Tagged: Jonathan Hickman

Marc Alan Fishman: The Tabernacle of Technobabble

Fishman Art 130302I love psuedo-science. More than anything else, the “how” of super-heroes and science fiction is what initially draws me in. My first real memories of my impending nerd-dom stemmed from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; where I learned that radioactive interplanetary ooze, when liberally applied to animals, created anthropomorphic heroes and villains. And where most of my friends were just happy to have new action figures, I was always perplexed as to how a rhino and warthog, when exposed to said ooze, ended up a mutated state of similar weight and stature. But I digress.

When my attention made way towards comic books, the same curiosity drew me first towards the Marvel universe. Taken against the “crap fell outta the sky, and now you’re super-powered” methodology so many of the DC heroes, Marvel seemed to celebrate the polar opposite. Hulk, Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man… all products of science. And let us never forget those pesky mutants. Stan Lee, in the multitude of interviews he’s given over the years always laughed off his choices in the origins of his characters. I’d like to believe though, that there was a bit more to it than he’d let on. The majority of his heroes and villains share science as a passion, and profession. Their powers, results of experiments gone awry. Taken in context of the age in which they were born? It’s fairly easy to see the dots connecting; in the age of the atom, of course scientists would end up mutating themselves and the world at large!

After my recent converting toward Trekdom, I can now say without a shred of sarcasm that I hold Trek above Wars because of the technical bedrock beneath the naked green chicks. At their cores, both universes celebrate journeys. But only Trek dares to boldly go where no man has gone before. Not that Star Wars is without some awesome psuedo-science of its own… but in my mind, it came well after Lucas opened his universe to other collaborators. Men and women who sought to better the mythos with a little less Kurosawa, and a bit more Kelvin.

But what is it that appeals to me so? It’s that shred of plausibility that helps endear me towards creations that embrace it. In contrast, those worlds made of pure fantasy never caught my heart. Where my wife can’t wait for the next Hobbit or Harry Potter, I could honestly care less. Sure, I appreciate the characters themselves, and the plot and structure presented in their various forms. But at their core? They celebrate worlds without reason. Where a kid can ride a broom not because he’s found a way to displace gravity fields, but because his parents loved him a whole ton. Meh.

A cursory look at my bookshelf shows a plethora of writers whose work encompasses these similar feelings. Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Hickman, Warren Ellis, and the like all celebrate the art of technobabble. Their stories, as grand as they may become, still root themselves in panes of logic and reason. Their heroes and villains operate less on threads of sheer will, hope, or love. While their ultimate deus ex machinas may very well encompass those indefinable qualities in order to reach catharsis or conclusion… the worlds built around them all contain some form of believability that allows me to enjoy the work just a bit more than those who simply “wish hard”.

Remember when [[[The Matrix]]] first came about? Long before Neo was wearing his digital crown of thorns, the Wachowski brothers first tried to provide a foundation with which to build upon. And by the end of their first flick, I could enjoy Neo’s triumph over the machines not because of his amazing will to win the day, but because of his understanding of the laws of the program he was an avatar of. His triumph was one of science, not faith.

In Geoff Johns’s expansion of the Green Lantern universe, I celebrated the psuedo-science of the emotional spectrum. Certainly if we could believe that will was somehow a measurable source of energy, so too could be anger, avarice, love, compassion, hope, and fear.

But when Kronos, back with a vengeance, waged war on the Guardians who banished him so very long ago… what defeated him? A big Photoshopped beam from Hal Jordan. Sheer will. Used against a guy who had the weight of the entire emotional spectrum behind him. The scientist inside me screamed with righteous indignation. Based on even small amounts of actual logic, I was left aghast. One emotion, no matter how large (and Photoshoppy), should trump seven. Especially when the shooter of said super beam is merely a mortal man, and his opponent a crazy-assed demi-god. Johns failed to follow the laws of science he himself previously designed (so-to-speak). Simply put? Geoff wrote himself into a corner, and asked for a pass out of it. He flunked the exam. Of course given his captain of the football team status at DC, he slid right past the failing grade. Psuedo-science be damned.

In the universes we fictioneers build, there is an understanding between our words and our audience. To each creation comes a set of laws we play in and around. Those who do it best, gain my attention, respect, and money. Those who disregard it get my furrowed eyebrow and shaking fist. Consider this experiment open-ended. Where there is plausibility, there’s potential. And where there is potential… there’s the possibility of endless wonder. And where there is no need for that? Well, fuck it. Let it fall out of the sky. I mean, why not?

SUNDAY: John Ostrander

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


Mike Gold’s Top 9 of 2012

It’s the end of the year, so it’s time for still another mindless list of favorites – maintaining a cloying, egotistical annual tradition throughout the media. Once again, here are my self-imposed rules: I’m only listing series that either were ongoing or ran more than six issues, I’m not listing graphic novels or reprints as both compete under different criteria, I’m not covering Internet-only projects as I’d be yanking the rug out from under my pal Glenn Hauman, and I’m listing only nine because tied for tenth place would be about two dozen other titles and I’ve only got so much bandwidth. Besides, “nine” is snarky and when it comes to reality, I am one snarky sumbytch – but only for a living. On Earth-Prime, I’m really a sweet, kind, understanding guy.

Having said all that, let’s open that hermetically sealed jar on the porch of Funk and Wagnalls and start.

1. Manhattan Projects. If I had to write a Top 9 of the Third Millennium list, I’d be hard pressed not to include this title. It’s compelling, it’s different, it’s unpredictable and it’s brilliantly executed by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra. It turns out the scientists and the military leaders behind the creation and the execution of the Atomic Bomb had a lot more in mind than just nuking Japan… a lot more. And their plans run decades longer than World War II. Based largely upon real-life individuals who are too dead to litigate, each person seems to have his own motivations, his own ideas for execution, and his own long-range plan for how to develop the future. Yet the story never gets bogged down in political posturing or self-amusing cuteness – the latter being a real temptation for many creators. Each issue gives us the impression there’s more than meets the eye; each successive issue proves there most certainly was. If the History Channel spun off a Paranoia Network, Manhattan Projects would be its raison d’être.

2. Hawkeye. If you’ll pardon the pun, Hawkeye has never been more than a second-string character. An interesting guy with an involving backstory and enough sexual relationships to almost fill a Howard Chaykin mini-series, this series tells us what Clint Barton does when he’s not being an Avenger or a S.H.I.E.L.D. camp follower. It turns out Clint leads a normal-looking life that gets interfered with by people who think Avengers should be Avengers 24/7. He’s also got a thing going with the Young Avenger who was briefly Hawkeye. Matt Fraction and David Aja bring forth perhaps the most human interpretation of a Marvel character in a long, long while. Hawkeye might be second-string, but Clint Barton most certainly is not.

3. Captain Marvel. Another second-string character. Despite some absolutely first-rate stories (I’m quite partial to Jim Starlin’s stuff, as well as anything Gene Colan or Gil Kane ever put pencil to paper), the guy/doll never came close to the heritage of its namesake. This may have changed. A true role model for younger female readers and a very military character who uniquely humanizes the armed forces, Carol Danvers finally soars under writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Dexter Soy – both as a superhero and as a human being. DeConnick doesn’t qualify as “new” talent, but this certainly is a breakthrough series that establishes her as a truly major player… as it does Marvel’s Captain Marvel.

4. Creator-Owned Heroes. Anthology comics are a drag upon the direct sales racket. They almost never succeed. I don’t know why; there’s usually as much story in each individual chapter as there is in a standard full-length comic. I admire anybody who choses to give it a whirl (hi, there, honorary mention Mike Richardson and company for Dark Horse Presents!), and I really liked Creator-Owned Comics. Yep, liked. It’s gone with next month’s eighth issue. But this one was a lot more than an anthology comic: it had feature articles, how-to pieces, and swell interviews. The work of Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Steve Niles, Steve Bunche and a cast of dozens (including swell folks like Phil Noto and Darwin Cooke), there wasn’t a clinker in the bunch. I wouldn’t mind seeing follow-ups on any of the series featured in this title, although I must give a particular nod to Jimmy and Justin’s Killswitch, a take on modern contract killers, and on Steve’s work in general. This is no light praise: I’m not a big fan of horror stories because most of them have been done before and redone a thousand times after that. Niles is quite the exception.

5. Batman Beyond Unlimited. Okay, this is a printed collection of three weekly online titles: Batman Beyond, Justice League Beyond, and Superman Beyond. But it comes out every month in a sweet monthly double-length printed comic, so it meets my capricious criteria. Based upon the animated DC Universe (as in, the weekly series Batman Beyond and Justice League, and to a lesser extent others), these stories are solid, fun, and relatively free of the angst that has overwhelmed the so-called real DCU stories. Yeah, kids can enjoy them. So can the rest of the established comics audience. Pull the stick out of your ass; there’s more to superhero comics than OCD heroes and death and predictable resurrection. These folks have just about the best take on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters than anybody since Jack Kirby. That’s because Jack remembered comics are supposed to be entertaining. Honorable mention: Ame-Comi Girls. It’s based on a stupid (but successful) merchandising idea but it’s just as much fun as anything being published today.

6. Batgirl. O.K. The real story here is that DC Comics mindlessly offed writer Gail Simone from this series only to restore her within a week or so after serious (and occasionally, ah, overly dramatic) protest from both the readership and the creative community. But there was good reason: Gail took a character who was in an impossible situation and, against all tradition, put her back in the costume without resorting to ret-con or reboot, which have been the handmaidens of the New 52. She brought Barbara Gordon back to action with all the doubts, insecurities and vulnerabilities one would expect a person in her position to have, and she does so in a compelling way exercising all of her very considerable talent. This title thrives despite being engulfed in two back-to-back mega-non-events that overwhelmed and undermined all of the Batman titles.

7. Orchid. I praised this one last year; it comes to an end with issue 12 next month. That’s because writer/creator/musician/activist Nightwatchman Tom Morello has a day job and the young Wobblie still has a lot of rabble to rouse. Orchid is a true revolutionary comic book wherein a growing gaggle of the downtrodden stand up for themselves against all odds and unite to defeat the omnipresent oppressor. Tom manages to do this without resorting to obvious parallels to real-life oppressors, although the environment he creates will be recognizable to anybody who thinks there just might be something wrong with Fox “News.” But this is a comic book site and not the place for (most of) my social/political rants (cough cough). Orchid succeeds and thrives as a story with identifiable, compelling characters and situations and a story that kicks ass with the energy and verve one would expect from a rock’n’roller like Morello.

8. Revival. A somewhat apocalyptic tale about people who come back from the dead in the fairly isolated city of Wausau Wisconsin (I’ve been there several times; it is a city and it is indeed fairly isolated). But they aren’t zombies. Most are quite affable. It’s the rest of the population that’s got a problem. The latest output from Tim Seeley and my landsman Mike Norton, two enormously gifted talents. Somewhere above I noted how Steve Niles is able to raise well above the predictable crap and that is equally true here: the story and formula is typical, but the execution is compelling. That I’ve been a big fan of Norton’s is no surprise to my friends in Chicago.

9. Nowhere Men. I’ve got to thank my ComicMix brother Marc Alan Fishman for this one. Admittedly, it’s only two issues old and it has its flaws – long prose insertions almost always bring the pace of visual storytelling to a grinding halt – but the concept and execution of this series far exceeds this drawback. Written by Eric Stephenson and drawn by Nate Bellegarde and Jordie Bellaire, the catch phrase here is “Science Is The New Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Four guys start up a science-for-the-people company and that’s cool, but twenty years later some have taken it too seriously, others not seriously enough, and things got a little out of hand. Sadly, I’m not certain who understands that, other than the reader and one of the major characters. Science is the new rock’n’roll, and exploring that as a cultural phenomenon makes for a great story – and a solid companion to Manhattan Projects.

Non-Self-Publisher of the Year: For some reason, I’m surprised to say it’s Image Comics. They’ve been publishing many of the most innovative titles around – four of the above nine – all creator-owned, without going after licensed properties like a crack-whore at a kneepad sale.

No offense meant to either publishers or crack-whores; I said I’m really a sweet, kind, understanding guy.

THURSDAY: Dennis O’Neil


Marc Alan Fishman: Fantastically Phoning It In

As I write this, my Bears are presently phoning in a performance so bad I’m opting to write my article instead. The game is on, yes. But, frankly, I’m not even paying attention. I guess I owe my bad-news-Bears a debt of gratitude, though. They are giving me the inspiration for a column this week.

Nothing grinds my gears more than a weak start. And this week past, a comic that should have been a touchdown upon reception was a weak three-and-out worthy of the finger wagging like no other. Matt Fraction and Mark Bagley’s relaunched Marvel Now Fantastic Four #1 was a let down of mammoth proportions. And it warrants a bit of a rant.

Generally speaking I like to keep my reviews (chock full of piss and vinegar) over at Michael Davis World. But I was too elated by Gail Simone’s Batgirl this week past to waste time setting fire the ‘Four. To be honest? I read the book, said “Meh,” and figured that I owed it to Fraction to give him some time to warm up. As I took a long and angry trip to my can in between botched Bear’s offensive drives, I flipped through the book once more. Maybe it’s the fact that my team is 20 points down and can’t move the ball more than my infant son. Maybe it’s the few pages I flipped to with glaringly awful moments that caused the rise in blood pressure. Either way, this book is bad.

Giving a favorite writer a pass because they’ve delivered solid performances in books prior is something I’ve done all the time. Hell, it’s the entire reason I still read Green Lantern. But it hit me; these are the pros. They are being given an opportunity I would literally kill for. Who or what would I kill? I dunno. An editor, probably. But I digress. Matt Fraction has written some amazing issue 1’s. His Invincible Iron Man, Defenders, and The Order all jump to mind. In each, Fraction is able to introduce his characters, set the tone of the book, and build a considerable world rich with continuity, but wholly original. In Fantastic Four #1, his dialogue is sloppy, his plotting predictable, and his tone is somewhere between “kiddie cocktail” and “phoning it in.”

For a man who likes the long game? Here he’s nearly parodying himself. Twenty pages of content, of which only two move the story in any direction forward. The rest? A wink, nod, and circle-jerk of continuity-heavy references and in-jokes. Number one indeed.

In The Order and The Defenders, Fraction proved to me he knew how to handle a team book. Moments are given to all the players, and in each tight scene he’s able to interject depth and clarity. He gave us a recovering alcoholic in Henry Hellrung. The other side of the coin to Tony Stark. He gave us a Steven Strange who was coherent of his foibles, but decidedly stubborn enough to ignore them. The key here was Fraction showing how he could take continuity and reshape it to match a new direction. That all being said… in a single issue of his Fantastic Four, he’s only able to deliver a single cliched plot direction, and a handful of watered down scenes built from scraps of Jonathan Hickman.

One of the few problems I had with Hickman’s run concerned the usage of ole’ blue eyes himself. The Thing was mainly sidelined due to the lack of punchable things in the very science-heavy arch. Given the pedigree of Red She-Hulk’s depiction in The Defenders gave me hope to see a Thing with a bit more depth, verve, and humor. Instead, Fraction warms up the tuba for a Yancy Street Gang joke on Ben Grimm. And when the Thing speaks? We get line after hackney’d line suitable only if he were being written for an SNL skit.

In other plot lines, we get yet-another scene of Johnny Storm showing that he’s the cocky brash ass we all know and love, and the totally mature death-defying wunderkind. He gives his cellphone number out to the gal he loves. Yippee. Sue gets to be the same invisible-to-the-fans mother role she was written to play. For a women I expect to be one of the smartest in the 616, she seems awfully daft here… not being able to read her rubber husband’s transparent motivations. And to round out the book? Franklin “Deus Ex Machina” Richards foretells of eeeeeevil afoot. It’s plot-by-the-numbers, and we deserve better.

Over in the art department, we get Mark Bagely. There was a time when I was truly enamored by his work. His work-horse attitude, and nuanced designs helped cement Ultimate Spider-Man’s first six arcs wonderfully. He was eventually poached by DC, where he was given Trinity – a series most of us would care to forget about, art included. Now back at the House of Mouse, he’s firing on all-cylanders… as a watered down John Romita Jr., delivering no memorable visual save for perhaps the last splash page.

Suffice to say, the Bears laid down and took it up the tail pipe tonight. After rereading Fantastic Four #1, I am clear in thinking Matt Fraction did much of the same. He came into the game with a crowd hungry for the next chapter. Instead, he spins his wheels, sputters trying to pick up pieces that were already left put back on the shelf neatly enough. This is not a new beginning. This is not Now. This is the a waste of my money and one I’m not likely to forget. I know the book will bounce back. But a loss is a loss. And this loss hurt something fierce.

SUNDAY: John Ostrander


Marc Alan Fishman: In Defense of the Modern Comic – Continuity

One more time to the well I go! As with my articles over the last two weeks … I’m taking to task one Tim Marchman of the Wall Street Journal. He quipped that the comic industry is in a tailspin in part because of “clumsy art, poor writing, and (and I’m paraphrasing…) the clinging-to-continuity.” I’ve defended the art. I’ve defended the writing. I might as well finish off the trifecta of telling this putz where to shove his opinions, right? Even if it gets Mike Gold in a tizzy.

It’s the argument I hear (and honestly have made myself… whoops) time and again; Modern comic books are too hard to get into because they have a nearly-impossible-to-grasp forever-changing mythology. In fact, this very argument was brought to life (and a live audience) to WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate) at a well-attended debate. At that debate? Tim Seeley, Mike Norton, and a handful of other local comic artists and writers. Suffice to say, the argument has legs. Long, tall, sultry legs. Legs that start at the floor, and go up to the heavens. The kind of legs that keep lesser men at bay. OK, I’ll stop with the leg analogy. I get it. Really, I do. “If I want to read Spider-Man, I need to read decades worth of stories to understand what’s going on!”


Sorry, my son is watching me type.

Huh. Now there’s something to latch on to – my son. Soon, Bennett will gain the power of language and communication. And I plan to read him a comic book every night before bed. Why? Because I want to teach him, from as early an age as possible, that comic books (and their never-ending back-stories) are entirely accessible. From the simplest base of knowledge – sometimes rooted only in the musings, opinions, and un-fact-checked thoughts of another comic book fan – enjoyment is not hindered by a lengthy back story. In fact, when handled well, a story with a rich history only yields further desire to immerse ones’ self in the adventure further.

Case in point? GrimJack

When “The Manx Cat” hit shelves, I nabbed it, tepidly. Knowing nothing of the adventures of the beret-wearing, bar-owning, sword-gun-and-sorcery-using mercenary, I still made the purchase. The issue was clearly meant to attract a new reader (as DC did with relaunching their entire line, and Marvel does when they append a “.1” to a book’s numbering). As I recall, the inside front cover didn’t have a lengthy history report. Over the course of six issues, I learned what I could from what John Ostrander presented. Some of it was easy enough to latch on to. “This guy’s been around the block a few times. Seems to have an elaborate network of operatives, friends, and history around this universe.” Other things made me scratch my noodle. “He’s obviously referencing a previous adventure the older fans know. Hmm. Sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll go back and check it out…”

And therein lies my point. All it took was a spark of interest, and I dove in. Comic books are akin to other serialized mediums – Professional Wrestling and Soap Operas come to mind. Before your eyes roll, and you snort loud enough to make the cat wake up, hold tight. When I uttered (err, typed) those phrases, did the hair on the back of your neck raise up just a little? Well, suck it up, nerdlinger. For the “big two” in the industry… their wares aren’t really all that different from Vince McMahon’s steroid showcase, or the major networks’ never-ending dramas of soapy nature. The fact is the very root of comic books is tied to the idea of serialization. To proclaim it being part of the reason the comic book business is failing is like saying wrestling is failing because it’s fake.

Now, to be fair, Marchman may very well be commenting on modern books being “written for the trade”, which I covered last week. When you walk into the store today, and want to check out The Avengers (cause you just saw that kooky flick, don’t-cha-know…), the first issue you pull off the shelf may be right smack dab in the middle of some zany plot you’ve no clue about. Reading 20 pages of content piling on top of two, three or four previous episodes makes for an nearly impossible-to-enjoy experience. I guess you’d throw up your arms, and leave the shop. Maybe go into the back alley. Buy some drugs. I mean drugs don’t care about history, do they? And they’re just as addictive… Damnit comics! You made another near-fan a drug addict.

Here’s the rub: It’s a lame excuse. If you came out of the movie theater jazzed about the Avengers, a quick jaunt to your local fiction house would help satiate your new-found-taste for muscles and fights. A well-picked trade, or handful of issues later (let’s say about $20 worth, or less if you go digital), you can then start pulling off the rack, right afterwards. Will you know everything going on? No. But if the books are written and drawn well enough? I bet you go back and fill in the gaps. I did with the Fantastic Four, not that long ago. Without any knowledge of the years Hickman spent building his nuanced epic arc, I jumped in head first (right after Johnny “died”). And over the course of the following year? The book rose to the top of my pull list. And now, I’m going back through his entire run. Because I want to know more. All it took was the first step – and admitting my previous excuse for not buying the book was just that… an excuse.

Suffice to say, Marchman’s point about barrier to entry is just a sly dodge away from the real issue (which is more about the Direct Market, availability, and proper marketing by Marvel and DC to potential fans). For those people who say “I’d get into comics, but there’s too much backstory to get through,” what are they really telling you? Jim Gaffigan had it right all along:

“You know my favorite part about that movie? Not reading.”

SUNDAY: Did Somebody Mention John Ostrander?


Mike Gold: Old Farts Are The Best Farts

In this space last Saturday, my dear friend and adoptive bastard son Marc Alan Fishman stated “modern comics are writing rings around previous generations. We’re in a renaissance of story structure, characterization, and depth… I’d like to think we the people might defend the quality of today’s comics as being leaps and bounds better than books of yesteryear.”

Simply put, the dear boy and my close pal and our valued ComicMix contributor is full of it.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a hell of a lot of great writing out there today, and I agree with his opinions about most if not all of the young’un’s he cites. Today’s American comics reach a much wider range of readers. There’s also a hell of a lot more comics being published today – although those comics are being read by a much smaller audience in the aggregate – and I take no comfort in saying there’s more crap being published today as well: Sturgeon’s Law is akin to gravity. Marc’s comparison to the comics of the 1960s and 1970s is an apples-and-oranges argument: the comics of the pre-direct sales era, defining that as the point when most comics publishers virtually abandoned newsstand sales, were geared to a much younger audience. Even so, a lot of sophisticated stories squeaked through under the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” technique of writing on two levels simultaneously.

As I said, there are a lot of great writers practicing their craft today. Are they better than Carl Barks, John Broome, Jack Cole, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Archie Goodwin, Walt Kelly, Harvey Kurtzman and Jim Steranko … to name but a very few (and alphabetically at that)? Did Roy Thomas, Louise Simonson and Steve Englehart serve their audience in a manner inferior to the way Jonathan Hickman, Gail Simone and Brian Bendis serve theirs today? Most certainly not.

Then again, some of the writers he cites are hardly young’un’s. Kurt Busiek has been at it since Marc was still in diapers. Grant Morrison? He started before Marc’s parents enjoyed creating his very own secret origin.

Marc goes on to state that John Ostrander and Dennis O’Neil would say that the scripts they write today are leaps and bounds better than their earlier work. I don’t know; I haven’t asked them. But I can offer my opinion. Neither John nor Denny are writing as much as they could or should today because they, like the others of their age, they are perceived as too old to address the desires of today’s audience – which, by the way, is hardly a young audience. I wonder where this attitude comes from?

But let’s look at the works of these two fine authors from those thrilling days of yesteryear. John’s Wasteland, GrimJack, Suicide Squad, and The Kents stand in line behind nothing. As for Denny, well, bandwidth limitations prohibit even a representative listing of his meritorious works, and I’ll only note Batman once. Let’s look at The Question. A great series, and he wrote that while holding down a full-time job and while sharing an office with a complete lunatic. Then there’s Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Shadow… hokey smokes, I wake up each Thursday morning (in the afternoon) blessing Odin’s Bejeweled Eye-patch that Denny is writing his ComicMix column instead of spending that time doing socially respectable work.

I am proud of this medium and its continued growth – particularly as its growth had been stunted for so long. And I’m proud of my own service to this medium. But, as John of Salisbury said 953 years ago, we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants.

And, standing on those shoulders, we swat at gnats.

THURSDAY: The Aforementioned Mr. O’Neil!


Marc Alan Fishman: In Defense of Modern Comics, Part 2

Welcome back to the ranting and raving, kiddos. Be forewarned, some time has passed since my last article – one week to be exact – but I’m still angry as all get-out. For those just joining us: Tim Marchman’s review of “Leaping Tall Buildings” in the Wall Street Journal was an incendiary piece of trash. The review meant to blame the lack of universal love (and sales) of comic books due (in part) to the “clumsily drawn” and “poorly written” books themselves. Last week, I argued on the side of the artists. This week, I mean to tackle this asshat’s jab at the scribes of our pulpy tomes.

To say that, on the whole, modern comics are “poorly written” is just about the silliest opinion I’ve heard since my buddy told me “Ranch dressing tastes bad on chicken.” First off, ranch is delicious on chicken. More to the point, modern comics are writing rings around previous generations. We’re in a renaissance of story structure, characterization, and depth. Writing, much like art, is largely subjective when it comes to collective opinion. That being said, certainly anyone with minimal brain power might be able to tell good writing from bad. Easy enough for us all to agree that the Avengers was better written than the Twilight movies. OK, maybe that’s a bit unfair. Axe Cop is better written than Twilight… and it’s penned by a six year old. Either way, I’d like to think we the people (of Comic Landia) might defend the quality of today’s comics as being leaps and bounds better than books of yesteryear.

I know this might be daring (and insane) of me to say… but for those old farts and fogies that proclaim comics “aren’t what they used ta’ be!” – and imply the scripts are worse now than they were in the 60s or 70s – should go back to the nursing home, and yell at the TV until dinner. Call it a sweeping declaration. Call it mean-spirited. But I call it as I see it: Modern books are simply written better. Today’s comics – when they are good – embrace pacing, motif, and intelligent payoffs by and large far more than ever previously. I assume Marchman, while researching for his article, was only reading Jeph Loeb books. And if that’s the case? He’s probably right. But I digress.

Open a book today. You’ll see things that previous generations simply failed to execute properly. A modern comic is unafraid to let the art speak for itself. Not every panel needs an explanatory caption box anymore. Gone are lengthy thought balloons that explain away every ounce of subtlety. Writers allow their characters time to emotionally deal with their actions, and end books on a down note when needed. And as much as terrible crime against nature it is, modern writers are even willing to ret-con, reboot, or reexamine the past of a character to better flesh out their drive or motive. It’s been done before, I know, but never as good as it’s being done now.

Comic writers today (again, “by and large”) embrace risk like no other generation before them. Guys like Kurt Busiek and Robert Kirkman channel their love and admiration of tropes and stereotypes, and drill down to new and unique concepts that spin old ideas into fresh ones. Dudes like Grant Morrison and Jonathan Hickman layer super-psuedo science and lofty concepts within their stories to transform the truly implausible to the sublimely believable… a metamorphosis of story that a Stan Lee would not have ever delivered to the true believers. And what of our own ComicMix brethren, whose bibliographies aren’t complete… Would John Ostrander or Dennis O’Neil say that the scripts they write today aren’t leaps and bounds better than their earlier work? As artists (be it with brush or word), we always strive to evolve. That equates to the present always being better than the past.

Simply put, Marchman’s postulation that the scripting of current comics is to blame for the lack of sales in comparison to alternative media (like movies or TV) is hilariously wrong. While he’s quick to back his point with the cop-out “continuity” argument, he lacks the niche-knowledge necessary to know how idiotic he sounds. With the advent of Wikipedia, friendly comic ship owners, digital publication of archive materials, as well as countless other online resources… the barrier to entry for someone truly interested in buying a comic is the commitment to seek out the backstory. To blame the lack of sales on an arbitrary assessment of the quality of the stories, was made without considering the avalanche of amazing material being published today.

If I can use a trope from the bag of Seth MacFarlane, I’d like to end on hyperbole. You see, Mr. Marchman, if you want me to believe that comics today are poorly written? I’d like you to read current issues of Action Comics, Batman, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Invincible Iron Man, Fantastic Four, The Boys, Dial H, Saga, Irredeemable, Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi, Justice League, Green Lantern, Powers, Monocyte, The New Deadwardians, Batman Incorporated, Courtney Crumrin, Saucer County, Fatale, and Batwoman. Then get back to me. Until that time? Suck-a-duck.

SUNDAY: The Aforementioned Geriatric John Ostrander

Marc Alan Fishman: Help! I’m A Marvel Zombie!

Seriously, it happened so slowly, I never saw it coming. It’s long been a fact: Marc Alan Fishman is a card carrying member of the DC Nation. But then, something changed. Flashpoint was one epic-crossover-super-event-that-changed-everything too many. With the New 52, I’d made a steadfast rule: In order to conserve money and my sanity, any book that delivered two issues in a row that left me bored or was just terrible I would remove from my pull list.

Like every red-blooded nerd worth his salt, when a book is dropped from my box, I can’t help but seek to replace it with something new. And now that I look across the board, Marvel is now on equal footing, book-for-book with my pull list for DC.

More important, every Marvel book on that list is one that when I see it on the shelf, I get truly excited. Truth be told, I get Blue Beetle, Batgirl, Justice League Dark, Green Lantern Corps, and Resurrection Man – and they are good comics, but none of them excite me anymore. I’m slowly coming to terms with it; New 52 be damned… Make Mine Marvel.

Simply put, right now Marvel is putting out better books than DC. I welcome the flame war and argument from the interwebs. Based solely on the Marvel books I’ve read in the last three-four months, DC pales in comparison in story depth, quality, scope, and clarity. A few examples, you ask?

Take the Fantastic Four. Jonathan Hickman’s run on the title has been compared to Kirby and Lee’s initial run; and said with sincerity. His “War of the Four Cities” multi-year arc was as epic as any DC “Crisis” without the multitude of mini-series. While it did spawn a second book, FF, the grandeur has been well contained. Even better, FF brings the ideology of the family and creates an excuse to explore more of the Baxter Building collective without over-saturation. It’s a riff, not a rip-off. Compare this to the four Green Lantern titles being pumped out at DC and you can see how a little consolidation can really tighten up a title’s overall quality.

How about the newly relaunched Defenders? Matt Fraction’s “vacation” title is a glorious send up to an old and mostly forgotten secondary team… dusted off, polished up, and presented wonderfully in the modern age. While only five issues in, I’ve been nothing but impressed up until now. In fact, Defenders #4 easily tops my list of best comics I’ve read for the year. The year is early, yes, but amongst dozens and dozens of issues, I’ve little doubt it won’t falter from my top ten by years end. It’s a comic not afraid to be written with a smirk… that knows when to be deadly serious, or just go for the nut shot. Something Justice League International tried to do, and fell on its face for attempting.

For those following my reviews on Michael Davis World, you’ll no doubt also note my recent jaunt into Spider-Land with the Amazing Spider-Man title. With the promise of the “Ends of the Earth” storyline being a good jumping on point for new readers, I dove into a title and character I’ve always wanted to read, but never did because of the bad mojo that came with the book. Ask anyone about Spider-Man’s most recent bullet points and I doubt you’ll see a face light up when discussing One More Day, the Other, or even Spider-Island. That being said, the series thus far has been a joyous romp. A Saturday morning cartoon concept with a hidden maturity, that has a perfect balance of comic-book-quirk with well thought out plot development.

And over in Invincible Iron Man? Well, Matt Fraction is proving what a truly potent writer he is by shaking off the grime of the horrendous Fear Itself crossover crud and taking his baby book back to form. His long-winding plot of Mandarin’s careful and calculated destruction of Tony Stark has been a slow burn that’s been a long time coming. And when everything recently came to a head, we got a moment in comics I’ve dreamed of reading since I finished The Watchmen – an arc where the hero loses because he’s been out-matched. It was bold, ballsy, and has me chomping at the bit for more.

All this, and I’ve not even mentioned Daredevil or Ultimate Spider-Man. I’d love to, but well… I’ve not read them yet. But they are high on the list for me to catch up on, the second the next DC book takes a dive in my box. Resurrection Man? I’m looking at you.

Now, of course, Marvel isn’t perfect. Just a few weeks back on my podcast, a lifelong X-Men fan told me he’d literally given on comics all together because of the terrible decline of his favorite mutants. And let’s give credit where credit is due: Fraction and Hickman’s bold pacing is very much in-step with Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison’s work on Green Lantern and Batman over the last 60 or so issues. Anyone who read “Batman R.I.P.” can see what “The War of the Four Cities” or most of the run on Invincible Iron Man is being inspired by (not directly mind you… but certainly in conceptual scope). And DC is not without its own amazing titles. Action Comics, Batman, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and Green Lantern always float to the top of my reading pile when I pick them up.

This of course leads me to ask the bigger questions. Was the New 52 not powerful enough overall to keep me from being lured away? Is Marvel just in a great rhythm right now? Will X-Men vs. Avengers cause some major crisis to interrupt all the goodness coming out in their top titles? Or with the second wave of new books (Dial H and JSA are both looking mighty fine to me…) hitting shelves soon, will DC reclaim me?

Don’t worry, I’ll let you know.

SUNDAY: John Ostrander Feeds The Chickens


‘Avengers vs. X-Men’ is the Next Marvel Comics Event

‘Avengers vs. X-Men’ is the Next Marvel Comics Event

The next major Marvel Comics event has been announced: Avengers vs. X-Men. Teaser art has been hinting at the return of the Phoenix Force since New York Comic Con in October, and USA Today confirmsthat the storyline will indeed feature the return of the nigh-omnipotent cosmic deity of destruction and rebirth who most famously possessed Jean Grey.In Avengers vs. X-Men, a twelve-issue series that launches in April 2012, the heroes of the Marvel Universe learn that the Phoenix Force is making its way back to Earth, prompting yet another conflict over Hope Summers, the young girl considered both the messiah and the harbinger of doom for the mutant race. Long heralded as the the next host of the Phoenix Force — and possibly, a reincarnated Jean Grey — Hope sparks a conflict between the X-Men and the Avengers, who have different ideas about how to protect both Hope and the entire world from the deadly and incredibly powerful entity.

Marvel has promised to reveal more details about the event today in a live news conference at 3 PM EST with Matt Fraction, Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Hickman. Marvel will also make the creators available through Google+, and suggests that fans use the hashtag #AvX to discuss the event on Twitter.

MARC ALAN FISHMAN: What I’m Thankful For

Folks, I apologize for missing two weeks ago. I know it caused you to cancel plans, cut ties with loved ones, cease working, and maybe join one of the many #OccupyComicMix rallies across America. Well, as one of the 14.3% here who write a column, I assure you it won’t happen again.

Since it’s that time where we start reflecting on where we’ve been, what we’ve accomplished, and what we enjoyed… it figures I’d take a week off of crazy ranting to spread a little appreciation out there for the things in comics I’ve loved this year. What follows is an unordered, unfiltered, unadulterated list of things that tickled my nethers (comicly speaking). Tally ho, my friends.

FF — Those who follow me fully know I am more or less a DC dude. But I told myself this year I would consider more titles to pull from the House of Ideas. Well, thanks to the “Death” of Johnny Storm at the beginning of the year, it meant it was time for a restart of Marvel’s First Family. And thus FF, or the “Future Foundation” was launched shortly thereafter. Figuring it was as good a time as any to jump on board, I subscribed. Here we are, 11 issues later. I have to say, while the book doesn’t leap to the top of my pile when I’m in the can, every time I pick it up, I’m always happy to have done so. Jonathan Hickman is an intelligent writer who can craft one hell of a story. And art chores by Steve Epting, and currently Barry Kitson? The book is clean, Kirby inspired, sleek and sexy.

What I’m truly thankful for with this series is the way Hickman has given us an entire universe unto itself. FF removed from any crossover tie-ins, has been an in-book epic quest. With time travelers, political wars, cosmic disturbances, a heavy dose of Doom and comic relief by Spider-Man? There’s nothing this book hasn’t given me. With a little lull for an info dump at the mid-way point in the first arc past us, the book has continued to grow carefully. It’s been a beacon of true pulp for me thus far.

Gail Simone and Scott Snyder — All they touch glitters and is gold. In 2011, no two writers dominated my pull list more, nor disappointed less. Secret Six, Detective Comics, and now Batgirl, Firestorm, and Batman have all floated to the top of my must-read-pile week in and week out.

Gail’s writing is brilliant in its subtlety. Her books read quickly, but pack more nuance and depth of character than just about any other book on the shelves today. Where I once stood skeptical of Barbara Gordon returning to her lost mantle, I now live and die to read her exploits. Gail’s ability to let her characters talk about what’s actually going on in their mind instead of barking plot advancing banalities makes each comic of hers flow like a movie on paper. And when she falters, say with a weak and predictable initial villain in Batgirl? She makes up for it by forcing us to pay attention to the detailed character work opposite some of the more forced beats in the story. Her dialogue, a smattering of Kevin Smith without the “every character basically shares one hyper-intelligent voice” is never anything but a joy in print. A Simone book these days is akin to Chinese food. An hour after I’ve consumed it, I want more.

Scott Snyder is the yin to Gail’s yang. Get your mind out of the gutter. While I’ve only been privy to his bat-work, as it were, he’s been nothing if not flawless in delivery. His run on Detective Comics this year was, simply put, the best comic series I read. His characterization of Dick Grayson as Batman was pitch-perfect. The balance of his light hearted banter in the middle of a fight, combined with his police-inspired detective skills was written just the way I’d hoped. He wasn’t trying to be Bruce. He was filling the mantle in his own way. And when Snyder took the lead to Batman proper, he delivered once again, making sure we knew that his Bruce Wayne was assuredly not a gruffer Grayson. His plots bob and weave. Villains hide in plain sight, and get the best of his Batmen in ways we can agree with. And he’s done it all while keeping the majority of Batman’s classic rogues out of focus. His new creations fold into Gotham just as well, and don’t ever come across as knock-offs. Suffice to say? He took the ball Grant Morrison slam dunked with “Batman R.I.P.” and shot back-to-back three pointers.

Let’s Be Friends Again! and The Gutters — I don’t read many web comics, kids. But when I do? I read these. As playful jabs at the comic industry today, you can’t find two funnier takes. And sure, my very own studio did do a strip for The Gutters but we contributed for no better reason than the desire to be amongst greatness. The Gutters have poked and prodded everyone from Dan DiDio to the suits behind Dark Horse with a more than a wink and nod. And thanks in large part to their vast array of artists on file means that three times a week you get a beautiful web comic that delivers that “Friday” quality every strip.

Let’s Be Friends Again! is equally great. A bit more “Penny Arcade” with its core duo than the protagonist-less Gutters, LBFA is hilarity incarnate. Generally taking on just “the big two,” they’ve caused me to chortle out loud more than any strip has otherwise. Don’t just take my word for it. If Racist Galactus doesn’t make you laugh out loud? We can’t be friends.

Unshaven Comics — I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out some love for my brothers from other mothers. Matt Wright and Kyle Gnepper sacrifice their free time to cram into my basement every week to work on our little rags, and website. With them this year, I’ve traveled to Detroit, Kokomo, Fort Wayne, Chicago, Indianapolis and Columbus. With them, this year, I’ve met hundreds of people, and sold nearly 1000 books face to face! When I had the dream of working in comics, they stood along side me, and shared that dream. Although we’re only a blip on the blip riding on the hump of another blip on the radar of the industry… we’re still there, and I couldn’t think of two more talented people to do it with.

And last but not least… ComicMix, and You — For those who have followed me on this site now for three years, I simply can’t express how much I appreciate your continued support. Even when I piss you off with my insane hatred of things you like, or make you roll your eyes with my unending list of snarky retorts to industry news… you come back the next week. You comment. You share my writings with your friends. To have this opportunity every week, to write alongside literal living legends? It’s something I never thought would be possible. And yet, here I am 20 editorials later, forever grateful for the opportunity and the responsibility.

And with that, I bid you adieu. Don’t worry about all this sap this time around. I hear the Phoenix is coming back, and that makes me want to rant. Later days, kiddos. Later days.

SUNDAY: John Ostrander