Who Am I?

Musings by an Elder Statesman of Geekery, including such topics as, but not limited to: Comic Books, Captain Action, Toys of the 1960's and 1970's, Vintage Action Figures, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Fantasy and Sci-Fi TV, Horror Films, Universal Monsters, Classic Movies, Film Noir, B-Movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Public Libraries, RPGs, Superheroes, Saturday Morning Cartoons, Dr. Who, and the History of Southern Illinois.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Part 2: DC & Marvel Stop Before You Kill Again

Continuing from last post...

I used the 'V for Vendetta' image to begin the last posting because it's the film vision of a comic book series far afield from the pap generally being churned out by either of the Big Two at the moment.  Oh, 'V' is very dark, and it is very bloody.  But it is also very well-written despite all that.  If in no other manner, the current comics mentioned above and Moore's opus go their separate ways in that distinction.  Also, in the speech given, V says, '...and the truth is, there is something very wrong with this country.' 

The truth is, there is something very wrong with today's comic medium as represented by the Big 2.  Killing another Robin is part of that wrongness. 

But how can it be fixed?

Maybe it can't, not by the Big 2.  But having been a loyal reader of both for many years and as one who loves the enjoyable books they have produced, I feel compelled to start there. 

1.  When the going gets tough, the tough do not automatically re-boot.  Can they?  Surely.  Should they?  Likely not.  It took a long time for DC to need a Crisis on Infinite Earths to work through their continuity snarls.  Some say they did not need it then.  Just sayin', there are other options. 

2.  Which leads to 2., Stop Crossing Over Titles Company-Wide for the Sake of Creating 'Events'.  Because many of the problems in mainstream comics seem heightened by theses Events, with not the least being the need to kill copious characters to make a lackluster storyline even marginally Event-worthy.  It's a lazy way to 'shake things up'.  It's a lazy way to try to make a lot of cash, quick.  It inflicts itself on series runs that are not catering to the Ugliness mentioned last post, and impedes what may otherwise be a smooth and crafted story flow by forcing editors and writers who are getting it right to hold everything just so the Big Story of the Moment can be furthered.  Catching magic in a bottle that a good series, helmed in the right way, can do should not be mucked with.  And too many recent 'Events', even if popular with some readers, have pissed off a far greater number of avid, casual, new and old readers alike because they logjam or end good offerings.  And also because most recent Events have been painfully, unforgivably BAD.   If DC and Marvel truly want to build a solid support base of fans eager for new and ongoing series, they need to concentrate on -that- to build revenue.  Not a flash-in-the pan Event to boost momentary sales at the cost of future investments, monetary and emotional, by their customers. 

3.  Avoid the rush; act as if the company is ready to close it's doors tomorrow and let your writers & artists proceeds as if they have nothing to lose.  Defeatist?  Maybe.  But there is power in throwaways.  Ask Stan Lee.  Spider-Man was filler for a book destined for cancellation.  He took an approach he never would have for a character in an ongoing title because he felt free to do so.  Let your creative people have that kind of freedom and rein in your editors to get out of their way.

4.  Reject out of hand anything that clearly has as its foundation epics written by Moore, Miller, Waid, etc.  Making Captain Atom into Dr. Manhattan isn't clever or creative, no matter how much you love 'Watchmen'.  Stop trying to wedge the grim-n-gritty of a Limited Series like 'Kingdom Come' or 'Dark Knight Returns' into regular continuity.  Yes, they are great.  Leave them to their greatness and be original.  'New Frontier' was great, and less brooding than many such limited series...but you don't see people trying to expand on that in regular continuity.  Give the others a rest, too.

5.  If you must, prepare material as if appealing to a movie audience.  At first this sounds like appealing to the lowest comic denominator maybe.  But isn't it odd that, with the exception of the 'Dark Knight' films, the runaway movie successes (most recently by Marvel) hearken to less dark (though no less adult-focused), more creative and more positive themes?  Can the vast horde of consumers who made 'The Avengers' film number one at the box office be a bad demographic to shoot for just because they liked seeing conflicted heroes putting aside their differences to overcome a global threat?  There's a reason the 'Death of Supeman' film never came about...it was not in the vein most casual comics people could warm up to.  Yes, some comics fans will sneer, as they are more advanced in their tastes than what is found in this kind of material.  Produce less mainstream fare for them, too.  Set a feast that hasn't been seen in comics for far too long outside of independent release venues:  funny books, kid's books, combat books, crime books, superhero books, monster books, supernatural books.  Slade Grayson's mention of a proposed mini-series for Marvel, one that was summarily pooh-pahed, about Dame Agatha Harkness set in the roaring 1920's is just the sort of gamble that could pay off big.  Again, it's a gamble...the company could lose money.  But if things continue as they are, they'll lose money anyway.  If I held the keys to the kingdoms, I'd be happy to lock the doors, out of business, while still putting out quality, medium-expanding comics and not drivel that executives forced me to publish. 

If some kind of change does not happen, we as readers will be stuck with the current state of affairs, and worse.  Or, as my friend Mike Curry put it...and I hope he will not mind my using his meme...hang on for more of this:

Mike also reminded me recently that death in comics should not be avoided always.  This is very true.  The crafted and careful story in which a character (mainly thinking heroic characters here) dies can be very moving and very powerful.  Company wide crossovers with 'IN THIS ISSUE!  A TEAM MEMBER DIES!!!' trumpeted on the cover or through all manner of social media is not the same critter.  Captain Marvel's death under the guidance of Jim Starlin was touching, moving...epic.  Tim Drake's death as Robin had impact and consequences that echoed through the DC Universe even though how it all came about and was executed might not have been ideal.  Thunderbird's death in the fledgling pages of the New X-Men, not so much.  Hippolyta's unseemly death in World War over at DC, a travesty and possibly the worst example ever of the odious Crossover Event Fatality to make a sale.  Sue Dibny's death in 'Infinite Crisis'...words fail me at how anything so distasteful and unappealing ever made it past a quickly-shouted down comment in a writer bullpen session. 

Lastly on how to make things better, just a side note:  IF YOU KILL A CHARACTER IN THE RIGHT WAY, FOR THE RIGHT REASONS, LET THAT DEATH STAND AS FINAL.  Have the guts not to bring Barry Allen back.  Don't write some excellent stories about how everyone is impacted by the death of Tim Drake only to return him and make a new character in him as The Red Hood.  The clutter will be enormous and you'll need another Crisis to pare things down again.  Don't go there. 

Some will say that these things can't be done.  They're wrong.  These things can be done with various degrees of self-restraint and difficulty.  They probably won't be, but they could.  As for what I, personally, would like to see comics become again?  I've given it quite a bit of thought since starting this, and recollections have not travelled back into the misty past very far, actually.  It morphed into this:  What pitch could be made for a comic book that, if written and illustrated well, I would enjoy reading today.  The short answer was, 'I want to feel the wonder and anticipation this cover inspired':

New Gods.  Old Marvels.  JSAers.  New takes on established characters.  Charlton's finest.  All together for the first time!  This made me feel young again, even if the stories were a bit too slapstick as the series continued.  Give me that kind of wide-open canvas for the imagination again.  So here's what I'd try, if I held those golden keys to the DC kingdom.

First, unwritten rules to the writer and artist who embraced this project:  You get a minimum of 12 issues to start with.  No cancellation.  No firings.  No distracting crossovers.  Second, during that time, no hero dies.  Suffers, sure...meets harm, without question.  Is unsure of the final outcome, to be certain.  But everyone makes it back, if the worse for wear.  Third, present JLA #47 'Queen of Fables' as a template of how good writing for a team book should be done.  Fourth, you go with these characters, revised and recruited.  You do not make any new heroes in that first year, you use established folks from the DC tapestry.  Villains may be created as needed, if needed. 

The Hook:  Captain Atom takes on the task (on his own, no government sponsoring) of organizing a team based on the abandoned L.A.W. template he served in once.  The purpose is to make a force that can be deployed in response to a serious global threat, supervillain dust up, etc.  Or deployed in a preemptive strike.  Or in the aftermath of a catastrophe.  And comprised of a roster fully capable of adjustment to fit the mission.  His first recruit:  Deadman.  Because they aren't going to reach out to like-minded agents around the world, they're going to reach out to like-minded agents around 52 worlds, and Boston Brand can go through those doors better than anyone.  Any given team roster follows a standard pattern.  One member each to fill these mission roles, and Wild Cards/Specialists if the situation or locale calls for it.  Captain Atom is the Director and Supreme Field Commander.  Otherwise, each force has one agent designated:  Tactician.  Blaster.  Infiltrator.  Heavy Ordinance.  Brawler.  Science/Engineering.  Specialists as required.  Some members will be used a lot, some occasionally.  There are several members able to fill the mission role so that no one needs to be on every outing or constantly on-call, making this a better option for those who can't hang out in the JLA or Outsiders all the time.  Once the recruitment is done, the L.A.W. group is as follows:

The L.A.W.

Director/Supreme Field Commander: Captain Atom


BLASTER- Division Leader: Air Wave. Goldstar, Sebastian Faust AKA 'Faust', Eclipso (revised Bruce Gordon), Jack O' Lantern, Geo Force, Argent, Aztek (revised), Silver Scarab (revised)

INFILTRATOR- Division Leader: Nightshade. Deadman, Beautiful Dreamer, The Question, The Atom, Shakira, Argus, Blue Jay, Element Woman (revised, Emily Sung), Plastic Man (revised, Chris King), Zan & Jayna

TACTICIAN- Division Leader: Peacemaker. Manhunter (Kate Spencer), The Question, Mr. Terrific, Spy Smasher

HEAVY ORDINANCE - Division Leader: Mon-El. The Eradicator, Superwoman, Miss America, Jemm of Saturn, Captain Atom

BRAWLER - Division Leader: Judo Master. The Creeper (revised Duela Dent), Blue Beetle (revised Dan Garrett), El Diablo (revised, descendant of Lazarus Lane), Nightmaster, Lagoon Boy, Congorilla, Wildcat, Lady Blackhawk, Guardian (Mal Duncan), Azrael

SCIENTIST/ENGINEER- Division Leader: The Atom (revised Ray Palmer). Multi-Man, Man-Bat (Kirk Langstrom), Steel, Bruce Gordon (revised Eclipso), Alanna Strange, Dr. Double X, Robotman (Charles Grayson/Robert Crane revised), Mr. Terrific

WILD CARD/SPECIALIST- B'wana Beast, Enchantress, Black Alice

I cannot imagine any writer worthy of the title needing anything more than this cast and that pitch to create something worthwhile and fun for almost any reader age demographic.  Or, to put it into a graphics presentation, would you pick up some books fielding these characters? 


I would.  And I don't think I'm alone.  The hardest part would be finding an editor, a writer(s), and an artist with the vision to come up with a villain worthy of even one of the possible teams to challenge heroes of this variety and from various DC settings.  Some of the possible mission teams that thrill my geeky heart:

Eclipso, Beautiful Dreamer, Mr. Terrific, The Eradicator, Wildcat, The Atom, Enchantress

Goldstar, Zan & Jayna, Peacemaker, Mon-El, Blue Beetle, Multi-Man, B'wana Beast

Jack O' Lantern, Deadman, The Question, J'emm of Saturn, The Creeper, Man-Bat, Black Alice

There would, indeed, be a very long arm to this L.A.W.!!!  OK, Ruminations over, all feedback welcome.  Meanwhile, just in case we lump all retcons and re-starts into the 'Bad' category, I have to think that Superman might not agree...

Friday, March 1, 2013

DC, Marvel...Stop Before You Kill Again!

My open letter to DC Comics re: the 2/27/2013 death of the newest Robin, Damian Wayne.

"Dear DC, in your current era of generally unimaginative, uninspiring, repetitive and unpleasant comic books, 'Killing a Character' is all you seem to know how to do. And you don't even do that very well. But since you seem focused on following this path so often that the Styx route needs a toll booth to help prop up sales, please do all of your once-loyal readers a favor and indulge yourselves; kill everyone. Go ahead, get it out of your system, we'll wait. Kill every single character in the most horrible and inappropriate way possible. Then fire yourselves. Clear the queue so that Time-Warner can begin from square one with new characters and, hopefully, they can also find some editors and writing talent worthy of the profession. And while you're at it, allow any rights regarding established characters to revert to their creators or their families. At this point, only doing these things could create the shock and awe you so crave. But killing a character, AGAIN? Meh, not so much."

Perhaps rightly, it is said that the writers are not to blame so much as the current crop of frustrated-writers-masquerading-as-editors. This may, indeed, be the case. If the new (original) owners of the characters wish to hire some of the former writing talents and let them, you know, actually -write- stories, then no harm and no foul. But short of a scenario as ground-breaking as the highly unlikely one outlined above, I don't see myself ever being a 'regular reader' of the Big Two comics companies ever again.

Hopefully, this won't come off as Bitter Old Guy Unhappy That His Generation's Versions of the Classic Characters Are Being Updated. Because I have not been that bitter old guy, not through untold Secret Wars and an infinite number of Crises. I fully understand and even laud DC for ending the simultaneous courting of new readers and Baby Boomers by 'reimagining' classic story lines of the past with a modern twist. It was kinda fun but not always workable, and likely...for the most part...pleased neither of the target audience. Superman Red & Superman Blue as energy constructs/variations of the Man of Steel, and with roots waaaaay back into a Silver Age Imaginary Story. Cute. And DC, especially, went to that well more than a few times in an effort to please older and newer readers simultaneously. Nifty. But that ship has sailed, and the crowd gathered to bid it farewell at the docks was minimal.

Comics and their characters must grow; change, change, transmogrify! Gone, gone the forms of yore, rise the fifty-two new, create your own and original Lore!

Buuuuuuut, apparently and for the most part...most, not all...this new approach has not seen a sweeping and grand new Age of Story Telling. The reasons why are many and varied and accompanied it seems by much finger-pointing and blame-casting. But as a mere spectator to the Comic Book Gladiator Games of 2013 ('Read & Circuses?'), it looks as though the industry both at the House of Ideas and at their Distinguished Competition threw off the old and much-scribbled top sheet of the Tablet of Continuity so that they could, unimpeded by the past and with a clear vision for a future of exciting untold and original stories, use a fresh, clean, unmarred top sheet to catch all the magic. Gutsy move, and I applaud them for being both brave and bold in taking it.

But then, the spell faltered. Perhaps it was missing a small-yet-vital component. Maybe it ran straight into the Cliffs of Insanity after taking a bounce off a Rock of Eternity-sized writer's block. Again, as mostly a spectator and casual reader, I find the New Turks (editors, writers, artists) have simply not managed to tell exciting, untold and original stories that can compare in charm, skill and execution to the Old Masters they wished to acknowledge and yet surpass. Or at least replace.

The corporate atmosphere can not have helped in the effort. The Big Companies treat their talent badly for the most part. Yet, this is not a new development, so just how much this plays on the court of the ongoing comic book Battle for Survival is unknown. One corporate philosophy does seem to be a game changer in my limited estimation, however. I never thought I'd see a day when a limited series was developed and started only to be cancelled in Issue 5 of an 8 issue run because it just wasn't profitable enough (despite having already paid for the writing and art at least through Issue 7).

Let us expand the list of WHAT SEEMS WRONG AT THIS JUNCTURE IN COMICS HISTORY. Not everything following will be true of all titles, creative teams, etc. Some may be (probably will be) dead wrong, or piddling and of no consequence in the Big Picture. But taken altogether, they may pinpoint a few areas that are proving problematic in the profitability of the art form as it stands today.

Let Us Cut Down All the Trees for Lumber and Burn the Seeds - Yah, this has been a problem for a while now. The Big Two want to fleece the maximum number of $$$'s from those who have the most $$$'s. They are just as happy to take it in exchange for cool figures, statues, t-shirts, posters and brik-a-brak based on their character images as for anything written or drawn...like, y'know....books. Books that all the non-book stuff is based on. Continuing to ignore young potential readership because it is 'not as profitable', because 'kid books don't sell' (which REALLY means in corporate-speak, 'they don't sell enough to make us happy'), is unwise, unhealthy, unimaginative and unconscionable. It's a business bottom line upon which is written the word 'DOOM' for DC & Marvel both. And it has nothing to do with the ruler of Latveria. How to fix? Invest in kid's material 100% more than you currently are. 200%. 300%.  Ignite their imaginations. Write stories that are clever, engaging, fun, creative. AND make the written materials (not just cartoons on TV) readily available in outlets and places kids frequent. Take a financial hit if you have to. The investment will enrich the comics art form of the future. And it will repay you in future financial footing, too, Big Two. But it -will- require more of that bravery and boldness mentioned above since it violates the company policy of Instant Return on Investment. And on a related note...

Freeze Cover Prices - This notion is so eloquently expressed by Slade Grayson in his online feature 'What's Wrong  With Comic Books?' (found in its complete form here http://www.examiner.com/article/what-s-wrong-with-comic-books) that I will excerpt it for this posting.  "The United States Postal Service reports record losses and blames email and competitive package delivery services as the reason why their consumer base dwindles every year. So how do they combat the shrinking customer numbers? They raise the price of postage over and over again and talk of stopping service on Saturdays. And how will the customers react? The same way they have been: Sending less cards and letters through the mail and seeking cheaper shipping services elsewhere. And of course the USPS will simply raise the price of postage yet again.
It's the same principle with comic books. The market shrinks so the companies raise their prices, which causes more readers to drop some of their regular titles or stop reading comic books altogether. In which case the companies will raise the prices again in order to cover their bottom lines. And on and on…the serpent swallowing its tail again.
A suggestion: Put a freeze on cover prices or convert the comics to a paperless format (i.e. digital) so readers can still enjoy their favorite series without the possibility of having to go into bankruptcy."

And online downloadable comics have become a reality.  So there is -some- progress on this point at least. 

Concentrate on the Charm, Lose Some of the Ugly - This is probably a true Older Reader View. It may have nothing to do with Current Reality. Prove to me that the success of past comics enterprises had a lease on Reality or anything more than Wish Fulfillment, and I'll remove this one. Until then, it stands. But in that casual reader way I've mentioned, I have recently picked up some DC and Marvel fare deemed worthy of collecting into TPBs and even hardcovers at the local library. There was no spark there for me, but then I -am- one of those Older Readers, not given to spontaneous sparking as perhaps I once was. So, after reading these tomes I decided to see what others, regardless of age, had to say about the collections and the Big Events condensed and included in the volumes. I wanted to know how the general readership reacted to them. The word that was repeated over, and over, and over was 'Ugly'. It was an ugly story, characters were acting out of character and in ugly fashion, the ugly response of the heroes was no better than the problem posed by the villains. Readers (new, young, old, casual, intense) shared a common care about the characters involved and how they were portrayed. Based on their comments, they cared lots more than the people editing or creating these books did.

Creative control in comics believes at the moment that the harsh economic times and world we live in must be reflected in their pages. I get that. I agree. But so did comics in WWII. In the Great Depression. In the Viet Nam era. The difference seems to be that in those past instances, comics reacted and reflected the world stage by being HOPEFUL. Better. Challenging. Full of ideas and discussion. And they avoided Being Ugly to reflect and comment on the Ugliness of the Times. Hell, sometimes they even offered solutions. Takes wisdom to do that. Takes wisdom and talent...writing, editing, rendering...to do it -and- make it entertaining. The Old School did it. How about you, New School? Not saying every issue must be sweet and sugary, either. In the later Silver Age and early Bronze Age of books, relevant issues were tackled right alongside the more heroic stuff. In DC's case...you have 52 worlds. In the Mighty Marvel 'Verse, you have untold Future Worlds and Dimensions. If the continuity between these visions is problematic for you, set the happenings of one in a place where it fits. Have Zombie World. Have Death World. Put the major characters of that reality -in- that reality and kill 'em all. Let the readers sort 'em out. Hey, here's an idea...based on some of that unpleasantness, contrast it and play with what's happening in the Prime versions of your worlds. While Batman kills Superman on Death World for the 15th time, have their actions in Prime reality contrast to the opposite end of the spectrum, similar happenings but very different outcomes, in a creative manner. Theoretical physicists say there may be an unlimited number of realities, each changed by the decisions the 'us' of those other dimensions make. That in some reality, somewhere, we can all be Batman. Play with that! Never since the premise of Farmer's 'Riverworld' books has there been such an opportunity to flex your creative muscles! But do not do yourselves, your readers and your art a disservice and inflict Ugly everywhere. There is simply no reason for it.

COMING IN PART 2....  More steps to reclaim comic book greatness!  How printed books should take a page from movies based on them!  And I answer the age-old response, 'Oh, yeah?  If you're so smart, what kinda comic book series pitch would YOU field?'  PLUS:  Laying down The L.A.W.!!!