Friday, April 27, 2012

Recently, I received a spate of visits due to someone plugging a very old post from me on "the difference between DC and Marvel".

It's a popular topic among fans of superhero comics. So it seems like a good time to re-post links to some of most salient posts on ...

the Difference Between DC and Marvel

Is there, by the way, an aspect of the difference that I've missed, that I haven't touched on yet? Let me know your thoughts...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Flash is faster than Writing and Art

As I recall, a new issue of the Flash comes out today.  This is my attempt to convince you to buy it.

I know I’ve already discussed how pleased I am with Flash recently, but I feel the need to unpack that a bit. It’s not just that the writing is good and that the art is good (although they certainly are). Those are wonderful things! But they are fleeting. They adhere in each particular story, but by themselves they do not necessarily improve the character in ways that help future creators.

In short, great art and great writing make for a great story, but they don’t necessarily make the character greater. But choices about what to do with a character and their central elements can make them great—even in the absence of great writing and great art.

 For example, I know some of you do not think Geoff Johns is a great writer. I like his work, but I will still concede that he tends to use gratuitous graphic violence, his good guys seem to win mostly because they’ve reached the point in the story where he needs them to, and he has trouble ending a story. But whether you think his writing is great, there is little question that his authorial decisions succeed in making the characters greater, as the long list of characters (many considered irredeemably toxic) he has revitalized makes evident.

Certainly, as we saw last week during “Wolf Week” here at the Absorbascon, great art does not make a character greater. Neal Adams’ overwhelming genius depicted in gorgeous, unforgettable detail just how stupid the Stupid Bronze Age Batman was.
But, even in the absence of great writing and great art, an author can still be remember for doing great things with (or for) a characters. James Robinson’s Starman series comes to mind. The art was always blocky, crude, murky, or just plain off. Robinson had a lot of trouble plotting the series consistently and often seemed to lose his way amid the details of the Starman legacy and the fictionopolis of Opal City. But, oh, what glorious details they were! And that is why his work on Starman is remembered so fondly, not because the prose, or the plotting, or the pictures were so stellar, but because Robinson’s character choices and world-building were so powerful and unforgettable. Heck, I never did figure out what was up with that dwarf; it was all very Twin Peaks there for quite some time.

When I complained in 2006 about how tedious and misguided the Flash series had become because its concepts were so far off-base: a commenter replied, “I think the concept is the least of the current Flash comic's problems. The writing and art are just plain bad.” I respectfully (still) disagree: if there is a problem with the concept of a character it is NEVER the least of the character’s problem. If the writing and art are bad, the fix is not complicated: get a better artist and a writer. I am NOT saying that it is easy to get good writers and artists; but the solution is not a complicated one. Melpomene knows, some of our most enduring characters in modern literature were launched in horrible books with awkward plotting, turgid pacing, and painful prose.  

One year, as a horror movie fan, raised by a horror movie fans, it hit me: I had never read the original version of most of horror’s classic monsters. So I sat down and read Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hide, the Phantom of the Opera. And you know what? They were, on the whole… bad. Tedious. Painful, even. These classic monsters survived, thrived, and grew in fame was not because they were written particularly well, but because the underlying concepts were so incredibly powerful.

Fixing the underlying concepts of a character is therefore more important to the character’s longevity. You know how many Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman stories are either badly written or badly drawn? MOST OF THEM. But their underlying concepts are strong enough to withstand poor handling by creators.

And what Francis Manapul is doing is not just bringing great writing and brilliant artistic vision to his depiction of the Flash; he’s fixing the Flash’s underlying concepts and in two very specific ways.  

One: he’s created a “mental power” for the Flash in the form of his “augmented cognition”. Having a mental power of some type is almost essential to having a well-rounded iconic heroic. Superman is super-smart, Aquaman has his telepathy, Green Lantern has his willpower and imagination, Shazam has his wisdom, Wonder Woman has her lasso of truth (essentially a mental power rather than a physical one), Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective, even Spider-Man has his spider-sense. And now Flash has his augmented cognition which allows him to use his mental super-speed to see all possible outcomes of a situation. 

Two: Manapul has been very cleverly limiting the Flash’s power… without limiting the Flash’s power. Face it, one of the issues in writing the Flash has always been that his power is so great that it can make him seem unbeatable. Flash’s augmented cognition comes with a downside: option paralysis and loss of perception of the “Now”. As for Barry’s ridiculous physical speed… he still has it, but it now comes with a downside: the rifts in space-time he creates if he generates too much “Speed Force”. And these are just the intrinsic limits to his power. He’s also crafting new villains “immune” to Flash’s speed (Mob Rule’s ability to be in many more than one place at a time) and giving old villains the ability to nerf Barry’s powers (such as Captain Cold’s new dampening of kinetic energy in his surrounding area).

Manapul’s writing is great. His art is fantastic. And what he’s doing with the Flash is even better.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sweet sweet octopus love Batman haiku FAIL!

Oh.- My- GOD, Becky! I can't believe that when I was younger, like last week, I used to think that Batman was SO COOL.

Until I saw THIS panel where the Golden Age Batman is indulging in some traditional sweet sweet octopus love.  Although it may actually be rough sweet octopus love, judging from the knife; Batman is not a gentle lover. In fact, in other panels he cuts off two of the 'pus's tentacles, and then stabs it in the eye.  Octopus parents, know who your children are dating!

Anyway, I was pretty impressed to notice that Batman was talking under water.  Out loud. To no one.  The Golden Batman can do things like that, you know.  People think the Platinum Age Batman with his omni-competence and ultra-preparedness is such a badass.  The Golden Age Batman laughs a hearty Golden Age laugh ("Ha! Ha HA!") at the Platinum Age Batman because preparation is for wusses.  The Golden Age Batman was never prepared for anything and he DIDN'T CARE.  He would just go ahead and jump into any crazy situation and make it all up on the fly.  Golden Age Batman was all, "I'll just make a telegraph out of some pennies in salt water!"; "This coat hanger will make a fine boomerang!", and "I can use this yeast and a candle to force open the door!"  Who needs a utility belt when the entire world is your armory?

So imagine how excited I was to see Golden Age Macgyver-maniacal, underwater-talking Batman, while on vacation in Florida,  hurl himself at an octopus armed with only a piece of scrap metal, obviously about to blurble out some brilliant, spunky haiku, when---


Oh-oh! This baby
likes me so much he wants to
hug me to death ___ !

Batman missed a syllable.  And he used to be my hero.

Starman would not have screwed that up, Golden Age Batman; you totally suck.   

What haiku can YOU compose about Golden Age Batman's sweet sweet octopus love haiku fail?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reads Justice League #8

I usually don’t wander too far in the details of current comics – it doesn’t make for evergreen posts that Future Folk would find interesting. However, this week I’m moved to plant my feet in The Now and discuss some of the New52. [When, by the way, do we stop calling them “the New52”? When do they become just “the 52”?]
Today we look at the Justice League, specifically, Justice League #8, which spills over with plottish goodness and mysterious backstory.

First, I have to praise Geoff Johns’ handling of Green Arrow. Now, it goes without saying that the only way anyone should handle Green Arrow (if one must) is with gloves. Or fireplace tongs. Or Otto Octavius’s metal tentacles. But Johns has done as good a job with him in this issue as anyone can. He does a great job of marrying several aspects of GA’s personal mythos. In the study of ancient myths and religions, Classicists learn about “mythic syncretism”. It’s the process by which ancient religions incorporate foreign belief systems into their own, and by which cultures take varying versions of a myth (usually from different locations) and merge them into a greater whole. In ancient literature, mythic syncretism was a natural sociological phenomenon generated by cultures; in modern comics, it’s an intentional artistic act accomplished by individual creators.

Johns, as discussed before, is the current unsurpassed master of comic book character syncretism. Sure enough, he applies his syncretic hand to Green Arrow with his typical efficiency in JL #8. We see an Ollie Queen who includes: the happy-go-lucky, self-promotional, and competitive comic-relief GA from Batman: Brave & the Bold; Denny O’Neil’s guilty white liberal of the Bronze Age Justice League; the reformed playboy of Green Arrow: Year One; and the accomplished self-made billionaire tech entrepreneur of the current Green Arrow series. By allowing all of these “versions” of Green Arrow to be correct, Johns ties together the various GA “myths” into an Ollie Queen who is much more interesting and appealing that any of his ‘predecessor’ versions.

What’s more, Johns acknowledges that Green Arrow is an extremely capable and accomplished person and crimefighter; but unlike previous writers who’ve tried to make that point, he doesn’t push it too far. He still concludes—correctly—that, despite Ollie’s abilities, he’s just not a JL-level character. Since the Silver Age, that’s always been one of Green Arrow’s (many many many) problems: by continually pushing him to ‘stand with the gods’ in the JL, he’s looked smaller by comparison. What Ollie really needs to shine is not to be the token non-bat-non-super-hero in the JL, but to be the standout leader of the B List heroes. Sure enough, Johns goes to that exact place almost immediately. In case you didn’t piece it together yourself, what Steve Trevor is doing during his visit to Ollie is offering him the leadership of the new Argus-sponsored Seven Soldiers of Victory (a group modeled after Steve’s former “Team 7” [a Wildstorm group]  that Etta mentions).

The other Green Arrow that Johns sweeps into the mix is the historical connection between Green Arrow and Aquaman. Most readers nowadays tend to associate Green Arrow with either Green Lantern or Black Canary; but those associations are rooted entirely in the Bronze Age. But the hero with whom GA has the longest connection is: Aquaman. Green Arrow and Aquaman are exact contemporaries: they both premiered in More Fun Comics #73 (1941). Like Aquaman, he was never quite the hit that other Golden Agers who eventually wound up being the Justice League were; the Golden Age Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman all helmed at least one title, whereas, Aquaman and Green Arrow were confined to anthology books or perpetual second-featurehood in someone else’s title.  

The connection became both strong and overt in 1959 (Adventure #267) when they starred in a pair of crossover tales, in which they switched jurisdictions, with Green Arrow tackling a sea-foe of Aquaman’s and Aquaman returning the favor on land. It’s clear in these stories that Aquaman and Green Arrow not only know each other but are friends and allies. In other modern media, the connection has (somewhat bizarrely) continued: Green Arrow and Aquaman were Batman’s most frequent co-stars and the definite breakout characters of the Batman: Brave and the Bold cartoon and they are the only two DC superheroes to be portrayed in live action television by the same actor (Justin Hartley).

So Johns gets big snaps from me for giving them history together in JLA #8 (and, amusingly, not a very friendly history, apparently). And working into it the fact that Ollie’s origin put him squarely within Aquaman’s realm—stranded on a desert island—is genius.

As delightfully surprisingly as I found all the Green Arrow goodness (holy crap, I just typed the phrase “Green Arrow goodness”—who AM I?!), I was equally nonplussed by the brief revelation that the Martian Manhunter had, at some point in the last five years of DCU time, joined and the left the Justice League (a point DC has been inconsistent on in other books). His use in this issue is ALL kinds of right. It puts Martian Manhunter back up on the JLA-level of heroes. It makes him, once again, a former member of the League, and restores him to a central position in the DCU’s history. It intimates that J’onn is a dangerous lunatic (something that always makes me happy) or at least he’s a dangerous, sneaky S.O.B. (STILL eavesdropping on their minds even though they are in space!). It explains why the JL hasn’t gone all “JLU” on us, despite new heroes that have cropped up since their founding. And, very interestingly, the ONE current Leaguer who’s not pictured in the flashback with J’onn is… Cyborg.

Where this is all headed over the next year is staring to become clearer. Because of the Martian Manhunter, the League has been hesitant to open up its ranks; J’onn knows that ‘something’ is coming they aren’t ready to handle by themselves, and will need to fix that. It’s been leaked the Mr Terrific and Icon will be joining the League, and the teaser image for “the Trinity War” that appears in the upcoming FCBD comic shows the Leaguers fighting alongside Hawkman, the Atom, JLDark’s Deadman, Element Woman, and THE INCOMPARABLE VIBE, all of whom would be appropriate members of a JLAuxiliary. As many bloggers have already noted, Johns is doing a good job of making the Justice League book a centerpiece for all the action in the DCU (rather than just an add-on to the “real”, solo titles) and this issue is a big step in that direction.