Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy 85th, Stan!

You know, I have a bit of a confession to make. I used to think Stan Lee was, well...lame. I mean, to be fair, it was the 90s, and my primary exposure to his writing was 'Ravage 2099', but...I thought Stan Lee was lame, and untalented, and kind of an embarrassment to a comics industry that had come a long way since the Silver Age. I thought the reason he was hailed as such a great writer in his heyday was because guys like Neil Gaiman and Peter David weren't around yet, and that we had such great, sophisticated writers now that it made Stan Lee into a relic.

I'm sorry, Stan. I was young and stupid, and I hadn't actually read a lot of those old comics. I've spent the last year or so, now, reading what has become a whole bookshelf of classic Marvel, and it's made me realize that Stan Lee was brilliant. He managed to be self-aggrandizing without being obnoxious, a combination that's much harder than it looks; the gentle, almost self-mocking humor of his captions, the bombastic next-issue summaries, even the little footnotes where he'd say that he would have covered the page with word balloons, but with art like this, he knew when to sit down and shut up...Stan Lee sold his stories, his persona, his characters, and he knew exactly how to charm you into believing his line. He made you feel special and discerning for having the good taste to enjoy his writing, and while his brand of hype always promised more than it delivered, it never made you feel like you were getting cheated afterward. It's a trick that modern-day editors show every day that it's very easy to fail at, and fail spectacularly. Even the nicknames he gave himself and his collaborators were part of that same charming hucksterism; "Dashing" Don Heck, "Gentleman" Gene Colan, Jack "The King" Kirby, "Jazzy" Johnny Romita, and Stan "The Man" Lee. (Cribbed from Stan "The Man" Musial, no doubt, but charming nonetheless.)

I love his dialogue. For all that I believe Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby contributed greatly to the classic runs of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, I don't think either one of those series would have become as great as they did without Stan Lee presenting vivid portraits of them through their speech. Even today, you can take the tails off of the word balloons in an issue of the Fantastic Four, and you'll know who's talking; Doom's megalomaniac ranting, Johnny's youthful exuberance, and of course, the Thing. "Natcherly! The idol of millions ain't no weak-kneed pantywaist!"

Did he benefit from working with some of the best artists in the industry? Unquestionably. Spider-Man wouldn't have been Spider-Man without Ditko, and the rest of the Marvel Universe wouldn't have been the same without Kirby. But that's the nature of a collaborative medium. Lee and Kirby made each other better. It wouldn't have been the same without those many wonderful artists, but it also wouldn't have been nearly as good without Stan Lee. It certainly wouldn't have been as much fun.

So, having become older and wiser, but not yet as old and wise as the man I'm lauding, I say, "Happy 85th Birthday!" to Stan (the Man) Lee, a great writer and a legend in his own lifetime. Thanks for all the great stories!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Captain America

(or "The Eternal Struggle")

Captain America has had many storytelling engines over his long, long career as a super-hero. He's been a soldier, an Avenger, an agent of SHIELD, and even a uniformed policeman (he seems to gravitate to authority figures, for some reason.) But you'd probably be forgiven for thinking his storytelling engine is "fighting the Red Skull"--in the first three volumes of the Essential Captain America alone, the Red Skull appears in over 25 issues, and even many of Cap's other foes, such as HYDRA or AIM, turn out to have connections to his arch-nemesis. (By Mark Gruenwald's time as writer of the series, the Red Skull turned out to be secretly bankrolling AIM, HYDRA, ULTIMATUM, the Scourge, and the United States Commission for Super-Human Activities. Now that's a Type A personality.) Even now, current Cap scribe Ed Brubaker is doing another Red Skull epic; Cap seems to be a superfluous element in his own book, next to the struggle against the Nazi tyrant.

So why is it that Cap and the Red Skull seem doomed to battle forever? And just what is it that makes the Red Skull such an enduring foe?

To answer the first question, you just need to take a look at Captain America's origin. Not the super-soldier formula, but his origin as a patriotic hero during an era when patriotic heroes worked best--World War II. Cap's Golden Age adventures were all as the star-spangled hero of World War II, and the sheer iconic power of the Nazis as "global villains" continues to make them menacing bad guys even today. (And as an aside, it's interesting the way Marvel and DC took two different approaches to World War II in their fictional universe; DC kept its heroes out of the war via the plot conceit of the "Spear of Destiny", making it a war fought strictly between humans, while Marvel gave both sides super-powered soldiers, turning "supers" into another theater of combat alongside air, land and sea.) If you look at Cap's other enduring villains, they're pretty much all former Nazis as well--Baron Zemo (I and II), Arnim Zola, and HYDRA and AIM can both trace their ancestry to Nick Fury's Nazi sparring partner, Baron von Strucker. The Red Skull just happens to be the best of these old bad guys.

So what makes the Red Skull the best? Here's a few guesses as to what makes him an A-list villain. (And not just him, either. Many of the best villains share certain traits.)

For starters, he's someone who has a lot, but wants more. You never see the Red Skull robbing a bank, or knocking over a liquor store. He's always got the funding and resources to equip a small army, own an island lair, build and bury giant Nazi robots for later use, et cetera et cetera. (Doom and Luthor are two more good examples here. When Doom loses, he's still in charge of a whole freaking country.)

Second, he's got lofty goals. He doesn't just want to be rich, or impress women, or avenge some slight against him--he wants to topple the governments of the world, send human civilization spiraling into chaos, and then set up a tyrannical dictatorship in the sprawling ruins. (Again, you can point to a lot of great villains here. Magneto wants to bring about a new utopia of homo superior, standing on the ashes of the human race.)

Third, when his plans fail (as they always do for every villain), the Red Skull doesn't wind up slinking off to jail with the henchmen. No, this is a villain who does things dramatically--escape via rocket-powered jetcraft, lost from view when his island lair blows up in a volcanic eruption...heck, even his seeming deaths are dramatic, such as being trapped in the brain of a renegade Russian general. He may escape, or may meet a seeming end, but he never truly has to face justice for his crimes. (Likewise, you'll never see a villain like Darkseid doing three consecutive life terms for attempted conquest of Earth.)

It does seem that the Red Skull is truly an evergreen villain, one who will continue to struggle with Captain America for as long as there is a Captain America (and even longer, if Marvel's heartfelt protests about Cap being really really really dead this time are to be believed.) It's difficult to create a villain that good. Certainly Cap would have had problems if Batroc the Leaper was his arch-enemy all these years.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

How To Have a Good Chinese Meal

Christmas is just around the corner, and everyone who's seen 'A Christmas Story' knows that Christmas means Chinese food. So, in the spirit of the season, I present my guideline to how to go out for a great Chinese dinner, on Christmas or any other day!

Step One: Find a good Chinese restaurant. This is an important step. There's no point in saying to everyone, "Hey! Let's go out to dinner!" and taking them all to Panda Express. You need to find a place that does really good Chinese food; this might involve one or more "scouting meals", just to find a place that suits. Look for the following good signs that the Chinese restaurant is authentic.

a) They have soy sauce at the table, in jars. The only reason a good Chinese restaurant has soy sauce in little packets is for their to-go customers.

b) The cook and/or owner (it's always a good sign if the owner is actually working in the restaurant) is actually Chinese.

c) Many of the customers are actually Chinese.

d) Members of the owner's family are helping out (waiting tables, cooking, et cetera.) Really good cooking tends to be a labor of love, and nothing says love like child labor.

e) The portions are nice and big. A good Chinese restaurant generally serves a single portion that acts as about a meal-and-a-half...you should have enough leftovers for either a snack later, or to feel really stuffed as you leave the restaurant. (This is why you take other people with you. See Step Two.)

f) They're open Christmas Day. See introduction.

Step Two: Select your group of people. Ideally, the total number of people in your group should be divisible by three, just to make the portions work out well, but you're really more concerned with good conversation and fun people to hang out with, so don't be afraid to invite an extra person or two. You can always add on egg rolls or lo mein. If you don't have at least two friends you can go out for Chinese food with, go join a community theater group.

Step Three: Bring everyone to the restaurant. Do not order individually. This is vitally important. For one thing, you'll all wind up with way too much food. For another, the best part of eating Chinese is trying different dishes. Order two entrees for every three people, and try to vary the entrees as much as possible. If you have something you know is popular (having a favorite Chinese restaurant obviously means skipping Step One), go ahead and order multiples, but try to mix it up at least some. Passing around the entrees, piling your plate with different dishes, and telling people, "Mmm, you have to try this" is all part of the tradition. In the event of uncertainty, don't be afraid to order a bit extra...Chinese food makes great leftovers (although you'll need to cook fresh rice. Nothing tastes worse than reheated rice. It's like eating paste.)

Alternate Option: Order out, and have the food at home while watching a movie. (The only trick is to find a movie that will satisfy everyone concerned. No horror--you never know who might have a weak stomach. 'The Princess Bride' is never a bad choice for a large, mixed gathering, as only soulless demon-people dislike that film.)

So there you have it--the perfect guide to a fun night out. (In the Twin Cities, by the way, I recommend both 'Anna Chung's', in Eagan, and 'Seafood Palace', in Minneapolis. Both great family-owned restaurants that serve nice, big portions of great Chinese food. Try Anna's sesame chicken, it's the best in the world!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Super-Villain Team-Up

(or "Seeing The Forest For The Tree")

'Super-Villain Team-Up' is one of those series that just never seemed to die in the memories of its fans. It only lasted 17 issues, one of which reprinted old stories from 'Astonishing Tales', but it proved surprisingly enduring in terms of its following, to the point where getting the whole saga collected in 'Essential' format seemed perfectly natural. On looking at it, it's not surprising that it developed a cult following that blossomed in the current climate of fandom; the whole book is ahead of its time.

The first thirteen issues form a single storyline, a massive (if occasionally rambling) epic battle of wits, wills, and egos pitting Doctor Doom, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Attuma, and the Red Skull against each other, with guest stars galore caught in the middle. It featured a tie-in with the Avengers title, introduced a new hero (the Shroud, who never really caught on)...in short, if this had been published just five or six years later, it would have been a mega-crossover.

But it's not until issue #14 that you actually see the storytelling engine for the series. Since the first thirteen issues are taken up with one big story, you don't really understand the potential the series has until the second story starts, a two-issue affair in which Doctor Doom and Magneto go head to head. Another two-parter teaming the Red Skull with the Hatemonger rounds out the series (and probably provides its best story; it's an intrigue-filled tale with double and triple-crosses galore, and a real pip of an ending), and further expands the storytelling engine to its true extent just as the series gets canceled.

Which is a shame, because you don't see the potential of the comic until right at the end. The big brawl between Doom, Namor, and their respective allies and enemies is great, albeit a little crazed at times. But 'Super-Villain Team-Up' isn't about the alliance between Doom and Namor, or their subsequent war. It's a series about two existing villains in the Marvel Universe, and their respective machinations bringing them together either as allies, or as enemies. The tone,
a cynical and sharp blend of suspense and dark comedy, serves to highlight the underbelly of the Marvel Universe in a series that doesn't need to show things from the heroes' perspective (even if, as one of the limitations of the series, the bad guys can never really "win".)

All things considered, it's unsurprising that the series recently made a comeback (in the limited series 'Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK's Eleven'.) Comics fans seem more ready than ever for an edgy, amoral look at the seedy underside of the Marvel Universe, and the storytelling engine to SVTU barely got to scratch the surface of such an idea. 'MODOK's Eleven' might seem like a departure from the Doom-centered original series, but it's actually just taking the series' central premise and running with it in a way the original never got to.

(As an aside, this column marks the 52nd 'Storytelling Engines' column, and its one-year anniversary. And, of course, it winds up being a few days late. (Stupid head cold.) But the column has stayed more or less on time since its inception, a fact which I feel that I can be at least a little proud of...and I'd like to thank everyone who reads the column and offers feedback, whether here on my own site or on 'Comics Should Be Good'. I probably wouldn't have made it through a full year without knowing that people were reading and enjoying the series; every time someone said, 'This is fun to read', you gave me the inspiration I needed to do another week. Writing purely for your own pleasure and the pleasure of your audience is made all the more satisfying by kind words and engaging opinions; thanks very much to everyone who offered me yours. Now to do another 52, only in reverse order and not nearly as good!)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Dream Is Dead

The Miami Dolphins have, for the first time all season, failed to lose a football game. They managed to take it to overtime, but unfortunately failed to allow Baltimore to score a field goal, and subsequently won on a touchdown of their own.

Seriously, why wouldn't you start playing for the losses at this point? Win a game, and you're just another bunch of 1-15 schmucks. At least there's a certain perverse glory in going 0-16. You might be bad, but at least you're legendarily bad.


Or, at the very least, wait until next week to win, and ruin the Patriots' season at the same time...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Punisher

(or "Loading Up Some More Railing Fodder")

When the Punisher first showed up in 1974, it was as part of a whole raft of changes to the way the superhero comic worked. The audience was beginning to skew older, attracted by Marvel's pop-art sensibilities and counter-culture street cred (it's no accident that the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players did Marvel comic-themed sketches on 'Saturday Night Live'.) At the same time, movies like 'Death Wish' (which came out after the Punisher made his first appearance, but was based on a 1972 novel) and lines of novels like 'The Executioner' series, by Don Pendleton, were bringing the costumed vigilante back to its roots as someone who dealt out harsh, unflinching justice on the enemies of society. The Punisher tapped into the "take no prisoners" zeitgeist perfectly--so perfectly that he became a major hit for Marvel almost against their will, soon developing into a character that had three ongoing series and rivaled Spider-Man for popularity.

In a way, the Punisher is a symbol of the way that superhero comics changed in the 80s and 90s. To many, he's a symbol of the cold, cruel, heartless nature of "modern" superheroes. Sure, he stops crime, but what kind of lesson is he teaching? What kind of morality does he espouse? Where are the higher ideals that human beings should try to live up to? Others see the opposite side. They see heroes like Batman and Superman as relics, unwilling to take the steps needed to really make people safe from Luthor and the Joker. By simply delivering these incorrigible criminals to jail time and time again, Batman and Superman actually enable them to continue their crime sprees, since it's obvious that the jails can't hold them. A superhero like the Punisher actually ends crime, if only on a criminal-by-criminal basis.

But, of course, that debate is irrelevant to us. We're looking at the Punisher from the point of view of a writer, and looking at it like that, being a grim and bloody vigilante might make society safer, but it makes the writer's job a lot harder.

Because one of the reasons that superheroes build up a Rogue's Gallery of supervillains is that it saves the writer from having to come up with a brand-new attention-getting antagonist for every story the hero goes through. Mike Baron, author of the "definitive" Punisher stories that fill 'The Essential Punisher Volume Two', tends to get around this by ripping his stories from the headlines (Volume Two alone contains a Charles Manson analogue, an obvious swipe of the Reverend Jim Jones, evil insider traders, and thugs who run a high school like their own personal kingdom. It's practically a catalog of 80s neuroses about society.) Garth Ennis tends to come up with inventively twisted and deformed mob bosses (which led, at one notable point, to the first time a superhero ever murdered a quadruple-amputee in the last issue of a storyline.) But everyone has the same problem. With one or two notable exceptions, like Jigsaw, people don't usually get a second go-round in a Punisher storyline.

This leads to two problems. One, obviously, is burnout. By the end of Mike Baron's run, he was clearly grasping for ideas (the Punisher getting plastic surgery, disguising himself as a black man, and hiding out with Luke Cage is a clear sign of "grasping for ideas"), and by then, readers and editors seemed burned out on the Punisher as well. Since every new villain wound up dead by the end of the story, it seemed like the book became a parade of faceless targets, and subsequent attempts to "shake up the formula" got further and further away from the core concept that had hooked readers. (Anyone remember the "supernatural assassin" Punisher series? Don't all speak up at once.)

The second is that the Punisher doesn't exist in a vacuum. He's a part of the Marvel Universe. Which means that he has to fit into a world where, in general, writers tend to keep their villains alive to fight another day. The "Punisher vs. the Kingpin" storyline that takes up most of the second half of Volume Two suffers in a big way from this; since readers can be reasonably sure that the Kingpin won't kill the Punisher, because his book is selling too good, and they can be reasonably sure that the Punisher won't kill the Kingpin, because the Spider-Man and Daredevil writers get a say in this, all that can really happen is a stalemate...which is, in fact, the end of the story. The Punisher can't make too big a dent in the criminal population of New York City, or his buddies will be out of a job.

In short, the reason heroes don't kill villains in comics isn't because they're noble, or because comics are for kids...it's because it's easier for everyone if they don't. The Punisher stands out as an exception, but he's yet to have a period of sustained popularity, because he's harder on his writers than most characters. Coming up with a good villain is hard, and the Punisher needs more good villains than most...because he chews through his supply quicker.

Friday, December 07, 2007

So Good I Stole It

My room-mate, Tony, and I were discussing politics yesterday, and we got onto the subject of Mitt Romney and his difficult journey to the White House. We both agreed that his Mormonism was a stumbling-block to most Americans, but Tony provided the true reason we're not sure electing a Mormon is a good idea.

"We're all just worried that he's going to go on a diplomatic tour of Europe, and all of the other heads of state are going to pretend to not be home when he rings the doorbell."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bona Fide Shameless Plug

After what amounts to some three years of delays, 'Glimpse of the Abyss' should be showing up in stores this month. It's a sourcebook for the 'Feng Shui' RPG, from Atlas Games, featuring some of my writing, and if you're a fan of 'Feng Shui' (which might very well be, as 90% of my published work has been for FS), I'd suggest you buy it, as the publishers will be looking at 'Glimpse of the Abyss' as a barometer of the popularity of the line.

If that's not enough, it has flying heads, zombie bikers, demon kung-fu masters, eunuch sorcerers, and a little something I nicknamed "Corpse Factories". Oh, and killer nuns. Oh, yes, and I promise you'll never look at a dodo the same way again.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Wonder Woman

(or "Why? Because Bob Kanigher, That's Why!")

And a tip of the hat to Chris Sims for the subtitle...

Reading Silver Age Wonder Woman stories is, at times, like reading someone's dream diary. Flying saucer men animate parade balloons and send them on a rampage to conquer Earth, outer-space dinosaurs ride cosmic jet-streams from their home on Titan, an Amazonian "absolute zero" chamber freezes metal insects from space until they shrink down to nothing...every story seems to follow a surreal logic all its own. It's a completely different type of storytelling than we see in modern comics (for the most part.) And yet, this was common practice during the Silver Age. What changed?

A lot of things, obviously. The target audience got older, the writers became more invested emotionally in their stories, the editors became more interested in universe-building, and a dozen other reasons, but one reason that jumps to the top of the list is simply this: Silver Age writers had to write their entire story in one issue. These "one-and-done" stories didn't have a whole lot of exposition because the plot didn't leave room for them. In a modern comic, "flying saucer aliens" would be given six to ten issues of backstory, motivation, and initial appearances to lead into their attempt to conquer the Earth--back then, the writer just put in a little caption box mentioning that they were evil aliens, and the reader went with it.

Obviously, this means that the whole question of "decompressed" vs. "compressed" storytelling isn't easy to answer; on the one hand, much of the "decompression" of modern comics tends to be about extending sequences in order to heighten tension, instead of actually telling more complex stories (the death of Superman, for example, featured a whole issue of splash pages of Superman and Doomsday hitting each other. It heightened the intensity of the scene, but the whole fight could have been told in six pages.) On the other hand, compressed storylines frequently work better when dealing with children's fiction, because children are more used to the idea of a story having rules that don't necessarily make sense, but that are given to them by the storyteller and they just accept it. Pacing vs. padding, excitement vs. epic, it's really a debate with no end. (Save, of course, that a bad writer can do neither, while a good writer can do both.)

But we are, lest anyone forget, looking at "compression" vs. "decompression" through the lens of the storytelling engine, and the key question is always, "Does it help the writer come up with stories, or does it hurt them?" And from that point of view, compressed stories are a hindrance to a writer, not a help, simply because when you write a complete compressed story every month, you have to come up with six times as many stories as someone writing a six-issue arc "for the trade." As a result, Silver Age writers recycled stories a lot more than they could possibly do now, both by reusing story ideas (Superman was notorious for reusing certain stories every two years, in the firm belief that nobody who'd read it the last time was still reading comics), an by outright reprinting old stories. (Flip through the table of contents in an 'Essentials' and you'll see "Issue #XX reprints issue #YY" quite a bit. The phenomenon even had a name, "The Dreaded Deadline Doom." Seeing that when you opened a comic back then was like seeing "The Blue Screen of Death" for a computer user.)

Which isn't to say that modern writers don't reuse ideas (Brad Meltzer, I'm looking at you...) But they generally do so for different reasons. The climate of comics has changed, so that between decompression, willingness to sacrifice deadlines, and advance planning, nobody needs to whip up emergency stories. Compression forced Bob Kanigher to write quickly on 'Wonder Woman', and while that resulted in some of the most creative stories in comics, it also resulted in comics that made very little sense. Nowadays, writers don't have that excuse.