Saturday, April 29, 2006

Spandex in the City

I was chatting with one of my urban planning friends (Hi, Mike!) at an outdoor cafe (because that's where urban planners hang out) about the recent death of Jane Jacobs, godmother of the neourban movement, savior of Soho, and one of the greatest intellects of our century.

The essence of Jane Jacobs' message (cities=socioeconomic rainforest, suburbs=socioeconomic desert) is almost as close to my heart as the joy of comic books. But that shouldn't surprise me: comic books are essentially urban.

Superheroes and their foes do not hang out in shopping malls (the Superbuddies notwithstanding). Like many of the specialized products of the city, the spandex set require a dense urban setting to flourish. Suburbs and small towns do not foster abandoned warehouse districts, giant props, and the poorly guarded banks, jewelry stores, and art museums that are the necessary backdrops for caped conflict.

Except Smallville. Smallville has everything. Scientific research labs. Mints. Whales. Everything.

Why is James Robinson praised? Great plotting? Jack Knight? No; Opal City. Where did the Secret Society attack? Blue Valley? The Deep Amazon? No; Metropolis. Do the residents of Wayne Manor and Arkham stay in the burbs to battle or do they meet in the city over cappucino?

Tell me, those of you raised in the surburbs: did reading comics distort your expectations of life in the Big City? When you first toured Central City (or moved there) were you crestfallen that it wasn't night 24 hours a day, that the police didn't have blimps, and that obscenely wealthy pearl-dripping matrons weren't walking their little lord Fauntleroys down every dark, trash-strewn alley of menace?

Friday, April 28, 2006

The problem with Nightwing is "Nightwing"

A shout out and thanks to my friends and colleagues Kalinara and Vincent Murphy at Spandex Justice, whose recent discussions about "Nightwing" have inspired me to chime on this multiblog debate, which isn't really something I do often. The reason I want to chime in about Nightwing is that I couldn't be less interested in him.

That's right, I'm not interested in Nightwing at all. More on that later. But first, the passage from Vincent's blog that moved me:

I want to return Nightwing to the original vision, as George Perez outlined back when he and Marv Wolfman created the character:

“I want to make him a swashbuckler, an acrobat, an incredibly good fighter. In many ways, he’s the Titans’ answer to Captain America. I want to make him happy-go-lucky, bring back the enjoyment of adventure that he had. One thing I liked that Marv did in issue #39 was how openly Dick speaks his affection to Koriand’r now, calling her ‘m’Iove’ and everything, making passes at her right in front of everybody with absolutely no worries anymore. The hang-ups are disappearing. He’s not going to be that morose character he had been in trying to find his identity. Now he’s found it. Now we’re going to use Dick Grayson the way we want to use him, utilizing both his detective and acrobatic skills.”

What Perez said just made me laugh, although it should have made me cry. Maybe I haven't read the right stuff, but nothing could be farther from that description than my perception of how "Nightwing" has been portrayed. Happy-go-lucky? No worries? Hang-ups disappearing? Utilizing his detective skills?

That's certainly what I would like to see, but I didn't think there was any of that in the Titans. Happy-go-lucky; Titans. I find it hard to even put them in the same sentence.

Vincent, George, and I appear to want the same thing out of Dick Grayson. I think the reason we haven't seen it is contained in something that Vincent said: "when he and Marv Wolfman created the character."

Ah ha. Perhaps that's the problem: the perception of Nightwing as "a Titans character created by Wolfman and Perez."

Face it: "Titans characters created by Wolfman and Perez" are, by definition, soap opera characters, doomed to self-doubt, personal conflict, emotional monologues. As long as Nightwing is perceived by readers or writers as "a Titans character created by Wolfman and Perez", we're going to be getting, not the external Drama of Starman, but the internal Melodrama of the Avengers. No wonder I'm not interested in "Nightwing".

"Nightwing" is a costume. Dick Grayson was not created by Wolfman and Perez. Dick Grayson was the Sensational Character Find of 1940.

Nightwing, "the Titans' answer to Captain America"? Oh no. No, no, no. I do appreciate what Perez means, but that very way of thinking is the heart of the problem. Dick Grayson doesn't need to be the answer to anybody, folks. He's the original sidekick, that laughing young daredevil.

If writers and readers spent a little more time re-reading some Golden and Silver Age Batman stories, maybe they'd start thinking of Nightwing more as "the man Robin grew up to be" and less "the man who used to be Robin".

A subtle difference? I don't think so. A lot of wild stuff happened in Infinite Crisis, but the "moment" I'll remember longest is when Batman asks Dick Grayson whether he enjoyed his adolescence as Robin. Dick's happy answer, "It was the best!", was the highlight of that issue, perhaps the entire series, because for a brief moment we were allowed to see Nightwing as "the man Robin grew up to be" instead of "the man who used to be Robin". I'll wager most of us liked that moment and that's what we really want to see from "Nightwing".

Batman can do still do most of the stuff he did in Golden and Silver Age stories (except, perhaps, crack wise). Read one of those stories, and (except for the wisecracks) it's easy to picture today's Batman doing the same kinds of things. But read old Robin stories and try to picture Nightwing doing some of the things Robin does. Robin does brilliant detective work. Robin is a master of disguise. Robin speaks rudimentary Inuit. Robin plays the accordion and can sing. Robin acts in school plays. Robin can do a puppet show. Robin can fake death using a golf ball and knows the chemical composition of the average pocketwatch.

Again, maybe I'm not reading the right stuff, but all I've ever seen Nightwing do is martial arts hoo-ha and lots of somersaults. I certainly find it hard to picture him peering into a microscope, speaking Inuit, or playing the accordion, things that he used to do -- with ease -- when he was Robin. He was the Boy Wonder. He wasn't the best at anything, but he was very good at everything.

If you want Dick Grayson to be great again, ease up on that "Matt Murdock" vibe and give him back some of the "Terry Sloane" mojo he used to have as a boy. Heaven knows, Michael Holt shows no signs of becoming "happy-go-lucky", which was one of the nicest things about the original Mr. Terrific; why not let the adult Robin take on that aspect, as he has every right to?

For that matter, let Nightwing be the happy civic Batman of the 1950s and 1960s. Why not? There's still interest in that kind of hero and Dick Grayson, by his own admission, had a happy childhood with the goddam Batman (except for, you know, watching his parents plummet to their deaths as pulpy bags of broken bones). Give him a platinum police badge encrusted with diamonds and maybe he'll finally get some male readers, too, or (Wertham forbid!) even some kid readers. Wouldn't Nightwing work well as "the Batman safe for kids"?

But, no, someone decided at some point that in order to take Nightwing seriously he had to be even grimmer and grittier than Batman. Absurd. "Bludhaven"; I mean, really. Were "Crimetown" and "Corruption City" already copyrighted elsewhere? Thank goodness "Sin City" was taken ... . I guess it was all for the same reason Wally had to be faster than Barry, Kyle more powerful than Hal, and Connor a better fighter than Ollie.

Here's my two cents. The best thing you do can do for Nightwing is to stop writing him. Write Dick Grayson instead.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Robin versus Surrealism

Hi, kids! Robin the Boy Wonder here, with an important message for kids like us!

There's lots of fine art out there! Gosh, Bruce and I spend hours together appreciating neat painting and sculptures ... why, we don't even have to leave the house because we're absurdly wealthy and have famous works of art all around the manor!There's nothing wrong with enjoying pictures of beautiful people and things, or even ones that are ugly and scary. But, some art, why, it's just plain bad for you. I'm here to warn you about ... surrealism.
Good art shows normal people in normal situations; stuff you might see in the real world. But in the seedy world of surrealism, fantastical visual imagery from the subconscious mind is used with no intention of making the work logically comprehensible.
Sure, it might seem fun it first, like a dream you can see when you're awake. But think about it, kids ... it's like mixing up reality and fantasy, which is really dangerous. Why, it's almost as bad as being on drugs -- all of the time!
Every good detective--like Batman--is trying to figure out what's objective reality; so-called art like surrealism, with its subjective fantastical imagery -- gosh, that's kind of thing somebody like the Joker goes for. See, kids, it leads to a subjective view of reality and moral relativism and then to thinking it's okay to rob banks and kill people for fun. Surrealism seems like innocent fun, but it's a sure road to the Big House.

And it's all around us; that's why you kids should stick to reading comics, where you're safe from it.

That's also why Batman and I fight surrealism every chance we get.
Oh, sure, there's always been wild art, just like there's always been crime. But surrealism is a modern development, a twisted invention of the 20th century, like the kind of supervillains and costumed crooks Batman and I fight!
The original "supervillain of surrealism" was Andre Breton, sort of the "Hugo Strange" of surrealism. Weirder villains of surrealism followed: the bird-obsessed Penguin (Max Ernst); the highly intellectual and clever Riddler (Rene Magritte); the half-surrealist, half-realist Two-Face (Giorgio de Chirico); the vivacious Catwoman (Kay Sage); the underappreciated Killer Moth (Man Ray), the hypersexual Poison Ivy (Meret Oppenheim); and the overexposed, idiosyncratic, egotistical Joker (Salvador Dali).

Trust me, kids; stay away from surrealism. It's dangerous and bad for your health!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

My Lovely Day

Oh, my, what a LOVELY day for comic books.

Ordinarily, I don't get my books earlier than any of the other customers at Big Monkey, but I had the good fortune of being at the store last night after hours when the books are put up, allowing me get my sub and read it at bedtime.

And, let me tell you, today's a lovely day for comic books. At least, for me!

While the plot from Battle for Bludhaven isn't entirely to my taste, I'm along for the ride as long as it seems to be the staging ground for the (re-)introduction of lots of bizarre but welcome characters to the DCU. The new and appropriately name Firebrand; the, um, opinionated Father Time; the new Human Bomb in his slimming black outfit; those wacky, expendable Atomic Knights; the surprising (to me, at least) identity of the new Phantom Lady (who's all that and then some); even the Golem is gaining new life (well, sort of). But I was NOT ready for the "guest star" on the last page. Yow. That'll shake things up!

Speaking of new life and shaking things up, Supergirl is just the breath of fresh air the surly Legion of Super-Heroes need. Here in the 21st Century, she's been an annoying bellyshirted elephant in the living room, but in the 31st, she's cheery and fun. Still a solipsistic avatar of the meaningless of life, yes; but a cheery and fun one! She and Brainy haven't met yet, but, oh, they will... .

I'm not totally sold on the new Blue Beetle because, well, I already watch Danny Phantom on TV. But I like the art, and, oh my goodness, I was not expecting the final page. It makes sense (or it will) but it was still a shocker.

I wasn't certain I was going to keep Catwoman in my sub once the new Catwoman / new direction kicked it. But after this week's issue, I'm sure I am. I should know better than to distrust Will Pfeiffer, who always delivers. The building "mythos" around Catwoman, Angle Man, et al. is hooking me. And if you don't buy this issue, you'll miss what is (I think) the first meeting of Slam Bradley and Ted "Wildcat Loves You" Grant. But for me the sweet sweet icing on this multi-layered kitty cake is the new version of Film Freak (an '80's character who battle Harvey Bullock). The fricking Film Freak as a public personality and a player in Gotham scene? I'm in.

Checkmate I really didn't want to like, which smelled much too S.H.I.E.L.D.y for me and whose "chess" theme is very heavyhanded. Sigh. The Wall, monoptic Alan Scott, Mr. Terrific, Beatriz DaCosta actually using her power to doing something other than fly, Count Vertigo and King Farraday; I can't fight against that, I'm in. One thing, though; PLEASE lose the ridiculous outfits that Alan and Amanda are squeezed into. Didio; just call Blockade Boy, he'll whip up something fun in no time.

Loved the Villains United Special; if you don't, I don't know what you're reading comics for. Thanks, Gail! The ongoing cryptolovestory of Catman and Deadshot; the wacky hijinks of the "Secret Six", the "Friends" of the hired assassin set; the unique role of Dr. Light, who in Gail's hands is both his goofy self and his very frightening self at the same time; mysteries like the Capt. Nazi/ Black Adam relationship; the new comedy stylings of Dr. Psycho and Warp.

Speaking of Dr. P, it's nice to know that he (1) stills dresses for important occasions (2) likes having a pet (3) can sing. Heck, I'm enough of a geek that simply seeing Odd-Man on the page was worth the price of admission. I need Odd-Man in my life, and, whether you realize it or not, so do you.

Oh, by the way, Gail ... don't count Amos Fortune out yet; I'm betting that his luck will still hold out.

I could write volumes about my pleasure in watching Batman and his conversation with Harvey Dent, who's still one of the most complex, disturbing villains of all time; or the reconciliation of Bullock and Batman; the maturation of the relationship between Batman and Robin and the understanding of its importance to the popularity and viabilityof Batman as a character.

But I won't. I will give you only two words, two words that will require any decent comic book loving human being to RUSH to the store to buy this issue ...

Killer Moth.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Lockhorns .... of Space!

Talking about yer greek godlike characters. Darkseid (yawn!) and the Phantom Stranger never really do anything; they just create or comment on circumstances in which others can do things, make choices, play hero or villain. But they themselves are never affected, unchanging.

They are just SO the old married couple.

Naturally, the Phantom Stranger would never waste a heroic haiku on the deaf ears of Darkseid, so he altered his words in the panel below, where what he wanted to say was:

You are not the first
to attempt it, Darkseid, and,
I fear, not the last.

If you were Darkseid, or a dispassionate (and completely protected) bystander, what would you say to or about these cosmic Bickersons.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Marvel, Us Reading

Yesterday I read a Marvel comic. Because Devon asked me to.

Now that, folks, is friendship.

Actually, it was intended as an experiment. Because it's written by a "DC writer" whose work I generally enjoy, we figured I'd be reading a Marvel story I stood the best chance of liking.

I read a trade called "World Trust", in which the Avengers are sort of asked to take over the world for a while (for some reason I didn't quite fathom, other than it was easier for Geoff Johns to write JLA than the Avengers, so he abruptly turned the Avengers into the JLA).

While I can't say I liked it (the plot/villainy was cheesier and more ludicrous than a silver age JLA story, Geoff!), it did raise many questions and thoughts.

1. What on earth does this lovely, cultured Jan lady see in someone as drool-drippingly stupid as this Hank fellow? It can't be the sex, because she probably has to explain that to him, too. If he's a Marvel Universe scientist, it's no wonder they have so many nuclear accidents.

2. DC needs to buy Falcon. He seems intelligent, caring, well-adjusted, with a nice design and a unique power set. He seems completely out of place in the Marvel universe and needs to move to St. Roch and kick Northwind's butt. He and Steve could still write, and see each other on weekends.

3. That whole Vision/Scarlet Witch thing just seems icky and really really wrong no matter how you cut it, doesn't it?

4. Captain America has a visiphone in his shield? So, basically, he's hitting you with his cellphone? Must not get a lot of calls while he's working.

5. Speaking of that shield, given Cap's build, does it hit his head all the time when he backpacks it, and if so, shouldn't it get its own sound effect, so that when Cap walks around the HQ, you hear "kdong, kdong, kdong"? Is he just so tough he doesn't care? Is Cap the Hal Jordan of the Marvel Universe?

6. Cap easily had the best line: "Now... our nation's capital is an empty void." I guess we know how Cap's voting in the mid-terms.

7. Those Avenger people really need Amanda Waller, don't they? Interesting that she is the DCU's personification of bureaucracy, as compared to this Gabrych eunuch.

8. The idea that a nation would plunge into anarchy if its capital disappeared is just plain amusing. Little countries maybe; larger countries, not even close.

9. Isn't Iron Man's head too small? Looks like he's on JLU.

10. Hissy-fitting Namor's ability to take himself so seriously makes it impossible for me to take him seriously. Dude; have you looked at your ankles lately?

11. Wait, wait; so the UN is sanctioning the Avengers to prevent, by force, any nation from taking advantage of the situation to change its government? Yow. Glad I live on Earth Prime.

12. If Iron Man is so rich and smart, how can he be so naive about Black Panther, whose enlightened self-interest seems perfectly reasonable to any worldly adult?

13. If they could fix the Jack of Hearts little explody problem, he's just silly enough to come to the DCU. Love to see the Joker, the Royal Flush Gang, and Two-Face team up against him. Oh, and couldn't they just make him a containment suit with the "Zero Fluid" in it, so he could, you know, go shopping at the mall while he's exploding? I mean, the Human Bomb does it all the time down at Pentagon City.

14. I like Ant-Man. He's kind of like the Red Bee, except with a greater self-awareness that he's silly. Can we borrow Ant-Man? He could hang out with the Atom and Blue Beetle, and, besides, Marvel seems to have a surfeit of tiny bug people.

15. What happened to make the Avengers to begin with? I mean, what are they Avenging? It's such an ... unpleasant name, particularly to my delicate DC ears, which have been taught that Justice is good and Vengeance is bad.