May 2007 Archives

shelves and bins

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Sara Ryan forwards the official announcement of the library panel I'm going to be moderating with four of my favorite cartoonists on June 27!

Made my first-ever trip to "The Bins" a couple of days ago--it's the gigantic, not-particularly-organized Goodwill depot in Southeast Portland, where they try to clear everything out at rock-bottom prices to decrease their landfill bills. Bins come in and out of the place on rollers constantly. People line up, not where the newest bins are, but where they're about to be, so the moment they arrive they can grab for the good stuff. Elbows fly; there is a distinct social pecking order, which I could only guess at. My hands are still breaking out, after only an hour and a half's worth of exposure. I found a Prince 12-inch, a discographical encyclopedia and a set of (unstained) surgical scrubs. Total cost: $3.14. Sarah, who went with me, scored a vintage Christian children's animated videotape, called "Tiny Tots Pwaise," starring "Arky," the smiling anthropomorphic Noah's Ark.

the awesomest form of flattery

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interim report

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Long posting for this site on influence, style and plagiarism: attempted for a few hours, found to be tying itself into self-contradictory knots, shelved maybe for a day and maybe permanently.

Sauce for summer fruit: remainder of last night's three-buck Chuck and half a cup of honey, plus a rosemary sprig, a cinnamon stick and a dash of vanilla extract, boiled until it reduced to a thin bubbling puddle, but never got any more syrupy. Natural impulse to consider it a metaphor: unsuccessfully resisted.

First review of Reading Comics: exists, and pretty positive. Yay.

Sterling's new trick: we spread out all of Robert Crumb's "Early Jazz Greats" trading cards on the floor; then we name each musician and he picks up that card. Next, we'll try the "Heroes of the Blues" and "Pioneers of Country Music", which he loves too. I actually put together a mix CD for him of a song apiece from 26 of those country artists, all downloaded from eMusic.

Which reminds me that Lisa and I have a game we play between ourselves: when we hear a song we like, we try to figure out what its equivalent would be in Sterling's timeline. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," released 14 years before he was born, for instance, would be to him what "All Shook Up" is to us. And Charlie Poole's "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," recorded 80 years before the advent of the 'Ling? That would just barely be a wax cylinder to us.

somebody's gonna have to sweep that up

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Two of today's comics annoyed the hell out of me in very similar ways--a lot of the reason people read The Ultimates 2 and All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, of course, is to find out exactly what Millar and Miller are going to do to annoy us this time, other than making us wait months for the next installment. But I think I've realized that what's actually irritating about them isn't quite what I thought it was.

Earlier today, I was corresponding with a friend who asked me why I liked Mark Millar's comics. I wrote: "I guess what I like about Millar is his absolute control of his tone and volume. I know he can do finely wrought little character pieces--a lot of the stuff he did back when he was writing Superman Adventures was that. I have lots of fundamental objections to Civil War, and some to Ultimates and even The Authority, but they're mostly based on content rather than craft, if you see what I mean--all three of them are him seeing just how loud he can crank things up without distortion. [...] And it's kind of fun to see a mainstream comics writer totally kick over the sandbox. Where he can go next, I have no idea, though."

But then I went to the store and picked up the final issue of The Ultimates 2, with its up-yours-Miller-and-Lee eight-page fold-out fight scene, and got to the last scene with Tony, where he's shedding a tear for Natasha because "she was like me with magnificent breasts and, as you know, that's always been one of my ultimate fantasies." (Nice adjective there.) My first thought was: okay, Millar, that's it, you're not even pretending to take this seriously any more.

That was the same as my first reaction to ASBaRtBW, with Wonder Woman (as Rachelle points out) acting as Frank Miller's Mary Sue, and Miller reprising the "I'm the goddamn Batman" routine just to piss off the people who hated it the first time. Not to mention the front-cover ass-shot, just in case it wasn't clear yet that Miller's giving the people what they want, good and hard. And then it came to me: the problem is not that Millar and Miller aren't taking the superhero-narrative game seriously. It's that they're taking it much too seriously, working from the assumption that their readers can't grasp that their fantasies are, you know, unrealistic.

So Millar and Miller are taking superheroes to their logical real-world conclusions--which is to say straight-faced illogic and unreality, broad-scale destruction and psychosis--and it's been done, it's been done, it's one little point that can be made about the genre and it's been made over and over. Done. We get it. By now, the only effect of making that point again is to demonstrate your contempt for your readership. The things that make U2 and ASBaRtBW function as metacomics are the same things that ruin them as fiction: the smartass gestures that whack the reader straight out of the story and into the writer's sneering assessment of the reader's perspective.

Complaining that superhero stories don't give a full accounting of the nasty side of power and the illusions associated with the idea of heroism is like complaining that the soda you're drinking is too wet: that's kind of what we go to them for. The pleasure in reading them comes in part from understanding their characters as symbolic, sometimes even allegorical, rather than "the way somebody like that would really be"--but also consistent in their symbolic value, growing gradually in depth and history rather than entirely mutable for the sake of a plot or a shock. The least I can ask of superhero comics is entertainment; bitterly repudiating the idea that any pleasure that can be gotten from them is legitimate, the way these two comics do, really is kicking over the sandbox.

eeeelectricity and froot

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Lisa's got a brand-new hand-coded artisanal blog!

Gob's theme backmasked

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First things first: Kool-Aid pickles. Best word in the piece: "recovered." Runner-up: "red," as in "the popular red flavor family." (Lisa notes that a person who sold her a donut once told her the fillings available were "blueberry, lemon, and red.") But how are they otherwise different from, say, the sweet gherkins I devoured by the half-jar as a kid?

Project Omniherbivore continues, in theory, but the closest I came this week was buying a few things (miner's lettuce, pea shoots, something salty and wiry identified only as "sea vegetable") that I hadn't cooked before but have definitely eaten before. The Oxford Companion to Food says that some salad authority or other claims that miner's lettuce is the finest of all winter salad ingredients. I'll take their word for it.

It was, honestly, a bit of a relief to have my first new-comic-day afternoon free in a year (and to have that coincide with the 52 Pickup entry for the final issue getting its 52nd comment). I did pick up the first issue of Countdown, though, and... well... it's really not good. (What follows, I'm afraid, will only make any kind of sense to other people who've read it. Everyone else: see you in a few days!)

There's an argument that goes that this is only the first chapter of another 1000-page story, it's too early to give it a fair appraisal, etc. But Countdown 51 is itself a thing. It's an individual comic book with a $2.99 cover price, and it has the same remit as any other first episode of a serial: to lay out what kind of story is going on, and to cast out irresistible hooks for the rest of the story. And it completely fails at that.

Start with the cover: a big Andy Kubert action shot of a whole bunch of characters running or flying in 180 degrees' worth of directions. It's an action shot, but it offers no clues to the plot or to the themes of Countdown (the way the J.G. Jones cover for the first 52, and his covers for most issues, symbolically represented what was happening in the story); it's just a whole lot of characters, most of whom don't appear on the inside.

Then there's that opening scene of Darkseid and Desaad "playing Heroclix," as my friend Annie put it. (A two-page spread is a lot of space; it ought to have some kind of visual impact. This doesn't.) "Even the humblest of souls touches others" isn't much of a theme--it is one, but not much of one--and in any case there's nothing else here that supports it. Again, the beginning of a long comics story like this one has to do something much more immediate.

Just for comparison's sake, going to my bookshelf: The first page of The Dark Knight Returns establishes the look and tone of the whole thing in the course of a one-page action sequence, and it's got that bit with Bruce Wayne thinking "This would be a good death... but not good enough." Kingdom Come opens with Wesley Dodds quoting Revelation to Norman--an Easter egg if you know who Wesley is (and it's explained a few pages later anyway), but a knockout of a scene either way. The New Frontier begins with the slow, movie-style zoom in on the Pacific Island cave full of weapons in which John Cloud burns a stick, blows out the fire, and starts writing his story on the wall for posterity: it's not huge plot-wise, but it conveys Darwyn Cooke's attention to setting and gesture beautifully. Planetary establishes Elijah Snow and Jakita Wagner and their M.O. by a quarter of the way through page three of the first issue. The first panel of the first issue of Criminal (the collection came out today!) is one of my favorite opening moments in recent memory: Leo peeking around a wall with a worried look on his face, lifting his full-face mask off his face (the situation, as we understand from the next panel, is that he's part of a group committing an armed robbery), captioned "Whenever things begin to fall to pieces, I think of my father." There's no way not to want to know more.

All of this is incredibly important to the reading experience, because the precise length of time a story has to impress someone who doesn't already have a stake in reading it is until they get bored. Admittedly, Countdown comes with its own stake--it's the "spine" of the DCU for the next year--but that's no excuse for an opening this dull. As readers, we understand that a first scene (a first panel, a first issue) is a signal of what's going to follow: the outfit a series is wearing to its job interview.

For the rest of this issue, though, all we get is C-list characters justifying their C-list-ness, soggy expository dialogue like "I may be from a neighboring Earth, but I have to maintain my bad girl cred, too," and a Monitor delivering a pistol-whipping. I know who all of the characters who appeared here are, but not one of them does anything to make me care what they do next. The most dispiriting bit, for me, is the ending: a "cliffhanger" that makes zero sense unless you're already enough of a continuity fetishist to know what the Great Disaster is and who Ray Palmer is, and has near-zero dramatic impact anyway. I mean, there are dozens of ways to handle the tormented-oracle-reveals-cryptic-yet-horrifying-prophecy scene--it's a staple of the quest/prophecy/find-the-object story. (Compare, for instance, another great graphic novel opening scene: the first few pages of Charles Burns's Black Hole, where Keith slits open the frog he's dissecting and has his vision of his future--five pages into the story, and I was terrified, dying to know what happened next, and pretty much fully set up with what the themes and tone of the whole thing were going to be.) This way just doesn't work.

Also, that damn teaser ad. I loved the "WWMMD?" idea when the first round of Countdown teasers went out--just think about the story possibilities of a cult of personality around a superhero who's an impossible goody-goody--but the Evil = Boobs equation this image offers is so played out I can't even appreciate it with imaginary quotation marks around it.

A small note: This site isn't going to become Where Douglas Writes About Countdown, although I'm probably going to have a bit more to say about periodical comics here in the future, among other stuff. Lacunae is the what's-on-my-mind and what-I'm-doing blog, not a comics blog. No, really.

quickly quickly: FCBD

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In the hopes of directing a few people to see it while it's still useful: I wrote this rundown of all 43 giveaway comics that are part of tomorrow's Free Comic Book Day, over at Salon (so you may need to watch an ad to read it).