Saturday, October 01, 2011

Supergods: Not quite an industry tell-all, but closer than usual

One thing American politics has over American comics is that the former publishes many more and much more interesting books and memoirs. The political book market is a curious one, as it seems to exist primarily for participants to cash in on their experiences by telling their side of the story (which, in some cases, turns out to be a story of historical significance), revealing just enough new, gossipy, insider details to justify the political media paying attention for a week, which in turn justifies the book's existence, and then everyone forgets about the particular books forever, because they are all terrible and full of lies anyway.

Comics doesn't generate these sorts of books. Not simply because so many fewer people care about comics than they do about politics, not simply because there's so much less money involved, not simply because the comics media is a tiny fraction of the political media, and thus relatively few books about comics exist at all, but instead because no one ever really leaves comics, and it is thus, even if there was enough interest in comics memoirs from creators and industry leaders to regularly generate them, it would be all but impossible to get anyone to offer up any bridge-burning gossip or name-calling.
A prominent writer, artist or editor leaving one company (say, Marvel), would just end up across the street at the other (say, DC Comics) and probably, a few years later, they would end up back at the former company. If, hypothetically, former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter used to subsist on a diet of live puppies and kittens and bather every night in a tub filled with the tears of Marvel freelancers, most of the editorial staff whose job it was to procure live animals and gather those tears wouldn't share that information widely, for fear that they would have a reputation for talking out of turn and become unhireable.

When someone leaves a job in comics, they generally take another job in comics, unlike politics, where leaving, say, a presidential administration generally leads to sitting on a few boards somewhere and maybe lobbying. It's not like you're ever going to have to work with Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice again, so go ahead and write about what a bunch of babies they were.

I don't really read many of those sorts of political memoirs, but I always enjoyed the way they receive coverage, particularly from places like online magazine Slate, which would pore through them looking for the newsworthy/salacious bits to air in articles with headlines like "We Read Slimy John Edwards' Stupid, Self-Serving Book (So You Don't Have To)" (Note: I said with headlines like; that is not an actual headline).

As you may have heard, superstar comics writer Grant Morrison recently wrote a book, and I recently read it.

There are several strands to the book, and they sometimes intersect a bit awkwardly, but one of those strands is Morrison's career in comics, and thus many familiar names appear in the book, either as subjects or as characters, and Morrison reveals his thoughts and opinions on many of them. Mark Waid is nice...and smart! Glenn Fabry once drunkenly bit Karen Berger on the ass! Peter Milligan used to drink a whole lot with Morrison! Jill Thompson is striking looking! Warren Ellis was thin, eager and brainy as a teenager! Alan Moore is hairy!

Relatively little of it is along the lines of "Colin and Condi are sissies and I would have bombed Iraq two years earlier if it weren't for them," but it is rare, even refreshing to hear even this much talk of comics behind the scenes, and to hear even mildly unflattering opinions shared.

I thought I'd try to put together one of those Slate style "We Read Supergods (So You Don't Have To)" articles for fun, but you should read Supergods—it's much more engaging, educational and fun to read than, say, Donald Rumsfeld or Presidents Bush or Clinton's books.

I should note at the outset that the two creators who receive the most discussion in the book are Alan Moore and Mark Millar. Morrison rarely goes into any great detail, but he clearly has very complicated relationships with both men, and both are so important to comics today that Morrison couldn't have written this book without discussing them.

Morrison writes at considerable length about Marvelman/Miracleman and Watchmen, offering a fairly brilliant review of the latter before launching into its weaknesses. Both seemed to have dramatic impact on Morrison, as they showed the end of one particular road of superheroes, and necessitated him trying different directions for superheroes. Moore shows up as a writer glimpsed from afar though, not a character.

Millar's work is similarly dissected, particularly Wanted, The Ultimates and Civil War, with some discussion also given to The Authority and Kick-Ass. Millar appears as a character though, and is in many anecdotes, as Morrison and he were apparently besties and collaborators for years before...something happened, which isn't really explained at any length.

I whole book could probably be written about Morrison, Millar and Moore, and the way their work and relationships have effected mainstream comics and the mainstream's acceptance of comics in the last few decades (and influenced one another's work). Morrison talks about both men so often (Millar appears on 26 pages, Moore on 30, according to the index). I didn't really bother looking for good, juicy quotes to share; read Supergods to read his thoughts on them...and their impact on his work.

As for Morrison on some other topics of note to you, dear reader, please, read on...

On Bill Jemas:

—"By this time, I was coming into regular conflict with Marvel’s new fire-brand publisher Bill Jemas over the direction and execution of my stories. He’d been brought in to modernize along with Joe Quesada as EIC, and we’d all started out on the same page. But slowly I began to feel that misunderstood the fasion aspect of mainstream hero books and their need to constantly change with the times.

"The old war between groovy Marvel and stuffy Brand Echh intensified into playground name calling. Jemas expertly manipulated the Internet crowd, stirring up controversy to draw attention to his books. He referred publicly and disparagingly to “AOLComics” and called his DC rival Paul Levitz “Lol Pevitz” over and over in interviews and inflammatory press statements, as if repetition could eventually make it funny…Levitz, who had elected, in old-DC style, to play the role of gray-templed gentleman, resolutely ignored the ruffians hurling their excreta at his drawing room window, but quietly placed his tormenters on a DC blacklist. "

On Dan DiDio:

—"Dan was the same age as I, but bearlike and gregarious, with a Brooklyn tenor I loved to imitate when he wasn’t around. I liked Dan immediately and appreciated the respect he was showing my work, after Bill Jemas’ growing disinterest. "

On Joe Quesada:

—"I liked Joe a lot…"

On Brian Michael Bendis:

—“[Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s origin of Spider-Man] was perfectly composed in just eleven pages. (When writer Brian Michael Bendis was called on to update and retell the Spider-Man origin for a new generation of readers in 2000, it took six twenty-two-page issues to tell the same story in the “decompressed” screenplay style of twenty-first-century comics)”

—“A recent Marvel Comics event series entitled Secret Invasion was a direct sequel to The Kree-Skrull War but without any of the dazzling narrative tricks that made the original so remarkable.”

—“Bendis came from the independent comics scene and, influenced by playwright David Mamet rather than Stan Lee, he made alarmingly convincing dialogue the focus of his style and broke the rules of comic-book storytelling by having characters exchange multiple balloons in a single panel. His dialogue had a call-and-response rhythm that captured each voice perfectly, like the strains in a chorus, and soon he was Marvel Comics’s premier writer, dominating the sales charts for the next ten years with no sign yet of slowing down. When Bendis committed to a title, it was like swans mating, with ten-year-runs on his pet books”

—“Marvel parried with its own events. Civil War, as I’ve already discussed, was the best of them. But Brian Bendis also contributed the lukewarm House of M, and Secret Invasion—his sequel to the Kree-Skrull war in which the aliens won, Earth was conquered, and some slightly hamfisted attempt to compare Skrulls to radical Islamists were made, borrowed wholesale from TV’s Battlestar Galactica"

On Allen Heinberg:

—"Screenwriters, tried-and-tested storytellers from a more glamorous medium, were the only strangers admitted into the comics field during this time of withdrawal and consolidation…Unsurprisingly they didn’t write comics quite as well or with the same freewheeling abandon as the pople who did it for a living, and few lingered beyond their first unimpressive checks…Allan Heinberg’s short but effervescent burst on 2006’s nineteen-millionths Wonder Woman revamp was another rare exception, but the writer, who’d worked on the youth drama The O.C., couldn’t stand the poisonous atmosphere of comics fandom and made a swift, quite exit after a promising start, leaving the field once more to the diehards.”

[Ah, so it wasn’t Allen Heinberg that quit comics, it was us readers that drove him out of the field. What could have made comics fandom seem poisonous to a writer who was widely and greatly celebrated for his rather uninspired “I’ll take The Avengers, and make teenagers out of those IPs!” and supported to ludicrous, money-leaving-on-the-table-lengths by Marvel? Surely his inability to meet a deadline might have had something to do with it...?]

On Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s influence on the post-Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns supercomic:

—“Take out Moore’s passion, his excellece as a wordsmith, and his formal obsessions, and save only his cynicism, his gleeful cruelty, and his need to expose the potentially wounded sexuality of carton characters, and you had the germ of a strain of superhero-porn comics. Unlike Watchmen, which was written for a wide mainstream audience, the new superhero comics were pitched at fans in the direct market, who were tired of all the old tricks and craved shock-thereapy versions of their old favorites."

—“Elmintae Millers’ talent as a cartoonist and satirist, his skill as an action storyteller, and leave only his reactionary 'bastard' heroes—all those psychologically damaged sociopaths in trench coats, jackboots, and stubble—and you had the new model superhero in the late-eighties American style."

On his old enemy, the Internet:

—"Soon film studios were afraid to move without the approval of the raging Internet masses. They represented only the most minuscule fraction of a percentage of the popular audience that gave a shit, but they were very remarkably, superhumanly angry, like the great head of Oz, and so very persistent that they could easily appear in the imagination as an all-conquering army of mean-spirited, judgmental fogies.

"…Too many businesspeople who should have known better began to take seriously the ravings of misinformed, often barely literate malcontents who took revenge on the curel world by dismissing everything that came their way with the same jaded, geriatric 'Meh.'"

—"It is, of course, telling that I’ve never met any reader at a comic convention who behaved the way many do online, suggesting that the Internet monster is a defensive configuration, like the fan of spikes a tiny fish erects when it feels threatened."

On Mark Millar’s radical, pioneering exploration of why nobody’s ever done a “real” superhero before his Kick-Ass:

—"Back in 1940, Ma Hunkel, the Red Tornado, was the first attempt to dpecit a 'real-life' superhero in comics. Not a spaceman from Krypton, not a billionaire playboy with a grudge, Ma had no powers except for her formidable washerwoman build. She wore a homemade costume to dish out local justice in the stairwells and alleyways of the Lower East Side in some aborginal memory of the early DC universe…

"...Seventy years after Ma Hunkel, sixteen-year-old Dave Lizewski, the hero of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s Kick-Ass, asked the question 'WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT TO BE PARIS HILTON BUT NOBODY WANTS TO BE A SUPERHERO?' Leaving aside the cynical response that nobody in their right minds wanted to be Paris Hilton, Dave’s question had already been answered by a handful of brave souls, real people in the real world who dress up in capes and masks to patrol the streets and keep people safe. You can read all about them online if you type 'real world superheroes' into a search engine."

On The Red Bee:

—“The race to create superheroes with fresh gimmicks crashed headlong into one spectacular dead end with the Red Bee…[Richard] Raleigh was clever enough to have invented his own 'sting gun,' which shot effective knockout darts. He could have simply loaded up his sting gun, stopped right there, and still made a perfectly serviceable Golden Age mystery man called the Red Bee. But for Rick Raleigh, only one thing guaranteed his crucial edge over the violent underbelly of society: the hive of trained crime-fighting bees he kept confined in the buckle of his belt…until crime reared its snout. Ever eager to be set free in the cause of justice, the lead bee and chief offensive weapon in Raleigh’s apian arsenal was somewhat endearingly named Michael.”

—“If it seems ridiculous, it’s because it is. But there was something else goin on here: a radical eenchantment of the mundane. As the creators of the superheroes pitched their nets ever wider in search of fresh and original gimmicks, they touched more and more of the everyday world with childlike wonder dust. Bees could be special…Boring gym equipment could become the lethal arsenal of the criminal knon as Sportsmaster….In the world of the superheroes, everything had value, potential, mystery. Any person, thing or object could be drafted into service in the struggle against darkness and evil—remade as a weapon or a warrior or a superhero. Even a little bee named Michael—after God’s own avenging angel—could pitch in to win the battle against wickeness.”

1 comment:

SallyP said...

I really do need to find this book and read it.