Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Flash 3: The Caffeinated Adventures of Barry Allen

Barry Allen doesn't drink coffee.

We learn this via exposition as Barry's thoughts and a doomed plan race ahead of him. It's a seemingly trivial quirk that makes a lot of sense and *ahem* runs parallel with his attempts to master augmented cognition. And it's yet another example of how seamlessly Manapul and Buccellato blend characterization, theme and action.

Barry doesn't have time to tap into aug cog during the EMP crisis, but he does pull another trick out of his arsenal that makes for a truly stunning visual payoff. This is the stuff of summer action blockbusters, but without the SFX limitations. And it reinforces the simple truth that Barry Allen is first and foremost a problem solver. M & B are taking us on a journey with him as he learns new and innovative ways to use his powers, and it's a fun ride.

Because this is such a fun comic, M & B are liberated to take us to some really dark places without losing sight of the wonder that characterizes Barry's world. They don't shy away from desperate individuals committing evil acts, including torture, amputation, and cold-blooded murder, or from the dark underbelly of science. A group of militarized clones facing death one by one poses not just a physical but a moral threat to our hero and his worldview. In spite of that ever present danger, The Flash is the most thoroughly optimistic book on the market today.

And it's not doomed optimism in the sense of Barry Allen vs. the World. His world is as much a part of him as he is of it. Barry is the social hero, and his positivity is reflected in and returned by the people he surrounds himself with. There's a real romanticism to the supporting cast, whether it's Iris West pursuing her interview at Iron Heights in spite of the blackout, Dr. Elias driving into the desert in a 1912 Stanley Steam car, or the Central City police force taking to the streets on horses. That's the kind of white knight moment that Harvey Bullock and the GCPD just couldn't pull off, and it goes a long way toward showing why Central City is a special place in the DCU.

Flash 3 is yet another flawless comic. M & B fit in a lot of action, deepen the Mob Rule mystery, and give pretty much everyone in the supporting cast at least one character moment. So even though Barry doesn't drink coffee, I suspect Manapul and Buccellato have been hitting Starbucks pretty hard.

And seeing as how The Flash is the best comic on the stands today, here's hoping they won't be going decaf anytime soon!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Flash Comics #3 Preview: P-R-I-D-E

It occurs to me that every issue of Manapul and Buccellato's The Flash now has a mind blowing title page with the intro line:


I'm pretty sure it was there before the relaunch. But it's only since they took over that I want to get out of my seat and yell, "DAMN STRAIGHT!" every time I read that.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why Warner Bros. Should Overcome Great Fear and Build Green Lantern Into a Franchise

I watched Green Lantern for the first time this weekend on Blu-Ray, which begs the question:

Did I see the same movie as the critics?

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Because looking at the 27% rating on rotten tomatoes, I'm increasingly convinced that my PS3 beamed me to an alternate universe where the film didn't suck. It has it share of problems, to be sure, but fortunately being a bad movie isn't one of them. But with such a disappointing box office return, the real question now is why Warner Bros. would risk building a GL franchise? And if so, how will they address the first film's shortcomings?

The first questions is the most difficult. Hollywood studios aren't renowned for taking big risks. And who can blame them for not throwing money down on underdogs when there are plenty of safer bets out there? Even if we see a sequel, it's likely to have a watered down budget that could sink the franchise in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way. I'd just assume they leave it alone rather than go that route. But just because I enjoy playing with other people's money, here's why I think WB should go all out the next time around.

First off, I think extenuating circumstances are a legitimate factor. GL is a good comic book movie that went up against several great ones. X:Men First Class, Thor, and Captain America were excellence. If GL had gone up against Iron Man 2, we'd be having a very different conversation. IM2 would have played Apollo Creed to GL's Rocky Balboa, winning the box office but in a lackluster way that would even the playing field for their next match-up.

It also didn't help that First Class, Thor, and Captain America made GL feel like a jack-of-all-trades. FC was all about the hero's learning curve, Thor was more epic, and Cap was more charming. Throw in the Iron Man franchise, and Tony Stark had already cornered the market on the irreverent womanizer with authority issues. Match GL up against any of this films individually and it's probably not that significant, but there's a cumulative effect when you take Summer 2011 as a whole.

I know, I know. Excuses and hind ends, everyone's got one. But keep in mind that I'm not arguing why Green Lantern failed so much as why the franchise can succeed. And I stand by my conviction that it's largely a timing issue. I'm not saying WB should aim for mediocrity and pass off a sequel when there's nothing else good out. They will definitely need to take GL to the next level in scope and quality. I just happen to think all the building blocks are there in such a way that they have more to lose by passing on GL than making a sequel.

Remember the days when Marvel was putting out consistently better comics but DC owned the live action superhero movie market? I'd argue the reverse is true these days. DC needs an answer to the steady stream of Marvel movies coming out in rapid succession: Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Avengers, as well as SHIELD and several other projects in development.

In other words, it's time WB realized that fan does not live on Superman and Batman alone.

But before DC can expand their live action film line, they need to build on what they've already established.I'm convinced the next Batman film should serve as an unofficial continuation of the Nolan franchise, and I say that as someone looking forward to a lighter aesthetic. Miller's Batman and Morrison's exist in the same universe, after all. I'd like them to build a continuity that could support a JLA movie, and I think it would be rewarding to see Reynolds' Hal Jordan fighting universal threats alongside Caviezel's Superman. Geoff Johns' JLA relaunch has only reinforced my desire to see it happen, and I'll hear Reynolds' voice in my head now whenever I read Hal Jordan's lines.

So on to how the WB could address the first film's shortcomings.

1. Cut Ryan Reynolds loose. No, I'm not talking about letting him go, I'm talking about letting him go wild. It's not as if Reynolds' performance in GL was restrained, but there were some moments where it felt like he was on the verge of a breakout moment only to be held back by the script or the direction. The fight in the bar parking lot comes to mind.  I loved Reynolds' delivery of the line, "Hey, guys, my face was just getting warmed up!" But the fun is cut a little short when Hal accidentally kicks their ass with his GL ring. Maybe our hero crosses the line into being a bully if he enjoys taking advantage of mortals with superpowers, but it felt like Reynolds could have kept the one liners coming. And then there's his training session with Killowog. Once again, I felt like he could have trashed Killowog some more once he mastered the ring. But the moment is cut short when Sinestro interrupts. As far as problems go, untapped potential isn't the worst. Reynolds made the film fun at every possible opportunity, so here's to giving him more.

2. Devote the next film to Sinestro's arc. The post-credits scene where Sinestro donned the yellow ring felt a little off. Why spend all that time building Sinestro up as Hal's unlikely ally only to throw it away at the end? You can--and should--get an entire movie out of Sinestro's slow turn to evil (and Hal's realization). Maybe that's what's intended. Sinestro could covertly use the yellow ring when no one's looking until he's finally discovered.

3. Embrace the film's strengths and go cosmic. Earlier I talked about elements from the GL film that made it seem like a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But I do think GL succeeded on one level where other superhero films fell short (if they attempted it at all). Hector Hammond and Parallax were genuinely creepy, cosmic level threats. That makes GL a pretty awesome sci-fi monster mashup.

So have it, WB! Sure, you're scared, I get it. But maybe being a studio exec is a lot like being a Green Lantern. Perhaps you've been chosen not because you're fearless, but because you have the ability to overcome great fear.

And that's the kind of heroism that will have fans seeing--and you rolling--in the green.

Friday, November 4, 2011

ACTION 3: Light(er) on Action, Heavy on Atmosphere (SPOILERS)

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Action Comics 3 has generated some criticism for its lack of, well, action.

It's a criticism that only works when you compare it to the first issue, which was essentally a 40 page chase scene with very few breathers. When you take the time to break Action 3 down, there's actually a lot going on here:

1. Krypton's data network is infiltrated by Braniac and his "Terminauts" in flashback.
2. Kal-El's grandmother is seemingly killed by one of the Terminauts.
3. Kandor is shrunk just as Lara-El narrowly escapes with baby Kal in hand.
4. Inspector Blake stops by Clark's apartment to harass him for taking on The Man.
5. Clark's landlord discovers his S-shield safety blanket and deduces he's from outer space. Maybe.
6. Superman is outed as an alien by Mr. Glenmorgan.
7. Clark has gotten an offer from The Daily Planet, but remains loyal to The Star.
8. A crazy but possibly not so much homeless lady sees the ghost of a white dog watching over Clark--Krypto?
9. One of the condemned building squatters from Action Comics 1 blames Superman for losing the only home he had.
10. Clark has a mysterious informant named "Icarus" pushing him to take Glennmorgan down.
11. There's an anti-Superman rally.
12. Superman saves a girl from getting run over by a truck and the public attacks him with bottles and bricks.
13. Clark apologzies to a picture of Ma and Pa Kent for failing them.
14. Clark stops by Mr. Glennmorgan's automated train driver factory, which is then invaded by Braniac's "Terminauts."
15. John Corben goes through with the steel solider experiment, his heart explodes and he's possessed by Braniac.

So yeah, clearly nothing happens. Or as a friend of mine so aptly puts it, "This wasn't an issue featuring Clark, Lois, and Jimmy sitting around having a meaningless conversation over coffee about who might play them in a movie; this was character and plot development." Incidentally, if they did have that conversation I think it's pretty obvious: Daniel Radcliffe as Clark, Rupert Grint as Jimmy, and Emma Watson as Lois. :)

At any rate, I'm okay with the lack of a physical confrontation. This issue is all about escalation. But with the Terminauts on the loose and Metall-iac in play, I predict Actions Comics 4 will be a balls-out slugfestapalooza that would have Arnold Schwarzzenegger begging Grant to take things down a notch.

Speaking of logical extremes, "World Against Superman" takes his dual nature to a level that makes Richard Donner's films and all ten seasons of Smallville seem tame by comparison. Don't worry, everything you could love about that dynamic is very much intact. Superman is still struggling to reconcile his human and alien heritages. But this is Morrison, so even his worlds have worlds.

Which is why Action Comics 3 might be light(er) on action, but it's a triumph of atmosphere. Morrison uses every tool at his disposal to show not just how Krypton is different from Earth, but how Metropolis is different from itself. The divide isn't limited to Metropolis' industrial district and its dark underbelly, though that's appreciated. It's as if he's going out of his way to give every facet of Clark's life a distinct aesthetic.

The result is that when Clark walks by a strip club that could have been lifted straight from Miller and Mazzcchelli's Batman: Year One, it becomes something much different by contrast. Miller's strip clubs are superficial to Gotham's soul at best, like a wart on a witch's nose. Morales' seedy district, on the other hand, is more akin to the foot blisters Metropolis developed when it sprinted into the future.

For all the times he's stopped by Suicide Slum to give inspirational speeches to impoverished kids, this feels like Superman at the height of multiculturalism. When Clark walks by a prostitute on the sidewalk, he does so casually, not as a moral busybody but as someone familiar with poverty. He's an American Christ, a god walking among us, so steeped in the affairs of men that he's just as likely to pass by as walk with his fellow man, but he'll never go through you.

Morrison's Kent bridges worlds with impossible ease and unlikely difficulty. Now that Clark remembers his short life as Kal-El down to the last detail, the long dead Krypton seems a stone's throw away. But when he crosses from downtown Metropolis into a cafe stocked with middle class professionals, on the other hand, he might as well be taking a Boom Tube to get there. It's like stepping into another world.

Which brings us the other common criticism of AC3, which is that it's too compressed. I tend to agree that the narrative occassionally comes across as disjointed, but intentionally so, reaching a near feverish pitch as Clark's worlds come crashing together. Some of the most striking moments arise from abrupt transitions  that don't feel out of sequence so much as they transcend it.

Take the sequence where Clark is at the cafe with Lois and Jimmy for most of two pages. Traditionally, the cafe conversation would end with a clear verbal marker ("I'm headed off to work on that story now") and wait to change locales until the next page. Sometimes that verbal marker will appear in caption against the image of the protagonist's new location. Instead, Morrison abruptly transitions Clark from his cafe conversation to a park bench between the space of the last two panels.

This single panel consists of a homeless woman telling Clark a white ghost dog is watching over him, and covers his startled reaction. The result is that we feel Clark's disorientation in a way that we wouldn't if Morrison had followed a conventional page layout. By the time we see Clark on the following page, he's walking through downtown in the middle of a phone conversation.

Clark only appears in three panels on the next page, but there's a lot going on:

Panel 2. A smiling Superman saves a girl from an oncoming truck.
Panel 4. An angry mob attacks a hurt and confused Superman.
Panel 5. Clark apologizes to a picture of Ma and Pa Kent from his apartment, where his Superman shirt sits in a trashcan.

There are quite a few gaps to fill as readers, like when he changed to Superman, where the mob came from, and how he dealt with them before he went to his apartment and threw his costume away. As a result, the reader shares in Clark's feeling of being overwhelmed, like moving from dream to waking nightmare to crushing reality in a matter of seconds.

In terms of craft, this might be Morrison's best issue of ACTION yet. And for my money, it plays with time in the best possible way. Which is good for DC, because I felt like I got $4 of story out of twenty pages. Morrison's narrative doesn't just lack the extra page content of ACTION 1 or the backup feature coming in ACTION 4.

It transcends them. :)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is Kaine the Poor Man's Ben Reilly?

So as of ASM 673, it's all but confirmed that Kaine will be the new Scarlet Spider.

It's still possible that Marvel could pull something out of left field, seeing as how the Jackal is running around again. But it's doubtful that they'd go to such great efforts to establish Kaine as a major player in Spider-Island only to sideline him with a last minute reveal.

The Scarlet Spider Returns in January 2012

I'm not sure how I feel about this.

One the one hand, it feels like Kaine has been shoe-horned into the role. He's no longer degenerating, his scars are gone, and he can't see the future. Which begs the question, why not Ben? Marvel has said repeatedly that Ben's story is over, but that's a harder case to make when Kaine has just been stripped of everything recognizably Kaine to essentially become Ben Reilly 2.0.

It occurs to me that I'm being unfair, but Kaine's airport encounter with Peter leaves me concerned. Kaine claims he's there to see Aunt May off one last time before he goes on the run. Peter reminds him, "I have an Aunt May. You have a test tube." Regrettably, Kaine lets the comment pass without throwing Peter through a wall.

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"You talkin' 'bout my Test Tube Mama?!!"

Well, let me amend that. A Kaine throwdown would have derailed an otherwise excellent issue that isn't really about him. So perhaps it's regrettable from a characterization standpoint, but the issue itself probably benefits from Kaine's self-restraint.

And maybe--just maybe--he does, too. On a spiritual level, it's important for even the most tortured heroes and villains to reflect our capacity for change, however small. From a storytelling perspective, it's critical to mix things up to keep readers interested. Readers invest a lot of time and money into these characters. We want to feel as though we're going on a journey with them, not walking around in circles (even when we are).

Inevitably, what works for some doesn't for others. Controversy is better than apathy. I actually bought ASM 673 off of comixology as soon as it was available based solely on my interest in the Scarlet Spider. Sure, I could have just read spoilers online, but that seems unfair to the creators who work hard to generate interest in these stories. If you're intrigued enough to look it up, you generally ought to be willing to pay. But I digress. The upshot is that I came away very skeptical about Kaine filling the Reilly vacuum, but very impressed with ASM 673. So even if I drop Scarlet Spider after a few issues, you can put this in the win column for Marvel.

But back to my skepticism. To make a transition like this work, you have to sell the change as something organic. It's getting harder (not impossible, mind you) to pass off personality makeovers with off the wall explanations. Seasoned readers expect something more organic than a brain transplant or a yellow fear monster. Actually, scratch that last one. Geoff Johns totally pimped Hal Jordan's ride from insanity to heroism (with a nice assist from DeMatteis' Spectre run).

Johns' Green Lantern: Rebirth goes a long way toward illustrating that even the most awkward transition can work, while his Flash: Rebirth shows that even the most sensible one can fall a little flat. (For the record, Manapaul and Buccellato's The Flash is one of the best reads out there right now). I won't apologize for going into a gamechanging Kaine story with expectations, but it's fair to say that there's really no way to tell how successful Christopher Yost's take will be until it's on the page. I enjoy his animated work enough to say that if Scarlet Spider fails it won't be for lack of talent.

So why should Ben Reilly fans give the title a shot? Well, for one thing, I think our common question is a hauntingly familiar one. Because it's basically the flipside of the biggie that gets thrown my way every time I make a case for bringing Reilly back.

Isn't Ben Reilly just the poor man's Peter Parker?

When someone asks the inevitable question, I resist the urge to shout "Hell No!" and refer them to this quote from J.M. DeMatteis (the definitive Ben Reilly and Kaine writer):

"The minute I stepped inside Ben's head, it was clear that he was a very different character than Peter. A very different man. They had, at their core, the same values, the same inherent decency; but Ben's life experience had changed him drastically. He was tougher, I think; far more troubled. Quicker to anger. Less respectful of the law. His heart had been wounded so much that he had a hard shell around it. Yet, beneath that shell, aspects of the Peter Parker we knew and loved remained. That was the fun of Ben Reilly: he was Peter Parker and, at the same time he wasn't. Working on The Lost Years...was, for me, the highlight of the Clone Saga. Digging deeper into Ben's past, deepening the character of Kaine, working with the great John Romita, Jr.: what a wonderful experience. To be perfectly honest, I think Ben was, in many ways, a better character than Peter. Certainly more layered and interesting. And that's coming from a guy who thinks that Peter Parker is one of the most layered and interesting characters in the history of comics."

'Nuff Said on that. :)

Now I don't think we can apply this logic to the specifics of Kaine's new arc, because we have yet to see where Yost is going with him. Like I said, I'm still skeptical. But viewing that skepticism through the lens of Ben Reilly critics puts my doubts in perspective. It's worth remembering that fans who wouldn't give Ben Reilly a fair shot contributed to his untimely death.

Fans like me.

I enjoyed Ben Reilly during the Clone Saga but I HATED him as Peter's replacement. I was right there with the "He's not my Spider-Man!" crowd back in the day. I never wrote an angry letter or quit reading, but I practically cheered when Marvel rolled out the return of "the one, true Spider-Man." it took me years to come around to the genius of the concept, but Ben Reilly means a lot to me now.

So I'll be giving Christopher Yost a chance to sell me and I hope you will, too. It wouldn't be the first time I've been won over to an edgy character softening just a bit. Fans who didn't give Ben Reilly a shot as Spider-Man missed out on something special, and that could just as easily be true of fans who won't cut Kaine any slack as the Scarlet Spider. That's all I say for now, but check back in with me when Scarlet Spider hits stands.

And remember Marvel, Scarlet Spider's success or failure will only reinforce the necessity of Ben Reilly's return! :)

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He'll be back!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wolverine Was Too Cool For School...Now It's Too Cool for Him!

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"You're a headmaster now, Professor Logan. Best accept the fact that you will never again seem even remotely cool to any of your students." --Charles Xavier

So I picked up my first X-Men comic in years this week only to discover that Wolverine has lost his claws, figuratively speaking. Wolverine and the X-Men 1 apparently picks up where mega-event Schism left off, with the X-Men divided into two factions: one, a school in the vein of Xavier's original vision, and the other a militant group dedicated to protecting mutant interests at all costs. And since Wolverine would be the perfect candidate to lead the militants, he's naturally been recast as Dumbledore at the mutant equivalent of Hogwart's.

Except, you know, Dumbledore actually knew what was he doing.

"We're just hoping everything goes smoothly," Wolverine tells Xavier, who's stopped by to offer his blessing.

"Yes, I'm sure it will," Xavier smirks. "Just as it always does in a school full of teenage mutants."

I'll admit I went in to this as skeptical as I was intrigued, but it's that sense of whimsy that won me over. Aaron's wit and Bachalo's energy make for a winning combination.  The issue isn't heavy on action, but it's incredibly entertaining in a sitcomish 'disaster waiting to happen' way. The premise is tried and true fun: two state inspectors determined to shut the school down won't need to look hard for reasons. The running gag is that Beast's designs make the school a death trap and everything that can go wrong does.

There's also some very weighty moments that are played for laughs, in a tragi-comic kind of way. Like when one of the students makes for a very uncomfortable moment by telling the inspectors that mutants are monsters and she'd rather be cured than taught, but she appreciates the school because she'd just assume not kill again if she can avoid it. Awk-ward!

And then there's the absurd, hyper-reality moments that are strikingly relevant. Like when Wolverine's arch-nemesis turns out to be a trust fund baby who's dedicated to destroying the school because he wants to sell Sentinels. I never thought I'd see the day when a twelve year old kid could walk on campus and tell Wolverine he's going to destroy everything he's built with such impunity, but that's why it's so effective. The ol' Canuckle head is facing problems he can't deal with by popping the third claw--teenagers!

So far, Wolverine and the X-Men strikes me as M*A*S*H meets Harry Potter. A natural born killer viewing the world the lens of schoolmaster makes for the same kind of tension as a medic viewing the war through the lens of pacifism. Throw in the fantasy wish fulfillment and hijinks you get when kids with special powers get together, and you've got something that should click with fans of all ages.

And speaking as a fan of the X-Men from the 80s and 90s, this series seems to address the primary problem I've had with the franchise lately. I like Wolverine and I like Cyclops, but I don't like what they've become when they're together. The X-Men movies made Wolverine a badass at Scott's expense. Then they added insult to injury when they overplayed the Scott/Jean/Wolverine love triangle, which shouldn't define the characters.

That's why my favorite X-cartoon is Evolution, which took the triangle off the table from the very beginning. It freed Scott and Logan up to be something more than guys in a giant pissing contest over Jean. Since Marvel is in no hurry to move away from that, at least they're doing the next best thing by giving Scott and Logan some breathing room. I hope Aaron and Gillen have the good sense to keep Logan and Scott from crossing paths for the foreseeable future.

I look forward to Wolverine's journey as headmaster. The idea seemed somehow off at first, but I'm warming up to it rather quickly. It can't be easy to move such a cherished character's story forward without losing something fundamental, but if this issue is any indication, that's precisely what they're doing. They will have to do something about his tagline, though.

Wolverine isn't the best there is at what he does anymore, but what he does is kinda nice...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Soul Surfing with JMD and the Kids...

Psst! Comics aren't just for adults anymore. But whatever you do, don't tell the kids. I'm not quite done with my copy of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man #19...

I was watching The Big Bang Theory last night and several of the jokes revolved around Leonard meeting a hot girl in a comic book store. And it suddenly occurred to me how fast that gag is becoming irrelevant. It's not that unlikely to spot an attractive woman interested in comics these days. (I've joked with my wife that I was born ten years too soon.) But--and this is where things get really weird--you're much less likely to run into a kid looking for his weekly Spider-Man fix.

There's a lot of talk about sex and gore in comics, but that's just a sideshow. A distraction. The simple truth is we've alienated younger readers, not their parents. To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign's slogan:

"It's the Storytelling, Stupid."

Let me give a recent example. My son and I were browsing comics the other day. I was thinking about getting us a subscription to ASM, so I teased the idea by asking him what he thought of this comic:

"Face, it Tiger! Boys think I'm 'icky'!"

He looked at me like I'd just suggested we frost some rainbow cupcakes while catching an episode of My Little Pony.

But just in case you need more evidence of the industry's disconnect with younger readers, look no further than the solicitation for this comic:

"'Spider-Island' PART FIVE Now the moment you've been dying to see, Tiger! Mary Jane Watson finally spiders-up! Plus a giant battle pitting brother against brother. But let's face it, you just care about that cover!"

So there you have it. Marvel half jokingly suggests that a cover ripped straight from Maxim is a selling point. And maybe they're right--but only if you exclude nine year old kids from the mix. Personally, I like it, but more as a pinup piece or a screensaver than an invitation to buy a story. So if I were going by that alone, I'd treat it exactly like an issue of Maxim. I'd admire the cover and pass right on by.

The funny thing is, the comic itself is everything a nine year old boy could want. Action, monsters, heroics. The whole nine yards. It just goes to show that the disconnect has gotten to the point where we take it for granted. When you put a 'cooties' cover on a comic with such broad appeal, that's a missed opportunity.

This week J.M. DeMatteis talked about writing a story for Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, a title that falls under Marvel's 'all-ages' brand. "You can't write down to kids," he argues, "you have to write up." And he's absolutely right.

For one thing, kids are hard to fool. If you promise a story to a kid, you pretty much have to deliver. Adults, on the other hand? C'mon. We're the saps who go to the polls every year and vote for the guys who get us into messes and then promise to do a better job next time. And let's face it, we're easily distracted. At the lowest level, we'll take something less than a story if you throw in sex. At the highest level, we'll take something less as long as we can discern some intellectual point the author is making.

Maybe that's why I've rarely felt shortchanged by either Marvel or DC's all-ages titles. Some stories are better than others, but every one is just that: a story. If you want to learn craft, I think you're better served by looking at these done-in-ones than a super-ambitious seven year story arc that leads into the next Big Thing.

Take J.M. DeMatteis' ten page "Going Cosmic" story, which is not only an absolute blast, it's Storytelling 101. The tale doesn't kick off with Peter getting up, packing his school bag, having a Pop-Tart and kissing his Aunt May goodbye as he heads off to school. Oh, no. We get thrown into the action right away. Spider-Man is riding the Silver Surfer's board, headed straight into outer space where he's certain he'll die.

Something isn't about to happen, it already has.

So yeah, pretty much hooked from the first page. Wait, wha? Spider-Man is on the Silver Surfer's board? How did that happen? How does that even work? And how's Spider-Man going to survive? This is what Stan Lee meant when he said "Stay tuned, true believer!" :)


Don't worry, I won't spoil anything for you. Suffice to say we get a compelling mystery, a cosmic threat, an identification character that helps you see this world with the wonder of a child, several laugh-out-loud jokes, a bit of poetry and philosophy thrown in, a gentle inspirational message that's conveyed through the action, and an ending that will make you smile (and maybe tear up just a little).

And no, you didn't misread earlier: TEN. PAGES.

Sean Collins' Kraven story is killer, too. He opens on action, keeps up the pace, throws in laugh out loud dialogue, an identification character, and an ending that's funny because it rings so true. So you'll get two stories here, one cosmic and one grounded, but both very enjoyable and more profound than the wealth of writers out there trying to be oh-so-serious.

So do yourself a favor and buy Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man 19. If your resident professor or art critic asks, just tell him Watchmen was sold out.

Or better yet, pass some joy along and let them borrow your copy!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Flash #2: The Whirlwind Adventures of the Fastest Thinker Alive!

The Flash is about speed, but we often forget it's really about motion.

Luckily, Manapul and Buccellato are there to remind us. When I read their first issue of The Flash, I said it was the Barry Allen we'd been promised since his return. I wasn't quite sure what that meant until this month. I had an idea, but it was hard to pin down. I kept returning to vague platitudes that meant little more than, "I love this comic." You know, things like, "A return to Silver Age glory." What does that even mean, right? Especially for a guy who wasn't even around during the Silver Age.

It means a lot, actually.

The first Flash story I ever read was Mark Waid's The Return of Barry Allen saga. So in a fun twist, my first exposure to Barry Allen wasn't him at all! The story was really about Wally shedding the dead weight of his uncle's legacy before he could fully embrace it. "Barry" was none other than Professor Zoom, the hopeless nostalgic destined to die at his idol's hands years before Wally took up the mantle. Waid, the ultimate Silver Age enthusiast, was sending a clear message:

It's time to move forward.

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Well, message received. From that moment on, Wally was "my" Flash. I knew who Wally was and how he was connected to the Flash legacy. His story was about being your own man. In the coming years, he'd learn to do things his uncle never dreamed of. When Waid returned for a second run, he'd even become a father. Things had come full circle. 

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Perhaps it's that sense of completion that did Wally in. I still think there was more to be done--he was, after all, "my" Flash. But it's undeniable that some people viewed Wally's status as a family man in the same way they'd look at Peter Parker waking up one day and not feeling guilty anymore:

The End.


So I was excited about Barry Allen's return when DC teased the possibility of a Flash Family backup feature. It felt like the logical place for Barry and Wally's journeys to meet. Maybe their new dynamic would be mutually beneficial. They had a lot of catching up to do, after all, and the idea of flipping their relationship so that Barry had as much to learn from Wally as vice versa was exciting. Geoff Johns had put Hal Jordan front and center without neglecting Kyle Rayner, so there was precedent. But thenWally pretty much dropped off the radar after Flash: Rebirth, never to return.

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Equals at Last!
 Looking back at Geoff Johns' post-Rebirth Flash, I can see why DC felt the need to take Wally off the table. There was nothing especially bad about Johns' take. But when you compare the way he re-integrated Hal Jordan and Barry Allen into the DCU, I think it's fair to say that lightning didn't strike twice. It makes sense that DC wasn't in any hurry to pile on competitors for the Flash mantle, because Barry Allen was already in a race with himself that he couldn't win.

That's why I think Geoff Johns' Barry Allen never quite gelled for me. I had all these preconceptions going in about what Barry Allen's return would mean, and the reality didn't line up. I expected we'd get a gentle, smiling hero of the old school variety, the kind who's not motivated by guilt or greed and loves what he does. Instead, Johns locked Barry's return into a new arc where Zoom changed history and killed his mother. Barry suddenly seemed like oh-so-many other obssessive superheroes who can't let go of the past.

It was The Return of Barry Allen all over again, only this time I was playing the role of Wally West. I kept falling back on Will Rogers' adage, "Things ain't what they used to be, and probably never was." Maybe I had unrealistic expectations about what the Silver Age would look like filtered through a modern consciousness. But I couldn't shake this feeling that Barry Allen came across like a poor man's Bruce Wayne. In spite of the fact that I had a paid subscription to the Flash, I left several issues unread and never picked up Flashpoint. I moved from excitment to disappointment to apathy.

Enter the DC relaunch. I picked up more comics in the month of October than I have in years, and was pretty impressed. So I entered Manapul and Baccullato's Flash #1 with cautious optimism. I went in thinking maybe--just maybe-- they'd tap into something the character had lacking, which makes it sound kind of like a vitamin deficiency. Barry had struck me as a character who could use an extra cup of coffee, at any rate.

So no one was more surprised than me when I came away feeling like I'd plugged into everything the industry has been missing.

If that sounds like hyperbole, well maybe. But I tend to think that every comic should make you feel that way. When I put down $3 for an issue, you owe me something I can't get anywhere else. A voice, if you will. So now get back to that vague platitude: a return to Silver Age glory. Only now it doesn't seem so empty.

If there's one character who embodies the Silver Age more than any other, it's Barry Allen. He is, after all, the guy who kicked the whole thing off in Showcase #4. And we're talking about more than a template, an aesthetic or a sensibility. Barry Allen very well might have saved the mainstream superhero from extinction. So what exactly made Barry so special?


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That iconic image of the Flash bursting out of a film reel is about so much more than a guy who runs fast. Only you or I would even call it running. Barry would see that description as crude, like telling the Buddha he's just sitting under a tree. This is a man whose entire world is defined by motion. This is the hero who's living life in 4D.

When we talk about getting back to Silver Age basics, I think we mean that you have to constantly sell this idea that the Flash doesn't look at the world the same way we do. It's more than throwing out some wavy motion lines and calling it a day. You need to convince readers the Flash is different at the celluar level.

That's why I think The Flash benefits so much from having the artist and colorist as co-writers. They seem less likely to draw crude distinctions between word and art, right down to the lettering. Manapul and Buccellato know it's all connected, and that puts them more in tune with Barry's worldview.

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Is this what it was like to be a kid when SHOWCASE #4 hit stands?
The costume change and title sequence from issue #1 have that same POP! factor as Barry's debut. THIS is a guy I want to read about....if I can keep up with him, that is. Manapul and Buccellato sell a man who pushes the limits of physics by doing the same with the comic book format. And they take it to the next level in the their second issue, when Dr. Elias points out that Barry Allen can think as quickly as he can run. Check out what happens when Barry taps into the power of probability:

So what makes this something comparable to Barry's Silver Age debut? I guess if I had to sum it up, I'd just say this:
It's more about what heroes (and the medium) can do than what they can't.   

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Supergirl #2: A Symphony of Cartoon Violence

Jack Kirby once said, "There is something stupid in violence as violence."

On the surface, it seems odd to attribute that argument to a man who was arguably the master of comic book violence. Kirby's characters punch, kick and laser blast their way through life with passionate intensity. When his protagonists come to blows, jaws don't shatter. Worlds do.

But think about what Kirby was really saying. If you get into a barfight, you're likely to lose a molar. If you get into a fight with Dr. Doom or Darkseid, you're likely to lose a moon. Kirby's style isn't violence or even hyper-violence, it's heightened reality. Kirby would go on in the same interview to compare it to dance, with himself playing the role of choreographer.

Now on to Supergirl #2, where you'll get exactly what the cover promises. Supergirl decks Superman. Repeatedly. She kicks him some, too, and then tosses him around like a ragdoll by his cape. Scarcely a page goes by where Superman doesn't learn an important lesson about underestimating girls in new and painful ways. It's all in good fun, and it reminded me a lot of the Kryptonian slugfest from Superman II. There's something undeniably catharctic about watching gods and goddesses go into Wrestlemania mode.

"Do you smell what the House of El is cooking?"

It would be easy to criticize this as empty filler, but I can't. And it's not just because it's one of the most dynamic and beautifully illustrated action comics I've ever read. Comic book slugfests, like dance routines and wrestling matches, ultimately depend on the audience's investment.When you're plugged into the characters, a slugfest is really the manifestation of something much deeper. Every punch is another peak or valley in an emotional roller coaster ride. Supergirl #2 isn't violence as violence, it's a symphony.

I read one online criticism that Supergirl is aimed at the lowest common denominator, which simply doesn't ring true for me. On the contrary, it's a very intelligent comic that speaks to the reader in the most direct way possible. We open on Kara babysitting her infant cousin Kal-El. She's about to undergo the Kryptonian rite of passage, and she's nervous. She finds solace in her cousin's innocence. She hopes he doesn't grow too fast.

Then we flash forward to the present, which is only three days' time as far as Kara is concerned. She's inexplicably arrived on an alien world with strange new powers, and that's not even the worst of it. Her innocent baby cousin has suddenly rematerialized as the voice of age and experience. She's lost her bearings in every possible way.

As I read this comic to my daughter, we talked about how even heroes are scared of change. It's something that clicked for both of us in spite of the age gap. If you don't believe time can suddenly go as wonky for you as it did for Supergirl, just wait until the first time one of your children corrects you...and they're right. I'm getting advice about everything from video games to my writing from the kids these days, and I hope I'm smart enough to listen.

So a big thanks goes out to the creative team on Supergirl for not just making a comic, but creating a shared family experience. These guys are clearly smart enough to understand that we often come to superhero comics for the epic fights, but we stick with them because they mirror the human experience. And that puts them in the esteemed company of artists like Jack Kirby...

...and Beethoven.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: Batman and Robin #2 (Mild Spoilers)

Batman and Robin #2 is the most compelling case for de-aging Batman yet. Bruce says and does things here that would have been a hard sell before the relaunch, even when we take into account the way Grant Morrison softened the character. I can't imagine the seasoned forty year old veteran chatting this candidly with Alfred about parenting and mortality, for instance, or letting an old acquaintance get the drop on him in a public setting. But a thirty year old Bruce Wayne lends himself more easily to these unguarded moments, and it makes for good reading.

So does Tomasi's pacing. He slows things down a bit from last issue, but there's more tension than ever lurking beneath the surface. Damian shows restraint with some gunrunners, and this makes for an awkward exchange between Bruce and Alfred about the best way to pay a child a compliment. Bruce goes with "commendable," Alfred prefers "proud." If that seems tame, don't worry. Tomasi and Gleason pull off one of the most chilling reversals I've ever seen, and prove that Damian will always find an outlet for his rage.

Of all the Batman titles, this one feels the most eclectic. It's like throwing Burton's Batman in a mixer with Nolan's, then adding some awkward sitcom Dad and The Omen. It could have been a hot mess, but the result goes down really smooth.

Speaking of Nolan, the promised confrontation between Bruce Wayne and Nobody definitely takes its cues from Batman Begins. I don't think it's coincidence that my favorite scenes in both the Nolan and Burton franchise are ones where Bruce, not Batman, is forced to deal with a supervillain. I especially love the dynamic Nolan established with Ra's al Ghul, who's immune to the big, scary bat because he's the one who built Bruce from the ground up. That doesn't carry over as well to the comics, where Ra's and Batman first met as equals. But Tomasi seems to have found something comparable in Nobody, who turns out to be a fellow student of Ducard named Morgan(presumably the Ducard of the comics, who is not a front for Ra's al Ghul).

I like that Bruce doesn't go into agressive mode here. Maybe it's because he can't play the Bat card with Morgan, but still, it's nice to see him caught off guard. The final scene is such a beautiful touch. It's unsettling in a 'calm before the storm' way, and there's a quiet strength about Tomasi's Bruce Wayne that's more impressive than the invincible Batman ever was.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Son Reviews Nightwing #1

My nine year old son is a huge Batman fan. He asked me to post this review of Nightwing #1, his favorite comic from the DC relaunch:

I thought it was amazing. I loved how they fought and how Dick missed his old life. The suspense is killing me. I can't wait to read Nightwing #2.

So there you have it. Kyle Higgins, if you're reading this, you're winning the third grade demographic. Can't beat that!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Supergirl #1

My second experience with Supergirl was during the "triangle era," back when she was a shape-shifting creature from an alternate dimension who had the good sense to mimic Superman and the bad sense to date Lex Luthor.

Yeah, not the best time to board that train.

Then I read a few issues of the Peter David run, and while it was exceptional work, it never really clicked for me. I think Supergirl had merged with a new version of Linda Danvers--now a goth college co-ed or something like that--and things just got more complicated from there. DC had taken a successful core concept and twisted it like a pretzel until Supergirl was neither "super" nor a "girl"--or maybe she was, depending on how you viewed that whole merger. I never stuck around to figure it out.

My first experience with Supergirl was a very bad film--or so I'm told--that was more than good enough for me at the time. The concept was easy to digest. Supergirl was the last survivor of Argo City, an offshoot of Krypton, and this made her a distant cousin to Christopher Reeve's Superman. He didn't show up, but Jimmy Olsen did, so we knew it was the same universe. She arrived as a teenager, remembered her dead parents, and had the misfortune to land in the big city instead of Kansas. In other words, her life got complicated a lot faster than Clark's.

So maybe it was a bad film, but Supergirl #1 is most definitely not a bad comic. In fact, it's a very good one.

The plot is stripped down to something very basic: Supergirl fights guys in giant metal suits. If that's not enough of a visual hook for you, well it's Siberia and it's snowing. And it freaking rocks.

Mahmud Asrar nails the action scenes. They're crisp, clear, and dynamic. You can feel the earth shake when Kara's fist connects with these guys and sends them flying. You can smell bacon frying when her heat vision comes into play for the first time. No, don't worry, no one gets fried. It's just a really great action sequence and I happen to love bacon almost as much as I love this comic.

There's also a surprising amount of psychological depth for a comic that's pretty sparse with words. I like that. It's an easy read, but don't be fooled into thinking there's not a lot going on. Michael Green and Mike Johnson craft the narrative around Kara's sensation of dreaming. She isn't sure what to make of her situation., and we feel plugged into her confusion and anger. It's a great setup that sets her apart from her cousin Superman as quickly and directly as possible.

I'm glad to see DC getting back to the basics with Supergirl. She's Super. She's a Girl. And she punches giant robot-guys.

I read this comic to my four year old daughter, and she had two reactions. She wants me to buy the next issue and she's going to be Supergirl for Halloween this year.

'Nuff said!

Review: Stardust Kid #1 (Mild Spoilers)

When I read Peter Pan for the first time in graduate school, I was genuinely shocked by its depth and darkness. Keep in mind I'm not equating depth with darkness, and I'm not talking about the grim n' gritty brand you'd find in a Frank Miller comic or an episode of CSI. But this Pan seemed somehow different from my childhood memories of the Disney film. Spielberg's Hook had perhaps gotten a bit closer, lifting Peter's tragic origin story and the line, "To die would be a great adventure!" from the book. But as much as I love that movie and its message, it's hard to deny that it 'domesticated' Pan. Barrie's Pan lives on the razor's edge; Spielberg's shaves with it.

I was reminded of all this as I was reading Stardust Kid #1, by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog. I am a huge fan of DeMatteis' work, and if I could sum up why as succintly as possible I'd put it like this:

Light and shadows.

I love the way DeMatteis plays with depth, with darkness, all to bring us back into the light (sometimes kicking and screaming). I was profoundly effected by Kraven's Last Hunt as a child, the storyline that not only buried Peter Parker alive but forced him to confront his fears in a sewer while chasing a cannibalistic man-rat. There are few things in literature I find comparable to the moment when Peter emerges from the sewers and into the sunlight, victorious. I want to cheer, but I need to squint. I feel like shielding my eyes from the glory of God manifested in that page.

Stardust Kid is a very different kind of story than KLH, but the first issue only underscores my point. DeMatteis builds worlds because he marries light with shadow, love with fear. And that makes him the perfect writer for a children's story that evokes Pan's fear of adolescence. This is the story of Cody DiMarco, a boy on the verge of being a man, and you'll feel his terror (and that of his family) as they pass the point of no return.

We open on the threat of a dark power "older...more elegant...and far more effective" than "Presidents...Prime Ministers...and atom bombs." I can't say enough for the way Mike Ploog builds suspense around this ancient evil breaking out of its cocoon, and then carries that dread over to our first meeting with DiMarco family. The sense of physical danger is wedded to the unsettling feeling that Cody DiMarco's adolescence is a ticking time bomb. It's all tied to Cody's mysterious friend, Paul Brightfield, but Mrs. DiMarco can't quite put her finger on why she doesn't trust him.

Ploog's depiction of Paul Brightfield is fantastic, and once again, it evokes the awe and danger attached to Pan. There's a sense of mischieviousness about him--or maybe it's wisdom, or is it malice? You can't help but be intrigued by where this going. And when Cody brushes off his childhood friend, Alana, to hang out with Paul, I'm not sure whether I should want him to keep going or yell, "It's a trap!"

And after reading the entire issue, I'm still not sure my question has been answered. I'm not even sure who the narrator is. Suffice to say this book takes some really interesting twists that demand my attention...and insure I'll be coming back for the second chapter.

I think I'm going to wait until next month to read issue. Not because it's easy to wait, but there's something fun about letting all this stew for a while. I'll make some wild speculations and see where everything goes from here. You can get Stardust Kid #1 at a steal for a 1.99 on comixology. I hope you do..and check back in with me next month when I review Stardust Kid #2.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Comics Should Be Better Than Good, They Should Be "Disposable"!

Socrates argued that learning is really the art of remembering what we already knew. With that in mind, DC's New 52 is reminding me of some basic truths I once took for granted. One of the first things that jumped out at me about the relaunch was the compressed storytelling. The issues I read were compelling from start to finish, and left me wondering what would happen next.
If it seems redundant to suggest that comics should keep a reader's attention, well, it probably is. It's like saying you win football games by scoring more points than the opposing team. But that would be forgetting that the final score doesn't tell the whole story. A football game isn't just about numbers, it's an experience. There's nothing particuarly satisfying, for instance, about a football game where no touchdowns are scored. And it occurs to me that DC and Marvel have been playing the kind of ball where they're okay with never making it to their own end zone. It feels like the past ten years is Marvel bragging about winning the Superbowl 2-0 with a last minute safety, and DC bragging about what a close game it was.
Time will tell whether Dan Didio will pull off the most impressive upset since Image and Dark Horse challenged the Big Two, or if he's just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But one thing seems abundantly clear. He's finally come to play ball.
So back to Comics Storytelling 101. What did I learn--i.e. remember--from the first month of DC's New 52?
Comics are disposable.
It seems to run counterintuitive to not just where comics are going, but where pop culture is as a whole. We've entered the so-called "age of availability." Nearly any television show that ever had a decent following is now or soon will be collected in its entirety on DVD. Better still, they're often available through internet streaming services like Netflix. I cannot tell you how much joy it brings me to rediscover my childhood by having Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Cosby Show available at the click of a button. The same can be said for the way Marvel and DC are collecting my favorite 80s and 90s stories faster than I can afford them. But it's worth noting that the ten to twenty year gap from first run to collection built my anticipation, whereas that gap has been closed in modern times. Today's comic will be in trade within the year.
I think there's a few things to be said for this trend. First off, writers and artists cannot help but have a more oppressive sense of self-awareness about their work than they did in the 50s through the 90s. There was a growing awareness during that period that really good work might be collected (i.e. The Marvel Masterworks hardcovers) or make it to sydnication, but now we all know that bad work will be, too. The collections are being prepped before the popularity or quality of your work can even be appraised. If it's bad, its glorious badness will not be dropped as soon as the next batch of comics comes out, it will be enshrined.
The upshot of this is that artists no longer crank out work with the raw vitality that made Jack Kirby a star. Of course, I should be cautious not to romanticize the kind of conditions Kirby worked under. The volume of his work speaks to his unparallelled genius, but it probably says just as much about his genuine struggle to make ends meet in a sweat shop environment. But Kirby's work not only holds up to virtually every 'modern' standard you can throw at him, it's still as exciting, as vital, as relevant as ever.
If you want proof, look no further than DC's new OMAC series by Dan Didio, Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish. It's the most refreshing monthly I've read in years, and that's because it takes its cues from Kirby rather than Miller and Moore. Giffen and Koblish channel Kirby's art beautifully, but the comparison runs much deeper. You'll quote lines like "I'm a Build-A-Friend, and you are no friend of mine!" or "OMAC-tivate!" from sheer joy, and not out of any twisted obligation to prove that comics aren't 'just for kids.'  It's a work that's clearly written for the moment, and that's how Kirby won history.

Which brings me to my second point. Disposability is about urgency. The Watchmen model is devoted to the comics you should read, but the Kirby template is all about the comics you must read.
I want to read OMAC, and I don't want it in trade. I want it now. I can say the same for more DC books than I can afford at the moment. Urgency is exciting and it's contagious. If I don't watch television and you try to win me over, then giving me a Cheers DVD sends the wrong message. So why are we still passing off Watchmen and Year One to potential comic readers?  It says the best is behind us, that the conversation is over and we're all just biding our time until something else really good comes along. And if I'm an outsider I'm thinking, "Wake me up when you get there, and then we'll talk."
We sometimes forget that real evangelism comes from a place of love, not obligation. It's the former alcoholic with the light in his eye telling you how God saved his life, not the guy complaining about going to another potluck this Sunday, threatening you with hell or falling back on the "because that's the way it's supposed to be." The industry doesn't need doomsday prophets or the wait and see crowd. It needs evangelists, enthusiasts, people who simply cannot keep the joy of comics to themselves.

So thanks to DC for reminding me what it means to measure out the week as the distance from one Comic Book Wednesday to the next.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spider-Man's Got a New Set of Threads

No, I'm not talking about Spidey's Tron suit in Dan Slott's "Big Time" arc.

I mean this, the first full shot of Andrew Garfield in costume for the upcoming Spider-Man film franchise reboot:

This photo excites me for several reasons.

First off, the reboot design doesn't have the texture issues from the Raimi films. It's slicker and works well with Garfield's frame. Speaking of which, Garfield looks more like the skinny, disillusioned kid from Queens than an athlete in nerd's clothing.

And last but not least, the photo is evocative. It speaks volumes about this sheltered kid who's suddenly forced to grow up far too fast. Until something proves otherwise, I'm convinced the creative team behind the new film "gets" Peter Parker.