Captain America: The Winter Soldier – the only problem is that Captain America & The Winter Soldier are in it

Captain America Winter SoldierThe worst thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that Captain America is in it.

I can’t lie: I’ve never liked the star spangled avenger. Most of that can be attributed to me being Canadian, and being fairly disinterested in a superhero wrapped in someone else’s flag. (Lest you think it’s entirely about nationalism, I have always maintained that Alpha Flight is pretty stupid.)

The first Captain America movie because it put the character in his proper context: As a piece of WWII propaganda. I don’t even mean that in a derogatory sense: It was a fun, pulpy bit of entertainment that played with the character’s origins and created a scenario where it was (almost) credible to dress a man up in a costume and send him to Germany to fight Nazis with a shield.

But while the modern Captain America narrative tends to be a “fish out of water” story, Winter Soldier takes Captain America too far out of the character’s comfort zone, and doesn’t do much with the resulting juxtaposition.

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The Wisdom and Impact of Before Watchmen

There was a time when I would have been genuinely offended that DC is publishing new Watchmen comics. Watchmen is one of the greatest comics ever published, a masterpiece of cohesive writing and art, and an massive influence on superhero comics. Publishing prequels or sequels seems inherently wrong, a line that everyone knows you shouldn’t cross lest you risk being struck down by the vengeful gods Alan Moore might talk to.

But the more I think about it, the less it bothers me. Continue reading →

Didn’t this blog used to be about comics?

Apparently I haven’t written about comics in almost a year. I knew I hadn’t written a lot – I’ve been slacking on the blog in general this past year – but really, no posts about comics for that long? I suppose my review of Kick-Ass was kind of comic-related, but I never read the book.

My lazy blogging habits are one culprit. Aside from a crippling bout of writer’s block (which isn’t really writer’s block, because there’s no such thing; I just loathe everything I write lately), Twitter sucks up a lot of my thoughts and sentences. I spend more time redesigning my blog than I do writing for it. (Played with Movable Type for a while, partly to learn it for work; went back to WordPress because I like the plugins.)

But the biggest comic-related change is that I finally stopped caring about what Marvel & DC do in their superhero books. I used to have a passing interest, thanks to decades of reading them; I tried to keep up with what was going on, and picked up a book here and there if it had a creative team or concept I liked. But every time my hopes got up a little, they were slapped back down by a book that was either mediocre or dedicated to telling shared-universe stories in which I have no interest. At some point (Infinite Crisis seems about right), I even lost interest in Grant Morrison, who could make me care about epic fisticuffs. (I still happily bought a used copy of Absolute All-Star Superman over the holidays. Damn fine book.)

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Losers or Winners?

God knows I’m skeptical of adaptations these days, but I’m actually starting to get a good feeling about The Losers, Sylvain White’s adaptation of Andy Diggle & Jock’s great espionage comic. Diggle and Jock were apparently involved at various points in the production, and there’s even a promo poster that uses Jock’s cover to #12, with some celebritized faces.It helps that The Losers was in many ways an action movie on paper; it’s less concerned with character and depth than it is with wicked plot twists and stylish action sequences.
Now there’s a trailer, and I’ve got to say I’m impressed. I’m worried there’s an excess of slo-mo, but the tone feels right, and most of the characters seem spot-on – Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, and Chris Evans seem like good fits. I guess Zoey Saldana isn’t supposed to be an Afghan freedom fighter and/or terrorist, and I’m not sure she’s got quite the killer attitude, but she still gets a rocket launcher.
For now, colour me optimistic.

The Unwritten Vol. 1 review

Unwritten #1If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I was a big fan of Mike Carey’s Lucifer. It was a great, epic book with a cast of wonderful characters that managed to create its own identity despite being one of many Sandman spinoffs published after Neil Gaiman’s series concluded. And I was quite fond of Carey’s return to Vertigo, Crossing Midnight, despite a slow start and some shaky art. So you can imagine I was quite excited when I heard Carey was writing another Vertigo book, this time reunited with Lucifer artist Peter Gross.

The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, the son of a novelist famous for writing a series of Harry Potter-esque books starring a young magician named Tommy Taylor. When his father mysteriously disappears, Tom assumes a sort of C-list celebrity, the sort who shows up at comic conventions charging $5 per autograph even though he’s never actually done anything. Tom’s life of easy money and dubious fame is thrown into confusion he’s kidnapped by a man who claims to be Tommy Taylor’s entirely fictional arch-nemesis.

The story feels like it’s right in Carey’s wheelhouse, but when I read The Unwritten I can’t help feeling it’s all been done before.  It’s another story about fantasy and reality overlapping, ground that’s been well-tread by Sandman, The Dreaming, Fables, and others… maybe even the current Greek Street, if Peter Milligan ever gets around to explaining what’s going on. It seems too safe, the kind of book both fans and detractors expect Vertigo to publish. As much as I love Sandman and Lucifer, today’s Vertigo makes me think of Young Liars, Scalped, Northlanders, and other books that stand strong on their own two feet.

Perhaps the Harry Potter elements make it feel too trendy, too easy; maybe I’d be more receptive to a Wizard of Oz riff.

But then, maybe the problem is less one of repetition than it is simply not having much of an identity. Carey uses some nice tricks in the first issue, incorporating newspaper and TV reports and internet message boards into the story, but they’re gone by the end of the second issue. He has some fun with the homicidal, anti-literate antagonist, but most of the other characters are paper-thin, with little to distinguish them aside from their role in the plot. Tommy Taylor himself lacks much in the way of personality: The boy-mistaken-for-a-hero idea is interesting enough, and I can appreciate Carey’s attempts to at least start him out as an unlikeable jerk, but he doesn’t show much development beyond that of the usual character who finds out everything he believed about his life is a lie.

After the promising first issue, Unwritten just spins its wheels, trying to get out of the mud. A retreat for horror writers offers some clumsy meditation on how to scare people while a madman with a scythe stalks the group, but one mostly just gets the impression Carey wanted to make jokes about some famous writers. The dramatic reveal at the end of the fourth chapter is spectacularly unimpressive: When the first issue begins with a fictional villain seeming sprung to life, you can’t really end the fourth chapter with the same trick, particularly when your hero has grown magical tattoos and been stalked by a man who can melt objects into words.

The fifth chapter, “How The Whale Became”, is the most ambitious, but I’m still not sure it’s telling us anything new. After spending the first four issues in the present day, Carey goes back more than a hundred years to tell the story of Rudyard Kipling. The obvious points of comparison are the Shakespeare stories, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest” in Sandman, and not simply for the use of a famous writer. Like Gaiman’s Shakespeare, Carey’s Kipling, who begins as an unimportant bureaucrat in India, is approached by a mysterious figure who persuades him to channel his talents in a particular avenue; here, it’s to write about the glory of the British Empire.

It’s an interesting concept, but it never feels engaging. Kipling’s journey, like Tom Taylor’s, is a foregone conclusion – you know he’s not going to spend his life writing simple tales of imperial conquest.  And as much as it’s an “origin story” of sorts, it feels detached from the main narrative. For a change, Todd Klein’s lettering doesn’t help the story: the handwritten font used for Kipling’s letters  is distracting, and feels overly gimmicky – modern-day protagonists don’t have computer-print lettering for their narratives, after all.

I suppose I should be patient with The Unwritten. Lucifer took a while to gather steam, and “yeah, but it gets better after the first volume” is a common refrain for Vertigo books. While I’m sure I’ll come back to the book some day for another try, right now it’s hard to classify it as anything but a disappointment.

So much for Human Target

I admit, I was curious about the pilot for Human Target. It’s not like I had great expectations, given the challenges of adapting Peter Milligan’s great books, but hey, I want stuff like this to be good. Maybe you can adapt a thoughtful and challenging book into the television format and..
Wait, what’s that? McG is the executive producer? Oh.  Uhm. Well, maybe it’s not all bad; McG gets a bad rap sometimes, and people can change, and raise their standards. Let McG speak for himself:

“We wanted it to be like those great action shows of the eighties, like The A-Team. We looked at the current television landscape and there wasn’t a show like that on the air. Until now.”

And apparently he doesn’t even impersonate other people now?
Clearly, god is punishing me for something.
(And yes, I know there were Human Target comics before Peter Milligan, but I don’t care about them, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about them.)

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul review

“Worst” is a horribly misused word. Look up any movie on IMDB and you’ll find the user reviews  peppered with comments declaring it the worst ever. There’s an astonishing lack of perspective and context on display, as though people simply don’t understand the vast amount of utter crap that is produced in any field in any year. X-Men 3 may have been a pretty damn bad movie, but it’s not Plan 9 from Outer Space, nor would it surpass any number of student and independent films produced around the world in the decades since someone thought it would be neat if they could find a way for pictures to move. It’s not even limited to a lack of historical or global context; sometimes, people just don’t think before throwing “worst” around like a Wal-Mart Throw Pillow.

I say this not to argue with the hordes of ranting lunatics on the internet, but to provide context  to this piece, to let you know that I do not say what I am about to say casually or without introspection: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul is one of the worst comics I have ever read.

Look, I think superhero comics get a bum rap from some people, with the genre bearing the brunt of complaints about wonky distribution systems and a medium that struggles with mainstream acceptance. It’s true that I don’t read a lot of Marvel or DC superhero books these days, but that has less to do with quality than it does to do with big crossovers, obsessive nostalgia, and an unwillingness to do anything truly unique or different.

Take Resurrection, for example. I didn’t have much interest in the Batman crossover when it was being serialized. Partly just because it’s a crossover, which rarely brings out the best in a creative team. Partly because Ra’s Al Ghul is one of those comic book characters I’m supposed to care about even though I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about him; it seems like he’s a big deal because Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created him, and no one talks about how little he’s been used since. And the word “Resurrection” borders on farcical, suggesting as it does that anyone should be surprised or impressed that a supervillain is coming back from the dead.

(In fact, one of the first warning signs in Resurrection comes in the introductory character descriptions: “Ra’s Al Ghul is finally dead… or is he…?” If he’s not actually dead, then he doesn’t need to be resurrected at all, does he? Or if you want to emphasize finally dead, then if he’s really, truly, finally dead, you probably can’t resurrect him.)

But I found the hardcover edition of Resurrection super-cheap at a Boxing Day sale, so I figured, sure, why not? I like Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan, and Fabian Nicieza and Paul Dini are usually at least competent writers. And, you know, Batman is cool. So what the heck, right? How wrong can you go for five dollars?

As it turns out, it’s a lot like buying a monkey for five dollars, and then finding out the monkey is a trained knife thrower and has a nasty cocaine addiction.

It starts fairly nondescriptly, with a chapter by Peter Milligan and David Lopez that provides much of the setup for the story: Ra’s Al Ghul is dead. Batman had a son with Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, and the son is now… 13? Something like that. Ra’s Al Ghul’s followers believe the son, Damian, can become the vessel for the soul of his grandfather, facilitating his return from the dead.

Yeah, it’s kind of silly when you try to sum it up like that. But I had to explain She-Hulk to someone last week, so I can respect that awesome things can sound stupid when you try to explain them in a simple fashion.

(No, I didn’t really have to explain She-Hulk. I’m pretty sure she didn’t ask. But it came up, and I fulfilled my manly duties. I was not in any way rewarded for my efforts.)

Most of the introductory chapter consists of Talia telling Damian the story of her father’s life… except not really. The narrative skirts around Al Ghul’s life, filling in blanks that may not have been told before, but not actually covering the pre-existing story. We see him meeting a wise old man and his beautiful and intelligent daughter centuries ago, but skip over the part where everything goes horribly wrong and the noble man is set on a path to evil. We see him fighting against Napoleon, and later in Whitechapel learning how he may recover from death, but we never see the actual death that makes this story necessary.

None of it is particularly helpful. Ra’s Al Ghul may be a “classic” Batman villain, but he hasn’t appeared in a comic since 2004. In the five years since then, DC and the Batman franchise have had several creative overhauls and, just maybe, it might have added a few new readers. Unlike other iconic villains like the Joker or the Penguin, Al Ghul has a complicated backstory that everyone might not know.

But, you say, Damian, Talia, and the League of Assassins has been featured in Grant Morrison’s Batman run prior to this story, so maybe more was explained there. That may be a fair point (I’m not really sure, having ignored most of the non-JH Williams part of Morrison’s run), but it doesn’t apply to the hardcover edition: There’s no number on the spine, nor is there anything anywhere in the book suggesting where this story fits in the 60+ years of Batman stories. The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul never actually explains how Ra’s Al Ghul died.

But let’s move on. While Damian is learning about his grandfather, Batman is in the Australian outback, looking for some missing biologists and talking to people who would have been rejected for roles in Crocodile Dundee because they’re too over the top. And then this happens:

Next month: Batman travels to Sesame Street to face The Count

No, in case you’re wondering, the fourth assassin is not off-panel. At no point is Batman shown to be fighting more than three ninjas, nor is there even a mention of “oh, and that other guy I beat up between panels five and six while you were in the bathroom.” No one is alarmed when Batman later refers to the four assassins who attacked him.

Seriously, guys: This is not rocket science. It’s not a particularly complex string of words or pictures. Batman says “Four of you.” There are three ninjas.

I don’t know if it was an artistic mistake, a lettering mistake, or some sort of miscommunication, but how does someone not catch that? Moreover, how does someone not catch that a second time, since this is the second printing of the material?

On the bright side, David Lopez’s art in the prologue is probably the nicest in the book; it’s clean and easy to follow, traditionally superheroic without becoming stereotypical. The book might have turned out a little better if Lopez had been involved with the rest of the book. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is full of things like this:

"I don't know why these mirrors were on sale, I think they're great!"

That’s Tony Daniel’s depiction of Talia, daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul, lover of Batman, occasional leader of an army of assassins, generally considered fierce, intelligent, and dangerous. And she looks like a department store mannequin.

I understand how superhero art works. I know there’s often an emphasis on style over detail, and that things need to be sexed up sometimes. I was a big fan of Jim Lee in the nineties, back when he always found some way for Psylocke to lead an attack with her ass.

But this isn’t even good cheesecake. Leaving aside the outfit that makes it look like she’s waiting for a well-hung photocopier repairman, what the hell is going on with her right arm? Why does her head not attach to her neck properly? Why does she not have thighs or hips?

To bounce back to the positive side of things, we later get this depiction of Talia by Carlos Rodriguez:

Isn't it great how women can get bullet-and-sword-proof tops and bottoms, but not midriffs? Or are the ninjas just gentlemen?

It’s ridiculous. I like it.

After the prologue, the story splits into two avenues: Damian runs away to Gotham to look for Batman’s help, but is out of luck because Batman is travelling the world trying to track down Ra’s. Instead, Damian runs into Robin, and they fight. There’s a slight hint of sarcasm in Milligan’s setup – at one point, Damian is walking up the stairs with Alfred, who trips on the carpet; Robin appears at exactly the wrong moment and thinks Damian is beating up the butler. It’s so ridiculous it must be parody. Please, somebody, tell me this was supposed to be funny.

(It’s not funny. But at least that would be an excuse.)

And yet, everything still seems very serious, particularly when 200 ninjas attack Wayne Manor. Here’s the thing about ninjas: They’re totally cool, but they’re also kind of silly, particularly when packaged in bulk. Unless you are Frank Miller, it’s tough to pull off a swarm of ninjas attacking one or two targets without looking ridiculous. Unless your ninjas are utterly incompetent, they should be able to kill or maim at least one target when they outnumber the heroes 50-1.

But Robin and Nightwing have moves. Check out how Nightwing subdues three of Talia’s henchwomen:

Wait, where was I standing two seconds ago?

Smoke bombs are awesome. Smoke bombs that cause people to spontaneously switch positions are even more awesome.

And then there’s this:

Wait, whose foot is that?

I know, from the context of the story, what is happening: Alfred is pushed through the window by an attacking ninja, Nightwing jumps up, kicks a ninja in the face, and catches Alfred. But I have no idea what is actually going on in that picture, and the attempt to convey action just creates a visual mess and possibly several extra legs for Nightwing.

I’ll be honest: I kind of stopped paying attention around this point. There’s some guy known as the Sensei, who isn’t introduced on-panel but is apparently an ancient master assassin who can repeatedly impale people with a staff that seemingly has no points or edges. And there’s a blind guy named I Ching, and I have no idea what he has to do with anything. At some point, Alfred apparently lands a plane on a mountain and then takes off again.

It’s just the same thing, over and over. Explain, chase, fight, and repeat. It’s not always awful – though it certainly isn’t good – but it’s consistently dull and uninspired. While I suppose that might be expected from a crossover event, it doesn’t even work on a big, impressive, continuity wank level: There’s no artistic consistency from one chapter to another, oreven within one chapter, with sections being credited to multiple artists.

Sometimes, they don’t even bother with factual continuity: Ra’s Al Ghul is drawn looking pretty much normal on one page by Carlos Rodriguez, and then appears to be a zombie on the next story page by Ryan Benjamin.

I’d never heard of Benjamin before picking up this book; most of the time, he shows a heavy Jim Lee / Marc Silvestri influence, with a dash of Travis Charest, scratching lines across everyone’s face to indicate… I dunno, toughness? It’s not great, but it’s not too bad… until we come to this:

Batman: The Cocktail Napkin Collection

Really, DC? This is what we’re getting in the final chapter of your high-profile crossover? In Detective Comics, one of the flagship titles of your company?

I don’t know if this is entirely Benjamin’s fault; I don’t know anything about him, and this may have been a rush job. But that’s part of the problem – why do you have rushed art by an unknown artist in an event book like this? Or why wouldn’t you at least polish it up a little bit before you put out the fancy hardcover?

And then, in the end… Ra’s Al Ghul is resurrected. Everyone else is okay. I have no idea what the story accomplished, aside from resurrecting Ra’s Al Ghul, and I’m pretty sure that didn’t demand 256 pages.

Most people who are not 13 year-old boys living in 1993 would probably agree that Rob Liefeld is a terrible artist and an even worse writer. Grotesque anatomy, two different facial expressions, excess pouches, gigantic guns and shoulder pads, no feet… and I still have no idea what Youngblood was supposed to be about. But even the worst Liefeld comic has a passion and energy to it, a bold artistic identity: Every page declares I am Rob Liefeld, and fuck you if you’re not extreme enough to appreciate it!!

 

Resurrection doesn’t even have that. Even when the level of craft begins to creep above competency, it’s a lifeless story that has all the energy and passion of a 45-year-old McDonalds clerk. It has no greater ambition than to go from Point A to Point B, and it still keeps swerving off the road and into the ditch.

I know I’m not always in tune with what is cool and popular, but Batman is still a big deal, right? He’s one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world, he’s had two extremely successful movies recently – one of which featured the title character of this book – and he remains popular enough in comics to support multiple books.

So why is this book so awful? Why is it such a wretched patchwork of uninspired writing and mediocre art? Why does the whole story read like it was produced by people who would rather be doing something else? How does DC let something this important get this bad?

This would be a lousy book if it came from a third-rate small-press publisher that was trying to ape Marvel and DC, but coming from DC, in an “event” featuring one of their flagship characters, it’s unforgivably awful.

No one cares about Girl Comics

I haven’t paid particularly close attention to the blogosphere over the past few months, but the reaction to Marvel’s Girl Comics has been amusing.

The obvious: It’s a pretty good lineup of talent. G. Willow Wilson, Amanda Conner, Carla Speed McNeil, Jill Thompson, and others. I’ll probably check it out.
I’m not sure about the title. On the one hand, it’s fairly silly. On the other hand, “Wedesday Comics” was a pretty silly name, and Marvel once published Giant-Sized Man Thing, so, you know, there’s precedent.

Some people are skeptical. Some see see the whole thing as a gimmick, an empty gesture Marvel can use to brush off accusations of only publishing books for boys by boys. And they’re probably right: Anyone who thinks this book represents a new approach to publishing for Marvel is going to be sorely disappointed. Girl Comics is, at best, a token offering to a market that may or may not exist.

But it goes both ways. Marvel may ignore these talented women creators 99% of the time, but so do most of the fans, male and female alike. Most people recognize the talented lineup, but some casual searching suggests few fans would be talking about these women if they weren’t appearing in this anthology or working on a similar title. (Amanda Conner is the obvious exception. Incidentally, I love her art but can’t think of a single title she’s drawn that appeals to me.)

I may have missed it, but I don’t see a lot of people talking about Thompson’s Beasts of Burden, Wilson’s Air, or McNeil’s Finder – and you can read the latter for free on the net.  (To be clear: There probably are many people talking about them. Just not the same people who talk about Marvel and Girl Comics.) And these aren’t even the “go read manga or Satrapi” suggestions that get thrown around when people talk about comics by/for women – Beasts is about animals investigating supernatural stuff, Air is a globetrotting mystical adventure comic, and Finder… well, Finder’s a bit more difficult to explain, but there’s fantasy/sci-fi stuff and you can read it for free. These are spiritual and thematic relatives to the superhero tradition. They’re hardly from obscure publishers: Burden is published by Dark Horse, Air by DC, and Finder is free on the web.

Most people don’t care, of course, because they’re not even working on a Legion of Superheroes spinoff. Which is completely understandable, since most people don’t care who writes and draws their superhero comics anyway.

That’s not entirely true. Obviously more people will buy, say, an X-Men comic by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday than one by Peter Milligan and Roger Cruz. But many people, the core audience that keeps these titles alive, will keep buying the book no matter who works on it. Few people will follow those favourite creators to another, less popular title, and even fewer will follow them to another company.

All of which is how we arrived at the status quo: Marvel (and DC) is in the business of making money. They’re kind of narrow-minded about it, though, so they only want to make money on stuff that has already made money. And since no one seems to be rushing out to their local comic book store to demand the latest works by some of the most talented creators in comics, they’re in no rush to hire any real new blood.

Of course there are some institutional issues. Of course some boys who publish superhero comics don’t think girls can create them. (Manohla Dargis‘ discussion of female directors in Hollywood is a great reference.) Of course some boys who read comics will think comics made by girls come with cooties, and the boys who make comics will be afraid of that. Even as we speak, irate fans dedicated to equality are flocking to message boards to complain the project discriminates against male creators. (But they’re also flocking to message boards to complain that Marvel still hasn’t published a new ROM series, so whatever.)

But most superhero readers are so finicky and particular that it almost doesn’t matter. Marvel may not be able to see outside of its gender-friendly box, but most of its readers can’t see outside their favourite brand. And we’re all worse off for it.

Kieron Gillen knows how to sell a comic

Talking about the upcoming S.W.O.R.D. series, he says,

“They’re less Men in Black, more Contact/Special Circumstances from Iain M Banks’ The Culture (on a budget).”

I’m not sure how much of Marvel’s target demographic know Iain Banks, but it’s good enough for me.

(Read Use of Weapons if you want to understand what he’s talking about. You’ll thank me later.)