Thursday, May 29, 2008

Things Worth Checking Out: Geek Monthly

I stumbled upon 'Geek Monthly' a few months ago, when they had an article on 'Futurama: Bender's Big Score', and it really is something I want to take a moment and make sure everyone knows about, because it's great. It's not your typical "sci-fi enthusiast" sort of magazine; sure, they've got their share of stuff about the latest in science-fiction movies and TV (and video games and anime and all the "usual" geek interests), but they also cover developments in the world of science, get into weird and entertaining toys and consumer products (spray waffle batter, how awesome is that?), discuss music (everything from hip-hop to techno), and in general, 'Geek' understands better than anyone else on the stands that what separates a geek from anyone else is a restless mind eager for new ideas. We're always willing to expand our horizons, and this magazine gets that.

'Geek Monthly' is always a fun read, it's pure brain candy, and my only regret is that back issues for it are so hard to find.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Storytelling Engines: The War That Time Forgot

(or "Ya Gotta Have Faith")

The central concept that drives the storytelling engine of "The War That Time Forgot" (a perennial back-up feature in 'Star-Spangled War Stories') has to be one of the best ideas in comic-book history. There's a mysterious island in the Pacific during World War II, perpetually shrouded in mist. US soldiers scout the island, believing it to be held by the Japanese, but it turns out that the island is actually overrun with dinosaurs. So it's World War II soldiers versus dinosaurs. 'Saving Private Ryan' meets 'Jurassic Park'. If there's anything more high-concept, I've never heard it.

But writer Bob Kanigher (a long-time stalwart of DC's war comics) seems to worry that the idea isn't enough on its own to catch his audience's interest. He certainly never develops the premise--the island is "discovered" some dozen or so times in different stories, each time recounted as though nobody had ever heard of it before. (This is as much a function of the series' back-up status as anything else; the tales were never meant to be the main attraction of the book, and given the general belief at DC at the time of high reader turnover, they weren't about to spend time burdening the series with an abundance of continuity.) There's no attempt to develop any real story beyond "Soldiers wind up on the island, find out there are dinosaurs, try to get back off."

And it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Kanigher didn't think the dinosaurs were enough to get the reader excited; he spends an awful lot of time developing "exciting" backgrounds for the soldiers who discover the island. And by "exciting" I mean "ludicrous"; it's discovered by amateur paleontologists, circus acrobats who've enlisted as a unit, a soldier testing out his robot sidekick, giant albino gorillas, stunt skiers, and a tobogganist and the brother of the man he accidentally killed in a sledding accident. Admittedly, this does keep the story from getting dull, but at the same time, you do wind up wishing that the focus could be a bit less on the angry tobogganist and more on the giant dinosaurs.

Did this harm "The War That Time Forgot"? Probably not; it was, after all, a popular back-up for the better part of a decade, and is still well-remembered enough to this day that DC released a 'Showcase Presents' volume for it. But it's hard not to feel that it would have wound up being a better series if it had surrounded the one unbelievable premise, the dinosaurs, with a host of very believable human soldiers to lend it verisimilitude. When your writer is ignoring the giant dinosaurs to focus on the disgraced cop and his gangster brother, you can tell he doesn't have a whole lot of faith in the premise of his series.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Two Words You Least Want To See Together

So today at work I spotted a check from the "Creative Dental Association". Is it just me, or does that sound more than a little scary and painful? I can just imagine what their meetings are like.

"OK, OK, work with me on this one, here. 'Dentistry while skydiving!'"

"I like it, it sings! But I was thinking something more snappy, something with less equipment."

"That fits perfectly in with my 'Clothing-Optional Dentistry' idea!"

"But what about cities with restrictive decency laws? No, I'm afraid we'll have to file that one with your 'Chimpanzee Dentistry' idea for now, at least until PETA gets off our back."

"Alright, alright. But getting back to my 'Dentistry-Mobile', I was thinking we could follow the ice-cream truck around neighborhoods, offer to do quick cleanings, maybe check for toothaches..."

"That's got real potential! Let's talk to our Head of Vehicular Dentistry Concepts, see what he has to say."

"Not much, I'm afraid. He was testing the 'Waterskiing Dentistry' idea we had last week, and his jaw's still going to be wired shut for a while."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Enemy Ace

(or "What Makes A 'Cult Classic'?")

'Enemy Ace' was published (as a back-up in 'Star-Spangled War Stories', 'Men of War', and 'The Unknown Soldier') during the last great flowering of war comics from DC. It was an era in which the genre did amazingly well, breeding long-running, famous, enduring characters like Sergeant Rock, The Unknown Soldier, and The Haunted Tank (just to name a few.) 'Enemy Ace' came along towards the end, in the mid-to-late 1970s when superheroes were beginning to truly dominate the medium, and it had the kind of storytelling engine that lends itself well to creating a "cult classic" series.

The key word, of course, was "Enemy". 'Enemy Ace' told the story of a German pilot, Hans von Hammer, also known as "The Hammer of Hell". The storytelling engine completely inverted the normal setting for war comics by taking the point of view of an enemy soldier, and using World War I instead of World War II (which had been the setting for most war comics of the era; the Nazis made perfect villains, and the conflict lent itself well to heroic narrative.)

The result is something unlike any other war comic of its era, and indeed like very few war stories at all (with the possible exception of 'All Quiet on the Western Front'.) War is portrayed as merciless and capricious, a killer of the just and unjust alike regardless of which side you're on. von Hammer's frequent catch-phrase, "The sky is the killer of us all," suggests that the pilots of both sides have more in common than they do in opposition, even as they attempt to murder each other. (The stories frequently play up the supposed chivalry of pilots in WWI; one story revolves around von Hammer inadvertently shooting down a plane whose guns had jammed, and his personal attempt to atone for the dishonorable action.)

von Hammer himself is like no other war character; he's not a leader of men like Rock or Jeb Stuart. In fact, his own men feel uncomfortable around the pilot they call "a human killing machine"; the only real supporting cast is von Hammer's orderly and the black wolf he finds in the German forests (which Garth Ennis famously suggested was a figment of his imagination.) He's aloof, fatalistic, and melancholy, traits you don't generally see in a comic book hero.

All of these are, of course, characteristics that don't necessarily translate well to long life for a storytelling engine. It's not really calculated to have the same appeal as your Sergeant Rocks or your Nick Furies. And yet, those very things that seem to doom it actually help it in the long run. Because 'Enemy Ace' is so different from other war comics, it stands out clearly in the memory of even the most casual reader. This is not like anything else in the genre, and nobody can pick up a story of 'Enemy Ace' without being struck by how unusual it is. It haunts the reader.

That's where a cult classic begins. It begins by going against the grain, by striking the reader with a glimpse into a strange and unusual world that they've never seen before. It sticks in the memory the way a more mainstream engine doesn't. And so the reader remembers it, and discusses it, and passes the knowledge of it on like a secret they're willing to share with people they think are capable of "getting it". And so, down the years, the reputation of 'Enemy Ace' only grows, despite the relatively few stories Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert did with the character. It's genuinely unique, and although a lot of people fear the strange and unusual, more than a few people are attracted to it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Everybody Doubts Me

Last week, I said that comics "are not a grown-up medium, they are an adolescent medium." Everyone seemed to mentally snip off the second part of the sentence and assume that this was once again me saying that comics are for kids, but in fact, the key point is that comics aren't for kids anymore either. Comics are in exactly that awkward stage we all went through in our teen years, where we were still learning what to keep and what to discard of our childhoods, and what to embrace and what to ignore for our future. Comics are not grown-up yet, and they show all the signs of going through puberty. Think about it:

1) Comics are self-absorbed. X-Men is, arguably, the single most successful comic in the last fifty years, and it's also the most "teenage". Claremont's writing was practically obsessed with the introspection of its characters, with everyone having their own trademark teenage angst to handle--Storm got a mohawk and went punk, Cyclops had a dead girlfriend and nobody understood him, Kitty kept getting told she wasn't mature enough to adventure with the team, Havok had a bigger brother who was captain of the squad and lived in his shadow...and this series has been the template for just about every single super-hero comic to follow it.

2) Comics form a tightly-knit social circle that "outsiders" just don't understand. Related, in no small part, to #1, but this is about the way that comics are all about returns of obscure characters, reinventions of old ideas, easter eggs for the fans, and similar references that reinforce the "insider-ness" for insiders, and push away outsiders. Look at Dark Horse, which has practically made a career out of creating impenetrable mythos for Buffy, Firefly, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones (and Aliens, and Predators, and...) The top three writers at DC are Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns, all of whom have a massive man-crush on the Silver Age. The top three writers at Marvel are Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Jeph Loeb, all of whom have a massive man-crush on the Bronze Age. These are fans writing for fans. If you don't get it, it's because you're not supposed to.

3) Comics are obsessed with sex and violence. 'Preacher' is not an example of a grown-up medium, folks. 'Preacher' is a classic example of someone who's going overboard with the sex and violence to seem grown-up. Do I enjoy the series? Heck, yeah. But nobody is going to mistake it for 'Death of a Salesman'.

4) Comics love girls, but don't know how to talk to them. 'Gen13'. Next!

5) Comics keep insisting they're not kids anymore, and that you just don't take them seriously, and that they're mature enough now to be called an adult, but you keep treating them like a kid! See the comments section of this post.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Monster of Frankenstein

(or "Changing Your Source Mid-Stream")

So let's say you're Marvel comics in the mid-1970s. (Probably a heck of a career change for you, depending on who's reading this, but just go with me for a minute here.) Recent revisions to the Comics Code have made it viable to publish horror comics again for the first time in a couple of decades, and you've got a popular Dracula comic and a popular werewolf comic. What comes next? Frankenstein's monster, of course!

Gary Friedrich started writing 'Monster of Frankenstein' by drawing from the original novel by Mary Shelley. He picked up the story pretty much where Shelley had left it off, in fact, by having the Monster discovered in the Arctic ice where it had gone off to die, perfectly frozen for a century or so of inactivity. Naturally, a series of events unfreezes the monster (after a few issues that retell the origin for people who've never read the novel), and off we go!

Friedrich's 'Frankenstein' makes a few very interesting choices in the way it sets up its storytelling engine. First, as noted, it draws its inspiration from the book, not the movie. By the 1970s, Boris Karloff's classic performance had cemented the film version of the story in the public's mind; his snarling, bestial monster with the squared-off head was far more readily identifiable as "Frankenstein" than Shelley's intellectual, Dante-quoting creature. (And, for that matter, far more identifiable as "Frankenstein" than Victor Frankenstein, creator of the nameless monster.)

Friedrich clearly uses Shelley's monster in his stories; the creature is intelligent, but bitter over the constant fear and hatred of a world that sees him as nothing more than a beast to be put down. He's no paragon of virtue, though; over the first ten issues of the series, he lashes out at humanity just as much as humanity lashes out at him. It's a degree of moral complexity from Friedrich's protagonist that leaves you unsure whether to root for the Monster, or against him.

The second unusual decision Friedrich made was to set the story in Victorian times; the monster is found frozen in the ice, yes, but not by a modern scientist. No, this Frankenstein's monster wanders the world of the 1800s, clashing with superstitious peasants, mad scientists, and the only Marvel monster who was around back then, Count Dracula.

These two bold decisions, when combined, result in a very different Frankenstein comic than you'd expect, and a comic very different from anything else on the market. Cerebral, complex, and light-years away from other adaptations (even DC's short-lived Frankenstein back-up in 'Phantom Stranger', which used the "intelligent Monster" caveat, read more like a conventional "misunderstood superhero" story than like the anti-hero of Marvel's version) might, in fact, have been a bit too ahead of its time to succeed in the Bronze Age marketplace.

So new writer Doug Moench took a great big wrenching step sideways when he took over the title, creating something that would (presumably) be more in line with what fans were looking for. Friedrich had already shredded the monster's vocal cords in the last few issues of his run, giving the Monster a style of speech more in line with the gutteral snarls of Karloff's monster, but Moench took this a step further; a second spell in glacial ice brought the monster to the present day, but damaged its mind to the point where it was nothing more than Karloff's beast redux.

Moench continued to write this version of the Monster, both in 'Monster of Frankenstein' and 'Monsters Unleashed', but somehow, despite seemingly being calculated to appeal to fans of the Universal classic (presumably a larger market than fans of Shelley's novel), it never really caught on. After another seven or eight issues (and one last, desperate change of direction by Bill Mantlo that was later dealt with in the pages of 'Iron Man'), 'Monster of Frankenstein' finally folded, flopping where his fellow monsters had triumphed. (Sorry, can't think of a good synonym for 'triumphed' that starts with "f". My bad.)

We'll never be sure what caused 'Monster' to fail. Perhaps Marvel should have stuck to its guns and kept going with the quirky, off-beat title that Friedrich had started (you can tell where my bias lies, huh?) Perhaps they should have made the decision right from the beginning to go with a movie-inspired creature, a proto-Hulk instead of Shelley's haunted monster with yellow eyes and dreams of revenge. Perhaps Frankenstein was just never going to catch on with comics fans the way that Dracula and the werewolf did. Whatever the reason, 'Essential Monster of Frankenstein' stands as an interesting demonstration of the way a book can reinvent itself to try to catch readers...and the way that sometimes, that reinvention just doesn't work.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Fanboy Irritation In A Nutshell

So they're bringing back Barry Allen. That's the Silver Age Flash, who died some 23 years ago saving the universe from the sinister Anti-Monitor, for those of you who might be casual comics fans. Grant Morrison, writer of 'Final Crisis' (the crossover in which he returns), is on the record as saying, "That's the point of comics - they don't have to die, because they're fictional creations. We can do anything with them, and we can make them come back and make them defy death. And that's why people read comics, to get away from the way life works, which is quite cruel and unheroic and ends in death."

Now, Morrison has taken a lot of flack from fandom as a result of this quote, but I actually support it. I might good-naturedly point out that for all his reputation as an avant garde, boundary-pushing innovator, Morrison is really just as much of a traditionalist as Mark Waid or Geoff Johns (two people who are constantly raked over the coals for rehashing old stories and writing fanwank, but who didn't bring back the Shaggy Man or Klarion the Witch-Boy. Or Barry Allen, for that matter, although it wasn't for lack of trying.) But I agree with the quote. He's right. I do read comics to spend a little time in a brighter, happier world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, a world that isn't cruel or unheroic. I applaud Morrison for having the guts to say something unashamedly sentimental in a fan environment that currently believes that they need to leave hope and joy behind in order to be considered "grown-up". (I've said it before and I'll say it again. Comics are not a grown-up medium, they are an adolescent medium. The obsession with not being seen as "kiddie" is a clear signifier.)

So no, I'm not bothered by them bringing back the Flash, and I'm not bothered that Grant Morrison shrugs off criticism for them bringing back the Flash. What I'm bothered by is that in practically the same breath, DC makes one of the major selling points for 'Final Crisis', "Hey! We're killing off a major figure of the DC Universe, one that will absolutely shock you! You must not miss this massive, huge, epic change in the very composition of the DC Universe!!!!!!"

That's the problem perfectly encapsulated. When they think change will sell comics, they insist that it's vitally important that you pay attention to these changes and buy the comics involved. When they're no longer interested in dealing with the problems these changes have made, they switch everything back and insist that nobody should put too much emphasis on 'change', that it's really just all about telling good stories and hey, you like these characters anyway, right? It is not the change or the impermanence of change that bothers us, it is the hypocrisy involved. It is the fact that I frequently bought lousy comics because I was told I would need to have them to follow the overall story of the DC Universe, only to have them back away from the changes but somehow manage to keep my money in their wallet. Lots of people can't articulate that irritation, but they all feel it.

You want to bring back the Flash? Knock yourself out. You want to openly admit that no matter how graphic, how inescapable, how brutal a character's death is, you're eventually going to bring them back anyway? Good for you, it's a great first step. But could you please do us all the service of not continuing to lie about how "important" death in comics is in order to take my money?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Batman and the Outsiders

(or "The Key Word Here Is 'Batman'")

Last week, I spent some time talking about the Legion of Super-Heroes, an amazingly successful spin-off from the Superman titles that has lasted for decades in continuous publication. Today, though, I'm going to turn my attention to a somewhat...let's just say less successful...spin-off, 'Batman and the Outsiders'. Or, as it's been known since issue #32, 'The Outsiders'.

As with many books of the 1980s, 'Batman and the Outsiders' started with the fading of the trend of "team-up books". 'Marvel Team-Up' became 'Web of Spider-Man', 'Marvel Two-In-One' became 'The Thing', and 'The Brave and the Bold' was canceled to make way for another Batman series. DC, though, decided to retain the "teaming" concept by having Batman quit the Justice League and form a super-team more in line with his own sensibilities.

This is a solid central concept for a book. Over the course of the 70s and 80s, Batman's character evolved to the point where he seemed out of place with the Justice League, and yet the character has never truly been a "lone wolf". (Some fans might dispute this, but four Robins, two Batgirls, a Huntress, a Catwoman, an Azrael, an Alfred, a Commissioner Gordon and an Ace the Bat-Hound later, it's kind of hard to argue against.) Unfortunately, very little thought was given to the team dynamic of a "Batman-esque" super-team. Instead, Black Lightning and Metamorpho were brought in from their own canceled series, and a few new super-heroes (Halo, Katana, and Geo-Force) were created to round out the team. Nothing was particularly wrong with any of these new heroes, but most of them never really seemed like "outsiders" of any sort. Geo-Force and Halo could have just as easily been slotted into the Justice League or the Teen Titans as they were into Batman's new, "edgier" team concept.

The tone, too, seemed to be more "Justice League" than "Batman." They stopped super-villains, they fought crime, they did the things that super-teams tend to do. Nothing wrong with that, of course; superheroic action is a pretty popular genre, and Mike Barr was writing some entertaining stories. The storytelling engine of "Batman's dark team doing things the Justice League can't or won't" simply wasn't there, but it was beginning to evolve into a pretty good super-hero title in its own right. It even developed a spin-off title of its own, 'The Outsiders', which told Batman-less tales of the team.

Then Batman left abruptly in issue #32. Presumably, editors worried about "over-exposure" of one of their most popular characters, or complained that Batman didn't really fit in with the tone that 'Outsiders' had developed, but whatever the reasons, Batman decided to abandon the team he'd created and go back to being a solo crime-fighter. The series redubbed itself 'Adventures of the Outsiders', limped along for 14 more issues (8 of which were reprints of 'Outsiders' stories), and died in May of 1986. Less than two years later, its own spin-off joined it in comic-book limbo.

There have been a few attempts to revive the series since--during the comics boom of the 1990s, the team reunited for a new series, but this one lasted fewer issues than the first 'Outsiders' run. In 2003, DC launched a new series with the name, but it was really more of an updating of the Teen Titans than a continuation of the original title, and featured none of the original Outsiders. It managed to last fifty issues, though, before being 'Batman and the Outsiders'. Once again, Batman has decided to form a super-team to do the things the Justice League can't or won't, and has recruited heroes who share his worldview. After several attempts, DC seems to have learned a lesson from the failed relaunches of the series.

And what are those lessons? One, it might be cynical marketing-driven logic to include a "big draw" popular character in a series just for the sake of getting their fans to buy the book, but it's cynical marketing-driven logic that works. Fans of Batman bought 'Batman and the Outsiders' for the guy with the bat-symbol on his chest, and while they might have eventually come to like the other characters as well, thirty-two issues wasn't enough time for them to bond with the rest of the team. Spin-offs eventually need to stand on their own, but that doesn't mean you want to kick the crutches out from under them right away. (This may be why television is littered with so many failed spin-offs. The demands of scheduling mean that they can't have more than the occasional guest appearance from members of their parent series' cast.)

The other lesson? When you have a central concept for a series that's a good idea, run with it. A Batman-created team should look different and act different from an assemblage of generic superheroes, it should have a unique style and adventures that can't happen in any other comic. That never seemed to happen in 'Batman and the Outsiders', despite some entertaining stories, and only time will tell if it happens in the new book. If it doesn't, then everything old will be new again...including cancellation before issue #30.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Friendly Warning To Battlestar Galactica Fans

Don't bring the series up around me. Don't recommend it to me, don't tell me about it, don't mention it. Because I will say things that will make you cry.

My room-mate's been watching it, and every time I walked by the computer screen, I heard things that made me grind my teeth in sheer bilious hatred. Every time he explained an element of the backstory to me, I found myself staring into plot holes that could consume whole planets. I found myself wondering how anyone, not just the series' writers but anyone at all could read these scripts and not say, "No, sorry, you need to rework this so that it actually makes sense as a story in its own right and not simply as a tortured analogy for post-9/11 America."

I could go on, but that would defeat the purpose of the friendly warning, and probably make some people cry, to boot. And I don't want to do that. I am a kind person, and I know how attached science-fiction fans get to their favorite shows. I don't want to tear your favorite series to pieces in front of you, ripping it to shreds by pointing out all its absurdities.

So we'll make a deal. You don't talk about Battlestar Galactica to me, and I won't flaunt my hatred of it to you. Sound good? OK.

(Oh, and Dane Cook fans? This goes double for you. Man couldn't find a punchline if it had a neon sign over it...)