Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

On Being A Marvel, Not A DC

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on July 17, 2014

Today I did something I’ve never done before. I went to a comic shop and bought more Marvel comics than DC ones. I picked up sixteen comics, and only six were DC. Seven were Marvel, and three were Image.

This is a very depressing figure, because three years ago I’d have bought that many comics in a week, and this was ten weeks’ worth of comics I was picking up. And the reason I’m buying so few comics is precisely because up until now I’ve always preferred DC to Marvel.

While I appreciate and love comics’ potential as an artistic medium as much as anyone — give me an Alice In Sunderland or Alec and I’ll rave about it for hours — comics are one of the few media I also turn to for pure entertainment, the way other people watch the football or soap operas. I can’t cope with those things, but I can enjoy an equally mindless comic, so long as it’s done to a basic level.

And throughout my life, since I was about ten, I’ve always looked to DC Comics for that kind of thing.

It’s a kind of brand loyalty I don’t usually have about most things, and think is ridiculous, but when I was first becoming a comics fan, DC was producing comics that were so far superior to Marvel’s it’s hard to think of them even as the same media. While DC were putting out things like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and even fun brainless stuff like Alan Grant’s work on Batman, Lobo and The Demon, Marvel were going all in on the proto-Image GUNS-WITH-A-CAPITAL-GUNS “aesthetic”.

And this meant that at a formative age, I got to grok DC Comics (and 2000AD, which I thought of as essentially the same thing, since the DC comics I liked were mostly made by British writers and artists who were also working for The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic) in a way I never did with Marvel. STAR Labs, Black Canary, the Daily Planet building, WGBS-TV, Lexcorp, all have instant associations for me in a way that, say, Stark Industries, Ms. Marvel, the Baxter Building and so on just don’t.

And so what this has meant is that whenever Marvel have put out something truly, exceptionally, good, I’ve bought it, but I’ve never bought the dozens of basically competent titles Marvel put out every month. I have, on the other hand, bought and enjoyed plenty of DC comics that merely showed a basic competence — I bought every issue of the 2008-2011 Booster Gold series, for example, which no-one is ever going to accuse of being a masterpiece but which had a witticism-spouting man in a gaudy costume having time travel adventures.

Since the New 52 started in late 2011, though, DC has descended into something close to the level of utter incompetence that Marvel where at when I first started buying comics. When the New 52 started out, I put something like thirty titles from it on my pull list, because there were interesting concepts like Demon Knights and Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, and people like Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, J.H. Williams, George Perez — people who knew how to make good comics — working on many of the books.

Most of the more interesting titles are now cancelled, and none of those people are working on the comics they were working on. In three years, my DC pull list has gone from around thirty titles to two — Swamp Thing and Justice League 3000. And they’re the two comics I’m least interested in out of all the ones I’m buying.

Sorry, make that three — I’ve also got the Sandman miniseries on my list, the monthly one that’s released two issues in the last nine months.

The vast majority of DC’s output has turned into a sludgy morass of underdressed women, men with too many muscles and too many pockets, and “homages” to “classic” stories but with more violence and misogyny. Some of the titles I’m not reading might have got good again, and some of the new titles might be good. I know people have been saying nothing but good things about Batgirl (but even with Gail Simone writing, or now with Cameron Stewart working on it, I can’t get over the editorially-mandated destruction of Oracle), but DC are not only not making any great comics at the moment, they’re not even making any of those adequately-enjoyable ones they used to make.

And this means that not only am I buying fewer DC comics, I’m not buying as much by anyone as I used to. As recently as 2011 I used to eagerly go to the comic shop every week, and I’d pick a lot of stuff off the shelf to go with my regular purchases. Now I turn up every few months and pick up a handful of comics, and if there’s anything interesting on the shelves it’s usually up to issue three or four and I’ve missed the start of the story.

Luckily for my comics-reading, Marvel have started putting out a few titles so good I’ve ended up adding a few to my pull list, and I intend to add more, so I’ll be going to the shop more regularly. And with Grant Morrison’s Multiversity starting next month, I’ll even have a regular DC comic I’m actually looking forward to for at least six months (and that really does look like the best thing ever).

But if DC don’t change their editorial stance soon, once that’s over I may well, for the first time since I started reading comics, be left reading not a single DC title, and going to the comic shop and saying “Make Mine Marvel”. And as good as many of the current Marvel titles are, nothing in them can replace the thing in my brain that clicks with recognition when I see Etrigan or Bizarro, Darkseid or Booster Gold, Deadman or Zatanna. Those characters, and thousands of other DC characters, are like old friends I’ve known since childhood, and I want them back. I miss them.

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Hugo Blogging: Best Graphic Story

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 16, 2014

Remember when this used to be a comics blog?

Those of you who thought my other Hugo blog posts were a little grumpy might want to look away, because not only am I in a bad mood for unrelated reasons, but I’d question the whole point of this category.

Quite simply, science fiction fans and comics fans are two non-identical groups (though there is overlap of course), and having a comics award in the Hugos, like some of the other minority awards, seems like it’s more likely to reward things that have names recognisable to SF fans than things that are actually good.

2013 wasn’t a particularly exciting year for comics (in fact it was the least excited I’ve been about comics since I was old enough to read, and I rather fell out of touch with the comics scene, though I’m getting back into it), but there was good work being put out. Sadly, that’s not represented in the Hugo nominations for the most part.

As always, from best to worst:

Time by Randall Munroe — I’m not even sure whether this is a comic, or a cartoon, or what, but it’s formally inventive and interesting. Munroe had one page of his webcomic XKCD which updated with a new panel every hour for many months, each panel replacing the previous one. When run together, the panels become a short animated science fiction film (with Munroe’s usual stick figure characters) , but that’s not how the work was intended to be viewed — it’s essentially impossible for anyone to experience now, because part of the point was the real-time nature of it. It’s a genuinely interesting experiment, and the only thing on the ballot that could possibly be said to deserve the award.

No Award

Girl Genius Vol 13 by Phil and Kaja Foglio — Girl Genius is a steampunk webcomic. The Hugo “best graphic story” award started in 2009, and that year’s collected edition of Girl Genius won it. And it won in 2010. And 2011. At which point the Foglios announced they were letting someone else have a go and withdrawing it from nomination for a little while. It’s very well done if you like that sort of thing, but steampunk is definitely not my sort of thing, and volume thirteen of an ongoing storyline is not a great place to start.

The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who by Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton. This is passable enough, but it’s not deserving of an award — it’s been nominated because it’s about Doctor Who , because it makes SF fandom feel good about themselves, and because Paul Cornell is (deservedly) very popular. Cornell is a good writer, but this is not him at his best, and the story is yet another Doctor Who story about how special Doctor Who is and how much the show means and how much being a Doctor Who fan can change your life and… can we please have some Doctor Who stories that aren’t navel-gazing at some point?

The Meathouse Man “adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden” is a comic adaptation of a short story Martin wrote in the 1970s (it was originally intended for The Last Dangerous Visions which shows how old it is) and has all the flaws of comics adapted from short stories — for the most part the illustrations are just that, illustrations, not an integral part of the work. I’ve not read the original story, but from the way this is presented I’d guess little or none of Martin’s prose was removed, so it’s only a “graphic story” in the most technical sense. And unlike in, say, P. Craig Russell’s adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s prose, or Eddie Campbell’s adaptations of Alan Moore’s monologues, which do something similar, there’s nothing special added by the art.

And the story itself I found very, very unpleasant, “boundary-pushing” in that 70s way which just wants to see how unpleasant a story can be and still be a story. Which makes it just about average for a mainstream comic of 2013. This is clearly nominated purely on Martin’s name.

 

Not in the Hugo Packet, so not ranked, is Saga, vol 2 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I’ve not read this, but have heard very good things about it. If I get round to getting a copy before the close of voting, I suspect I’ll be ranking it above No Award, at least, but don’t know if I’ll have a chance to get round to it.

Slut Shame

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 19, 2013

A woman says "I'm the Slut. I like to take off my clothes and do things." A baloon coming from off panel says "Uh... yes. Next."

OK, I knew that Before Watchmen was terrible — I wrote about it myself, and then there’s the Hooded Utilitarian’s two-part evisceration, but until I read this by Calamity Jon Morris, I didn’t realise just how utterly appalling it was.

I mean, as Jon points out, the whole “terrible superhero auditions” thing is a cliché anyway, but seriously? “I’m The Slut. I like to take off my clothes and do things.”

That’s something that a professional, Eisner-award-winning, comics writer thought would add to the most acclaimed work in his medium. Darwyn Cooke — a man who is, let us not forget, a grown adult, who has been out of school for. we must presume, several decades, thought Watchmen — a formal masterpiece based around themes of free will, predestination, power and responsibility — would have been better if there was a joke superhero who called herself “the Slut”.

Eisner award winning Darwyn Cooke there, ladies and gentlemen…

Me on the Mindless Ones

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 26, 2012
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Before Watchmen

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on June 6, 2012

Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.

Alan Moore stabs a knife into a Watchmen smiley-face cake. Dave Gibbons looks on.

In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.

How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?

Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012

Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.

It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.

(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)

What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.

Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal

But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.

Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.

But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Diversion – Dave Gibbons

Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.

This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.

Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.

But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.

Diversion ends

What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…

“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)

Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.

But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”

And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.

Part of a draing by Kevin Maguire of the Justice League

Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.

DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.

And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.

So it can be done.

So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?

There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.

Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.

Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.

Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.

But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?

Cooke does Morrison and Quitely

No.

The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.

So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.

(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)

Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.

But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.

page from Before Watchmen where Cooke homages Miller and Mazzuchelli

Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.

The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.

Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.

These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.

Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.

But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”

And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.

Credit from Before Watchmen, with a created by credit for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.

If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.

But as for this?

Cooke sums up his own comic

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