Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Weekly Haul: Buying fewer comics leaves more time to complain about them in far greater detail

I generally go over the Diamond shipping lists pretty thoroughly every week, in addition to reading a bunch of columns about what’s coming out on New Comics Day (in addition to writing my own), so I was expecting it to be a fairly light week for me at the comic shop.

But when I got there, I learned that Diamond had failed to ship my shop their copies of X-Men Vs. Agents of Atlas #1, and either hadn’t shipped or my shop hadn’t ordered (I didn’t ask) any copies of the two manga series I might have considered adding to my haul on such a slim week.

The result? I walked out of the shop with only three comics this week. I was able to buy my entire haul with a single ten-dollar bill…and get change back!

I think this is a failure on the part of DC, Marvel and a few of the other, superhero-focused publishers, frankly, as that’s generally all I read in single-issue format—they’re just not publishing enough awesome comics, and/or charging too much for many the comics they do publish. (For example, I’d pay $2.99 to laugh at an issue of Cry For Justice or see what Brother Voodoo’s up to, but $3.99?).

There were, of course, a ton of great graphic novels and collections released this week, but buying something like IDW’s Bloom County: Complete Library #1 is a lot different than just plopping down $3 to $4 for 22-34 pages of super-people doing super-stuff; that’s the sort of thing one has to save up for, and maybe keep an eye on until the price gets slashed a bit (Sorry, brick and mortar store! I’m poor!)

Anyway, what used to be New Comic Book Day for me and had since become New Comic Book Afternoon was, today, more like New Comic Book Hour, and I wonder if I’ve somehow found myself in the transition phase between being a single-issue comics reader and a trade paperback-reader. I actually prefer the former in most instances, but the factors—writing for the trade, rising price, fewer quality books from the Big Two—seem to be pushing me toward trades despite myself. Hell, of the three comics I did buy today, I’m on the fence when it comes to dropping one of ‘em, I hate the art on another and feel kinda bad about rewarding the publisher for hiring the guy by buying the book anyway, and the other book I easily could have trade-waited.

Well, enough of the existential rambling of a Wednesday Crowd-er, worrying about his weekly rituals, let’s get on to the handful of books I did read this week—now with added scans!

Batman and Robin #5 (DC Comics) Grant Morrison’s Batman writing is far from the strongest he’s ever done, but there are some interesting ideas percolating in just about every installment. This is the middle section of the three-part “Revenge of the Red Hood” story arc, in which DC decided to humiliate poor Philip Tan by having him follow Frank Quitely on pencil art.

I liked the way that The Flamingo, introduced in one of Morrison’s trademark name-drops in the possible-future issue of Batman #666, is now part of the actual Batman story in the present. When Morrison mentioned him in the previous story, it seemed like it just a name chosen to sound like a new generation version of a bird-themed Batman villain like The Penguin, and yet now he’s on his way to Gotham, and he’s apparently a pretty big deal (Commissioner Gordeon calls him the “alpha-enforcer” of a crime cartel; Red Hood sidekick calls him “King of Killers, the Ace of Assassins.”)

I also liked the couple of panels in which The Red Hood talks about Batman in marketing terms: “That’s all Batman is now--A brand, a logo.” It reminded me of Paul Pope’s discussion of Batman at the Wexner Center, in which Pope explained how he came to the determination that, at his core, Batman is essentially just a logo for himself. The idea takes on a new emphasis in light of what Morrison’s been doing with the Batman franchise, as Batman isn’t even Bruce Wayne anymore, but whoever is wearing the Batman suit (currently Dick Grayson).

The Red Hood would know this better than most people because—okay, I’m going to spoil this, so if you’re heavily invested in which of the obvious suspects turns out to be the Red Hood, stop reading this blog post now—as a former Robin and former Batman, Jason Todd is familiar with the idea of superhero identities as symbols and sigils that can be passed down or exchanged (Morrison sort of explored this idea from another angle in DC One Million, in which he took the company’s love affair with legacy heroes to the extreme with superhero logos being used as something like power sources and natural resources).

Yeah, it turns out the Red Hood isn’t the obvious suspect—the mask-wearing mystery writer who appeared last issue—but the even more obvious suspect…the same person he was last time he appeared.

At least, I think it’s Jason Todd. The Red Hood seems to think he’s Jason Todd, and I guess I’ll take his word for it. Unfortunately, Philip Tan’s poor artwork doesn’t help:
(Before I proceed to discussing the art, did you read that dialogue? Apparently Batman made Jason dye his hair to look more like Dick? That’s…interesting, right? One wonders why Todd just now let his hair return to its apparently natural red just now, and continued to dye it ever since the “Hush” arc of Batman. And also why he wore that stupid just-a-jacket-and-pants with a lame, Spider-Man like helmet/mask when he first became the Red Hood, instead of this more elaborate superhero costume, complete with cool red guns).

I realize this isn’t entirely Tan’s fault, but it’s really too bad DC doesn’t have its artists work off of any kind of model sheets at all. I understand why they don’t, of course—these days artists, editors and fans all seem to want artists to draw in as personalized a style as possible, and to be as uninhibited by outside force as possible—but I imagine scenes like this would be much more powerful if there was anyway of telling what a character looked like based on his physical character.

A theoretical artist’s guide for popular, commonly used characters wouldn’t have to be overly onerous. I think if DC could just get all their artists to do things like agree on the height, weight and basic build of their character in relation to one another, that would be swell.

That dude up there? He doesn’t look a damn thing like Jason Todd. But then, what does “Jason Todd” even look like now? Who knows?

Also, some sort of guide might avoid panels like this:
I know by the costumes who the characters are, but does the Dick Grayson on the left, the one with the Gambit-like eyes, look much of anything like the Dick Grayson other artists draw? Does the monstrous little hobbit goblin thing on the right look like a ten-year-old boy? Why’s he got more wrinkles in his face and longer side-burns than I do, when I’m over three times his age?

And on the subject of “What’s up with this shitty panel,” what is Damian—the creature on the right—doing with the object in his right hand there? Following the context clues from the previous few panels, that’s either some sort of tool used to remove spirit gum from one’s face, or some sort of butter knife with either grape jelly or maybe butter or cream cheese on it (Two panels previous, Damian uncovers his breakfast while peeling off his mask, so either seems possible).

I don’t like looking at that panel at all.

And that of course remains the problem with too many of the artists DC has assigned Morrison throughout his time on the Batman books. Not every artist has to be Frank Quitely or David Mazzucchelli, but, at the very least, they should be able to do a completely bland, personality-free, complement the script to tell the story without ever sucking so bad that someone has to stop reading it to figure out what the hell is supposed to be going on work.

In the 1990’s, I read a lot of Batman books. Just about all of ‘em, I think. And there were a ton of artists whose style I didn’t care for as much as some of them. But even those guys whose work I used to find kinda boring—Tom Lyle, Jim Balent, Staz Johnson, Graham Nolan*, Jim Aparo** etc.— those guys still managed to draw everything without making me have to start a scene over or read past it to get to a verbal clue of just what the hell I was looking at.

Like this:
What is that? If you guessed The Penguin bouncing off the top of a car in the rain and being thrown into a crowd of people while saying “GAAAHH!”, congratulations, you are correct. How long did it take you to figure it out? If it was any longer than “instantaneously,” then it’s not a very good panel.

By the way, here’s Tan’s Penguin:
It's not bad. Not from that angle, anyway (the nose looks strangely broad from the front, but in profile it looks more beak-like). His egg-shaped body recalls the weird pillow-suit thing Danny DeVito wore in Batman Returns, and something about his face and his legs makes me think of some sort of Jim Henson creation.

I do wish Quitely were still drawing this though. Not just because it would be easier to read and better looking, but because I’d like to see what his Penguin might look like.

Batman: Unseen #1 (DC) Have I got that right? The small print has it like that, whereas the cover says Batman Unseen, sans colon. I could have sworn I’d seen it as Batman: The Unseen before somewhere as well.

My position on the matter of Kelley Jones and whether or not he kicks ass is, I assume, well established at this point. While he was the part of the Doug Moench/Kelley Jones/John Beatty Batman creative team I probably appreciated the most, I do like Moench’s writing quite a bit too.

Now, Moench is no Morrison, and I like some of his scripts a lot less than I like others, but he and Jones both share in common a certain overblown flair. Just as Jones can exaggerate the hell out of everything, while still managing an often quite rigid, formal filigreeing of detail (check out all the little dots expended on the night sky of that cover, all the folds in the bat-wings and bat-wing shaped cape), Moench’s characters will often talk in very purposeful, meaningful dialogue, with a sort of formality that often seems highly artificial.

There’s a theatricality about Moench’s Gotham characters, as if they’re all either engaged in word-play of various types, or, at the least, behave like actors reading too-clever to be natural lines.

This line, for example, might seem ridiculous, were it being screamed by anything other than a Jones-drawn skull-face, the character's hat thrown back with a melodramatic gesture, while a pattern of abstract firecrackers serves as a partial background:
I like Doug Moench. And I love Kelley Jones. And they work together perfectly.

Of course, they’re on pretty familiar ground here. One of their earlier collaborations was Batman/Dracula, which spawned two sequels, and the bulk of their run on Batman was a little like a Brave and The Bold, in which Batman teamed-up and/or fought DC’s creepiest heroes and villains.

Here, Batman is poised to meet and battle a modern-day Invisible Man, Gotham scientist Dr. Nigel Glass, who is perfecting a way to make the human body completely invisible (“Take that, Mr. H.G. Wells…Eat your own invisible heart out!”)

The story, billed as “A Lost Tale of Bruce Wayne as Batman,” is devoted to Batman realizing that his power to scare Gotham’s criminals seems to be weakening, while the Black Mask begins surreptitiously funding Glass’ work.

By issue’s end, Glass has become invisible—after going through some stages which allowed Jones to draw him in a variety of gory states—but not before committing a murder, which sends Batman looking for a partially transparent “meat-man.”

This series is only five-issues long, as opposed to the 12 issues Jones got to play with writer Steve Niles during Batman: Gotham After Midnight, I guess I’ll just have to savor this while I can.

Doom Patrol #3 (DC) Of all of DC’s 30-some-page, $3.99, second feature-having books I’ve sampled, this one is by far the strangest.

The lead story, by Keith Giffen, Matthew Clark and Livesay, has, for three issues now, been rather lifeless and uninspired, flying quickly by. But the back-up, by Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire, has been a blast, and seems to take as long if not longer to read than the feature, owing perhaps to the sort of verbal humor Giffen and DeMatteis engage in needing so many words, and the fact that Maguire’s detailed funny faces invite the eyes to linger.

Clark’s art, on the other hand, often looks like the artist himself doesn’t even want to look at it for very long.

The result is I could take or leave Doom Patrol, but I love Metal Men, and the back-up is so substantial that I don’t even feel like I’m paying $4 for just ten-pages.

I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong with Clark’s art, either. He seems technically proficient, it looks like she spends some time on each panel, he doesn’t take too many obvious shortcuts, and the panels and page lay-outs show some variety.

There just doesn’t seem to be much joy in the drawings themselves, which is so much more apparent when you compare this Doom Patrol comic to, say, that issue of Batman: The Brave and the Bold featuring the DP that J. Bone drew, or even that issue of The Brave and The Bold that teamed The Flash’s family up with the DP that George Perez drew, which depicted the characters in Perez’s more stately, classic superhero style than Bone’s own fast, fun and light cartooning style.

Both of those books featured delightful art. The characters looked alive, and every panel was fun to look at. That’s not the case here, and I don’t know why exactly. I could just say that Clark is no Perez and no Bone, but Perez and Bone are polar opposites—no one draws like both of them.

I think there’s a problem, but I can’t really diagnose it, nor can I imagine what an editor could do. Tell Clark to love the Doom Patrol more? To have more fun drawing it? To make sure his pages somehow emanate joy?

But when I see something like this panel, in which a guy wearing lederhosen who has been possessed by a sentient black hole is arguing with a robot
and I somehow find it dull, I can’t help thinking that something’s just not clicking the way it should.

I suppose all the weird lighting “special effects” in the art work don’t help much, nor does Giffen’s use of Dr. Caulder’s notes as story-telling devices.

I mean, this is the very first page of this issue:
Who wants to read a comic that looks like that? I got discouraged at my first glance, before reading a single word.

I don’t suppose it matters in the long run, since there may not be a long run. According to Marc-Oliver Frisch’s latest sales analysis, the new series debuted right around where John Byrne’s re-booted version was selling by its third issue, which makes it seem like DP should be doomed by the 18-month point.

It’s too bad, as the concept for the series seems strong this time out. Maybe DC shouldn’t have waited so long to give the team a title after Geoff Johns re-introduced them in Teen Titans in the “One Year Later” arc...?

*Whose art I’ve since come to love, and wish I could see more often. Especially around Gotham City.

**What can I say? I was obviously a stupid kid. My opinion’s changed since then. Looking back, my biggest beef with Aparo in the ‘90s was that he drew terribly ugly ties, and that he wasn’t Norm Breyfogle or Kelley Jones.


continuityblog said...

I agree about Tan's art. It makes me re-read scenes way too much. As for Jason's hair, that was something established in his first appearences and is not something Morrison made up for the character. I have been annoyed that DC had apparently forgotten that Jason's true hair color wasn't black to the point where I just figured it was retconned away but I am glad Morrison brings it back here. There are way too many dark haired male Bat characters. (Although I do miss my dark haired asian Batgirl)

Robert Repici said...

I'm with you on Philip Tan's art. Some of his panels just seem completely disconnected from Morrison's script. And that's too bad, because I really do think Tan has some talent, as evidenced by his work on Final Crisis: Revelations last year.

Ed said...

I'm fairly certain that Jason's red hair WAS retconned away, right after Batman Year One, when Jason was given a new origin, as a street thug instead of an acrobat. This is the first time I recall seeing it in a post-crisis comic anyway.

I wonder who killed his father now? Two-face or Killer Croc?

Melissa said...

Shame they can't swap the Metal Men over to the main feature.

Tucker Stone said...

They retconned the hair when Jason become a street kid--as retcons go, that one wasn't really a bad choice. The red haired Jason issues depicted a character that had almost no personality, he barely registers on the page as a human being.

Matt said...

Marvel's got plenty of quality books. More so than a few years ago. Many more so than a few years before that. I'd argue that Marvel's better than it's been since Heroes Return, maybe even since the height of the Shooter era.

So many of them are just 3.99.

CalvinPitt said...

Looking at that art, I would never have guessed that was Jason Todd. I actually thought it was Jason Blood. Which would be kind of cool, the Red Hood also being Etrigan.

censustaker said...

Dudes, its pre-crisis Jason Todd! I'm thinking maybe it's Morrison explaining why Jason's been depicted so inconsitantly since his resurection; either there's more than one of him running around (and he does or doesn't know that yet) or the super-boy punch brought-back/created a Jason that was a mix of Jason's from different realities giving him a far more mixed up personality. (Or, as Caleb suggests, he's only just recently stopped dieing his hair, because he's onyl just recently gotten over- or altered- his Bruce/Dad issues and wanting to return to the Bat-family). Or, in excellent RIP style the answer could be all three possibilities depending on how YOU the reader wanna role. Huzaah.

Yeah, art works worse this iss than last though (which I didnt think was THAT bad).

Phersv said...

I think Matthew Clark's style on Doom Patrol would be OK, if it was the former Vertigo Morrison team. It seems wrong on the retro dramatic version.

Peter said...

Caleb I'm surprise you didn't pick up X-Men vs. Agents of Atlas or Doctor Voodoo, especially the former. I'm guessing it was the 3.99 price tag, however both books do have some extra pages(X-Men Vs AoA has a backup story featuring the original 5 X-Men vs. the agents, and Doc. Voodoo has some extra story pages plus alittle back-up literature on the character). I wouldn't 100% recommend either book, but like I like said I was just surprised you didn't pick them up.

Kevin Huxford said...

Someone else already got to the point I was going to make:

* Jason Todd, in what should be the current iteration, never had red hair.
* Street kid had black hair.
* Reanimated body popping up from the grave (where hair continues to grow out) showed no red roots.

With the way Grant made use of every Batman story of the past and found a way to make them all be merged into some form of continuity, there might be something he's working on here, rather than just a slight goof up.

Jeremy H said...

You hair does not continue to grow after you die. Nor do fingernails.

Just saying.

Kevin Huxford said...

Just looked it up: you're right, they just appear to grow.

The way hair gives the appearance of having grown is due to the skin dehydrating and shrinking back...which would expose hair previously not exposed for dyeing. Which still would lead to the roots showing.

Thanks for leading me to learn something!