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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Good Bad Ugly

So over the past several weeks I've been spending more money week in and week out at the comic book store than I've done in a long time, mostly on account of the DC Retroactive series of comic books. This send off for the old DC Universe ahead of the New 52 that launched today with Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1 was one of the more delightful ideas to come around. There were 18 issues, six each for the '70s, '80s and '90s, which paired a "new" story from the era in question with a classic reprint. The first few I tried were enjoyable enough that I decided I'd stop leafing through to decide which I should buy, and instead just went for all of them, $4.99 a pop, three a week, several weeks running. Not all of them were entirely successful, some had a good reprint but a so-so new story, others had a good new story paired with a so-so reprint, but the overall was just a lot of fun. Favorites might have been the Green Lantern story with the Jon Stewart GL, where someone learns why secret identities are supposed to be kept secret. Marv Wolfman wrote a Superman that fit in beautifully as a long lost prequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths. There was a Len Wein Batman story that fit hand in glove perfectly with its time period. I wanted to like Mike W. Barr's Batman contribution a little more than I did, but I knew before I got to it that it would be a fair play mystery where the reader would be challenged to find the clues before Batman did, because that's what Mike W. Barr did.

But the big thing here was that these stories were all fun.

And to me, that's the challenge for DC's New 52. Can they bring the fun back to reading comics? Can DC take advantage of the opportunity it's given itself, to tell good fun stories that don't require a master's degree in continuity, that won't insist on getting bogged down in crossovers or big company wide events? Where you're as likely to decide to skip an issue because it's skipping whatever it is you're liking in the comic to tether itself to some other thing that requires reading 9 other comics to properly enjoy? Because you know, even though I'm in my upper 40s now, the kind of guy who can enjoy a serious Vertigo book like DMZ because of the adult pleasures it offers, I'm still likely as not to get my greatest enjoyment out of a good issue of Simpsons Comics or Futurama Comics that are just, you know, fun.

And speaking of which, it amazes me still how often I can enjoy a Futurama comic considering I never liked the show so much. The latest issue there had the gang working at a chain restaurant as big as a planet, which is a silly idea done with its tongue always in cheek that was a delight from first page to last. And there've been a couple great Simpsons issues recently, one where Homer goes off to Canada and discovers it's full of donut shops, as delightful an experience for Homer as when David Bowman goes through the infinite and discovers that it's full of stars. Only, this is way funnier. Or the most recent issue, where Ned Flanders is off on a cruise and finds love, while his kids are finding something else with Homer taking care of them.


I want to read comic books for fun, or for some kind of adult intellectual pleasure.

What I don't want to read comic books for?

Sadly, that's what I found today in the dreary dismal disappointing messes that are Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1.

I read the first issue of Flashpoint, didn't find it interesting enough to keep going, but decided to come back for the finale because after all this is the big lead-in that puts a boot kick into the reboot for the New 52.

But the story doesn't make any sense. Maybe it would make sense if I'd read the three missing issues here, but I think the creators of this issue should have made an extra effort to get it to work on its own just on account of readers like me who'd decide to get in on the last seconds of the old New Year on the way to ringing in the New.

What there is of a story just isn't very interesting.

If it does lead in to the reboot, it requires looking at the fine print of what characters are featured in the art that aren't mentioned or discussed much in the story, There's this double-page spread where "and the RESISTANCE" is in big letters to tell us that the Resistance is important, and we can carefully try and figure out which characters are included because none of them are named. And then there's a Speed Force "Boooo ooooom" and the Resistance is gone a few pages later.

The cover says "It All Changes Here." Um, what changed? I didn't notice. Shouldn't I have?

Then we pick up Justice League #1.

Even though this is a reboot, there isn't much said about who Batman is. Or who Green Lantern is. If I didn't know who they were because I've been reading about them for 35 years, there's nothing in this issue that would explain why I should be reading about them.

I'm not sure why the two of them hook up, what their goal is, what their plot problem is.

There are seven superheroes on the cover. We spend time with two of them -- 2, only! -- in 24 pages, with a third making an appearance on the final page, and another who is in a pre-origin state. The JLA Retroactive reminds that it is possible to tell a good story with half a dozen heroes in 26 pages, so why does this original story deal with only 2 heroes in 24 pages? This doesn't make me want to come back again in a month to see more, it makes me think there are better ways to spend $4 than on overly attenuated stories that just go on, on, on, on in an inefficient and uninteresting kind of way.

Jim Lee's art does nothing for me. This is one of the things that will almost certainly keep me from enjoying a lot of the New 52. I do come from an era when art was supposed to be about storytelling. In my own experience, we can look back to Todd McFarland's run on Infinity Inc. as a prime example of how storytelling skills started to give way to a collection of pin-up pages, but at least I often enjoyed looking at the pin-up poses McFarland would give to the characters in that super team.

Look at page 20.

You can do what the first two panels attempt to do, Blake Edwards does this in Victor Victoria when he cuts from inside a restaurant to showing the aftermath from outside the restaurant viewed through the windows, but he carefully establishes the inside of the restaurant and gives visual cues to connect the shots. If you look at what we see inside the office on panel #1 and then try and match that with what we see in silhoutte of the office in panel #2, you can't make that match. Most of the characters close to the window have their back to it, the next shot has all the characters showing a profile to the locker room.

Going from panel #2 to panel #3, the character has his back to the phone in one panel but then has done a 200 degree turn to now have one hand resting on the phone.

Panel #3 to panel #4, we have another reverse angle, and it looks like the character is hanging up the phone with the left arm, whereas the previous panel had him holding the phone in the right hand. Do people often switch hands to hang up a phone? I also believe that in panel #2 the cord for the payphone goes in to the right side of the phone, while in panel #4 it looks like the chord is going into the left side, or that there isn't a cord any more. Either would be a mistake.

The physique of the character in panel #5 looks different than that same character in panel #1. The arms seem bigger in relation to the torso in #5.

Here and there, a nice piece of business. Pages 13 and 14, let's say. Green Lantern is ridiculing the idea that Batman is just a guy in a bat costume, then Batman shows who's boss by removing GL's power ring when GL loses focus and concentration and provides the opportunity.

The sad thing is that I know that Geoff Johns is capable of writing a good script, but he hasn't here, he tends to do his best work when he does a good people story about the people that are superheroes. But in his role as the co-creative-poobah of DC Comics, he doesn't let himself write those scripts. He focuses on doing the big crossovers, where he's occasionally capable of a good first issue and rarely six of them, or to doing something like this. But he can do better.

I don't know if Jim Lee could do better, I haven't looked at enough of his art to make that call. Of course, he is the co-publisher of DC Comics, so I'm not sure if there's anyone at the company who's going to take the time to tell the boss that he can't have the phone cord moving from the left side to the right side, can't have the characters all with their back to the window in one panel and their profiles to it in the next, that he should make some effort at continuity and storytelling. Maybe his people will never look like actual people or even like the muscular exaggerated versions of people that we accept in superhero comics, but some of this other stuff, all it takes is the effort.

You know, it's hard to let go. But I've tried to do it in running my business. My employees come to me and say they're ready for e-mail queries, I'm capable of telling them "you know, I don't have a dog in this hunt," instead of pretending that I'm still the one who looks at the query letters. Not at DC, Geoff and Jim might be the people who are supposed to be in charge, who are supposed to be the ones who be sure their editors are making each of these new 52 truly wonderful, and instead they have their own un-editable selves launching it.

Well, I'm sure that there will be better comics than this in the New 52, and I'm sure I'll still give a sampling to a decent chunk of them.

For all my negativity here, I think the idea of the reboot, of the New 52, is not a bad idea in and of itself. It is an opportunity to do great things for DC and the industry at large. In fact, I'm as negative as I am because I see the problems with Justice League #1 as a betrayal of what the New 52 could be, what it should be, what it needs to be.

For a much sunnier take on these two comic books, you can read the thoughts of award-winning sf writer Michael Burstein, who did a review for SF Scope. Click here.

And if I read Crisis on Infinite Earths today, would I still like that? Or is it not so much that comics have changed as that I have? Am I Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., decrying that the movies have gotten smaller?

1 comment:

Joseph L. Selby said...

Fun without being a slave to backstory? It sounds like you want to read Atomic Robo. Check out their Free Comic Book Day 2011 offering and see if that doesn't remind you of the fun you can have reading comics.