Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Five Things That Really Surprised Me In Marvel's 'Essential' Collections

It still surprises me, sometimes, that I'm kind of sort of maybe just a little bit of an expert on Marvel Comics. I mean, I don't really feel like one; I've read the first 100-300 issues of the Avengers, the Defenders, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Wolverine, X-Factor, and Daredevil, along with a smattering of obscure titles like Man-Thing, Spider-Woman, Howard the Duck, Ghost Rider, Godzilla, and Son of Satan...but that doesn't feel like it should make me an expert. That feels like it should make me an obsessive reader with a good memory. And yet, when I go to conventions, I invariably wind up on panels where I explain the backstory of Marvel characters (and DC as well, for that matter) to comic book fans. This weirds me out. I feel like they should recast me for these things.

But I do appear to be settling into a mantle of expertishness. And so, having read more comics than any sane person probably should, I figure I should pass along a few of my more unexpected responses to you, the reader, so that you can then pass them along as received wisdom to a bunch of people who will tell you I'm full of it. I feel that it's only fair.

1. The Defenders really went catastrophically downhill around issue #125. The thing about the Defenders was that it was a great title for a very long time. There was great chemistry among the cast, they played off the quirky, counter-culture concept really well for a very long time and did fun things with the idea of a team as a social grouping rather than a family or an organization (the two directions explored by the FF and the Avengers, respectively). Doctor Strange worked perfectly as a guide and mentor rather than a "leader" per se, and they had a nice mix of headliners like the Hulk and interesting B-listers like Valkyrie and Hellcat...although I'll admit, Nighthawk never worked for me. The bigger a role he got, the less I liked the series.

But then J.M. DeMatteis, a writer who I generally like and respect a lot, decided to write out Doctor Strange and the Hulk and turn the series into a vehicle for Angel, Beast and Iceman, and to turn them into an official team. The headliners were written out, and most of the new additions felt charisma-free. Suddenly, the book felt like an amateur-league group of Avengers, rather than a social grouping of powerful and interesting characters, and the series went into a slump it never recovered from. This is a shame, because the reboots have all tried to go back to the very basic concept (Doctor Strange, Hulk, Namor and Silver Surfer) rather than to the middle period that worked so well, simply because of the stench of failure that clung to the later efforts. I'd love to see a modern Defenders reboot that kept Doc Strange and maybe added "non-team" heroes like Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and Wolverine. (Yes, I know I'm describing Bendis' Avengers. Your point?)

2. Stuff actually happened in Thor. I know, this shouldn't be as surprising as it was, but I really never touched Thor as a kid. Even Walt Simonson's legendary run barely impinged on my consciousness, other than the bits they mentioned in Avengers where every bone in his body was broken inside his armor. I knew the very basic stuff, like the Warriors Three and Odin and Loki, but I had no idea that this was where Ego first showed up, and where Galactus' origin was first revealed, and where Firelord made his initial appearance. It was surprising to me to find out how much cosmic space adventure occurred in a comic that was ostensibly high fantasy mixed with Earth-bound superheroics. (It still didn't wow me for a lot of the run, I'll admit. The whole always felt like it was less than the sum of its parts. But it was an interesting look at a piece of Marvel history I never heard of.)

3. Howard the Duck really captured the zeitgeist of the Seventies. To be honest, it captured the zeitgeist of the Seventies so well that it really doesn't work as a modern comic; you have to read it as a piece of history, a record of the mood of a particular time to be able to enjoy it. But Steve Gerber got it perfectly; the fads, the crazes, but more than that the sense of palpable disaffection and disorientation that the Sixties had produced. People had spent a decade searching outside the norms of society for meaning, and the Seventies was where they realized that they still hadn't found it and weren't even sure what they were looking for. There was a sort of existential despair that permeated the era, and Howard ("trapped in a world he never made"--aren't we all?) hit it perfectly.

4. Some of these series really work as stories with beginnings, middles and ends. I don't actually think that anyone intended any of their series to have endings. Endings in comic books, save for a few notable exceptions, come about due to low sales and not due to any kind of overarching intent. But many of the comics that were collected into big, thick Essential volumes turned out to have really good endings that summed up their whole series. Ghost Rider, for example, had a finale that finally brought together all the revelations about the character's past and gave him something he'd never had, a meaningful nemesis who was a match for him in his final battle. Godzilla had a truly epic conclusion, featuring a huge battle against the Avengers in mid-town Manhattan that was everything you could hope for. Killraven turned out to be the story of the Second War Against the Martians, from first strike to the final human victory. And Super-Villain Team-Up was the fore-runner of the modern crossover, pulling in the major players of the Marvel Universe in a war between Atlantis and Latveria that spanned two years of comic book history. Had these titles not been canceled, they might have had to do very different things to keep going. But the ends they had cemented their reputation.

5. Marvel deserves more credit for their horror books than they ever got. Most of the praise you hear for horror comics is for horror anthology books, specifically the EC comics of the Fifties and the later DC horror renaissance under Joe Orlando. But Marvel had some excellent continuing horror series, something that was amazingly difficult to achieve given the natural tendency of the genre to end in the death of the protagonist. They had an amazing werewolf comic, Werewolf by Night, and an underrated Monster of Frankenstein series that went back to the character's roots. And Tomb of Dracula is one of the best things Marvel ever produced, bar none. Even their lesser lights, like Man-Thing, Son of Satan and Satana, had some great stories in there. (I will not work too hard at defending Brother Voodoo, though.) They really deserve a critical re-evaluation by enthusiasts of horror comics, because they had some amazing stuff in there.

I could probably go on longer--I've barely even touched on Spider-Man, which seems criminal--but I've got five already and I haven't even touched on DC's output. But that seems like a good topic for next time...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

In the Special Edition, Lumpy Shoots First

Recently, Rifftrax released a VOD edition of the 'Star Wars Holiday Special', complete with their signature commentary. A lot of people have been wondering exactly how they can do this, given that the intellectual property rights to the Special are currently owned by a company who have, on numerous occasions, issued Cease and Desist orders on public domain works solely on the basis of, "By the time you prove it, your legal bills will have bankrupted you anyway. Why not give up now?"

I don't really have any answers to this, but it has gotten me thinking about the Special. Namely, it's got me wondering if it will ever see daylight in an official sense. (I suppose this may be the basis Rifftrax was using to release it; their lawyers might go to court with a defense of, "People have been bootlegging this for decades and Lucas has never said anything apart from disavowing the damned thing, so they've lost their chance." I don't think that's a defense that'll work, but more power to them if it does.)

Because the key thing is, Lucas has disavowed it. He notoriously hates the thing, wishes it had never been made or at the very least that he'd taken more of an active role in its creation (by all accounts, he simply took the paycheck and let the people who normally produced these kind of variety specials do their thing, only stepping in to design Boba Fett). He hates it to the point where he won't even put out a commercial release of it, even though it's been selling from fans to fans for decades now. But as we all know, George Lucas has just sold the rights to all of the Star Wars properties to Disney for an exorbitant sum of money. And Disney is, by all accounts, going to milk that sucker for everything they can.

So does this mean we're going to see a brand-new Blu-Ray version of the Special, with remastered video footage and special features where the cast discuss their experiences working on it? (Oh, that alone would be worth the cost of the DVD. Harrison Ford squirming uncomfortably, Carrie Fisher explaining just what she'd taken that day to make her pupils dilate like that...) Perhaps we could even get new CGI special effects for the Jefferson Starship box and the miniature aquarium.

If they do release it commercially, I hope they embrace the campiness. Let's face it, the only reason anyone ever watches it is that it's the one thing in the franchise that you can make fun of without sputtering fanboys declaring that you just don't know about the piece of Expanded Universe lore that totally explains that apparent plot hole and you shouldn't be allowed to watch the movies if you're not going to do your research first. (As much as I love geekery, I will admit that the Comic Book Guy comes from a real place.) If they try to sell this as a "lost classic", they're going to run into a major problem when people buy it and realize it's eye-bleedingly terrible. So I say, run with it. Promote it as the "So Bad It's Good 'Comedy' That's Funny...for All the Wrong Reasons!" Include the original Seventies ads (where possible), and add the "Fighting the Frizzies at Eleven" bumpers. Heck, go right ahead and subcontract the Rifftrax guys to include their commentary track. Pretty much everyone involved has already either displayed that they have a sense of humor about it or that they're going to pretend it never happened anyway.

Then again, all this assumes that Lucas did sign the rights away. Maybe the four billion dollar contract includes a clause prohibiting Disney from ever releasing the Special in any way, shape or form. I know it sounds crazy, but keep in mind that when DC bought Wildstorm, they created a separate company for disbursing funds solely to ensure that Alan Moore's paychecks didn't say "DC Comics" on them. Weird and seemingly insignificant clauses are a staple of big contracts. I guess the only way to be sure is to watch for the DVD. Or ask Lucas, but it'll take a braver person than me to bring up the 'Star Wars Holiday Special' around him one more time.

Monday, November 18, 2013

What I Liked About 'Thor 2', and What It Says About Marvel

I'm not going to say that 'Thor 2' was the best of the Marvel movies to date. The plot is very generic fantasy in its tropes and basic structure (ancient enemy, ultimate weapon that's buried instead of destroyed, said enemy returns looking for its old weapon which is now in the hands of a single, Natalie Portman...) and while I don't think that Malekith was quite as under-baked as some of the reviewers, he was kind of a waste of Christopher Eccleston. (Seriously. You get a guy like Eccleston, you give him some good speeches. Malekith didn't make speeches, because he was fully convinced that there was no need to justify his actions. I'm okay with that--when you've decided that the universe is a mistake and needs to be erased, there's no real point in explaining that to its inhabitants. But it means that Eccleston doesn't talk much, and he's an actor who's good at giving speeches. Just think of his scenes in '28 Days Later', which are all about self-justification, and you'll agree.

But what I did love about 'Thor 2' was its sense of playfulness, its understanding that there's something just a little bit goofy about a series of films whose hero is a big doofy guy who thinks that "hit things with a hammer until they stop moving" is an actual strategy. Thor wanders through the world like this big, glorious, crazy chunk of four-color simplicity, and some of the best gags involve the ways that he interacts with mundane life. (The symbolic heart of the movie is the tiny little gesture he makes when he comes into Jane Foster's apartment and hangs Mjolnir up on the coat rack.)

This sense of fun infuses the whole movie. The big final battle is as much farce as it is drama; Thor and Malekith chase each other through dimension-spanning portals in a fight that owes as much to Looney Tunes and Benny Hill as it does to Lord of the Rings. (Oh, sorry, there's something of a spoiler there...although if it really surprises you that there's a big fight at the end between Thor and Malekith, I suspect you're not really the film's target audience. Although you'll probably be blown away with shock when Thor wins--oh, sorry, more spoilers there.)

The point is, this is a film that's not afraid to lose a little dignity to gain a lot of charm...and it vividly contrasts another problem with comics these days. (On top of all the other ones I mentioned in all my other posts.) Marvel is absolutely terrified, at least in its comics, of looking silly.

I think the root of this is that Marvel has, for a long time, been aiming its publications at kids. And kids love to laugh as much as they love to be frightened, to be excited, and to be grossed out at mushy stuff. When the Hulk talked in his big, dumb, "Hulk smash puny humans! Bird-nose shouts too much at Hulk!" patois, it was meant to seem silly and goofy, because that helped humanize the Hulk and make him less of a monster. When Daredevil fought villains like the Leap-Frog and Stilt-Man, you were not supposed to see them as necessarily a figure of utter terror.

But nowadays, Marvel comics are written by adults for adults. Or, more accurately, they're written by adults who hate having to explain to people that comics aren't just for kids anymore, for adults who hate having to explain to people that comics aren't just for kids anymore. They have a pathological fear and loathing of anything that might smack as "childlike", because they're afraid that some non-comics fan will spot that one panel as their first exposure to comics since they were five, and they'll look derisively at the fan and say, "You actually read this stuff?" Or worse, "You actually write this stuff?"

So humor has been banished. Everything is, if not grim and brutal, at the very least to be taken absolutely SERIOUSLY. Everyone is serious about everything they do, and every villain is a serious threat to humanity that must be fought by serious heroes being seriously serious. The only humor still allowed is to make fun of how silly things used to be; everyone can mock the way that the Hulk used to talk, but nobody seems to understand that it was a joke. Even when we're not getting on-panel disembowelings and villains raping women to show how evil they are and the other trappings of arrested adolescence, the pathological avoidance of anything that might be considered "fun" is almost total. (Maybe this is why Squirrel Girl and Deadpool are such fan favorites. They actually get to be...gasp...silly.)

So again, I find myself gravitating to the movies, where Thor has to take the London Underground to get back to his battle for the sake of the universe, and Jane Foster's best friend calls his hammer "Mew-Mew". Because it is silly, it remembers that the whole idea of superheroes are wonderfully and gloriously silly, and it understands that it's not something to apologize for. It's something to embrace. Because, in the immortal words of Terrance Dicks, "What's the point of growing up if you can't be childish sometimes?"

Saturday, November 09, 2013

My Thoughts On the New Ms Marvel

For those of you that may not already know about this, Marvel Comics is launching a new 'Ms Marvel' series, creating a legacy hero to fill the shoes of Carol Danvers (who has in turn decided to become a legacy hero filling the shoes of Captain Marvel, because Marvel has to publish a comic called "Captain Marvel" once every so often or DC will swoop in on the trademark like a turkey vulture that happens on a wrecked tour bus). The new hero will be Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager from New Jersey who learns that she has shapeshifting powers and decides to follow in the footsteps of her favorite Avenger. Her parents, who are first-generation immigrants from Pakistan, aren't sure if being a superhero is a good career move for her; and her brother, who has picked up some strongly conservative views about the role of women, is very sure it's not.

My initial thought is that this sounds like great stuff. The editor of the book, Sana Amanat, helped to create the character by drawing on her own experiences growing up as the child of Muslim immigrants, and I feel like this could be a real, authentic character with something fresh to say about the superhero genre. All too often, even the earnest attempts at getting more diversity into comics come across as ham-fisted box-checking (as opposed to ham-fisted bun-vending) and descend into stereotypes, because as well-meaning as they are, it's still the same old bunch of white guys writing them. (The ultimate example of this, by the way, would have to be the New Guardians. It had a Japanese businessman with technology controlling abilities, a Chinese woman who could manipulate ley lines, an aboriginal Australian with "dreamtime" powers, and Extrano, who was gay. Only they couldn't say that, because of DC's publication standards at the time, so they hinted it by having him lisp and mince until audiences got the point. Suffice to say that the road to unintentionally hilarious gifs circulated on the Internet among gay comics fans is paved with good intentions.)

So this is great. It's an attempt to get a fresh perspective on comics that isn't out of the Straight White Male Club, to give representation to a lot of people who look at the comics shelves and don't see themselves, and as such don't read comic books. One of the things that's very invisible to most straight white male comics fans is how much of their fandom is based on audience identification; because just about every comic book character out there falls into at least two if not all three of those categories, they're so used to having someone they can identify with that they don't even need to examine why they tend to like some characters more than others. They don't even notice, "Hey, this superhero is just like me," because they're all just like them. (I remember having a half-hour long conversation with a comic-shop employee on why it was a bad thing to get rid of Oracle. I think it was the first time it had ever occurred to him that every single superhero he liked was a straight white able-bodied male.)

But as always, I run smack-dab into the brick wall of my cynicism here, which is best summed up by the 'Dilbert' quote, "You know, if you put a little hat on a snowball, it can last longer in Hell." Because the unfortunate reality of the marketplace is, Marvel and DC have already done a pretty damned good job of marginalizing non-straight white male able-bodied fans to the point where most of the target audience for the new Ms Marvel probably won't even know it exists. Title after title for decade after decade aimed squarely at the "white teenage boy" market, combined with a marketing strategy that has made comics virtually invisible to anyone outside of a tiny, dedicated fanbase that actively seeks them out, has self-selected Marvel's market down to the point where launching a book like this might as well have a blurb on the cover that says, "The New Ms Marvel! She's Not For You!"

Yes, there are some fans who will seek it out even though they don't personally identify with the character. There are also some fans who do personally identify with the character, either in terms of race, religion or ethnicity, who haven't been burned out on the hobby despite the worst efforts of fans and professionals alike, who will pick it up. But experience has taught me the lesson that these fans aren't enough to sustain a book. Marvel needs to reach out to a different audience on this one, and I don't think they're going to do it. They're just going to put the book on the rack next to 'Spider-Man' and 'Captain America', in the store that has all the cheesecake posters up behind the counter and the clerk who gives the stink-eye to anyone who looks vaguely ethnic because "they might be shoplifters", and then wonder why it fails. And inevitably come to the conclusion that it's just because nobody wants to read about superheroes who aren't white guys like them.

And from there, it's about five years to the point where Kamala Khan dies in the next crossover so they can introduce the NEW Ms Marvel, who will coincidentally be white. And then someone will write another article like this lamenting the fact that Marvel and DC always kill off their ethnically-diverse legacy characters so they can bring in whiter versions, and the company will placate these concerns by introducing a NEW ethnically-diverse legacy character in a different role, but without having learned any of the marketing lessons involved so that hero won't do any better because they're still marketing them hardcore at the same audience that rejected all the previous ones...and who have learned that if they just act pissy enough, Marvel and DC will back down from ethnic diversity every single time and give them back the comforting whiteboy fantasy world they got used to as a child. (I swear, sometimes I think that fans have gotten less tolerant over the years, simply because they know that at least when dealing with comics companies, xenophobia is rewarded.)

Obviously, I hope I'm being cynical. I'm certainly willing to put my money where my mouth is, and to go back into comics stores come January to actually pick up a copy of the new 'Ms Marvel', because as much as I think it's an effort that comes pre-doomed for your convenience, that doesn't mean I won't support it. But I do wish that one of these times, Marvel or DC might realize that there has to be more to reaching a new audience than just putting the book in the store and expecting teenage girls to have a sudden flash of telepathic insight that the industry that's been semi-overtly hostile to them for generations is making another half-assed attempt at getting them interested in the medium.*

*Post #7,352 in the "Why Marvel's Entire Marketing Department Should Be Lined Up Against the Wall and Shot" series. Collect them all!

Monday, November 04, 2013

Two-Sentence Review of 'Drive Angry'

It wasn't that it was bad, per se; it was just that despite some clever stuff with Hell's Accountant and his open disdain for Satanism ("Satan is a thoughtful man, very well-read, and the idea of sacrificing children in his name annoys him") the movie really didn't live up to the trailer--the trailer was just such a perfect encapsulation of its own concept that extending it out to a feature length only got repetitive. But it wasn't bad.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

I'm Not More Politically Active Because They Won't Let You Have Cattle Prods

So the current manufactured scandal afflicting Obamacare (and as an aside, I am more than happy to have the biggest improvement in America's healthcare since Medicare permanently associated with the name of a prominent Democrat, who by the way got bin Laden and Qaddafi) is that many people are finding out that their old plans are no longer available to them under the new insurance rules. My goodness, these people are having to pay more money for better insurance! This is a cosmic injustice that simply cannot be borne! What happened to their freedom of choice? The Republicans, who utterly demand freedom of choice for white males and white males only, are predictably outraged. They are also predictably outraged that people are having difficulty signing up for the thing that they tried to delay, defund, and repeal for the past three years running, probably because it infuriates them that Obama is even better at obstructing Obamacare than they are, but that's a different story.

The simple answer, which for some reason isn't getting more press, is that one of the things Obamacare does is set up minimum standards for what an insurance company can get away with actually calling "insurance". You see, basically there's been a trend over the last decade of predatory, anti-consumer "insurance policies" out there that offer ultra-low premiums, but that have coverage so limited and deductibles so high as to be useless in any kind of practical way. This has been sold as a great alternative for young people without much disposable income and a low likelihood of getting sick or injured...but these are exactly the people who need good insurance the most.

Why? Because if you've got low income and a low likelihood of getting sick or injured, you probably don't have much of a safety cushion in place for when you do get sick or injured. Lots of people are living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to be out of work for a few weeks under any circumstances, let alone with massive medical bills. These people are basically suckered into taking a major gamble with their health, one that could have catastrophic consequences for their financial future should they get into a car accident or fall down the stairs or get a major illness. And up until now, selling these people high-deductible, limited-coverage plans has been a lucrative scam for insurance companies.

How do we know it's a scam? Simple. If it wasn't, the insurance companies wouldn't sell it. Think of it this way--these plans give health insurance companies thousands less in revenue per person per year. For a theoretically healthy person who's not using their insurance, the insurance company's most profitable strategy is to convince them to sign up for the most expensive plan possible, because all of that money is pure profit to them.

But they're not. They're pushing--actively pushing--the cheapest plan possible. They're tacitly admitting that they make more money when you buy a plan that has very low premiums but less ability to make claims. The only way that this is a financially viable business strategy for them is if they expect you to make claims often enough to more than offset the difference in premium price. In other words, they're gambling that you're going to underestimate the likelihood of making a claim. The only way this isn't a scam is if insurance companies don't understand odds as well as you do. Have I mentioned that they employ hundreds of full-time statisticians and actuaries?

So when the news says, "Obama is taking away your insurance plan, young people!" ...they actually mean, "Obama is ending a scam that ends up bankrupting thousands of sick and injured people each year." But for the news to say that, they'd have to admit that several of the biggest corporations in America have been running a scam on its most financially vulnerable citizens for years and they haven't said anything, and we're not a country that generally likes admitting that the only difference between Blue Cross/Blue Shield and that guy on the corner offering to sell the Brooklyn Bridge for fifty bucks is that one of them wears a suit and tie. So it's easier to sell this as a "choice" and hope nobody's paying attention.

Lucky for us, the federal government is paying attention and doing its job. No wonder the Republicans hate it so much. They've been insisting that's impossible for so long that finding out they're wrong is kind of breaking their brains.