Years in the making, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was never intended to rewrite the rules for the Caped Crusader or become the template for a generation of storytelling. It was, though, the culmination of a series of events that occurred at DC Comics and in Miller’s professional development that nicely dovetailed together. The right book, character, and creator all arrived at the right time, when an audience was ready to accept the radical re-imagining.
Ever since the four-part story heralded the arrival of the Prestige Format and was the first entry in the current field of graphic novels, The Dark Knight Returns has been an influential touchstone to storytellers. Its use of character, page construction, color, and theme showed that four-color heroes can be used for darker concepts, exploring new ideas. As a result, people have been clamoring to see it adapted for the screen, any screen, so it could continue to thrill us. We were teased with the folk at Warner Animation paying homage to Miller’s art style and now-iconic imagery in Animaniacs and Batman the Animated Series.
At long last, Warner Premiere has delivered their finest effort, paying tribute to the story written and pencilled by Miller, inked by Klaus Janson, and colored by Lynn Varley. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 is out on home video, as a Combo Pack (Blu-ray, DVD, Ultraviolet) and shows the affection from the first frame.
Bob Goodman remained utterly faithful to the story, compressing the first half of the graphic novel into a brisk 76 minutes that still contains the moments you want. Commissioner James Gordon and Bruce Wayne have a nice, warm friendship, Alfred remains his acerbic self, and Carrie Kelly is gung-ho and awkward. The first half of the story deals with several threats to Gotham City, first the gang known as the Mutants and their muscle-bound leader who wants to own the town; and Harvey Dent, seemingly physically cured but proving his mind is as fractured as ever. And watching from confinement is a homicidal maniac long-thought drugged into submission.
The best thing director Jay Oliva, who cut his teeth on Man of Steel and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights), did was show us what Miller could only hint at: a 50-year old man who really has to struggle to keep up. He strains to climb a rope and isn’t fast enough to take down the mutant leader the first time they brawl (in fact their two fights is almost a template for the Batman-Bane confrontations in The Dark Knight Rises). This is a 50+ hero who hasn’t seen action in a decade, but we know from the opening scene he remains addicted to adrenaline and action. His return evokes the creature of the night that first established his reputation in the city and once more inspires the populace.
Visually, Miller’s beefed up main characters and gritty style is nicely replicated, complete with making Batman larger-than-life so he dwarfs Carrie and most other mortals. The story remains a future from the fixed point of the 1980s since the story is dependent on that particular view of America, which means so much of the technology appears antiquated by today’s standards but works wonderfully. There’s also a nice meta shout-out to other titles from 1985-87 that helped reshape comics: Crisis on Infinite Earths, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta.
As usual Andrea Romano has assembled a stellar cast for the voices and while most will lament the absence of Kevin Conroy as Batman, Peter Weller more than ably fills the cape and cowl with gravitas. He’s older, wearier. David Selby’s Gordon has much of the same feeling which is nicely contrasted by Ariel Winter’s Carrie. Wade Williams as Dent and Michael McKean as a blowhard psychiatrist nicely round out the cast.
Interestingly, the packaging avoids imitating Miller’s style, a curious choice. Similarly, Miller, Janson and Varley’s lack of participation in the extras is glaring. They are merely represented with a digital comic excerpt from issue one of The Dark Knight. Instead, we get “Her Name if Carrie…Her Role is Robin” (12:00) with Grant Morrison, Mike Carlin, Alan Burnett, Bruce Timm, and others discussing the radical use of a girl as the new sidekick. There are some nice bits placing this in an historic context. The 2008 “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story” (38:00) is reused here and we’re reminded of the egotistical Kane avoiding sharing credit with anyone.
On the Blu-ray is a Two-Face two-parter from Batman the Animated Series. There’s also a sneak peek of part two, due out in early 2013.
It’s a shame Miller wouldn’t participate and the film lacks a commentary track since bringing this to life appears to have been a labor of love for all involved.
I’ve been a fan of Reilly Brown’s artwork since I first came across it in Marvel’s Cable & Deadpool, and have been following it off and on ever since. There are a lot of artists I like out there, but Reilly is consistently a favorite of mine – his characters’ expressions and the way his drawings capture the energy and emotion of whatever’s happening on the page really appeal to me. I also consider him among the pioneers of the digital comics medium. One of his current projects, Power Play, is a digital comic that was the first effective use of the medium that I had ever seen. To pull from my thoughts when I reviewed the Power Play preview in 2011:
“This is the kind of thing I geek out about, because it excites me to see the potential of the medium being explored to enhance the reading experience. In places it reminds me a bit of the Watchmen stop-animation type video comics they did around the time of the movie, only I never had the patience to watch all of those, since I’d read the book a million times already and they moved too slowly from one frame to the next. But having the ability to read at one’s own pace, and still get the animation-like effects now and again, is fantastic. Being able to see one or two panels at a time, zoomed in or close up, is great. I love the panning from one part of a panel to another, and the fading from full color to monochrome for effect. Having the direction of the screen shifts follow the action is cool; or having the shifts follow the narrative and captions. Also I like how Reilly has the characters in similar poses in a couple of frames, but shifting from one frame to the next gives you the action of a head turn or tilt like in animation.
This is truly the future of how digital comics should be read. I definitely wish I had an iPad so I could experience it in a bigger window, but with only a smartphone, this is hands-down the best way to see digital comics on a hand-held device. For comparison, I downloaded DC Comics New 52 #1 preview and tried reading it on my Droid 2. Now, I know on a computer the usual format is fine; but on a smartphone? It’s fairly unreadable. All the zooming in and panning around necessary just to see one page is a total pain, and not something I have the patience (or eyesight) for. The Power Play layout is infinitely better.”
Given Reilly’s dynamic art and his excellent use of the still-fairly-new digital comics medium, I always consider him one to watch. I’ve also been telling him since something like 2009 that I was going to sit down and interview him one of these days. Finally, at this year’s Baltimore Comic-Con, we made it happen. So here we go!
Emily: So, Reilly, what’s your favorite project that you’ve ever done?
Reilly: My favorite project that I’ve ever worked on is Power Play. I just love doing any creator-owned stuff, especially when I get to sit down and make my own character designs. And not having to feel like the shadows of all of the other decades of awesome artists that have worked on a project before me are looming over me is really freeing. It’s also fun to play around with the digital media and things like that.
Emily: Tell me, what was the genesis of Power Play?
Reilly: It started with me and Kurt Christenson, the writer; since we were both in the same studio at the time, and we’ve been friends for years, one day I said, “You know what, why don’t we do a project together?” and he was like, “Yeah, man, I’d be into it.”
When it started out, we just wanted to do something small, just a quick little simple thing; but as we were spitballing ideas, it turned into this idea that we realized could be really cool if we tried to turn it into something big. The basic idea is that I really wanted to do a story that is based in New York and really uses New York, the real city, as a backdrop. Because so many comics take place in the city but “New York” is just generic buildings in the background or whatever. When I’m walking around the streets, I just see so many cool things – like architectural things, or construction things, or just random things on the street, that are totally normal, but I don’t always think about them when I’m just sitting at my drawing table. And so many of the comics writers don’t even live in New York, so – you know, how do you really make use of a place if you’re not there? I wanted to incorporate New York into a comic.
Emily: How long have you been in New York?
Reilly: I grew up in New Jersey, so I’m right across the river, and I went to school in Virginia but then I moved back after I graduated. So around January 2005 I moved back to New Jersey, with a studio in New York; and I just really wanted to do a story where the writer and I walk around town and plot things out as we go, and just, say, point to a thing, and say, “Okay, the character could jump from that building to that lamppost; and then take a photo reference while we’re there – I actually have photos of most of the backgrounds.
Emily: I didn’t know you actually walk around to plot the stories. That’s pretty cool. So tell me, what’s your favorite hangout or place to go in NYC?
Reilly: There are so many good places to hang out, and it changes all the time. Crocodile Lounge is always a stand-by for me, to go play some skee-ball; and you get a free pizza with every beer. Actually, that’s the bar they go to in the first issue of Power Play; where Mac turns into beer. And…I don’t know, there are too many awesome places to choose from — and half the time, the place is not going to be there in six months.
Emily: That’s true. So who’s you’re favorite character from Power Play, and how does he or she relate to the city?
Reilly: That’s a hard one. I love Gowanus Pete, and the Ice Queen, and Mac…all of the characters are so much fun to draw, and I just feel so close to them.
Emily: Who was the first one you came up with?
Reilly: It was probably either Mac or Gowanus Pete… or the Ice Queen. The studio’s right on the Gowanus Canal, and I remember Kurt and I were having a conversation trying to come up with different characters and their powers as we were leaving the studio and walking to get some lunch. I wanted all of the characters to have kind of goofy origins based on things or places in the city, and just take it to a ridiculous degree; so we were around the Gowanus Canal, which is the nastiest body of water in the country, I mean, it’s horrible. It’s like, multicolored; it’s really just a run-off ditch for a bunch of different waste dumps and things, seriously – look it up. Every now and then you’ll see them testing it to see the different acidity levels and different bacterias and diseases and things people find in there, like they’ll find a dead shark in there, or something like that, or a tiger skull; weird things. So the joke I’ve always had was that if anyone fell in there, they would be horribly mutated – so Kurt and I were walking around talking about different characters and different ideas and powers or personalities, and as we were crossing the Gowanus, there was a really big poster or mural or painting or whatever of the silhouette of an octopus, and Kurt looked at it and said, “Well that’s a character,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s Gowanus Pete right there.”
Emily: That’s great. You’ve done a really cool digital thing with Power Play – tell me about your digital process and how that all happened; and what your thoughts are on digital comics.
Reilly: The thing that really drove me to do a digital comic was pretty much that no one else was doing it. I saw an area that seemed ripe for comics and for comic artists to play around with, and nobody else seemed to be jumping on it. There are a couple of little webcomics here and there that do stuff; but none that really stood out or that did it for a long-term thing.
Emily: I think we should be making a distinction here; because Marvel and DC and all are doing digital comics, in the sense of putting their stationary paper comics online to be viewed with digital readers; but what I’m thinking of is the way that you’ve manipulated the panels and images with Power Play. So that’s what we’re talking about here.
Reilly: Right; well ComiXology came out, and they were translating all of these Marvel and DC comics, so the typical, mainstream, superhero comics were finding this new digital home through their application. And I was looking at this, thinking, “This is a really cool thing; somebody is going to see this and start making comics designed specifically for ComiXology, or this type of digital format, and they’re going to do it in a way that uses the new digital storytelling techniques.
The thing is, ComiXology did a great job of translating the comic to the iPad, and there are other companies that have tried doing that, but they’ve seemed to trip over the fact that the comics page and the iPad screen, or even the computer screen, aren’t the same shape. Everybody else was stumbling over this, and you had to scroll, or everything was shrunk too small, or you had to zoom in yourself, or there’d be all sorts of problems with it; and ComiXology had found a pretty simple way around that, and it worked great, and it looked great. Yeah, there were a few hoops they had to jump through, but the way they solved those problems; like their guided view thing, you know, where they would actually zoom in on a part of an image that needed to be zoomed in on; and then they would zoom out for the rest of it; or it would pan from one thing to another, and fade from one thing to another, was great. And I thought, “Man, look at all of this stuff they’re pretty much doing by accident at this point; somebody’s going to come around and do this on purpose and it’s going to make an awesome comic.” But nobody was doing it, so then I thought, “Well maybe I could do it. Maybe I’ll be the guy to do that!”
So that’s why we started working on Power Play. I was talking about how we came up with the idea for Power Play; and one of the things we wanted to do was to take advantage of the new mediums. You know, one of the big problems in the entire economy right now is that young people don’t leave their houses or spend money. They’re just on Facebook, downloading things for free, and sharing with their friends, and it’s at the point where if something is not on Facebook, nobody’s going to see it, or at least not as many people as should see it. So we said, “Whatever we do, we want to get it in front of as many people as possible, so let’s come up with a way of doing a really great thing that we can link through Facebook, and everyone can share it; and that takes advantage of that. “ And ComiXology was developed so perfectly for that. So we jumped on that.
Emily: I still point to your comic to show people how this can work. I know there may be a few now, but it’s still not as big as I would expect.
Reilly: You’re right; I’m surprised more people haven’t jumped on it. There are a few others that were first adopters like me, like Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen (Valentine). They actually beat me to the punch; we were already working on Power Play when I saw that come out, and I was like, “Aw, crap, we’re not the first anymore! We’ve really gotta get this thing going!” There’s also David Gallaher and Steve Ellis’s Box 13, which ComiXology actually hired them to make; so it’s really made for their app. And reading that, you really see how their [Steve & Dave’s] thought process is developing on how to use it. How they are learning. At first, it was just as simple as, let’s just make the panels the size or shape of a screen. But then they started seeing more potential. I was in the same building – Steve Ellis’s art studio was just down the hall from mine – so I was working on Power Play while they were working on that, so we’d bounce ideas off of each other. So it was cool to see how some of that stuff ended up playing in their comic.
Most recently, Marvel had their Infinite Comics, which I was happy to be a part of. They have the big AvX [Avengers vs. X-Men] story, and I’d been talking about what I’ve been doing with Power Play to Marvel for awhile, like, “Let me do one of these for you!” I talked to all the editors… Nick Lowe was the one who was really spearheading it over there; or at least when I was talking to them Nick Lowe and Jordan White were the editors that I worked with on that. They’re awesome for seeing that potential and taking a risk, because, you know, Marvel doesn’t often do stuff like that, where they don’t know how it will turn out; and it’s pretty impressive to see a big company like that try to take a risk on something that’s so new. But at the same time I was doing this, Mark Waid was starting his Thrillbent thing, so he was talking all about it. So he wrote the three AvX Infinite installments, and I drew the third one; which was cool. And that was all ComiXology stuff, and it’s all just like how Power Play was done.
Emily: That’s fantastic. I’ll have to look that up, because I haven’t seen it yet. So now, what does the future hold for you?
Reilly: Well I’m not exclusive with Marvel, but I’m currently working on some Scarlet Spider stuff, and we’ll see what happens from there. I’ve still got Power Play going on, and I’ve got some other side projects… I have so many things going on right now!
Emily: It sounds like it! Well Reilly, thanks so much for talking with us , and I look forward to seeing what you come up with next!
…And until then, ComicMix readers, remember to tune in next Tuesday for my interview with Dean Haspiel, and Servo Lectio!
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Why Does Michael Davis Read Comics?
So it came to my attention by way of an amazingly nice lass that some forward thinking teacher-types are slowly coming around the bend. Yup, they are looking toward comic books, those evil things, as potential fodder for their classrooms. Gasp! And, as it would seem, this very nice girl asked me – little old me – to give my two cents on the matter. And because I love killing two birds with one stone, I figured this outta make a great li’l rant to share with you, my adoring public. Of course, I realize now I admitted to the glee I feel when I commit aviaricide. Well, there went my fan-base. Tally ho!
I know back in the olden days, comics were largely seen as kitchy wastes of ink and paper. Kids buried in them were potentially violent sociopaths just waiting to commit crimes of laziness. But by the time I was in school they were starting to be called graphic novels. Thanks in large part to the artsy works of Art Spiegelman, Joe Kuburt, and Will Eisner, the medium as a whole was slowly pulling itself out of the low-bro.
That being said, I was never assigned a graphic novel to read for a class. Nor was I able to select one for independent book reports or the like. Even within the realm of studio art classes I was nixed the ability to cite Alex Ross as a major influence without scoffs. But as Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a changin’.”
If I were to suggest opening up a classroom to comics, well, it’s a simple issue – do it. Comics are easily one of the best gateways to literacy I can think of. Truth be told, the first books our parents read us (and I’m reading to my own boy now) are gloriously illustrated. Dr. Seuss, a one-time newspaper comics guy, is just panel borders away from sharing shelf space with Daniel Clowes. In the earliest of classroom settings I’d start with the recognizable. Art Baltazar and Franco’s Tiny Titans is as accessible a comic as I know of. But more than just being kid friendly, the book is funny, bright, and charming. So much so that I was an avid reader of it long before I was even married, let alone a father. And because it uses semi-recognizable super hero sidekicks, it’s easy for kids to relate, and learn to read.
Tiny Titans aside, there’s always Jeff Smith’s tome of toonage, Bone. The long running series blends laughs, mysteries, and adventure. If kids can’t find something to love there? Well, then I’ll eat my hat. Come to think of it, I don’t own hats anymore. Note to self…
Beyond the early readers, the always-tough-to-please nine year olds (perhaps through 13 or 14?) are going to start dividing themselves. Girls have cooties. Boys are messy. The division of the sexes may make many a teacher feel like comic books will degrade into the capes and cowls for the boys and leave nothing for the girls. Nay, I say. Nay! Both the boys and girls can take heed that I myself grew to love comics at this tender age due to the long-running Archie series. And Archie, unlike his more heroic counterparts, seems to have found a way to stay with the times, without diverging into the too-real, too-gritty, or too-angsty. Consider also the Adventures of TinTin. Long before it was a computer-animated movie, it was a comic. A great comic. And don’t we all laugh a bit when we recount the Scrooge McDuck comics of yesteryear? That book was doing Inception long before Chris Nolan was firing up the vomit-comet to film anti-gravity fight scenes.
The real meat and potatoes for me though come right at adolescence. Here, our kids are primed to learn that comics are more than just good fun. The Pulitizer Prize-winning Maus (by the aforementioned Spiegelman), Jew Gangster (by the late and beyond-great Kubert), and A Contract With God (by Will Eisner) all help teach that the medium of comics transcends the super power set. And sure, they all hold quite a bit of Jewish lore to them… so allow me to expand beyond Judaica.
Mike Gold himself turned me on to Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Kings in Disguise by Dan E. Burr. They are both amazing reads. And please, don’t get me wrong – comics at this tender age need not be without a twinge of the supernatural. Watchmen might as well be a high school freshman class in and of itself. Frank Miller’s Sin City and or 300 are far better on page than on screen, and on screen they were both pretty amazing.
And let’s not leave Marvel out of this. Kurt Busiek’s Marvels singlehandedly brought me out of a four year freeze of comic book reading. It’s insightful, and a beautiful take on super heroes from the human perspective. And I’ve little column space left to suggest even more here… Empire by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson, Astro City, Batman: Year One, RunawaysandY: The Last Manall spring to mind. But I digress.
Suffice to say, introducing comics to a literature program shouldn’t be that hard to tackle. The fact is the medium itself makes open discussion far easier to instigate. More work to enjoy than watching a movie, without the scariness of endless pages without something beyond words to look at means less barrier to entry. For those learning to read (or who have trouble with it) comics are a gateway drug to amazing new worlds. For those already well versed in literature, comics offer an endless string of independent authors bringing original takes on the world that combine their plots with art that tends to force us to stop and appreciate. Akin to indie films, comics at any age offer more than the commercial world. Thanks to a bit of knowledge gained at this year’s Harvey Awards (thank you, Ross Ritchie), I leave on this thought:
“The French codified it well: they call it “The Ninth Art.” The first is architecture, the second sculpture. The third painting, the fourth dance, then there’s music, poetry, cinema, and television. And ninth is comic books.”
Now, the question is: if it is indeed the ninth art of our world, comics should not be considered for the classroom. They should be compulsory.
You don’t have to be born with a comic book in your hand to be a fan. As I’ve mentioned, my early exposure to comics was mostly in the form of movies and TV. These days, I read comics too; but I know a lot of fans who’ve primarily discovered comics through the movies, and often stay mostly with that medium.
Recently, there’s been a flurry of talk about who gets to be a geek, and I agree completely with John Scalzi’s assessment that anyone who shares a love of geeky things is just as much of a geek as anyone else, and that we can all come at our love of pop culture and fandoms from very different backgrounds and tastes. Given all that, I thought it might be fun to get the perspective of an awesome female author and blogger who’s so known in pop culture and geek circles that people have actually written articles studying her blogging habits and who clearly fits into comic book fandom but doesn’t come at it from the usual angle of reading comics. Also Cleolinda is just awesome and fun to interview! So here we go!
What kind of exposure have you had to comics generally – as a reader, a viewer, etc.?
Um… there were some tiny comics that came with my She-Ra dolls? I remember walking past racks and racks of comics at the grocery store every weekend and being really intrigued, but I was a very quiet, bookish child, and didn’t even bother asking my mother if I could have one. When I was in my 20s, I started picking up graphic novels based on which movies I had become interested in, and Watchmen on its general reputation.
How did you get into comics movies, and what was the first one you watched (as a child, and/or in the modern resurgence of comics movies)?
I think it says a lot about the genre that I don’t think of them as “comics” movies – I think of them as superhero movies and thrillers and action movies and whatever genre the actual story happens to be. I mean, technically, you could say that The Dark Knight and Wanted and From Hell and 300 are all “comics movies,” but if you say “comics,” I’m generally going to think “superheroes.” And those are such a box-office staple that it’s hard to think of them as something you get into, you know? They’re just there, and everyone goes to see them, and there are so many of them that some of them are awesome and some of them aren’t.
The first superhero movie, certainly, that I remember was Tim Burton’s Batman in the summer of 1989. I was probably ten or eleven at the time, and didn’t actually see it until it was on HBO a year or so later, but I remember that it was a big damn deal at the time. That black and yellow logo was everywhere, as were the dulcet purple strains of “Batdance.” Maybe it’s the Tim Burton sensibility that really got me into Batman movies initially; Batman Returns is pretty much my favorite Christmas movie ever, shut up. I just straight-up refused to see the Schumachers at all. But I’m a Christopher Nolan fangirl, so that got me back in. Which may be the roundabout answer to the question: I get into these movies depending on who’s making them and/or who’s playing the characters. Nothing I read or saw about Green Lantern really attracted me from a filmmaking point of view (well, I love what Martin Campbell did with Casino Royale, there is that), so, in a summer crowded with movies, I didn’t go see it. And, you know, I’ve had Green Lantern fans tell me they really enjoyed it; that’s just the kind of choice you end up making with the time and money you have when you’re more interested in movies as a medium than comics.
What are your thoughts on the accessibility of comics movies, as someone who doesn’t primarily read comics? Are there any you found incomprehensible or confusing because you didn’t know the source material? Which do you think has been most successful as an adaptation for non-comics-reading viewers?
Well, despite my lack of comics-reading background, I usually hit up Wikipedia to get a vague idea of what happened in the original storyline. So the moment I heard that Bane was the TDKR villain, I went and looked it up and immediately wailed, “Noooooo I don’t want to see Bane [SPOILER SPOILER’S SPOILERRRRR]!” Because I keep up with movie news very closely, I knew when Marion Cotillard was cast that she would probably be [SPOILER]. And then, of course, they mixed it up a little anyway.
I guess The Avengers could have been confusing – which was something I lampshaded a little in the Fifteen Minutes I did for it, the umpteen previously on bits. But I felt like they explained it fairly well as they went. I had randomly seen Captain America (“It’s hot. Which movie you wanna see?” “Uh… that one? Sure”), so I knew the Tesseract back story, but I didn’t see Thor until two weeks after I saw The Avengers. But pop cultural osmosis plus the explanations in the movie meant that I understood the Loki business just fine; all seeing Thor did was give me more specific punchlines. (I do think that humor relies on knowing what you’re talking about, so I usually do a little research after I’ve seen something when I’m going to write it up.) Really, though, it’s hard to say. I’m usually aware enough of the movie’s background by the time I see it that I’m not confused. I mean, I’m already aware that Iron Man 3 is using the Extremis storyline, and there’s some kind of nanotech involved, and an Iron Patriot? Something – not enough to be spoiled, per se, but enough to have a frame of reference going in.
Just going by the numbers, it seems that The Dark Knight and The Avengers have been incredibly successful adaptations – and I don’t even mean in terms of money, but in terms of how many people flocked to those movies, saw them, enjoyed them, and were willing to see them again. You don’t make a billion dollars without repeat viewings. And that indicates to me that these movies were rewarding experiences for people, rather than frustrating or confusing (the Joker’s Xanatos gambits aside). And I think familiarity helped in both cases, though through different means. The Joker is obviously the most iconic Batman villain; in fact, The Dark Knight actually skips the slightest whiff of genuine back story there, instead showing the Joker as a sort of elemental chaos, almost a trickster god who comes out of nowhere and then, as far we viewers are concerned, vanishes. There’s no background for non-readers to catch up on; the TDK Joker is completely self-contained. Whereas Marvel’s approach with The Avengers was to get the public familiarized with the characters, very painstakingly, with this series of movies that built up Iron Man as the popular backbone, and then filled in the others around him, either in their own headlining movies or as supporting characters in someone else’s. One movie started out with very recognizable characters, and the other endeavored to make the characters recognizable by the time it came out.
Have you read a comic because you saw a movie about it? Or, have you read a comic because you were going to see a movie about it? How did that change your movie viewing and fan experience?
I got interested in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and read the trade paperback a few weeks before it came out – and then hated the movie. And you know, I think I would have actually enjoyed the silliness of it if I hadn’t “known better,” so to speak, so if it’s not already too late, I try to hold off on reading a book until after I’ve seen the movie. I did read Watchmen first – and did enjoy the movie. I think those are the only ones I’ve read beforehand, though. I did go pick up From Hell and a Sin City set, and I bought the second LXG series in single issues as well; I keep meaning to get V for Vendetta. I’ve never picked up a superhero comic. I just look at the vast history of Marvel and DC and think, where would I even start? (How could I even afford it? Do they have comics in libraries?)I’ve never even read the Sandman series, and that’s supposedly the traditional gateway drug for geek girls.
You write hilarious parodies about all sorts of movies; and the recent The Avengers in 15 Minutes is no exception. Can you talk a little about what it’s like writing the parodies (including how you started and your experience with that generally), and whether it’s any different for comics vs. other movies? Was there anything unique about writing The Avengers one?
Well, the short version is that I came home from Van Helsing (2004) and started writing a script-format bit on a whim; I thought it was just going to be one scene plunked into a Livejournal entry, but it took on a life of its own. I published a book of ten print-only parodies in 2005 with Gollancz; the original Spider-Man (2002) is in there, but there’s also fantasy, sci-fi, overly serious historical epic, etc., spread pretty evenly throughout. Looking back, I think The Avengers is the only other superhero movie I’ve done; 300, V for Vendetta, and Wanted might count generally. It helps for the movie to have some sense of silliness, or at the very least absurdity or over-seriousness. If nothing else, there’s something humorous about movies as a medium – the tropes they run on, the expectations, the necessary coincidences, the mundane things they conveniently skip, the way that this stuff just would not work in real life. And you can point this out and have fun with it without saying, “And that’s why this is a terrible movie.”
The real difference with the Avengers movie – the material it provided – was that it had all of these background movies leading up to it. So you immediately have more opportunities for cross-referencing and in-jokes, in addition to a running “previously on” setup. There were few comics-only jokes (although I did enough research to mention the Wasp and Ant-Man), because the movies themselves were plenty to deal with. Whereas the various Harry Potter in Fifteen Minutes writeups I’ve done played more on the “This Scene Was Cut for Time” idea, referencing the books and the plot holes incurred by leaving things out – what wasn’t there.
If anything, The Avengers was incredibly hard to do not because it was good, but because it was self-aware. I mean, I did Lord of the Rings, a trilogy I love, for the book, but I consider what I do to be “affectionate snark,” and… that’s kind of already built into The Avengers. So, while a gloriously absurd movie like Prometheus took four days and all I really had to do was describe exactly what happens, The Avengers took six weeks.
What’s your favorite comics storyline and/or character?
I seem to be drawn to characters who have just had enough and start wrecking shit. I think I’m so drawn to Batman not because I want to be rescued by him, but because I want to be him. I discussed last week how the Omnipotent Vigilante just can’t work in real life – but it works as a fantasy. Because every time I hear about something horrible on the news, or even just someone on the internet being a complete and utter asshole, I wish I could go be Batman and show up in the dark and scare the fear of God back into people (“Swear To Me!!!! 11!!”). Also, I didn’t really grow up with the more light-hearted TV version(s) of Catwoman; my frame of reference is Michelle Pfeiffer. And that’s a Catwoman whose story arc is almost a “vengeful ghost” story. She has been wronged, and now she’s back, and you are going to pay (maybe for great justice, maybe not). Whereas the Anne Hathaway Catwoman, while a really interesting character, is more about Selina wavering between conscience and self interest, not vengeance. And maybe that’s closer to the “cat burglar” origin of the character – which, again, speaks to how meeting these characters through movies may mean that you have a very different experience from a comics reader.
And then you have someone like Wolverine – I think my favorite scene in the entire series is in the second movie, where he ends up having to defend the school pretty much entirely by himself. You wish you could be that badass, in defense of yourself or someone (everyone) else. This also may be why I saw X-Men: First Class and kind of wanted an entire Magneto Hunts Nazis movie – and maybe why Magneto, even as an antagonist, is so compelling in the Bryan Singer movies. The X-Men universe has some genuinely interesting moral ambiguities, you know? Gandalf has a few legitimate grievances and now he is tired of your shit. *CAR FLIP*
Also, I have a little bit of grey hair at my temple that I wish would grow into a Rogue streak.
Marvel, DC, or neither?
You know, as much as I love Batman, I tend to be more interested in Marvel characters as a whole; not sure what’s up with that. Actually, it may be that Marvel has been so much more pro-active about getting movies made and characters out there; I like about three of the X-Men movies a lot, the first two Spider-Man movies are good (the reboot was good except for the feeling that half the story got chopped out, I thought), and now the Avengers-based movies are turning out really well. There’s just more to chose from on the Marvel side at this point.
Do you have more of a desire to pick up paper (or digital) comics to read after seeing a comics movie? Or do you prefer sticking with the movies?
I seem to be more interested in reading stand-alone stories, which is probably why I picked up Alan Moore books pretty quickly. Even if it’s a somewhat self-contained Marvel/DC storyline, it’s like… do I need to have read twenty years of story before this? Can I just walk in and start reading this, or am I missing volumes and volumes of context? And then, if I get really into this, are they just going to reboot the universe and wipe all of this out? And then you have to figure out what the movie was based on in the first place. I might be interested in reading the comics a particular movie is based on – but then you say, well, The Dark Knight Rises was inspired by ten different comics. If you put all that into a boxed set with a big The Dark Knight Rises Collection plastered across it, I would be more likely to buy that than if you shoved me into a comics store (complete with disdainful clerk) and said, “There Is The Batman Section, Chew Your Own Way Out.” The decades of stories and do-overs and reboots, the sheer flexibility and weight and history, are what appeal to a lot of comics readers, I guess, but they’re exactly what bewilder movie viewers, leaving them no idea where to start.
What comics movie are you most looking forward to in the near future; and is there a comic book story or character you’d like to see a movie about who doesn’t have one yet?
I’m curious to see how Man of Steel turns out, even though Superman has never done that much for me as a character. (That said, I always talk about “going into the Fortress of Solitude” when I try to seriously get some work done.) I once heard that Metropolis and Gotham are, metaphorically, the same city – one by day and the other by night – and I don’t know that there would be enough sunlight in a “gritty” Superman reboot, if that makes any sense. And I was just fascinated by the idea of Darren Aronofsky doing The Wolverine, of all things, but it looks like James Mangold is directing that now. And, you know, in checking on that, I see “based on the 1982 limited series Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.” I see the words “limited series” and “trade paperback rated Must Have” and I think, okay, maybe this is something I have a chance of catching up on first.
I would really, really like to see a Black Widow movie, at this point. As much as I liked Anne Hathaway’s Selina, I wonder if a character that arch doesn’t work better in small doses. I mean, I’d still like to see them try a spinoff movie, but somehow, I think Black Widow might work out better. Everyone’s remarked on how great a year it’s been for people actually going to see movies with active heroines – Katniss, Merida, Selina, Natasha, even warrior princess Snow White – and I’m hoping that idea sticks. I know that the comics industry in general has a problem both in writing about and marketing to women. Maybe movies can lead the way on that.
Thanks for a fascinating perspective on your comics (and movie) fandom, Cleo!
The first time I went into an actual comic book store by myself as an adult, I went in more to browse than with a specific purchasing goal in mind. I was walking by stores, and lo, there was a comic book store, and I’d just started reading comics, and wanted to read more, so I went in, ready to find things to read and buy them.
Having read a few paper comics as a young child and watched a lot of comics-related cartoons and movies while growing up, but not having read comics as an adult until a few months prior, naturally I was familiar with very few of the names’ in comics (i.e. writers, artists, or what-have-you); or with every good book or character. I had no clue who was writing or drawing which book, or what I should try first, which comics were classics, or any of that; only that I was interested in picking up some good stories. I was, in other words, a prime target for a canny salesperson who could have helpfully loaded me up with all the great stories I should read right away. I’d probably have bought them all, and the storeowner could have retired on the spot. But it didn’t happen.
When I entered the store, the (male) sales clerk ignored me completely for about the first twenty-plus minutes, as I stood nearby looking rather overwhelmed at the varied selection, instead helping three different men first (one of whom came in after me). I actually tried to get the clerk’s help with a polite “excuse me” a few times, but his response was a brusque, “Just a minute” before turning to ask Guy Number Three if he needed help. (Note: It was not just a minute.) Finally when there were no other customers in the store he turned his attention to me. I asked him if he had any recommendations for a good trade to pick up. A short conversation ensued. I can’t remember the exact words several years later, but if I had to do a play-by-play of the conversation and what I felt like was happening in its subtext (and I wasn’t imagining this based on some idea of how I’d be treated; it was completely not something I expected to encounter) it would go like this:
He acted like recommending a book to a woman who was unfamiliar with comics was some sort of huge chore and he really had better things to be spending his time on; but when pressed, recommended Watchmen. I asked him what it was about, since it was sealed in plastic and he didn’t want it opened by someone who might not buy it, and he said, oh, it was by Alan Moore (but still did not tell me what it was about). I indicated that I’d never heard of Alan Moore. He indicated that clearly I must be some sort of poser imbecile (‘You’ve never heard of Alan Moore?’), not an actual rare Female Comics Geek, because comics geeks know who Alan Moore is.
I indicated that I’d read a few issues of Runaways that I liked, after a suggestion made by my boyfriend. He indicated that now everything made sense. I was a Girlfriend Who’d Read A Comic Once. Not an actual Geek. Just a Girlfriend who’d accidentally wandered into the store without her Geek Man. He half-heartedly recommended I just look around at a few things and maybe I’d find something I liked – this being made a bit difficult by the trades being in plastic you weren’t allowed to open without permission. Then he walked away. Just left me standing there in an otherwise empty store, still clueless, in the midst of the bewildering selection of Stories I Couldn’t Browse Through Without His Permission, feeling very unwelcome and slightly ashamed to not already know everything about every comic, ever.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything that day. The guy made me feel so unwelcome and so much like I was bothering him just by being there that I didn’t even want to go to the check-out line to interact with him again, and I’m not a timid person. At all. Now, you could say, “he was just a rude guy.” Well, he was. But he was rude to me specifically because I was a woman and therefore clearly not a serious geek. I know this because I watched him interacting helpfully and not-rudely with the three male customers who he helped before me, one of whom had also asked for recommendations. I know this because I had a whole conversation with him in which he made me feel, both subtly and not-so-subtly, like I was unwelcome in the store and unworthy of his time because I was a woman and therefore not knowledgeable about comics like his male customers. I know this because I still remember how it felt to be unexpectedly treated like a second-class citizen by someone whose job it was supposed to be to help me.
Why am I talking about this now? Because it wasn’t an isolated incident. Ridiculous as it may seem, even now, when I know much, much more about comics and the industry, when I’m actually known by some people for how big a fan I am of comics and a particular character, I still occasionally encounter the attitude that I’m somehow here in the Comics World by accident or as a Secondary Character in the whole show; not because I love it with as much passion as any guy out there.
For example: a year or so ago, I was attending a con and ran into a male acquaintance of mine who is on the creator side of the industry and who I’ve known for awhile. As we stood near his table at the end of a row in Artist’s Alley chatting and catching up, out of nowhere he said to me “So, where’s the guy?” I had no idea what he meant, and replied with a blank “What?” His response: “Well, you’re always here with one of the guys [in the industry]. I was wondering who you’re here with this time.”
Now it’s true that when we met I was introduced to him by another “one of the guys” who is a friend and happened to be walking the con floor with me. It’s also true that often when I’m at a con, I’ll hang out with some of the industry folks, because I naturally gravitate towards creative people who share my interests, and they tend to be on the creator side of things; and it’s true that most of these people are men. But I’ve actually never gone to a con with a man, and was surprised that this was the impression my acquaintance seemed to have; that I always tagged along with some guy, rather than being excited about and planning a trip to the con all by myself because I love comics and comic cons.
And frankly, this made me a little angry. In response, I asked him to look down his row – a long Artist’s Alley row of artists and writers – and tell me how many women he saw. The answer? Not one. In his row of maybe twenty-plus creators, there wasn’t a single woman. Gee; no wonder so many of my creator friends and people I walk around cons with are male.
Now, this man is a nice person; and he wasn’t intending to be offensive. But he expressed an attitude that I’ve not only experienced myself but seen pop up regularly all over the comics and geek fandoms – that somehow, women who are in geek fandom are the secondary characters in the all male show, there in one way or another because of a guy (or, worse, there just for guys to look at). It ties into the attitude of the comics store clerk, and bothers me for several reasons.
The first one is that I like to hang out with other geek women. I have a number of geek friends who are women, and we have great times together. The more geek women out there, the better, in my book. But attitudes like the above – either actively rude dudes who treat you like you’re unwelcome and an idiot because you are a woman and therefore, at best, a n00b, and at worst, a poser; or nice dudes who blithely assume that you’re at a con with a dude instead of because of your own interests – are not the kind of thing that will encourage women to get into or feel comfortable in geek fandoms. These attitudes propitiate a self-fulfilling prophecy: treating women like this may in fact turn women off to comics or getting more involved in the fandom.
The second reason this bothers me is that these attitudes are examples of a larger problem regarding treatment of both the female characters in comics and female fans. That problem is so large and multifaceted that Gail Simone based a whole website around just part of it, and you see it being discussed, consistently, from multiple angles and spurred by multiple separate incidents, all over the internet. (For a fun time, Google “comics misogyny.” Whee.) It involves objectification. It involves violence. It involves dehumanization. It involves belittlement and aggression towards women and dismissal of female opinion. It involves experiences I myself have had that bordered on harassment and that I don’t even feel comfortable discussing in a public forum. It’s a problem so large that I can’t even fathom a way to encompass it in one column, which is why I’m choosing to focus on just part of it here.
The third reason is that while all this is going on (and trust me, it is ongoing) geek culture seems to think it’s actually super-progressive and feminist in comparison to the rest of the world, and is sometimes obnoxiously self-congratulatory about that fact, while misogyny floats around unchecked in our geek content and culture. (Seriously, read that link for some current examples of the awful stuff that’s happening right now, such as the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, which actually made me shudder in horror.)
When geeks are called on the existing misogyny, they get super defensive. I’ve seen every excuse or justification under the sun used to try to explain the negative behavior in a way that makes it okay and shows geek culture is still more progressive. Or, alternatively, I’ve seen people try to put it all on women. (One of my favorite excuses for geek misogynistic behavior was some guy saying that, see, the reason geek guys have these attitudes towards women is that so many of them were rejected by women when they were younger, and picked on for being geeks, and blah blah blah they had to walk uphill both ways in geek snowshoes while women taunted them and pelted them with Nintendo controllers from the sidelines or something. To which I say, Shit, son – you think being picked on for being different is something that only happens to geek dudes? You think girls never get rejected by boys for being weird or geeky? Are you seriously that dumb? Put on your big boy pants, get over yourself, and stop blaming girrrrrls for your problems.)
The attitude of self-congratulation or denial that there are problems here makes me angry, especially when held up next to the actual, real-life experiences of myself, my female friends, and people like Sarkeesian. Geek culture may be coming at things from a different angle (which sometimes results in its own, unique brand of negative treatment of women, woo), but it’s not really more progressive, and it’s actually worse a lot of the time because the refusal to acknowledge the problem leads to it becoming more firmly entrenched and accepted.
All this self-congratulation equals no confrontation of the issues that exist. I have no immediate solutions to propose, but the sooner we actually meaningfully acknowledge and confront these issues, the sooner we can truly be the more progressive cultural group that we clearly feel we should be. I hope we get there someday.
So let’s all take a moment to ponder how to make the world of comics more awesome and friendly to us geeky women who love it and, until next time, Servo Lectio!
Saw my niece Isabel last week. She’s finished The Complete Bone Adventures, Volumes 1 and II and is now reading a collection of Calvin And Hobbes. She also told me that she’s in love with the Percy Jackson And The Olympians series by Rick Riordian; she had already read The Lightning Thief, and was deep into the second book, The Sea Of Monsters. Although by now she’s quite possibly onto the third title, which is The Titan’s Curse. She’s a fast reader. Based on her critiques, I have ordered The Lightning Thief from Amazon, and expect I’ll be ordering the rest of the series, too.
Last I heard Watchmen had not entered the public domain, so I will not be buying any of the Before Watchmen books. I think the whole idea stinks. I don’t understand how other creators who profess to respect creator’s rights could sign on to a rotten deal brokered on a broken promise by DC to Alan Moore. It’s a slap in the face to Alan, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. Oh, wait. John Higgins participated in this mockery? Says a lot about your character, doesn’t it, John? If you need money that badly, there are other ways to prostitute yourself. And that goes for the rest of you, too.
John Ostrander’s latest column about “bad things he hates that he loves” caused me to go to my DVD cabinet and pull out a couple of movies that I should despise but actually love:
World Without End (1956), in which a rocket ship returning from Mars breaks through the time barrier and deposits four astronauts on an unidentified planet, which turns out to be Earth in the year 2508, 400 years after a nuclear war. The surviving humans live underground and are dying out because the men are scrawny, weak, and unable to perform their manly duties. In other words, they’re impotent. Which sure sucks for them, because all the women of the year 2508 are curvaceous, beautiful, and very, very horny. The reason the humans don’t live on the surface is because of the “surface beasts” – the descendants of those who did not flee underground during the atomic holocaust – roam the countryside. They look like mutated Neanderthals, and all they want to do – well, the men, anyway – is get their paws on the hot tomatoes living underground. Our brave, resourceful – and, of course, American; this was the 50’s, remember – astronauts reinvent the bazooka (“The good ol’ bazooka!” one of the astronauts says with a backslap to his pal) and defeat the mutated Neanderthals, and help restart human civilization on the surface for the Eloi. Oops. Sorry, wrong story. The horny women get the horny astronauts in the end, so everybody lives happily ever after. Except for the impotent guys, I guess.
Queen Of Outer Space (1958) in which ZsaZsa Gabor plays a Venusian scientist on a planet on which once again all the women are curvaceous, beautiful, and very horny. Except for the Queen, who is curvaceous and very horny, but mysteriously wears a mask. But even though Venus is the planet of love, there’s not a man to be found. The story begins when our brave, resourceful, and yes, once again, American astronauts, on board their rocket ship – which looks exactly like the one in World Without End – and on their way to a space station in orbit above Earth, are hijacked to Venus by a strange red ray, which turns out to be the Beta Disintegrator. The ship crashed into snow-covered mountains that look exactly like the snow-covered mountains into which the ship from World Without End end-crashes. Turns out the Queen hates all men, and she imprisons the astronauts. But she’s got a hard-on for the Captain. “A Queen can be lonely, too,” she tells the Captain. The Captain decides to take her up on her, uh, offer to “get information.” This makes ZsaZsa very jealous: “30 million miles away from the Earth,” says one of the astronauts, “and the little dolls are just the same.” Because she has a hard-on for our Captain, too. (No, his name is not James Tiberius Kirk.) Anyway, just as the Queen goes in for the face-suck, the Captain rips off her mask, and – OMG! Her face is burned and scarred and horribly mutated! “Men did this to me,” the Queen says with hatred in her voice. “Men and their wars.” Then she seductively turns to the Captain. “You said I needed the love of a man,” she whispers as she puts her arms around him. “If you will be that man, I will let you all go.” But the Captain is trying not to vomit. Dumb ass. Put a bag over her head and do it for the flag. So the Queen sends him back and aims the Beta-Disintegrator at Earth. Talk about a woman scorned! You really have to see this movie!
It really sucks when your parents are sick.
Here’s the truth. The only thing I really hate about women’s costumes in the comics is that I’m not buff enough to wear any of them.
Political diatribe for the day: Vote for Romney, and we really will be living in the world of American Flagg! (We’re almost there now.)
I can wait for the Garfield/Stone Amazing Spider-Man to hit DVD. I loved the Maguire/Duns Spider-Mans. Perhaps if TPTB had moved the story forward, merely replacing Maguire/Duns with Garfield/Stone, I would have more interest.
Just finished The Lost Wife, a heartbreaking, “based-on-a-true-story,” and beautifully written story about a husband and wife, both Jewish, separated by World War II. He gets out of Europe, she is first is sent to Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz. Highly recommended!
In the middle of The Hunger Games. Loving it. Have to recommend it to Isabel.
CBLDF has joined forces with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression to write a letter in defense of Alan Moore’s Neocomicon (Avatar Press), which has recently been challenged in the Greenville, South Carolina, public library system. Objections to Neonomicon were raised by a patron after her teenage daughter checked out the book, which contains adult themes. The book was correctly shelved in the adult section of the library, and the teenager possessed a library card that allowed access to the adult section.
CBLDF joined NCAC and ABFFE in sending the following letter to the Library Board of Trustees at the Greenville County Public Library:
Dear Board Members,
On behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund we strongly urge you to keep Alan Moore’s Neonomicon in the Greenville Public Library. This book has reportedly been challenged by a member of the community who claims its “sexually graphic” images make it inappropriate for the library.
Removing this book because of objections to its content is impermissible under the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court said in Board of Education v. Pico, the Constitution does not permit “officially prescribed orthodoxy” which limits what people may read, think, speak, or say. The fact that we are confronted with images and not words does not make a difference—the courts have ruled that images, like words, constitute symbolic expression and are protected by the First Amendment.
Neonomicon is a horror graphic novel which explores themes present in the works of fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, delving into complex issues of race, crime and sexuality. Moore and artist Jacen Burrows use the visual nature of the graphic novel medium to more fully examine the subject matter found in Lovecraft’s original work, achieving a commentary both on Lovecraft and on the horror genre itself. The authors deliberately disturbing depictions of sexual violence are included as a critical comment on how such subject matter is handled elsewhere within the genre. The book recently won the Bram Stoker award for “Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel.” Its critical acclaim testifies to its artistic value which is aided, not eclipsed, by its sexual content.
Alan Moore is one of the most influential and acclaimed authors in both the graphic novel category and the larger literary culture. His body of work includes Watchmen, which Time Magazine named one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. His works also include the graphic novels V For Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, and Lost Girls, all of which have enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim. Neonomicon continues Moore’s explorations in appropriating classic literary characters and themes in the service of post-modern storytelling. It is an essential work by an author who is indisputably a master within his field.
The book was appropriately shelved in the adult section of the library. The fact that it was withdrawn by a minor, whose mother had given written permission for her to borrow materials from the adult section, is no basis for removing the book—an action that infringes the First Amendment rights of adult library patrons. Indeed, the removal of the book during the review process is itself problematic, since any government suppression of material because of objections to its viewpoint or content transgresses constitutional boundaries. As a legal matter, the harm has been done, even if it is later rectified.
The book meets the criteria that form the basis for the library’s collection development policy. Removing it because of sexual content not only fails to consider the indisputable value of the book as a whole, but also ignores the library’s obligation to serve all readers, without regards to individual tastes and sensibilities. If graphic violent and sexual content were excluded from the library because some people object to it, the library would lose ancient and contemporary classics, from Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
We strongly urge you to respect the rights of all readers to read and think freely, and to reject the notion that the views of some readers about the value of literature, or its “appropriateness”, maybe imposed on all. By keeping the books on the library shelves you will demonstrate respect for your readers and their choices, for the professionalism of the librarians who serve the reading public, and for the First Amendment and its importance to a pluralistic democratic society.
Please consult NCAC’s resource “Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians” (http://ncac.org/graphicnovels.cfm) or contact us if there is anything we can do to help.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
You can view a PDF of the letter here.
Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and defense against library challenges such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!
If you know this story at all, you know the quote: “This is an imaginary story…aren’t they all?” That would be true but trite if it weren’t for the fanatical identification of the superhero reader with his favorite characters — and, even more so, with the continuity of their stories. When “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” first appeared, in the then-last issues of Action Comics and Superman in the fall of 1986, as the decks were being cleared for what still looked then like a fresh start for DC Comics’s characters in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, continuity was still something in large part built by the fans, a collective work of imagination linking the most interesting and resonant parts of a thousand stories told over five decades.
Now continuity is just another commodity: carefully spooned out, measured by drops and pints and liters, controlled almost day-by-day by the two big comics companies, as they alternate shocking reveals with the inevitable returns to the fan-preferred status quo ante. Continuity, these days, is just the name of another dead comics company — Marvel and DC tell you what the past is today, and they’ll tell you differently tomorrow, and if you don’t like it, well, where else can you get your stories of Superman and Spider-Man?
Alan Moore isn’t part of our new world, of course — even if everything else had been different, and DC hadn’t screwed him over at every possible turn over the last two decades, his sensibility couldn’t fit into the current soup of cynicism — and his superhero comics come from the ’80s and ’90s rather than now. His few actually cutting-edge works — primarily Watchmen and Miracleman/Marvelman — worked to undermine retro nostalgia, and to show what costumed heroes might be like, psychologically and physically, in something more like a real world. But most of his comics that deal with superheroes take them as icons, as the true representation of what a young Moore must have seen in them in the ’50s — from these stories to Supreme to the superheroes scurrying around the margins of Swamp Thing, trying valiantly but completely out of their depth in more complicated works of fiction.
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is a 2009 hardcover collecting three Alan Moore-written stories from 1985 and 1986, illustrated by different artists. The longest piece — that swan song for the Silver Age Superman — is given pride of place, first in the book with title and cover features, and it has suitably iconic art by classic Superman artists Curt Swan (inked too fussily by George Perez in the first part and more straightforwardly by equally classic Kurt Schaffenberger for the climax). Moore takes all of the pieces of Silver Age Superman’s furniture — the silly villains, the big cast with their complicated relationships, the thousand toys and wonders — and systematically breaks them all down and takes them apart, in pursuit of his big ending. It’s impressive in the context of comics of the time, though the ending, seen twenty-plus years later, is too facile and the pieces that should be tragic are just swept under the rug. But it is a Silver Age Superman story, so those are features rather than bugs: those stories can’t be any deeper than they are, or they would be something else.
The other two stories collected in this book are something else, and see Moore using Superman to tell deeper, more resonant stories: first is “The Jungle Line,” from the minor team-up book DC Comics Presents, in which Superman is infected with a deadly Kryptonian disease, and heads off to the least superhero-infested part of the USA — the Louisiana swamps — expecting to die. Instead, he runs into Swamp Thing — star of the monthly comic Moore was also doing excellent work in at the time — and finds a way not to die of his affliction. It’s strengths lie equally in Moore’s incisive captions — particularly as he examines Superman’s failing powers and growing sense of mortality — and in the art of Rick Veitch and Al Williamson, which is much more like the Swamp Thing look, lush and full and organic, than the Superman comics of the time. It’s a minor team-up story, of course — entirely about something that doesn’t happen — but it’s a small gem of its time.
The last story here, though, is something stronger than that: “For the Man Who Has Everything,” which was the Superman annual in 1985 and has Dave Gibbons’s inimitable art support: precise and utterly superheroic in every line, but modern and detailed and dramatic in ways that Swan and his cohort weren’t. It’s a story of Superman’s birthday, and of the best and worst possible present. It’s the only Superman story that has ever made me tear up, and possibly the only one that ever could: it gives Kal-El (Moore, again, is most at home with the Silver Age version of Superman that he grew up with) what he always wanted, and makes him tear himself away from it. It’s completely renormative, of course, in the style of the Silver Age, but it points directly at Watchmen, which Moore and Gibbons would start work on within a year, and it implies Moore’s growing uneasiness at always having to put all of the pieces back neatly in the same box at the end of the story.
So this book reprints three very good ’80s superhero stories by excellent creators — but readers do need to realize that these, if not actually Silver Age stories, have a Silver Age sensibility and feel to them. In particular, Moore’s DC work was very heavily captioned, which has gone entirely out of style these days. If you can’t stand a Superman who’s a big blue Boy Scout, who has a dog named Krypto and a fortress in the Arctic with a gigantic gold key, and who would never ever kill anyone under any circumstances, this is not the book for you.
It seems everybody has his or her tits in a wringer over this upcoming Before Watchmen thing. I’ve made a few comments here and there, but now that these books are about to come out, I’m going to weigh in officially.
I’ve been reading the solicitations in the Diamond Catalog and to be sure there’s a lot of great talent involved on these efforts. Really top-notch people, some of whom we haven’t seen much from lately. Most of these folks are basically if not emphatically pro-creators’ rights. Aside from the latent listings, I’ve read the thumbnail descriptions as well as DC’s press releases. There’s a lot of comic books involved here, and I approach Before Watchmen with the same question I approach any new effort: “Does this seem like it’s worth my time?”
Obviously, sometimes I make the wrong call – particularly when it comes to television. I’ll decide to pass on something and within short order all my friends, most of the reviews, and complete strangers at conventions will excoriate my witlessness. That’s fine; endorsements from people whose opinions I respect carry a lot of weight. Of course, if I try something and I don’t like it, I take a hike. I haven’t tried a second bottle of Moxie in three decades.
So as I gaze upon all these Before Watchmen comics, I ask myself “Does this seem like it’s worth my time?” And I hear myself say to myself “Well, no, it doesn’t.” Oh, I’ll probably check out a few produced by friends. But, by and large, unless I’m persuaded otherwise I’ll be giving the overall effort a pass.
Here’s the beauty of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: it was a true graphic novel, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. They created it, it came out the way they intended it to (or very close to that), we all read it and it went on to become one of the best selling graphic novels of all time. I suspect that latter part was for a reason, that reason being I was not alone in my assessment.
They left no room for sequels, and they really didn’t leave any room for prequels. Those prequels were already done. They were published by Charlton Comics during the Dick Giordano reign, just as Watchmen was published by DC during the Dick Giordano reign. The characters were called Peacemaker, Blue Beetle, Peter Canon Thunderbolt, The Question, Captain Atom, and Nightshade. Without these characters Watchmen either would not have happened or would have been based upon other characters DC owned but didn’t care all that much about – most likely the Fawcett or the Quality heroes.
So in my mind, Before Watchmen is unnecessary. Been there, read that. Your opinion may vary, and that’s totally okay by me. In fact, these friends of mine would like the opportunity to earn themselves some Watchmen royalties.
Then there are the moral issues.
Legally, nobody knows where it stands unless they’ve read the contract(s). I haven’t, but I was an executive at DC Comics at that time – actually, about a month later – and I can tell you that, in my professional opinion – DC didn’t commit in writing to anything but money, and maybe a few artistic oversight issues. Maybe. It just wasn’t done then; it’s barely being done now, and it was only sort of done from time to time in between. Somebody might have given his or her word about how merchandising, licensing, promotion, prequels, and sequels would or would not be done and Alan and/or Dave might have trusted those people… but those people are no longer around. Well, they’re not at DC Comics; they’re still around.
What it comes down to, for me, is respect. It makes absolutely no damn sense to alienate anybody in the creative arts, and it’s really, really stupid to go to such lengths to alienate people of the highest caliber. It’s bad business, it’s worse human relations.
I’ve read much if not all of what Alan has said, and I while I disagree with some of his sentiments there is one thing that is unimpeachable: as a creator, as a writer, as a source of wealth for the publisher, Before Watchmen shits all over him.
Some of my friends disagree, and I respect their positions. This isn’t clear-cut in the least: morality is a personal thing, and what is immoral to one person is just ducky with the next. You can react emotionally and that’s fine. Sometimes that’s all you will get.
Thus far, nobody has picked up a gun and started shooting up the place. I’m not being sarcastic. It’s happened in other media. Google “Marvin Glass” and “shooting” and find out how it came down in the toy design business.
So, yeah, I think Alan was treated badly here. But that’s really not the reason I’m planning to avoid Before Watchmen. I’m avoiding it because, when everything is added up, it just doesn’t seem to be worth my time.
It was inevitable this week, now wasn’t it? All of us true-blue-comic-geeks are reveling in the acclaim and success The Avengers is enjoying. The critics generally liked it. Audiences are eating it up. Mark Ruffalo’s star is rising like Apple after the invention of the iPod. And comic book columnists are dancing in the aisles over it all. Michael Davis wrote a great piece on how the flick is a giant bitch smack to Bruce Wayne and his Brothers Warner masters.
Now I could suggest that, based solely on the sheer brilliance of Nolan’s Bat Films, our resident Master of the Universe (his phrase) isn’t exactly on the money… but why start a fire? Rather than blather for the sake of creating a phony flame war between the king of San Diego Con and this lowly Midwestern cracker, I’ll find my muse in Michael’s throwing of the gauntlet. It’s the idea we’re all thinking; DC could just copy Marvel’s blueprint and rake in the dough. But really, when we dissect that idea, this molehill quickly becomes a mountain. Where to begin? How about with the lynchpin – Superman.
Man Of Steel can set DC on the right path – or just nail the coffin closed. As many have seen with the various leaked set photos, and blurbs being dropped on the interwebs… the movie is assuredly in the vein of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, where realism is king. The men with the checkbook want results this time. No doubt that influenced all those in on the production to match the tone and soul of Nolan’s films. And the skeptics all agree, the blue Boy Scout should be as gritty as soft-serve and real as well… Superman!
Paul Dini, fifteen plus years ago, got it right. Based solely on some production stills, Zack Snyder isn’t paying attention. Granted I like Snyder a lot, but his last few cinematic efforts (Sucker Punch and the Watchmen) didn’t exactly incite waves of acceptance from the geek nation. It leads me to state the obvious: There’s only so much angst the fan base is willing to accept for the prodigal son of comic books as a whole. Simply put, Superman without a smile is indeed no Superman at all.
Think back, just a week ago, when you were watching The Avengers. Think how many times you laughed out loud, smirked, or just geeked out over a simple fight. Now think of Green Lantern. The proto-franchise out just one summer ago showed just how wrong DC “got it” when it came to the bridge between the pulp and the picture on the big screen. The movie was over-produced, under-written, and a pitiful invitation to celebrate the greater DCU. Don’t believe me? If that movie had lived up to its potential, mark my words, there would be no “New 52.” When Marvel launched the Avengers initiative, they did so with Iron Man. And that movie, nose to tail, was as good as Batman Begins. Hold that up to the boy in the green jeans? Don’t even try.
If DC intends to make their way into the arena to match The Avengers with a multi-franchise comic book based pantheon, they must be mindful of more than just the broad strokes. The House of Mouse was smart enough to hire genuinely good directors and writers to helm their pieces. They chose strong stars. Most important, they spent time developing stories that kept in mind plot, pacing, and fun… more than toy tie-ins. In order to match, or dare I suggest, beat Marvel at their own game, Warner Bros. needs to do more than throw money at the problem. At their very core, they need to trust DC with their product and presentation. That means when the screener gets a bad reaction, you don’t just write a check to increase the CGI budget and hope special effects cover up the plot holes. It means not demanding you gank a style of a successful movie and apply it to a wholly different franchise in hopes of snagging an unsuspecting public.
In other words… do what Marvel did.
DC has truly globally recognized properties in Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman. Second tier talent like Green Lantern and Flash have oodles of untapped potential. DC even boasts a far better villain list. The Chitauri were undeveloped screaming CGI props to be blown up. Darkseid’s parademons are too, but they serve a grander purpose. And Darkseid brings with him InterGang and a slew of lieutenants that add flavor to a generally one-note bowl of soup. The pieces are all on the table, it’s just a matter of taking the time to put them together instead of mashing and taping them. Here’s hoping DC takes the time to realize the potential they have – and make the choice not to squander it for a quick cash-grab.