.

For example, Jimenez’s JLA timeline covers the ten years of DCU time that passed from the formation of the League to the reformation as the Big Seven, dream team line-up under Grant Morrison and company. It’s a damn thorough two pages, slotting every line-up change and seminal event—death, marriage, new HQ, company-wide crossover—along the time line, squeezing at least a brief mention every single JLA story in there.

Updating it would mean merely adding two or three years (“One Year Later” and the year or so that probably passed since The Watchtower was built on the moon), summarizing the last volume of JLA, and then making whatever changes to history occurred.

The first sentence that says, “Justice League of America forms (with Martian Manhunter, Flash [Barry Allen], Green Lantern [Hal Jordan]…)” could either have “Black Canary II” replaced with “Wonder Woman,” or “Wonder Woman” added. There. Question solved, problem resolved.

DC didn’t even have to publish these updates, so long as the editors and writers were all apprised of them. Although, publishing them in Secret Files and Origins specials or annuals or something would have been smart. Imagine a JLoA Secret Files and Origins #1, with a new time line, a Meltzer written ten-page story, lots of filler material, and pin-ups by Meltzer’s buddies and admirers in the industry, with text letting new readers know things like who the hell “Jeckie” from the future is, or why anyone should give a shit about Geo-Force or whatever. Looking at how every other comic with the words “Justice” and “Meltzer” on it sold over the course of the last year, I’m pretty sure a SF&O special, even one with precious little Meltzer-created content, would have done pretty well for DC. And, if it included an updated timeline, a lot of fan rage would be quelled, and a lot of future errors by writers and editors would have been prevented at the outset.

* Well, in actuality, the rejiggering wasn't even a single, clean, definable event in a single book, but a slow, agonizing process spread over several books over the course of several years. There were the Superboy punches leading up to it, which rejiggered a few isolated aspects, like whether Max Lord was an evil human being or a decent cyborg, and whether Jason Todd was dead or alive, there was the creation of “New Earth” in ICand the alterations of the time lines of all 52 Earths in the new, unknown multiverse that was revealed in 52 #52.

Am I the only one worried about some sort of Henry II/Thomas à Becket situation here?

It's just an interesting bit of celebrity gossip that we can all chuckle about... right up until a crazed Heroes fan murders a US Weekly writer, screaming as he's hauled away by police, "I did it for you Hayden! I did it all for you!"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review: Superman: Doomsday DVD

One of my jobs is as a comics critic. Another of my jobs is as a film critic. So in my spare time, what do I do to unwind? Well, sometimes I watch films based on comic books.

You know, flicks like this:

Now, I wasn’t planning on writing about this here or anywhere else, as I was off the clock and watching the DVD purely out of curiosity and a desire to kill 90 minutes, but after the significant amount of personal suffering the act of watching Superman: Doomsday involved, I thought perhaps I had a moral obligation to write about the film, just in case any of you are contemplating paying cash money for it, instead of just borrowing it for free from your local library or something (like I did).

I know what you’re thinking. Well, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I think I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking (I think), “But Caleb, is it really so bad?”

Well, it’s not good.

And that’s frankly a little surprising, given the relatively high standard of DC Comics-related animated output set by Bruce Timm, one of the masterminds behind Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series and sundry other animated series that don’t have the words “The Animated Series” in their titles. Timm is one-third of the directing triumvirate responsible for this film, and it’s heavily informed by his designs and previous Superman animated projects. (Timm also gets a credit or co-writing the script with longtime TV cartoon writer Duane Capizzi.) The other two directors are animators who’ve worked on The Batman, Legion of Super-Heroes and Jackie Chan Adventures.

Perhaps expecting another Batman: Mask of the Phantasm or World’s Finest was being a little too optimistic, but, at the same time, this is the first direct-to-DVD from a much ballyhooed (well, by DC) program of turning fan-favorite comic book stories into films specifically catering to fans instead of general TV audiences. Considering the creative strength of the first few seasons of Timm and company’s Batman, or the most recent seasons of Justice League Unlimited, the prospect of some of the same people creating a film without things like worrying about advertisers or anticipating the tastes and hang-ups of a mass audience hanging over them sure seems like it should be a recipe for awesomeness, right?

Yes, well, "seems" and "should be" are a lot different than "is," I'm afraid.

With the exact level of quality you’ve come to expect from the words “direct-to-DVD,” the blandly titled Superman: Doomsday boils the Doomsday through back-in-black, shaggy-haired Superman epic into just 75 minutes (That can’t be right, can it? Seventy-five minutes? That…that’s one short feature film).

I’m not quite sure what the intended audience for the film is, as the content lurches in one direction, and then retreats to the exact opposite direction, often from frame to frame.

There are scores of deaths, mostly caused by Doomsday's fists, but each is completely bloodless, and we never see a single corpse, as if we’re supposed to enjoy the thrill of high-stakes violence, without a hint of the consequences of it.

A bizarre triangle of sexual rivalry is set up between Lois, Superman and Lex Luthor (and Lois isn’t always the conflicted point of it), and some “naughty” words are snuck in.

The production is similarly all mixed up, with the corner-cutting clearly visible. Attention will be lavished on Superman and Doomsday punching each other to make the scene seem glossier and more richly colored than, say, the time Superman and Doomsday punched each other on JLU, but the city of Metropolis in which this battle occurs is a ghost town; four people work at The Daily Planet (though they never all appear in the same scene), and fewer than a dozen people seem to live in the whole city. Lex Corp has only two employees in corporate head quarters, and one of them murders the other early on.

Even the casting is half-assed, with actors seemingly cast more for name recognition than ability, and even then the names are dubious. Anne Heche seems like quite a “get,” for example, or at least would have been a few years ago, but TV’s Spike? Serenity’s Jayne?

And rather than taking any of the established continuities (comics, film or carton) as a starting point, which would probably have been a smart idea for a DVD marketed directly to comics geeks, it kind of starts over, as it’s own thing. That would be laudable if it were an improvement of any pre-existing continuity, but rather than taking the best of each, it takes nothing interesting from any of them.

And speaking of half-assed, I’m going to be totally phoning this review in (Remember, off the clock here, people).

In place of a coherent, unified piece, please enjoy this topical breakdown then, framed as a series of questions from an imaginary voice in my head that hasn't seen the DVD yet.

So, can you tell us about the plot to the film, in far greater detail than is necessary?

Consumed with a seething, barely repressed gay love for Superman, Lex Luthor (James Martsers) is tunneling to the center of the Earth to find a new source of energy, while curing human disease in his mind and assigning specialists to turn these cures into lifelong rather than instant solutions.

While his employees joke about putting a catheter in Satan’s anus to power Metropolis (?), they discover an alien something-or-other, unleashing the gray, spiky monster that we know is named Doomsday only because we’ve seen him in other cartoons and read about in comic books.

Superman (Adam Baldwin), meanwhile, has spent the last six months flying Lois Lane (Anne Heche) to his Fortress of Solitude, which they’ve turned into a Fortress of Sexitude. Between doing it with Lois and bouts of post-coital make out sessions, Superman tries and fails to cure cancer. Oh, he also has a cycloptic robot with big fat fingers that tries to watches them make out. Oh man, is there no privacy even in a place called “The Fortress of Solitude?” Ho ho!

For Superman, the relationship is all about the sex, and he refuses to confirm Lois’ suspicions that he’s actually her co-worker Clark Kent. She nags him about his fear of commitment.

In a series of clichés from every bad horror movie of the last 20 years, Doomsday comes to Metropolis, where he and Superman beat each other to “death.” It’s disappointing that the creators resort to the see-the-monster-through-a-video-camera gag, which ends with the monster striking the camera, naturally, and the tired monstervision scenes, but don’t think to adopt any of little vignettes from the comics that let us know what a scary-ass customer Doomsday is, like when he smooshes the bird that alights in his hand, or totally kills that deer.

In the wake of Superman’s death, Jimmy and Perry turn to drink, Lois turns to Ma Kent, and a gothy version of the pedophile-style Toyman turns up in a scene with a giant robot spider written into the movie specifically so occasional filmmaker and Famous Movie Actor Kevin Smith can deliver a one line in-joke about his own (far superior) film version of this same story that was repeatedly rejected so Hollywood can make a movie about Superman as a deadbeat dad instead (Hey, why didn’t they just animate Smith’s script? It’s basically the same story, only less terrible).

As for Lex, he copes by making his own clone of Superman, which is kinda like a flying, eye-beam shooting real doll (Is that the right spelling? Is it a proper noun? I’m scared of what I’ll see if I google it to check). This perfect clone (i.e. not an imperfect one, so no Bizarro-speak, sadly) replaces Superman around town, and everybody thinks he’s actually back from the dead. And he is! But that’s not him. He’s in the Fortress of Sexitude, soaking up solar energy and growing a mullet in preparation for a big showdown, a showdown that will apparently be decided by hair-length alone.

Back in Metropolis, Lois seduces Lex, she and Jimmy attack him, rifle through his office, break into his secret lab, and begin illegally gathering a bunch of evidence that will be both inadmissible in court and completely unpublishable. Then the clone starts acting evil, but not funny evil like Christopher Reeve in Superman III.

So Superman returns and totally murders his clone. And they all live happily ever after. Except for the clone. Which Superman has totally murdered.

How closely does it follow the comics?

Not very. At all. Given the fact that comic book story was about a year’s worth of comics—that’s over a thousand pages of story—getting the whole death, mourning and resurrection as relayed there into a single movie probably wouldn’t have been possible. (Now, why they bothered trying is another, more fair question).

Imagine that massive storyline stripped of the dramatic build-up of Doomsday stomping across the country and killing Disney-ready animals, the battle with the Justice League, Supergirl, The Eradicator and the Cyborg posing as Superman, John Henry Irons and the clone that would become Superboy trying to replace Superman, Mongul, Warworld, the destruction of Coast City, and the extensive mourning and funeral rituals Superman’s extensive supporting characters and the DC heroes all went through.

Everything that’s left makes it into the DVD version.

The actual Doomsday fight and death of Superman was, of course, just the beginning of the actual story in the comics, a sort of prologue to the real story, which was to characterize Superman by taking him out of the world, and showing how massive an impact that would have, and just how hard it is to replace him.

The movie does cover the mourning and return, but it’s incredibly abbreviated.

I hear this movie is pretty gay. How gay is it?

Oh, it’s gay all right. As to how gay, let’s just say “real gay,” and hope that covers it.

The homoerotic tone is set at the very beginning of the film, in fact, as we get a monologue from Lex Luthor about how attractive Superman is. I’m not making this up, I swear.

“Just look at him,” Luthor’s voice rings out over stills representing news photos of Superman. “So sleek. So powerful. So…beatufiul.. Like some great golden god made flesh.”

When Superman “dies,” Lex pouts about how he was “taken before his time,” and asks, “Why did you leave me? Why?” When a beautiful woman, his one and only confidante Mercy (reimagined as a corporate lieutenant instead of a bodyguard/chauffer/henchman factotum), tries to take his mind off of Superman, Lex shoots her in the face.

Remember what I said about Lex cloning Superman? Well, now that he has a Superman of his very own at his beck and call, what does he do with it? Take over the world? No, he coyly lures it into his—and I’m not making this up, these are the actual words in the actual movie—“rumpus room.” There’s Lex waiting, shirtless. He then proceeds to beat the hell out of his own personal Superman with kryptonite knuckles, and then mounts him, leans into his face and whispers, “Who’s your daddy?”

But wait, there’s more! Lex also keeps the real Superman’s body in a tube in his office, where he stops by to tell it about his day, as if they were an old married couple.

And later, when Lex’s clone turns on him and he must fight it for real, the villain says, “I might have to mess up that pretty face of yours” and, also, “Come to poppa.”

At one point, Lex talks to clone Superman about the need “to stage your coming out” as Metropolis’ new superhero, but I’m not entirely sure it’s the clone’s coming out he’s talking about.

Well, how’s the action? I mean, there is punching, right?

Eh. Yeah, there's some punching, but the action's not very good, at least not worth going out of your way to see.

There are two big fight scenes. There’s the fight to the “death” with Doomsday at the beginning, and a fight against the clone, which functions as The Cyborg and Eradicator rolled into one, at the end.

Both are sub-Dragon Ball Z in terms of animated action. Imagine if the DBZ fighters were professional wrestlers instead of martial artists, and their combat slowed down by about half, with loud noises and glossy computer coloring attempting to fill in for the missing blows, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the fighting herein.

For a closer comparison, remember when Captain Marvel and Superman totally wailed on another in JLU? Or when Justice Lord Superman fought Doomsday? Or when Superman fought Darkseid at the end of the series? Yeah, well, try not to remember them while watching these fights, as the Doomsday battles pale in comparison, despite the fact they allow Superman to spit up blood.

My favorite part is a scene where Doomsday's about to smash an innocent little girl into the ground, and Superman stops him by grabbing his torso. flying him into orbit, and then falling back down with him, hitting Metropolis (maybe the exact same spot where that girl was?) with enough force to knock down several buildings and creating a giant crater in the middle of the city. So, to save that girl, Superman essentially kills hundreds, if not the very same girl. I'm guessing. The destruction seems to be, based on the numbers of toppled sky scapers, the equivalent of ten 9/11s or so. Not that the film acknowledges its existence in a post-9/11 world, of course. When Superman dies, a media talking head refers to the fact that America hasn't mourned like this since the assassination of Jack Kennedy. I wasn't around for that, but I'm pretty sure 9/11 was simimlar, and would be a more likely rhetorical comparison for a hero's death that occurred in an attack that leveled skyscrapers in a major American city.

The other oddly out-of-touch moment is the mention of Clark Kent going on assignment in Afghanistan. Is this before the U.S. invasion? After? What? Is there a U.S. War on Teror in this movie's version of America? Was there a 9/11? If the creators don't want us thinking about this stuff, why bring it up at all?

How’s the cast?

On the whole, quite good. Heche is the star of the piece, and she does a nice, brassy, Old Hollywood pushy broad version of Lois, bringing some real throaty emotion to the several crying scenes. Marsters’ biggest problem is that he isn’t Clancy Brown, who has defined the voice of Luthor for a generation with his work on TAS and JLU; otherwise, he does a solid job. Baldwin similarly suffers from simply not being Tim Daly, a problem he compounds by playing Superman as an odd extended Adam West impersonation.

How are the character designs?

Pretty good, with the sole exception of the lead. Bruce Timm’s designs for The Animated Series were clearly used as a starting point, as these designs are all just kind of tweaked versions of those.

Lois is a little slimmer and with longer hair and a (slightly) bigger wardrobe. Jimmy Olsen is freed of The Worst Haircut Anyone’s Ever Had, which he sported in TAS. Lex is different than any Lex I’ve ever seen, taller and skinnier, giving him a somewhat emaciated look. His facial structure is essentially that of TAS and JLU, however, so that Doomsday Lex resembles a sort of stretched out version of the previous Lexes. Doomsday is a big improvement over the sparer design he boasted in his JLU appearances. Metropolis itself looks like the animated version as heavily informed by the films.

Superman though…I don’t know what went into this (perhaps the audio commentaries offer insight, but I didn’t have it in me to watch the movie again to find out). This Superman looks like the Timm design from the previous cartoons, only with severe underbite and sunken cheeks. The result? Superman, only uglier. Which I guess is kind of appropriate for the film, which is basically the cartoon Superman you thought you knew and loved, only much worse.

Was there nothing worthwhile about it?

Well, the “bonus material” features a rather interesting documentary featuring the creators of the comics this DVD is based on as they ruminate on the process and the media hysteria it set off. It’s a rare look behind the curtain of the creation of DC Comics, or at least the way they used to make them, and a sort of time capsule of the early ‘90s comics industry. It deserves a post of it’s own though. Check back later in the week for a discussion of that.

Are you still looking forward to the New Frontier DVD?

You're kidding, right? I was cautiously excited. Now I'm actively dreading the prospect of a direct-to-DVD animated version of DC: The New Frontier from the makers of this film.

Friday, September 21, 2007

I'm not sure which of Rex's feats I find most wonderful

Patiently signing autographs for a bunch of ugly children?

Becoming the honorary chief of a Native American tribe?

Grabbing a stampeding horse by the reigns and leading it away from a potential victim?

Riding a horse?

Riding a dolphin?

Driving a stage coach?

Fighting an octopus...underwater?

Kicking a jungle cat out of a tree...while swinging from a his mouth?


And he did all of that without the benefit of having hands. Can you imagine if Rex had opposable thumbs? He'd be unstoppable!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

September 20th's Meanwhile, in Las five other things

This week's Las Vegas Weekly comics column features reviews of


I am exceedingly proud of the headline this week.

In other "news"...

1.) Dear Entire English-speaking World,

New rule: Nobody’s allowed to use the word “pornographic” unless they understand they clearly understand the definition of that word. And none of that “I’ll know it when I see it" crap; it’s in the goddam dictionary.


p.s. Click for context.

2.) I kinda hate to link to the same guy twice in one week, but damn it, Steven Grant has something else smart and relevant to say. If you spend as much time on the Internet reading about comics as I do (i.e. way too much), you’ve no doubt encountered the discussion about Wildstorm miniseries Highwaymen, which its creators feel isn’t doing as well as it should.

My original take on the matter was negative and counter-productive—a few sentences posted on someone else’s blog—because the handwringing over a lack of instant super-success seemed kind of silly to me.

Grant takes the question quite seriously, and offers up the most well-thought out analysis about the comics market and why Highwaymen isn’t doing gangbusters.

I know a lot less than Grant, Marc Bernardin, and everyone else involved with Highwaymen about the market, but it seems to me that it actually is a pretty successful book. It’s not all that far behind, say, Blue Beetle, and in the same neighborhood as DC and Marvel’s kids books starring household names and Wildstorm’s miniseries featuring the New Line horror characters like Jason and Freddy, themselves household names.

I think being a Wildstorm miniseries right now is probably more a detriment than a help; I imagine the book would have done much better at Dark Horse or as an Image Shadowline series. Wildstorm’s identity has always been kind of confused, a mixture of Wildstorm Universe stuff and Alan Moore’s ABC line and sundry other conflicting things, but faith in the brand is probably at an all-time low at this point.

Moore is gone, the “soft-reboot” of the “universe” books destroyed the line. I got one issue of Gen 13, one of the worst books I’ve read this year, a few issues of Midnighter, which was announced as a Garth Ennis ongoing and quickly became a hit-or-miss anthology series, and the first issues of the Grant Morrison master-minded Authority and WildCATs, which never went much farther. While I’ve heard good things about some of the other books, from here it looks like the universal reboot was, in essence, as if the company blew up its universe, and never got around to rebuilding it. It would be as if DC released Infinite Crisis #6, and never got around to #7, let alone 52 and “One Year Later.”

The WSU is further degraded by becoming a sort of ghetto of the DCU Multiverse, a place Captain Atom, Jason Todd and Donna Troy have to stop by every once in a while, instead of an exciting, distinct locale like, say, The Marvel Universe (Compare to JLA/WildCATS to Countdown Presents: The Search For Ray Palmer: Wildstorm: The Longer the Title the Better the Comic, Right?: Right? Because Otherwise Why Are We Giving It Such a Ridiculously Long Title?*).

DC has also perplexingly dumped Klaw the Unconquered on WildStorm, and acquired the New Line horror properties to publish under the brand.

There’s a stink about the brand now, and for all the reasons Grant mentions that Highwaymen wouldn’t grab a huge chunk of the Direct Market, there’s also the fact that the “WS” logo it bears is something of a stigma and a sales albatross.

Personally, I never read a single issue. If I got a review copy, I would have been happy to read and reviewed it for “Best Shots”whether I loved or hated it ,or, if the book proved to be a good one, for LVW.

But as a go-to-my-shop-every-Wednesday comics consumer, nothing about the book said “Buy Me” to me, and so I never did.

The Stelfreeze cover is nice, but so are all Stelfreeze covers (It also made it look a bit like Matador, another cop-looking Wildstorm book that Stelfreeze did the cover for, which I made it 4/6ths through and gave up on, as it seemed more TV cop drama than comic book to me).

I didn’t recognize any of the creators’ names.

Creators and covers seem to be the way comics are sold. I realize the creators did a charm offensive on the Internet, including Newsarama, which I go to reapeatedly each day, but since I didn’t know the creators or find the covers or title at all interesting, I didn’t read the interviews, so they obviously didn’t do anything to make me want to try the book.

Anyway, there’s a case study for the “Why isn’t Highwaymen super-succesful?” files.

You know what would have got me to buy this first issue automatically? If there was a picture of Clinton on the front, and the title alluded to him in some way, like Clinton’s Angels, and maybe above the log were the words “From The Guy Who Writes About Comics For Enertainment Weekly.”

Or if the questions being asked this week were somehow made part of the original pitch, so that instead of Highwaymen it might havec been called Buy This Book or You’re Racist or something like that.

Okay, maybe I wouldn’t recommend either course of action, but I seriously would buy any comic with that title, a picture of Clinton by Brian Stelfreeze on the cover, or a self-effacing mention of one of the creators’ day jobs.

3.) Speaking of comics that are doomed to not being super-successful, check this out:

You know what that is? That, my friends, is my “studio,” and laying all over the floor are all 24 completely penciled and completely inked pages of Caleb’s Unfinished Eventual Self-Published Project #1. It’s still unfinished, of course, I need to letter it yet, but after six years (six years!) of penciling and inking, the art is finally finished.

Now, don’t get too excited about the amount of time it took me to get this thing 3/4ths finished. It’s not like I labored six years straight on the thing (Although if I did spend an average of three months on each page, I bet it would look a lot nicer). I wrote the story in a day or two, and spent most of that time doing a page, getting distracted for three months, doing another page, and so on. If you’re familiar with the site, then you’re familiar with the level of quality that the writing and art are going to have.

Basically, it will be exactly like one of the strips I’ve done for EDILW. Only I’ll ask you to pay for it. You’re all extremely excited about this, I’m sure.

Expect to hear more about this in March.

4.) I’ve been cautiously pumped about Mike Kunkel’s upcoming Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam series since it was announced, and today Columbus’ own Vaneta Rogers has an interview with Kunkel up at There’s nothing particularly revelatory in the interview itself, which is kind of par for the course for these “Sell us on your new book you’d like us to all buy” type of interviews (which I’ve done a few of myself, so I hope that didn’t sound like a knock).

But what is interesting is the art included, which shows Kunkel’s versions of not only Billy and Cap, but also Mary and Mary Marvel, Dr. Sivana (it’s Thaddeus B. Sivana, Kunkel!), and Black Adam.

Now that I was surprised to see.

Kunkel’s take on Black Adam seems on conceptually weaker ground than the original, in that Adam is now an older kid who turns into a super-adult, instead of an adult who turns into a super-adult, which takes away from the little kid vs. a bunch of grown-ups dynamic that's always existed between Cap and his bad guys.

While that is kind of surprising, it’s nowhere near as surprising as the fact that Kunkel’s using Black Adam in the series at all. Remember, this is an “all-ages” interpretation, which editor Jann Jones announced as part of her kid-friendly line, kid-friendlier than Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans Go!, which she said were a little too violent and questionable to give to her sister's kids.

Now, DC has of late rather rigorously (at least rhetorically) policed the porous borders between the Vertigo line and the DCU line, which share quite a few characters (actually, pretty much all of ‘em, if you go back far enough and look hard enough). The line of thinking is that they don’t want kids seeing John Constantine or Swamp Thing in a DCU book, as it might lead them to Vertigo books starring the characters, in which they’ll encounter things like gay sex, f-words, naked breasts, drug usage and the like. You know, grown-up stuff.

I can see that rationale, and, in general support the idea, but only selfishly. I like the hard line drawn between the imprints more so I don’t have to see Geoff Johns writing Neil Gaiman’s Endless into Infinite Crisis, or see Swamp Thing show up in an issue of Countdown or whatever than because I think it makes publishing sense (As an aside, did I see the Vertigo version of Black Orchid in this week's Birds Of Prey?).

The hardline between characters crossing between imprints makes even less sence if you look hard at the differences between the DCU as of right now and the Vertigo books with former DCU characters in them that are on the stands (I think only in graphic novel format at this point; save Hellblazer, featuring a character created for a book that would give birth to the Vertigo imprint, are any DCU characters currently starring in Vertigo ongoings?).

In the DCU, you’ll see naked ladies, but their nipples will be in shadow. You’ll have Black Canary calling Green Arrow a “piece of %@!$&” instead of a “piece of shit” (a kind of fig-leaf option to communicating swearing that has the effect of saying “shit” anyway; does anyone read that line and hear anything other than the word “shit” in their mind?). You’ll have sex talked about and implied and occasionally shown, but you won’t see any genitals. And you’ll have an awful lot of violence, more than you’ll find in any Vertigo book featuring former DCU characters I can think of off the top of my head.

The distance between the “maturity” of the DCU line and that of the Vertigo line is currently extremely narrow, and I’d argue that the DCU line handles mature things like sex and violence worse and in a way that is potentially much more offensive than the Vertigo line, as it adheres to a weird Hollywood double standard where extreme violence is much less offensive than mild sexuality or “bad” words.

Once you have Dr. Light raping Sue Dibny on the Justice League meeting table, while Superman cries about it on the cover of the book, or Flash’s silly villains doing lines of coke in a room full of whores, or whole comics constructed around down-blouse and upskirt shots of teenage girls, well, nothing Vertigo publishes seems all that risque anymore. If we looked at the comics the two publishing lines release as Hollywood films, Vertigo would probably be full of R-rated or unrated art-house films, whereas the DCU would be full of films that originally received R-ratings from the MPAA, and then were re-cut by the studio until they hit the PG-13 rating.

As for the violence in the DCU, some of the most spectacular examples of it have been perpetrated by Black Adam. Remember him pushing his hand through Psycho-Pirate’s face in Infinite Crisis, dryly making a Freddy Krueger-like joke? Or killing every man, woman and child in a fictional country in 52? Or ripping off one guy's face, and putting his fist through a girl’s heart in World War III? And in the recently launched Black Adam, writer Peter Tomasi ramped it up to Grand Guignol levels, having Black Adam eat a follower, and, in the latest issue, bungee jump down the side of a mountain using an enemies intestines.

Okay, they were yeti intestines, but still. Tomasi seemed to somewhat testily respond to complaints about the ultra-violence in his series, but the characters used in these sorts of stories do matter. Killing Joke worked with Batman, but wouldn’t have with Superman. Longbow Hunters worked with Green Arrow, but wouldn’t have with The Flash. The first wave of DCU inductees into Vertigo were able to be pushed in more mature direction—"mature" here meaning more sophisticated storytelling as well as more violent and sexually-charged stories—either because the characters themselves were inherently darker than others in the DC stable, or because they were unpopular enough that they could be pushed into new territory without worrying about a new Sandman Saturday morning cartoon or Shade, The Changing Man movie coming out any time soon.

And while the relative unpopularity of Captain Marvel has allowed Geoff Johns to turn Black Adam into a sort of Namor-meets-Dr. Doom anti-hero, Judd Winick to do whatever the hell he wants with Dr. Sivana and the 52 guys to make Mr. Mind into a real monster, that commits the Marvel brand and franchise to a certain direction.

Kunkel’s new series is going in the exact opposite direction. It would have been weird enough to have his series on the shelves at the same time as Trials of Shazam and Countdown (imagine mothers going into comic shops and asking if they have any books with Mary Marvel in them, for example), but to have Black Adam in both this series and his incredibly violent and gory limited series simultaneously? It really just seems like DC’s asking for trouble.

Certianly more so than they would be if Swamp Thing showed up in a Batman comic, anyway.

5.) Okay, I lied, there is something interesting in that Rogers/Kunkel talk aside from the art. Kunkel reveals the fact that he bought the out-of-print (and now quite expensive) collection of the original “Monster Society of Evil” epic off eBay. Come on DC, the guys you hire to make your comics want that thing in trade! Snap to it! And none of that Archive or Absolute crap, just a nice, plain, old-fashioned trade collection, huh?

*I think that’s what it was called anyway. I didn’t double-check and am just working from memory, here.