Category Archives: Print Comics

D is for Dracula, Distantly Destructive

drlogoSo there’s this comic called Dr. McNinja. When first I encountered this strip, I could describe it as little more than a comic about a doctor, who is also a ninja; or in short, a comic about being awesome.

Since then, the description has proven even more accurate than I could have imagined, since this truly is what the comic is all about – the Rule of Cool. The principle, largely, is that you take a bunch of elements that tend to stand in their own genre – such as ninjas, or robots, or wizards, or whatever – and then you throw them together, producing something that is, in theory, profoundly awesome. Imagine: a time-traveling wizard cowboy, trained by monks in the arts of karate and meditation! And so forth and so on – these characters and scenes are driven more by the sheer concept of them than any actual merit of their use. And this is entirely ok – there is nothing wrong with simply sitting back and appreciating the sheer brilliance, say, of tyrannosaurs in F-14s.

tf14s

No one knows awesome quite like Calvin and Hobbes.

Now, what I find makes me really, truly appreciate Dr. McNinja is that it manages to take these concepts and actually make them work within the story. It has been pointed out that more than a few fans will tend to defend a work by pointing at the bits of “awesomeness” within – but that it takes quite a bit more to make such concepts actually work within the story, rather than exist as a single moment of fun entertainment. Which Dr. McNinja succeeds at – indeed, by this point, the vaguely surreal setting of the comic has become so fundamental that the continual appearance of ghost wizards and robot bears seems not just acceptable, but downright natural.

And there are actually long, elaborate plots built around these concepts – the main characters themselves are all equally absurd, but nonetheless have managed to become well-realized characters with that the reader can be fully invested in. So this is why Dr. McNinja rocks. Also valuable: knowing exactly how far would be too far.

Now, the comic continually seeks to offer new moments of awesome – a challenge that grows ever more daunting, given the various scenes and characters it has already gone through. Among the most recent highlights in the strip was one moment that outshone all others – in which, when Dr. McNinja goes hunting for Dracula, we learn that Dracula has a moonbase, and is able to eliminate vampire hunters via his moon laser.

So, given that this was a moment of crowning awesome in a comic fundamentally built upon such principles, it was with quite a bit of shock when I discovered that self-same scene, last month… in the pages of Marvel comics.

One comic in particular: “Captain Britain and MI13”, Issue number 10, written by Paul Cornell. In a time when I’ve found very little to be excited about in the world of print comics, this series has been one of the few that have stood out as entertaining and worthwhile. This opinion was only further reinforced when this most recent issue opened with a chat between Dracula and Dr. Doom – on the moon. And even more so, when Dracula then returns to his private moonbase, from which he fires not a moon laser, but instead magical cannons that launch exploding vampires at his enemies on the Earth below!

If you're gonna be a villain, it's always best to do so with style.

If you're gonna be a villain, it's always best to do so with style.

Now, I don’t know if this was done as a reference to Dr. McNinja, or simply the product of two great minds thinking alike. It really isn’t important either way.

What I do find important is this: When the topic of comics comes up, amongst my friends and I, there is quite a lot of talk about webcomics. Discussion over current plots, new webcomics people have discovered, or even simple appreciation for the comics that are always reliably good. There is almost no discussion at all of print comics – and when the topic does turn to such things, it is almost entirely negative.

Pretty much every single one of my friends reads webcomics, and enjoys them. Almost none still read anything by Marvel or DC – and even when there is both good and bad works being produced by both companies, it is only the news of the worst of it that filters down to our topics of discussion. And while I try to talk about some of the worthwhile comics of recent years – Blue Beetle, Iron Fist, etc – it is hard to do so. They are familiar with the big names, and so they can get frustrated at hearing about poorly-written stories dealing with Batman or Spiderman. It is much harder to get interested in hearing about well-written stories about characters they have never heard of.

But when I can point to a comic, and say, “This comic features Dracula and his moonbase, just like in Dr. McNinja!”? That, they get. That, they can understand. And that has a bigger chance of getting any of them back into comics than any big event, or crossover, or crisis. In all honesty, the vast majority of those have only served to drive them away.

I’m not saying print comics need to directly imitate webcomics in order to succeed. Honestly, just writing decent stories is a pretty basic step one – though one that a lot of comics seem to have quite a bit of trouble with. But tapping into the same level of innovation and creativity as what can currently be found online certainly helps get my attention, and seems like a pretty good step in the right direction.

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The Man in the Iron Mask

With the onset of allergy season, I’ve finally been persuaded that Durkon was right.

Anyway – so there was this Iron Man movie that just came out, and, like, it was really good.

But it very much got me thinking about the character. I mean, I’ve never really liked Iron Man. I’m not even talking about whatever nonsense is going on with his current situation and the entire Civil War storyline – I’ve simply never found the character interesting.

Discussing it with my friends, I claimed that he simply wasn’t an iconic superhero the way others were – and I know that term is something of a meaningless buzzword, but what I meant was that there was almost no identity to Iron Man himself. Tony Stark had character, sure – he had all manner of flaws, and thus plenty of opportunity for character development and progress and redemption.

But Iron Man was just… an armored suit. Just some guy with a fancy piece of technology – indistinguishable from any number of nameless soldiers in power armor. Tony Stark wearing the armor was no real different than Tony Stark without it, whereas other hero/secret identity relationships were complex and intriguing. Superman vs Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne vs Batman, Spiderman vs Peter Parker.

While there are also some that have no real seperation from their costumed selves, that is usually because their secret identities are almost meaningless behind their superhero nature. The X-Men are primarily defined by being mutants, sometimes on the run, sometimes fighting for their people – but Cyclops is Cyclops, and Scott Summers simply happens to be another name that character sometimes uses. B

But Iron Man is just a metal soldier. Iron Man isn’t Tony Stark – it is just a suit of armor Tony wears. And there is no real personality behind that mask, no new persona.

Or, at least, that is how I previously viewed things.

As mentioned before – the Iron Man movie was really, really good. It had fantastic acting, a great balance between character development and action scenes, and some damn fine humor worked into the mix. Great graphics, solid pacing, etc, etc.

And after seeing it, I came to realize that Iron Man was iconic, in certain ways. Was, in fact, almost the perfect superhero icon for the modern age. The businessman, the industrialist, the playboy – that is Tony Stark.

But the inventor? That’s Iron Man.

Iron Man is about imagination, and pushing the limits of technology. And, of course, about doing good  with that technology. It is not just about wearing some power armor, but wearing the absolute best power armor that the human mind can build. About doing so through trial and error, and eventually getting to feel the raw enjoyment of success, the thrill of flight, the sense of accomplishment.

Iron Man is the suit of armor – but also everything that went into making that. And realizing that suddenly made the character interesting and appealing.

I have to rate the Iron Man movie as the best superhero movie I’ve seen. Because making a movie about character I already like – that’s easy. But making one that takes a character I’m indifferent towards, and propels them into one of my favorite characters?

That’s a whole lot more impressive to pull off.

What Makes a Webcomic: In Which I Attempt to Overcomplicate an Oversimplification.

So, the other day I saw this strip over at Planet Karen. And it got me thinking about about what it said. And, interestingly enough, I find myself both in agreement… and in disagreement with the proposed statement.

To start with, this topic does drag us back to the time-honored debate over “What is a webcomic?” Is it something unique and exceptional? Or is it simply comics… on the web?

Eric Burns – after several years of being the greatest advocate of webcomics – finally set that aside, and threw down the gauntlet as he said the only difference is the “fucking means of distribution.

Is that true? If so, how come so many webcomics have a hard time being fit into the standard print comics categories? There are some webcomics that feel like newspaper strips, yes, and there are some that feel like comic books – but there are also plenty that are a mix of the two. Or something else entirely.

For that matter, is he also saying there is no difference between newspaper comics and comic books? Is the only difference between them a matter of distribution?

So let’s take a step back, and ask the question – what are short form and long form comics? Looking up “short form comics” on the internet, wikipedia for once has no easy answer. While many seem familiar with the term, the only definition I can find (in an admittedly brief search) comes from the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards, who define it as comics “comics with shorter formats with regular gags, or beats to it’s story to reflect each individual strip. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Strip’ formats.”

That seems, certainly, the understood definition. The Eisner Awards do not define it – but then, they are focused on the other side of the field in general, the long-form comic, so perhaps they need no such delineations. It may simply be understood that short-form works are outside their field of interest. Oh, they had a category devoted to them in, say, ’92 and ’93, and specific creators are occasionally selected for the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame… but those are the very, very rare exceptions.

So, moving on to long-form comics, which the WCCA offers up as “comics with longer formats and extended, continuous storylines. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Book’ formats.” Again, this seems the commonly understood meaning of the term. And, again, the Eisner Awards don’t directly define it – the only mention comes in during the “Digital Comics” category wherein they specify that the webcomics must be “long-form stories published online.”

(I apologize if I simply seem to be laying out obvious information – I am attempting, slowly but steadily, to work towards a point.)

So, the Eisner Awards seem to limit webcomics to only long-form works in the same fashion that they limit the rest of the rewards to comic books, or comic book related material. Fair enough.

But… wait just one second! In 2006, the Digital Comic award went to… PvP.

Now, you can say whatever you wish about PvP, but one thing that is undeniable is that it follows the standard conventions of newspaper comic strips. Four-panel layout, daily updates, color sundays, gag-a-day punchlines, etc, etc, etc. Oh, it tells a growing story, certainly – characters change and grow, new characters are introduced while older ones fade away.

But there are plenty of regular newspaper comic strips that do the same. For Better or For Worse was the poster child for this, but there remain others for which this is true. Hell – take a look at all of the soap opera style strips! Suddenly you have nothing but story. 

What does this mean? Are they not short-form comics? Are they not newspaper comics? That is clearly their publishing format, yet they seem to defy other expectations of the genre. If PvP can be honored in the Eisner Awards, why can’t they?

Or is there something different about being online that allows PvP, despite its nature, to qualify as a long-form work? The presence of an archive could be the reason – it allows one to read the entire story in one sitting. On the other hand… that option is open for comic strips, too – it isn’t as immediately accessible, or as free, but it is there.

Or perhaps all of these categories are inherently flawed, and webcomics simply serve to make those flaws more apparent.

There are, after all, webcomics that are both about short-term laughs and long-term storytelling. There are webcomics styled like comic strips and ones styled like comic books. There are ones that use elements of both… and others that resembled neither.

Of course, the same might be said of some alternative comics, or various self-published works. I’m by no means an expert in such fields, but I’m sure there have been comics put forward before that defied easy definition or categorization.

What is a webcomic?

That is the question brought up earlier, isn’t it? If you asked me what I thought of when webcomics come to mind, I would list the following elements: Accessibility, lack of any direct fees for reading the comic, freedom from editorial control, open and comprehensive archives, supplementary material such as cast pages and story guides, and internal communities in which the reader and the audience could engage in communication. And yet – these are elements found in the majority of webcomics out there, and they are certainly a good guideline as to the quality of a webcomic… but they don’t define them. An online comic that lacks one, or two, or even all of these elements is still a comic on the web. Is there a difference between this and this and this?

Let me put forth a hypothetical situation. Currently there are many newspaper comics being updated online at the same time they are updated in the paper. The comic book companies are now, ever so slowly, beginning to place their own material online. Let’s fast forward a bit, and say that all such comics were now available online.

What defines a webcomic then?

I mean, clearly there will still be differences, right? Such as the elements I listed above – even when all the newspaper comics are posted online, they will still be under the control of the syndicates, still lack supplementary material, still lack internal communities.

Or will they?

For Better or For Worse. Classic print comic. And right there it has every classic webcomic element I listed. It is online, it is free, it has over five years of archives available, it is a comic that has shown itself willing to delve into territory normal avoided in the papers, it has a ton of supplementary material, and while I couldn’t hunt down a forum, it does have open lines of communication.

On the other hand, Mary Worth doesn’t, nor does Luann. Does that mean FBoFW has transitioned from a newspaper comic to a webcomic? Or is it both?

Clearly there are differences between most webcomics and printed material. Differences in style and format, but also in content and in context.  But there are also equal differences between various webcomics.

Karen says “the problem is defining webcomics in terms of print comics, which they aren’t. They’re webcomics.” But right now, webcomics is simply used as this catch-all category for which everything is undefined. Despite – or perhaps because – of how incredibly diverse they are.

Karen is right – you can’t define webcomics in terms of print comics. But simply calling them webcomics is missing the big picture – eventually they will all be webcomics. The differences will still be there, though – will the old-fashioned terminology we’ve been using still suffice?

No. No it won’t.

We need new categories.

I, personally, don’t know what those categories will be. And I don’t know who is suited to decide. I don’t even know for sure if clear divisions can be drawn. But you have things like Narbonic, which tell a complete long-form story despite resembling a short-form comic on the surface. You have webcomics that pull style from one type of comic and format from another. Are they too diverse to be categorized? Maybe, maybe not.

Right now, the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards are the closest any have come to doing so. And, let’s be honest now – they haven’t met with any spectacular success. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy them every year, I like what they are trying to do, and I respect all of those involved for their willingness to try and get this right. But they also tend to make a variety of poor decisions, and even when they do things right, they still don’t represent the whole field of online comic creators out there.

Perhaps this is one area where the corporations and syndicates have an advantage – they are organized and largely unified. They have the resources to define their fields. Webcomics are a group of myriad individuals, often ones working hard simply trying to make a living from their work – they rarely have the time to try and form any sort of unified committee. And when they do, it ends up as the WCCA – a good attempt, but not enough to truly redefine the field.

I don’t know where one should go from here. I know that I disagree, strongly, with Mr. Burns and the idea that webcomics are identical to print comics save for the means of distribution. I know that I agree with Karen Ellis that online comics shouldn’t be defined by print comics – but I don’t know if simply labelling them as open-ended ‘webcomics’ is enough.

So, some 1,500 words later, I still haven’t arrived at a proper definition for webcomics. But then… I’m not sure I’m qualified to truly do so. I’m part of the audience – an observer and a commentator, but not much more. I’m not the one creating the comics – or relying on them for a living.

Nonetheless, I do think this is a question that needs to be answered – especially with the print comics digital initiative finally on the horizon. Because the terminology they use now is only barely adequate to the task, and will fall apart completely as they move their comics online and find differences in distribution becoming meaningless.

Sure, they are all just comics in the end.

But isn’t there just a little bit more to it than that?

Four Small Thoughts and One Big One.

Favorite webcomic quote of the day: “Our children are the future! Not those guys from the actual future.

Current storyline that has me most interested in how things will play out: Bad Haze.

Strangest task I accomplished today: Teaching myself how to make origami cranes – for the specific purpose of enhancing my D&D gaming.

Best joke that remains good despite being used by Tatsuya Ishida many, many times before: I Can’t Quit You.

Most provocative post that completely misses the point: Between the cocoon and the Comics Code Authority.

…and I should probably expand at least a little bit on that last point.

Dirk Deppey has never really pretended to be impressed with fangirl activism in the comics community, and this is hardly the first time he has attempted to take them to task for waging whatever wars they choose to wage. And, to be fair, there are things he says that are reasonable, and there have been times when his disdain may have been justified – fans are fans, whether boy or girl, and it is a very, very, very fine line between legitimate outrage and fannish entitlement.

But the thing that bugs me in Dirk’s latest post is that he seems to be saying that the fine folks over at Girl Wonder shouldn’t be wasting their time complaining about the problems of sexism and misogyny that they see in the industry; they shouldn’t be trying to make the industry more friendly towards female fans. Instead, they should be focusing on convincing Marvel and DC to revitalize their lines in full. They should be convincing them to wipe out continuity entirely, to return to the use of the Comics Code Authority, and to write comics entirely focused at children.

Which, ok, I can see the argument – but are you seriously saying that there isn’t a place for mature, well-written comics that adults of both genders can equally enjoy? Look – I don’t like the current DC environment and the bizarre fetish it has with death and despair. But that isn’t because I don’t believe in serious stories – it is because all the petty drama going around is just that – shallow and mindless.

I don’t want a return to silver age comics. Sorry – that wouldn’t interest me. I want stories with character development and progression. I want stories where the heroes usually triumph, sure – but also ones that involve them overcoming challenging adversaries. I want stories where they are pushed to the limit – and then overcome it. I want stories that are fun and enjoyable while also keeping me engaged in the plot.

They are certainly out there – Blue Beetle from DC, the Immortal Iron Fist with Marvel. Ultimate Spiderman has been succeeding at it for years, and Invincible seems to have a good handle on the concept.

Is it something that can be kept up for decade after decade with the same title and one writer after another? No idea. But clearly quality comics are possible, and I think this is the drive behind Girl Wonder and similar groups – they might focus on little details, because that is really the only way to make progress in this sort of battle. And is it really fair to say it is a ridiculous fight to try and make comics more palatable for 10% of the readership? 10% might not be the whole crowd, but that is not an insignificant amount of people.

And, yes, I think there are others out there that could be and would be reading print comics if they overcame the flaws they are currently afflicted by. I don’t know the actual numbers with, say, webcomics – but this does seem to clearly be a field with a phenomenal number of female creators and readers. And webcomics, let me tell you, are hardly written solely for the benefit of children.

Look, finding a way to save the industry is certainly a good thing. I’m all for it. But saying that you can’t complain about any of the industry’s flaws without dedicating yourself to bringing about that salvation in every way possible… well, it’s a damn silly argument. There are clearly things that need fixing, and even if there are times when elements are blown out of proportion, that doesn’t invalidate the entire movement.

And I think there are goals that can be worked towards that don’t involve dumbing comics down into nothing more than childish fancies. I think there is a place for quality comics with a solid mix of humor and serious issues – and that manages to tell a story without degenerating into softcore porn.

Is that really so outrageous a goal?

This bandwagon, it was made for jumping.

So, Spiderman is a big topic around the internet these days. And approximately seventy-three million bloggers have already detailed the reasons why the recent events in the series have been so terrible, and about twice that number have simply ranted and raved and proclaimed the inevitable doom that would come from all this. And so it may well seem like there is little more to be said on the matter… but somehow, I can’t resist throwing out a few thoughts of my own.

First off, just for those who have managed to avoid being confronted with the entire ordeal, here is a summary of the situation: The Editor-In-Chief of Marvel comics, on Joe Quesada, dislikes the idea of a married Spiderman. He believes it makes Peter Parker too old for the role, and unrelatable to readers. He wishes to return Spiderman back to the character he was some twenty-odd years back – a swinging bachelor with plenty of hip new stories to tell.

To bring this about, the recent storyline in Spiderman went as follows: A year or so ago, during a recent Big Event, Spiderman revealed his identity to the public as Peter Parker. (With many promises from Mr. Quesada that this was a Genuine Permanent Change.) Not long thereafter, a hitman comes after him – and while Peter is fine, Aunt May is shot. The hospital is keeping her alive, but her health is failing rapidly, and none of Peter’s superpowered friends can do anything to save her – not the greatest scientists, nor the magics of Dr. Strange.

Desperate, and consumed with guilt, he and Mary Jane (his wife) are approached by Mephisto – the Marvel equivalent to the devil. Mephisto offers them a deal – he will save Aunt May in return for… their marriage, a love so pure and true that its loss will be a great triumph for him against the big guy upstairs. Peter and Mary Jane agree, and Mephisto does some hocus pocus that erases everyone’s memory of the marriage – and as a bonus, makes people forget that Spiderman revealed his identity. (At least one person is also brought back from the dead, and a variety of other minor changes in memories seem to be made as well.)

So – that is the long and short of the situation. And, well, there are certainly numerous problems with it, from the very concept to the relatively flawed execution… but such problems have been discussed by others at length. (And if there is one highlight to the entire situation, it lies in some of the completely brilliant commentary it has inspired – such as the usual comedic stylings of David Willis, or a genius Watchmen parody from one chipzdarsky.)

What I find really interesting about the entire matter is the resolution itself – or more specifically, the lack thereof.

See, Marvel doesn’t actually like retcons. That has always been one of the elements that has stood between them in DC – every few years DC tries to tidy up continuity, fix up the past, and in the process wipe the slate clean of various stories that have come before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But Marvel likes to stay true to its pre-existing stories. Which leaves Joe Q in a bit of a bind – he wants to render Spidey’s marriage null and void, but without actually arbitrarily changing the past continuity. This was, in fact, a subject of some debate between him and the writer on the series, J. Michael Straczynski.

JMS wanted to have Mephisto perform one simple act – render it so that the marriage had never occured. From there, various fall-out would occur, the usual inevitable ripples that come from a single change in the course of history. I am sure there would have been various problems with this plan as well, and the fall-out from the fans would have been the same – but it would have also resulted in a very different story than the one Joe Q insisted upon.

See, making it so the marriage didn’t happen was exactly the sort of retcon Marvel tries and avoid. So Joe Q devised a way to come up with the same essential result without actually changing the past – he’ll just have Mephisto change everyone’s memories of the past.

Now, this results in a number of key differences. For one, it is actually more disruptive than JMS’s plan – Mephisto has to alter the memories of an entire world, fiddle with physical evidence, etc. And even doing as perfect a job as he can, there are going to be discrepancies – events will have occured that seem illogical and unexplainable, and someone is inevitably bound to notice.

It also, in many ways, ramps Mephisto up to a rather more substantial amount of power – changing the past is pretty potent, certainly, but also a very precise act. (And one that is much more easily bound in ritual, requiring the consent of the two individuals involved in that past occasion being changed.) Altering the memories of an entire universe – well, one would think there would be someone out there immune to such direct manipulation, especially given how far-reaching some of the memory alterations were. With all the cosmic entities out there, the ability to freely rewrite their minds seems a far larger event than simply triggering a ripple through time.

Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is that it renders the change much easier to fix. Just one person regaining their memory or finding out the truth could be enough to start setting things right.

Which brings us to the realization I had about the storyline, and what seems the largest flaw in how it was carried out. Joe Q’s desire was to reset the Spiderman mythos and create a new status quo in which for him to operate. But Joe wasn’t actually willing to go the distance required to do so. He couldn’t create a clean break – it would have been a challenge to do so no matter what, given the weight of the history between the characters, but he had a particularly sloppy attempt to do so, with some very interesting results.

Mephisto’s goal in all of this – at least as far as we have seen – was to destroy this spark of happiness in Spiderman’s life. It seems a bit silly to have expended such colossal power on such a simple task, but there is at least some small bit of logic in it. But you know what would render it completely ludicrous? If it utterly failed to do so. If Spiderman manages to move on with his life and find any degree of happiness in his Brand New Day, the new status quo… well, doesn’t that defeat the entire point of Mephisto’s plan?

The very nature of Mephisto’s plot means that Spiderman can’t move forward in his life without directly invalidating the event that led to it. If Spiderman finds a new love and new happiness, if he isn’t held back by the spectre of his missing life with Mary Jane, then Mephisto’s plan was meaningless. Which means the only way for Peter Parker to move on in life is to find a way to undo what has been done.

Taking that a step forward – the entire universe being currently under the effect of a mind-altering spell is not, can not, be part of any status quo. It is not a conclusion or a resolution – it is an obstacle to be overcome.

That is what is so very bizarre about the method Joe Q chose to use to end this marriage. He didn’t do so with a plot device that was actually complete, but instead essentially chose a story that stopped in the middle. A deal with the devil was made, and Spiderman is now stuck under the devil’s spell, incomplete and unable to move forward. At some point that needs to be resolved. That isn’t an event that can simply be left open-ended or swept under the rug – it is a challenge being set up for him to overcome.

I’m almost tempted to assume Joe Q intended this – but from what I’ve seen of his attitude about the entire project, I’m not exactly inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

All in all, I’m amused by the fact that not only is this a poorly conceived idea, badly executed and presented to the fans in an almost insulting manner… but it is also a story whose own narrative results in it being self-defeating. And perhaps that is why that it seemed almost inevitable that the entire incident will be wiped away not far down the road, and as such my reaction to the story isn’t anger, or frustration, or despair… but simply a sad sort of amusement, and a vague sense that this is so inherently meaningless that it isn’t even worth becoming upset about.

52 Things That Bother Me

I recall, when DC’s 52 wrapped up, that one of the complaints T Campbell had about it was how they had gone through the entire messy business of restarting the multiverse, allowing them a massive realm of new and interesting possibilities to explore, and decided to fill up a large portion of their new worlds with various older stories and elseworlds and etc.

I understand his point, though this didn’t really bother me personally – I hadn’t read most of those stories, so they were largely as exciting and new as the handful of worlds DC left open for any new stories they decided to tell. All in all, it seemed like a clever idea: 51 new universes for DC to play around with. To tell the stories they can’t tell with their core continuity. To tell new stories to attract new readers. To do all sorts of nifty things.

Which is why I have been so incredibly disappointed with the use to which they have been put thus far. The latest weekly series from DC, Countdown, involves some heroes from Earth-1 wandering from one alternate Earth to the next, where we briefly glimpse what is going on (occasionally throwing it into disarray) before they hop onto the next world.

Even better, heroes and villains from those worlds are being recruited into some grand galactic army! They have instantly gone from having the potential to tell their own, new and interesting, stories… to being bit players in the current DC Mega-Event. I mean, how is this not simply an enormous waste of resources and possibilities?

They’ve even got an upcoming event, Countdown: Arena, wherein multiple versions from various realities will be forced to duke it out to see which will have the honor of joining the galactic army. And, hey – I can understand the raw appeal of it all. We’ve all seen fans get into debates over this sort of nonsense, whether their favorite superhero could beat up their buddy’s favorite, and this is simply that on a grand scale.

But man… it just seems so short-sighted.

In this week’s Countdown, Superguy Prime (currently one of DC’s top villains) wandered into Earth-15, killed the Justice League, and then destroyed the entire planet.

What is the point of coming up with these alternate worlds with potentially new and interesting characters – or variations on characters – and then immediately throwing them by the wayside? Isn’t this their chance to start laying the ground for the future, start finding a way out of the rut the company has been stuck in for years?

On the other hand, the one thing print comics don’t seem to have the luxury of is planning ahead. Titles get passed from one writer to the next, plots get subsumed into whatever mega-crossover/event is currently going on, and anything undesired that came before gets retconned into oblivion.

There are many folks much better qualified than myself to comment on the state of the print comics industry, as well as the various stories being told by DC and Marvel. But I feel that I am justified in saying this, if nothing else: I think it is a downright shame that DC can come up with such a cool idea as the new multiverse, and within half-a-year, already have begun laying waste to that accomplishment.

A Genuine Ultimatum, Part 3: For Better or For Worse

“Oh. Oh no,” I can hear you saying. “Please – just shut up about For Better or For Worse!”

I understand your concern – over the past several years, it has become an honored tradition online to mock and bemoan the state of FBoFW. And while the chatter has mostly subsided as the strip entered its strange new state of timelessness, though it still comes under assault by the usual suspects. I can’t deny the same holds true for me – every day it updates, and every day I shake my head at its attempts to merge the old comics and the new.

Only… I’m still reading.

Why is that? I’ll admit – I haven’t enjoyed the comic in ages. Partly due to the direction the comic has gone, and the unsatisfying final fate of certain characters. Partly because each time I saw mockery made of it, it became that much harder to actually judge the content of the work for myself – and by now, at this point, I simply can’t recognize the elements that once made it one of the best strips in the newspaper.

But it has remained on my reading list.

Sure, I can claim the usual difficulty I have setting a comic aside. The momentum I mentioned in previous installments, the fact that it is easier to go on reading rather than changing a routine.

But there is more to it than that – it lets one hold on to the disappointment, the righteous anger at being let down by the strip. It lets one reaffirm their decision to hate the comic, to criticize it. It lets one point out every new flaw, poorly executed joke, or terrible storyline – and prove, over and over again, just how far a comic has fallen.

There’s a certain dark pleasure in that – but a pointless one. I can understand reading a comic that has fallen on dark times in the hope of it one day returning to former glories – but this sort of indulgence is the opposite. This is all about reading a comic to see how bad it can get. And once you’ve entered that sort of outlook, it becomes irrelevant whether the comic is truly degrading – it is in the reader’s mind, and that is all that matters.

There are a lot of reasons to read a comic, or partake of any form of entertainment. Most revolve around enjoying oneself, finding jokes to laugh at or a powerful story to appreciate. There are even a variety of reasons to enjoy bad entertainment, such as trying to define exactly where things went wrong and thus improve one’s own understanding of the artform, or even to simply indulge in a mockery of the flaws with one’s friends.

I’m thinking that reading a comic for the sole purpose of nursing one’s grievances with the author, and allowing one’s disappointment to continue to simmer, is right near the bottom of the list.

It is a far better choice to simply let things go – and today, with For Better of For Worse, that’s what I plan to do.

A Few Notes on a Friday

Apologies for the sparsity of posts this week – expect things to remain a bit slow as NaNoWriMo approaches.

A few brief thoughts I meant to discuss this week, but which never had time for a proper post:

1) Halloween storylines are starting to emerge among webcomics, as they are prone to do this time of year. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised by both PvP and Schlock Mercenary, whose storylines seem to have flowed from the existing events in an entirely natural fashion, rather than feeling like the usual shoe-horned October spook-fest.

2) There has been a bit of hubbub in the last week about New Avengers #35, wherein superheroine Tigra is brutally beaten in a rather exploitative fashion. What really bothered me about the scene, however, was learning that the likely reason for the occurence was a simple one – the author, Brian Michael Bendis, hated the character, and wanted to humilate her in the worst way possible.

Might not be true, though thus far it seems otherwise, as apparently this is something he has done before. And, mind you, I like his work on a lot of other comics. Still, this is bothersome, since the entire idea of using one’s position as a writer to put the characters one hates in their place… well, it seems remarkably petty.

I recall a little while back where a similar thing happened between Garth Ennis and Frank Tieri. In Ennis’s Punisher, Wolverine got his face blown off, his legs chainsawed, and was run over by a steamroller, among other things. It was a ludicrous portrayal, the sole purpose of which was to make him look bad and the Punisher look good. The current author of the Wolverine series, Tieri, took offense to this – and so had Punisher show up in his title, wherein Wolverine kicked his ass, and to top it all off, pointed out the gay porno Punisher happened to be carrying around. Ha ha! You sure told him!

Look. This sort of childish nonsense might be something I’d expect in webcomics, if only due to the lack of editorial control – sometimes people want to lash out, and use whatever medium they’re skilled at to do so. But I really expected better from DC and Marvel – the entire point is for them to be professionals, and when writers stop worrying about producing stories, and instead simply about indulging their own illicit bits of fan-fiction… man, it’s just kinda sad. When people are actually getting paid for this, you would think they would be held to slightly higher standards.

So that’s my rant of the week.

3) So, I’m probably going to SPX this weekend.

I’m never entirely sure what to do at these sort of conventions – as cool as I find the concept of meeting webcomic creators I respect and admire, I pretty much end up just wandering around without any idea of how to actually converse with them, and I usually end up simply spending more money than I should on various webcomic paraphernalia.

But on the other hand, I really can’t come up with an excuse to not go to a con with so many webcomickers in attendance, especially one such a short drive away.

Wolverined

I’ve realized in recent days that there is a certain character archetype that bothers me – the Wolverine.

Now, I’m sure lots of people are aware that there are elements of Wolverine that are a joke, from his ability to guest-star in 90% of all Marvel comics, to his myriad convulated and complicated origins. But for a long time, I was blissfully ignorant.

You see, when I was but a wee kid, I was quite the fan of the X-Men. Not from comics, mind you, but from saturday morning cartoons, the true source of my fandoms in those days. And I watched X-Men, and enjoyed it, as did my friends.

I would, in fact, get together with my cousins and my sister, and we formed a little club where we pretended to be part of that illustrious team, each claiming one of the cast members as our identity. And I remember being delighted that I got first choice, and was able to choose Wolverine. He was my favorite, after all!

And so, remembering this fact in the present day, it was with some startlement that I realized I had come to loathe the character – or at least certain representations of him. The third X-Men movie was really what made me aware of this – while I had thoroughly enjoyed the first two, this one felt atrocious, and Wolverine’s role in it was the worst part. The movie was no longer about the team, but about him and him alone.

Shortpacked illustrates it well – every aspect of the movie seems to be focused on sidelining other characters and pushing him forward. I noticed that even Storm, who also had larger screen-time in the movie, took a back seat – despite being the supposed team leader, she’s the one following Wolverine’s orders and tactics in the midst of battle. Even the central plot point of the movie, Jean Grey and her growing instability, culminates in a scene about Wolverine as he has to make the choice to kill her for the good of all.

And I realized that, while he may be a good character at heart, he loses something when he is written so that he can do no wrong. It isn’t – quite – the Mary Sue phenomenom. Rather, it is a result being so in love with the character – or the idea of the character – that they make them into the idealized bad-ass. A character who is hardcore enough to win every fight, but also smarter and more sensitive than everyone else around.

Once I became aware of this, I started noticing similar characters elsewhere, and a lot fell into place with why certain comics were losing my interest. Fables is one of my favorite series… but I find the earlier stories significantly better than the more recent work, and realized this was why. Bigby – the big bad wolf – started out as the Sheriff of Fabletown, just one of a large cast of interesting and well-balanced characters.

And then he became a Wolverine. Other character have lost their identities and exist to show how awesome he is. He is the protector, the guardian, that everyone else has to rely upon. And so it has slowly become that whenever he shows up to save the day, I lose a little more interest in the title, and hope the action will quickly center on someone – anyone – else.

In webcomics, Johnny Saturn is the largest example of this problem that I’ve seen. I’ve been thinking about the comic a lot, lately, because it has recently pushed a little too far for my tastes.

See, I’ve enjoyed the comic for some time now. It was a true, old-school action comic, and really seemed to represent what Graphic Smash was all about. But… well, Johnny Saturn himself was so very 90’s – a grim and gritty hero who was supposed to be more heroic than all the brightly-colored capes flying around overhead.

I like many of the secondary characters in the comic, I like the setting and the background storyarcs – and let’s be fair, in the beginning, the entire comic starts off well. The opening scene is of the Utopian (who appears an equivalent of Superman) giving a speech at Johnny’s grave, talking about how easy it is for the cosmic heroes to forget what the street heroes accomplish.

It is a very good speech.

I regret that, unfortunately, we’ll continue to have its message drilled home with every panel of every page of the comic. The comic goes on to show how Johnny, despite an ordinary man with no superpowers, was able to beat the crap out of the Utopian in a one-on-one fight. Later, he was able to do the same to the Squadron Premiere, the Utopian’s superpowered allies, before going on to handle the problems they couldn’t solve.

When he then heroically gives his own life to stop a villain (as one knows will occur from the opening scene), we got a step further – he rises from the grave through sheer force of will alone! A fortunate thing, as his archenemy has done the same, returning from Hell with a demon’s power, and is singlehandedly killing dozens of superheroes at a time. A good thing Johnny, an ordinary fellow, is around to step in and imprison him in a magic circle!

This, really, is where the strip lost me. The strip goes on to show how, despite the demon being imprisoned, one of the superheroes is still dumb enough to get himself killed by it. Fortunately, Johnny demonstrates he alone has the tactical knowledge to show how the demon can be killed – by having the supers focus their energy attacks on his head and chest.

And, with that sage advice, the evil is vanquished, thanks to Johnny Saturn.

Now, this is a comic about the guy – it is allowed to portray him as a hero. He is allowed to be the focus. But there really needs to be a limit, or it stops being about a competent hero, and more about the writer specifically setting things up to cast the character in the best possible light.

There needs to be a sense of balance. I’m not simply talking power-level – but when a character is stronger, smarter and tougher than everyone else, when there is no action they can take that will not result in triumph over their enemies… well, what’s the point?

Without even the possibility of a challenge, without the outcome ever being in doubt… why am I even reading?

Recognition

I considered spending today giving my own thoughts on yet another bit of drama making the rounds, involving the comic book industry and the fallout from certain massive crossover events. But… others have already written about that, and I don’t think there is much more I can add to the discussion.

I did, however, notice that it is International Women’s Day. And being that my mind was on the topic of comics, that made me think of Girl-Wonder.org, a site with a very strong, and very important, message. The focused campaign of the site is to get recognition for Stephanie Brown, who took up the mantle of Robin, and then was brutally killed – at which point DC mostly forgot about her.

I originally agreed with the site’s goal, largely on the basis that this was a character I had grown up a fan of. One of, sadly, many that DC has done terrible things to in recent years. But it wasn’t really until I started to read Girls Read Comics! (And They’re Pissed), by Karen Healey, that I started to ‘get’ the message they were trying to get across. That I started to genuinely notice the sexism and misogny unfortunately all too present in modern comics.

That was really what struck me about the state of things. That until it was pointed out to me, I just had not noticed. I didn’t agree with women being demeaned in comics, nor could I defend it – but until I had my face shoved in it, it didn’t occur to me to question it.

I think highly of myself as a rather reasonable, open, and well-meaning individual. So being put face to face with my own… ignorance? Apathy? Unawareness? Well, whatever it was, it wasn’t exactly the best feeling.

Since then, I’ve continued to read Karen’s column, and to genuinely keep my eyes open when I’m reading comics. (Both in print and on the web.) I couldn’t claim to have accomplished anything more than become aware of when I am reading something that is slealthily offensive, but I’m glad to take that as a start.

Some time after this point, I was talking with a friend about All Star Batman and Robin. It’s by Frank Miller, and it is pretty damn terrible, in all manner of ways. Most people are aware of this by now.

I was telling a friend how bad it was, and he asked me exactly what made it so bad. My response: “The gratuitous amounts of fanservice, the exceedingly lame dialogue, and the thoroughly incompetent pacing of time.”

His response: “Well, only two of those are really reasons not to read the comic.”

Now, this individual is one of my most intelligent friends, and a person I have a considerable amount of respect for. So seeing him just as stuck in that mindset, not even seeing anything wrong with it… well, that was another shock.

I don’t know how to stop the problem. But I think talking about it, getting it out in the open, is definitely an important part of the process. Making people aware of it is important. Because it really is far too easy for someone not directly affected by it to just not notice. And that says plenty of bad things in its own rights, but also means that the more people that can be made aware, the more progress can be made.

I’m sure there is plenty more I can do to contribute. For now, though, I’ll point people towards Girl-Wonder.org, and recommend they take a good long look. They’ve said it better than I ever could, and are saying things that damn well need to be said. And, honestly, it shouldn’t take it being some special day of the year for me to mention them – but the topic has been in the back of my mind for a while, and I’m glad I had something prompt it to the front.

And hopefully, in the future, I won’t need even that.